The meeting begins with a round of introductions, unintentionally sounding like a 12-step program for recovering theologians. An older man at the corner table rises slowly and says, “I’m Charles Ryrie . . . and I am a dispensationalist.”

The group laughs at the inside joke—they are all happy to confess their dispensational habits. Actually these guys laugh a lot more than one would expect, given the serious subject matter. Mike Stallard, recently appointed dean of Baptist Bible Seminary, describes the event as “a network of traditional dispensationalists looking for a positive statement of our beliefs about hermeneutics and theological method.”

Stallard’s words reveal undercurrents that motivate this meeting. Some of their intentions may be a reaction against an ill-deserved reputation—traditional dispensationalists have not always been known for formal academic councils such as this. It is fair to say that dispensationalism did not originate as a theological system in the academic community. It started in the pulpit. Those who embrace dispensationalism believe their ideas are based on a literal and natural interpretation of the Bible text—ideas that reach full flower in consistent expository preaching, but not ideas that have uniform respect in academic circles.

Traditional dispensationalists seem to be known, at least in the popular consciousness, for their views on Bible prophecy. But the participants in this council have deeper concerns, believing that the crucial issues hinge on the interpretive methods that Bible scholars use to discover the meaning of Scripture. Traditional dispensational theologians believe that the meaning of Scripture is clear—it can be understood by the average person in the pew on Sunday morning. Traditional dispensational theologians advocate a historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible, taking each passage literally unless strong internal evidence suggests that the language is figurative.

Well-known for their conviction that the world is not getting better and better, traditional dispensationalists would also like to be known for “a positive statement of our beliefs,” and this is what has motivated the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, held on the campus of Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa., Sept. 24 and 25.

Mike Stallard affectionately calls the three guys at the front table “the Mount Rushmore of Dispensationalism.” Next to Charles Ryrie is Robert Lightner of Dallas Theological Seminary, followed by Robert Thomas of The Master’s Seminary. The three scholars have written extensively and are generally regarded as among the architects of the modern dispensational theology that developed in the 1960s and ’70s.

Many of the 30 or so college professors, seminary professors, and ministry leaders gathered for the meeting already know each other, having participated in earlier meetings of the Dispensational Study Group and Evangelical Theological Society. Not everyone here represents a Baptist group (just as not every Baptist is a dispensationalist), but the participants are unified by the way they approach the interpretation of Scripture.

Stallard had arranged the conference schedule so that participants heard 20-minute papers, followed by lengthy periods of interaction. “I really would like for us to spend most of our time—not listening to a paper—but having a dialog among ourselves, discussing these issues,” Stallard says. “Our goal here is discussion.”

Defining terms

Maybe there’s a bit of lingering resentment about needing to use the term “traditional dispensationalist” to describe themselves. Such a term wasn’t necessary until the mid-1980s, when theologians such as Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising began to use broader interpretive methods leading to an understanding that the Davidic covenant is already inaugurated and Jesus is already reigning on the Davidic throne. The “new” ideas (detractors would say they are actually rooted in Covenant theology) became known as Progressive Dispensationalism.

While the participants on this council remain on good terms with the “progressive” wing of dispensationalism, none at this council holds “progressive” interpretive views. Several times in the discussion, one speaker or another would charitably emphasize how he considers progressive dispensationalists (“P.D.ers,” as they were called) to be true dispensationalists. But the participants are also aware that we live in a world where “progressive” is good and “traditional” can be embarrassing.

“Once you are a traditional dispensationalist, you get painted with all sorts of accusations,” says John Master, a professor at Philadelphia Biblical University. “Maybe we need to move past terminology and bickering to focus on new issues.”

Sometimes words wear out, sometimes definitions evolve, and sometimes words are kidnapped by people who wish to wear the label but not its meaning. Robert Thomas pointedly asks if our labels have lost their original meanings. “When genre interpretation overrides grammatical-historical interpretation, then what does the term mean?” Dr. Thomas asks. “Are we talking about the pre-1970s usage, or post-1970s usage?”

Over the next two days, the participants would continue to emphasize the importance of accurately describing terms such as “kingdom,” “partially fulfilled,” and “historical-grammatical,” knowing that these terms are often used in elastic ways. Many of the discussions hinge on the interpretation of Biblical metaphor and hyperbole, special areas of concern for those who interpret the Bible literally. Traditional dispensationalists have sometimes been wrongly accused of ignoring the meaning of “metaphor,” as if to believe “the trees of the field” really were clapping their hands. In reality, those who embrace a historical-grammatical hermeneutic are happy to recognize Biblical metaphor where it is clearly metaphor.

