By Dr. Bruce K. Meyer[1. Dr. Meyer is Professor of Biblical Studies, Maranatha, and Adjunct Professor of Biblical Counseling, Maranatha Baptist Seminary.]
Throughout history, humanity has pursued knowledge about God, His world, and His plans for the world. Graciously, God has provided a revelation of His story, a revelation of His work and plans for His creation. Like any book, however, people can read the Bible in such a way to distort the message and the God of the Bible. Sadly, there have been many who have fashioned distorted teachings using the Bible to justify their bizarre beliefs and practices. Accurate interpretation of the Scriptures is the key to understanding Who God is and what He is doing. Therefore, who should set the rules for interpreting God’s Word? Certainly God has not left His creation to a hopeless state of uncertainty, never able to understand His self-revelation. It should be obvious to anyone seeking to understand a document that the author is the determiner of the intended meaning, since that person knows what he himself was thinking when he wrote the document. Stein writes,
[W]hat the author willed to convey by the linguistic symbols used (whether the symbols were Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin is immaterial) possesses a meaning that can never change. What a biblical author willed by his text is anchored in history. . . . What a text meant when it was written, it will always mean. It can no more change than any other event of the past can change, because its meaning is forever anchored in past history. [2. Robert Stein, “Who Makes Up the Rules,” Rightly Divided, ed. Roy Zuck (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 38 (emphasis added).]
The responsibility, therefore, of the biblical interpreter is to understand the sacred text as the author intended it to be understood. This is the nature of the debate between dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists—which system of interpretation best allows the text to speak with authorial intent, especially in prophecy?
Maranatha Baptist Bible College and Seminary is committed to dispensational hermeneutics because dispensationalism provides a hermeneutic that allows the text to speak for itself. Therefore, because of the essential characteristics that dispensationalism espouses, this hermeneutical system provides a superior interpretive template over covenantalism. The author will demonstrate this superiority by examining the importance of a dispensational interpretation, the definition and biblical use of the term “dispensation,” the essential characteristics of dispensationalism, and the relationship of the testaments in dispensationalism.
Importance of the Discussion
Often the author encounters individuals who believe dispensationalism is primarily concerned with eschatological issues. [3. Further, the author has encountered those who believe erroneously that all who hold to premillennial positions are dispensational.] While many of the implications of dispensationalism have shaped premillennial eschatology, the hermeneutical system shapes many other doctrines as well. Larry Oats, for example, has explained how the covenantal approach allows for evangelicals to justify their lack of ecclesiastical separation. [4. Larry Oats, “Dispensationalism: A Basis for Ecclesiastical Separation” (Conference on Baptist Fundamentalism, Watertown, March 2003).] Their reasoning is that since the nation of Israel existed with mixed conditions, then the church today will exist with a mixture of true and false. [5. Edward Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 136.] Although for different reasons, even Ryrie acknowledges this tension stating, “[n]ot only has the dispensational teaching concerning the church been the subject of controversy, but also the ramifications of that teaching in ecclesiastical life have been attacked.” [6. Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 123.]
Additionally, denominations associated with covenantal positions have for some time practiced infant baptism, since, in their view, New Testament [NT] baptism has replaced Old Testament [OT] circumcision as the sign of the covenant for believers in this age. [7. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 633.] Bromiley states that baptism is “a covenant sign (like circumcision, but without blood-shedding), and therefore a sign of the work of God on our behalf which precedes and makes possible our own responsive movement.” [8. Geoffrey Bromiley, “Infant Baptism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 117.] Therefore, baptism places the child into a covenant relationship with God as he awaits regeneration. [9. Berkhof, 287–8.]
Many nouthetic counseling authors incorporate covenantal concepts in their writings. Frequently, such authors comment that believers are “covenantal” creatures and that they have a “covenantal relationship” with God. Such a focus would be somewhat acceptable if those authors were referencing only the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 in which believers participate, but they are in fact referring to the covenant of grace. [10. Ibid., 633. Berkhof defines this covenant as: “that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience” (277). This covenant furthermore forms the basis for the particular or limited atonement position so prevalent in covenant theology (278).]
In addition to these beliefs, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has recently sided with Arab nations against the nation of Israel regarding middle-eastern policy, since, in their theology, the church has replaced Israel and God has annulled His promises to Israel. [11. Elwood McQuaid, “Presbyterians Come Out of the Closet,” Israel My Glory (Nov/Dec 2004), 12.For further explanations of these positions, see Gary Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2003).] Ergun Caner, a converted Muslim, explains that he is often the object of anger from Christians because of his personal support of Israel. [12. Ergun Caner, “The MBBs’ (Muslim-background believers) ‘Dirty Little Secret,’ ” Israel My Glory (Nov/Dec 2004), 8–10.] Such a position is based upon a replacement theology, that is, the church has replaced Israel and all the promises of the Old Testament, since conditional, have been invalidated. [13. Ibid., 10.]
