The Hermeneutic of ‘Literalism’: Evaluating Dispensationalism (III)

(Continued from the April issue, 1997)


The first problem area in the application of a literal hermeneutic relates to dispensationalism’s treatment of biblical prophecies or promises and their fulfillment. Here the dispensationalist insistence upon a “literal” reading of the biblical texts, especially the prophecies, actually masks the more basic claim that only “earthly” or “non-spiritual” promises can be made to an “earthly” people. The real reason for an insistence upon literalism is to prevent the promises made to Israel from being directly related to the church. Dispensationalism would collapse, as a method of reading biblical prophecies, were it shown that the promises made to Israel in the old covenant find their true and final fulfillment in the new covenant church. Because the promises to Israel are always and necessarily earthly and literal, they may not be directly applied to the church.

The problem here is that the New Testament repeatedly refers the Old Testament prophecies and promises made to Israel to the church. Whatever the previous fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy may have been, they reach their ultimate fulfillment in Christ in whom all the promises of God have their “yes” and their “amen” (2 Cor. 1:20). This can be illustrated with several examples.

Among the most basic promises in all of Scripture is the promise made by the Lord to Abraham, that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This promise is repeated in Genesis 15 where Abraham is promised descendants as numerous as the stars of the heavens (v. 3), and then in Genesis 17 where Abraham is promised a “seed” and is said to be the “father of a multitude of nations” (v.4). In the New Testament account of the fulfillment of this promise, especially in the apostle Paul’s treatment of it in Galatians 3 and 4, it is expressly stated that this promise has been fulfilled in Christ. Not only is Christ the seed of promise, the One in whom these earlier promises to Abraham are fulfilled, but all, whether Jew or Gentile, who belong to Christ are also Abraham’s seed! In the gathering through the gospel of believers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, there is literally fulfilled what the Lord had promised to Abraham. However, the dispensationalist’s view is that this can only be, at best, a “secondary application,” but not the literal fulfillment of the promise to earthly Israel. But this view contradicts the apostle Paul’s teaching that all Jewish and Gentile believers are the “seed ofAbraham” and therefore co-heirs of the promise.9

Similarly, the promises made during the old covenant to King David find their fulfillment in the coming and kingship of Jesus Christ, David’s Son and his Lord. In the announcement of Jesus’ birth through the angel to the virgin Mary, the angel is recorded to have said to her: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:31–33). This passage, when read literally, says that the child to be born is the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise in 2 Samuel 7:13–16 (compare Ps. 89:26, 27), the promise that David’s Son would be seated forever upon the throne of His father David. However, dispensationalism in its classic form teaches that this Davidic kingdom is an exclusively earthly kingdom, a kingdom reserved to the period of the millennium (1000 years) and for the earthly people of God, Israel. Not only does this understanding fail the test of being a literal reading of the biblical descriptions of the promise of a Davidic kingdom (1000 years is not forever!), but it also seems far less a plain reading of the text than the one ordinarily adopted by non-dispensational interpreters—that Christ’s coming is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise made earlier to David.

One other biblical promise that illustrates the problem of dispensationalism’s treatment of biblical prophecy is the promise of a restored temple. In Ezekiel 40 to 48, there is an extended description of the future rebuilding of the temple, after Israel’s restoration from her captivity. This description speaks in detail of the dimensions of this rebuilt temple, as well as of the variety of sacrifices that will be offered in it, including sin offerings and the like. In the dispensationalist reading of this prophecy, it is insisted that this refers to the literal rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom. However, this creates a problem of how to interpret the language describing the reinstitution of the sacrificial system, at a time after the coming of Christ and the accomplishment of redemption through His once-for-all sacrifice upon the cross. In the New Scofield Reference Bible, it is conceded that, on one understanding of this passage, this language need not be taken literally:

The reference to sacrifices is not to be taken literally, in view of the putting away of such offerings, but is rather to be regarded as a presentation of the worship of redeemed Israel, in her own land and in the millennial temple, using the terms with which the Jews were familiar in Ezekiel’s day.10

