Volume 10, Issue 2: Eschaton
Dispensationalism and Literalism
In recent years, Dispensationalism has become an increasingly divisive factor in evangelical circles. All who accept the Bible as the Word of God and hold it to be the only infallible rule of faith and practice should be able to stand shoulder to shoulder in their opposition to Modernism and Higher Criticism. But, unfortunately, Dispensationalism introduces, and cannot but introduce, a cleavage which tends very seriously to undermine that solidarity and harmony with which Evangelicals
should face the assaults of skepticism and unbelief. Dispensationalists do not constitute a denomination, nor are they confined to any one denomination. They are found in practically all branches of Protestantism. They are earnest and zealous. But their beliefs as to Prophecy and the Church make cooperation difficult between them and those who do not regard their distinctive doctrines as precious "re-discovered truths," but hold them rather to be a serious departure from the historic faith of the Church as set forth in the Scriptures. The result is a situation that is deplorable. It is more than deplorable; it is dangerous.1
The Brethren Movement from which Dispensationalism derived its distinctive doctrines was at first characterized by great simplicity of teaching. The Brethren denounced the historic creeds of the Church as man-made "systems" and insisted that they alone were truly "subject" and "submissive" to the Bible as the Word of God. But they very soon developed a system which was as distinctive as any of the systems which they denounced. Their denunciation of all creeds and systems speedily came to mean no more than this, that all were false except their own; and their contempt for theology and theologians was simply due to the fact that in none of the historic creeds and theological systems known to them were the doctrines set forth which they held to be essential and which they claimed to have rediscovered, after they had been lost to view for centuries. This hostility to creeds was unfortunate. Had the Brethren been willing to test their new beliefs in the light of the history of the doctrine of the Church during nearly two thousand years, they might have been saved from serious errors. Unfortunately, Dispensationalists have inherited not a little of this regrettable prejudice.
One of the most marked features of Premillennialism in all its forms is the emphasis which it places on the literal interpretation of Scripture. It is the insistent claim of its advocates that only when interpreted literally is the Bible interpreted truly; and they denounce as "spiritualizers" or "allegorizers" those who do not interpret the Bible with the same degree of literalness as they do. None have made this charge more pointedly than the Dispensationalists. The question of literal versus figurative interpretation is, therefore, one which has to be faced at the very outset. And it is to be observed at once that the issue cannot be stated as a simple alternative, either literal or figurative. No literalist, however thoroughgoing, takes everything in the Bible literally. Nor do those who lean to a more figurative method of interpretation insist that everything is figurative. Both principles have their proper place and their necessary limitations.
There are at least three reasons why a thoroughly literal interpretation of Scripture is impossible: (1) The language of the Bible often contains figures of speech. (2) The great theme of the Bible is God and His redemptive dealings with mankind. God is a Spirit; the most precious teachings of the Bible are spiritual; and these spiritual and heavenly realities are often set forth under the form of earthly objects and human relationships. (3) [Interpretation of the O.T.] recognizes, in the light of New Testament fulfillment, a deeper and far more wonderful meaning in the words of many an Old Testament passage than, taken in their Old Testament context and connection, they seem to contain.2
The great danger in this method of interpreting Scripture is that it so often fails to distinguish between the clear teachings of the Bible and doubtful interpretations of it; and it tends to be dogmatic, even piously so, where caution and reserve are obviously needed. The great temptation to which the interpreter of the Word is constantly exposed is to invest his own interpretations of Scripture with the authority of Scripture itself, and to assert that those who do not accept his interpretation of God's Word reject God's holy Word itself. The temptation is especially great in dealing with the subject of prophecy. The dogmatism with which many writers on unfulfilled prophecy express themselves regarding things to come is deplorable. The facility with which they ignore the views of all who differ from them is inexcusable. And the finality with which they put forth their prophetic programs has a tendency to discredit the whole subject of prophecy in the eyes of thoughtful and judicious students of the Bible. We need to remind ourselves constantly that while the Word of the Lord standeth sure, our own understanding of that Word may be faulty and imperfect. We need to remember that we are not prophets, but only interpreters of prophecy and that, "The subject of prophecy is one that peculiarly demands, for its successful treatment, a spirit of careful discrimination. From the very nature of the subject, the want of such a spirit must inevitably lead to mistaken views, and even to dangerous results."3
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