The Myth of "Consistent Literalism"*

By Jack Van Deventer

Literalism is considered by many a test of orthodoxy--the only hermeneutic by which one may correctly interpret and understand the Bible. Dispensational premillennialists who reject other eschatological views in the belief that they tend toward "spiritualization" and "allegorizing" claim the distinction of being consistent literalists. One author who holds that literalism is a superior method of interpretation writes, "I am a dispensationalist because dispensationalism generally understands and applies Scripture--particularly prophetic Scripture--in a way that is more consistent with the normal, literal approach I believe is God's design for interpreting Scripture."

What is meant by "literalism" here? Traditionally a literal hermeneutic referred to the grammatical-historical method, that is, interpreting the Bible as it presents itself. Nowadays, the use of the world "literal" by dispensationalists tends to mean the opposite of "figurative." This tendency to deny figurative interpretations is pursued so aggressively that some say dispensational literalism is more properly described as hyperliteralism.

The conviction of a superior, literalistic approach to Bible interpretation can lead to a spiritual arrogance leading to a feeling of infallibility. One man noted, "As a former dispensationalist I was mesmerized with the literal hermeneutic, the way in which we interpreted the Bible. I was satiated with the confidence that this principle of interpretation was the cornerstone of any true approach to Scripture, and paraded it before all as the bedrock of the dispensational method. This `literal' approach produced in me a calm lethargism to anything the covenant men could say. Any argument they could make was disarmed in advance with such statements as this: `They do not advocate a literal hermeneutic.'"

This testimony illustrates the grave danger that literalism can inadvertently be regarded as a higher standard of truth than the Bible itself. Rather than allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, the Word of God is sifted through a literalistic filter on the theological presupposition that God shuns figurative prophetic language.

The New Testament is full of examples where people erred by failing to recognize Jesus' use of figurative language. When Jesus spoke of the temple of His body (John 2:21) the Jews erred in thinking of a physical temple and sought His death on the basis of this mistaken literal interpretation (Matt. 26:61). Nicodemus' literal interpretation led him to wonder if being "born again" meant to "enter a second time into his mother's womb" (John3:4). When Jesus spoke of "a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life" the Samaritan erred in wanting a literal drink of water (John 4:10-15). These examples are sufficient to demonstrate that a literal (nonfigurative) interpretation can lead to mistaken conclusions.

The problem for literalists is that no one is a strict literalist when it comes to Bible interpretation. Furthermore, since no one is a strict literalist no one can define what "consistent literalism" really is.

Those who evaluate the claims of literalists are stunned by the glaring inconsistencies of that system. O.T. Allis notes, "While Dispensationalists are extreme literalists, they are very inconsistent ones. They are literalists in interpreting prophecy. But in the interpreting of history, they carry the principle of typical interpretation to an extreme which has rarely been exceeded even by the most ardent of allegorizers." One of the most influential early dispensationalists, C.I. Scofield noted that the prophetic scriptures should be interpreted with "absolute literalness" while "historical scriptures have an allegorical or spiritual significance." LaRondelle rightly identifies this approach to Bible interpretation as an "inconsistent and conflicting double hermeneutic." So radical was the approach of the literalists that Hughes expressed "fear that the dispensationalist method of interpretation does violence to the unity of Scripture." Gerstner and others have commented that literal hermeneutics are not determinative of dispensational theology, rather dispensational theology determines its hermeneutic and does so inconsistently.

    Whereas certain literalists have claimed that O.T. prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ were all fulfilled literally, others have demonstrated this assertion to be false. Only 35% of such prophecies were literally fulfilled, the rest were typical or analogical fulfillments. Other inconsistencies are too numerous to mention, but have been abundantly documented by Allis, Berkhof, Bahnsen and Gentry, Cox, Crenshaw and Gunn, Fuller, Gentry, Gerstner, Grenz, Hoekema, Hughes, LaRondelle, and others.

These inconsistencies have caused many to distance themselves from dispensational literalism. Various "progressive dispensationalists" have rejected "as inadequate the strict literalist hermeneutic of earlier thinkers [and] no longer adhere to the sharp distinction between Israel and the church, but place both under the one program of God for the world. . . ." Others have rejected as "too simplistic" the literalism of their predecessors. This confusion over literalism has dispensationalists debating among themselves, searching for definition, and questioning the essentials of their system.

S. Lewis Johnson summarized the problem of rigid literalism as follows: "Failing to examine the methodology of the scriptural writers carefully, and following too abjectly and woodenly the limited rules and principles of human reason's presuppositions, we have stumbled and lost our landmarks along the pathway toward the understanding of the Holy Scripture. Scriptura sui ipsius interpres [Scripture is its own interpreter] is the fundamental principle of biblical interpretation."

* Posted with the kind permission of the author.