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IS CALLING DISPENSATIONALISTS “LITERALISTS” UNFAIR?

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  July 25, 2012 — 3 Comments

Recently a reader named Joel wrote to me asking the following:

“I have a question. In trying to have integrity in our work, especially when critiquing another position, we should present the opposite view the way they would. Although I’m definitely not dispensational, I know some pastors who wouldn’t agree with saying that “literalism” is correct but rather “historical grammatical literal” interpretation. Do you think you are misrepresenting some dispensationalist? Or at least putting them all in one box?”

My response to Joel:

Thanks for your question and your concern. I hear this objection from time-to-time, though I must confess that it always surprises me. You are correct in noting that we need to accurately present an opponent that we are critiquing. And I believe that I have done so. Let me reply to your nice note just briefly:

First, my criticism of dispensationalism is of the dominant viewpoint, technically known as “Revised Dispensationalism” (as per Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock) but popularly known simply as “dispensationalism.” [1] The view that I critique is that which is presented in the multi-million selling works by Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, J. D. Pentecost, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and others. Very seldom do you see a “Progressive Dispensationalist” calling himself a “dispensationalist” without the descriptor: “progressive.”

Furthermore this form of dispensationalism is the dominant view held in thousands upon thousands of churches in America. Thus, please be aware that I am critiquing what is commonly known and accepted as simply: “dispensationalism.”

Second, dispensationalists of this dominant variety, constantly argue that they are literalists. This term is not being put in their mouths by me or others. Let me cite just a few samples from their own works ( will bold the relevant words):

J. Dwight Pentecost

On p. 1 of Dwight Pentecost’s massive work, Things to Come he states: ”When Allis acknowledges that ‘Literal interpretation has always been a marked feature of Premillennialism’ he is in agreement with [dispensationalist] Feinberg, who writes: ‘… it can be shown that the reason the early Church was premillennial was traceable to its interpretation of the Word in a literal manner….’”

Then on p. 9 he presents a centered heading to introduce a new section in his book: “II. The Literal Method.” His mains below that are: “A. The definition of the literal method” (p. 9). “B. The evidence for the literal method” (p. 9). “C. The advantages of the literal method” (p. 11). And so on. He continues such in the next chapter titled “The History of Interpretation.” His third key point in this chapter is: “III. Literalism in the Time of Christ” (p. 17).

John F. Walvoord

John Walvoord in his large work, Prophecy Knowledge Handbook, makes an important argument early on, when on p. 10 he writes: “Because approximately half of the prophecies of the Bible have already been fulfilled in a literal way, it gives a proper intellectual basis for assuming that prophecy yet to be fulfilled will likewise have a literal fulfillment.” On p. 14 he reiterates this: “Fulfilled prophecy is an important guide in interpreting prophecy unfulfilled and generally confirms the concept of literal interpretation of a prophecy.” Then on p. 15 he states that “it may be demonstrated that most prophecy should be interpreted literally.”

Charles C. Ryrie

Ryrie has updated his important 1965 work (formerly titled: Dispensationalism Today). He now simply calls it: Dispensationalism (1995). His original version was widely acknowledged as the definition of dispensationalism.

In chapter 5 he considers: “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism.” In that chapter he presents a major heading: “The Different Viewpoints.” His first sub-head under that heading is “The Dispensational Position.” That section opens: “Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalist claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation” (p. 80).

Ryrie follows Walvoord (and others) when he writes on p. 81: “A second reason why dispensationalist believe in the literal principle is a biblical one: the prophecies in the Old Testament  concerning the first coming of Christ — His birth, His rearing, His ministry, His death, His resurrection — were all fulfilled literally. That argues strongly for the literal method.”

Robert L. Thomas

In Tim LaHaye’s Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy (2004) we find Robert Thomas’ article: “Hermeneutics.” He notes on p. 139: “Only the futurist approach to Revelation accepts the book’s self-claim of being a prophecy and interprets it literally. Embracing the premillennial return of Christ, it utilizes a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation.”

Elmer Towns

In that same book (PEBP), Elmer Towns contributes an article titled: “Dispensationalism.” In his encyclopedia definition of dispensationalism he states in part: “Because the Bible is God’s literal Word and His plan for history, we should interpret it literally” (p. 82). On p. 83 his first point under “Essentials of Dispensationalism” is: “First Essential: Consistent Literal Interpretation.”

Conclusion

These are just a few samples of the prevailing tendency in the dominant form of dispensationalism to call their system of interpretation “literalism.” It is certainly a mistake on their part, but it nevertheless is their mistake, not mine. Interestingly, the issue of literalism is one of the major distinctions that Progressive Dispensationalists make between themselves and the more popular form of dispensationalism. Progressives deny simple literalism.

 

Footnotes

[1] See ch. 9 “Progressive Dispensationalism” in Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (1995).

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 80 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

3 responses to IS CALLING DISPENSATIONALISTS “LITERALISTS” UNFAIR?

  1. William Donelson July 25, 2012 at 6:30

    Greetings and thank you for a good source of information!
    Words have meaning, and ideas are understood as words,…and ideas have impact on lives and cultures.
    The real issue is not does one group or the other call themselves literalist or not, but what is their meaning of the word ‘literal’ … as they use it!
    Without a good and agreed to definition of literal,…everything else is indeed relative. [read: liberal :-)]
    Much like the two major political parties talking AT each other in words that have lost their meaning, we live in a Alice in Wonderland world where, as the ‘cat’ says ‘…words mean what they mean when I use them…”
    It would be a great thing if real scholars (not pop-religion writers) from both side could sit down and hammer out a definition of literal that could be used as the standard to review all writers from both systems of hermeneutics. Hopefully this would lower the almost ‘election-year’ mindset of winning an arguement, while loosing the world!
    Even the ‘historical-grammatical’ phase has lost its meaning in the mouths of many ‘johnny-jump up’ experts who fill our pulpits and pews!
    Oh that the would be a meeting to end this lack of truth in terms. Then maybe we could indeed move to use the new definitions to investage the hermeneutics of each side based on common communications!
    Thanks again and forgive my ventting. WBD

    • Mark Olivero July 26, 2012 at 6:30

      “…sit down and hammer out a definition of literal ”

      William, that is quite literally a puzzling statement. Every English dictionary I have checked so far has literally defined the word ‘literal’ in plain terms. Do you think we (they) need a more literal definition of ‘literal’?

  2. Thank you very much for the response, I appreciate it. this helps.

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