These examples illustrate a crucial point: dispensationalism is concerned about the accurate interpretation of Scripture resulting in both a solid theology and a sound practice. Wrong interpretation leads to a wrong theology and a wrong practice. Dispensationalists disagree with these theological perspectives because they are founded upon a wrong hermeneutic.
The Definition and Biblical Use of “Dispensation”
The Greek word for “dispensation” occurs nine times in the NT and refers to the activity or function of a steward. [14. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. and augmented by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2nd ed., ed. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 559. This word is also used in Luke 16:2–4; 1 Cor 9:17; Eph 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col 1:25; and 1 Tim 1:14.] The term implies that an authority has required a particular responsibility of a steward, an accounting of that responsibility, and a re-evaluation of the relationship based upon faithfulness to the responsibility (Luke 16:1–2). Burggraff explains:
The world is seen as a household administered by God in connection with several stages of revelation that make up the different economies in the outworking of his total program. These economies are the dispensations in dispensationalism. Thus from God’s viewpoint a dispensation is an economy; from man’s it is a responsibility to the particular revelation given at the time. In relation to progressive revelation, a dispensation is a stage within it. [15. David Burggraff, “Determining Our Place in the World: A Growing Difficulty for Modern Dispensationalism,” National Leadership Conference, Feb. 2003, Lansdale, PA., 2–3.]
Various scholars have defined dispensationalism as:
- “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” [16. C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), 5.]
- “a stage in the progressive revelation of God constituting a distinctive stewardship or rule of life.” [17. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes, rev. John Walvoord (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 126.]
- “. . . a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose.” [18. Ryrie, 28.]
- “. . . [a dispensation] simply refers to an administrative arrangement in the plan of God. . . . Dispensationalism as a theological system attempts to discuss the nature and relationship of the different administrative arrangements within God’s plan, ‘to rightly divide the Word of God.’ It seeks to explain how the Bible fits together.” [19. Darrell L. Bock, “Charting Dispensationalism,” Christianity Today (12 September 1994), 27.]
Do the biblical authors, however, use the term “dispensation” in the sense that is different from the dispensational usage as some covenantalists argue, namely as God giving a specific stewardship to man? Paul not only recognizes this usage but he also uses the word in this sense in three contexts. First, Paul speaks of “the dispensation of the fullness of times” in Ephesians 1:10. In the context, Paul stresses the doxological culmination of God’s plans in the millennial kingdom. This passage is significant for the millennial debate, since Paul identifies the “fullness of times” as taking place within history, rather than during the eternal state. Furthermore, the apostle explains that God will gather all things together in Christ at that time. Therefore, the text explains both the timing (“the fullness of times”) and the purpose (“gather together in one all things in Christ”) of the millennial rule of Christ. Hoehner confirms this interpretation in explaining:
Hence, the “times” are completed when Messiah rules. This [Luke 21:24] is analogous to Eph 1:10, for the mystery of this will is made known according to his good pleasure which he purposed in Christ for the administration of fullness of the “times,” which is that future promised in the OT, . . . discussed in the Gospels, . . . not fulfilled at Christ’s ascension, . . . and hoped for by the church. . . . Therefore, the fullness of time refers to the future unification of all things under the headship of Christ. It does not primarily refer to the present church age but the future messianic age. That will be the time of restoration and harmony under one head. [21. Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 219, 225.]
Second, Paul speaks of the present “dispensation” in Ephesians 3:2, 9. Here, Paul contrasts the present dispensation of the church with the previous dispensation of the law. Therefore, Paul is demonstrating the change that has occurred in this dispensation (Jew and Gentile in one body) contrasted with that of the law (a Gentile became a Jew first). [21. Ibid., 424.] Furthermore, Paul also highlights the progressive nature of revelation as he now has the responsibility to share this formerly hidden truth (“mystery”) with believers. The apostle recognizes both the need for biblical distinctions in God’s economy and the progressive nature of revelation.
These three passages frame two important considerations concerning dispensationalism. First, dispensationalists are not reading the idea of “dispensations” into the text, since Paul mentions three distinct stewardship arrangements. Second, although Paul mentions only three dispensations, he does establish a key concept in the Scriptures that allows for more. The distinctions in God’s dealing with man throughout the OT would argue for the necessity of more dispensations, but are not absolutely necessary for one to be a dispensationalist. [22. Ryrie, 47.] Additionally, conservatives use other terms that do not appear in Scripture, yet those theological concepts are valid. [23. The theological terms “Trinity” and “rapture” for example.] One should note, however, that the definition of the term “dispensation” and its use in the NT do not define what dispensationalism is as a system. These definitions merely establish the functional concepts within the system. [24. John Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 69.]
