Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Monday, January 25, 2010

Defending Premillennialism [3]

The Wooden Literalist: Legendary Beast of Theology Lore [1]

Within the debate between eschatological systems, those of the non-premillennial persuasion often chide premillennialists of being "wooden literalists." The description is even more true if the premillennialist adheres to any dispensational tendencies.

If one were to read the books critical of premillennialism, and certainly dispensational premillennialism, the person would be under the impression that any form of "literalism" used to interpret prophecy or the prophetic portions of scripture, is not only bad, it is disastrous; raping the Bible by forcing upon the text fanciful and absurd interpretive conclusions.

Gary Demar, for example, who has made hunting down popular dispensational, premillennialists his "white whale," claims literal views of prophecy has misdirected modern Christianity to pursue a "last days madness" that attempts to interpret biblical prophecy with a modern day "newspaper exegesis" which reads current events onto the text of scripture. Of course, Demar falls into a similar hole by interpreting the book of Revelation according to Josephus' writings, but he is not known as one who acknowledges such cognitive dissonance with his own position.

Authors, Crenshaw and Gunn, in their book blasting dispensationalism, paint any "literalist" as a dishonest exegete. That is because literalists will abandon their genuine "literalism" when reading the Bible literally produces inconsistencies with their method. Cornelis Venema, who is not nearly as vitriolic with his criticism of literalists, still accuse them of loading their interpretive method with a number of presuppositions, especially how we understand the genre of scripture. He writes,

The "literal sense" is a translation of the Latin sensus literalis which means "the sense of, according to the letter." That is to say, texts are to be read as language and literature according to the rules that ordinarily and appropriately apply to their usage and forms. This means that if the text is poetry, it should be read, according to the letter, as poetry. If the text is historical narrative, recounting events that occurred in a particular time and place, it is to be read as historical narrative... to begin with a commitment to "the literal, plain or normal reading of a text" entirely begs the question as to what that sense is. To say that the literal meaning of biblical prophecy and promises must always be the most plain, concrete and obvious meaning, is to prejudge the meaning of these texts before actually reading them "according to the letter," that is, according to the rules that obtain for the kind of language being used. [Venema, 281, 282]

In spite of his attempt to point out a perceived, fundamental flaw utilized by the literalist of loading the text with presuppositions, Venema, it seems, is also unaware of his own preconceptions he brings to the interpretation of the text. That being, biblical prophecy is automatically different because it is a genre that contains symbols and thus must be interpreted with a non-literal point of view.

Pondering these type of alarmist statements against literal hermeneutics make one wonder about their accuracy. Is the reaction against something real or imaginary? Or is an anti-literal mythos being created - a beast called "wooden literalism" that merely exists in the minds of dispensational detractors?

Also, just how terrible is it to interpret biblical prophecy literally? Does literalism when interpreting prophecy really lead to gross inconsistency with a person's exegesis of the text as Crehshaw and Gunn contend? A wild and fanciful manhandling of the biblical text that splices together biblical prophecy and modern day current events to birth some horrific, theological chimera?

Historically, since the Reformation, Protestant evangelicals have advocated for a literal reading of Scripture. Literal is basically defined as "belonging to letters," and interpreting texts "literally" would be to interpret actual words in their ordinary, plain meaning. Theologian Charles Hodge makes a literal reading of the text his primary principle of biblical interpretation. He writes,

The words of Scripture are to be taken in their plain historical sense. That is, they must be taken in the sense attached to them in the age and by the people to whom they were addressed. This only assumes that the sacred writers were honest, and meant to be understood [Hodge, Vol. 1, 187].

With his simple description, Hodge outlines for us what we call the grammatical, historical hermeneutic: The Bible is studied and interpreted according to the rules of grammar within the historical setting and context of the passage. Apologist James White expands upon the grammatical, historical hermeneutic by pointing out how when studying Scripture, the student takes into consideration: the author, audience, historical background of the passage, and the original languages with their grammar and syntax. These "rules of exegesis," notes White, help us to know what was originally meant to be said by taking the text seriously and thus protecting it from misinterpretation [White, 80-94].

Now, pretty much every Protestant evangelical, Bible-believing Christian would affirm these points. However, the critics of the so-called "literalist" approach like Demar, Gentry, Venema, Crenshaw, Gunn, and even James White, argue that when we come to interpreting prophetic texts, we must "alter" our understanding of "literal" in order to exegete those passages correctly. They explain the reason for such an alteration is because prophetic texts are filled with much symbolism. Thus, when biblical passages contain a lot of symbolic language, images, numbers, etc., if we were to interpret those passages according to a "wooden literalism" we risk drawing out of those texts absurd conclusions.

For example, a literal, ordinary, plain reading of Revelation 9:1-12 would make the Apostle John to be teaching that monstrous insect creatures with human heads and enormous scorpion tails, like some bizarre beast from a science fiction movie, are unleashed upon the earth. A "literal" hermeneutic, then, applied to biblical literature high in symbolism, only creates a myriad of problematic interpretations that cloud the meaning, rather than bringing out the genuine meaning of the text.

