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I most often hear about dispensationalism in the context of a theological framework wherein God’s relations with man are understood to be divided up into different periods of time, or dispensations, each having distinctly different properties. However, the term also shows up in the context of hermeneutics.

Is dispensationalism a theological framework or a hermeneutical approach? If the latter (or if it is somehow both) what does it prescribe in terms of how a given text should be understood?

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4 Answers 4

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If you look at the articles on Wikipedia for Biblical hermeneutics, dispensationalism, and covenant theology you will see that they both are referred to as interpretive frameworks as well as theologies.

The hermeneutic circle entails that dispensationalism is both a theological framework and a hermeneutical approach. One's theology will affect the reading of the text and one's reading of the text will affect one's theology.

For example, consider this question about Daniel. If, like Porphyry, your theology excludes the possibility of prophecy, and if you are convinced that the "prophetic" statements in Daniel match up a little too well with the history of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, then you may conclude that Daniel was not the author. This will give a pretty different reading of the text compared to someone whose theology allows for prophecy and concludes that Daniel was, in fact, the author.

Similarly, if you have a dispensationalist theology - and you believe that the apostles did as well - you will likely interpret "Israel" in a text like Galatians 6:16 in a different way from someone who believes that the church has replaced Israel. Or more dramatically, you will have a very different interpretation of Revelation compared to someone with a covenant theology. For this reason, these theologies are also interpretive frameworks.

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Very well put. I've been surprised actually that I haven't seen the hermeneutical circle brought up on this site until now. Very relevant here. –  Ray Oct 10 '11 at 17:32
    
@Soldarnal-You said it in a nutshell. Our theological perspectives instruct our hermeneutics. You can't 'see' what the text is saying when your theological point of reference says 'this is this, and that is that'. Would we that we would bury all of our theological perspectives and ask, "What does God say it means?" –  user2479 Dec 29 '13 at 20:41
    
@user2479: Easier said than done, my friend. Scripture tells us we should rightly divide the word of truth. Take the division of Law, Prophets, and Writings. Take the concept of progressive revelation (which is probably a whole 'nother can of worms). Perspectives aren't to be shunned; they are to be embraced. Jesus Himself had a perspective, which should be perhaps the most important perspective, and one which we embrace: "the things concerning Himself" (Lk 24). No perspective is complete, but each one has something to offer, except the anti-supernatural perspective. –  rhetorician Apr 5 at 13:53

Most all theological frameworks will affect how you read a text, and thus bring hermeneutic principles with them. But the theology itself is not the hermeneutic, although it may imply some. If I believe Jesus Christ is the center and fulfillment of the entire Hebrew Bible and Apocryphal writings (I do), then this will affect how I read texts such as Psalm 22. It will also affect my textual choices (which is why I choose the Septuagint over the Masoretic Text in many cases—because the apostles usually did also, as did many early Christian Church Fathers).

Dispensationalism is a more defined example of this. This theology will affect how you interpret covenants and how God deals with people in different time periods (dispensations).1 But is it a hermeneutic? No, however it creates hermeneutic principles. All beliefs have accompanying interpretive biases, my own included. All biases bring hermeneutics with them.

For instance, if I reject all supernatural events like the founding American fathers and adopt only an empiricist worldview, then I must presume all miracles are later embellishments and textual corruptions, or worse yet the text was filled with lies from the start. If I believe that Jesus was a false Christ, one of many to make such a claim in first century Judea, then this would just be example of a cult within Judaism that survived thanks to political support following the Edict of Milan. No matter what I believe, I will bring hermeneutics to the text with me.

So the answer is that dispensationalism is a theology, but like all beliefs, it has accompanying hermeneutics.


1 It is my opinion that it is an anachronistic reading of a text to read 19th century ideas not agreed on by the whole Christian Church from John Darby back into first century texts, even more so Hebrew Bible texts. Had it not been for Moody and Scofield and his Reference Bible, this idea would probably not even be so popular in North America today.

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A Dispensationalist Perspective

This question seriously needs input from a dispensationalist point of view, so I thought to oblige. The huge ignorance of dispensationalism displayed by Mike Bull's answer at the least requires a response.

An Agreement

First, let me state that I (generally) agree with what has been posted thus far that:

Theology affects hermeneutics, but is not itself a hermeneutic.

Soldanarl's statement:

The hermeneutic circle entails that dispensationalism is both a theological framework and a hermeneutical approach. One's theology will affect the reading of the text and one's reading of the text will affect one's theology.

