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 the series so far.
Despite the dispensationalists’ claim that their so-called literalistic premillennialism is superior to the other evangelical millennial views because Revelation 20:1-6 is one text that clearly sets forth their system, this view imposes the literalistic system unjustifiably and inconsistently on the most symbolic book in all the Bible, a book containing references to scorpions with faces like men and teeth like lions (Rev 9:7), fire-breathing prophets (Rev 11:5), a seven-headed beast (Rev 13:1), and more.
Response: First, it is not “literalistic” premillennialism. Dispensationalists recognize one can’t be literalistic in one’s interpretation of anything, including daily conversations. By “literal” we mean what everybody else means by it unless they are trying to give the term a spin it does not normally have in day to day usage. We mean what the “Nicene Council” meant when they posted the “95 Theses” and expected people to take their objections to dispensationalism at face value, believing that folks are smart enough to interpret any figures of speech correctly.
These objectors assert that, “dispensationalism has at least crippled the Church in her duty of proclaiming the gospel and discipling the nations” (Preface). When they wrote that sentence, these brethren took it for granted that people could identify the metaphor in it and make a literal sense out of it. That is, they assumed readers would know that “crippled” was not to be taken literalistically, but that it was functioning as a figure, meaning “harmed” or “impaired.” Indeed, if they didn’t think others would be able to derive a literal sense to the metaphor they would not have used it! They wish to be interpreted in a plain-sense manner, though not literalistically. They do not wish us to place some fanciful midrash upon their words so as to distort the plain sense out of all recognition. Well, this is how dispensationalists approach God’s Word. They ask, “Can it be taken at face value? And if not, what are its parameters of meaning?”
This first question is crucial, for it is often not asked by Covenant theologians when they come up against prophetic texts. That said, let us see if the rest of this objection holds water.
First off, notice that Revelation 20:1-6 (actually 1-7) “is one text which clearly sets forth their system.” This is true to a degree. It is one text. There are very many others! But this text does provide the duration of the future millennium. All one has to do is to read it to find out what that is. But can they? What about all the symbolism in the book? Dispensationalists will ask the questions put above: The first is, “Can it be taken at face value?” We answer, “Certainly! why not?” It is easy to interpret these verses literally. As non-dispensationalist George E. Ladd said, “The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous…The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally.” (The Meaning of the Millennium ed. Robert Clouse, 37).
The trouble is not the difficulty in a plain-sense interpretation, but in what to do with that interpretation once it is allowed to stand. Amillennialists, for example, cannot allow it to stand as read. It would explode their system. They must make these verses mean something other than what they say. The first thing to do is to complain that Revelation is symbolic (as if this goes unnoticed among premillennialists). Then comes the pat objection that the numbers in Revelation are symbolic (this is usually done without any proof that they are to be so taken). The numbers in Revelation are not symbolic and always produce clear meanings when taken literally (this is even more the case when the number is repeated six times in the context as “1,000″ is here!).
From there the verb ezesan meaning “lived” or “came to life” is interpreted spiritually v. 4 and then literally in v.5. This entails making anastasis (“resurrection”) in the context mean, they say, not physical resurrection (of people who had been beheaded remember!), but “the new birth”! We demur.
So whatever one makes of the other passages in the book of Revelation, chapter 20:1-6 means what it says. Finally, it must be seen within its larger context which clearly begins with the Second Coming in Revelation 19:11f. Again to cite Ladd: “Chapters 19-20 form a continuous narrative announcing the marriage of the Lamb, the victorious return of Christ, and his victory over his enemies.” (Ibid. 35). Interpreted in its plain sense the passage proves premillennialism (though not necessarily in its dispensationalist form).
The Nicene Council are again employing what could be called a “hermeneutics of objection” whereby the plain teaching of a passage is disapproved of because it cuts across their theology.
Dispensationalism’s claim that Revelation 20:1-6 is a clear text that establishes literalistic premillennialism has an inconsistency that is overlooked: it also precludes Christians who live in the dispensation of the Church from taking part in the millennium, since Revelation 20:4 limits the millennium to those who are beheaded and who resist the Beast, which are actions that occur (on their view) during the Great Tribulation, after the Church is raptured out of the world.
Response: While the passage in question does speak only of the martyrs of the Tribulation it does not assert that only they will experience the 1,000 year reign. For example, if the church is taken out of the world prior to the Tribulation, it seems reasonable to infer that, as the bride of Christ, its members will be with Christ in His earthly millennial kingdom. It appears the disciples and the twelves tribes of Israel will be there (Matt. 19:28); and the disciples were in the church (Eph. 2:20). This, then, is not a sound objection.
Despite the dispensationalists’ view of the glory of the millennium for Christ and his people, they teach, contrary to Scripture, that regenerated Gentile believers will be subservient to the Jews, as we see, for instance, in Herman Hoyt’s statement that “the redeemed living nation of Israel, regenerated and regathered to the land, will be head over all the nations of the earth…. So he exalts them above the Gentile nations…. On the lowest level there are the saved, living, Gentile nations.”
Response: The quotation from Hoyt is to be found on page 81 of the book The Meaning of the Millennium and the reader is advised to consult it to see whether Hoyt cites Scripture for his view. Just saying something is contrary to Scripture does not make it so. What these brethren really mean to say is “contrary to our understanding of Scripture,” which is a very different thing.
Hoyt paints the Millennial hierarchy like this: 1. Christ the King. 2. What Hoyt calls “a spiritual nobility” comprising the church, the OT saints and the tribulation martyrs. 3. The nation of Israel as head over all the other nations (Hoyt cites Deut. 28:1, 13; Isa. 41:8-16; 60:1-3, 12). Then he says, “On the lowest level there are the saved, living, Gentile nations.”
Whether one agrees with every detail in Hoyt’s description (which not all dispensationalists would), or with all the verses he uses (certain of which some might dispute), there is nothing “unbiblical” in his presentation. But this is beside the point of this particular objection, which seems to be contemptuous of the status of redeemed ethnic Israel in the future kingdom (a reading of Isa. 49, 55, 62 and Zech. 14 might help). Since Israel has never been “the head and not the tail” (see Deut. 28:1-13 – interpreting Israel as Israel), and a new covenant involving redemption has been made with them (Jer. 31:31ff.), dispensationalists expect God to be as good as His word and bring this to pass regardless of the personal feelings of anyone about the advisability of it.
What we have called a “hermeneutics of objection” is all that stands behind these kinds of arguments.
Despite dispensationalism’s claim that the Jews will be dominant over all peoples in the eschatological future, the Scripture teaches that “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.’” (Isa. 19:23-25).
Response: We are glad to see an attempt to take a prophetic utterance at face value. However, our friends ought to have noted verses 16-18 which describe a certain deference to Judah. The passage does not deny the supremacy of Israel in the coming kingdom, it simply states that there will be some sort of spiritual and economic union between them. The verse should be understood in light of the verses given above regarding Israel’s dominant role, although we must take care not to introduce these verses before we have fully exegeted this passage in its context. Bringing in the “Analogy of Faith” (Scripture with Scripture) too soon is often the means of twisting an intransigent passage to accord with prior assumptions.