The Essentials of Dispensationalism
There are additional reasons why dispensationalism is indispensable. These form the sine qua non of dispensationalism—the essential features. [25. The author is presenting the sine qua non in an atypical order, from the more general to the specific.] First, dispensationalism provides a framework (structure) for understanding God’s plan as it unfolds within Scripture (a philosophy of history) that centers in God’s glory. [26. For a thorough treatment on philosophy of history, see Ramesh Richard’s three-part series, “Premillennialism as a Philosophy of History,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Jan–July 1981): 13.] Without careful thought, some may be inclined to believe that the Bible is merely a collection of stories and teachings that take up space until one can get to the really big story of Jesus. On the contrary, the Bible is one grand story of God’s plan for His created world.
Dispensationalism provides an interpretive grid that organizes the stories and teachings into a unified whole, a philosophy of history that endeavors to understand temporal history as culminating in a purposeful conclusion (the millennial reign of Christ as highlighted in Eph 1:10). The seven dispensations explain how God’s work is progressing towards a final goal in the kingdom as illustrated in the following table. Since God gave His revelation progressively in history, He reveals His purpose for history through that revelation in conjunction with the biblical covenants throughout the OT. This overall framework highlights God’s doxological purpose in history, rather than merely a soteriological purpose. This broader purpose recognizes not only God’s work with redemption, but also with non-believers, nations, kings, Satan, and nature.
Covenant theology also recognizes the need for these distinctions through biblical history. Charles Hodge, a covenant postmillennialist, lists four dispensations (his term): Adam to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to Christ, and the Gospel. [27. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997 reprint of 1872 edition), 2:373–77.] Berkhof, a covenant amillennialist, describes two dispensations: the old and the new. Oddly, Berkhof recognizes the need to “subdivide the [old covenant] into several periods or stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace” reminiscent of the dispensational understanding. [28. Berkhof, 292.] One should note that the use of the term “dispensation” does not necessitate that person is a dispensationalist.
The covenantal grid, however, does not allow for sufficient dispensations to satisfactorily explain God’s plans in various epochs, since there are obvious differences between what God was doing with Noah then Abraham then Israel and now with the church. A covenantal philosophy of biblical history focuses upon three covenants: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. [29. Renald Showers, There Really Is a Difference (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990) provides a thorough analysis of the validity of these covenants, 7–18.] VanGemeren explains: “Reformed Theology wholeheartedly embraces the covenantal structure of our relationship with God. God is in covenant with mankind as he is with all of creation.” [30. Willem VanGemeren, “Systems of Continuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 60. One should question how the non-elect fit into this covenant relationship.] These three covenants relate to the historical structure of Scripture, but fail to provide a purposeful goal within temporal history besides redemption. As VanGemeren confirms,
[T]he covenantal structure also helps us to uncover our relatedness to Israel in the past, to understand man’s place in God’s creation, to enjoy the Father’s presence and guidance in the history of redemption, the oneness of salvation in the mediator Jesus Christ with both Israel under the Old Covenant and the church in the New Covenant, the ministry of the Spirit of God in transforming our lives. The covenantal structure encourages openness to God and his world and encourages the Christian community to look toward the closure of this age and the renewal of heaven and earth. [31. Ibid.]
As evident from this statement, the amillennial system, the most popular covenantal position, positions God’s victory outside of temporal history in the eternal state. Allis, an amillennialist, writes:
Such a picture of an ideal age raises only one serious difficulty. It is whether the Bible and especially the New Testament predicts or allows for such a period of blessedness before the eternal state is ushered in, or whether the picture given to us by Isaiah is a description of that eternal state itself under earthly forms and images. [32. Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1945), 237.]
Furthermore, according to the covenantal position, rather than Jesus manifesting a righteous reign in the millennium, He “reigns” in the hearts of believers now. Satan is already bound in the sense that he cannot deter the gospel. The unifying historical principle for covenant theology is soteriological—the covenant of grace (as illustrated in the following chart). As Johnson clarifies, “[i]t is not that the Reformed tradition ignores the glory of God but simply does not identify the theme as an interpretive key in canonical interpretation.” [33. Elliott Johnson, “Prophetic Fulfillment: The Already and Not Yet,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis and John Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 198.] Therefore, covenantalism views the promises pertaining to Israel in spiritual terms rather than physical, since redemption becomes their primary focus. If redemption lies at the heart of God’s work, there is no room, nor need, for promises relating to the physical realm.
