The “Literal” Hermeneutic and Dispensationalism
While doing a search on a non-related subject, I stumbled upon yet another typical negative comment pertaining to how Dispensationalists interpret Scripture.
The author implies that the Dispensational hermeneutic, which I understand to be the historical-grammatical approach to reading the Bible, is problematic when it comes to interpreting the biblical text. The "Dispensational" take on Daniel 9 is presented as an example.
The snippet is taken from a blog article written in 2006. Though that is nearly 6 years ago, seeing that it pertains to the use of hermeneutics, I thought it may be useful to visit. Let me cite the comment in full and then go back and dismantle it piece by piece.
As an aside, often the Dispensational interpretation of certain passages is hardly “literal,” but “literalistic.” That is, the application of the text is something terribly foreign to the historical context. Take Daniel 9, for instance. Daniel, in searching the Scriptures, realizes that the 70 years Jeremiah predicted were about to come to a close (9:2). And while he prays in response to this (his prayer, by the way, is permeated with covenantal references to God. Keep that in mind when you read that one whom Dispensationalists believe to be the antichrist will “confirm a covenant with many,” 9:27), Gabriel appears to him in a vision (9:21), and he tells him that “seventy sevens” and “sixty-two sevens” (references to sabbatical weeks, Lev 35:1-4[sic]) are decreed to follow (9:25). That is, a total of 490 years (an ultimate Jubilee, Lev 24:8), the messianic age. But the Dispensational interpretation of this text (the supposedly “literal” interpretation) forces an at least 2000 year break (or “an indeterminate gap of time”) between the end of the sixty-ninth and seventieth week, a disjunction which the text *no where* posits. This is directly contrary to the Dispensationalist’s professed “literal” hermeneutic! And this forcing of something into the text which is not present (something that used to be called “eisegesis”) has terrible consequences: confusing Christ with the antichrist!
...often the Dispensational interpretation of certain passages is hardly “literal,” but “literalistic.” That is, the application of the text is something terribly foreign to the historical context.
The complaint here is that Dispensationalists, of which I would count myself, interpret the Bible not “literally” but “literalistically.” I would be curious for a more concise definition that distinguishes those two words. Is there really a difference between "literal" and “literalistic”? How exactly would they be so different that to be “literal” is okay, but “literalistic” is flawed?
The basic web dictionary meaning of literal is, “adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression” or “free from exaggeration or embellishment.” Literalistic, according to various on-line dictionaries, is simply the means of interpreting words in the literal sense.
Perhaps the author has in mind the idea that when Dispensationalists interpret the Bible they do so in a wooden, literal fashion. In other words, they make the passage under consideration sound so absurd it creates theological error. In the case of Daniel 9, the Dispensationalist “literalistic” hermeneutic confuses Jesus with the antichrist.
Web dictionary definitions can only supply a basic sense of the word literal and it many not be especially helpful as it pertains to Bible study. So how do Dispensationalists truly understand the word?
Mal Couch, a Dispensationalist, explains that “literal” does not mean “letterism,” which would be equal to the assumed use of “literalistic” by our Dispensational critic. Instead, “literal” means “normal.” Couch explains,
A normal reading of Scripture is synonymous with a consistent literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic. When a literal hermeneutic is applied to the interpretation of Scripture, every word written in Scripture is given the normal meaning it would have in its normal usage. ... A normal reading of Scripture recognizes figures of speech and symbolism used in eschatological literature and other books of the Bible." [Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics, 33, 34].
Just so I am on the same page as the critic, when James White, who is definitely not a Dispensationalist, defines what he means by exegesis, he clearly implies Couch's understanding of “literal” when we study Scripture. White writes,
Exegesis can be defined with reference to its opposite: eisegesis. To exegete a passage is to lead the native meaning out from the words; To eisegete a passage is to insert a foreign meaning into the words. You are exegeting a passage when you are allowing it to say what its original author intended; you are eisegeting a passage when you are forcing the author to say what you want the author to say. True exegesis shows respect for the text and, by extension, for its author: eisegesis, even when based upon ignorance, shows disrespect for the text and its author. [James White, Scripture Alone, 81 (emphasis in original)].
