By Kenneth L. Gentry Jr
This literalism argument is one of the most frequently employed and one of the most compelling to the layman. But it also suffers from question-begging. “The Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ’s birth and rearing, ministry, death, and resurrection were all fulfilled literally” (Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 94). J. Dwight Pentecost holds that this is “one of the strongest evidences for the literal method.” He vigorously asserts: “When the Old Testament is used in the New it is used only in a literal sense.” “No prophecy which has been completely fulfilled has been fulfilled any way but literally” (Pentecost, Things to Come, 10–11). Walvoord argues that “the literal fulfillment of promises pertaining to the first coming is a foreshadowing of the literal fulfillment of promises pertaining to the second coming” (Walvoord, The Nations, Israel, and the Church in Prophecy, 3:61). Elsewhere he claims: “Because approximately half of the prophecies of the Bible have already been fulfilled in a literal way, it gives a proper intellectual basis for assuming that prophecy yet to be fulfilled will likewise have a literal fulfillment.
Problems for this argument. The New Testament does not support this bold claim. To say that all prophecies transpiring in the New Testament are fulfilled literally requires that one’s system already be in place. The interpretation of a passage is grounded in the expositor’s original pre-supposition. Literalism definitionally writes off all non-literal fulfillments. For instance, it ignores Old Testament kingdom prophecies fulfilled in the ministry of Christ, though not as a literalistic, political conception (Mt 12:28; Lk 17:20–21). These prophecies are clearly fulfilled in the first century, for the prophecies of the Spirit’s outpouring, which is associated with them, comes to pass (Ac 2) (see Isa 32:14–17; Eze 36:25–27; Joel 2:28ff. Cf. Jn 7:39; 16:12f). Part III of this book will demonstrate this.
Even apart from the debate regarding Christ’s kingdom, the dispensationalist argument is unfounded. For instance, although Matthew often interprets Old Testament prophecies literally, he does not always do so. Crenshaw and Gunn carefully demonstrate that “out of 97 OT prophecies only 34 were directly or literally fulfilled, which is only 35.05 percent” (Crenshaw and Gunn, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, 22). They show that the New Testament presents many examples of non-literal fulfillment. By way of example, Matthew employs typo-logical fulfillment when he states: God’s calling Israel up out of Egypt (Hos 11:1) was fulfilled when the young Jesus returned from his flight to Egypt (Mt 2:15). He also presents us with analogical fulfillment, as when Bethlehem’s weeping for its children (Mt 2:18) fulfills Rachel’s weeping for her children (Jer 31:15).
In the New Testament antitypes fulfill Old Testament types. For instance, historical Jerusalem is a type of its antitype, the heavenly city. Paul sets the new covenant over against the old covenant, and the heavenly Jerusalem over against the earthly Jerusalem in teaching that Christianity represents the heavenly Jerusalem: “For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal 4:25–26; cf. 22–31). The writer of Hebrews does the same, when he states that new covenant Christian converts (Heb 12:24) from old covenant Judaism are now come “to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:22–23). John sees the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth in the establishment of Christianity (Rev 21:1–2). This was the heavenly city that Abraham ultimately sought beyond the temporal (and typical) Promised Land (Heb 11:10, 16).
Premillennialist LaRondelle insightfully observes: “In dispensationalism we face the fact that the hermeneutic of literalism accepts Christian typology for some selected historical parts of the Old Testament. But it suddenly rejects each typological application of God’s covenant with Israel to Christ’s new covenant with His Church. This seems to be an arbitrary, speculative use of typology with the Old Testament” (LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy, 48). This is a telling observation. Poythress provides a helpful critique of dispensationalism’s use of typology (Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 111–17).