The second essential of dispensationalism is the consistent application of a literal hermeneutic. Ryrie stated in 1965 in his ground breaking book, “[c]onsistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures.” [34. Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1965), 46.] Bernard Ramm, the “classic” among hermeneutics authors, describes a literal interpretation at length:
We use the word “literal” in its dictionary sense: “. . . the natural or usual construction and implication of a writing or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of words; not allegorical or metaphorical” (Webster’s New International Dictionary). We also use it in its historical sense, specifically, the priority that Luther and Calvin gave to literal, grammatical, or philological exegesis of Scripture in contrast to the Four Fold Theory of the Roman Catholic scholars (historical meaning, moral meaning, allegorical meaning, eschatological meaning) developed during the Middle Ages and historically derived from Augustine’s Three Fold Theory. It was particularly the allegorical use of the Old Testament that the Reformers objected to, and the manner in which Roman Catholic dogma was re-enforced by allegorical interpretation. Hence the “literal” directly opposes the “allegorical.” [35. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 119.]
It is quite significant that the Reformers were quick to identify the error of allegorical interpretation in the Roman system, but retained the practice in their own hermeneutic for prophetic genres. With regard to symbols and figurative language, Ramm writes:
All secondary meanings of documents depend upon the literal stratum of language. Parables, types, allegories, symbols, figures of speech, myths and fables presume that there is a level of meaning in language prior to the kind of language this kind of literature is. The parable of the sower is understood only within the context of literal “farm” language. The symbolism of a lion is based upon what is asserted about lions in literal speech. . . . In that all non-literal statements are “take-offs” from the more original, more primitive literal language, then the literal exegesis is the point of departure in all interpretation, Biblical or extra-Biblical. [36. Ibid., 124.]
Therefore, a literal interpretation allows for figures of speech and metaphors, but insists upon contextual markers that would indicate the use of metaphorical language. [37. Elliott Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 194–5, lists several contextual clues: explicit contextual statements, conflicting imagery, and juxtaposition of images.] Daniel, for example, describes the fourth beast as having ten horns (Dan 7:23). The text explains that the ten horns are ten kings (Dan 7:24) and that the beast is the fourth kingdom on the earth (v. 23). God uses symbols, but He identifies those symbols for readers through textual indicators. Ryrie clarifies the issue in saying:
Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. [38. Ryrie, 80–1.]
He adds further that “to be sure, apocalyptic literature does employ symbols in prophecy, but they stand for something actual.” [39. Ibid., 87 (emphasis added).] The covenantal view that one symbolic word can represent an unrelated symbolic concept leads to a more subjective interpretation that lacks contextual justification. Ramm cautions, “[t]o rest one’s theology on the secondary strata of meanings is to invite interpretation by imagination.” [40. Ramm, 125.] It is this author’s belief that the amillennial position is one remaining “carry-over” from the Catholic Church that the Protestant Reformation has yet to jettison, although covenantalists have made modifications that would distinguish their system from Catholicism.
Ice clarifies the difference between a literal interpretation and the interpretation of metaphorical language when he explains:
The church will not be substituted for Israel if the grammatical-historical system of interpretation is consistently used because there are no indicators in the text that such is the case. Therefore, one must bring an idea from outside the text by saying that the passage really means something that it does not actually say. This kind of replacement approach is a mild form of spiritualized, or allegorical, interpretation. So when speaking of those who do replace Israel with the church as not taking the Bible literally and spiritualizing the text, it is true, since such a belief is contrary to a macroliteral [textual] interpretation. [41. Thomas Ice, “Dispensational Hermeneutics,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis and John Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 32.]
Ice is highlighting the two senses in which dispensationalists use the word “literal.” The first use of the word literal is what Johnson calls “microliteralism.” [42. Ibid., 33.] This use of the word focuses upon whether one understands a word or phrase to be literal as opposed to a figure of speech. This would be the sense one would apply to the phrase “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Common usage, or “historical interpretation,” demands that the reader understand that expression as a figure of speech (unless there exists an actual glutinous person who is especially partial to equestrian delicacies). The literal meaning to that saying is that one is extremely hungry (a macroliteral interpretation) rather than some other spiritual meaning foreign to the expression. An allegorical interpretation might look something like this: the word “hungry” speaks not of a physical hunger, but a spiritual hunger as evident in David’s hunger for God. Horses in Scripture are metaphorical for that which is unclean, since Israel often purchased horses from Egypt (a picture of the world). Therefore, the expression indicates that a person possesses a spiritual hunger for that which is worldly and unclean. The blatant misuse of metaphor in this example is obvious, since people use the expression in everyday use to communicate extreme physical hunger. The context argues against a spiritualized meaning.
