Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dispensationalism, and the Two Meanings of "Literal"

A "literal interpretation" of biblical texts is widely recognized as one of the essential marks of dispensational theology. But what does it mean to "take a text literally"? In the conversations between dispensationalists and various other groups, two definitions tend to emerge. When both definitions are in play simultaneously, confusion is inevitable. Let's take a quick look at the two:

1. "Literal" = the opposite of "figurative." I think everyone agrees that genres like poetry and apocalyptic literature often use imagery. Many people understand that imagery to be figurative, or "non-literal."

2. "Literal" = what the author intended to communicate. In other words, to take a text "literally" is to interpret it in the way that the author intended for it to be understood. As an example, no one (ok well let's hope no one . . .) thinks that when Jesus said "I am the door," he meant he was a piece of wood that swings on hinges to control access to an entry to an enclosure. But there is a point of analogical correspondence between a physical door and who Jesus is/what he does.

Both of these uses of the term "literal" are valid. It's a natural property of human language for words to carry different usages in different contexts. That's called a "semantic range [of meaning]." The problem is that some people use one meaning of "literal" as a stick to beat people who use the other meaning. Worse yet, some people who wield that stick also use the meaning that they beat others for using.

Let me put it a different way. Everybody agrees that the Bible contains figurative language—imagery. Some people think that "figurative" language should be interpreted "literally"—in the way the author intended that language to be understood. They're using the second definition appropriately. Other people argue that "figurative" language is inherently "non-literal." They're using the first definition appropriately.

But both groups recognize that the Bible contains imagery—words and combinations of words that describe things that are only metaphorically related to the normal usage of those words. Those words and combinations of words paint pictures or show points of comparison that make the author's point in the way that he (under inspiration) concluded was most effective.

A particular group of people (many dispensationalists) maintain that they are the only true "literal interpreters." They decide what portions of the Bible are figurative, and then stipulate that the definition of a "literalist" is someone who agrees with their conclusions. Someone who sees more biblical imagery than they do "isn't taking the Bible literally." They often interchange definitions of "literal" on the fly in an argument to support their conclusions.

The argument over who takes the Bible literally and who doesn't is NOT a question of whether the Bible contains figurative language. Everyone agrees that it does. The argument is also NOT over whether we should interpret the text in the way that the *author intended. Most everyone, at least among biblical inerrantists, would agree on this point as well. Rather, the argument is essentially a debate over which parts of the Bible consist of imagery and which parts do not. This is a valid and reasonable argument, but too often it has been distorted into deceitful propaganda designed to portray certain positions as compromising with theological liberalism.

*There is a relevant and worthwhile discussion over whether the meaning intended by the human author is always precisely equivalent to the meaning intended by the Divine Author, but for purposes of this discussion I'm assuming that the Divine Author is the primary and ultimate author.


d4v34x said...

"too often it has been distorted into deceitful propaganda designed to portray certain positions as compromising with theological liberalism."

One could turn this criticism on TeamPyro and others who are presently or recently tearing into the BioLogos people, no?

Isn't the creation narrative debate essentially based on the same issue of literality?

Ben said...

I haven't followed their BioLogos response that closely. You're suggesting that Pyro is publishing propaganda rather than dealing with the real exegetical issues? At least some of the discussion has hinged on the implications for the gospel of BL's view of human origins. (Romans 5 comes to mind.) That's a real issue, not just propaganda, but maybe there's more that I've missed.

d4v34x said...

I'm only suggesting that, in my conversations with those who embrace or are open to theistic evolution, things seem to drive down to the same two types of literalism, with creationists (of which one I am) insisting on non-figurative and the Theo-e's allowing no limits but intention.

I haven't read all of Pyro's articles either. But what I did read didn't seem to really address that gap in conversation. (Again, I only said "one could" not "we should".)

As far as TE doing damage to the Gospel, I have read a Tim Keller paper and listened to a talk he gave at Redeemer. There's at least one Gospel-centered guy who has no problem harmonizing the two.

Ben said...

Gotcha. I don't know if that gap exists. I do know that some of the BL people are denying that Adam and Eve were two actual people who stood at the beginning of the entire human race. The NT concept of Christ as the second Adam who redeems creation is predicated on the actuality of the first Adam. If Adam is figurative, huge pieces of the argument of Romans break down. Pyros have interacted with that logic. And to my knowledge, Tim Keller hasn't come anywhere close to denying a historical individual, Adam, at the head of humanity.

Now, I do believe there is a valid exegetical discussion taking place over Genesis 1-2—on several points. Is that what you have in mind from Keller? Whether and how the Pyros have addressed that point in a propagandistic way, I don't know. But the nature of the days or the scope of the garden or the sequence of the creative acts are not connected to the metanarrative of Scripture in the same way as the individuality and role in human history of Adam and Eve.

d4v34x said...

The short answers:

Keller affirms the historicity of Adam and Eve (while still allowing they may have arisen by evolotuionary biological means).

The Biologos people who do not affirm the same may well arrive at that conclusion via a hermeneutic that seeks to limit interpretation only by intent of the author.

