Summing up the Dispensational viewpoint, one person wrote:
It has been my practice to approach Scripture with the grammatical historical method of interpretation, also called the literal interpretation method . This can also be called the normative approach (and the one I prefer) as the literal meaning of words is the normal approach for understanding and communication in any language. This method, basically stated, attempts to interpret Scripture 1) Grammatically—that is to say according to the normal and plain understanding of grammar and in accordance to its rules, 2) Historically—that is to say according to the geographical and historical setting of the original audience, and 3) Contextually—that is to say in accordance to the immediate context of the passage and to the larger context of its place within Scripture.
It is my belief that one can apply this method of interpretation throughout the entirety of Scripture. I do not see the need to abandon this method of interpretation when faced with a prophetic passage but rather interpret prophetic and non-prophetic passages alike by adhering to the same rules of interpretation for both.
Critiquing Dispensational Hermeneutic
“When one allows God himself to interpret the meaning of his prophecies through later revelation, it becomes impossible to employ a naturalistic, Dispensational hermeneutic. Dispensationalists claim to have a literal hermeneutic, taking prophecies in a simple, material sense unless the immediate context demands otherwise. The problem with this approach is that it arrives at interpretations which are later contradicted by the New Testament. In opposition to this principle, [we] recognize the validity of ‘the analogy of faith,’ that is, that the best interpreter of scriptures is other scriptures. The hermeneutic which allows the Author to foreshadow spiritual realities through physical means, and later interpret them in clear, didactic writing, is actually a more natural and literal hermeneutic than one which demands a physical/material sense unless an immediate absurdity arises thereby, even when other scriptures contradict this physical/material sense. The basic question is this: will our hermeneutic allow God to explain himself, or will it allow our own human understanding of what is more literal to negate the interpretation of God himself?” ~Nathan Pitchford
Walter Kaiser, in Toward an Exegetical Theology, explains,
“the Church at large (since the time of the Reformers especially) is in error when she uses the analogy of faith (analogia fidei) as an exegetical device for extricating meaning from or importing meaning to texts that appeared earlier than the passage where the teaching is set forth most clearly or perhaps even for the first time” (p.82). While the concept of progressive revelation suggests interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New, Kaiser argues that this is not a license to read meanings into the OT that are not there.”
The possibility of interpretational abuse is not qualification of wholesale rejection of analogia fidei (analogy of faith). Where else can we learn to interpret Scripture but from Scripture?
Problems with Dispensational ‘Literal’ Interpretation
1) Tacit acknowledgement that a literal reading of the text need not exclude a spiritual meaning or figurative and symbolical language. In the original position of Scofield himself, a somewhat arbitrary distinction is made between the historical and prophetic texts in the Bible. This distinction is made in order to allow for the possibility that the historical texts may have both a literal and a spiritual meaning. Though Scofield maintains that this is never possible in the case of prophetic texts, there seems to be no reason why this cannot be the case. Why can historical texts that speak of Jerusalem have a spiritual meaning, while prophetic texts that speak of Jerusalem must invariably have a literal meaning? Furthermore, the possibility of non-literal elements indicates that it is somewhat simplistic and misleading to insist that texts always be read literally.
2) For Dispensationalism 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.
3) For Dispensationalism to begin with a commitment to the ‘literal, plain or normal reading of a text’ entirely begs the question as to whose “literal, plain or normal reading of the text do we rely upon? What may be literal, plain or normal to one person may be different for another. Do we rely upon the majority view?
4) A tacit rejection of NT interpretation of OT texts which do not change the meaning so much as the referent (see Acts 2 – If Acts 2 is not the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, why does Peter say it is?
How do we account for the issue of a second sacrificial system being set up even though Christ is the final sacrifice? Is there another meaning for the word final?
It has been common since the time of the Protestant Reformation to speak of a grammatical-historical reading of the biblical texts. This is one that takes the words, phrases, syntax and context of the biblical texts seriously — hence, grammatical — and also takes the historical setting and timing of the texts into careful consideration — hence, historical.
Eric Adams explains the issue of the Dispensational hermeneutic this way:
The problem is that the Dispensational hermeneutic is not based upon the exegesis of Scripture. “Literalism” is a presupposition, a philosophical pre-commitment. In fact, Dispensationalists routinely teach that one should not look to the Bible to obtain sound interpretive principles. Matt Waymeyer … wrote an article called “Don’t Try this at Home: Today’s Interpreter and the ‘Apostles’ Hermeneutic.'” While the NT use of the OT can be a thorny issue, and Waymeyer does raise some valid concerns, his conclusion is that we should not even attempt to find interpretive principles in how the NT writers used the OT. Hence, the warning in the title is “Don’t try this at Home.” Other Dispensationalists have argued the same thing. This is shocking. Dispensationalists routinely argue that Scripture ought to be our standard for everything, except for interpretive principles. The Dispensational hermeneutic is not derived from Scripture itself. “Literalism” is a philosophical presupposition. Thus, the ultimate foundation of Dispensationalism is not the Scriptures themselves, but philosophy. This philosophical principle of “literalism” is then used to interpret the Scriptures, which produces many of the distinctively Dispensational doctrines (e.g., a future Jewish millennium). These doctrines appear to be Scriptural, but they are arrived at using interpretive principles that are foreign to Scripture. While the application of “literalism” is a notorious problem, the foundation of “literalism” is even more deeply flawed.
This is not denying the literalness of communication. Communication is based upon a literal meaning. There is a difference between what a text says and what it means and sometimes are the same thing but not always. Another way to say it is, Interpreting Scripture “literally” is to focus on Its meaning and not necessarily what it says. Scripture interprets Itself on so many levels and in so many ways via many authors, much time and genres that It provides us with a lens by which we can interpret Scripture.
Making the sense plain to others is not necessarily looking to the plain sense. Be faithful to Scripture, not necessarily literal.
Scripture Itself does not always interpret Scripture literally.
Scripture Itself provides us with a robust hermeneutical paradigm.
To deny how Scripture interprets Itself on any point is to reject Scriptural objective literalism, which in turn, is a rejection of the authority of Scripture Itself.
To interpret the Scriptures literally
To interpret the Scriptures “literally” simply means to interpret them as literature. The wonderful thing about Scriptural literature is that it self-interprets at enough points (over many authors, centuries, and genres) to give us fairly robust hermeneutical paradigm. Denial of this paradigm is not objective literalism, it is anti-literalism because it dismisses the signals within the literature itself.
This is the chief failure of dispensationalism – it approaches the OT with a naive / one-dimensional perspective that dismisses the NT interpretive paradigm.
The Dispensationalist condemns the Amillennialist for “picking and choosing” what various words and phrases mean; they charge that the final rule of interpretation is the Amillennialist’s whim.
The other side of this coin is relying upon a strictly and woodenly literal interpretation. Both sides claim their interpretation is the meaning of the passages in question.
The Dispensationalist is hoisted upon their own petard.
If you notice, the Amillennialist continually points to Scripture and says, essentially, “this is why this word or phrase means x because Scripture tells us what it means,” whereas, the Dispensationalist relies on the surface meaning of the word: “the number 7 is always a quantity of 7 (unless, of course, it inherently produces “bad theology” (i.e. the 7 spirits of God in Revelation).