Dispensational Distortions – Literally Literal Literature (Part One)

11Jan12

Literally Literal

You can never go home again.

At least that is the way it felt the first time I returned to the Church I was raised in as an adult. My newly wedded wife and I were looking for a Church home after returning from a year in Maryland and decided to try my childhood church since, at the time, my sister and brother-in-law were attending there.

At this point I had made no change in eschatological position but had just begun to discover that many of the dots that appeared to have lined during my youth had begun to get much tougher to connect. My core system was unraveling and I was looking for answers.

It just so happens that the new pastor of the Church was teaching the Sunday School class for Young Marrieds. This seemed like a great opportunity to get to know people in a similar life stage and get to know the Pastor as well. To top it off the subject of the class was eschatology – which given the history of the church was not a great anomaly – and they were only a few weeks into the discussion.

The teaching that first Sunday was on the miraculous signs in the sky like the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling from the sky, This also included 100 pound meteors plummeting toward Earth and a large mountain of fire crashing into the sea. He went on to declare that these events were soon to take place and many phenomenon may be the root cause of these events including nuclear explosions, meteor showers and volcanic eruptions.

As a “newbie” I was looking for clarification and so asked a question based on some of the material I had been recently studying. “I have been reading that in the Old Testament those same sort of signs and symbols were used to describe the fall of nations, kings and peoples and that we shouldn’t see them as actual events.”

“Well,” the Pastor responded, “I’m guessing the people you’ve been reading just don’t take the Bible literally!”

THE LITERAL HERMENEUTIC

No single facet of the Dispensational system has as much impact on the system as a whole as “Consistent Literal” hermeneutic that the system is known for. That should come as no surprise as how one reads and interprets Scripture will have a major impact on the doctrines and theological system that flows from the Word as read.

The importance to the system, though, should not be understated. Dispensationalist will argue that only through the literal hermeneutic can one guarantee that the Bible is being interpreted correctly and that literalism provides assurance that one can and will avoid liberal pitfalls that have plagued mainstream Protestantism over the past several hundred years.

The initial attack of the Fundamentalist and Dispensationalist may have been the liberal, Higher Criticism, form of interpretation, but has over the last several decades been directed at the reformed hermeneutic that allows for allegory, hyperbole and symbolism. The Reformed view must not be misunderstood to mean the same as the Higher Criticism method as we shall see below.

HIGHER CRITICISM

As was noted in the introduction of this book it is the intention of the author to make difficult concept more readily understood. As a result the following description of the Higher Criticism model should not be seen a full, complete or authoritative. It is meant to introduce on a purely surface level the method in question and compare that system to the more Reformed and Evangelical method of Biblical Interpretation.

At its core Higher Criticism has some very strong and ideal goals. Higher Critics desire to discover through investigation the original authors, date and times of a particular Biblical text to help determine the actual purpose and meaning behind the text. The criticism or investigation of the text is seen as being “higher,” or more suspecting of the text.

Despite the initially positive expression of Biblical investigation and the need to ask legitimate questions regarding the authenticity of the text the system has turned into an unfortunate apparent attack on the Bible, its history and authority. The vast majority of those within this field of study lean to the liberal side of Biblical exposition and tend to deny the authority, inerrancy and supernatural expression of Holy Writ.

Quite often it is those of the Higher Criticism method that receive the label of “authority” on Biblical matters by programs created for mainstream consumption on popular programs such as the History Channel and National Geographic. The assumptions and presupposition is one of doubt and distrust of the Biblical text as authoritative.

This is vastly different than the reformed hermeneutic which determines the exposition of the passages in question according to the context, language usage, literary style and similar usage throughout the rest of scripture. The actual process will be dealt with later, but for our purpose here, we will discuss the validity of the hermeneutic against the attack by Dispensationalist as not “taking the Bible literally.”

HERMENEUTICS

The Bible Answerman, Hank Hanegraaff, calls “hermeneutics” the art of science of Biblical Interpretation. By that it is meant the way by which a person reads, understand and interprets the Scriptures. It is a “method” and later in the book we will discuss in more detail the method that I believe best allows a full and consistent method of interpretation. This method will be used to discuss the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 and related passages. Our purpose here, though, is to deal with the claim of literalism by Dispensationalist and whether that claim is consistent and trustworthy.

The most important impact of the Dispensational consistent literal hermeneutic has to do with the nation of Israel. In fact, the entire Dispensational system hinges upon the separation and contrasting of the national of Israel in relation to the Church. The purpose, birth and future of the Church are tied directly to how one understands the use of the term Israel throughout the scriptures.

