Literal Interpretation Revisited (Part 1)

Back in March of 2007, John MacArthur stirred up a bit of controversy by offering a critique of amillennialism in the opening address of the annual Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church. In fact, one amillennialist went so far as to write an entire book in response to select portions of MacArthur’s message—MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response by Samuel Waldron (Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2008). I have more thoughts about Waldron’s book—which I may or may not have the time to address at some point—but for now I’d like to focus on one criticism in particular that Waldron makes about MacArthur’s message.


In MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto, Dr. Waldron faults MacArthur for quoting only three representatives of covenant theology in his address—O.T. Allis, Floyd Hamilton, and Loraine Boettner. And why is this a problem for Waldron? Because the quotes provided by MacArthur came from works published in 1945, 1942, and 1958, respectively, and they are not representative of amillennialism today. This, according to Waldron, is “a defect that cannot be overlooked” (MMM, p. 26). (Incidentally, I find it somewhat humorous that on one hand many amillennialists are quick to champion their view as the position of the historic Christian church throughout the centuries, and yet on the other hand they cry “foul” when you quote someone from more than 50 years ago—but that’s for another time.) To express his concern, Waldron writes:


I think it is legitimate to respond to the citation of such dated materials by asking this question. How would MacArthur like it if I cited the (old) Scofield Reference Bible or the Classic Dispensational authors and assumed that he held their position? He would think (and rightly so) that this is quite unfair (MMM, p. 26).


The irony here is that Dr. Waldron appears to be guilty of precisely that. In 2003, Waldron wrote a 250-page book on eschatology entitled End Times Made Simple: How Could Everyone Be So Wrong About Biblical Prophecy? As you might expect, part of this book is devoted to debunking what Waldron sees as the various errors of dispensationalism. In light of the concern articulated by Waldron in the quote above, one might assume that he made significant effort to interact with some of the more recent dispensational works in End Times Made Simple, especially in light of the developments within dispensationalism in the last 30 years. But such is decidedly not the case.


Instead, as representatives of dispensationalism, Waldron cites John Nelson Darby (1800s) once, the old Scofield Reference Bible (1909) four times, Charles Feinberg (1936) once, Charles Ryrie (1965 and 1969) three times, the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967) five times, and J. Dwight Pentecost (1974) twice. Elsewhere Waldron mentions classic dispensationalists John Nelson Darby, E.W. Bullinger, J.H. Brookes, C.I. Scofield, L.S. Chafer, John Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Ernest Pickering. But no other references to dispensational writers can be found in the entirety of his 250-page book.[i] In fact, the only “dispensational” work that Waldron cites which is more recent than 34 years ago is Edgar C. Whisenant’s 1988 booklet, 88 Reasons Why Christ Will Come in ’88! To use Waldron’s word, is this fair?


I suppose one could defend Waldron by saying that End Times Made Simple was designed to target classic dispensationalism rather than the modified forms which have characterized dispensational thought in the past 30 years. But the problem with this response is that even though Waldron acknowledges in MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto (p. 107) that there are different forms of dispensationalism—classic, modified, and progressive, as well as sub-divisions under each—he makes no such distinction in End Times Made Simple. In fact, in End Times Made Simple Waldron insists “that at the end of the day there are two and only two basic positions which one may hold on the matter”—covenant theology or classic dispensationalism (ETMS, p. 246; cf. pp. 136-37).


To make matters worse, Waldron claims that “the inevitable tendency” of dispensational theology is that “of teaching a different way of salvation for Israel” (ETMS, p. 139). In support of this claim, Waldron cites—you guessed it—the old Scofield Reference Bible published in 1909, the very work he said it would be unfair for him to cite. Waldron then continues by asserting that dispensationalists have “long-resisted” this tendency to see a different way of salvation for Israel and have “frequently denied” it, but still, he says, it remains “inevitable” (ETMS, p. 139). According to Waldron, then, at the end of the day we have only two options available to us—either (a) covenant theology or (b) the view that OT Israel was saved by keeping the Law. Is this really a helpful way to frame up the debate?


Look for part 2 tomorrow.

[i] Even though MacArthur would not distance himself equally from each of these dispensational writers—in fact, Charles Feinberg was a dear friend and influential mentor to him—this list of representatives is clearly in the line of what is known as classic dispensationalism, rather than MacArthur’s significantly revised form of dispensationalism.

8 responses to this post.

