In keeping with dispensationalist views on the completely separate dispensations, the Scriptures are said to have been given dispensationally, i.e., different passages of the Bible are directed to different dispensations. Unless one interprets each passage of Scripture dispensationally, one is in a hopeless quandary and can never expect to understand the Bible. Scofield (What Do the Prophets Say?, p. 9) offered 2 Pet 1:20 as a proof text for this method of interpretation. Having quoted the verse, Scofield went on to say,’That is, no prophecy is to be interpreted by itself, but in harmony with the whole body of prediction on any given subject.’
An examination of the verse in question will reveal that the interpretation placed on it by Scofield is equally as arbitrary as his so-called dispensations. Knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20,21). When the verse is examined in its setting it is soon discovered that Peter was not even speaking of how Scripture should be interpreted, but rather he was speaking of how prophecy was given. Whereas Scofield has Peter saying that ‘no prophecy is to be interpreted privately,’ what Peter actually said was that ‘no prophet wrote down his own private interpretations, but that he (the prophet) spoke only what the Holy Spirit moved him to write.’ Peter said this to indicate the authority of the Bible, not its interpretation.
Dispensationalists not only divide the Scriptures into seven compartments with relation to time, they also divide them according to the people being dealt with. They say that the Bible itself divides mankind into three distinct groups and then proceeds to address these groups separately. This theory is based on 1 Cor 10:32 alone. One verse of scripture, they say, may be addressed by the Holy Spirit to Gentiles, while the very next verse may be addressing Jews. It can readily be seen how difficult it is to rightly divide the Word of Truth dispensationally. In order to gain a correct understanding one would need to take all the individual verses of the Bible and assign each verse to one of three categories – Jew, Gentile, or Christian. If this be the correct method of dividing the Word, then someone could perform a genuine service by publishing the Bible in three separate sections! Dispensationalists in effect do so divide the Bible. Chafer (Dispensationalism, p. 34) teaches that the only scriptures addressed specifically to Christians are the Gospel of John (especially the upper room discourse), the book of Acts, and the Epistles!
Obviously, this arbitrary and reckless division of the Bible into three compartments is an attempt to minimize the place of the church and to elevate the place of national Israel in the Bible. One example of how they take passages historically attributed to the church and assign them to Israel can be seen in a statement by William L. Pettingill (Bible Questions Answered, p.112).
I have long been convinced, and have taught that the Great Commission of Matt 28:19,20 is primarily applicable to the Kingdom rather than to the Church … The Matthew commission will come into force for the Jewish Remnant after the Church is caught away.
Pettingill was an ardent defender of the Scofield Bible, and served as dean of the Bible school in Philadelphia, which was founded and presided over by C. I. Scofield himself. This group also taught that Christians ought not pray the Lord’s Prayer, since it was a Jewish prayer and was to be prayed by Jews in a later age.
Dispensationalists boast of literal interpretation of Scripture, and cast aspersions at those who ‘spiritualize’ some passages of the Bible. Charles C. Ryrie, President of The Philadelphia College of the Bible, says: (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 114, July, 1957, p. 254), only dispensationalism provides the key to consistent literalism (italics mine).
Writing in Bibliotheca Sacra (Vol. 113, number 449, January, 1956, p. 4), John F. Walvoord deals with the rapture mentioned in 1 Thess 4:16, and he contends that it is doubtful whether the Old Testament saints will be raised at that time. He goes on to say, ‘The tendency of followers of Darby to spiritualize the resurrection of Dan 12:1-2 as merely the restoration of Israel, thereby refuting its post-tribulationism, is to forsake literal interpretation to gain a point, a rather costly concession for premillenarians who build upon literal interpretation of prophecy.’
Here Walvoord makes two admissions:
- many dispensationalists do spiritualize when it is convenient for them to do so;
- dispensationalists, as a rule, build upon a literal interpretation of all prophecy, with men like Walvoord making no allowances at any point.
This is, of course, one of the many dilemmas in which the dispensationalist or Darbyite finds himself in dealing with prophecy. Either he must admit that some prophecies are to be taken in a spiritual manner, as Walvoord said many of his school are doing with Dan 12:1,2, or else he must say, with Walvoord, that there are no exceptions, but that all are to be taken literally.
Now, let us see where this latter alternative leads the dispensationalist. In the Old Testament, where they spend most of their time, the Darbyites cannot arbitrarily say: ‘Oh, but that passage was to the church, while this other one is to the Israelites.’ They can do this arbitrary maneuvering in the New Testament, but they have narrowed their own field in the Old Testament by insisting that the Christian church is not alluded to therein.
Isaiah prophesied that the mountains shall sing and the trees clap their hands (Isa 55:12). It this to be taken literally? In Mic 6:1 God invites his people to carry on a conversation with a mountain. Literally? In Joel 3:18 a prophecy is recorded in which God states that the mountains shall drop down sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk. Must this be taken literally, or was the Lord speaking figuratively? In Hos 2:18 God says that he will some day make a covenant for his people between the beasts of the fields, with the fowl of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground. Will this literally happen?