This admission that some elements of Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the rebuilt temple is fatal, however, to the claims made by dispensationalism for a literal reading of prophecy, especially the promises to Israel. The same reason that leads the dispensationalist to read the language about sacrifices in this passage in a nonliteral way -because it would lead to conflict with other portions of Scripture could equally well apply to other aspects of the prophecy. Indeed, there are indications that the fulfillment of this prophecy is taught in the Word of God, but not in the literal sense of a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem during the period of the millennium. 11



These are only some examples of the way dispensationalism fails to acknowledge the fulfillment of many of the Old Testament prophecies to Israel in the coming of Christ and the gathering of His church during this present age. Rather than allowing the New Testament’s understanding of the fulfillment of prophecy to determine its viewpoint, dispensationalism operates from the prejudice that no promise to Israel could, in the strict sense of the term, ever be literally fulfilled in connection with the church. But this is a prejudice based upon an unbiblical dichotomy between Israel and the church, as we have already seen in a previous article.


A second and related problem area, the interpretation of biblical types and shadows, is in many ways the “Achilles heel” of the dispensationalist’s literal hermeneutic. Biblical types may be loosely defined as those events, persons, or institutions in the Old Testament, that prefigure or foreshadow their New Testament realities.12 In the instances of such biblical types, the Old Testament type is fulfilled in its typical and symbolical meaning by the New Testament reality. Thus, if it can be shown that many of the historical events, persons and institutions which were integral to the Lord’s administration of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, were typical or a foreshadowing of events, persons, and institutions in their new covenant reality and fulfillment, dispensationalism, as a method of biblical interpretation, would seem to be seriously imperiled.

Though there are many examples of biblical types that could be cited, there are three instances that are especially problematic for dispensationalism: the temple, Jerusalem, and the sacrifices.

The Temple

I begin with the typology of the temple because it is with this that we concluded the previous section on prophecy. In the teaching of the Scriptures, the temple (earlier, the tabernacle) of the Lord is the place of His peculiar dwelling in the midst of His people. The temple was the focal point for the worship of Israel, the place where the people of the Lord could draw near to God as their sins were atoned for by means of the sacrifices instituted in the law. Speaking of the tabernacle’s significance in the Old Testament, Gerhaardus Vos, in his Biblical Theology, remarks:

The tabernacle affords a clear instance of the coexistence of the symbolical and the typical in one of the principal institutions of the Old Testament religion. It embodies the eminently religious idea of the dwelling of God with His people. This it expresses symbolically so far as the Old Testament state of religion is concerned, and typically as regards the final embodiment of salvation in the Christian state…That its main purpose is to realize the indwelling of Jehovah is affirmed in so many words [Ex. 25:8; 29:44, 45].13

In this, its typical significance, the temple was a “shadow” or “type” of the reality of the Lord’s dwelling with His people. According to the New Testament, this reality is now found in Christ Himself (John 1:14; 2:19–22; Col. 2:9) and in the church as the place of God’s dwelling by the Spirit (Eph. 2:21, 22; 1 Tim. 3:15; Heb. 3:6; 10:21; 1 Pet. 2:5). Christ and the church, therefore, are the fulfillment of the symbolical and typical significance of the temple. Moreover, in the final state of consummation, when the Lord dwells forever in the presence of His people in the “new heavens and earth,” it is expressly taught that there will no longer be any temple for the Lord will dwell in their midst (Rev. 21:22).

The dispensationalist insistence, therefore, that the temple is an institution which pertains, in its literal form, peculiarly to Israel, fails to appreciate its typical significance in biblical revelation. The idea that the temple would be literally rebuilt and serve as a focal point for the worship of Israel during the period of the millennium represents, from the point of view of the progress and unfolding of biblical revelation, a reversion to Old Testament types and shadows, in the context of their having been fulfilled in their New Testament reality! From this point of view, dispensationalism wants to turn back the clock of redemptive history.


