Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Trouble with "Literalism"

One of the chief reasons that many are drawn to Dispensationalism is because of their commitment to the Scriptures. Dispensationalists claim that their system can be deduced from the plain interpretation of Scripture.

Specifically, Dispensationalists contend that a “literal” hermeneutic is required to properly understand the Scriptures. The application of “literalism” is a notorious problem, and it has been rightly criticized as “so-called literalism,” “wooden literalism,” and “inconsistent literalism.” However, there is a far more serious crisis with regard to the foundation of Dispensational “literalism.”

The problem is that the Dispensational hermeneutic is not based upon the exegesis of Scripture. “Literalism” is a presupposition, a philosophical pre-commitment. In fact, Dispensationalists routinely teach that one should not look to the Bible to obtain sound interpretive principles.

Matt Waymeyer recently wrote an article called “Don’t Try this at Home: Today’s Interpreter and the ‘Apostles’ Hermeneutic.’” While the NT use of the OT can be a thorny issue, and Waymeyer does raise some valid concerns, his conclusion is that we should not even attempt to find interpretive principles in how the NT writers used the OT. Hence, the warning in the title is “Don’t try this at Home.” Other Dispensationalists have argued the same thing.

This is shocking. Dispensationalists routinely argue that Scripture ought to be our standard for everything, except for interpretive principles. The Dispensational hermeneutic is not derived from Scripture itself.

“Literalism” is a philosophical presupposition. Thus, the ultimate foundation of Dispensationalism is not the Scriptures themselves, but philosophy. This philosophical principle of “literalism” is then used to interpret the Scriptures, which produces many of the distinctively Dispensational doctrines (e.g., a future Jewish millennium). These doctrines appear to be Scriptural, but they are arrived at using interpretive principles that are foreign to Scripture.

While the application of “literalism” is a notorious problem, the foundation of “literalism” is even more deeply flawed.


David said...

Eric, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, but I strongly disagree.

You have been caught in a notorious web of humanistic philosophy that asserts that certain if not most ideas are the product of man's noetic innovations. Literal communication and understanding is not "a philosophical pre-commitment" at its root. It is an ontological-instinctual precommitment. We find this ontological precommitment to literal understanding beginning with God's instructions to Adam in Genesis 1 & 2. People use language this way instinctively, naturally. Literal interpretation is required to properly read and understand the Scriptures, because it is divinely implanted to understand communication this way, and it is the most objective way to understand the Scriptures; though, none of us will ever interpret Scripture perfectly.

What intepretive pre-commitment do you advocate if not literal?

It is inherent in every person to communicate and understand comminucation literally. You demonstrated that ontological pre-commitment with your blog. You expected your readers to read and comprehend your comments literally. Or did I come with the wrong presupposition?

David Diez, TMS (1995, 1998)

Eric Adams said...

David, thanks for your concern. I am not at all arguing against literal communication. The blog entry was about the roots of the Dispensational hermeneutic and how
NT writers do not use "literalism" to interpret the OT (I used quotes in an attempt to distinguish Dispensational "literalism" from literal communication). I have much more to say about this in future blogs, Lord willing.

Paul Lamey said...


Greetings and blessings Eric, we had Hebrew together!

Waymeyer, myself and Randy McKinion have been furthering this discussion at Expository Thought Blog for the last few days. It's obvious from this post that you disagree with those of us who deny adopting a apostolic hermeneutic but surely you realize that such is not unique to dispensationalist (e.g., Kaiser, Moo, Longenecker). I can say for those of us writing this series we are driven by what we see exemplified in the text not by a system. I say this because "dispensationalism" and "covenant theology" are terms guys use in the blogosphere to talk past one another without discussing the text of Scripture. Please feel free to join the discussion and give us your feedback.

Eric Adams said...

Paul, I think we also suffered through Greek together. Those were the days! I'll check out your website. Thanks.

Brett said...

