The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism

During my first year of seminary, I took a hermeneutics class which required me to read two books: Let the Reader Understand by Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton and Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy Zuck. Although I was largely ignorant of the various controversies in the field of hermeneutics at the time, I was quickly introduced to two distinctly different approaches to interpreting the Old Testament:

 

  • Approach #1: “To understand the OT properly, it must be read in the light of the NT” (McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand, 48).
  • Approach #2: “Recognizing the progress of revelation means that the interpreter will be careful not to read back into the Old Testament from the New” (Zuck, Basic Bible Intepretation, 73).

What struck me then (as it does now) is how the first approach insists that we do precisely what the second approach warns us not to do. Hardly a subtle contrast. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the first approach is generally taken by covenant theologians, whereas the second approach is characteristic of most dispensationalists.

 

The reason this came to mind is that I just stumbled across a blog article by a recent transfer to Westminster Theological Seminary who describes how the hermeneutics of covenant theology were misrepresented during his previous time at a dispensational seminary. Unfortunately this new convert to covenant theology inadvertently returns the favor by misrepresenting dispensationalism as a child of the Enlightenment. He writes:

 

The dispensational method of interpretation actually began in the Enlightenment when exegetes who denied the inspiration of the Scriptures, and therefore denied a complete canon, interpreted each individual text solely in light of its original context. No later revelation could be used to interpret a particular text because the Bible is not inspired and has no inherent unity. God cannot use later revelation to shed light on earlier revelation because God did not write the Bible, so says the Enlightenment. For some reason dispensationalists, some of the staunchest defenders of the inspiration of Scripture, have adopted this Enlightenment hermeneutic.

 

In reality, the dispensational approach to reading the Old Testament has nothing to do with the Enlightenment and everything to do with the perspicuity of Scripture. Put simply, if the OT cannot be understood apart from the light of the NT, the original readers of the OT were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises. This is an utter denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In my understanding of the nature of Scripture, God’s intention was to reveal truth in His Word, not conceal it. For this reason, I have a difficult time adopting a hermeneutical approach which says, in effect, that much of the Old Testament was intended to be an indecipherable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.

 

In the end, the main problem I have with the hermeneutics of covenant theology is that “shedding light on earlier revelation” often means reinterpreting the Old Testament in a way that completely alters the meaning of the passage in its original context. It’s one thing for a NT passage to bring a clearer understanding of an OT passage by providing more details or by fitting more pieces into the overall puzzle. But it’s quite another to use the NT to completely change the meaning of the OT as communicated to its original audience. The former is the necessary task of every theologian; the latter is a rejection of the perspicuity of the Old Testament.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chuck on October 16, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    Is this not what Paul did in Eph. 5:32: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

    Meaning…”all along we were unaware of the purpose of marriage until now – to physically represent Christ’s relation to the church. Now we know what it means when it says ‘the two shall become one flesh.'”

  2. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 16, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    Chuck: Thanks for stopping in. I wasn’t sure if we had any readers left. In response to your point, I would say that Ephesians 5:32 certainly brings a clearer understanding of marriage by setting forth its ultimate and previously unrevealed purpose (i.e., marriage is a symbolic representation of Christ’s relationship with the church); but in doing so, it does not completely change the meaning of Genesis 2:24. In fact, this is a good illustration of what I meant when I wrote this in the original post: “It’s one thing for a NT passage to bring a clearer understanding of an OT passage by providing more details or by fitting more pieces into the overall puzzle. But it’s quite another to use the NT to completely change the meaning of the OT as communicated to its original audience.” It seems to me that Ephesians 5:32 is a good example of the former, not the latter. Blessings.

  3. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 16, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Put another way, if one of the original readers of Genesis 2:24 had been able to live long enough to see the writing of Ephesians, he wouldn’t have come to Ephesians 5:31-32 and discovered that Genesis 2:24 actually meant something totally different than what it communicated to him in its original context.

  4. Posted by Juan on October 16, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    you still have readers! So keep up the good work!

    Juan

  5. Posted by Lew Miller on October 17, 2008 at 5:16 am

    Subjects like this draw me to read your site. Please do continue on these issues.