At first glance, their argument appears sound. It would only seem obvious that if a book of the Bible contains many forms of symbolic language our approach to interpreting it should take that symbolism into consideration. Moreover, symbolism is certainly unique and we can't read it in the same manner as we read for example the sports page of a newspaper. Plus there are notorious illustrations of teachers employing a literal hermeneutic with symbolic language that do result in some rather strange and weird interpretations of the Bible.

Yet in spite of the presence of symbolic language in a book and the fact there are examples of bad applications of literalism within the Christian community, the non-literalist Reformed folks are still begging questions: Why must I interpret prophetic genre differently just because it has lots of symbolism in its pages? Why must I abandon a consistent, ordinary and plain reading of the text just because of symbolism? I must confess that I have never received a solidly consistent answer to my "why" questions. Usually the rejoinder runs along the lines of, "it's symbolism, you just have to interpret it differently." But that response assumes the one using an ordinary, literal hermeneutic does not recognize the use of symbolism and symbols can never be interpreted literally.

I believe it is dishonest criticism to say a literal hermeneutic is the use of "wooden literalism" when it comes to interpreting symbolic prophecy. And I say so for a number of reasons I will out line in my next post.


Curtis Crenshaw and Grover Gunn, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow
Gary Demar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church
Kenneth Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation
Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1.

Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, The End Times Controversy.

Cornelis Venema, The Promise of the Future.

James White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible's Accuracy, Authority, and Authenticity.



Blogger The Squirrel said...

It stands to reason (at least to me) that the symbols are symbolic of something, right? To read the amillennialists, one wonders why the prophetic passages are even in the Bible in the first place...

1:28 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger donsands said...

"They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon."

That made me think of this verse which I read this morning:

"Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord;
how much more the hearts of the children of man!" Proverbs 15:11

I was pondering how Sheol and Abaddon are in the dark, dark recesses of this age, and who can even imagine what's in the deepest depths of hell. But for God it is crystal clear, so how much more our hearts.

There's no possible way to manipulate God, I was thinking today.
If I pray and I think, "Well, I'll pray for Haiti, and then I'll pray for myself, and that way God will hear me, because He says, 'When you ask, you ask amiss, with wrong motives'.

Anyhow, good study, and I look forward to your next post.

I think you're being a little unfair to DeMarr though. Not that I'm aware of what he's up to. He seems to me to be balanced and gracious, more than not.

4:24 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Demar fair? When discussing premillennial dispensationalism? When?

6:02 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger donsands said...

I could be wrong. I heard him a couple times on the radio, and I skimmed one of his books, and didn't recognize an unfairness. But I'm not familiar with his teachings.

You certainly have done your homework, and I trust your word on this.

Any of us can become unfair for sure. I hope Demar would come to his senses.

7:14 PM, January 25, 2010  
Blogger Highland Host said...

One of the problems in the discussion of eschatology as commonly practised is that it is (and to some extrent must be) full of generalisations. The trouble is, you can always find someone with crazy ideas if you look hard enough. On the one hand amillennialists can find pop-dispensationalists who have assumed that a 'literal hermeneutic' actually means reading the book with 20th century America in mind as the SOLE intended readership, and thus the symbols are interpreted in terms of the current age. On the other hand you can find a Patrick Fairbairn, who denies that prophetic actions happened in the real world. Now, it is very easy at that point for either side to pick up the extreme examples and say "see! These people are crazy!" It also very easy to then generalise the extreme into the mainstream.

It is not enough, however, to deal with generalisations, we have to deal with specifics, all the while remembering that eschatological views are a continuum, not a series of points unconnected in any way. There are a lot of moderate amillennialists out there who are closer to premillennialists on many points than this series has thus far noted. Why? Because we tend not to write books about Eschatology!

We must also read (as Fred has done) books we disagree with. And in all things remember that Gary DeMar is wrong, dispensationalists are not heretics, but hyper-preterists are!

Oh, and always remember, the critique may SOUND like it's directed at you, that doesn't mean it is, it may be directed at someone in your general area of the continuum, but somewhere to your left or right. If you can say "well, that shot missed me," it probably wasn't aimed at you in the first place!

1:19 AM, January 26, 2010  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Don, and I guess HH, too,
I reference Demar because he is one of the more notorious anti-literalists I have encountered, and a surly, obnoxious one at that. I have heard it more on his radio show than anywhere else. And it's not just eschatology either. I don't know if you listen to James White's Dividing Line webcast, but last year, after he debated Bart Ehrman, one of Demar's ministry "assistants" took White to task because he wasn't presuppositional enough to his liking when he and Ehrman debated. It was unbelievable. Compounding his criticisms even more, he seemed to be clueless about how we approach textual criticism and interact with objections along the lines of variant readings.

