The Double-Edged Sword of Dispensationalism: Destructive as Methodology, Constructive as Outcome (Part 1)

Presented to the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics 9/14/2022.

Introduction

As Charles Ryrie catalogued the three aspects of dispensationalism’s sine qua non, he prefaced the three distinctives by emphasizing a critical methodological difference between dispensational thinkers and covenant (theology) thinkers: “the covenant theologian finds biblical distinctions a necessary part of his theology even though the covenant of grace is the ruling category…the dispensations supply the need for distinctions in the orderly progress of revelation throughout Scripture.”1 Ryrie cites the need for distinctions as the occasion for developing theological systems, and the basis of those distinctions as the covenant of grace for covenant theology and the progress of Scripture for dispensational theology.

The implication is evident: Ryrie asserts that covenant theology is primarily a theological predetermination because the theological covenant undergirding covenant theology is the ruling category, while dispensational theology is a theological outcome, because it is derived by observing the progress of Scripture. Ryrie further observes that “Only dispensationalism does justice to the proper concept of the progress of revelation.”2 Ryrie further recognizes dispensationalism as an outcome when he affirms that, “If plain or normal interpretation is the only valid hermeneutical principle, and if it is consistently applied, it will cause one to be a dispensationalist.”3 The primary emphasis of Ryrie’s opening chapter (entitled “Dispensationalism: Help or Heresy?”) is that dispensationalism is a help because it is a product of the Bible interpreted in a normative way.

If Ryrie is correct in his assertion that dispensationalism is helpful because of its scriptural derivation and as an outcome of exegetical work, then his firm yet gracious critique of covenant theology as a theological rather than exegetical precommitment is likewise warranted. Ryrie’s evaluation occasions examining the impact and value of the dispensational theological system when reckoned as an outcome of hermeneutics applied (as Ryrie advocates) or by contrast, as a theological precommitment.

As Ryrie critiques theological precommitments by critiquing a popular example (covenant theology), it is fair to scrutinize dispensational thought, seeking to understand whether it is precommitment or product. If a precommitment, then dispensationalism deserves every bit of the criticism Ryrie (and others) direct toward covenant theology. It is curious then to discover the diversity of opinions on which of the two characterizations is true—among both critics and adherents of dispensational thought.

Precommitment or Product: Some Outside Perspectives on Dispensational Thought

Perhaps the most commonly accessed definition of dispensationalism asserts that the system is in fact a unique hermeneutic that is distinct from yet based on a literal translation of the Bible. Wikipedia’s entry on the system reads, “Dispensational-ism is a particular hermeneutic or analytical system for interpreting the Bible based on a literal translation, and which stands in contrast to the earlier Calvinist system of covenant theology used in fundamentalist biblical interpretation.”4

Varner Johns exemplifies the most staunch critics of dispensationalism in his assertion that CI Scofield “imposed upon the Bible a system of error as subtle and Satanic as any that has ever been invented by the master deceiver.”5 Robert Harbach goes a bit further in describing exactly how the dispensational system is in error, noting that

“the line Dispensationalism makes through Scripture is disjointed, slip-knotted, sheep-shanked, strained and broken with many gaps intervening along its shabby, ludicrous length…they become guilty of approaching the Bible according to modernistic methods. For both Dispensationalism and Modernism have a subjective theory of Bible structure…reads the Gospel According to Matthew applying its subjective hypothesis, and decides that the Sermon on the Mount is not intended for the Church today, but for a future age, after the Church has gone…Dispensationalism is a questionable hermeneutical method…[emphasis mine].”6

Harbach considers dispensationalism to be a hermeneutic method, and a highly problematic one for sure. If Harbach is right, then dispensationalism represents a precommitment that demands a particular interpretive method in order to justify its conclusions. In fact, this is reminiscent of Ryrie’s critique of covenant theology (though Ryrie is certainly much more gracious than Harbach attempts to be).

