April 30, 2017

One Essential Feature of Dispensationalism: A Consistently Literal Hermeneutic

by Bruce Meyer

This article first appeared in FrontLine • July/August 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

No doubt every one of us has encountered the following objection when arguing theology: “That’s just your interpretation.” The statement, although often a convenient escape, does highlight the importance of a hermeneutic that is centered in objective principles of interpretation, especially in a postmodern world. Among Fundamentalists, dispensationalism provides a popular yet consistently literal approach to the text. Dispensationalism is, however, often wrongly associated with a variety of nonessentials such as elaborate eschatological charts and timelines, sensational identifications of Antichrist, and even tenuous predictions concerning the timing of the Rapture. I have even encountered those who mistakenly thought that anyone who holds to premillennialism is a dispensationalist. What, then, are the essential characteristics that distinguish dispensationalism from covenantalism?

Dispensationalism is a hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures that is distinct in three essential features: a consistently literal interpretation, a distinction between Israel and the Church,[1] and a doxological purpose in history.[2] Dispensationalists refer to these features as the sine qua non of dispensationalism. This article, however, will focus strictly upon the first distinction.

The first essential of dispensationalism, the consistent use of a literal hermeneutic, is the bedrock issue for dispensational interpretation. The reader should be advised, however, that covenantalists do in many texts employ a literal hermeneutic; amillennial covenantalists, however, will not interpret literally when dealing with prophecy. Covenantalists have often been critical of dispensationalists for either failing to recognize or undervaluing metaphorical language, a practice they claim reads the text too “flatly.” But is the criticism accurate? This author maintains that a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, consistently applied, correctly acknowledges both metaphorical language and a literal fulfillment of that same language.

Literal Interpretation and Metaphor

Ryrie stated in 1965 in his groundbreaking book, “Consistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures.”[3] Bernard Ramm describes a literal interpretation at length:

We use the word “literal” in its dictionary sense: “. . . the natural or usual construction and implication of a writing or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of words; not allegorical or metaphorical” (Webster’s New International Dictionary). We also use it in its historical sense, specifically, the priority that Luther and Calvin gave to literal, grammatical, or philological exegesis of Scripture in contrast to the Four Fold Theory of the Roman Catholic scholars (historical meaning, moral meaning, allegorical meaning, eschatological meaning) developed during the Middle Ages and historically derived from Augustine’s Three Fold Theory. It was particularly the allegorical use of the Old Testament that the Reformers objected to, and the manner in which Roman Catholic dogma was re-enforced by allegorical interpretation. Hence the “literal” directly opposes the “allegorical.”[4]

It is quite significant that the Reformers were quick to identify the error of allegorical interpretation in the Roman system, but retained the practice in their own hermeneutic for prophetic genres.

With regard to symbols and figurative language, Ramm writes,

All secondary meanings of documents depend upon the literal stratum of language. Parables, types, allegories, symbols, figures of speech, myths and fables presume that there is a level of meaning in language prior to the kind of language this kind of literature is. The parable of the sower is understood only within the context of literal “farm” language.[5]

Therefore, a literal interpretation allows for figures of speech and metaphors, but insists upon contextual markers that would indicate the use of metaphorical language.[6] Daniel, for example, describes the fourth beast as having ten horns (Dan. 7:7, 20). The text explains that the ten horns are ten kings (v. 24) and that the beast is the fourth kingdom on the earth (v. 23). God uses symbols, but He identifies those symbols for readers through textual indicators. Ryrie clarifies the issue in writing:

Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved.[7]

Furthermore, he adds that “to be sure, apocalyptic literature does employ symbols in prophecy, but they stand for something actual.”[8]

The covenantal view that one symbolic word can represent an unrelated symbolic concept leads to a more subjective interpretation that lacks contextual justification. Ramm cautions, “To rest one’s theology on the secondary strata of meanings is to invite interpretation by imagination.”[9] It is this author’s belief that the amillennial position is one remaining “carryover” from the Catholic Church that the Protestant Reformation has yet to jettison, although covenantalists have made modifications that would distinguish their system from Catholicism. Therefore, although dispensationalists acknowledge the use of metaphorical language, they insist that the metaphor speaks of a literal fulfillment.

