by Charles C. Ryrie


Hermeneutics is the science that furnishes the principles of interpretation.  These principles guide and govern anybody's system of theology.  They ought to be determined before one's theology is systematized, but in practice the reverse is usually true.  At least in the awareness of most people, hermeneutics is one of the last things to be considered consciously.   Most people know something of the doctrines they believe but little of the hermeneutics on which they have been built.  Principles of interpretation are basic and preferably should be established before attempting to interpret the Word so that the results are not only correct interpretations but a right system of theology growing out of those interpretations.





Since the first edition of this book in 1965, there have been at least three developments in the field of hermeneutics.


1 The area of linguistics has contributed an understanding concerning language structure and general semantics that has aided biblical interpretation.[1]


2 There has been a focus on a literary approach to Scripture, or a focus on the different genres found in Scripture.  (Genre is "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form or content.")  This focus has increased the study of comparative literature from the ancient Near East and from the intertestamental and Greco-Roman periods.


But the study of genre brings both "promises" and "pitfalls."[2]  It promises a better understanding of the historical and cultural background of the Bible, which is part of historical-grammatical interpretation. But one of the pitfalls is to claim that "each genre represents truth in its own way and makes unique demands for how it should be read,"[3] and that "meaning is genre dependent."[4]  The writer then provides a different list of hermeneutical principles for each of the genres found in the Bible.  Another is not taking into full account that there are significant limitations to parallels made between the monotheism of Israel and her God-given Scriptures and the polytheism of other Near Eastern religions and their solely human documents.


3 Attention has also been given recently to the role of preunderstanding in one's approach to interpretation.  This means that we bring to our interpretation of Scripture not only a set of interpretive principles (hermeneutics) but also theological presuppositions, as well as personal and cultural predispositions. The process of engaging these three aspects has been called the hermeneutical spiral — we spiral from our predispositions and hermeneutics to the exegesis of Scripture and developing our theology, and then cycle through again, expecting that each cycle will help us grow into a better understanding of God's Word.





Historically, among evangelicals, there have been two basic and distinctive hermeneutical positions — dispensationalism and covenantalism.  Recently a third position has appeared, that of progressive dispensationalism, which is somewhat of a mediating position and which does not fully share the hermeneutics of normative dispensationalism.


The Dispensational Position


Literal hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation.[5]  This means interpretation that gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking.[6]  It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations.  The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages.  It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech. Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation.  After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved.  Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.


The literalist (so called) is not one who denies that figurative language, that symbols, are used in prophecy; nor does he deny that great spiritual truths are set forth therein; his position is, simply; that the prophecies are to be normally interpreted (i.e., according to the received laws of language) as any other utterances are interpreted — that which is manifestly figurative being so regarded.[7]


Many reasons are given by dispensationalists to support this hermeneutical principle of literal, normal, or plain interpretation.  At least three are worthy of mention at this point.

Philosophically; the purpose of language itself seems to require literal interpretation.  Language was given by God for the purpose of being able to communicate with mankind.  As Gordon Clark says,


If God created man in His own rational image and endowed him with the power of speech, then a purpose of language, in fact the chief purpose of language, would naturally be the revelation of truth to man and the prayers of man to God. In a theistic philosophy one ought not to say that all language has been devised in order to describe and discuss the finite objects of our sense-experience…. On the contrary, language was devised by God, that is, God created man rational for the purpose of theological expression.[8]


If God is the originator of language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His message to humanity; then it must follow that He, being all-wise and all-loving, originated sufficient language to convey all that was in His heart to tell mankind.  Furthermore, it must also follow that He would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal, normal, and plain sense. The Scriptures, then, cannot be regarded as an illustration of some special use of language so that in the interpretation of these Scriptures some deeper meaning of the words must be sought.  If language is the creation of God for the purpose of conveying His message, then a theist must view that language as sufficient in scope and normative in use to accomplish that purpose for which God originated it.


A second reason why dispensationalists believe in the literal principle is a biblical one: the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ — His birth, His rearing, His ministry; His death, His resurrection — were all fulfilled literally. That argues strongly for the literal method.


A third reason is a logical one.  If one does not use the plain, normal, or literal method of interpretation, all objectivity is lost.  What check would there be on the variety of interpretations that man's imagination could produce if there were not an objective standard, which the literal principle provides?  To try to see meaning other than the normal one would result in as many interpretations as there are people interpreting. Literalism is a logical rationale.