Ice’s macroliteralism refers to the “system that views the text as providing the basis of the true interpretation” of a text. [43. Ibid., 32 (emphasis added). Ice uses definitions provided by Elliott Johnson, 9.] One can diagram these distinctions as follows:
Therefore, a text always has a literal meaning, but the text may use figures of speech or symbols to communicate that meaning. Even when Paul deliberately uses symbolism (or allegory) in Galatians 4:21–31, he provides textual indicators that explain his intended meaning: law = slavery to the flesh (bondwoman, flesh, Mount Sinai, Hagar [Ishmael], Jerusalem [vv. 22–25]) and Spirit = freedom from sin (freewoman, promise, Jerusalem above, Isaac [Sarah] [vv. 26–30]). These symbols have a literal meaning that Paul explains throughout his text. Feinberg rightly identifies the fallacy within the covenantal system in noting that the system’s “objection fails to recognize the difference between kinds of language (figures of speech, plain language, e.g.) and methods of interpreting language.” [44. Feinberg, 74.]
In Revelation, for instance, the text has a literal meaning (macroliteralism), whereas the text may also contain figures of speech (microliteralism) to convey the meaning. Likewise, when God promises “land” to Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jews correctly understood God to mean land as “physical property” or “territory” rather than “spiritual blessings” because of God’s promises beginning in Genesis 12. For the nondispensationalist to insist that the term “land” in the NT is now metaphorical for “blessings” to all believers, he must have some contextual basis for making that claim. In other words, God must have imbedded in the text a marker, a clue that He is now speaking metaphorically, since He had previously used “land” for centuries to mean literal land. The burden of proof falls on the covenantalist to demonstrate the annulment of the promises rather than the dispensationalist to show they have not been annulled.
Covenantalists employ a literal approach selectively, resorting to an allegorical approach in prophecy (“land” equals “blessing” or “Christ’s throne” equals “the believer’s heart”). Ramm states that allegorical interpretation is “the interpretation of a document whereby something foreign, peculiar, or hidden is introduced into the meaning of the text giving it a proposed deeper or real meaning.” [45. Ramm, 223.] Covenantalists, however, argue that their hermeneutic views such statements as metaphors. Oswald Allis remarks:
[W]hat may be called the popular and naïve idea of a millennium is derived largely from such a passage as Isa[iah 11]. It is to be a golden age, when the “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” when none shall “hurt or destroy,” when the earth shall be “full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” [46. Allis, 236.]
Such a picture of an ideal age raises only one serious difficulty. It is whether the Bible and especially the New Testament predicts or allows for such a period of blessedness before the eternal state is ushered in, or whether the picture given to us by Isaiah is a description of that eternal state itself under earthly forms and images. [47. Ibid., 237 (emphasis added).]
The covenantal explanations of key millennial passages are not without problems. Isaiah 65:17–25, for example, contains images that neither fit the church age nor the eternal state. Isaiah describes a scenario in which death is rare (v. 20), a description that rules out the possibility that this passage describes the church age. The second half of the verse, however, is especially problematic for the amillennial position. Here, Isaiah states that a person who dies at age one hundred is viewed as a youth and the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. This statement eliminates the eternal state as the interpretation, since there will not be any death then. God is saying more than “there is no death then.” He is allowing for the possibility of death to occur, but also indicating that death, especially at an early age of one hundred will be exceptional. This statement certainly cannot refer to the church age, since living to one hundred is not the norm now either.
Even clearer than the former passage, Zechariah 14 contains elements that cannot refer to the eternal state (unless one spiritualizes). In verses 16–19, God warns those who would choose not to participate in the Feast of Tabernacles would experience drought and plagues. The amillennial interpretation argues that this reference teaches no such rebellion will exist in the eternal state. [48. Thomas McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in An Exegetical & Expository Commentary on the Minor Prophets, ed. Thomas McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 3: 1242.] This interpretation overlooks the level of specificity with which God warns the potential rebels. Zechariah records three verses of explanation detailing the punishment for those who fail to participate. There is more included in this text than merely a metaphorical description of the absence of rebellion.