Adam Graham furthers the discussion elucidating what he believes to be wrong with dispensationalism:

“It is clear that literal interpretation of scripture, as a rule, is a valuable principle, but only when it is tempered with a consistent understanding of context and the progressive nature of revelation. It is also clear that dispensationalism does not and cannot fully adhere to this principle consistently. We should therefore not be afraid to both espouse the merits of literal interpretation of scripture and deny the exclusivist claims that many in the dispensational camp often make.”7

Graham recognizes the merit of “literal interpretation,” but suggests that dispensationalism simply doesn’t follow that method. The “exclusivist claims” of many dispensationalists, according to Graham, are rooted in theological loyalties rather than sound exegetical process.

John Gerstner helps put the hermeneutic issue in focus, as he specifies that,

“We all agree that most literature, including the Bible, is usually meant to be understood according to the literal construction of the words which are used…At the point where we differ, there is a tendency for the dispensationalists to be literalistic where the non-dispensationalist tends to interpret the Bible figuratively. But to say on the basis of that limited divergence of interpretation that the two schools represent fundamentally different approaches is not warranted. Many on both sides think that this minor “hermeneutical” difference is a more foundational difference than the theological. We profoundly disagree for we believe that the dispensational literal hermeneutic is driven by an a priori commitment to dispensational theological distinctives [emphasis mine].”8

Gerstner recognizes dispensationalism as a theological precommitment that drives a version of a literal hermeneutic—what Gerstner calls “the dispensational literal hermeneutic.”

Precommitment or Product: Some Inside Perspectives on Dispensational Thought

Outside perspectives are not the only ones that seem to indicate that dispensationalism might be a precommitment based on hermeneutic applications, though it is noteworthy that none (of which are cited here) would directly suggest that the system of thought is a theological precommitment. Self-affirmed dispensationalist David Guzik illustrates the difficulty as he describes dispensationalism as “a way of looking at the Bible that understands God’s unfolding plan—that He has worked in somewhat different ways with and through different peoples…I’m a dispensationalist…”9. It is unclear whether “a way of looking at the Bible” refers to the outcome of exegesis or the methodology.

Tommy Ice addresses the challenge a bit in his article Dispensational Hermeneutics, in part by distinguishing between macroliteralism and microliteralism. Ice explains that “The system of literal interpretation is the grammatical-historical, or textual, approach to hermeneutics. Use of literalism in this sense could be called macroliteralism.’”10 He adds that,

“Within macroliteralism, the consistent use of the grammatical-historical system yields the interpretative conclusion, for example, that Israel always and only refers to national Israel. The church will not be substituted for Israel if the grammatical-historical system of interpretation is consistently used because there are no indicators in the text that such is the case. Therefore, one must bring an idea from outside the text by saying that the passage really means something that it does not actually say. This kind of replacement approach is a mild form of spiritualized, or allegorical, interpretation.”11

Ice concludes that those who replace Israel with the church so do in violation of macroliteralism.12 At the same time, within macroliteralism, the attention to individual passages and whether or not they might include figures of speech and how those should be handled in each instance, Ice refers to as microliteralism.13 Ice makes it clear that dispensational thought is an outcome that is rooted in macroliteralism (a broad and consistent commitment to LGH14), even though there may be some differences and disagreements at the microliteral level. Ice thus absolves of theological precommitment exegetes who arrive at dispensational conclusions broadly and yet have some differences in various details not contrary to macroliteralism, as he perceives such exegetes to be working within the framework of LGH. On the other hand, while Ice resolutely recognizes that LGH is an essential of dispensationalism,15 he curiously and in passing refers to the literal hermeneutic as “a development of dispensationalism”16—a reference that seems to imply that the system of dispensationalism, at least in some sense, precedes the hermeneutic. Perhaps he was meaning that hermeneutic ideas at the microliteral level have been advanced by dispensational thought, but either way, Ice’s comments underscore the difficulty of the relationship of dispensational thought to hermeneutic methodology. Ryrie’s sine qua non positions dispensationalism as utterly dependent on the consistent application of LGH, yet other dispensational thinkers seem to imply at least an occasional interdependence between dispensational thought and LGH.