Of course, literal interpretation is not the exclusive property of dispensationalists.  Most conservatives would agree with what has just been said.  What, then, is the difference between the dispensationalist's use of this hermeneutical principle and the nondispensationalist's?  The difference lies in the dispensationalist's claim to use the normal principle of interpretation consistently in all his study of the Bible.  He further claims that the nondispensationalist does not use the principle everywhere.  He admits that the nondispensationalist is a literalist in much of his interpretation of the Scriptures but charges him with allegorizing or spiritualizing when it comes to the interpretation of prophecy.  The dispensationalist claims to be consistent in his use of this principle, and he accuses the nondispensationalist of being inconsistent in his use of it.


Notice, for instance, the predicament one writer gets himself into by not using the literal principle consistently.[9]  He recognizes that some insist on a literal fulfillment of prophecy whereas others see only a symbolic meaning.  His suggestion is that prophecy should be approached "in terms of equivalents, analogy, or correspondence."[10] As an example of the application of this principle he mentions the weapons cited in Ezekiel 39 and states that these will not be the exact weapons used in the future war; rather, equivalent weapons will be used.  But suppose this principle of equivalents were applied to Micah 5:2.  Then any small town in Palestine would have satisfactorily fulfilled the prophecy of where Christ were to be born.  If the Bible says "like chariots" or "like Bethlehem" (which it does not), then there may be some latitude in interpretation.  But if specific details are not interpreted literally when given as specific details, there can be no end to the variety of meanings of a text.


Consistency.  In theory the importance of the literal principle is not debated.  Most agree that it involves some obvious procedures.  For one thing, the meaning of each word must be studied.  This involves etymology, use, history; and resultant meaning.  For another thing, the grammar, or relationship of the words to each other, must be analyzed.  For a third thing, the context, immediate and remote, must be considered. That means comparing Scripture with Scripture as well as the study of the immediate context.  These principles are well known and can be studied in any standard text on hermeneutics.


However, in practice the theory is often compromised or adjusted and, in effect, vitiated. The amillennialist does this in his entire approach to eschatology: For instance, Floyd Hamilton, an amillennialist, confessed,


Now we must frankly admit that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies gives us just such a picture of an earthly reign of the Messiah as the premillennialist pictures.  That was the kind of Messianic kingdom that the Jews of the time of Christ were looking for, on the basis of a literal kingdom interpretation of the Old Testament promises.[11]


Having admitted this, he naturally arrives at a different picture of the kingdom on the basis of different hermeneutics.  He feels, of course, that he has found justifiable reasons for spiritualizing the concept of the kingdom, but the important point is that his resultant picture stems from a principle of hermeneutics that is not literal (for, by his own admission, if he followed the literal principle, he would be a premillennialist).  The change from a literal procedure is not difficult to see in amillennialism.


More recently Vern Poythress, a covenant theologian, differentiates between eschatological and preeschatological fulfillments of prophecy; though he maintains that both are based on grammatical-historical interpretation:

I claim that there is sound, solid, grammatical-historical ground for interpreting eschatological fulfillments of prophecy on a different basis than preeschatological fulfillments….  It is therefore a move away from grammatical-historical interpretation to insist that (say) the "house of Israel" and the "house of Judah" of Jeremiah 31:31 must with dogmatic certainty be interpreted in the most prosaic biological sense, a sense that an Israelite might be likely to apply as a rule of thumb in short-term prediction.[12]


But a few verses further on in that passage God links the certainty of His promises to the "nation" to the fixed order of the sun, moon, and stars. Does this not demand a literal or prosaic (which means "everyday" or "ordinary") interpretation of the meaning of the house of Israel and the house of Judah?  Does not Poythress's distinction between preeschatological interpretation (which is literal) and eschatological interpretation (which is not) arise from his theological framework imposed on the text, rather than from the text itself?


