Twenty-five years ago Tommy Ice and I engaged in debates over eschatology. Tommy is a dispensational premillennialist. I’m not. One would think that in 25 years of debates (nine in all) and numerous books and articles by me and other non-dispensationalists that Tommy would get what I believe about eschatology right.
A friend sent me a link to Tommy’s article “Answers and Clarifications for Gary DeMar.” Here’s a portion of his opening paragraph:
DeMar is an advocate of the following viewpoints: a Reconstructionist, kingdom now, postmillennialist, partial preterist, Israel has no national future, replacement theologian. In other words, someone who is the polar opposite of what I believe the Bible teaches in these areas.
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Yes, I am a Reconstructionist. No, I am not an advocate of “kingdom now.” This point was made over and over again in The Reduction of Christianity, the book that Peter J. Leithart and I wrote in 1988. Rob Bowman describes Reconstructionists as “orthodox Calvinists” who “are thus solidly evangelical.” He also states that “Kingdom Now” and Christian Reconstruction “understand ‘taking dominion’ rather differently. The Reconstructionists envision a gradual, pervasive transformation of human institutions in the wake of worldwide conversion to orthodox Christianity.” Bowman concludes by writing that “the two movements are working for different goals.”1 Tommy might also want to read my book The Debate Over Christian Reconstruction, a line-by-line answer to responses that he and Dave Hunt made in their debate with Gary North and me in 1988. After reading it, it would be good for him to read Christian Reconstruction: What It Is. What It Isn’t.
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Yes, I am a partial preterist, a prophetic position that has a history going back centuries, a fact that even Tommy Ice admits: “There is early preterism in people like Eusebius [A.D. 263–339]. In fact, his work The Proof of the Gospel is full of preterism in relationship to the Olivet Discourse.”2 Dispensationalism’s history goes back to the early part of the 19th century.
No, I do not believe that Israel does not have a “national future.” This point has been made repeatedly in any number of my books. Apparently Tommy has not read “The Myth that Only Dispensationalists Have a Future for Israel” in my latest book, 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered. No, I do not believe in “replacement theology.” That would be chapter five in the same book: “The Myth of Replacement Theology.”
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Ice then moves to my challenge that I interpret prophecy more literally than dispensationalists. I’m willing to put that claim to the test. Of course, no one interprets every part of the Bible in a consistently literal way, if literal means “just what the words say.” For example, in Isaiah 19:1 we read:
The oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt;
The idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence,
And the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
Did God literally ride on a cloud in His judgment of Egypt? Did the hearts of the Egyptians actually melt? I suspect that most people would say no. So when we see other passages with cloud motifs present and description of God “coming,” it certainly isn’t unwarranted to argue that the same type of symbolism might be present.
I agree with Ice’s extended definition of literal in his article. In fact, I’ve used R.C. Sproul’s definition of “literal interpretation” numerous times. “The term literal comes from the Latin litera meaning letter. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature.”3 Not all the literature of the Bible is the same. I agree with the following from Tommy’s article:
Literal interpretation of the Bible simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary usages of its language.”4 How is this done? It can only be accomplished through the grammatical (according to the rules of grammar), historical (consistent with the historical setting of the passage), contextual (in accord with its context) method of interpretation.
Literal interpretation looks to the text, the actual words and phrases of a passage. Allegorical or non-literal interpretation imports an idea not found specifically in the text of a passage. Thus, the opposite of literal interpretation is allegorical interpretation. As Bernard Ramm said in his classic and authoritative book on biblical interpretation, “the ‘literal’ directly opposes the ‘allegorical.’”
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The problem is, dispensationalists don’t follow the above principles consistently. For example, consider this comment from Tommy:
It appears that DeMar has an image of himself as a literal interpreter because he believes that his interpretation of “this generation” in Matthew 24:34 is “more literal” than other literal interpretations. Since this is the focal point of his entire eschatology, DeMar thinks he is a more literal interpreter than others even though I believe he does not follow a literal interpretation at many points.
