The Dispensational scheme of Bible interpretation in the light of Scripture (part 1 of ‘Rightly dividing the word of truth’)

In a recent correspondence, Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Director of Ariel Ministries and author of the books Israelology: The Missing Link In Systematic Theology and The Footsteps Of The Messiah: A Study Of The Sequence Of Prophetic Events, challenged the understanding that the New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old, and suggested that the Bible should rather be interpreted according to the following principles:

  • The New Testament may not be read as an interpretation of the Old Testament;
  • The Old Testament must be understood in its original context, unaffected by the teachings of Christ and of the New Testament;
  • God originally meant or intended by His promises something different to the meaning and intention stated for those promises in the New Testament.

Dr Fruchtenbaum further suggested that if the New Testament does not permit the Old Testament to be interpreted independently or in isolation from the New Testament (i.e. in order to have a meaning other than or in addition to that revealed in the New Testament), then it (namely, the New Testament) is a fraudulent document.

Although other dispensational expositors may phrase these principles differently, Dr Fruchtenbaum’s rendition is typical enough to deserve a thorough examination.

Why is this an important matter?

Many Christians have adopted an approach to the Jewish people, to the modern State of Israel and to political Zionism that stems from doctrines derived through the method of interpretation advocated by Dr. Fruchtenbaum. In particular, it is commonly asserted that there are certain “unconditional promises to the Jews in the Old Testament,” which “have not yet been fulfilled” and which Christians are obligated to support in the present time to bring to fruition. Dr Fruchtenbaum, for instance, believes that “the Old Testament promises a national salvation ofIsrael, it promises a natural restoration when the Jews will live in peace in the whole Promised Land.”

As a result of this understanding, a very significant portion of church resources is being spent on Jewish migration and in support of the Jewish State. Christians are moreover being drawn into the political cause of Zionism and have actively promoted war in its interest against Arab and Islamic nations.[1] Furthermore, dispensational views have had a dramatic impact on the gospel that is preached to the Jew, with many evangelicals ceasing altogether to proclaim it, and others trying to convert Jews on the basis of what God is doing right now, and must and will yet do, for the Jews “when Jesus comes again.” None of this is compatible with Biblical Christianity – as a true interpretation of the New Testament will clearly show.

Does the Bible permit various methods of interpretation?

If the scriptures (those writings that we accept as ordained by God) did not provide the basis for their own interpretation, the Bible would support a great number of discrepant ideas and beliefs (as is often claimed). Yet, God is not an author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33) and desires His word to be set forth plainly so that we may “all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13).

Jesus prayed for his followers to achieve this unity (John 17:20-23), and the faithful are warned to mark those who cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which you have learned (Romans 16:17). Paul wrote: “there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Corinthians 11:19). None of this contemplates the possibility of different, but equally valid, interpretations.

The dispensational scheme of interpretation in the light of scripture

Dispensationalists are not among those guilty of tolerating diverse modes of interpretation – usually insisting that theirs alone is valid. But is the dispensational scheme of Bible interpretation biblical?

While most heresies can be isolated to specific teachings, errors of interpretation are pervasive, eventually infecting all areas of doctrine. Faulty interpretation cannot produce valid theology and conclusions made from mistaken suppositions are untenable.

Dr Fruchtenbaum’s scheme of Bible interpretation (as representative, or at least indicative, of the principles employed by dispensationalists more generally) must be carefully scrutinised in the light of scripture. The words in italics are his.


“Every Old Testament passage must be interpreted as to actually what it means contextually and exegetically in its own context. Once that is established then precede [proceed?] and interpret subsequent revelation about what God gave previously. Whatever additional information subsequent revelation gives, it cannot so totally change what the original revelation says.”

This principle of interpretation depends on a number of critical suppositions, being –

  1. that God always wanted His intentions to be understood in the time at which He spoke, and in that context;
  2. that God does indeed want us to disregard all subsequent revelation for purposes of understanding what He meant by an earlier oracle; and
  3. that we can establish the original, contextual interpretation of every Old Testament passage with certainty. (If we cannot, we clearly cannot say whether subsequent information would “totally change what the original revelation says.”)

These suppositions are invalidated by scripture. We examine each of them in turn.

Did God always speak in such a way that His intention could be understood in the time and context of the oracle?

(a)     Both the Old and New Testaments teach that, in certain matters, God purposefully prevented His intention from being understood at the time of a revelation.

At the time of the Babylonian exile, Daniel could not understand a vision he received and God refused to reveal its meaning to him at that time.

I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My Lord, what will the outcome of all this be?” He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:8-9; see also Daniel 8:26-27).

Before the exile, the Jews were kept from understanding the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies – until the cities of Judah had been destroyed and the people taken into captivity. Only then would God permit them to understand what was prophesied:

He said, Go and tell this people: “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” And He answered: Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken (Isaiah 6:9-12).

The details of Israel’s final deliverance were also kept hidden until that glorious day should finally come. First the whole nation would be stupefied:

The LORD has brought over you a deep sleep: He has sealed your eyes (the prophets); he has covered your heads (the seers). For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say to him, “Read this, please,” he will answer, “I can’t. It is sealed.” Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read, and say, “Read this, please,” he will answer, “I don’t know how to read.” (Isaiah 29:10-12)

Then, at the appointed time, the arrogant mockers would be judged (Isaiah 29:20-21) and those who enjoyed God’s favour would be permitted to see and hear:

In a very short time, will not Lebanon be turned into a fertile field and the fertile field seem like a forest? In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:17-19)

The New Testament claims to reveal a profound mystery that God had purposely kept hidden from earlier generations. This mystery being;

  • Christ, God’s wisdom for achieving the righteousness, holiness and redemption of those who believe (1 Corinthians 2:7);
  • the indwelling Spirit of God, namely “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27);
  • that all nations should believe and obey God (Romans 16:26);
  • that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel,members together of one body and sharers together in the promise of Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:6).