The premillennialist who is nondispensational also compromises the literal principle.  This is done by what Daniel Fuller, a representative of this group, calls “theological interpretation":  “In Covenant Theology there is the tendency to impute to passages a meaning which would not be gained merely from their historical and grammatical associations.  This phase of interpretation is called the 'theological' interpretation."[13]


This is quite an admission, for it means that the covenant premillennialist is not a consistent literalist by his own statement.  If he were, he would have to be a dispensationalist, and he seems to know it!  An example of this hybrid literal-theological principle in action is given by Fuller in connection with the promises made to Abraham. He states (correctly) that the dispensationalist understands the promises to require two seeds, a physical and a spiritual seed for Abraham.  He notes that the amillennialist "depreciates the physical aspect of the seed of Abraham so much that the promises made to Abraham's physical seed no longer mean what they say, but are interpreted strictly in spiritual terms.  This mediating position [that of the covenant premillennialist] still asserts that a literalistic procedure, which also interprets theologically by regarding progressive revelation, is the basic hermeneutical approach."[14]


Thus, the nondispensationalist is not a consistent literalist by his own admission but has to introduce another hermeneutical principle (the "theological" method) in order to have a hermeneutical basis for the system he holds.  One suspects that the conclusions determined the means used to arrive at them — which is a charge usually hurled at dispensationalists.


Fuller's problem is that apparently his concept of progressive revelation includes the possibility that subsequent revelation may completely change the meaning of something previously revealed.  It is true that progressive revelation brings additional light, but does it completely reverse to the point of contradiction what has been previously revealed? Fuller's concept apparently allows for such, but the literal principle built upon a sound philosophy of the purpose of language does not.  New revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation.  Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different.  It may add to it or even supersede it, but it does not contradict it. A word or concept cannot mean one thing in the Old Testament and take on opposite meaning in the New Testament.  If this were so, the Bible would be filled with contradictions, and God would have to be conceived of as deceiving the Old Testament prophets when He revealed to them a nationalistic kingdom, since He would have known all the time that He would completely reverse the concept in later revelation.  The true concept of progressive revelation is like a building — and certainly the superstructure does not replace the foundation.

In spite of this fallacy; however, Fuller does plead for "the patience to pursue the inductive method of Bible study.  The inductive method of Bible study; which is nothing more than the scientific method, seeks to gain all the facts before drawing some general conclusions from them.”[15]  This is a worthy plea, for such an approach to Bible study is the only safe one.  But to do an induction on the basic words "Israel" and "church" would have been in order.  He might then have seen more easily why the dispensationalist believes that God has two distinct purposes — one for Israel and one for the church. In the progress of revelation there has been no change in the meaning of these words, and they are kept distinct. The "theological" principle of hermeneutics may allow a blending of the two, but true progressive revelation does not. After all, the same hermeneutical principles must be applied to all revelation, regardless of the time in which it was given.


To pursue the illustration of Israel and the church further, the amillennialist's hermeneutics allow him to blur completely the meanings of the two words in the New Testament such that the church takes over the fulfillment of the promises to Israel.  In that view true Israel is the church. The covenant premillennialist goes halfway.  The church and Israel are somewhat blended, though not amalgamated in this age (they are kept distinct in the Millennium). The dispensationalist studies the words in the New Testament, finds that they are kept distinct always, and therefore concludes that when the church was introduced God did not abrogate His Promises to Israel or enmesh them into the church. That is why the dispensationalist recognizes two purposes of God and insists on maintaining the distinction between Israel and the church.  And all of this is built on an inductive study of the use of two words, not a scheme superimposed on the Bible. In other words, it is built on a consistent use of the literal, normal, or plain method of interpretation without the addition of any other principle that will attempt to give respectability to some preconceived conclusions.[16]

Classic dispensationalism is a result of consistent application of the basic hermeneutical principle of literal, normal, or plain interpretation. No other system of theology can claim this.


The Nondispensational Position


The interpretation of prophecy.  One of the key features of nondispensational hermeneutics is to interpret prophecy and sometimes nonprophetic portions of Scripture figuratively.  This, often called a "spiritual" hermeneutic, allows for a symbolic meaning of a passage. In criticizing literal hermeneutics Louis Berkhof says, "The theory [of premillennialism] is based on a literal interpretation of Israel and of the Kingdom of God, which is entirely untenable."  To support his spiritual hermeneutic he states that the New Testament "does contain abundant indications of the spiritual fulfillment of the promises given to Israel."[17]  This approach has led nondispensationalists to equate, or at least to merge, Israel and the church, which in turn has resulted in spiritualizing the yet unfulfilled blessings promised to Israel by having them fulfilled presently by the church.


