Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
Despite the dispensationalists’ partial defense of their so-called literalism in pointing out that “the prevailing method of interpretation among the Jews at the time of Christ was certainly this same method” (J. D. Pentecost), they overlook the problem that this led those Jews to misunderstand Christ and to reject him as their Messiah because he did not come as the king which their method of interpretation predicted.
Response: It is not advisable to refer to dispensational interpretation as “literalism”—so-called or otherwise, since this leads to misunderstandings and misrepresentations (see below). It is far better to treat the Bible the same way one would treat any other book. It seems preposterous to us to scout around for an alternative hermeneutics just because the Bible is the Word of God. In fact, it is precisely because the Bible is the Word of God to man that one would expect it not to require some esoteric interpretation unless very good reasons could be given for doing so.
Although some evangelicals would disagree, we think there is great wisdom contained in these words of Peters:
If God has really intended to make known His will to man, it follows that to secure knowledge on our part, He must convey His truth to us in accordance with the well-known rules of language. He must adapt Himself to our mode of communicating thought and ideas. If His words were given to be understood, it follows that He must have employed language to convey the sense intended, agreeably to the laws grammatically expressed, controlling all language; and that, instead of seeking a sense which the words in themselves do not contain, we are primarily to obtain the sense that the words obviously embrace, making due allowance for the existence of figures of speech when indicated by the context, scope or construction of the passage. (George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1.47)
That many Jews in the time of Jesus expected Him to fulfill the Word by setting up His literal (not spiritual) messianic kingdom at His first advent was due in part to their not realizing that He must first suffer and become “sin for us” (Isa. 53) before He would come as king (e.g. Matt. 26:64, 27:11 with Dan. 7:13-14) They did not see that there would be a time-gap between the first and second advents (see Mic. 5:2, Isa. 61:1-2, Lk. 1:31-33).
Unless they are heretics, all Christians believe in a time gap between the advents. And they do this, not by employing some allegorizing hermeneutic (which would be suspicious as an apologetic), but rather, by believing what the Bible says. Christ will come again (Lk. 18:8, Jn. 14:1-3, Acts 1:11, Rev. 22:20).
Finally, how strange it was that those who were closest to Him, who heard more of His teaching than anyone else, should ask Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Apparently not only did they expect a literal earthly kingdom in line with OT predictions, but they also appeared not to think the Church was the “New Israel”! And Jesus said nothing to alter their expectation!
Despite the dispensationalists’ partial defense of their so-called literalism by appealing to the method of interpretation of the first century Jews, such “literalism” led those Jews to misunderstand Christ’s basic teaching by believing that he would rebuild the destroyed temple in three days (John 2:20-21); that converts must enter a second time into his mother’s womb (John 3:4); and that one must receive liquid water from Jesus rather than spiritual water (John 4:10-11), and must actually eat his flesh (John 6:51-52, 66).
Response: Since no dispensationalist has ever made these same mistakes in interpretation, this objection is pointless. This is what happens when one goes fishing for red herrings rather than paying attention to how the (older) hermeneutics manuals (Terry, Ramm) define grammatical-historical hermeneutics. In this case, “literal” interpretation is morphed into “literalistic” interpretation. All objectors to dispensational interpretation get a couple of pages worth of material from this mischaracterization.
Despite the dispensationalists’ interpretive methodology arguing that we must interpret the Old Testament on its own merit without reference to the New Testament, so that we must “interpret ‘the New Testament in the light of the Old’” (Alan Johnson), the unified, organic nature of Scripture and its typological, unfolding character require that we consult the New Testament as the divinely-ordained interpreter of the Old Testament, noting that all the prophecies are “yea and amen in Christ” (2 Cor 1:20); that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10); and, in fact, that many Old Testament passages were written “for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11) and were a “mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past” (Col. 1:26; Rev 10:7).
Response: First, Alan Johnson is not a dispensationalist. But since Scripture is a unified and organic whole, certainly we must, in some sense, “interpret the New Testament in light of the Old.” Every Bible interpreter must do that. What responsible Bible student would deny it? Where would our biblical worldview be if we did not allow Genesis 1-4 to guide us as New Testament believers?
The question is, “To what extent can the New Testament be used to interpret the Old?” The passages cited do not answer this question for us. Second Corinthians 1:20 speaks to the Divine provenance of the Gospel preached by Paul and his companions. The verse does not say “prophecies” but “promises.” In context the promises are those of the Gospel. However, because Christ is the Fulcrum of the outworking of God’s decrees it would not be amiss to relate every promise to Him. But this hardly gives Christians license to give the OT promises a complete makeover so that they look nothing like the original statements. Likewise 1 Corinthians 10:11 tells us that the OT stories “were written for our instruction.” The context is Divine recompense upon evil works (v.6). To enlist the passage to teach the legitimacy of an ill-advised mixture of allegorical/typological/literal interpretation of the OT is to be guilty of “textual kidnapping.”
The Colossians passage will be dealt with in due time. It proves nothing as it stands in the sentence. It has simply been spliced and connected to a strand from the 1 Corinthians passage without regard for its original usage. We are unclear as to what function Rev. 10:7 is supposed to play in establishing this thesis.
But the cat is being let out of the bag by this thesis. The Nicene Council require the OT to be exposed to the acid of their “typological” hermeneutic whenever it suits. This makes the OT a wax nose that can be made to look any way the objectors wish it to look. Responsible dispensationalists refuse to operate this way. We affirm the integrity of both Testaments as equally worthy of the same grammatical-historical hermeneutical consideration. We affirm that to use the NT – especially an artificial set of theological covenants not found in the NT – as a lens through which to re-interpret the OT is not at all to use it “as a divinely-ordained interpreter of the Old Testament” but to demean the OT so as to make room for the deductions of systems such as Covenant theology.
Of course, the NT provides much more light on many precious truths. But both Testaments can be interpreted together satisfactorily without the adoption of such a fabricated prioritization of one Testament above the other.