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PROPHETIC LITERALISM?

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  5 Comments

Dispensationalists have a strong commitment to a literalistic hermeneutic. In fact, the leading dispensational theologian of the last part of the Twentieth Century, Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, declared “consistent literalism” to be one of the three sine qua non of dispensationalism. Dispensationalists often speak of literalism as “plain interpretation.” Consequently, the average dispensationalist-in-the-pew reflexively (mindlessly) dismisses postmillennial and preterist interpretations due to their own naive commitment to (supposed) literalism. How shall we respond?

I would like to make three hermeneutical assertions that the Bible student should bear in mind in discussions with dispensationalists:

First, “consistent literalism” and grammatical-historical interpretation. The alleged “consistent literalism” of the dispensationalist is not the functional equivalent of “grammatical-historical” exegesis. The literalism principle is a sub-species of the grammatical-historical method, as even more recent dispensational theologians are beginning to admit. See works by former Dallas Theological Seminary professors Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, as well as other noted dispensationalists, such as Robert L. Saucy and John S. Feinberg. Blaising and Bock show that the claim to consistent literalism was never attainable in dispensationalism, but was really more-or-less a goal. Literalism is, in fact, an aberration of otherwise fundamentally sound principles. [1] We must drive this point home to our dispensational friends. While they write us off on interpretive issues, their own theologians are moving in our direction.

Dispensationalist theologians are now even forsaking so-called literalism. For instance, John S. Feinberg, a noted contemporary dispensationalist, complains of one of Ice’s mentors: “Ryrie is too simplistic” in his literalism. [2] Craig A. Blaising of Dallas Theological Seminary warns that: “consistently literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of dispensationalism. Development is taking place on how to characterize a proper hermeneutic for dispensationalists.” [3]

As Carson observes in his exposition of Matthew 24 (which forms the backdrop to John’s Revelation): “Untutored Christians are prone to think of prophecy and fulfillment as something not very different from straightforward propositional prediction and fulfillment. A close reading of the NT reveals that prophecy is more complex than that.” [4]  In his comments on Matthew 24 renowned Baptist Greek scholar A. T. Robertson agrees that “literalism is not appropriate in this apocalyptic eschatology.” [5]  Moody Bible Institute dispensationalist scholars Pate and Haines warn: “It is in the failure to grasp the interplay between prose and poetry that doomsday prophets make a major mistake, overemphasizing the literal meaning to the neglect of the symbolic.” [6]

Second, the distinction between figurative and spiritual language. We must be careful to distinguish between a “figurative” use of language (a legitimate function of the grammatical-historical method) and a “spiritual” interpretive methodology. Misunderstanding this distinction is a major source of confusion among dispensationalists. Their misconception allows them an easy way out: they simply write off all non-dispensational interpretations as inherently liberal.

Dispensationalists must be shown that figurative expressions portray historical events. They do not discount objective history. Figurative language paints actual historical events by means of colorful, dramatic, and overdrawn descriptions.

Spiritual interpretation is different, however. It is a system of hermeneutics that evacuates all historical sense from a text in order to replace it with an abstract spiritual reality. Charges of “spiritualization,” though common in such debates as ours, are far afield when one is merely interpreting figurative language. As premillennialist commentator Robert Mounce notes: “That the language of prophecy is highly figurative has nothing to do with the reality of the events predicted. Symbolism is not a denial of historicity but a matter of literary genre.” [7]

Third, the Old Testament hermeneutical backdrop. We must be alert to the Old Testament warrant for occasional figurative interpretation. As noted New Testament commentator William Lane notes of the Olivet Discourse: “The OT plays an essential part in the structure and imagery of the prophetic discourse.” [8] The Old Testament prophets frequently use figurative language dramatically to portray future events. Christ, who is “the prophet” par excellence, employs their method in his Olivet Discourse.

All of this is especially important when we approach the Book of Revelation. Only the most naive of interpreters would claim that we must interpret Revelation in a “consistent literal” fashion. Unfortunately, there are millions of naive interpreters in the American pews today.

A dispensational objection. Some dispensationalists will object: “You say something is symbolic. But as I read the text, the Bible clearly states the matter. Therefore, you are imposing your view on Scripture.” How shall we respond? Are we at a stand-off? I think not. Notice the following:

(1) Actually ALL texts require interpretation. To say that “a text must be symbolic” is no more an imposition on the text by man that to say “a text must be literal.” The problem remains: Which man’s approach do you believe?

(2) We must ask: Can God speak symbolically? Is he confined to literalism as the only method of communication? After all, we speak symbolically often enough: “My love is a red, red rose”; “My world is falling in on me.”

(3) Consider the vision in Revelation 5: In 5:6 we read “I saw a lamb standing.” Is that an actual animal that we know as a lamb, a ruminant animal of the genus Ovis? Or does it represent symbolically something else, Jesus Christ? When we read the text, it becomes very clear that he is speaking of Jesus as if he were a lamb: 5:8-10 have angels singing to him of the salvation he has wrought. 5:12 ascribe honor and glory to the “lamb.” 5:13 puts the “lamb” on equality with God. 5:14 engages in heavenly worship of the “lamb.” In Rev. 14:1’ the “lamb” is in heaven with the redeemed. In 14:4 the saved follow the “lamb,” having been saved for God and the “lamb.”