Daniel predicted that the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 would be accomplished by a flood (Dan 9:26). This did not happen literally. Was Daniel mistaken? Or did he not rather speak spiritually or figuratively and mean that the city would be flooded with the soldiers of Titus? This latter alternative did happen. The literal interpretation insisted upon by Walvoord would make the biblical account untrue!
Coming to the New Testament the strict dispensationalist still insists upon literal interpretations for each and every passage concerning Israel. Zechariah prophesied that Christ would stand on two mountains (Mount Olivet being divided in two).
And his feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be cleft in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south (Zech 14:4).
Surely this could not be the ‘same Jesus’ who was seen ascending up to heaven as recorded in Acts 1:11 and of whom it was said that this same Jesus would come in like manner as he was seen to go away. The body that our Lord had then would not be large enough to span two mountains. Now this is not an attempt to be facetious, and it is agreed by all that God is capable of giving Christ a body large enough to span two mountains with one foot resting on each mountain. Yes, this is possible, but it does not seem likely that God will make such a drastic change. And if the dispensationalist hastens to say that these passages are speaking of spiritual things, then he destroys his own argument.
A thoroughly literal interpretation of Scripture is impossible. To quote Dr. Allis:
The language of the Bible often contains figures of speech. This is especially true of its poetry. In Exod 14:21 Moses declares that the Lord caused the sea to go back by reason of a strong east wind. In his song of triumph Moses exultantly declares: and with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together (15:8). In 19:4, on the other hand, the Lord reminds Israel through Moses: I bare you on eagle’s wings, and brought you unto myself. No one with any real reverence for Scripture or adequate understanding of its teachings as a whole, would dream of taking either of the last two statements literally. In the poetry of Psalms, in the elevated style of prophecy, and even in simple historical narration, figures of speech appear which obviously are not meant to be and cannot be understood literally.
The great theme of the Bible is God, and His redemptive dealings with mankind. God is a spirit; and these spiritual and heavenly realities are often set forth under the form of earthly objects and human relationships. When Jesus said, Ye must be born again, He was not referring to a physical but a spiritual birth. When He said, Destroy this temple, He meant His body. When He said, He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life, He was speaking of a spiritual relationship in terms of the Old Testament type. Jesus’ Jewish hearers, being literalists, either failed to understand or misunderstood His words. Whether the figurative or ‘spiritual’ interpretation of a given passage is justified or not depends solely upon whether it gives the true meaning. If it is used to empty words of their plain and obvious meaning, to read out of them what is clearly intended by them, then allegorizing or spiritualizing is a term of reproach which is well merited. On the other hand, we should remember the saying of the apostle, that spiritual things are spiritually discerned. And spiritual things are more real and more precious than visible, tangible, ephemeral things (Oswald T. A-ilis, Prophecy and the Church, pp. 17, 18)
and as Barrows has well said:
The youthful student of Scripture should be reminded, first of all, that its figurative language is no less certain and truthful than its plain and literal declarations. The figures of the Bible are employed not simply to please the imagination and excite the feelings, but to teach eternal verities (E. P. Barrows, Companion to the Bible, p. 557).
As one studies the Scriptures and tries to rightly divide the Word of Truth, it seems evident that the following conclusions must be arrived at concerning the covenants and prophecies of God with his people:
Some were meant to be literal, others were meant to be spiritual; some were meant to be historical, others to be eschatological; some were addressed to natural descendants (national Israel), others were addressed to spiritual descendants (all believers; compare Gal 6:16). Our difficulties arise when students of the Bible (oftentimes sincerely) attempt to force a literal meaning into a spiritual prophecy, or an eschatological interpretation into a prediction which has been historically fulfilled already, or when they try to apply spiritual promises to natural Israelites to the exclusion of other nations.
It is theological pandemonium to attempt to take an ‘either-or’ approach to all scriptures. One must recognize both literal and spiritual descendants. Only then will one rightly divide the Word of Truth. To be sure, this requires intellectual honesty; and all of us should admit that we are not unequivocally certain on every point as to which is meant.
Although hyperliteralism is one of the basic teachings of dispensationalists, they by no means hold a monopoly on it. Many groups within the Christian faith have resorted to a hyperliteral interpretation of Scripture in order to gain their point.
We can best critize the literalists by saying that none really exist! Their greatest inconsistency lies in the fact that all of them at one time or another interpret some passages of the Bible in a figurative or spiritual manner. Let us begin with the leader himself. John Nelson Darby, who founded modern dispensationalism upon a so-called literal interpretation of the Bible, has left us the following statement, made while he was at the height of his popularity as one who interpreted the Scriptures (especially prophecy) literally.
The resurrection (in Dan 12:2) applies to the Jews… It is a figurative resurrection of the people, buried as a nation among the Gentiles. In this revival it is said of those who rise: Some to shame and everlasting contempt. This is what will happen to the Jews. Of those brought out from among the nations, some will enjoy eternal life, but some shall be subject to shame and everlasting contempt (The Hopes of the Church of God, p. 138, italics mine).