The Dispensational literal hermeneutic demands that when the name Israel is it can only mean the natural descendents of Abraham living in the area Judea with a centralized government in the Holy City of Jerusalem. Any prophecy, discussion or application of both regarding Israel can only find fulfillment through the above defined peoples. Any transferal or relating of those prophecies to the Church is a violation of the Dispensational literal hermeneutic and must be avoided and denied.

The battle cry of the Literal Hermeneutic is summed up in a famous quote by Dr. Tim LaHaye, author of several non-fiction works on eschatology as well as co-author of the popular Left Behind series. Tim LaHaye is also the founder of the Pre-Trib Rapture Center, a web site and community created in 1992 dedicated to furthering the acceptance of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine of Dispensationalism that Dr. LaHaye believed was under attack and losing influence.

“When the plain sense makes good sense, look for no other sense…” Tim LaHaye

By the above quote Dr. LaHaye is arguing that the initial goal of the interpreter is to always take the passage in a wooden literal sense and only after the student simply cannot take the passage in the most ultimate, literal sense, than a figurative hermeneutic is allowed.

The student, though, may find the above proposition rather arbitrary. It should at least cause one to ask a few questions. How do you know when it is not possible to take a passage or image literally? If the passage or image in question is not literal then how do we interpret it and how do we know we are correct? Are there certain literary styles that tend to be less literal than others and, if so, how do we interpret them consistently?

Should we take the time texts literally?

The final question highlighted above can be the most stinging as we will see throughout our discussion of prophetic passages like Matthew 24 and Daniel 9. But for our purposes here let us consider the previous question in relation to a few Biblical examples.

But first it would important to understand exactly how the Literal Hermeneutic is used as a weapon against the opponents of Dispensationalism. The battle cry of literalism is used to poison the well against critics of the system as noted previously by claiming opponents simply do not take the Bible “literally” and allow for subjective figurative analysis of passages that leads to any number of possible interpretations.

The claim is made that all Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled were done so “literally” and therefore the student of the Bible must expect and demand that all New Testament to be fulfilled in a like manner. We will actually discuss whether this argument is valid in a future chapter, but for our purposes here we will simply allow the claim to show how the Dispensationalist will critique competing systems.

The claim that literalism eliminates objectivity is a striking and apparently powerful argument. Every serious student wants to know exactly what the text is saying and teaching and the literal hermeneutic appears to be the best way to ensure that this is accomplished. But the frailty of the system shows itself when particular examples are set up against the system and whether a literalist approach is possible or, in the case of time texts, even employed.

As an example of the struggle of the above hermeneutic requirement set up by Dr. LaHaye let us consider of the most popular passages from the book of Revelation.

Rev 131And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.

I have yet to read a commentator whether they be Dispensationalist or Reformed that believes that a literal beast with seven heads that looks like a combination of a leopard, bear and lion will rise out of the sea. Nor have I found a Dispensational commentator that believes a literal dragon will be flying around and will give this grotesque creature from the deep a throne and authority.

The question is “why not?” Is the God of the Dispensationalist incompetent to create such a beast that would have this appearance and authority? Can the God of the universe that spoke and light sprang into existence and breathed life into the nostrils of man not have the creative ability to accomplish such a task?

What do we do with passages that describe God as a lamb, a door, a river and even a chicken? Should we expect to see God with wings, feathers and a roost instead of throne? Obviously this is absurd!

And though I understand that the question is absurd I use the example above to point out the troubling position created by the wooden literal hermeneutic. When does one know if something is to be taken literally or figuratively in a system that promotes the initial intention of taking all things literally whenever possible? So, where’s the line to be drawn?

Or what is one to do with the time text. Here, we have very plain language usage, not like the above example of a bizarre creature previously never seen before rising out of the sea. Below are examples of plain language that must be taken figuratively for the Dispensational system to work.

Matt 24: 34Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

The plain reading of the passage would lead the uninformed reader (one unfamiliar with any eschatological system) to assume the events in question would happen with a generation of the person speaking.

Rev 1:  1The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants] the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servantJohn, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

For the Dispensational system to maintain its basic tenets of future fulfillment of events discussed in the book of Revelation, these very clear and plain timing words must be interpreted top mean something other than what the normal or “plain sense” would dictate.

This does lead to one very perplexing question. Prophetic prognosticates of the previous and current century have proposed over and over that Jesus is coming “soon.” But how should the audience understand their prophetic guru’s use of the term “soon” as it relates to the profession that Jesus is coming in the immediate future when the same word is used in the Scriptures and apparently means a very long period of time stretching now nearly to last 2,000 years?