END NOTES

[1] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, “Progressive Dispensationalism: An Up-to-Date Handbook of Contemporary Dispensational Thought” (Wheaton, Ill.: Bridgepoint, 1993), 36-37. In fact, such an attempt is evidence of “conceptual naivete.” Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., “Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 29.

[2] John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Feinberg, ed., “Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments” (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1988), 73.

[3] Craig A. Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra (579), 272.

[4] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary,” vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 27.

[5] A. T. Robertson, “Word Pictures in the New Testament,” vol. 1 (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), 193.

[6] C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines, Jr., “Doomsday Delusions: What’s Wrong with Predictions About the End of the World” (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1995), 27.

[7] Robert H. Mounce, “The Book of Revelation” (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 218.

[8] William L. Lane, Gospel According to Mark (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 449.

 

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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 100 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.

5 responses to PROPHETIC LITERALISM?

  1. Kim Campbell July 12, 2012 at 6:30

    I’m not sure I understand the point of the critique. For example, the author states the following: “Consider the vision in Revelation 5: In 5:6 we read “I saw a lamb standing.” Is that an actual animal that we know as a lamb, a ruminant animal of the genus Ovis? Or does it represent symbolically something else, Jesus Christ? When we read the text, it becomes very clear that he is speaking of Jesus as if he were a lamb: 5:8-10 have angels singing to him of the salvation he has wrought. 5:12 ascribe honor and glory to the “lamb.” 5:13 puts the “lamb” on equality with God. 5:14 engages in heavenly worship of the “lamb.” In Rev. 14:1’ the “lamb” is in heaven with the redeemed. In 14:4 the saved follow the “lamb,” having been saved for God and the “lamb.” What is clear in this passage in Revelation is that this is a vision. By it’s very definition a vision is like something seen in a dream. Does anyone debate that dreams are full of symbolic imagery? Under those conditions an image of a lamb is both at the same time an actual lamb as observed by the visionary and the thing that it symbolically represents. The meaning of the symbolism becomes evident in the overall context of the vision as well as the meaning that is ascribed to it by the visionary. So there is a place for literalism even in symbolic text. The fact is that the interpretation of dreams as well as the interpretation of symbols is an inexact science that incorporates an extreme amount of personal subjectivity. To me this article seems like an argument merely for the sake of argument. I don’t see how it contributes anything to the understanding of the Book of Revelation; which is what a proper hermaneutic is intended to do.

    • Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. July 13, 2012 at 6:30

      Kim:
      The significance of this demonstration is to show that you literalism does not always prevail in Scripture. Dispensationalists are so committed to their notion of literalism that they even try to impose it on the Book of Revelation. My reference to the Lamb in Rev 5 is evidence that we cannot approach Revelation with a literalistic assumption.

      I should have listed the following quotations from dispensationalists to fill out the argument. But here they are . . . belatedly:

      Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (p. 213): “most of Revelation is to be taken literally.”

      John Walvoord, The Book of Revelation (p. 21): He argues for “a more literal interpretation of the specific prophecies of the book.” He continues on p. 22: “the futuristic school has the advantage of offering a relatively clear understanding of the principal events of future fulfillment, and tends to treat Revelation as a more normative piece of literature than the other interpretative principles.”

      Charles Ryrie, Revelation (p. 9) states that “if one follows the plain, literal or normal principle of interpretation he concludes that most of the book is yet in the future.” Elsewhere he states that the “literal hermeneutic was deemed especially important to the correct understanding of Revelation, Daniel, and other Old Testament prophecies” (Ryrie, “Update on Dispensationalism” in Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, eds. Issues in Dispensationalism, 1994: 17).

    • Hi Kim C,

      Probably John’s statement may help shed light to your inquiry: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”(John1:2). Of course no record from the Bible that Jesus rebuked John saying:” ….hey wait a minute, I am not an animal-a lamb; I am the Son of God..!” Following the cue exemplified by Ken, the readers know that there is no way that John could have committed a grievous error of degrading or insulting Christ by alluding him to a ruminant animal of the genus Ovis. How did we know this ? by virtue of the statement:”…who takes away the sin of the world…”.

      Clearly it can be established here that John didn’t see a literal lamb but literal person he saw. Yet John spoke in highly symbolical terms or language that is deep in theological content or insight.

      Thanks Ken, you have provided additional ammunition to my arsenal. God bless…..

  2. After excommunication, Kahlil Gibran migrated to the US from Lebanon. He wrote in English. While translating his works from Persian to English and vice versa, he commented: ‘Interpretation and translation from one language to another is like driving a bullock cart on an Expressway, or driving a limousine along a cart road.’

  3. Great post, very informative. I wonder why the prophecy “experts” don’t realize this. You must continue your writing. I am sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

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