  6. Posted by Mike King on October 17, 2008 at 5:48 am

    Matt, I read your blog fairly regular. Thank you. I especially like this kind of stuff along with believer’s baptism stuff.

  7. Yes,

    I also come to your site all the time. Keep up the good work. I can also recommend the book “Continuity and Discontinuity” edited by John S. Feinberg.

  8. Posted by Gary on October 17, 2008 at 11:05 am

    I also want to chime in here and thank you for your recommendation recently of the book by Vlach, “Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths.” I ordered it right away and was greatly helped by it. It is short, but very meaty. Short is good.

    I have been studying hard on this issue for a couple years now, and I can relate to not really understanding covenant theology by reading dispensationalists only. Dispensationalists often do not present their own system clearly, much less covenant theology. Vlach is the clearest presentation I have read of the essential issues.

    We all read from the NT back into the OT. It is unavoidable, and that is not the defining issue at all.

    One of the points which Vlach clarified for me is the issue mentioned in this post. You talk about “completely changing the meaning.” For me, this is not clear enough (even though I understand now what you mean, and agree with you).

    When Paul says that a believing Gentile like me can be the “seed of Abraham” because I “belong to Christ” (Galatians 3:29), this to me is a “complete change of meaning,” and a “spiritualization of the text,” supposedly big no-no’s for dispensationalists. For in the original account, the “seed” is his physical offspring. There is indeed ambiguity and mystery packed into the word “seed,” which I’m not convinced even Abraham saw. If he did see it, he probably had his own private revelation which is not recorded in the text of Genesis.

    So it doesn’t bother me to say that Paul “completely changed” the meaning. I can still be dispensationalist and say that. The issue, to me, is that Paul did not *contradict* the original meaning. The original meaning was (is!) completely true, but Paul is supplying extra information. The extra information is so profound, that it “completely changes” the original, without contradicting it.

    Your explanation of Genesis 2:24 in light of Ephesians is very clear and helpful. How much it “changes the meaning” is a subjective call. But we can definitely say there is no contradiction.

    Gary

    p. s., I am subscribed through Google reader. :)

  9. I always appreciate your posts and do read them often. I would like to chime in on a couple of points.

    1. First, can you to define the perspicuity of Scripture, by including theological development or the expansion of meaning of OT text by other OT and/or NT texts as a necessary component into this definition?

    2. Secondly, how do you incorporate the doctrine of the progressive nature of revelation in how we should interpret the OT? Is the New Testament revelation of Christ the fullest expression of revelation? And if so, should not the New Testament control our interpretation of OT Texts (allowing for the expansion of the original meaning which was the original authorial intent of the passage)? For example, James in Acts 15 does this very thing by expanding the interpretation of the Prophecy of Amos 9. While Amos (9:12) prophesied the physical conquest of the Davidic rulership over the remnant of Edom, James translates this political-military kingship into Christ’s higher, spiritual conquest and reign over the hearts of gentile believers. Amos’ phrase ‘so that they may possess the remnant of Edom’ becomes in Acts 15:17, ‘that the remnant of men may seek the Lord.’”

    3. Thirdly, it would be great to help others see how proper Biblical interpretation realizes that The Jesus Christ and his Church are the focal and terminating point of all prophecy. Is this not the Biblical presupposition if we are to preach all of Scripture as Christian Scripture?

    Hans K. LaRondelle states this most clearly in his book, “The Israel of God in Prophecy” (page 8): “The Christian understanding of the Old Testament is determined by the Christocentric focus by which the New Testament writers interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. Therefore it is essential for a Christian to discover the principles and procedures according to which Christ and His apostles understood and expounded the writings of Moses, the Psalms, and the Hebrew prophets. Otherwise he is in grave danger of reading the Old Testament prophecies in an unchristian way and hence of misinterpreting and distorting the biblical prophecies simply by not interpreting the Old Testament by the New Testament key. The Old Testament is no longer the last word on end-time prophecies since the Messiah of prophecy Himself has come as the last Word. The New Testament has been written as the ultimate norm for the fulfillment and interpretation of Israel’s prophecies. A Christian would deny his Christian faith and Lord if he reads the Old Testament as a closed entity, as the full and final message of God for Jews irrespective of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, and apart from the New Testament explanation of the Hebrew writings”

    4. Fourth, the New Testament serves as the ‘lexicon’ of the Old Testament’s eschatological expectation. In a nutshell, the Old Testament anticipates realities which are unpacked and explicated by the apostolic writings from the vantage point of salvation in Christ. Isn’t this Christ-Centered hermeneutic a presupposition that we all share?