Let us look at another outstanding ‘literalist’ and just see how literal he really is. Oswald J. Smith, a Presbyterian pastor in Canada, is a world leader among dispensationalists. He is a prolific writer and lecturer on the subject. Smith says (When the King Comes Back, p. 3 1) in speaking of the Scripture writers: ‘Nor are we going to dishonor God by spiritualizing their utterances. We take themjust as they read (italics mine). Now his plain inference is that all who spiritualize passages of scripture dishonor God; and he states that he would be guilty of no such sin. The observant reader does not need to read far in this same book until, alas, the author contradicts himself and ‘dishonors God’ grievously. For on page 50 he says: ‘Always, everywhere, the BRANCH is Jesus Christ.’ Is this how Smith ‘takes the Scriptures just as they read?’ Why did not the prophets simply say ‘Jesus’ instead of ‘Branch’? Or else why did Smith not take the prophets’ words just as they were uttered? In order to have the Branch refer to Jesus, he must violate his own strict rule of literal interpretation. As the observant reader continues in this same book (p. 65 for example), he discovers that the author takes yet other liberties with the Scriptures, thereby violating his rule of literal interpretation; for on page 65 he says: ‘A mountain in prophecy is a kingdom.’ Is this literalism? It is from the pen of this leading spokesman for the school of literal interpretation. By taking the Scriptures ‘just as they read,’ this man derives the word ‘kingdom’ from the word ‘mountain.’ And from the word ‘Branch’ he derives the word ‘Jesus’!
Charles C. Ryrie is another dispensationalist who castigates other Christians for ‘spiritualizing’ Scripture, but then takes the same liberties himself as the occasion arises. He says (The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, p. 35): ‘The system of spiritualizing Scripture is a tacit denial of the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures which this author holds.’ Note that this blanket statement demands literal interpretation of all Scripture. Ryrie shows his inconsistencies on this dictum of literalism at many points in this same book. In chapter 3, on his rules of hermeneutics, he says: ‘The figures for which the figurative language stand have a literal fulfillment.’ He speaks also of the special principles of interpretation used by premillennialists in interpreting prophecy. In speaking of interpretation versus application, he says (p.42) ‘Literal interpretation allows wide latitude in making spiritual applications from all passages..’ On this same page this avowed ‘literalist’ says: ‘Although much of prophecy is given in plain terms, much of it is in figurative language, and constitutes a problem of interpretation.’ He goes on to say that there are different ways to apply this figurative language. ‘The use of types (by premillennialists) is perfectly legitimate as illustration of the truth though they should not be used to teach doctrine'(p.43). Then, on page 44, Ryrie says: ‘In conclusion it may be stated that in connection with the use of figurative language, the interpreter should not look for the literal sense of the words employed in the figure, but for the literal sense intended by the use of the figure’ (all italics mine). It is amusing indeed to have read, just a few pages before, that this man called any and all ‘spiritualizing’ a tacit denial of the Bible. Then he goes on to say that it is necessary for his school of thought to devise ‘special principles of interpretation,’ to determine when a doctrine is involved in a given passage, and even to decide what was ‘intended’ by each given writer’s language. This is literalism?
Examples could be heaped upon one another showing outstanding dispensationalists, like those mentioned above, who violate their own dictum of literalism. However, one last example must suffice at this time. On page 1009 of the Scofield Bible (note 1) we have a glaring example of the liberties taken in interpretation. The footnote has to do with chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel. That this entire chapter was addressed specifically to the twelve disciples there can be no argument. Chapter 10 begins with these words: And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples… Having called these disciples unto himself, our Lord gave them instructions for their personal ministry. Then, to prove to ourselves that the entire chapter was addressed to these twelve, chapter 11 begins with the words: And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples… So that, throughout chapter 10, Jesus is addressing his remarks to his twelve disciples. Scofield, however, as is typical of his entire collection of footnotes, looks into the mind Of Jesus and sees there many meanings which were not recorded anywhere in the Bible! For Scofield tells his readers that verses 16-23 of this tenth chapter of Matthew reach far beyond the personal ministry of the twelve disciples, covering the sphere of our Present age. And whereas Jesus, in verse 23, said specifically to his twelve apostles when they persecute you… Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel until I shall join you… Scofield says of this verse that Jesus really had in view the preaching ministry of a remnant of Jews who would be preaching during a time of tribulation after the church is raptured. And whereas the average reader would gain the impression that Jesus was saying (in Matt 10:23) that he would join his twelve disciples before their ministry had covered all the cities of Israel. Scofield informs his readers that this did not even refer to the ministry of those twelve – whom a literal reading would have Jesus addressing – but that it really refers to a group of Jews who will be preaching a different gospel after this present gospel period has closed. And is is by the pen of a man all of this is by the pen of a man who has done more, perhaps, than any other individual, to impress upon people that the Bible should be taken literally, ‘just as it reads’!