Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 2: Prophetic Literature

This series, introduced in my last post, is about (big surprise!) dispensationalism and the interpretation of Scripture. The sorts of traditional views common among dispensationalists of various stripes include the following:

  • A belief in multiple "dispensations" or administrations of God's salvation or providence throughout history
  • A strict separation between Israel and the Church, God's plans for them, God's ways of dealing with them, and the Scriptures talking about them (and perhaps a strict separation between the covenant appropriate to each)
  • A very literal interpretation of biblical prophecy and a focus on a modern day return of the Jews to the land of Israel (thought by many to have been fulfilled with the founding of the modern state of Israel) and in some cases an eventual reestablishment of the temple and sacrificial system when Christ returns
  • A belief that the church is a kind of parenthesis in God's plans (more common among older versions) - the Jews being the real focus
  • Premillenialism (Christ will return bodily to earth and then visibly reign for a literal one thousand years before the Final Judgment)
  • Pretribulation rapture (the Church will be removed from the world with Christ's secret, invisible first Second Coming and taken to heaven - after which will follow seven years of very bad stuff called "the tribulation" during which an Antichrist will gain control of things)

Not every dispensationalist agrees with every one of these points in every detail (though I believe that all of them believe in the last two at least). Not everything I say in this series therefore will apply to every dispensationalist, though at least something will! To avoid having to talk about every kind, I'll stick to a version that subscribes to the theses above as I've written them - a kind of generic dispensationalism.

The topic of this post is about prophetic literature in general and how the dispensationalist Hermeneutic of the Literal goes wrong in interpreting such writings. The key idea here is that a presumption in favor of literal interpretation, when applied to such writings, is just plain wrong. Prophetic literature is a highly symbolic form of literature and it is often just as likely that a symbolic meaning was meant rather than a literal meaning. In some cases - apocalyptic, for example - the presumption is rather the other way around and one must presume that what is said is meant symbolically unless there is good reason to think otherwise. All of this is not a matter of preference but simply a matter of the kind of literature this is - literary genre and the conventions and uses for such a form of literature. To treat it otherwise is to ignore the genre and the conventional use to which language is put within such a genre. But once we recognize the genre and its conventions and the symbolic use of language within it, dispensationalism's house of cards quickly begins to crumble.

Here are just a small few of the key symbolic or otherwise interesting uses of language throughout the prophetic writings (and indeed used elsewhere in the Bible as well) which the dispensationalist hermeneutic generally simply does not take into account:

  • Fall, curse, slavery, exile, and final judgment are all spoken of in terms of each other and using symbolism derived from others. Similarly, creation, restoration, exodus, return from exile, and final vindication or justification are all spoken of in terms of each other and using symbolism derived from others.
  • Numbers are generally symbolic rather than literal (especially numbers like three, seven, ten, or twelve - or multiples thereof such as 144,000 or 1,000)
  • Imagery of grand cosmic events (like the eclipse or "the sky being rolled up like a scroll") are generally used to talk about earthly events - especially sociopolitical ones - that are of great theological or spiritual significance.
  • Prophecies are not always concerned with single events that are to happen all at once but often present us with a single vision which is really of multiple events that are to happen at different times - that is, prophecies are not necessarily always fulfilled completely all at once but one bit or aspect may be fulfilled at one time and another at another time. Indeed, prophecies or prophetic books are not necessarily even in any kind of chronological order at all (except perhaps for the chronological order in which the prophet saw his visions) and may even be speaking of the same event or sequence of events more than once within a text using different images or visions to get at the target in multiple ways.
  • Israel is spoken of as a vine, vineyard or olive tree. It is also spoken of as a woman, wife, or mother and as priests, chosen or elect, saints, a holy nation, God's son, God's anointed, etc.
  • The Messiah is spoken of using imagery or titles that apply to Israel (since, of course, the Messiah is the true Israel - Israel's representative and fulfiller of its destiny).

Previous posts in this series: Part 1

Further posts in this series: "Modern Israel and Biblical Prophecy", "The People of God, Israel and the Church" and "The Tribulation and Rapture"

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