Oswald Allis, a champion of covenant theology and amillennialism, and a vigorous opponent of dispensationalism argues in the same vein:


One of the most marked features of premillennialism in all its forms is the emphasis which it places on the literal interpretation of Scripture.  It is the insistent claims of its advocates that only when interpreted literally is the Bible interpreted truly; and they denounce as "spiritualizers" or "allegorizers" those who do not interpret the Bible with the same degree of literalness as they do.  None have made this charge more pointedly than the dispensationalists.[18]


In his words, the issue between dispensationalists and nondispensationalist is "the same degree of literalness " or consistency in the use of literalism. Specifically this has to do with the interpretation of prophecy.  The dispensationalist claims to apply his literal principle to all Scripture, including prophecy, whereas the nondispensationalist does not apply it to prophecy.  He does apply it to other areas of truth, and this is evident from the simple fact that there is no disagreement with dispensationalists over these doctrines.  Allis himself admits that "the Old Testament prophecies if literally interpreted cannot be regarded as having been yet fulfilled or as being capable of fulfillment in this present age."[19]


Of course, there are nondispensational premillennialists.  But they, like the amillennialist, do not apply the literal principle consistently.  They apply it more extensively than the amillennialist but not so extensively as the dispensationalist.[20]  In other words, the nondispensationalist position is simply that the literal principle is sufficient except for the interpretation of prophecy.  In this area, the spiritualizing principle of interpretation must be introduced.  The amillennialist uses it in the entire area of prophetic truth; the covenant premillennialist uses it only partially.


Many years ago George Peters warned of the dangers of any sort of spiritualizing in interpreting the Scriptures.  His words are still appropriate:


The prophecies referring to the Kingdom of God, as now interpreted by the large majority of Christians, afford the strongest leverage employed by unbelievers against Christianity.  Unfortunately; unbelief is often logically correct.  Thus, e.g., it eagerly points to the predictions pertaining to David's Son, showing that, if language has any legitimate meaning, and words are adequate to express an idea, they unmistakably predict the restoration of David's throne and kingdom, etc., and then triumphantly declare that it was not realized (so Strauss, Baur, Renan, Parker, etc.).  They mock the expectation of the Jews, of Simeon, the preaching of John, Jesus, and the disciples, the anticipation of the early Church, and hastily conclude, sustained by the present faith of the Church (excepting only a few), that they will never be fulfilled; and that, therefore, the prophecies, the foundation upon which the superstructure rests, are false, and of human concoction.  The manner of meeting such objections is humiliating to the Word and Reason; for it discards the plain grammatical sense as unreliable, and, to save the credit of the Word, insists upon interpreting all such prophecies by adding to them under the claim of spiritual, a sense which is not contained in the language, but suits the religious system adopted.  Unbelief is not slow in seizing the advantage thus given, gleefully pointing out how this introduced change makes the ancient faith an ignorant one, the early Church occupying a false position, and the Bible a book to which man adds any sense, under the plea of spiritual, that may be deemed necessary for its defense.[21]


Building on the contemporary emphasis on genre, nondispensationalists are pointing to the extensive use of symbols and metaphors that are used in prophecy and arguing that these give clues to the reader that such material is to be interpreted symbolically.  For example, Bruce Waltke, in critiquing Ladd's premillennialism, wrote, "note the many symbols in verse 1 [of Rev. 20]: 'key,' 'abyss,' 'chain,' and then in verse 2 'dragon,' the only interpreted symbol. If 'key,' 'chain,' 'dragon,' 'abyss,' etc. are symbolic, why should the number 1000 be literal, especially when numbers are notoriously symbolic in apocalyptic literature?"[22]


Here is another recent example concerning the use of symbolism in prophecy.  "This may mean that Matthew 24:29/Mark 13:24 is referring not to the literal destruction of physical entities in outer space, but to the upheaval and overthrow of political entities and/or spiritual forces on earth.[23]


To be sure, apocalyptic literature does employ symbols, but they stand for something actual. Furthermore, much of the Apocalypse is perfectly plain and clear, and sometimes explains in the text itself the meaning of a symbol (Rev. 1:20; 11:8; 12:5; 17:15; 20:2).  At other times the text will say "like," ''as,'' or ''as it were," indicating a real correspondence between what John saw and the reality he was trying to describe.  These are all useful and common means of normal communication and in no way require abandoning plain interpretation.