Metaphorical Language versus Literal Fulfillment

Ice clarifies the difference between a literal interpretation and the interpretation of metaphorical language when he explains,

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. So when speaking of those who do replace Israel with the Church as not taking the Bible literally and spiritualizing the text, it is true, since such a belief is contrary to a macroliteral [textual] interpretation.[10]

Ice is highlighting the two senses in which dispensationalists use the word “literal.” The first use of the word literal is what Ice calls “microliteralism.”[11] This use of the word focuses upon whether one understands a word or phrase to be literal as opposed to a figure of speech. This would be the sense one would apply to the expression “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Common usage, or “historical interpretation,” demands that the reader understand that expression as a figure of speech (unless there is an actual gluttonous person especially partial to equine delicacies). The literal meaning to the saying is that one is extremely hungry (a macroliteral interpretation) rather than some other spiritual meaning foreign to the expression. An allegorical interpretation, however, might look something like this: the word “hungry” speaks not of a physical hunger, but a spiritual hunger as evident in David’s hunger for God. Horses in Scripture are metaphorical for that which is unclean, since Israel often purchased horses from Egypt (a picture of the world).[12]

Therefore, the expression indicates that a person possesses a spiritual hunger for that which is worldly and unclean. The blatant misuse of metaphor in this example is obvious, since people use the expression in everyday usage to communicate extreme physical hunger. The context argues against a spiritualized meaning.

Ice’s macroliteralism refers to the “system that views the text as providing the basis of the true interpretation” of a text.[13] One can diagram these distinctions as follows:


Therefore, a text always has a literal meaning, but the text may use figures of speech or symbols to communicate that meaning. Even when Paul uses symbolism (or allegory) in Galatians 4:21–31, he provides textual indicators that explain his intended meaning: law = slavery to the flesh (bondwoman, flesh, Mount Sinai, Hagar [Ishmael], Jerusalem [vv. 22–25]) and Spirit=freedom from sin (freewoman, promise, Jerusalem above, Isaac [Sarah] [vv. 26–30]). These symbols have a literal meaning that Paul explains throughout his text. Feinberg rightly identifies the fallacy within the covenantal system in noting that the system’s “objection fails to recognize the difference between kinds of language (figures of speech, plain language, e.g.) and methods of interpreting language.”[14] Dispensationalists, therefore, are arguing that the method of interpreting language, even figures of speech, must be a literal interpretation; otherwise, the interpreter is assigning a symbolic meaning to symbolic words that the author never intended, a practice that leads to a high degree of subjectivity and conflicting interpretations.

Examples of Literal Interpretation of Symbols

When God promises “land” to Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jews correctly understood God to mean land as “physical property” or “territory” rather than “spiritual blessings” because of God’s promises beginning in Genesis 12. For the covenantalist to insist that the term “land” in the NT is now metaphorical for “blessings” to all believers, he must have some contextual basis for making that claim. In other words, God must have imbedded a marker in the text, a clue that He is now speaking metaphorically, since He had previously used “land” for centuries to mean literal territory or property. The burden of proof falls on the covenantalist to demonstrate the annulment of the promises rather than the dispensationalist to show they have not been annulled.

Covenantalists, however, employ a literal approach selectively, resorting to an allegorical interpretation in prophecy (“land” = “blessing” or “Christ’s throne” = “the believer’s heart”).[15] Ramm states that allegorical interpretation is “the interpretation of a document whereby something foreign, peculiar, or hidden is introduced into the meaning of the text giving it a proposed deeper or real meaning.”[16] Covenantalists, however, argue that their hermeneutic views such statements as metaphors. Allis remarks,

What may be called the popular and naïve idea of a millennium is derived largely from such a passage as [Isaiah 11]. It is to be a golden age, when the “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” when none shall “hurt or destroy,” when the earth shall be “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”[17]

Such a picture of an ideal age raises only one serious difficulty. It is whether the Bible and especially the New Testament predicts or allows for such a period of blessedness before the eternal state is ushered in, or whether the picture given to us by Isaiah is a description of that eternal state itself under earthly forms and images.[18]

The covenantal explanations of key millennial passages are not without problems. Isaiah 65:17–25, for example, contains images that neither fit the Church Age nor the eternal state, both of which are common covenantal explanations of the text. Isaiah describes a scenario in which death is rare (v. 20), a description that rules out the possibility that this passage describes the Church Age. The second half of the verse, however, is especially problematic for the amillennial position. Here, Isaiah states that a person who dies at age one hundred is viewed as a youth and the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. This statement eliminates the eternal state as the interpretation, since there will not be any death then. God is saying more than “there is no death then.” He is allowing for the possibility of death to occur, but also indicating that death, especially at an early age of one hundred, will be exceptional. This statement certainly cannot refer to the Church Age, since living to one hundred is not the norm now either.