This focus of traditional dispensationalism is a careful examination of hermeneutics—the methods used to understand and interpret the Bible. The guys in this room are very interested in asking hard questions about their fundamental, core value: the literal interpretation of Scripture. They won’t be content to sit around while someone else supplies a new, Clintonesque definition of literal. (“Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘literal.’”)

Changing attitudes

To their critics, traditional dispensationalists are just plain grumpy, immersed in the conviction that the world will continue to fall apart until the church is caught up to Heaven and the world is destroyed in the Great Apocalypse. The picture is often painted as a monochrome: always on the prowl for theological liberalism, ever wary of drift in our seminaries, unchanging, uncompromising, and, most of all, unkind.

“I don’t think arrogance is helping us,” says Dan Anderson, president of Appalachian Bible College. “We need to rely on the Spirit to illuminate the truth. There is a delicate balance between confidence and arrogance.”

Robert Lightner immediately agrees, saying, “I agree with your emphasis on respect and love. I don’t understand why some with amill and post-trib viewpoints are in the Body of Christ, but they are, and I need to love them.”

There might be a reason for these responses. The older gentlemen in this room have been the victims of uncharitable mischaracterizations for years. Entire websites and seminary courses have been devoted to “exposés” of their historical-grammatical interpretive system.

“Everybody criticizes me on the Internet,” Dr. Ryrie had told me earlier. “If you run out of material . . . , just Google my name!”

So I did. I ran a Google search to discover how often the word “irenic” has been used to describe “Charles Ryrie” . . . and I got several hundred hits. His reputation for peaceful, gentle responses is secure, and the young guys here are learning from it.

Keeping grounded

The theological terms fly thick and heavy during some of the sessions: discussions of Second Temple literature, New Testament midrash, polysemantic wordplay—nothing we are likely to hear about in tomorrow night’s Bible study. The participants here believe that such discussions are necessary—they need to do a bit of homework to know which of these academic theological trends are important, and which are mere fads.

The intense discussions are interrupted by a thought from Thomas Ice (everyone calls him Tommy here), the executive director of the Pre-Trib Research Center at Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va.

“What benefit is this to people who are teaching and ministering in churches?” Tommy asks as he glances over at the table where Mount Rushmore is seated. “Just look at the previous generation of professors and compare them to the ‘research professors’ today—the ones who have never been pastors. The older generation could preach through the Bible without getting bogged down with all this stuff.”

It’s a question that a preacher-theologian would ask, and it drives to the heart of the issue. Dispensationalism’s focus on literal interpretation has always been rooted in the Reformation ideal of giving the Bible back to the common people in the pew, then teaching them how to use it. The fundamental idea of literal interpretation is that the Bible can be clearly understood by anyone who prayerfully studies under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are no priests in dispensationalism, no one who claims the Bible needs a designated “expert” to be understood.

This is why traditional dispensationalists are worried. They are trying to guard against the idea that it takes an expert in Second Temple literature to rightly divide the Word of Truth. In order to make their point, they know they are going to have to dive into the details, and it could get messy.

Think of it this way. Our pastors are like medical doctors—they help sick people get well, and they keep healthy congregation members from getting (spiritually) sick. But the guys at this conference aren’t just the medical doctors . . . they are like the medical researchers who train our doctors how to practice medicine.

Just like the average guy sitting on the exam table is pretty wary of the term “medical practice” (especially when the doctor opens the drawer of sharp, pointed objects), the folks in the pew get pretty nervous when their pastor grabs onto the latest theological fad like it is some new miracle cure.

We want to make sure we are getting the best spiritual care just as surely as we want the best medical care. We expect our pastors to be on the cutting edge of care giving—trained by theological researchers who are capable of sniffing out the quacks and snake oil treatments. We’re happy to see our theologians surrounded by obscure books and journals, as long as they keep training us how to “live healthy.”

But our theologians can’t understand the Bible for us, any more than our doctor can exercise and eat right on our behalf. Here is where this conference gives hope. The doctors at this conference are all unified around a simple idea: We can be taught to interpret the Bible ourselves.

Story by Kevin Mungons, managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Photos by Darrell Goemaat, director of photography.