Dispensationalism: Taking the Bible “Literally”?

Dispensationalism: Taking the Bible “Literally”?

One characteristic for which Dispensationalists ought to be commended is their commitment to taking the Bible seriously. In a society full of theological liberalism, many Dispensationalists have long been a voice of truth, maintaining a firm commitment to biblical inerrancy, a historical-grammatical hermeneutic, and the historicity of the Genesis creation account. In these regards, all Christians should stand together.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

By “taking the Bible literally,” Christians usually mean that we ought to take scripture as it was originally intended by the author to his audience in the context and genre in which it was written. In principle, we all agree. In practice, however, the Dispensationalist smuggles in a presupposition from his system: Whenever a passage in the Old Testament records a prophecy concerning Israel, the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy must be fulfilled by a nation comprised of the ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From where does this presupposition come? The Israel-Church distinction, an essential and defining feature of Dispensationalism.

John Nelson Darby is considered the father of Dispensationalism and modern Futurism. His writings are credited with the first published conception (1830) of the continual distinction between the two peoples of God: Israel and the Church. Darby learned these ideas from Edward Irving, who drew primarily on a 500-page volume titled “The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty” (La venida del Mesías en gloria y majestad) by a Chilean Jesuit named Manuel Lacunza, later printed under the Jewish pseudonym Rabbi Juan Josephat ben-Ezra. Like many Jesuits of his day, Lacunza’s Futurist interpretations were in line with the 16th-century Counter-Reformation, aiming to relieve pressure from the Pope, whom the Reformers labeled Antichrist. Once Darby accepted these interpretations, they became the Christianized version of the Jewish Messianic hope which puts the emphasis on ethnic Israel ruling more than on the Messiah ruling. 1

Having this Israel-Church distinction concept as essential to his system, the Dispensationalist cannot accept any interpretation of Old Testament prophecy concerning Israel which finds its fulfillment in the Church. To do so would be “allegorizing” or “spiritualizing” the text. This interpretive framework poses a problem for several reasons: (1) Israel has always been a spiritual identity, not an ethnic one 2; (2) veering from the Historical-Grammatical hermeneutic, the Dispensational framework arbitrarily discards the prophetic genre of apocalyptic literature; (3) it inconsistently applies a “literal” hermeneutic this genre full of imagery and symbolism; and (4) examples we see in how the New Testament authors interpreted such passages do not fit the framework at all. In this article, we will focus on the last problem.

“In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,”
declares the Lord who does this. Amos 9:11-12

When asked how and when this prophecy will be fulfilled, the Dispensationalist says that it will occur during the thousand year earthly reign of Christ, wherein the temple will be rebuilt and the nations will be required to travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice in the temple once more. That is consistent with the Dispensational understanding of the millennium, but it is inconsistent with how the apostle James uses the passage:

And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,                                                                   says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’” Acts 15:12-18

James’ interpretation is that the prophets agree that God would take a people for his name, yet he cites a passage which is discussing the rebuilding of David’s booth. He is not taking it literally at all. A literal interpretation is actually impossible since the descendants of Edom were all destroyed (Obadiah 1:18). Rather, James’ point is that the rebuilding of David’s booth is the inclusion of the Gentiles which Edom symbolized.

Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” -Hosea 1:10

and I will sow her for myself in the land.
And I will have mercy on No Mercy,
and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’;
and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23

This prophecy is given regarding the restoration of Israel, says the Dispensationalist. Following the context from chapter 1 all the way through chapter 2, God is condemning Israel’s wickedness, foretelling judgment for that wickedness, but then including the hope that though she be punished now, she will in the future be restored as God’s wife. The Dispensationalist must maintain that this refers to the future restoration of ethnic Israel, but that is not how Paul and Peter interpret it:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” Romans 9:22-26

Paul quotes the passage which referred explicitly to Israel as proof that Gentiles are called as well as Jews. Peter uses it the same way:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10

Language so often used of Israel in the Old Testament is here applied to the Church, along with the same reference that Paul uses. The apostles did not take these passages “literally,” as the Dispensationalist would have it.

I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! Psalm 22:22-23

Psalm 22 is well-known as a Messianic Psalm, yet in the context it seems pretty clear that David is referring to the congregation of Israel is this verse, the Dispensationalist would have us believe. It must be fulfilled in Israel, right? But the author of Hebrews does not use it that way at all:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying,

“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” Hebrews 2:10-12

The many sons brought to glory are believers in the Church. The word “brothers” is the term used throughout the New Testament to refer to brothers and sisters in Christ. The word “congregation” is the same word for “church.” Why would the author of Hebrews apply this passage to the church if it refers to Israel? It seems he is not taking it “literally.”