A similar kind of misunderstanding of biblical typology also characterizes the dispensationalist’s treatment of “Jerusalem” or “Zion.“ In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Zion is the city of David, the theocratic king, and symbolizes the rule of the Lord in the midst of His people. Jerusalem is the city of the Lord’s anointed, the place of His throne and gracious rule among His people. It is the “city of God” (Psalm 46), the place where children are conceived and born to the Lord (Psalm 87). It is the city to which the nations, whom the Lord has promised to give to David’s Son as His rightful inheritance (Psalm 2), will come.

However, in the New Testament, we are taught that Jerusalem is now the “heavenly Jerusalem.” For this reason, the writer of Hebrews is able to say to new covenant believers: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (12:22–23). This is also the reason the apostle John can report the following vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, as it will be at the close of the history of redemption:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them” (Rev. 21:1–3).

These kinds of passages describe for us the fulfillment of all that the Jerusalem of the old covenant typified and foreshadowed. They confirm the pattern of biblical typology: the literal Jerusalem of the old covenant is typical of the new covenant city of God, the church. The dwelling of the Lord in the midst of His people, the presence of the temple sanctuary, the throne of David—all of these find their fulfillment and reality in the new covenant blessing and consummation witnessed by the apostle John in his vision on the isle of Patmos.

The Sacrifices

One further and closely linked instance of biblical typology is that of the sacrifices stipulated in the law of Moses, especially in the book of Leviticus. These sacrifices were symbols and types of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the high priest after the order of MeIchizedek, who fulfills and perfects all that they foreshadowed. This is the principal argument of the book of Hebrews which compares and contrasts the old covenant tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifices to their fulfillment and perfection in Christ. To cite but one passage from the argument of this epistle, it is evident that the types and shadows of the old covenant have been abolished, or better, find their reality and perfection, in the realities of the new covenant:

Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary that this high priest also have something to offer. Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things…But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises…When he said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear (Hebrews 8:1–6, 13).

The point summarized in this passage, and exhibited in the previous examples of biblical types, constitutes what I am calling the “achilles heel” of the dispensationalist claim for a literal hermeneutic. Not only does this claim fail to do justice to the New Testament’s teaching regarding the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, but it also militates against the claim made by the inspired New Testament authors regarding the typological significance of the Old Testament sanctuary, priesthood and sacrifice: the reality of the new covenant renders the shadow obsolete and superfluous! The same principle, moreover, holds for all of the types and shadows of the old covenant administration. Once this principle is conceded, dispensationalism’s insistence upon a literal reinstitution of the types and shadows of the old covenant seems to be in serious conflict with the teaching of biblical typology.


The third problem area that remains to be considered is the dispensationalist claim that a non-literal fulfillment of the biblical prophecies and promises to Israel betrays a “spiritualizing” that cannot do justice to the biblical texts. According to dispensationalism, there are many promises to Israel which cannot be accounted for unless they are understood to be fulfilled literally and concretely during the period of the millennium to come.

Among such prophecies, dispensationalists will often cite passages like Isaiah 11:6–10 and 65:17–25. Both of these prophecies are treated in the New Scofield Bible as predictions of the millennium, the one thousand year period of Christ’s literal reign upon the earth from Jerusalem. This millennial reign represents the resumption of God’s peculiar dealings with His earthly people, Israel, after the times of the Gentiles, (the parenthesis period of the church) has concluded with the rapture and the following seven year tribulation. According to dispensationalism, these prophecies are a compelling proof that the prophecies of the Lord to Israel can only have a literal, concrete fulfillment. The language used in both passages, according to the dispensationalist, can only be understood to refer to a literal millennium or Davidic kingdom on earth.

However, a close inspection of these two prophecies does not support this claim.