The use of the Old Testament in the New.  Some nondispensationalists argue against dispensationalism and a literal hermeneutic on the basis of their understanding of how the New Testament authors use the Old.  According to Berkhof, "It is remarkable that the New Testament, which is the fulfillment of the Old, contains no indication whatsoever of the re-establishment of the Old Testament theocracy by Jesus… while it does contain abundant indication of the spiritual fulfillment of the promises given to Israel."[24]


Others, while not agreeing with the view that all the Old Testament promises are now fulfilled spiritually in the church, are saying that these promises have been inaugurated and begun to be fulfilled now in the church age and will be consummated in the new heavens and new earth (the already/not yet concept).[25]  Whereas half of this viewpoint is the same as that taught in progressive dispensationalism (i.e., the promises have already been inaugurated), the second half is not the same (since covenantalists believe that the consummation will be only in the eternal state and progressives say it will be in the Millennium and eternal state).


The presupposition of the covenant of grace.  It is quite obvious that the presupposition of the covenant of grace controls the covenant theologian's handling of texts and issues involved in his criticism of dispensationalism. Van Gemeren plainly says, "The Reformed exegete approaches the prophets from the perspective of the unity of the covenant [of grace]."[26]   Similarly Moisés Silva has written, "The organic unity of God's people throughout the ages is a distinctive emphasis of covenant theology (This emphasis in turn has profound implications for our understanding of ecclesiology (including questions of church government, baptism, etc.), of the Christian's use of the Old Testament, and much more."[27]


The bottom-line questions are these: (1) Is the covenant of grace stated in Scripture? (2) Even if it is, should it be the controlling presupposition of hermeneutics and theology? (3) Even if there is a unity of redeemed peoples, does that remove disunities in God's program for His creations?  g


To be continued in our next journal.


Taken from Dispensationalism, by Charles C. Ryrie, Moody Press, copyright 1995.  Used with permission.  Further reproduction prohibited without written permission from the publisher.



[1]   For examples of the application of linguistics to interpretation, see D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), and Moisés Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).


[2]   Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).


[3]   Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton: Victor, 1993), p. 77.


[4]   Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1991), p. 9.



[5]   See Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 74-76.


[6]   Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1956), p. 89-92.


[7]   J. P. Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (New York: Charles Scribners, 1872), p. 98.

[8]   Gordon Clark, "Special Divine Revelation as Rational," in Revelation and the Bible, ed. C. F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), p. 41.

[9]   A Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 296-305.


[10]   Ibid., p. 296.




[11]   Floyd E. Hamilton, The Basis of Millennial Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1942), p. 38.



[12]             Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), p. 105-6.


[13]             Daniel P. Fuller, "The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism," Th.D. diss., Northern Baptist Theological Seminary; Chicago, 1957), p. 147.



[14]             Ibid., p. 238.


[15]             Ibid., p. 372.


[16] For such an inductive study of the meaning of the words Israel and church, see Charles Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1953), 62-70. Most nondispensationalists make no such study.  Also see, Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, "Israel and the Church," in Issues in Dispensationalism, ed. Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master (Chicago: Moody, 1994), p. 113-29.


[17]             Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), p. 712-13.


[18]             Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia: Pres. & Ref., 1945), p. 17.


[19]             Ibid., p. 238.


[20]             Cf. the interpretation of the 144,000 in George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 126, and J. Barton Payne, The Imminent Appearing of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 63. Literalism would end their uncertainty in interpretation of this point!



[21]             George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1952) 1:167-68. Quoting this in no way implies that amillennialists are in the same category as unbelievers. They certainly are not, for they are conservative in other areas of theology; But the quotation does show in a striking way the dangers of anything but consistent literal interpretation.


[22]             Bruce K. Waltke, "Kingdom Promises as Spiritual," in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John Feinberg (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway; 1988), p. 273.


[23] Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1994), p. 220; cf. p. 134.


[24]             Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 713.


[25]             0. Palmer Robertson, "Hermeneutics of Continuity; " in Continuity and Discontinuity, 106-8. Also Willem Van Gemeren, The Progress of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), and Anthony Hoekema, The Bible in the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 274-87. Hoekema argues that the view of seeing fulfillment in the new earth answers the contention by dispen-sationalists that nondispensationalists spiritualize Old Testament promises (pp. 275-76).


[26]             Willem Van Gemeren, "Israel as the Hermeneutical Crux in the Interpretation of Prophecy (II)," Westminster Theological Journal 46 (1984): p. 269.


[27]             Walter Kaiser and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 266.