So, when Tim LaHaye says Jesus is coming soon, how should we take it when the Bible said Jesus was coming soon 2,000 years ago? Why should we trust the statement when it comes from Dr. LaHaye when we apparently cannot trust it when it comes from the pages of Scripture?

Other troubling issues for the Dispensational hermeneutic are that many of the nations, peoples, tribes and weaponry are no longer in existence. Many of the nations mentioned is passage used by Dispensationalist regarding a yet future Millennium include Assyria, Edom, and Moab. None of these nations are in existence nor have them been for many millennia.  Dr. Grover Gunn noting the information above wonders why the God of Dispensationalism could not preserve those nations so that the prophesies containing them could be fulfilled “literally.” He continues the question in relation to the Jewish Tribal names found within those same passages.

“”Some Old Testament prophecies also mention ancient Jewish family and tribal relationships that were preserved until New Testament times but which have long since been lost through intermarriage? God allowed these long preserved Jewish genealogies to be lost when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. Once tribal and family relationships are lost, they cannot be restored except by resurrecting the family and tribal heads and starting over again. How are these prophecies going to be fulfilled literally?” Grover Gunn (Dispensationalism)

More troubling issues of literalism will arise in future discussion include the return of bloody animal sacrifices, a rebuilt Temple that must be once again destroyed, the use of ancient weaponry made of wood despite the common interpretive practice of using nuclear and modern warfare weaponry, linguistic leaps relating to Russia in Ezekiel 38 and 39 and the proposal of a literal, physical city of immense dimensions. This and more will be discussed in future chapters and books.

LET THERE BE LIGHTS

Again this chapter should not be seen as an exhaustive discussion of the issue surrounding hermeneutics and future chapter will expound upon the differing propositions as we witness of they are used within specific Biblical passage examples.

For now I would recommend the previously mentioned Hank Hanegraaff and his book, “The Apocalypse Code” for a more thorough discussion of the topic of hermeneutics and a very good example of a Biblical and consistent hermeneutic he discusses called “Exegetical Eschatology.” In the book Mr. Hanegraaff proposes a six point hermeneutical system called LIGHTS. I will outline briefly below the highlights of the system but recommend the above mentioned book for further understanding.

Mr. Hanegraaff uses the word “lights” as an acronym for six steps to a more consistent and Biblical hermeneutic.

L – Literal Principle. The student is to interpret Scripture according to the most obvious or natural sense using the style is literature the work is employing whether it be figurative, symbolic, apocalyptic, historical or poetic.

I – Illumination Principle – The student is encouraged to seek the aid of the Holy Spirit to provide insights and truth that is being communicated by the passage and not to go beyond the text to create an exposition from imagination. The Spirit will illuminate the truth contained within the passage, and does not provide information the passage does not convey.

G – Grammatical Principle. The student must use grammatical rules employed by the authors within the immediate context and the surrounding context. The student must study to discover how a word, phrase or idea is used elsewhere by the same author and interpret consistently.

H – Historical Principle. The student must familiarize themselves with the historical, cultural, customs and context of the authors and the initial audience of the Biblical text. This includes a serious study of the dating of a particular book or passage.

T – Typology Principle. The Bible uses “types” or images and shadows of reality in order to convey its literal and spiritual message. New Testament writers refer to this and employ this method as when Hebrews declares the shadows of the Old Testament sacrificial relate to the work of Jesus Christ and Matthew uses the image or “type” of Israel being called out of Egypt to represent the historical fact of Jesus being called out of Egypt as well. This may end up being one of the most important ideas to consider, especially when confronting difficult and confusing images of prophetic passages.

S – Scriptural Synergy. “The whole of Scriptures is greater than the sum of its individual passages.” The Bible works together as a cohesive unit and understanding a part necessitates the understanding of it al and vice versa. Individual passages cannot be ripped from its immediate or overall context and Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture.

The above barely scratches the surface of the proposal by Mr. Hanegraaff and I cannot stress again how much a help his book can be. As the introduction of this book declared, this is as much a pooling of information and ideas as it is a presentation of the author’s own view, and as a result, like other positions presented within the book, I cannot recommend Mr. Hanegraaff’s “The Apocalypse Code” enough.

Ultimately the question of hermeneutics comes down to a question of consistent and logical interpretation. Does the “wooden literal” system of interpretation hold up to the scrutiny? Over the next several chapters we will discover the results of the literal hermeneutic employed by Dispensationalist and determine if the system can withstand the critique and hopefully discover if a better and more consistent hermeneutic can and should be employed.

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