Isaiah 11:6–10

In Isaiah 11:6–10, the prophet describes a beautiful picture of the reign of the “shoot” from Jesse. This reign will be characterized by a circumstance of universal peace and tranqUility. In this kingdom, the Lord declares that “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid….They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (vv. 6, 9). But it is not clear that this is a description of the millennium of dispensationalist expectation. There is no mention made of this being a period which will be limited in time, perhaps a period of one thousand years duration. More importantly, this passage speaks of a reign characterized by a universal peace and knowledge of the Lord. The millennium of dispensationalist expectation, by contrast, includes the presence of some people who do not acknowledge the Lord and even the prospect at its close of a substantial rebellion on the part of many against Him (Satan’s “little season”). The description of Isaiah 11:6–10, accordingly, might better be referred to the final state of the “new heavens and earth” than the millennium. Though this language is legitimately taken to be a description of the circumstance upon the earth—and therefore not to be spiritualized in a non-earthly sense—it better describes the universal peace and knowledge of the Lord that will characterize the final state in the consummation than the earthly and Davidic kingdom of dispensational expectation.

Isaiah 65:17–25

The second of these prophecies, Isaiah 65:17–25, is somewhat more difficult to interpret. In the New Scofield Bible, the first verse, which speaks of the “new heavens and a new earth,” is taken as a description of the final state, but the remaining verses (vv. 18–25) are taken as a description of the millennium.14 Thus, this passage is taken to be a description of both the final state and the millennium that will precede it. This reading has some plausibility, because verse 20 does describe a time when infants will not be cut off after having lived only a few days, and when those who are older will not die prematurely. And this verse expressly states that “the youth will die at the age of one hundred and the one who does not reach the age of one hundred shall be thought accursed.” Because death is mentioned in these verses, dispensationalists argue that it cannot refer to the final state.

Though this is a difficult passage, it may well be the case that, in this prophetic description of the new heavens and the new earth, this kind of language is used to describe the final state. If the language is pressed literally, it may seem to conflict with the biblical teaching that death will be no more in the new heavens and earth. But perhaps the language used is simply a way of figuratively or poetically affirming the “incalculably long lives” that the inhabitants of the new earth will live.15 It should be observed that these verses also speak of the lives of the inhabitants being “as the lifetime of the tree” (v. 22), language that suggests an extraordinary longevity of life. Perhaps more significantly, these verses speak of how there will no longer be heard in Jerusalem “[t]he voice of weeping and the sound of crying,” the very language used in Revelation 21:4 to designate the final state. The likeliest reading of these verses, therefore, is that they, from verse 17 through verse 25, describe in the language of present experience, something of the joy, blessedness, and everlasting life that will be circumstance of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth.16

What I would like to emphasize, in terms of these and similar texts, is that they have an appropriate place within a non-dispensationalist reading of the Bible. It is simply not the case that all non-dispensationalists simply “spiritualize” these prophecies and fail to take their description of renewed life on the new earth seriously. One does not have to be a dispensationalist to do justice to the concrete, “earthy” language used in these prophecies of the new heavens and earth. So long as it is understood that the final state requires a new heavens and a new earth, the richness and concreteness of the imagery in these biblical passages can be appreciated. Indeed, from one perspective, it could even be argued that, to the extent that the dispensationalist millennium falls short of the blessedness of life in the new earth described in these passages, it becomes the more guilty of “spiritualizing” their language and meaning! So long as there is a proper insistence upon the restoration of the earth in the final state, non-dispensationalists need not concede in the least the charge that they have illegitimately spiritualized the prophecies of Scripture regarding the final state.


The dispensationalist claim regarding a literal interpretation of the Scriptures is really the product of its insistence upon a radical separation between Israel, God’s earthly people, and the church, God’s spiritual people. Without this undergirding assumption—that God has these two distinct peoples—there is no reason to deny the fulfillment of old covenant promises in the new covenant realities. Nor is there any longer reason to avoid the implications of biblical typology for the dispensationalist system.

Perhaps the most telling evidence against the dispensationalist hermeneutic is to be found in the book of Hebrews. The message of the book of Hebrews is, if I may be permitted to speak anachronistically, a compelling rebuttal of dispensationalism. Whereas the book of Hebrews is one sustained argument for the finality, richness and completion of all of the Lord’s covenant words and works in the new covenant which is in Christ, dispensationalism wants to preserve the old arrangements intact for Israel, arrangements which will be reinstituted in the period of the millennial kingdom. However, this would be tantamount to a “going back” to what has been surpassed in the new covenant in Christ. It would be a reversion to arrangements that have been rendered obsolete and superfluous because their reality has been realized in the provisions of the new covenant. The Mediator of this new covenant, Christ, is the fulfillment of all the promises of the Lord to His people. Thus, to the writer of Hebrews, any reversion to the old covenant types and ceremonies would be an unacceptable departure from the realities of the new covenant in preference for the shadows of the old.