It’s interesting that Tommy doesn’t explain my interpretation of “this generation” or his own and why I believe the phrase can only mean the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. I interpret the verse according to “the original sense of the Bible according to the normal and customary usages of its language.”
Each time Jesus uses the phrase “this generation,” it always refers to the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. In fact, in a radio debate that Tommy and I had some years ago, he admitted that every use of “this generation” in the gospels refers to the generation of Jesus’ day except in Matthew 24:34. This is contrary to what Tommy claims for himself: “Literal interpretation looks to the text, the actual words and phrases of a passage.”
Every time “this generation” (he genea haute) is used in the gospels, it refers to the generation of Jesus’ day: Matthew 11:16; 12:41, 45; 23:36; 24:34; Mark 8:12 (twice), 38; 13:30; Luke 7:31; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51, 17:25; 21:32.
The use of the near demonstrative “this” forces the interpreter to understand Jesus to mean the generation to whom He was speaking. If Jesus had a future generation in view, He could have easily alleviated any confusion by using the far demonstrative “that” to distinguish His use of “this generation” in Matthew 24 (and Mark 13:30 and Luke 21:32) from every other time He used “this generation.”
Let me call in some experts on the subject to show that Tommy is far off base when it comes to his non-literal interpretation of “this generation” in the Olivet Discourse.
● Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida: “[T]he obvious meaning of the words ‘this generation’ is the people contemporary with Jesus. Nothing can be gained by trying to take the word in any sense other than its normal one: in Mark (elsewhere in 8:12, 9:19) the word always has this meaning.”5
● D. A. Carson: “[This generation] can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.”6
● John Nolland: “Matthew uses genea here for the tenth time. ‘This generation’ is the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries.”7
● William Sanford LaSor: “If ‘this generation’ is taken literally, all of the predictions were to take place within the life-span of those living at that time.”8
● Jack P. Lewis: “Others have argued that genea means the final generation; that is, once the signs have started, all these happenings would transpire in one generation (cf. 23:36). But elsewhere in Matthew genea means the people alive at one time and usually at the time of Jesus (1:17; 11:16; 12:39,41,45; 23:36; Mark 8:38; Luke 11:50f.; 17:25), and it doubtlessly means the same here.”9
Tommy wrote that an “allegorical or non-literal interpretation imports an idea not found specifically in the text of a passage.” So how does Tommy change “this generation” into a future generation? He adds words to the text. In their book Charting the End Times, Tommy and co-author Tim LaHaye argue that Matthew 24:34 should read, “The generation that ‘sees’ these things will not pass till all is fulfilled.”10 In order to get this meaning, “this” has to be replaced with “the” and four words have to be added to the verse: “The generation that sees these signs will not pass away. . . .” This is not the way to interpret the Bible. In addition, we are told in Matthew 24:33 who will see the signs: “even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door.” The “you” is them not us.
So who’s the more consistently literal interpreter of Matthew 24:34? It’s certainly not Tommy Ice and his fellow dispensationalists.
I’ll answer the rest of Tommy’s “clarifications” in future articles.
- Robert M. Bowman, “Are Christians Supposed to Take Dominion?,” Christian Research Journal (Fall 1988), 31. [↩]
- Thomas Ice, “Update on Pre-Darby Rapture Statements and Other Issues”: audio tape (December 1995). [↩]
- R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48. [↩]
- Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Assurance Publishers, 1974), 29. [↩]
- Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook of the Gospel of Mark (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961), 419. [↩]
- D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 8:507. [↩]
- John Nolland The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 988–989. [↩]
- William Sanford LaSor, The Truth About Armageddon: What the Bible Says About the End Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 122. [↩]
- Jack P. Lewis, The Gospel According to Matthew, Part 2; Living Word Commentary: Sweet Publishing, 1976), 128. [↩]
- Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, Charting the End Times: A Visual Guide to Understanding Bible Prophecy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2001), 36. [↩]