Dispensational theology has gone out of style. Fifty years ago, probably a majority of American evangelicals held some version of dispensationalism. Today, the balance has tilted in the opposite direction. Not only are dispensationalists in the minority, but their system is widely viewed as indefensible, sometimes even by former dispensationalists.
Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist. In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker (“Dr. Reluctant”) as a title.
Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors. They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals. Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all. And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.
For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, nor should not be, fixated on the defense of a system. Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing—its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible. We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right. That is a good thing. But the last word will not be said in this life. We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know). The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders. Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.
We have been considering four essential principles that are necessary to holding a proper understanding of literal interpretation. These are the univocal nature of language, the jurisdiction of authorial intent, the unitary authorship of Scripture and the textually-based locus of meaning.
Here are some concluding thoughts about the entire subject we have been studying.
What do these factors of literal interpretation mean for certain aspects of current dispensational interpretation? They rule out double fulfillment, near and far fulfillment, some prophecies that are considered “generic,”* “typological-prophetical” interpretation, “patterns” of fulfillment and certain forms of indirect “linkage” (including “complementary fulfillment”) between Old Testament prophecies and the present age. Despite the denials and nuances to the contrary, this all comes perilously near to simple resignification of a text. These all violate one or more of the above principles of literal interpretation, and result in the confusion of Israel and the church and other distinctions to one degree or another.
To review very briefly, there are four essential principles we must keep in mind if we are going to have a proper understanding of literal interpretation. The first three are the univocal nature of language, the jurisdiction of authorial intent, and the unitary authorship of Scripture. The final element for literal interpretation is the textually-based locus of meaning. We began studying that topic in the previous installment of this series, and pick up with it here.
There are four essential principles that must be considered in order to understand literal interpretation. We looked at the first two, the univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of authorial intent, in the last installment in this series. This time we will study the third element and then introduce the fourth and final one.
While it is true that “literal interpretation” is not the private property of dispensationalism, the claim is actually the consistent use thereof. A case can still be made that traditional dispensationalism can make good on this claim.
There is no lock-step consensus on what “literal interpretation” really is. In the 19th century, E. R. Craven, the American editor of Lange’s Commentary, with unusual clarity made the point that literal interpretation is better termed “normal” since both literal and figurative interpretation can be comprehended in the term.1 More recently, Roy Zuck differentiated, correctly, literal interpretation into “ordinary-literal” and “figurative-literal.”2 It is not the intent here to define precisely what “literal interpretation” really is, but rather to suggest four rubrics or principles that must be entertained in understanding literal interpretation. These must be held in relationship to other factors of good hermeneutics such as context, literary genre and the like. There may be other such fundamental underpinnings, but at least these must be comprehended in a proper approach to Scripture. The first two of these principles will be our focus in this installment.