By Jack Van Deventer
Literalism is considered by many a test of
only hermeneutic by which one may correctly interpret and understand
Dispensational premillennialists who reject other eschatological views
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
writes, "I am a dispensationalist because dispensationalism generally
understands and applies Scripture--particularly prophetic Scripture--in
that is more consistent with the normal, literal approach I believe is
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
presents itself. Nowadays, the use of the world "literal" by
dispensationalists tends to mean the opposite of "figurative." This
to deny figurative interpretations is pursued so aggressively that some
dispensational literalism is more properly described as
The conviction of a
literalistic approach to Bible interpretation can lead to a spiritual
leading to a feeling of infallibility. One man noted, "As a former
dispensationalist I was mesmerized with the literal hermeneutic, the
which we interpreted the Bible. I was satiated with the confidence that
principle of interpretation was the cornerstone of any true approach to
Scripture, and paraded it before all as the bedrock of the
method. This `literal' approach produced in me a calm lethargism to
the covenant men could say. Any argument they could make was disarmed
advance with such statements as this: `They do not advocate a literal
grave danger that literalism can inadvertently be regarded as a higher
of truth than the Bible itself. Rather than allowing Scripture to
Scripture, the Word of God is sifted through a literalistic filter on
theological presupposition that God shuns figurative prophetic
The New Testament is full
examples where people erred by failing to recognize Jesus' use of
language. When Jesus spoke of the temple of His body (John 2:21) the
in thinking of a physical temple and sought His death on the basis of
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).
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
literalists are stunned by the glaring inconsistencies of that system.
Allis notes, "While Dispensationalists are extreme literalists, they
very inconsistent ones. They are literalists in interpreting prophecy.
the interpreting of history, they carry the principle of typical
to an extreme which has rarely been exceeded even by the most ardent of
allegorizers." One of the most influential early dispensationalists,
Scofield noted that the prophetic scriptures should be interpreted with
"absolute literalness" while "historical scriptures have an
allegorical or spiritual significance." LaRondelle rightly identifies
approach to Bible interpretation as an "inconsistent and conflicting
double hermeneutic." So radical was the approach of the literalists
Hughes expressed "fear that the dispensationalist method of
does violence to the unity of Scripture." Gerstner and others have
commented that literal hermeneutics are not determinative of
theology, rather dispensational theology determines its hermeneutic and
Whereas certain literalists
that O.T. prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ were all
literally, others have demonstrated this assertion to be false. Only
such prophecies were literally fulfilled, the rest were typical or
fulfillments. Other inconsistencies are too numerous to mention, but
abundantly documented by Allis, Berkhof, Bahnsen and Gentry, Cox,
Gunn, Fuller, Gentry, Gerstner, Grenz, Hoekema, Hughes, LaRondelle, and
many to distance themselves from dispensational literalism. Various
"progressive dispensationalists" have rejected "as inadequate
the strict literalist hermeneutic of earlier thinkers [and] no longer
the sharp distinction between Israel and the church, but place both
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
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.