Hey David Diez,

To interpret the Scriptures "literally" simply means to interpret them as literature. The wonderful thing about Scriptural literature is that it self-interprets at enough points (over many authors, centuries, and genres) to give us fairly robust hermeneutical paradigm. Denial of this paradigm is not objective literalism, it is anti-literalism because it dismisses the signals within the literature itself.

This is the chief failure of dispensationalism - it approaches the OT with a naive / one-dimensional perspective that dismisses the NT interpretive paradigm.

Now just to be clear, I am totally postmillenial - so we both agree that amillenialism is overly symbolic. Dispensationalism is not the corrective to amillenial hermeneutical pitfalls - postmillenialism is. The church is the New Israel, but we fully expect the redemption of ethnic Jews as well.

Pax Christi,

Brett Bonecutter
aka, "The Boneman"

Mark said...

Romans 2:28 says, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical." Here we are plainly told that God does not consider a person a Jew just by the fact that he was born an Isreali. God is literally telling us in this verse that, in His eyes, being a Jew is a spiritual matter: "a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit".

Read that phrase again, using the literal hermeneutic. "A man..." that must be referring to... a man. The word "" must mean "is." Pretty easy so far. "a Jew" means a human being of Jewish descent. Hmmm. In the previous verse God just got done telling us that he doesn't consider a person to be a Jew just because that person has Jewish ancestors. God thinks a person is a Jew if...if... "he is one inwardly". Oh no!!! God broke the rules!!! He's spiritualizing! Doesn't He realize He's getting himself caught in a notorious web of humanistic philosophy? This can't be happening! Let me read this again.

"A a Jew if..." Ok, stop. So far in this sentence I can see that Paul is about to give me an ontological formula.

"Hey Paul, how can I tell if a man is a Jew?"

The answer: "he is one inwardly".

Wait. Here we go again with the spiritualizing thing. I must be reading this wrong. Let me ask the question another way. "Hey Paul, tell me how I can tell if a person is NOT a Jew."

"A man is not a Jew if..."

ok, before you go on, just let me make sure we're all on the same page. You're about to literally tell me how I can literally understand if a person is literally not a Jew. Ok, go ahead.

"A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical."

OK, hold on, you're doing it again!!! Are you trying to tell me that a person born to Israeli parents isn't a Jew? What kind of jibberish are you speaking, buddy? I can't believe what I'm hearing. Are you going to tell me that being circumsized doesn't matter?

"circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit"

Oh great. I knew you would do that. Don't you see what you're doing, Paul? By spiritualizing God's definition of a Jew, you're clouding up my whole eschatological picture. If God only considers people with circumcised hearts are Jews, then who is he going to draw back into the land? How are we going to get a temple rebuilt? What's going to happen to Left Behind sales? Hal Lindsey couldn't have been so wrong, could he? And what about the notes in my Ryrie study bible? If only God would interpret the word Jew in a consistent, literal fashion!!! If He only knew how crazy all biblical interpretation will get if all prophecies are not fulfilled literally. Doesn't he remember how he did it in the Old Testament? Everything was fulfilled literally back then. That was back in the good old days when words meant something. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I read these comment, especially David's and sincerely think that TMS should provide a better foundation in philosophy of science, starting from Wittgenstein and Popper. The concepts you are using are all derived from philosophy of language and heidegger, which is absolutely useless! Forget hermeneutics, which is a collection of sophisms, it is all a question of axioms and rules. Clearly, as it was noted, the NT authors interpret the OT with a lot of liberty, and so did all the church fathers in the early church.
Can we do the same? Let us apply 1 samuel 2:9: by strength no man shall prevail also in understanding and interpreting Scripture; it all depend from the Lord opening our understanding; read Psalm 119:27 why does it say: teach me your statutes, make me understand the way of your precepts? It is the Lord, not human philosophy that we should rely upon.
in Christ
Galeazzo Scarampi
New York