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, Part 5.
Contrary to the dispensationalists’ claim that “prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ … were all fulfilled ‘literally’ ” (Charles Ryrie), many such prophecies were not fulfilled in a “plain” (Ryrie) literal fashion, such as the famous Psalm 22 prophecy that speaks of bulls and dogs surrounding Christ at his crucifixion (Psa 22:12, 16), and the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy regarding the virgin, that “she will call His name Immanuel” (cf. Luke 2:21), and others.
Response: The premise behind this objection is that since the Bible employs figures of speech and imagery it cannot be interpreted “literally.” The beasts in Psalm 22:12, 16 are literal men. They symbolize the animosity of the people towards David, and, prophetically, towards Christ on the Cross. The poetic use of these beasts only intensifies the literal predicament being expressed.
The Isaiah prophecy is fulfilled in Christ since He is, literally, “God with us.” But here at last we are presented with an issue which might give us pause. Mary called Him “Jesus.” Does this mean that we are to infer that Mary did not call Him “Immanuel”? It is true that on the basis of this passage some may have expected the Messiah would receive the proper name “Immanuel,” when in fact, this was a descriptive identification of Christ’s person.
Our reply is that the “plain” sense will not always provide us with a complete set of precise data; sometimes details are slender. This is why one must not push secondary matters (e.g. the timing of the Rapture) to the extent that we present them as though they had the same biblical support as, say, the doctrine of justification by faith or the deity of Christ. One may, for example, have the sense of a sentence right but get the reference wrong—as in equivocation.
However, what the grammatical-historical hermeneutic does is to serve up parameters within which one may interpret the Bible accurately. It does not permit us to use verses like Isaiah 7:14 as an excuse to spiritualize Ezekiel’s temple or the land promises to Israel. These involve (biblical) covenantal conditions to which God has committed Himself. They cannot be altered in any way (cf. Gal. 3:15).
Despite the dispensationalists’ argument that “prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ … were all fulfilled ‘literally’ ” (Charles Ryrie), they can defend their argument only by special pleading and circular reasoning in that they (1) put off to the Second Advent all those prophecies of his coming as a king, though most non-dispensational evangelicals apply these to Christ’s first coming in that He declared his kingdom “near” (Mark 1:15); and they (2) overlook the fact that his followers preached him as a king (Acts 17:7) and declared him to be the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5) in the first century.
Response: We would like to ask these brethren to prove that Christ (Messiah) is even in the OT without literal interpretation. In fact, we would like them to prove any doctrine whatever without literal interpretation. Just because figurative language is used in Bible prophecy does not mean the prophecies cannot or should not be taken literally. The Nicene Council, and many other non-dispensationalists, define “literal” as “literalistic,” so that if the mountains don’t really skip the whole approach must be abandoned. Yet this is not how any person operates in everyday life. For example, is “circular reasoning” actually circular in shape? Or is the circle a symbol for a certain type of reasoning? When Robert Reymond says dispensationalists have “thrown down the gauntlet,” how does the Nicene Council recommend we interpret his meaning? Let us say dispensationalists have issued a challenge (which is a dubious claim), are we to go further and employ a hermeneutic which pronounces that this challenge is not really a challenge at all but something entirely different?
The verses cited do not decide the issue of Jesus’ kingship one way or another. The Acts quotation is an accusation brought by the Jews against the Christians and cannot be used to settle the matter since it was intended to inflame the authorities. Revelation 1:5 does not call Christ a present king but a “ruler” over kings. Since He possesses all authority (Matt. 28:18) and is Lord of all (Acts 10:36) He is, of course the Ruler of the kings of the earth. The term “king” is usually reserved by dispensationalists for Christ’s coming messianic reign.
Nevertheless, there is no problem in saying with Chafer that Jesus “…came as a King (Lk.1:32-33)…was rejected as a King (Mk. 15:12-13, Lk. 19:14)…[and] died as a King (Matt. 27:37)” (Systematic Theology 7.223). But dispensationalists insist the Bible teaches that Christ is yet to reign as “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 19:16) at His second coming. So Mark 1:15 does proclaim the presence of the kingdom in one sense (cf. Mk. 10:15, Lk. 17:20-21), even though the full realization of the kingdom awaits the second advent (Matt.25:31).
Despite the dispensationalists’ central affirmation of the “plain interpretation” of Scripture (Charles Ryrie) by which their so-called literalism provides “a coherent and consistent interpretation” (John Walvoord), it ends up with one of the most ornate and complex systems in all of evangelical theology, with differing peoples, principles, plans, programs, and destinies because interpreting Scripture is not so “plain” (despite Charles Ryrie).
Response: This is a hard objection to respond to because it is (1) rather subjective as to the complexity of the system, (2) quite irrelevant if dispensationalism is true, and (3) contrary to the experience of many of the Lord’s people for whom the Bible was a closed book, requiring insider knowledge of various forms of hermeneutics and literary genres, and for whom dispensationalism made it finally intelligible.
Despite the dispensationalists’ argument for the “literal” fulfillment of prophecy, when confronted with obvious New Testament, non-literal fulfillments, they will either (1) declare that the original prophecy had “figures of speech” in them (Scofield), or (2) call these “applications” of the Old Testament rather than fulfillments (Paul Tan)—which means that they try to make it impossible to bring any contrary evidence against their system by re-interpreting any such evidence in one of these two directions.
Response: We may begin our reply by saying that it is not special pleading to say that original prophecies contained figures of speech. This is simply an observation of an established fact. The interpreter must decide what to do with the features he meets within Scripture.
The second objection is more weighty and requires dispensationalists to examine themselves to ferret out any biases which would too speedily cause them to dispatch a troublesome “fulfillment” into the drawer marked “application.” (We would say in passing that the opposite bias may afflict our friends on the Nicene Council—i.e. to turn applications (recall Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor. 10:11) into fulfillments, or partial fulfillments into complete fulfillments).
Dispensationalists recognize that prophecies can have more than one fulfillment. This is what is called “the law of double reference.” An example is Zechariah 12:10: “They shall look upon me whom they pierced,” which was partially fulfilled in John 19:37 at the crucifixion, but will also have a future fulfillment in accord with its original context (cf. Rev. 1:7).
The charge that dispensationalists have deliberately fortified themselves against rival interpretations is not very charitable. Neither is it very far-sighted. The truth is, we all are tempted to protect our systems of theology by subtle subterfuge. But we think it will become apparent which group is a regular offender as we continue these responses to the Nicene Council’s Theses.
For an excellent treatment of this issue the reader is referred to the article by Charles Dyer, “The Biblical Meaning of Fulfillment” in the book Issues in Dispensationalism, edited by J. Master & W. Willis.