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34

Even the Dispensationalist would recognize this passage pertaining to the New Covenant made with Christ and the Church, yet the text explicitly says it was with Israel that this covenant would be made. Again, the author of Hebrews applies this to the Church as being fulfilled, not awaiting some future reality:

But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:6-13

Noteworthy among Dispensational interpretations is the necessity of Israel being restored to the land. They cite the Abrahamic Covenant as being unfulfilled and awaiting future fulfillment in ethnic Jews returning to the physical land in Palestine:

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” Genesis 12:18-21

Covenant Theologians have pointed out that this promise was fulfilled when Joshua conquered Canaan:

“And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.” Joshua 23:14

If we take this literally, it is irrefutable that the land promise was fulfilled, especially in the context (having just conquered the land). Yet the Dispensationalist will object that since Israel currently does not occupy all the land they were promised, the fulfillment is to be in the future. But when we come to the book of Hebrews, the author seems to “allegorize” this promise, arguing for a superior spiritual reality:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11:8-16

While Abraham was clearly promised a physical land, he realized that the true fulfillment was in the city of God. The author is not simply “allegorizing” or “spiritualizing” the promise of God but also suggesting that Abraham did the same. What then is this city of God which Abraham looked forward to?

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24

The believers in the Church have come to Mount Zion? They have already arrived at the city of God? We are in the heavenly Jerusalem now? But you’re allegorizing the text! Mount Zion is a literal mountain in a literal Jerusalem, and the city is a literal city in a literal land. Unfortunately for the Dispensationalist, that is not what the author suggests at all. A truly literal reading understands these things as present spiritual realities, typifying the consummation, resurrection, and the eternal state, but nevertheless remaining today as a fulfillment of the promises which the Dispensationalist demands be fulfilled otherwise.

In conclusion, the presuppositions brought to the Old Testament by the Dispensationalist simply do not fit with the way the New Testament authors interpret them. As Christians, we want to interpret prophecy the way the apostles interpreted them. We cannot assume a rigid literalism when the author does not intend it, otherwise we end up believing in seven-headed sea monsters, fire-breathing dragons, giant fireproof women, and the blood-covered Savior flying through the sky on a horse shooting a sword out of his mouth. Most Dispensationalists inconsistently “allegorize” and “spiritualize” these visions, missing the irony in the process. The accusation cuts both ways. It is not spiritualizing or allegorizing the text to understand symbols to be symbolic. When a New Testament Jewish writer uses Jewish poetic imagery so common to Jewish prophetic literature, we should understand these symbolically, searching the Old Testament for parallel language to understand the full meaning rather than assuming a 21st-century Western literalism that even we are not consistent with. When Jesus said, “I am the door,” no one ever asks: “Where are the hinges?”

Also check out Dispensationalism: A Brief History and Critique of Darbyism

  1. For more information, read The Death of the Church Victorious, by Ovid Need Jr.
  2. See my other article on Dispensationalism here
Colin Pearson
Colin is a music teacher at a charter school in Canyon Country, CA. He likes long walks on the proverbial beach with his cat, and debating theonomy with wookiees.
  • Perfect response to Dispensationalism.

  • pkananen

    I am not a dispensationalist, although I share some beliefs in common with them.

    Your analysis of the NT authors’ usage of OT passages doesn’t reflect the Jewish exegetical subtleties that the authors were very comfortable with. This is known as Pardes, the 4 levels of Jewish exegesis. Oftentimes the NT authors would use an OT passage in midrashic fashion, or in a missiological or exhortative context. This does not diminish the literal meaning of the text, and to attempt to frame the author’s intent so as to neutralize or extinguish the literal meaning is incorrect and damaging to God’s word.

    • Colin Pearson

      I don’t accept your premise—that the NT authors were borrowing stylistic devices from uninspired authors. This is, at its very foundation, a humanistic presupposition, which implicitly denies Verbal Plenary Inspiration in favor of a Hegelian “organic” approach (i.e. Pantheism). The text of the NT is the very words of God, not the words of man PLUS the words of God. Thus, God borrows no “Jewish exegesis” from anyone, if such a thing truly exists. You will find that modern critical scholars agree with your allegations, but I reject such liberal theology.

      • pkananen

        You’re asserting this is an instance of liberal theology when I’m actually advocating for maintaining the literal meaning of the text, while you are rejecting it. I believe that makes your reading more liberal than mine.

        You are framing my premise incorrectly. This is not an instance of NT authors “borrowing” stylistic devices. They were thoroughly Jewish, and they employed very Jewish literary approaches. There is no need to borrow something when you are part of the culture and tradition. This is not a matter of academic opinion, it’s verifiable by comparing how they wrote about the OT with other non-canonical Jewish sources. For example, the parables that Jesus told were known to his Jewish audience, and variants of his parables are repeated in non-Christian Jewish material in the century before and after his life. Consider also Hebrews 11:19 – most Christian commentary doesn’t understand the parable being talked about in the text, but the readers would have understood the midrashic parables of the Akedah.

        In any case, you are attempting to discredit the literal meaning of these passages by viewing the NT authors’ employment of the passage in a non-literal way as the only interpretation. You can’t do this without ignoring the Jewish context of the authors, and how they understood the OT in multiple levels of depth. Do not forget that the apostles continued to fully follow Torah, including participation in Temple worship.

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