The Hermeneutical Difference
Dr. Mitchell, one of the professors at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, made an important point in a recorded lecture (“Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Bible Prophecy” on iTunes-U). He argued that whether one comes to a Dispensational or Covenantal interpretation of Scripture depends on the order in which one systematizes Scripture.
Covenant Theologians, according to Dr. Mitchell, interpret the Old Testament through a New Testament lens. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, read the Old Testament as is, and read the New Testament in light of their Old Testament interpretation.
I think that Dr. Mitchell (a Dispensationalist) makes a good and insightful observation here.
On one hand, his point, as a Dispensationalist, seems to be to imply that, if you read the Old Testament as if there was no knowledge of the New Testament, you would get a very nationalistic interpretation. You would assume that the promises to Israel are only for physical descendants, in a specific geographical location, with a king from the line of David. This has not yet been completely fulfilled for Israel, so it must, for the Dispensationalist, be waiting its fulfillment in the future.
This order of interpretation is foundational to Dispensationalism; however, I have never read a Dispensationalist argue for why this order of interpretation is favorable. They seem to think of it as common sense. I don’t quite see why.
If progressive revelation is revealing new information to the church (otherwise, it wouldn’t be called “revelation”), does it not make sense to read all of the redemptive story in light of this revelation?
Because what Mitchell’s observations seem to allow is that, if one reads the Bible in the order that a Covenant Theologian does (starting with New Testament assumptions), Covenant Theology is the natural implication. He, as a Dispensationalist, merely thinks it is the wrong approach. But why?
When Jesus was talking to his disciples on the Emmaus road, it says that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27).
Jesus had to teach them to read the Old Testament in light of himself. If the plain reading, as they knew it, was clear to them, why did Jesus have to teach them? This means that, before Jesus taught them, the Jews of that time were reading their Bible wrongly! So, the question arises, why do Dispensationalists insist on interpreting the Old Testament how most of the earlier Jews did?
The writings of the apostles do not just add to the Old Testament, they teach us how to interpret it as it in the way it was originally meant to be interpreted.
This is not to say that we read things into the Old Testament that were not in the author’s mind. It does seem to mean, however, that if the Old Testament gives a general prediction that Abraham’s offspring will be blessed, and the New Testament sheds further light onto that promise, namely that this promise will include Gentiles by faith (Gal. 3:28-29; Eph. 3:6), we should let that explain the earlier passages. Nor does this mean that we are finding something in the text that was never there. It is more so that when we read the Old Testament with our New Testament understanding, we can say, “that’s what God meant!” Otherwise, what is the point of the New Testament’s expounding upon the Old Testament’s teachings?