Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, Part 7

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 parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Thesis 31

Despite the dispensationalists’ strong commitment to the “plain interpretation” of Scripture (Charles Ryrie) and its dependence on Daniel’s Seventy Weeks as “of major importance to premillennialism” (John Walvoord), they have to insert into the otherwise chronological progress of the singular period of “Seventy Weeks” (Dan 9:24) a gap in order to make their system work; and that gap is already four times longer than the whole Seventy Weeks (490 year) period.

Response

The 70 Weeks prophecy is not at all unusual in containing a long time-gap between one aspect of its fulfillment and its final consummation. As with so many other OT prophetic passages, one often finds predictions of the first and second advents sandwiched together without any apparent time lapse. An example is Micah 5:2:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.

Nobody doubts the literal truth of this prophecy when it speaks about (a) the place of Messiah’s birth, or, (b) the pre-existence of Messiah. But there is a hermeneutical decision that has to be made about the prediction regarding, “the one to be Ruler in Israel.” Those who prefer what might be called the “selective-allegorical” approach will say that Christ is now ruling spiritually over the Church, the “New spiritual Israel.” Dispensationalists will look for a more literal interpretation of this part of the prophecy in line with the two other parts. They are encouraged to do this because this is not the only prophecy of an actual Messianic Rule over ethnic Israel; a prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled (cf. Isa. 9:6-7; Jer. 33:14-17; Lk. 1:31-33).

Another example of this kind of “prophetic gap” is Isa. 61:1-3. The first half of this passage saw fulfillment in Lk. 4:16-20. However, one ought not to miss the way Jesus Himself stopped reading mid-sentence in Isa. 61:2. Only the details up till 61:2a were applicable to His first advent. The rest of the prophecy has been 2,000 years in abeyance.

We should point out here that for many non-dispensationalists, the 70 Weeks prophecy isn’t much of a prophecy anyway. They tend to either spiritualize all the 490 years (Leupold), or seek fulfillments of the specifics which do not tally with history (Young), but which, again, require some imaginative re-interpretations (e.g. making the “anointing of the most Holy [lit. “Holy of holies”]” of Dan. 9:24 refer to Christ, when everywhere else—apart from the possible exception of 1 Chr. 23:13—it refers either to the Sanctuary or the articles of the Sanctuary).

Most CT’s (covenant theologians) will start the decree of 9:25 with Cyrus in 538 B.C. This requires either spiritualizing the 490 years to stretch them until the death of Christ in c. 30 AD, or inserting a gap in order to insure the math works out. It is interesting to read how some hold that 486 years and 6 months are “literal,” but the last 3 1/2 years “is symbolic of the church on earth during the entire time of its existence.” (K. Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 156). Whatever, we remain unconvinced of the superiority of these interpretations of the 70 Weeks.

Thesis 32

Despite the dispensationalists’ commitment to the non-contradictory integrity of Scripture, their holding to both a convoluted form of literalism and separate and distinct dispensations produces a dialectical tension between the “last trumpet” of 1 Cor. 15:51-53, which is held to be the signal for the Rapture at the end of the Church Age, and the trumpet in Matt. 24:31, which gathers elect Jews out of the Tribulation at the Second Coming (Walvoord). Dispensationalists, who allegedly are ‘literalists,’ posit that this latter trumpet is seven years after the “last” trumpet.

Response

First, we might enquire as to what “a convoluted form of literalism” looks like? We think it light look like a caricature of our position. We repeat, do these objectors expect us to interpret their plain sense literally, including their figures of speech? Or is there some special spiritual hermeneutic which will help us find their true meaning? We do not wish to be unkind, but these accusations demand much more support than the “Nicene” brethren seem willing to give them.

The question raised by this objection involves the identification of the last trumpets of 1 Cor. 15:52 (and 1 Thess. 4:16) with that of Matt. 24:31. We might also add to the mix by noticing the last trumpet of Rev. 11:15.

Studying the contexts of these passages one discovers that the Pauline verses refer to the Church. The trumpets relate to the calling up and glorification of the Church saints. The exact timing of this event is not there given (but we believe there are good grounds for preferring a pre-tribulational rapture). The context of the Matthean passage indicates it is a Tribulation passage with reference especially to Israel at the close of the Tribulation (see 24:15-31). Most commentators who are not spiritualizers of the text identify the seventh trumpet of Rev. 11:15 as sounding at the mid-point of the Tribulation.