    5. Fifth, is it possible that you may misunderstand OT understanding, and may impose a meaning contrary to the original authorial intent when you say “If the OT cannot be understood apart from the light of the NT, the original readers of the OT were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises. This is an utter denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament.” Are you not mischaracterizing a view because you don’t understand it? I see prophecy characteristically cast in terms of the limited understanding of the person to whom it was given. That is to say, the language of prophecy is conditioned by the historical and cultural setting in which the prophet and the people found themselves. The fullness of the progressive nature of revelation is found in Christ and the NT. I don’t know of any conservative scholar who would say that the original readers were “left in the dark (an even misled).” Can’t one believe that prophecy depicts the future in terms which make sense to its present? In other words, doesn’t Scripture clothe the purpose of God in the hopes and fears of its contemporaries?

    Those are some of my perspectives on this issue and I hope that they help further the dialogue that is so important over Biblical Theology.

  10. Posted by Peter Brock on October 17, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    This link (http://www.bbc.edu/council/) should shed some light on some basic dispensational interpretive issues. The council met just last month.

  11. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 17, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Juan, Lew, and Mike: Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll pass it on to our other contributors via email since most of them don’t even read the blog anymore. (That’s right Rich and Chris, I’m talking to you!)

    John: I highly recommend “Continuity and Discontinuity” as well, especially Feinberg’s chapter “Systems of Discontinuity.” Thanks for mentioning it.

    Gary: Good thoughts. It’s a struggle to know how exactly to describe what is taking place in the hermeneutical process. I probably need to tighten my wording and be more precise. Thanks for pressing me in that direction. In addition, as Paul Lamey recently reminded me, not all dispensationalists would follow the approach that I’m advocating here. I’m glad to hear that Vlach’s book was helpful to you. I think it surpasses even Feinberg’s chapter in terms of clarifying the issues.

    Glenn: Unfortunately I won’t have the time to address each of your points. But in light of your concern that I don’t understand the approach I’m critiquing, let me give you an example of the kind of thing I’m referring to. In one of the key promises of the New Covenant in the OT, Ezekiel 36:16-38 prophesies the restoration of Israel in which the nation will be not only spiritually transformed by the Holy Spirit but also brought back into the very land from which she was dispersed. According to Ezekiel 36, God will bring about this restoration in order to vindicate His holy name which had been profaned by Israel among the nations during the dispersion. Any interpretation of Ezekiel 36:16-38 which denies that this will happen is an example of completely changing the meaning of the passage. In addition, if Ezekiel 36:16-38 predicts something other than the restoration of Israel to the land in fulfillment of the New Covenant, then the original audience of this prophecy was indeed left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promise. I think many of our other differences on this issue (which are reflected in your other points) can be traced back to the fact that I don’t accept the presupposition that the NT writers were always interpreting the OT passages they cited. If you look under the “Hermeneutics” category on the right, you can find articles here at Expository Thoughts where we have addressed this issue in more depth. Thanks for chiming in.

    Peter: Thank you for the link. I look forward to checking it out.

  12. [...] Matt Waymeyer has some thoughts on the Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism [...]

  13. [...] Thisis another great post by Matt Waymeyer about dispensationalism.  I’ve read more about dispensationalism lately than ever and I’m very excited by the topic thanks largely to thispost by Matt Waymeyer a few weeks ago.  [...]

  14. Posted by Scott Christensen on October 18, 2008 at 1:29 am

    Matt,
    As always your thoughts on the matter are clear, articulate and to the point. They always help to clarify my own thinking. Thanks!