Though it may seem too severe to some, no other judgment is permitted us respecting the system of biblical interpretation known as dispensationalism: it represents a continued attachment to the shadows and ceremonies of the old covenant dispensation, and therefore also a failure to appreciate properly the finality of the new covenant. Its doctrine of a “literal” hermeneutic proves not to be “literal” in the proper sense of the term. Rather than reading the New Testament “according to the letter,” dispensationalism reads the New Testament through the lens of its insistence upon a radical separation between Israel and the church.


1. Here and throughout this article I am using the term “hermeneutic” in the basic sense of a method or approach to the reading of the Bible. Dispensationalism is characterized by a particular hermeneutic or way (following certain rules or principles) of reading the biblical texts, one which especially stresses the principle of a literal reading.

2. Cyrus I. Scofield, The Scofield Bible Correspondence School, Course of Study (7th ed., 3 vols.; no place or publisher given), pp. 45–46; as cited by Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 24.

3. Chicago: Moody, 1965.

4. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1974.

5. Dispensationalism Today, p. 86.

6. The Interpretation of Prophecy, p. 29.

7. On the basis of this fourfold sense of the biblical texts, a reference to water could mean literally a colorless liquid, allegorically baptism by water, morally the need for purity, and anagogically the eternal life in the heavenly Jerusalem. Or, to use another common example, Jerusalem could mean literally the city in Palestine, morally the need for heavenly-mindedness, allegorically citizenship in heaven, and anagogically the Jerusalem of the new heavens and the new earth.

8. Speaking against this Medieval teaching of a fourfold sense, the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1,ix, states that “the true and full sense of any Scripture…is not manifold, but one….”

9. In my previous article dealing with the relationship between Israel and the church, the argument offered for rejecting any sharp separation between them is closely related to this biblical understanding of the fulfillment of the promises to Israel in the new covenant. Another example of this can be found in the teaching of Romans 9–11, to which reference was made in that article.

10. The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford, 1967), p. 888. This note represents a change from the original The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford, 1917), which says: “Doubtless these offerings will be memorial, looking back to the cross, as the offerings under the old covenant were anticipatory, looking forward to the cross. In neither case do animal sacrifices have the power to put away sin (Heb. 10:4; Rom. 3 :25)” p. 890.

11. There are a number of problems with the dispensationalist claim that the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem during the millennium: first, even were there no sacrifices re-instituted or perhaps only “memorial” sacrifices offered, as some dispensationalists have suggested, Christ could not minister in this temple because He is not a priest “according to the order of Levi” (compare Heb. 7:14); second, Ezekiel says nothing about the rebuilding of the temple during the period known as the millennium; and third, the prophecy of the temple’s rebuilding is a prophecy of the dwelling of the Lord in the midst of His people that is described in Revelation 22. Dispensationalism misinterprets this prophecy because it has an improper view of biblical types and shadows in relation to their fulfillment, a subject to which I will turn in the next section of this article.

12. T. Norton Street, How to Understand Your Bible (rev. ed.; Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1974), p. 107, gives the following, useful definition of a biblical type: “A type can be defined as a divinely purposed, Old Testament foreshadowing of a New Testament spiritual reality.”

13. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948, p. 148.

14. These verses are given the heading, “Millennial conditions in the renewed earth with curse removed” (New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 768).

15. This language and suggestion is that of Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 202.

16. Perhaps this is the place to mention yet another reading of these verses. Some post-millennialists would regard the description of these verses to refer to the millennium, the “golden age” which will precede the return of Christ and the final state. Though this view does not include the dispensationalist understanding of a kingdom reserved to God’s earthly people, Israel, it does regard this passage to describe a period whose blessings fall short of the perfection of the final state.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.