Similarly, user1985's statement

Most all theological frameworks will affect how you read a text, and thus bring hermeneutic principles with them. But the theology itself is not the hermeneutic, although it may imply some.

There are aspects of the concept of the hermeneutical circle that I have issues with, but still, in general I agree with how theology can feedback and affect reading. Dispensationalism is not excluded in this, along with all other theological frameworks.

A Clarification of Dispensationalism Itself

Let's start by letting Charles Ryrie define the essential essence (sine qua non) of dispensationalism, since he is a recognized leading traditional dispensationalist (and the leading one regarding defining of it).1 He does have three points (just not the three Mike Bull notes):

  1. "A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct" (46).

  2. "This distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation ... historical-grammatical hermeneutics" (47).

  3. "The underlying purpose of God in the world ... [is] the glory of God" (48).

There are "variations" of articulation for #1 among dispensationalists, but the principle is generally valid as a distinguishing feature. This is not unlike that there are variations of articulation for covenant theologians regarding the covenants of works, redemption, and grace.

There are many dispensationalists that would put point #2 first,3 since point #1 derives from point #2 (even as Ryrie himself states; I'm unclear why Ryrie put them in that order, but probably because #1 is the key difference between dispensational theology and covenant theology's replacement theology).

Point #3 is really not a big issue for our discussion here, but points #1 and #2 are. Mike Stallard made a needful clarification to Ryrie's point #2 (which Stallard puts as point #1), and phrased the three points like so (from page 34):4

  1. "The preservation of the literal interpretation of the Old Testament at all points of theologizing in the light of progressive revelation"
  2. "A distinction between Israel and the Church"
  3. "A doxological purpose of biblical history"

When he states, "at all points of theologizing in the light of progressive revelation," what he means is Old Testament priority over New Testament priority in forming theology. That is, the difference in dispensational and nondispensational hermeneutics is the starting place (OT or NT, respectively) of applying the literal hermeneutic (19); that the New Testament should not be "read back into the Old" (22). This is because God revealed Himself in a progressive way, so at each step of the revelation, there was a message (a meaning) He was conveying to the people then, one that does not get overridden (i.e. the church replacing Israel) by His later revelation (else He "lied" in the previous revelation), only clarified by it.

Answering the Question Given Here

Questions

[1] Is dispensationalism a theological framework or a hermeneutical approach? [2] If the latter (or if it is somehow both) what does it prescribe in terms of how a given text should be understood?

Answers

  1. Dispensationalism is a theological framework grounded in a literal (grammatical-historical) hermeneutical approach that gives priority to following the order of divine revelation in coming to an understanding of the text and theological conclusions.

  2. I've already affirmed it is not the latter (i.e. a hermeneutical approach, though in a sense as already noted in the agreement above, it is "both"). Rather, it in fact holds to a literal hermeneutic. For an understanding of that, I suggest examining some of the basic/intermediate textbooks on the topic used in some dispensational schools (at undergraduate/graduate level).5

Some Final Clarifications

Dispensationalism is named for its understanding of there being "dispensations," which user1985 generally noted correctly that it refers to "how God deals with people in different time periods," and the OP himself essentially has a correct understanding of in the question. One of the few things Mike Bull correctly states is that "the idea of 'dispensations' is not unbiblical," and you will find the term in covenant theology books as well (though not entirely with the same meaning and/or implications). This broader recognition is why Ryrie and other dispensationalists do not count it as a sine qua non, even though it is what "named" the view (45).

Such period divisions have been recognized throughout church history, as is another commonly associated teaching of dispensationalists, premillennialism (a form of chiliasm).6 Contra user1985's footnote, there is much more "history" behind the view than is characterized by those who only believe it goes back to John Nelson Darby. It is only true that (1) the maturity of the viewpoint came about at that point and since (much like other points of theology were not recognized immediately after the penning of the NT scriptures), and (2) the Scofield Reference Bible popularized the view.

What is important to realize is that all these things (and more) that dispensationalists hold to is what we believe arises from the proper application of a literal (grammatical-historical) hermeneutic. And far from being anachronistic (as user1985 claimed in his footnote), by having OT priority in interpretation, the dispensationalist seeks to understand the OT as the Israelite would have, something many Christians abandoned early in church history. Christ's coming revealed more, and clarified much, but it did not override God's promises to His people Israel.


Notes

1 The following three quoted points are from Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007. This is a revision of his 1995 work of the same name, which in turn was revised from his first work on this titled Dispensationalism Today (1966). As you can see, he has been writing about the topic for over forty years.

