One’s hermeneutic practice is a topic of vital importance. Everyone has a hermeneutic practice whether they know it or not and whether they are able to explain it or not. What is the term hermeneutic(s) you may ask. Good question.
The term hermeneutic (hur ma noo tik) may be defined as the science of interpretation, in particular the interpretation of Scripture. When a Christian, or anyone else for that matter, reads Scripture he or she employs a hermeneutic method in order to determine and understand what the text is saying. Since Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and represents His self-revelation to man (Heb. 1:1-2) it is imperative that the reader correctly interprets its message. Also, since God has spoken it is not at all difficult to determine why; He desires to have mankind come to know Him. Once again it becomes clear that it is imperative that reader correctly interprets what has been written in order to not distort what God has said and thus distort who God is.
What effect does one’s hermeneutic have on discovering the biblical principles of the Christian’s spiritual life? One’s hermeneutic has an outstanding impact on how a Christian understands and goes about attempting to live the spiritual life. Although the Covenant Reformed and Dispensational views of the Spiritual life are similar in many ways the hermeneutic of each group serves to separate the two. What remains of this post will deal with that distinction from the Dispensational side of the argument.
Charles Ryrie has identified the sine qua non, or absolute essentials of Dispensationalism.[i] Two of these play key roles in reaching a Dispensational view of the Christian or spiritual life. Dispensationalism is first and foremost a system of biblical interpretation.[ii] This statement reflects the first of Ryrie’s essential elements. A Dispensationalist insists on using a consistent, literal or normal system of interpretation. The historical-grammatical hermeneutic system is not only the foundation of Dispensational theology it is the only way to gain a correct understanding of God’s message to man.
It is from the consistent use of a normal interpretation that the Dispensationalist reaches his theological conclusions. The same is true in regard to the subject of the spiritual life.
There are multiple reasons that this normal hermeneutic approach holds such influence over the development of the Dispensational view of the spiritual life. For our study, one reason will suffice. A major point of contention arises when discussing the topic of the carnal Christian. This is easily overcome by a normal interpretation of Scripture that is untainted by a theological system. It is clear from First Corinthians 2:14-3:3 that not only are there three divisions of men, but there are two divisions of Christians: those who are “spiritual” (2:15)[i] and those who “are still fleshly” (carnal). When this passage is viewed through the strict usage of a normal historical-grammatical hermeneutic, the proper view, just previously stated, becomes obvious. Upon the realization of the truth that a Christian can indeed be carnal (any moment when one steps out of God’s will becomes a moment of carnality at the very least) the admonitions from Paul to the Roman church begin to take on their true meaning (see Rom. 6:1-2, 11-13; 7:14-20; 8:1-39; Heb. 10:26-31 noticing the repeated use of “we” in the context). The belief that a Christian can be carnal, or, live according to or in obedience to his flesh presents a major distinction between the Covenant Reformed camp and the Dispensational camp. That is not to say that there aren’t Dispensationalists who would side more with the idea that a believer cannot live a sinful life for an extended period of time, nor am I saying that there does not exist a Covenant Reformed person who believes that a Christian can live in a sinful state for an extended period of time. However, most Covenant Reformed brothers would lean towards a, for lack of a better term, “lordship” view while many Dispensationalists would hold to a “free grace” view.
The consistent distinction between Israel and the Church is the second of the sine qua non that bears influence on this subject and is a product of the first. One may question how this could possibly influence any view of the spiritual life. The answer also leans heavily on a normal interpretation of Scripture particularly in the understanding of the subject of Pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Robert Dean, Jr. describes this aspect of our discussion:
. . . because this model is based on a consistent literal, historical-grammatical hermeneutic, the conclusions will also be consistent with the dispensational distinctive – a distinction between Israel and the church. Since one of the distinguishing characteristics between Israel and the church is the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, especially in the spiritual life, we will discover that, despite protestations to the contrary, there truly is a view of the spiritual life that is dispensational.[ii]
Scripture clearly teaches that every Christian has the Holy Spirit indwelling him as part of His multifaceted ministry in our lives. Paul drives this truth home when he states, “But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9b). However, Scripture also presents the truth that not every individual Old Testament believer had the Spirit and those who did at times fall under the influence of the Holy Spirit could just as quickly have the Spirit depart from them. This was obviously understood by King David as is attested by Psalm 51:11. David feared that the Spirit would depart from him because of his great personal sin and he pled with God, “Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” As Mal Couch explains, “This does not imply a loss of salvation for David but it tells us David feared the Lord would no longer be using him as before.”[iii] On the other hand Christians in the present dispensation have no fear of the Spirit’s departure for Christ Himself promised, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever” (John 14:16).