In an effort to explain the features of Revelation from an amillennial position, Anthony Hoekema provides a good example of a “metaphorical” interpretation:
Obviously the number “thousand” which is used here must not be interpreted in a literal sense. Since the number ten signifies completeness, and since a thousand is ten to the third power, we may think of the expression “a thousand years” as standing for a complete period, a very long period of indeterminate length. . . . we may conclude that this thousand-year period extends from Christ’s first coming to just before his Second Coming. [49. Anthony Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 161. One should wonder in what way this is obvious. Furthermore, this author believes that if the church is currently in the millennium, as the amillennialists believe, then the church has great cause for disappointment. Only if one interprets the lion and lamb imagery to be, say, Lutherans and Presbyterians living in unity, can an individual say these conditions are currently present.]
In explaining the binding of Satan in the abyss during this period, Hoekema explains:
The word Abyss should rather be thought of as a figurative description of the way in which Satan’s activities will be curbed during the thousand-year period. . . . During the gospel era which has now been ushered in, Satan will not be able to continue deceiving the nations the way he did in the past, for he has been bound. . . . We conclude, then, that the binding of Satan during the gospel age means that, first, he cannot prevent the spread of the gospel, and second, he cannot gather all the enemies of Christ together to attack the church. [50. Ibid., 161–62.]
If it is true that Satan is bound at this moment and, as Hoekema claims, that he is no longer able to gather all the enemies of Christ together, then for what purpose does God loose Satan at the end of this amillennial church age? Amillennialists stumble over the loosing of Satan at the end of the millennium, but fail to provide a good answer for why God would loose him at the end of their “church age.” The “metaphorical” or allegorical interpretation of the nondispensationalist fails to answer many of the specifics of many passages. A literal interpretation allows the text to speak in a normal way without creating the dilemmas of the amillennial position.
Third, dispensationalism allows for biblical distinctions between Israel and the church, arising from a consistently literal hermeneutic. The church has not supplanted nor merged into Israel, but rather Israel remains a nation not just a people in which God will work in the future (Rom 9–11), drawing them to salvation in Christ. [51. Robert Saucy, “Israel and the Church: A Case for Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 245.] Dispensationalism understands the church is an organism composed of people from all nations, both Jew and Gentile alike, but limited to those believers from the beginning of the church (Acts 2) to the Rapture. [52. Although God uses the term “assembly” with reference to either Israel or the church, one should not confuse a common trait (a group that assembles) as a common identification that links the two. To share a common characteristic does not demand that the two are one-in-the-same. God also uses the words “assembly” and “congregation” for the wicked (Ps 22:16; 26:5; and Jer 9:2; 15:17).] The genesis of the church at Pentecost is supported by the institution of Spirit baptism which had not occurred yet in Acts 1:5. Although Acts 2 does not mention Spirit baptism occurring at Pentecost, Acts 11:15–16 does. This new institution is the mystery of which Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:11–3:7. In fact, Fruchtenbaum demonstrates that the word “Israel” in the NT refers overwhelmingly to an ethnic group, not to the church. [53. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, “Israel and the Church,” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis and John Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 118–20.] Covenantalists argue that since there is one program in God’s work (redemption), there is but one people of God. This position habitually cites Galatians 6:16 as linking Israel and the church. Grammatically, the kai in this passage and the context of the book eliminate the possibility that Paul is equating the church with Israel. [54. Ibid., 123]
Non-dispensationalists see the church as existing throughout the OT into the New. Berkhof describes the covenantalist’s view of the church in different dispensations—the patriarchal period, the Mosaic period, and the NT period. He adds: “At the time of the flood the Church was saved in the family of Noah, and continued particularly in the line of Shem. . . .” During the Mosaic period, “the whole nation constituted the Church; and the Church was limited to the one nation of Israel. . . .” [55. Berkhof, 570–72.] During the NT dispensation, Berkhof claims,
The New Testament Church is essentially one with the Church of the old dispensation. As far as their essential nature is concerned, they both consist of true believers, and of true believers only. And in their external organization both represent a mixture of good and evil. . . . In connection with this the national boundaries of the Church were swept away. What had up to this time been a national church now assumed a universal character. [56. Ibid., 571.]
What is fascinating about the covenantal view of the church is that covenantalists are so willing to combine the NT terms for the church with the OT terms used for Israel when there are essential differences between the structure of Israel and that of the church. At the same time, however, these same interpreters refuse to make the connection between millennial motifs in Revelation 20 and the OT concepts that foreshadow the millennium. [57. Ibid., 699.]
The implications of this hermeneutic are serious. If Israel has merged into the church, there is no temporal or eternal future for Israel as a nation, contrary to Romans 11. Second, many of the prophecies in Scripture are meaningless for the nation, but have rather strange implications for the church. Exactly when does the church experience the strange and extreme events of Revelation in the history of the church? Better still, when does the church experience the wonderful millennial characteristics covenantalists claim for today? Third, as observed earlier, if the church has replaced Israel, then one can make the case that separation is nonessential. Fourth, if these interpretations are correct, then the interpretation of the Scripture becomes an exercise in subjectivity.
