Traditional versus Dispensational Interpretation

The traditional method of Scriptural interpretation used by Protestants is well summed by the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), Chapter 1, Article 9:

Historic Baptist/Protestant View

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.

Viewed from another vantage point is Augustine’s oft quoted saying that “the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and that the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed“.

According to Plan (Goldsworthy)

One small modern book that teaches Bible students how to study the Bible in light of the full revelation of Christ is Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Goldsworthy highlights the key events of the Bible, such as creation, the fall, the promises to Noah, the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt to Israel, the giving of the law, the wilderness temptation, the conquest of Canaan, the beginning of the monarchy, the Exile of Israel to Babylon, the prophetic promises, the coming of Christ, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the future consummation. He does so in a way which emphasizes that all of Scripture points to Christ and finds its ultimate fulfillment in Him.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
(Luke 24:25-27)

In his own words:

“In doing biblical theology as Christians, we do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where it is all leading. Rather we first come to Christ, and he directs us to study the Old Testament in the light of the gospel” (According to Plan, pg 55)


There is a modern system of interpretation that finds itself threatened by this approach to Scripture. An example of this school is Dr. Keith Essex, graduate of Dallas Seminary and professor at The Masters Seminary (associated with radio personality John MacArthur).

Dr. Essex takes particular exception to the preceeding quote from Goldsworthy. He strongly disagrees with the approach that the New Testament can be used as an interpretive aid in understanding the Old. Says Dr. Essex: “In contrast to Goldsworthy, the present reviewer would affirm that biblical theology should proceed from Genesis 1 and OT prophecies should be understood literally.

Literal Interpretation: But What Does It Mean?

Now, all conservative Bible students agree that the Bible should be interpreted ‘literally’; but only IF by ‘literally’ we mean in a normal and natural way (contra allegoricalism). But, this is not ALL the Dispensationalist means when he says ‘literal’. By literal, the Dispensationalist means that the Old Testament prophecies were intended to be understood by first generation of hearers entirely within their own historical context and culture. Given this interpretive grid, the reader must understand that all Old Testament prophecy must be comprehended (and must find their fulfillment) within the context of Old Covenant Temple Judaism without regard for future revelation or fulfillment.

Errors of Dispensationalism

The errors of this method are that it assumes that: 1) the original hearers were intended to fully understand the mysteries of God revealed to them, and 2) that we can only understand the Scriptures by understanding this original historical context.

Response to Dispensationalism

According to the Apostle Paul, Gentiles during the Old Covenant were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph 2:12). But now that Christ has come, believing Gentiles are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). In these verses, the apostle is revealing that Gentiles can be (“contrary to nature”, Rom 11:24) fellow citizens of Israel and of the one people of God.

The Dispensationalist simply will not (cannot) accept this! If the Dispensational Bible student believes that Israelite hearers under the Old Covenant would have understood God’s promises to Israel to exclude Gentiles, then no later revelation can include them. For Dispensationalists, the Old has a sort of logical priority over the new.


The Apostle continues into chapter 3, writing of the same theme. He states:

…by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.
(Eph 3:3-6)

According to Paul, the things he himself wrote about Gentiles being engrafted into Israel were a mystery in “other ages” and were “not made known to the sons of men”. If indeed these matters were a mystery under the Old Covenant, it should only make rational sense that we would not try to understand them fully there.


The further issue I have with Dispensationalism is with the arrogant assumption that we can create models of interpretation, that if followed, allow us to fully understand Old Testament prophecy as the original hearers understood it. Not only is this arrogant, but within this there is a false assumption that everything revealed in Scripture was even intended to be fully comprehended by the generation that received it (a denial of mystery). In the end, I think our forefathers had it right. We should let the final and fuller revelation interpret the shadowy and less clear.

For more, see Problems in Dispensationalism and Dispensationalism and Ephesians.

3 thoughts on “Traditional versus Dispensational Interpretation

  1. Pingback: Reblog: Analogy of Faith | Feileadh Mor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s