Even clearer than the former passage, Zechariah 14 contains elements that cannot refer to the eternal state without spiritualizing the language. In verses 16–19, God warns that those who would choose not to participate in the Feast of Tabernacles would experience drought and plagues. The amillennial interpretation argues that this reference teaches no such rebellion will exist in the eternal state.[19] This interpretation overlooks the level of specificity with which God warns the potential rebels. Zechariah records three verses of explanation detailing the punishment for those who fail to participate. There is more included in this text than merely a metaphorical description of the absence of rebellion. These features, therefore, can neither apply to the eternal state nor to the Church Age.

In an effort to explain the features of Revelation from an amillennial position, Hoekema provides a good example of a “metaphorical” interpretation with reference to the millennium:

Obviously the number “thousand” which is used here must not be interpreted in a literal sense. Since the number ten signifies completeness, and since a thousand is ten to the third power, we may think of the expression “a thousand years” as standing for a complete period, a very long period of indeterminate length. . . . We may conclude that this thousand-year period extends from Christ’s first coming to just before his Second Coming.[20]

One will observe the distinct absence of any textual markers pointing the interpreter to the fanciful explanation Hoekema proposes. Additionally, in explaining the binding of Satan in the abyss during this period, Hoekema explains,

The word Abyss should rather be thought of as a figurative description of the way in which Satan’s activities will be curbed during the thousand-year period. . . . During the gospel era which has now been ushered in, Satan will not be able to continue deceiving the nations the way he did in the past, for he has been bound. . . . We conclude, then, that the binding of Satan during the gospel age means that, first, he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel, and second, he cannot gather all the enemies of Christ together to attack the church.[21]

If it is true that Satan is bound at this very moment and, as Hoekema claims, that he is no longer able to gather all the enemies of Christ together, then for what purpose does God loose Satan at the end of this amillennial Church Age? Amillennial covenantalists stumble over the loosing of Satan, but fail to provide a good answer for why God would loose him at the end of their “Church Age.” The “metaphorical” or allegorical interpretation of the nondispensationalist fails to answer the specifics of many passages. A literal interpretation allows the text to speak in a normal way without creating the dilemmas of the amillennial position.

It certainly is true that one’s philosophy of interpretation affects the outcome of an interpretation. Since interpretation is so important to an accurate understanding of the authorial intent of the text, interpreters must employ a hermeneutic that allows the text to speak freely without increased distortion from personal or theological bias. Dispensationalists believe their hermeneutic is the most accurate, since a consistently literal approach to the Scriptures correctly acknowledges both metaphorical language and a literal fulfillment of that same language. A literal interpretation does allow for the use of metaphorical language, but it also recognizes the difference between metaphorical language and literal fulfillment of that language. When one applies this approach to difficult prophetic passages, the hermeneutic demonstrates its own validity through the objective way in which it unlocks the meaning of the text.

Dr. Bruce Meyer has served as a pastor, Christian school administrator, and college professor. He and his wife, Kathy, have four children.

  1. Such a distinction actually emerges from a consistently literal hermeneutic. []
  2. The author is aware that covenantalists do focus upon God’s glory in practice. The difference here, however, is a hermeneutical issue. Dispensationalists interpret through the lens of God’s glory whereas covenantalists interpret through the lens of salvation, i.e., the covenant of grace. Dispensationalists see a broader purpose of God in history than salvation alone. []
  3. Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 46. []
  4. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 119. []
  5. Ibid., 124. []
  6. Elliott Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 194–5, lists several contextual clues: explicit contextual statements, conflicting imagery, and juxtaposition of images. []
  7. Ryrie, 80–81. []
  8. Ibid., 87 [emphasis added]. []
  9. Ramm, 125 [emphasis added]. []
  10. Thomas Ice, “Dispensational Hermeneutics,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis and John Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 32. Ice borrows these concepts from S. Lewis Johnson. []
  11. Ibid., 33. []
  12. That Egypt is always a picture of the world is also a dubious

    assumption. []

  13. Ice, 32 [emphasis added]. Ice uses definitions provided by Elliott Johnson, 9. []
  14. John Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 74. []
  15. This approach assigns a “spiritual meaning” to words where no symbolic markers exist. []
  16. Ramm, 223. []
  17. Allis, 236. []
  18. Ibid., 237 [emphasis added]. []
  19. Thomas McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in An Exegetical & Expository Commentary on the Minor Prophets, ed. Thomas McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 3:1242. []
  20. Anthony Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 161. One should wonder in what way this is obvious (is this really what John or his readers would have thought?). Furthermore, this author believes that if the Church is currently in the Millennium, as the amillennialists believe, then the Church has great cause for disappointment. Only if one interprets the lion and lamb imagery to be, say, Lutherans and Presbyterians living in unity, can an individual say these conditions are currently present. []
  21. Ibid., 161–62. []

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