Dr. White goes on to explain what constitutes sound exegesis of a biblical text, or the rules of exegetical hermeneutics. Such things as determining context, considering the author, the audience, and the historical setting of the passage, and the consideration of grammar, syntax, and lexical semantics. All of these points the Dispensationalist would heartily agree with, and in fact, practice when he studies the Bible. I take these points as reading the Bible in a literal fashion.
Our critic claims the Dispensational interpretation brings something “terribly foreign” to the text. In other words, Dispensationalists eisegete passages, they do not exegete them. Yet, is his claim valid? I can show you it is not, and in point of fact, it is he who brings something “terribly foreign” to this passage in Daniel and is the inconsistent eisegete. He demonstrates my point in this very paragraph in which he is supposedly shows us the hermeneutical errors of Dispensationalists.
Let me break down his “exegesis.”
Daniel, in searching the Scriptures, realizes that the 70 years Jeremiah predicted were about to come to a close (9:2).
Notice that Daniel expects that 70 years to be “literal.” In other words, Daniel reads Jeremiah 25:11, 12 and expects what Jeremiah to be saying in his prophecy to be fulfilled literally. He can mark his calendar, as it were, from the year Israel went into exile, count out 70 years to the very year the prophet Jeremiah says they will return from exile. Daniel doesn't “spiritualize” the number 70 as if Jeremiah originally meant it to be some number meaning “total completion” or “perfection” or other similar nonsense. Jeremiah means 70 calendar years, as in 7 decades, like from 1910-1980.
Hence, we see an important point noted: If Daniel read the numbers in Jeremiah in such a literal fashion that he understood those numbers to be 70 calendar years, would not the remainder of the numbers in chapter 9 be literal calendar years as well? Keep that thought with you as I move along.
And while he prays in response to this (his prayer, by the way, is permeated with covenantal references to God. Keep that in mind when you read that one whom Dispensationalists believe to be the antichrist will “confirm a covenant with many,” 9:27), Gabriel appears to him in a vision (9:21), and he tells him that “seventy sevens” and “sixty-two sevens” (references to sabbatical weeks, Lev 35:1-4[sic]) are decreed to follow (9:25). That is, a total of 490 years (an ultimate Jubilee, Lev 24:8), the messianic age.
Laying aside the comment about the antichrist for a moment, I would agree with his main understanding of Daniel's vision. As I outlined in my studies of Daniel, what I believe is in mind here is the Sabbatical year as written about in Leviticus 25. Israel failed with keeping the 7th year Sabbath that allowed the land to “rest” for a year. They did it multiple times, at least 70 times over the course of 800 years. Their exile to Babylon reflects that disobedience.
But our author goes on to say the decreed 490 more years are considered an ultimate Jubilee, a Messianic age. Where exactly is he getting that? Does he understand the 490 years to be literal years, just like the 70 years Israel spent in exile? Or is there some “deeper” meaning? Certainly the coming of Messiah is prophesied at the closing of the 69th week when he will be “cut off.” Is that where he is getting this notion of an “ultimate Jubilee” or “Messianic age?”
Keep that in mind as you read that one whom Dispensationalists believe to be the antichrist will “confirm a covenant with many,” 9:27
Let me return to that comment about the antichrist. I am going to venture a guess and say our author probably holds to the traditional, covenant Reformed view of Daniel 9:25-27. I'll quote myself when I outlined the Reformed position on Daniel 9 in a previous post:
Jesus Christ is understood to be both "the prince" or "Messiah" who is to be cut off as described in verse 26, and the "prince" mentioned in the next clause who is described as having a people who come to destroy the city. The point being that the Jews, or the people of the prince who is to come (Jesus Christ), bring their own destruction upon themselves by rejecting their Messiah and hence solidifying God's wrath against the nation as played out in 70 A.D. when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. The destruction of the temple put an end to sacrifices for the OT sacrificial system just as Daniel states.