Any how, many of the young guys who I have argued with on the subject of eschatology cite Demar as one of their main sources. There are other folks apart from Demar that I will get to like Poythress, who are not nearly as shrill with their criticisms. But my intention is to cite folks who are popular apologists against my position, take their objections seriously and interact with them. I'll be getting to specific texts and objections soon. I am just building up some foundational issues that are important first.

5:51 AM, January 26, 2010  
Blogger Lynda O said...

Great article, and unfortunately there are plenty of DeMar "wanna-bes" that take a similar attitude of mocking literalism as wooden literalism. One individual I know, who has a Scofield Reference Bible and supposedly has a strong dispensational background, openly mocks literalism as you describe here, constantly remarking how Revelation is full of symbols and therefore we can't take it literally -- as though the symbols have no underlying meaning at all. His only "interpretation" of the symbols is to focus on basic soteriology and how that is the only thing we should see in scripture.

So, for example, he comes up with the following concerning Revelation 13 (the passage with specific description about the people taking the mark of the beast): the "mark" is spiritual in nature, and refers to the "mark" that's on everyone's heart, as to whether they are the people of God or the people of Satan, and the mark is already there as to what's inside us. And to insist that it has any other meaning -- such as an objective, literal, physical situation at some future time -- is to somehow belittle the great truth of the importance of our spiritual condition, and is the thoughts of someone who is "carnal" and not thinking about the greater spiritual importance.

1:31 PM, January 26, 2010  
Blogger Highland Host said...

I find Demar worrying on a number of levels, not least that he regards dispensationalism (which affirms the literal, historical second coming) as worse than hyper-preterism (which denies it, and therefore falls outside of Christian orthodoxy). I have some of his books, but then I have an awful lot of books! I have listened to his show in the past, but no longer do so because of my concerns.

We have to be careful that, in denying the existence of the wooden literalist, we do not end up denying the existence of wooden literalISM, especially among some Darbyites (have you heard the idea that Mount Zion will be the tallest mountain in the world in the millennium?). In the same way, I do not deny that there are some amillennialists who teach something that could well be called "Replacement Theology", I'm just not one of them!

For the record, I have never claimed all dispensationalists are wooden literalists, and a more nuanced criticism would have to deal with specific passages. Also it is very common for interpretations not to be literal enough in places, for example, Scofield's "fourfold sense" of the letters to the seven Churches! Ditto using the battle of Gog in Ezekiel with its vivid description of ancient weapons and making it a Russian-led airborne assault on Israel (like "Left Behind" does). Excuse me, where do they get the modern weapons from? Oh, and why do they insist on transliterating "Rosh" when it makes perfect sense to translate it as "head" or "chief" here? (the answer is, in order to put Russia in)

We can all retail horror stories about bad Biblical interpretation from our own side of the spectrum on this matter. Harold Camping claims to be amillenial, while we can all find dispensational date-setters. All of which goes to show that however hard we try, we can't keep the nutcases out!

1:50 AM, January 27, 2010  
Blogger Highland Host said...

Oh, and the fact that language is symbolic is no excuse for essentially emptying it of meaning. Especially as much of the symbolism of Revelation is drawn from the Old Testament. It's hard work, but worth it. We do not want to imitate the action of Baron Swedenborg, whose allegorical interpretations of Scripture are totally arbitrary, and supposedly based on extracanonical revelation.

In other words, we must ask this: Is the intrepretation governed by the Bible, or by some other consideration?

1:54 AM, January 27, 2010  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

and a more nuanced criticism would have to deal with specific passages.

That's coming. You all stick around. I'm getting to those passages after the next couple of posts or so.


5:45 AM, January 27, 2010  
Blogger Highland Host said...

Fred, I'm sure you will be. What I would REALLY like to see is an exegetical defence of the pre-tribulation rapture. Can you point me to one?

1:22 AM, January 28, 2010  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Have you tried the pre-trib research center?

I understand your remark. Rapture views obviously have a role to play within premillennialism, but I personally think it is one that is secondary. I may touch on those at a much, much later date.

5:52 PM, January 28, 2010  
Blogger Highland Host said...

My dear Fred, I know rapture views are secondary - most premillennialists through history have not held a pre-trib rapture, but have held that the Church remains on earth until the end of the present age and the second advent of Christ. Nevertheless, Dr. MacArthur teaches a pre-trib rapture in his book on Revelation (I found his arguments less than convincing).

All dispensationalists are pre-millennial. Not all pre-millennialists are dispensational.

1:45 AM, January 29, 2010  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

I would argue that pretty much every position holds to some form of dispensationalism whether or not they want to admit it. They will certainly outline their dispensations differently, but a Covenant person holds to at least two.

6:19 AM, January 29, 2010  
Blogger Highland Host said...

If we want to start using "dispensationalist" to describe anyone who holds that there are differences in admistration within God's plan, then the word has lost all meaning as describing a specific theological position, and ought to be retired.

Which I happen to think is pretty much the case, in fact!

4:32 AM, January 30, 2010  

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