  1. The one thing I found irritating about Waldron’s “Mac Manifesto” is his back handed swipe at MacArthur’s orthodoxy. Toward the end of the book he takes John to task for stirring up unnecessary strife by talking about Calvinism and premillennialism at the 2007 “Together For the Gospel” conference in KY. The problem is that the first T4G conference was in 2006, a year before John gave his address on premillennialism.

    That error aside, he says on page 127 that he isn’t calling dispensationalism heresy, but he does believe it raises some basic issues with the Christian faith and the gospel. I take that to mean he thinks dispensationalism is heresy. Any doctrine that “raises basic issues with the Christian faith and the gospel” is heretical. Or am I mistaken about that? It would be like me saying I don’t want to say the Judaizers are heretical, I am just saying they raise basic issues with the Christian faith and the gospel.

    It is stuff like that which made reading his book just annoying.
    I wrote about Sam’s book in more of a detailed review HERE

  2. Matt,

    Well done. This raises one of my pet peeves so I need to stir the pot for a moment. We need to all admit that there are hack writers on all sides of the issue who 1) have no business writing and are usually self-published and 2) are sinfully guilty of misrepresenting the other side in order to stake a claim in the debate. Unfortunately, it is the hack jobs (both sides again) that the average church member reads.

    Books to avoid that are not helpful to the discussion:

    *Anything with Hal Lindsey’s name attached to it. He never was nor has been a credible voice in the discussion. I seriously question the motives of anyone who really believes otherwise (yes, I know it’s not PC to question motives on blogs).

    *John Gerstner’s “Primer on Dispensationalism”. This book has been reviewed (most notably by Richard Mayhue) and represent either a gross misrepresentation or a man who wrote one book too many and that’s being kind.

    *R. C. Sproul’s “Last Days According to Jesus”. I recently reread this book since he deals with some of the so-called preterist passages in Matthew. His whole goal in writing the book is to address apologetical questions raised against the veracity of Gospel accounts. The book is all but bare on the exegetical front and therefore fails on numerous levels.

    *Keith Matthison’s “Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God?” Think of this as an expanded version of Gerstner. Great (negative) example of D. A. Carson’s “Exegetical Fallacies”.

    Helpful books that add to the discussion:

    *Continuity and Discontinuity ed. by John Feinberg. If there is a better book that gets to the heart of the matter from both sides then I don’t know what it is.

    * “Understanding Dispensationalists” by Vern Poythress. I obviously come down on opposite sides than Dr. Poythress but he at least gets it in a way that promotes actual dialogue (see esp chap 6).

    *If you can find it, David L. Turner’s journal article “The Continuity of Scripture and Eschatology: Key Hermeneutical Issues” (Grace Theological Journal, vol. 6 no. 2, Fall 1985).

    If you’re still reading this you need to get a life so here’s a joke. Barack Obama got a new dog. When the dog rolled over, the President scratched his belly. When the dog started to beg, the President gave him 750 billion dollars.

    I’m out!

  3. I would add to that list Crenshaw and Gunn’s screed, “Dispensationalism: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” and anything on eschatology with Hank Hanegraff’s name on it. On the flip side, anything with Chuck Missler or Dave Hunt’s name on it.

  4. Fred,

    Amen and howdy.

  5. On a side note. At the end of the post is the “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)”. How does “Financial Rescue for Rhode Island” relate to this post? I’ll let the dispensational headline hunters and the covenant reconstruction guys fight that one out.

  6. I’m not a Dispensationalist, but I love Dr. McArthur and have benefitted greatly from him over the years. His orthodoxy and commitment to scripture is unquestioned. I would also like to see all of us reserve the use of the “H” word for real heretics. I agree with you, also, that one should not judge by a standard he is unwilling to uphold in his own writing or debate. The teachings of Christ apply in debate as in other areas of life.

  7. […] 2007 Shepherds’ Conference address—then he has clearly fallen short of his own standard (see part 1). The real problem comes when you select quotations which misrepresent your opponents’ position, […]

  8. Posted by paulspassingthoughts on May 11, 2009 at 6:12 am

    I am deeply concerned with the whole “Gospel Sanctification” thing and the hermeneutic it employs. It undermines the perspicuity of all scripture in my opinion. I know some of it’s proponents very well. They openly admit that it has an “objective element of truth” and a “subjective element of truth.” The Gospel is the objective, but the results can lead to what people perceive as the “foolishness of the cross.” In other words, if a Christocentric result looks wacky to you, it’s because you see the cross as “foolishness.” I am really deeply disturbed by the whole movement.

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