2 Note: I'm using "traditional dispensationalist" to distinguish from the more recent divergence of what has come to be known as "progressive dispensationalism," which in part attempts to argue there is no sine qua non as Ryrie puts forth. The distinction is not without relevance, but for purposes here is simply to give you an awareness of this internal debate among self-proclaimed dispensationalists. While I would recommend anyone interested in learning more about dispensationalism to start with Ryrie's book before wading into the controversy, for those interested in a comparative study of the two branches, see Herbert W. Batemman IV, ed., Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999. For initial statements on progressive dispensationalism itself by advocates of it, see Craig A. Blaising and Darrel L. Bock, ed., Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992; and Craig A. Blaising and Darrel L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.

3 For a revised order, see Mike Stallard, "Literal Interpretation, Theological Method, and the Essence of Dispensationalism," Journal of Ministry and Theology 1 (Spring 1997), 5-36. This article would be well worth reading if one wanted to get a better grasp of traditional dispensationalism.

4 Ibid.

5 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth, Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1991; Henry A. Virkler and Karelynne Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching & Teaching, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1981; E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967. Also, a popular dispensational book that gives one viewpoint of a dispensational eschatology includes hermeneutical discussion in its first four chapters, J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1958.

6 For a thorough survey of church history regarding divisions of history, see Arnold D. Ehlert's nine part series "A Bibliography of Dispensationalism" in Bibliotheca Sacra issues 101-103 (1944-1946). Also see, Larry V. Crutchfield's article, "The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism," Conservative Theological Journal 2 (March 1998), 19-31. There are also Covenant Premillennialists, which is why that is not a sine qua non.

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@ScottS-Awesome! You've separated the "Hermeneutic(grammatical/historical)" from the theology(The outline of the sequence of administrations/dispensations of God's dealings with mankind. And you quoted Scott Ryrie's & Dwight Pentecost's seminal works regarding them. The key issue-which you expand on, is how God has continued dealings w/Israel-a fact that Covenant Theology folks(Mike Bull is one) flatly deny. I personally don't agree w/ all of dispensationalism-but you do a yeoman's service by correctly identifying it-Good Work! –  user2479 Apr 6 at 1:22
    
@user2479: FYI, it is Charles Ryrie, not Scott Ryrie. –  ScottS Apr 6 at 4:22
    
@ScottS-My bad, brain's turning to mush. I read his book on Dispensationalism in '77, and along w/Dwight Pentecost's work "Things to Come", had formed my understanding on Dispensationalism. –  user2479 Apr 6 at 4:28

Dispensationalism is a framework, but the framework itself is only the result of a few basic assumptions. These basic assumptions are wrong, which is why the framework is so complicated.

1 The Jew-Gentile division was permanent, thus:

2 The current Christian priesthood is temporary, thus:

3 The current priesthood must be removed and the Aaronic one reinstated at some point.

The "framework" is really just this three-fold lens. Consequently, most if not all the post-exilic promises of restoration in the prophets are removed from their historical context and applied to the modern state of Israel, and all of the predictions concerning the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 in Daniel and the New Testament are applied to some future event. This creates incredible confusion, some crazy charts and some even crazier people.

An example: the invasion Israel by Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38-39 is taken to be a modern invasion of Israel (the identity of the invaders is always taken from the current news headlines). However, the structure of the book and the content of the chapters shows it is a prophecy of the events in the book of Esther (un-walled cities, Haman-Gog / Haman the Agagite, etc), a proposed slaughter and plundering of all Jews between India and Ethiopia. This victory was the vindication of a resurrected Israel before all nations - back then.

The misinterpretation allows authors to write best-selling books about a coming invasion, and republish them every few years with different villains.

Also, since the Revelation is "level-pegged" step by step with Ezekiel (but concerning the second temple instead of the first), Revelation uses Gog and Magog as an allusion to describe the end of this current age (in which God is working behind the scenes as He did in Esther). Dispensationalists believe these passages speak of the same battle, even though the specifics are very different.

The idea of "dispensations" is not unbiblical, but the cycle of the various covenants must be taken as a progression. It is chiastic, but it is progressive, and the prophets always allude to previous cycles to explain what is coming - such as the wolf and lamb, the branch, etc (from Noah) to explain the restoration of the Land of Israel from beneath the flood of the nations.

Dispensationalists have a terrible time with the book of Hebrews. It's like looking at green through a red filter. It just comes up black.

The downside of dispensationalism is that is has no mind for types and symbols (at least not ones concerning Israel). The upside is that all the dispensationalists I have known have a very high regard for Scripture and Bible chronology.

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