  15. Matt, thank you for the post. I’ve already sent a couple people to dip their feet in the hermeneutical waters you stirred up. And, to be clear, by referring to “waters,” I’m speaking figuratively, and not with any thoughts of regeneration or covenant significance.

  16. Posted by Chris Pixley on October 18, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks, Matt. Great post. I haven’t forgotten about you yet!

  17. Posted by Rod on October 20, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for the post Matt! I’m looking forward to hearing from you on baptism at The Cornerstone Seminary’s Winterim Session.

  18. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 22, 2008 at 9:55 am

    Scott: Glad to be able to distract you from that debacle on Monday night. I didn’t see the game, but I heard that your Broncos only had nine players on defense, or at least that they looked like it. Painful. Can they turn it around?

    SKH: Being a dispensationalist myself, I take everything literally and therefore have no idea what you mean by this “speaking figuratively” that you refer to. Can you explain?

    Chris: Nor have I forgotten you. Which reminds me, I’m looking forward to that 17-part blog series on the eternal decrees of God that you mentioned in your recent email. Does that start on Monday? I can’t remember.

    Rod: I was just preparing for the class earlier this morning. Looking forward to seeing you in January!

  19. While at Hannibal-LaGrange College my Hebrew and Old Testament professor would often cover passages in the OT and reiterate what the original author and reader would have meant by the passage, rather than just inserting a distinctly Christian interpretation of the text. This allowed me to look at Old Testament passages for the first time in a light of how the Jewish reader may have seen the passage, how Jesus and his disciples would have read those passages.

    That said, I do think there are type and anti-type ways that God revealed his plan through both Testaments that the original reader may not have known. This would not mean that God did not give the original reader a clear understanding, but that he revealed himself even more through the light of the New Testament.

  20. i appreciate your blog very much and have been a “closet reader” for quite some time.

    i will say, however, that 1 Peter 1:10-12 gives a moderated view to your definition of perspicuity (if I’m reading you right). I LOVE the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, but it seems to me that one of the things that 1 Peter clearly teaches is that the Old Testament prophets were not only unaware of details, but that they knew they were unaware.

    The use of “mystery language” also seems to suggest that details were somewhat hidden and have now been boldly proclaimed in Christ. Which is why the mystery is described as proclaimed and revealed now!

    I certainly don’t ascribe to any view that tries to claim the Old Testament was intentionally deceptive, or anything like that. However, it is clear that we have more detail than they did. I don’t really understand the benefit of preaching as if we don’t.

    Guessing from your other posts though, I’m probably just reading you wrong.

  21. “the first approach is generally taken by covenant theologians, whereas the second approach is characteristic of most dispensationalists.”

    Fascinating that the two approaches should have a relatively consistent following. It is, perhaps, even more fascinating in that I as someone who is vociferously opposed to dispensationalism, am equally aghast at approach 1.

    I am definitely interested in the intertextuality of Jewish texts, and in the world-views and perceptions this displays about the authors/compilers/redactors, but I do not believe that this is what approach 1 is advocating. I do wonder, however, if what Zuck means by “the progress of revelation” is the same as what I might mean by it. Does Zuck assume that progress is positive and not negative (that divine purpose is clarified rather than obscured over time and, thusly, we might know more about things now than we did at an earlier time), or does he allow for both a confusion in some areas and a revealing in others to be happening simultaneously (as I would think is the case) – or perhaps does he mean something entirely different like diachronic versus synchronic understanding of a text?

    At any rate, I’ll speak up for those who stand against dispensationalism, but who stand in support of an approach which says the texts of the Hebrew Bible (and supplementary to it) should only be understood on their own terms quite apart from any New Testament texts. With this foundation then, one will be equipped to understand New Testament texts.

  22. Posted by zaphon on July 18, 2010 at 10:16 am

    We look at type and anti type only after the literal fulfillment has taken place. We don’t just assume it where we think it should be.

  23. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on July 18, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Please try and remember to use first and last names when you post folks. It seems to help comments sections out quite a bit.

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