“Is ‘Literal’ Literally The Best Term For Dispensationalists Moving Forward?” -- By: Mark McGinniss

Journal: Journal of Ministry and Theology
Volume: JMAT 21:1 (Spring 2017)
Article: “Is ‘Literal’ Literally The Best Term For Dispensationalists Moving Forward?”
Author: Mark McGinniss


“Is ‘Literal’ Literally The Best Term For Dispensationalists Moving Forward?”

Mark McGinniss

Professor of OT Languages,
Literature & Exegesis
Baptist Bible Seminary
South Abington Twp., Pennsylvania

The Issue With The Term “Literal” In Dispensational Interpretation1

In 1965 and later in 2007 Charles Ryrie affirmed, “Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation.”2 This phraseology “literal interpretation” has been one of the benchmarks of dispensationalism ever since. However, defining the term literal in this context is not without its difficulties. The one significant issue with the term literal as a noun modifier for interpretation is that it is often further defined by other terms. Ryrie, himself, qualified “literal” by stating that it “might also be called normal,” or “might also be designated plain.” While one could understand qualifying a term once, Ryrie did it multiple times.3 I am not sure Ryrie intended this to become customary among scholars;

however, it seems to have become somewhat of a necessity when dealing with the term literal in relationship to interpretation.

Writing on “the literal rule of interpretation” Elliott Johnson adds another qualifier: “To put it plainly, the literal, or normal, clear sense is to be chosen….”4 Later he adds another, “the ‘literal sense’ or ‘normal or simple sense’ has been demonstrated in practice to be probably accurate.”5 Robert Thomas adopts Terry’s traditional definition of literal interpretation and thus accepts other qualifiers: “Sometimes we speak of the literal sense, by which we mean the most simple, direct, and ordinary meaning of phrases and sentences.”6 A. Berkeley Mickelsen writes, “By literal meaning the writer refers to the usual or customary sense conveyed by words or expressions.”7 Kaiser and Silva compound the qualifiers, “… what we mean by the term literal,… means the simple, plain, direct or ordinary sense.”8 In the early pages of his Bible interpretation book, Roy Zuck seems happy with one qualifier: “… of course the so-called literal or normal approach….” Further...

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