I don't say that to negate your semantic tool in any way, but it may just make a few things messier before it makes them neater.

Ben said...

David, your middle paragraph may well represent their intentions. I'd have my doubts, but we have to account for that possibility.

Figurative language, by it's very nature, implies and even demands a concrete reality as it's antecedent (is that the right word?) [And it just occurred to me that I'm telling this to a poet.] But my point is, when an interpreter insists on a figurative interpretation for a text that is contradictory to obviously non-figurative texts, and even the whole metanarrative of Scripture, then that interpreter ought to get the sense that 1) the text isn't figurative, or 2) his interpretation of it is wrong.

In short: Regardless of their intentions, the BL people who are open to Adam as a non-literal figure are outside the bounds of legitimate discussion of what's "literal" and what's "figurative."

Of course, they also seem not to share our presupposition that the Divine Author of Scripture inspired an inerrant Bible with a coherent message. That may be another basic issue.

d4v34x said...

Fair enough.

And anyway, I'd say I'm still just a poetry apprentice.

Antecedent probably works; you're talking figuration in general. I do know that in metaphor it's vehicle=figure and tenor=actual thing.

Bruce said...

Instead of antecedent, how about referent?

Ben said...

Yes. That's the word.

d4v34x said...

That's sort of a let down. I was hoping for something much more classical sounding.

Ben said...

Today's post at Pyros essentially makes the case I've been articulating here.

d4v34x said...

And, if you click the "BioLogos" tag at the end of that post, the next most recent post adresses the Tim Keller article I reference above.

Andrew Suttles said...

Nice article.

Dispensationalists are not consistent in their use of the so-called literal hermeneutic. For example, when dispensationalists say that Israel always 'means Israel', what they mean is that Israel always means Hebrew (even though strangers from other nations could join the nation of Israel). So every mention of Israel in the OT must exclude any possible future engrafting of any Gentiles. However, when you read, say Babylon, in Isaiah 14, we are immediately told that Babylon represent the 'World System' at the end of the age. Interesting, Israel cannot include Gentiles b/c no Israelite would have understood prophecy that way, but the word Babylon does not mean Babylon, it means something totally foreign to Isaiah's hearers/readers.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, perhaps some dispensationalists fail to be consistent on those points. Dispies at least try to be consistent. It is hard work working through everything the prophets said.

It would be alot easier to give up on eschatology and adopt the decoder ring / amill approach.

Ben said...

Andrew, it would be interesting to see a traditional-ish dispensationalist response to your argument. I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone address this.

James, I thought you were NCT. NCT isn't rigidly premil, is it? And are you implying that non-dispensationalists don't attempt to be consistent? Or that no non-premils are pursuing authorial intent?

Anonymous said...

And are you implying that non-dispensationalists don't attempt to be consistent?

With respect to consistency, do non dispies actually even try to claim this? I have seen many quotes where the non dispies will admit that a consistent "literal" hermeneutic will result in the dispie outlook.

Or that no non-premils are pursuing authorial intent?

I don't know how many intentionally deny it, but that is the result. Eventually it comes down to Rev 20. John says 1000 years 6 times in just a few verses. Non premills would have us believe that was John's way of telling us something other than 1000 years. John "really" meant a long time. Since the church has been here 2000 years, nothing really says a long time like 1000 years. Actually, this kind of "authorial intent" is read into every time reference with the same result. Why must this be the authorial intent? Why did John and others go out of their way to deceive people? Was John not able to just write "a long time" or "a short time" or something else? Actually, he did do that at times in Revelation. So he used both general and specific time references.

Then you have the first book Genesis were you see the BioLogos people all over the place on that.

Andrew Suttles said...

James -

I don't understand your comment about the decoder ring.

Dispensationalists are not insulated from the integration of evolution and creationism. My Scofield Bible has notes at Genesis 1 advocating a sort of gap theory.

Andrew Suttles said...

Other areas of Dispy non-literalism includes Galatians 3. The Bible says that the promises made to Abraham find their fulfillment in Christ and those that are Christ's are heirs of those promises:

verse 16 - "Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. "

verse 29 - "And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."

How does the literalist dispy handle this? He separates the promises into physical and spiritual blessings. They claim Gentiles are only 'Spiritual' heirs and that Jews are physical heirs. Hmm... spiritualizing the inheritance? Who is the spiritualizer now? Who is the non-literalist? Dispies must do the same thing in Romans 11 and in Ephesians 2!

Ben said...

James, that's helpful in that I'm tracking with your argument now.

But what you're saying is that dispensationalists attempt to be consistent in that they advocate for a "consistently literal" reading of the text. In saying this, you're referring to the first definition in my original post. This is a valid usage of the term. Trouble is, dispensationalists who say this don't actually practice what they preach. EVERYONE agrees that the Bible contains figurative (non-literal, in this sense) language. Dispensationalists admit this in practice but deny it in their rhetoric against non-dispensationalists.

That's the whole point of my post.