A “plain-sense” interpretation of these verses does throw up some difficulties. But this is no reason to abandon normative Grammatical-Historical hermeneutics and introduce another set of hermeneutics which will play fast and loose with the words of these texts. This is a call to Bible study! Perhaps not all will agree with our interpretation. In fact, not all dispensationalists do agree (see the discussions in e.g., the book The Rapture: Pre,- Mid,- or Post-Tribulational?).

What dispensationalists will not do, whether pre (P. Feinberg), mid (G. Archer), or post-trib (R. Gundry), is change interpretive horses midstream. We should like to know how the writers of the 95 Theses would deal with these passages. Lumping them into one last trumpet could not be done without ignoring the details in each context, which would require an allegorical form of interpretation. But then why bother to make the last trumpet a literal trumpet? Why not make the last trumpet something entirely different, like a worldwide revival or an earth-shattering event?

Anyone interested in our interpretation of this problem may consult the Addendum to Renald Showers, Maranatha: Our Lord Come! where the author offers a solid resolution of the issues.

Thesis 33

Despite the dispensationalists’ desire to promote the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, their habit of calling it the “plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie) leads the average reader not to look at ancient biblical texts in terms of their original setting, but in terms of their contemporary, Western setting and what they have been taught by others — since it is so “plain.”

Response

Does it? We demur! Can this assertion even be proved? Just taking one example, how would Ezekiel’s readers understand the temple vision of Ezek 40-48? All the evidence from ancient Jewish sources supports a literal interpretation.

Thesis 34

Despite the dispensationalists’ confidence that they have a strong Bible-affirming hermeneutic in “plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie), their so-called literalism is inconsistently employed, and their more scholarly writings lead lay dispensationalists and populist proponents simplistically to write off other evangelical interpretations of Scripture with a naive call for “literalism!”

Response

See above. I suppose if one is only interested in attacking any form of dispensationalism this thesis might help one to feel good. But it hardly displays the fruit of the Spirit to employ such tactics. How would they feel if dispensationalists or any other group used the same arguments against them? I am only concerned with serious objections to the best expressed forms of dispensational scholarship. This objection is hardly up to snuff.

Of course dispensationalists, more scholarly, lay and populist proponents alike, should not dismiss alternative evangelical interpretations. We can all learn from one another. And non-dispensationalists would do well not to be naive enough to dismiss dispensationalist interpretations of their non-literal interpretations of Scripture too!

Thesis 35

Despite the dispensationalists’ attempts to defend their definition of literalism by claiming that it fits into “the received laws of language” (Ryrie), However, subsequent to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s studies in linguistic analysis, there is no general agreement among philosophers regarding the “laws” of language or the proper philosophy of language (Crenshaw).

Response

We are sorry to learn that the Nicene Council have departed from the biblical worldview, which goes to Scripture for its philosophy of language, in favor of the latter Wittgenstein. This may explain a lot!

The Bible says that God made man in His own image and likeness and spoke to him. This requires: (a) that God made man to converse with, (b) that God made man to understand language, (c) that God generally speaks so as to be understood by man.

Whatever Wittgenstein may contribute by way of his analysis of language communities (a work which informs much of the present Emerging Church phenonenon), we do not believe God’s people had been waiting for Wittgenstein to stop sweeping floors in Norway and start writing philosophy again. And we respectfully urge that it is those like the writers of the 95 Theses who are guilty of reading their assumptions into every prophecy that cannot fit comfortably inside the Covenant of Grace without being re-interpreted by their hermeneutical presuppositions.

Thesis 36

Despite the dispensationalists’ claim to interpret all of the Bible “literally”, Dr. O.T. Allis correctly observed, “While dispensationalists are extreme literalists, they are very inconsistent ones. They are literalists in interpreting prophecy. But in the interpreting of history, they carry the principle of typical interpretation to an extreme which has rarely been exceeded even by the most ardent of allegorizers.”

Response

Although Allis’s book Prophecy and the Church is thought to be a definitive reply to dispensationalism, it is defective in several ways. It focusses too narrowly on Plymouth Brethren writers (who often were guilty of excessive typology); and adopts a “straw-man” attitude which, for example, argues against ultra-dispensationalist writers like E.W. Bullinger and tries to represent their views as mainline dispensationalism. In addition, some of Allis’s arguments, e.g., against a literal Millennial Temple, seem to be rather subjective.

For all that, Allis was right to criticize some dispensational writers for their over-zealous typology. But this is not a feature of more mainstream dispensationalism.

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