There’s a great deal of hubbub in our day about so-called literal hermeneutics. Indeed, the hubbub’s been around for at least the last 130 or so years, since the rise of Dispensationalism. For the 98+% of you that are already slightly confused, I’ll back up and fill in some gaps. The term “hermeneutics” is the study of the interpretation of a text. Most often the term is applied to interpretation of the Bible, but its meaning is not limited only to the Bible. Grammatically speaking, “hermeneutics” is treated as a singular noun (like, say, ethics), and sometimes seems odd that way: “That man’s hermeneutics is all messed up.” Because of the oddity of that construction, sometimes the “s” is dropped off: “That type of hermeneutic is all messed up.” Here is a gaggle of articles on hermeneutics, and here is a good and simple book on the topic.
Second topic mentioned above is Dispensationalism. According to Charles Ryrie‘s assessment in his famous book, the sine qua non of Dispensationalism (that is, the thing that’s absolutely indispensible to Dispensationalism) is a thorough-going and vigorous distinction between Israel and the church. Most Christian interpreters of the Bible maintain various distinctions between Israel and the church, but dispensational interpreters are far more radical in this distinction. This radical distinction is a function of dispensational hermeneutics. Dispensationalists are renowned (indeed, known according to their own self-testimony) to have a “literal” hermeneutic. The remainder of this post will examine what’s meant by their so-called “literal” hermeneutic. Lord willing, the next post will demonstrate (in a very simple way) the obvious insufficiency of such a hermeneutic.
You haven’t been out of the house much if you haven’t heard a Dispensationalist chant: “If the literal sense makes sense, then seek no other sense.” That kind of chant, while extremely catchy, engaging, and altogether wonderful, still probably needs some unpacking. “Literal” means according to the letter. As it comes to hermeneutics, it means taking the words at their simplest meaning, at their face value. A modern/dispensational “literal” interpretation doesn’t seek a meaning behind the face-value meaning of the text. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Dispensationalists don’t take note of different types/genres of text. Glance over here for a Dispensationalist discussing dispensational hermeneutics.
Now, historically (that is, for centuries before the rise of Dispensationalism) the term “literal” was used in hermeneutics, but not in such a limited way as Dispensationalism has meant it. To keep this very simple and brief, an interpretive method called the Quadriga developed early in church history and though the Middle Ages, in which each text to be interpreted actually had four distinct but related meanings. The “literal” meaning was the first, foundational, and least important of them. The Reformation, which placed such a tremendous emphasis on the reading, preaching, and interpretation of Scripture, largely purged the other three “meanings” of the Quadriga and emphasized the “literal” meaning. In fact, John Calvin was ridiculed for being a literalist. Now, that alone should make it clear that the “literalism” of the Reformation is quite a different “literalism” of the dispensational hermeneutic, as Calvin was in no wise dispensational in his hermeneutics.
So, we see that in the hands of modern Dispensationalists, the hermeneutical term “literal” has been narrowed from the historic Christian meaning of that term. This itself is not necessarily a problem. That Dispensationalists tend to change the historic meaning of this hermeneutical term does not make them wrong, but it does make them different. All modern students of theology and hermeneutics should at very least recognize this difference.