Your second long paragraph assumes reveals circular logic. You're assuming that numbers related to periods of time HAVE to be taken in a non-figurative way. You're not defending that exegetically. You're just stipulating it. You'd never get on somebody's case if they asked, "Do you have a second?", then proceeded to talk to you for 30 seconds. Or even 10 minutes.

This within the ordinary function of human language. It may or may not be the usage the author of Revelation intended, but it's within the scope of plausible options that demand consideration. And not even all premils (and I'm writing this as a premil myself) insist that the Millennium has to be precisely 1,000 years. So this isn't an amil vs. premil issue, as you imply.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, it would be helpful at this point to realize some things if you didn't already.

With regards to the promises given to Abraham and those passages quoted, the DT does indeed try to interpret them literally. Your examples only take into account how the gentiles experience the promises RIGHT NOW. The future millennium is when all aspects of the promises will be literally realized. Non dispies take the spiritual promises literally now and spiritualizes the land promises. Again it is the DTer who tries to be consistent with it.

Regarding the gap theory, is that really an evolutionist concept? Btw, how many DTers today actually promote schofieldism? Name me one if you would.

Anonymous said...

Your second long paragraph assumes reveals circular logic. You're assuming that numbers related to periods of time HAVE to be taken in a non-figurative way. You're not defending that exegetically. You're just stipulating it. You'd never get on somebody's case if they asked, "Do you have a second?", then proceeded to talk to you for 30 seconds. Or even 10 minutes.

Circular logic is an unavoidable reality in the issue of prolegomena. Every person who has a position about the nature of truth and how we understand it employs it.

I agree that "a sec" could mean one second or a very short time. However, if I was writing a long letter and include general time references such as "a short time" or "quickly" and also specific time frames such as:

10 days
42 months
3.5 years
1260 days
1000 years
5 months

If the 1000 years is symbolic for a long time, what is 5 months symbolic of? How would you know?

You would not think I meant anything else unless you were predisposed to think otherwise before you exegeted the passage. So really I am taking the position that it is normal and natural to recognize that John used both general and specific time references.

Andrew Suttles said...

James said> "Regarding the gap theory, is that really an evolutionist concept?


Without the threat of evolution, why would the gap theory exist? It didn't exist before Darwin, as best I understand it anyhow.

Ben said...

It existed in some form, though I'm not sure it was ever popular, and it may not have looked much like how Scofield put it together.

Anonymous said...

I don't own a scofield ref Bible, but I think the gap theory set forth by some was that God created the world, and the darkness is the evil of satan that was upon it. The rest of Genesis is God making a new world.

So the gap wasn't evolution based. It had to do with the fall of satan.

I found these scofield notes online:

Earth made waste and empty by judgment (Jer 4:23-26)

[3] without form and void

Jer 4:23-27 Isa 24:1 45:18 clearly indicate that the earth had undergone a cataclysmic change as the result of divine judgment. The face of the earth bears everywhere the marks of such a catastrophe. There are not wanting indications which connect it with a previous testing and fall of angels.

So evolution did not have anything to do with it.

1. I don't know of a single DTer who thinks this way today.
2. I don't know of a single DTer who thinks enough like scofield to be considered scofieldian.
3. As wrong as this interpretation is, interestingly enough it is still an attempt to literally understand it.

d4v34x said...

Maybe I wasn't paying the best attention in some of my Bible classes, but I think we fundies tend to down play too much the fact that God's Word has come to us in literary form written using the full range of literary techniques.

I think our understandings and discussions suffer from that.

witness said...

I am always amazed at the way pre-trib rapture folk interpret Revelation 3:10... What literal approach to that do you take?

Ben said...

James, this is downstream a bit, but I have no intention to argue against your conviction that the time periods are literal NOT figurative. That was never my objective.

My point is that dispensationalists who think they're consistently literal (in the non-figurative sense) are (at best) kidding themselves. My other point is that people who see more figuration than you or I might see should not be broad-brushed as people who don't take the Bible literally.

Unless, of course you or I think it's valid for people who think Jesus was a wooden door to call us "non-literalists." Or to make it more real, we'd have to give some ground to Roman Catholics who'd call us non-literalists because we don't think Jesus and the disciples ate and drank his actual, physical, "literal" flesh and blood at the last supper.

Andrew Suttles said...

> "I don't own a scofield ref Bible, but..."

You don't own a Scofield?! Oh man, you didn't grow up IFB did you? It wasn't that long ago my wife was asking me why everyone in church turned the page in their Bible at the same time.

Anyhow, you don't need to have a Scofield Bible to read one. It's on Google books:


Anonymous said...

Andrew, I knew alot of people who carried one, but I was not one of them.

Ben, I don't find a particular virtue in someone claiming to be absolutely consistent in their "literalism" either. However, it is the nature of language to at least assume a literal or plain meaning of something. Do you know any DTers who claim absolute literalism and will not compromise with figures of speech? Every "literalist" I have read specifically allow for figures of speech.

Do you agree that the literal meaning should be assumed unless compelling evidence would suggest otherwise?