This distinction between Israel and the Church is another sharp contrast between the Covenant Reformed and Dispensationalist hermeneutics. Since Covenant Reformed theology leans heavily towards the idea that the Church is spiritual Israel, or that the Church is the extension of Old Testament Israel, or that the Church has replaced Israel altogether, there is a resultant lack of focus on the uniqueness of the Spirit’s presence within each individual Church-age believer. This is a totally new truth in God’s dealing with mankind. Never before has anything like this occurred in all of God’s plan in history. The fact that the Holy Spirit is freely given to each individual believer in this present age is a new and unique work of God, and serves to demonstrate only one of the marks that distinguishes the Church from Israel.
Therefore, by utilizing the grammatical-historical form of biblical interpretation it is discovered that there are major differences between Israel and the Church; the Spirit’s relationship with the Christian being only one. Unlike the Old Testament saint, the Holy Spirit permanently indwells each individual New Testament saint who then always has the ability to have access to the Spirit’s power and ministry. In particular, it is the ministry of the indwelling Spirit available to each individual believer that not only imparts life to the believer but also serves as the means by which the special and supernatural character of the Christian life may be experienced by every believer.
The result of utilizing the correct hermeneutic approach to Scripture is the correct understanding of what makes the spiritual life possible for the believer in time. Careful study reveals that the Church-age saint is not required to keep the Law of Moses – “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14); “…you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another…” (Rom. 7:4); “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6). Those who do not consistently use the literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic tend to conflate Israel and the Church with the result being that the fulfillment of the spiritual life is seen in keeping commandments and outward obedience to rules and regulations. Grace tends to be set on the back burner and works, especially those measurable by outward means, indicate the spirituality of the believer. Intelligent and correct motives rarely, if ever, enter the equation.
It is the indwelling Spirit and His work in our lives that enables a Christian to live the supernatural life imposed by the word and will of God. When we understand that “it is God [the Spirit] who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13) the pressure of trying to live by the power of our own flesh to fulfill His will begins to be lifted from our shoulders and our motivation to live obediently begins to change from “have to” to “want to.” As we dig further and find that our main activities in carrying out the spiritual life involve spiritual self-accounting – “Even so consider [calculate, charge to account] yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11) – reporting for duty – “but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom. 6:13) – and allowing our minds to be transformed by the word of God – “And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2) – we begin to be freed from the guilt of our inability to carry out God’s perfect will in our lives – “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24) – and find the ability through the power of the Holy Spirit to obey the word that transforms us – “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (Rom. 8:9), “Walk by [means of] the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh […] If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16,25).”
Every one of these truths are discovered by utilizing the proper hermeneutic techniques apart from spiritualizing or allegorizing what the text says. Thus one should be able to see the importance of hermeneutics in the life of the everyday believer. One should also be able to see the importance of employing the literal historical-grammatical hermeneutic methodology.
I pray this helps. God bless.
Note: Portions of this article have been adapted from a chapter I was asked to write in honor of my mentor, Dr. Mal Couch, which will be found in the upcoming book, Evangelical Bible Doctrine.
[i]All Scripture quotations taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted.
[iii]Mal Couch, The Coming of the Holy Spirit (Springfield, MO: 21st Century Press, 2001), 28.
[i]Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 46-48.
[ii]From a personal email to the author received Monday June 25, 2012 from Dr. Andy Woods of the College of Biblical Studies Houston, TX.