Continuity and Discontinuity in the Testaments
At the crux of the arguments between the literal and the allegorical interpretations is the question of how to use the OT in light of the NT. Furthermore, this is one of the most difficult topics in the study of hermeneutics. Covenantalists see more continuity between the testaments (Israel becomes the church and baptism continues circumcision as the covenantal mark), whereas dispensationalists see more discontinuity (the church is a new program). Feinberg clarifies the justification for a discontinuity position when he states: “Talk of continuity between the Testaments seems misguided with so much apparent discontinuity within each Testament.” [58. Feinberg, 63.] Feinberg’s statement highlights the distinctions within the various biblical epochs, distinctions that dispensationalism endeavors to respect. The issue that causes the debate between covenantalists and dispensationalists, however, is the question of how the Testaments relate. Paul Feinberg frames the debate this way:
It is difficult to think of any problem that is more important or fundamental than the relationship between the Testaments. There are two Testaments; no one questions that. How do they form one Bible? In evangelical, fundamental circles traditionally two answers have dominated the scene: Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. Regardless of what one thinks of these approaches, they should be seen as serious attempts to answer this question. Not uncommonly the relationship between the Testaments resolves itself into how one ought to interpret the OT. It deals with the history and institutions, as well as predictions about the future, of the nation of Israel. How do these matters relate to the church which is a multi-national body? Is the church spiritual Israel, and thus heir to her promises? Or are the church and Israel distinct, each with a separate future? Or does the truth lie somewhere between these apparent extremes? [59. Paul Feinberg, “Hermeneutics of Discontinuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 111.]
While Feinberg thinks the truth lies somewhere between what he considers to be two extremes, his statement serves well in identifying the complexity of the problems surrounding this issue.
Because of the size and importance of this topic, this paper is not able to address the details of the debate, but the author seeks to outline the main issues. This paper has already discussed the merits of the grammatical-historical approach to biblical literature, regardless of the Testament one is approaching. [60. This issue is where the contemporary debate hinges between traditional and progressive dispensationalists, a topic outside of the scope of this paper. The traditional view states that a prophecy, for example, has only one meaning and that the NT does not alter that meaning. The progressive view, what progressives call a complementary hermeneutic, holds that a later reading may “deepen” or “enhance” the meaning of an OT prophecy, but does not change the meaning. See Elliott Johnson and Darrell Bock, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism, ed. Herbert Bateman (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999) for a comprehensive comparison of dispensational views.] But the question of interpretation takes on a slightly different form in this debate. Covenantalists argue that “the New interprets the Old.” [61. Bruce Waltke, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 264.] This NT priority drives the amillennial position, viz., that God has annulled the kingdom promises of the OT, since He does not repeat them in the NT (an evident argument from silence). Berkhof’s comment illustrates this covenantal tendency when he writes, “Prophecies should be read in the light of their fulfilment, for this will often reveal depths that would otherwise have escaped the attention. The interpreter should bear in mind, however, that many of them do not refer to specific historical events, but enunciate some general principle that may be realized in a variety of ways.” [62. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1950), 153.]
Covenantalists argue that dispensationalists hold an OT priority. The author disagrees with this assessment, however, since the dispensationalist begins with the OT and endeavors to understand the progress of revelation into the NT (cf. the trajectory between Daniel and Revelation for example).
Dispensationalists maintain that an OT passage stands on its own. The text possesses a meaning that the author intended before God provided the NT. Therefore, no one has the right to alter that meaning based upon later revelation, unless the NT specifically states the annulment of a particular OT teaching (ex. Torah). Later revelation may expand information that helps the reader understand the events of previous revelation (such as the tribulation or kingdom), but the meaning of the text should remain the same because of authorial intent. Therefore, the “‘fulfillment’ cannot contradict the original meaning of a prophecy in its historical context.” [63. Charles Dyer, “Biblical Meaning of ‘Fulfillment,’” Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis & John Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 70.] Otherwise, the OT text was meaningless to readers until such time when God gave the NT “commentary.”