There may be some variation among theologians, but that is the basic view held by Reformed writers like Kim Riddlebarger, Gary Demar, E.J. Young, etc.
However, if we are going to take the text seriously by applying the principles of “exegesis” defined above, which includes the idea of “a literal reading of the text” I cannot see how the details of the text can bring one to that conclusion. I would even say the conflation of the “Messiah” and the “prince” is being read into the text eisegetically due to covenant Reformed traditions.
If the covenant Reformed proponent believes there is only one prince being spoken of at the end of Daniel 9, that being, Jesus Christ and His cross work, there are some problems that arise. Let me highlight four.
1) The nearest antecedent to the “he shall confirm a covenant for one week” in verse 27 is “the prince” of the people who will come in verse 26. If the “people” are the Jewish nation at 70 AD, the interpretation of many Reformed writers, how exactly does one draw the connection between “the people” of this prince who is to come and “Israel” at 70 AD with this text? Would not external factors outside of Daniel have to bring one to that conclusion? Of course, assuming that is the position of our author.
2) The “prince” mentioned in 9:27 is said to confirm a covenant for one week. If this “prince” is Jesus, what exactly is this “covenant for one week” that He confirmed? If it is Christ's death on the cross and making an end of sacrifices in the temple, what then is meant by Daniel's expression “for one week?” How are we to understand that “week” and how does that “week” factor into the previous 69 weeks that are mentioned?
3) The “prince” is said to put an end to sacrifices in the middle of the week. What does that mean? Again, is that “week” a “literal” 7 years in the 490 year prophetic cycle, or is it understood figuratively? Is this connected to 70 AD and the destruction of the temple? How is that connection made exegetically from this passage?
4) We know from previous revelation in Daniel 7:25 that a blasphemous horn persecutes Israel for a time and times and half a time, understood by practically every commentator I have encountered as meaning 3 1/2 years. Some may take those “years” in a figurative sense, but they are 3 1/2 years. That interpretation is affirmed in other passages of Scripture as well, like Revelation 13 where the beast, or antichrist, wages war against the people for 42 months, or 3 1/2 years. Considering that Daniel understood the 70 years of exile as a literal 70 years, why shouldn't we understand the 3 1/2 years as literal?
But the Dispensational interpretation of this text (the supposedly “literal” interpretation) forces an at least 2000 year break (or “an indeterminate gap of time”) between the end of the sixty-ninth and seventieth week, a disjunction which the text *no where* posits.
Our critic seems to think he has uncovered some previously unforeseen contradiction on the part of Dispensationalists that exposes why a “literal” hermeneutic must be avoided. Yet he ignores the main difficulty with his criticism in that he is forced to affirm at least a 40 year “gap” if he goes with 70 AD as the end to the 70 weeks. A gap is a gap, no matter how many years may exist between the 69th week and the 70th week.
He may think 2,000 years is an exceptionally long postponement, but 40 years is still a postponement, too. Now we are just haggling over which postponement makes sense when we interpret the text. Additionally, the idea of prophetic postponement or an apotelesmatic interpretation, in which a temporal interruption occurs within God’s redemptive program, is biblical. The postponement between the first coming of Christ and His second coming is a prime example, as Randall Price writes in his article, Prophetic Postponement
Considering how I believe the covenant Reformed position over looks many of the textual details I noted above, I don't think my critic has provided a satisfying interpretation of Daniel's vision, nor a compelling “debunking” of the Dispensational hermeneutic. In order to reach the conclusion he advocates, one has to re-interpret the text with a kind of theologically alchemy that makes the text affirm Covenant Theology. A person can call that “theological alchemy” a "Christological" or a “Historical Redemptive” hermeneutic, but it sounds to me like he’s eisegeting, not exegeting.