In a recent statement affirming its commitment to dispensational thought, the IFCA asserts that “Dispensational theology emerges froma consistent literal- grammatical-historical hermeneutic.”17 This statement reflects that dispensationalism is the theological egg that comes from the hermeneutic chicken. At the same time, the statement adds that, “IFCA International has been committed since its inception to a Dispensational understandingof Scripture.”18 One might wonder the value of referring to a dispensational understanding of Scripture while affirming that dispensationalism emerges from viewing the Scriptures through a particular hermeneutic lens. While it is clear that the IFCA is comprehensively committed to LGH in its most normative form,19 the description of the view of Scripture as dispensational blurs the relationship of cause to effect.

Michael Vlach describes (in a Reformed-theology venue) dispensationalism as “a distinctive hermeneutic.”20 Vlach expands on that assertion, noting that dispensationalism is “primarily about a hermeneutic for Bible interpretation, especially involving Old Testament prophecies concerning ethnic/national Israel.”21 Again one might ask whether dispensationalism is the outcome of a hermeneutic or whether it is about a hermeneutic. At the very least equating the system (dispensationalism) with the hermeneutic (LGH) by describing dispensationalism as a distinctive hermeneutic is problematic.

Andy Woods rightly explains that “dispensationalism has more to do with commitment to a particular hermeneutic then it does to adherence to a theological model.”22 Woods is clear that “the Dispensational theological system arises out of a hermeneutic rather than from a theology imposed upon Scripture.”23 His thesis in the article is “to explain the hermeneutics of dispensationalism,”24 yet the title itself (“Dispensational Hermeneutics”) can be understood in two ways—and both are ways that dispensational thinkers have utilized. Woods certainly meant it—as did Ice in his identically titled article—to describe, as his thesis states, the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. Woods is otherwise careful not to blur the lines between cause and effect.

Notes

1 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Moody Press, 1995), 16-17.

2 Ibid., 19.

3 Ibid., 20.

4 Wikipedia, “Dispensationalism” viewed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensationalism.

5 Varner Johns, “Sevenfold Errors of Dispensationalism” Ministry Magazine, November, 1942 https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1942/11/sevenfold-errors-of-dis….

6 Robert Harbach, “Dispensationalism: An Ancient Error” PRCA website, originally January 1, 1967 in The Standard Bearer , http://www.prca.org/resources/publications/articles/item/3741-dispensati….

7 Adam Graham “What is Wrong With Dispensationalism” No King But Christ, June 21, 2018 https://www.nokingbutchrist.org/what-is-wrong-with-dispensationalism/.

8 John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 92-93.

9 David Guzik, “Pitfalls of Dispensationalism” Calvary Chapel, May 14, 2015 https://calvarychapel.com/posts/pitfalls-of-dispensationalism/.

10 Thomas Ice, “Dispensational Hermeneutics” Scholars Crossing, Liberty University, May, 2009, 3.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Literal Grammatical Historical.

15 Ibid., 13.

16 Ibid., 14.

17 IFCA, “Resolution on Dispensational Theology and Hermeneutics” Adopted July 1, 2020, https://www.ifca.org/blog/Advancing%20the%20Cause/2020-resolution-on-dis….

18 Ibid.

19 The IFCA affirms in the Resolution that “we commit ourselves to the search for the authorial intent, both divine and human, behind every biblical text, through the careful use of the interpretation principles found in the literal- grammatical-historical approach to hermeneutics.”

20 Michael Vlach, “Dispensational Theology” The Gospel Coalition, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/dispensational-theology/.

21 Ibid.

22 Andy Woods, “Dispensational Hermeneutics” SpiritAndTruth.org, 2005, https://www.spiritandtruth.org/teaching/documents/articles/25/25.pdf?x=x.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

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