Dissing Dispies? #2: Hermeneutics
In my first look at Dan Phillips ‘Twenty-five stupid reasons for dissing dispensationalism’ I tried to show how Dan begins the process of softening us up to believe that Dispensationalists have got it right by using an ‘ad hominem’ argument: the Reformed, and especially one Reformed Great, have been really unkind to Dispensationalists in general and Dan in particular; have a look – I’m not going to repeat myself.
There’s a second preliminary Dan gives us before he gets to the 25 of the title – the question of hermeneutics. ‘…when I consistently apply the hermeneutic that God used to save me, I end up Reformed… and dispensationalist.’
What’s hermeneutics? It’s the science, or art, (it’s both) of interpreting the Biblical text. But isn’t it obvious what a text means? Well, yes – usually – hence Dan’s principle
When the plain sense of Scripture makes good sense, seek no other sense. Therefore, take every word in its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental and axiomatic truths, clearly indicate otherwise.
It’s called ‘grammatico-historical’ hermeneutics, or sometimes the historico-grammatical principle: you take into account the grammar, and the history. In brief, a text means what it says, and especially what the first readers would have understand it to mean.
Dan’s right – it’s fundamental. It saves us making blunders like Augustine’s, insisting that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the two coins were the sacraments, the inn was the church, the inn-keeper the Pope, etcetera.
But it’s also a bit more complicated than that – for a slavish adherence to h/g won’t save us from Origen’s misunderstanding of Matthew 19:12 – it won’t stop us castrating ourselves. And some of us are really keen not to go that way...
Let me illustrate by taking the matter of prayer. Jesus says
In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (John 16.23)
The ‘historico’ bit would have us ask: when will this promise be kept? And the immediate context tells us – when the disciples see Jesus again, after his death. That is – when he is risen. What does the plain meaning of the text (the grammatico bit) tell us? That in that day, Christians can have absolutely anything they ask for – or at least, the apostles can. Winning the lottery? Perfect health? Therein, you see, is the Prosperity Gospel. Dan knows this, of course, and makes the point by saying ‘in the light of related passages and fundamental and axiomatic truths.’
Once we look at other things the Bible says about prayer, for example James 4.3
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures...
…a restriction or qualification is there that isn’t in the first text. So, to apply the h/g principle properly, the context of a text that has to be taken into account is the whole of Scripture. And that, some of us think, is where dispies may be going wrong.
Dan – in another blog entry – references a speaker at this year's Shepherds' Conference who said ‘you might be a dispensationalist if you think the primary meaning of an Old Testament text is found in the authorial intent of the OT writer as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics’.
True – but you might also be wrong. Sometimes, at least, the true meaning of an Old Testament text is found in the New Testament. Isaiah 7.14 springs to mind.
It isn’t that our dispie friends aren’t aware of this – the same speaker says
You may believe that God, in the New Testament, may do more than what the OT author meant, or apply the OT passage in ways not seen by the OT author, but God will never do less or go contrary to the original meaning of the OT author. Thus, the meaning of OT passages is anchored in the OT passages themselves.
The question has to be: is that the way the New Testament writers themselves see the Old Testament? When the apostles on the Day of Pentecost are accused of drunkenness, they say ‘No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel’ and goes on to quote Joel 2:28-32. According to Peter, Joel is prophesying Pentecost – but it doesn’t look like that in its original context. In fact, Joel prophesies (and Peter quotes) ‘The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood’ as part of the same prophecy. ‘This is that’? Yes: but we know – because Acts tells us – that it isn’t the end of the world.
Similarly, the true meaning of Amos 9:11,12 is not the restoration of Israel to its nation, says Acts: rather, it foretells the ingathering of the Gentiles in the gospel age (Acts 15:16ff)
Hermeneutics is a difficult issue. But DJP simply isn’t fair when he implies – and even says – that dispies are the ones ‘who still take all of the Bible seriously’. That ain’t the way it is, Dan.