A second issue pertains to OT prophecies and what constitutes fulfillment. NT authors use OT texts in different ways; not always are they indicating a prophetic fulfillment. In some cases an author may use the OT prophecy as a parallel to the NT events. Matthew’s use, for example, of Hosea 11:1 is not a “fulfillment” in the sense of the English word, since Hosea’s reference is to the Exodus redemption of Israel from Egypt, a historical account rather than prophecy. Matthew’s purpose in citing Hosea is to show the ways in which Messiah has accomplished (“fulfilled”) what Israel was unable to do successfully. [64. Ibid., 54–5. Dyer supplies a useful table that lists the comparisons between Israel and Messiah.] Archer and Chirichigno argue that Hosea is using the Exodus deliverance as a prophetic type that finds meaning in Christ’s “exodus” from Egypt. [65. Gleason Archer and Gregory Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament (Chicago: Moody, 1983), 147.]
This passage illustrates one of several different ways authors use the word Bauer lists six senses for this word as follows: (1) make full, fill (as in an object or space) with content, (2) of time, fill (up), complete a period of time, reach its end, (3) bring someth. to completion, finish someth. already begun, (4) fulfill, by deeds, a prophecy, an obligation, a promise, a law, a request, a purpose, a desire, a hope, a duty, a fate, a destiny, etc., (5) complete, finish, bring to an end, and (6) complete a number. [66. Bauer, ] Even a cursory glimpse of these senses reveals that the Greek word has a broader semantic range in the New Testament than does the English word “fulfill.” Dyer states that less than one-third of the occurrences of in the New Testament fit the sense of prophetic fulfillment (#4 above) and, therefore, an interpreter should not assume that every time the word appears, a prophecy has been fulfilled. [67. Dyer, 53.]
Such is the problem that lies behind the debate concerning Joel 2/Acts 2 and Amos 9/Acts 15. Covenantalists argue for a fulfillment to support their replacement theology. Dispensationalists argue either for analogy or two referents. A correct analysis of a fulfilled prophecy will include both an accurate understanding of the original prophecy and a one-for-one correspondence with the NT passage, the latter of which is missing in both these examples. [68. Ibid., 70.] How then should the interpreter understand passages in which the word “fulfilled” appears? Zuck lists the following ways writers use the OT:
- To point up the accomplishment or realization of an Old Testament prediction
- To confirm that a New Testament incident is in agreement with an Old Testament principle
- To explain a point given in the Old Testament
- To support a point being made in the New Testament
- To illustrate a New Testament truth
- To apply the Old Testament to a New Testament incident or truth
- To summarize an Old Testament concept
- To use Old Testament terminology
- To draw a parallel with an Old Testament incident
- To relate an Old Testament situation to Christ [69. Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton: Victor, 1991), 260–70. Zuck provides examples for each of these.]
A third issue for this problem is the question of the human author’s understanding of what he wrote. This issue cuts to the heart of interpretation versus fulfillment, that is, the sense or meaning versus referent. Paul Feinberg explains these concepts:
The sense of a sentence is roughly equivalent to its meaning, and the reference of that sentence to the object or state of affairs referred to. . . . I think that predictions in the OT had a sense, and that sense was determinate. It was known to the author and to those who heard or read what he had to say. If sense was lacking or not intelligible, then it is difficult to see how the utterance could have been a revelation of any kind in its original context. [70. Paul Feinberg, 117–18 (emphasis added).]
Feinberg’s explanation highlights two important observations. First, the text itself reveals meaning without the further explanation of later passages, or else the revelation was not a revelation at all. Second, there is a difference between the immediate meaning and the subjective or objective referent. Moses and Israel understood the protoevangelium, for example, was predicting a coming deliverer who would come from the woman, while the identification of the seed (and other details) remained a mystery. The NT presentation of the seed, however, remains consistent with the OT prediction.
It is here that views over one’s hermeneutic will become sharply divided. Dispensationalists would argue for a single intent of the author. Therefore, an OT prophecy has a singular sense and the text carries that meaning. Covenantalists argue for the sensus plenior (double intent) or “fuller sense.” This methodology answers why the covenantalist can read the church into prophecies concerning Israel, since a “fuller sense” can reinterpret the Old Testament on that basis. Nondispensationalists justify their sensus plenior position on the basis of two passages: 1 Peter 1:10–12 and Daniel 12:6–9. They argue that these two passages show the prophets did not always understand the revelation they received. In both cases, however, the prophets were not seeking further information about that which they spoke, but rather were curious about the timing of the events. [71. Ibid., 115.]
The interpretation of Scripture is critical to an accurate understanding and application of theology. Without a hermeneutic that seeks the message God intended, the Word can fit almost anyone’s personal agenda. Because dispensationalism endeavors to respect the distinctions between the Testaments, maintains essentials of a normal interpretation, uses the concept of a biblical dispensation in a biblically consistent way, and recognizes the theological problems associated with non-literal hermeneutics, dispensationalism provides a superior interpretive template over covenantalism.