The New Testament claims to reveal this mystery as God’s eternal purpose(Ephesians 3:8), what He had intended before the beginning of time (2 Timothy 1:9); in other words, NOT as something different or in addition to what God had desired or intended originally or in the days of the Old Testament.

Furthermore, the New Testament claims that its message is contained in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament (Romans 1:2), in which it was hidden for ages and generations (Colossians 1:26), and not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:5). At the advent of Christ, by the command of the eternal God, these things were then revealed and made known through the prophetic writings (Romans 16:25). The prophets were not serving themselves [i.e. their own time and context] but you [who received the gospel], when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12).

Fruchtenbaum suggests: “to interpret the Old Testament by the New means that the Old Testament documents cannot be understood, or the meaning cannot be determined until centuries later when the New Testament came into being and that is just a faulty way to treat the Holy Scripture.”

But this is precisely what the New Testament claims. The New Testament presents its revelation as the eternally ordained and originally intended meaning of the Old Testament prophetic writings now made clear. The historical, contextual understanding of the earlier revelation is inconclusive – when it’s ultimate meaning had been withheld, by God’s express design, until the time of Christ.

(b)     In certain cases, the original, contextual understanding was not what God really intended.

God is not constrained by the manner in which His creatures understand or interpret His promises. May He not do exceedingly more than we can ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20)? Does it not please Him “to confound the wisdom of the wise and bring to naught the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:19)?

Devout and God-fearing men throughout the ages thought that they understood what God intended, only to have their expectations surpassed by the superior wisdom and greater providence of God.

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

Scripture means what God intends by it, not what men understand by it.

The Jews under King Herod spent forty-six years rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem in preparation for Messiah’s coming (John 2:20). This was doubtlessly motivated by their contextual and exegetical views of certain Old Testament prophecies. But God had a different Temple in mind: one built of living stones in which He would dwell by His spirit.

Ishmael was conceived as a consequence of Abraham’s original, contextual understanding of the promise “to your seed I will give this land”. But God intended a greater thing than Abraham had initially understood. Indeed, the subsequent miraculous birth of Isaac reveals the carnality of Abraham’s original understanding. Consider that the gospel of the kingdom similarly renders the rabbinical and dispensational understanding of the Abrahamic promise, utterly banal.

Principles of Bible interpretation should not force us back to the original Ishmael notions once God has revealed that He intended something far more profound.

(c)     Intentional ambiguity

God deliberately speaks in a way that brings deliverance to the penitent but confounds those who are proud and wilful. The same word that is intended for the salvation of some is also intended for the condemnation of others.

… with the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the crooked You will show Yourself perverse. (Psalms 18:26)

God often spoke allegorically and abstrusely.

I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them (Hosea 12:10).

Asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus replied: the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. (Matthew 13:11)

God does not permit those who persist in wilful rebellion to escape punishment. We have already considered Isaiah 6, where the proper understanding of God’s message was withheld until His judgment had been executed. YHVH explained to Daniel –

Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand (Daniel 12:9).

The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). The knowledge and acceptance of truth does not come by an intellectual process, but rather a reverent fear of God’s holiness and a contrite spirit that confesses sin and accepts His righteous judgments. An illiterate peasant may thus understand more of God than a university theologian.

The understanding of God’s word is a grace that is often withheld. For much of its history,Israel was in open rebellion against God. The prophets accused Israel of its gross evil, and its worthless religion –

The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (Isaiah 1:3-4)

In such circumstances, Israel was morally precluded from understanding the oracles of God. Whatever these people understood exegetically in their own context was clearly a misunderstanding.

Jeremiah lamented for his countrymen shortly before the Babylonian conquest:

Then I said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, how completely you have deceived this people and Jerusalem by saying, `You will have peace,’ when the sword is at our throats.” (Jeremiah 4:10)

Jeremiah spoke of a deliberate ambiguity in earlier prophecies that had confounded the proud and unfaithful inhabitants of Jerusalem in their complacency. The ultimate trap and snare that God had prepared for unfaithful Israel was in the revelation of Messiah. For, “the Redeemer [would] come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins.” (Isaiah 59:20).

Isaiah thus warned:

He will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel He will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem He will be a trap and a snare. (Isaiah 8:14)

Simeon prophesied of the infant Jesus that he was destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed (Luke 2:34-35). Jesus later announced the fulfilment of these prophecies:

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matthew 21:43-44)

Those who had failed to recognise God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel and Jerusalem through forgiveness and reconciliation unto eternal life, were trapped in the city forty years later, when a million Jews died in the siege of Titus.[2] The beleaguered Jews of that time probably knew the famous prophecy from Zechariah 12:

I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem. On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. (Zechariah 12:2-3)

Those who obstinately held out the siege until its bitter end were probably motivated by their idea of what Zechariah 12 meant contextually and exegetically in its own context. But, Jesus clearly had a different understanding when he warned:

When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. (Luke 21:20-22)

A great number of the Jews had failed to recognize their sin and culpability, their gross violation of the Sinai covenant, and the loss of God’s favour and protection. Pride had prevented them from accepting the gospel of Christ. They were trapped and ensnared and taken. And this was by God’s design.

They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for (1 Peter 2:8).

Does God want us to disregard subsequent information for purposes of properly understanding an earlier revelation?

At the time of the Exodus, YHVH stipulated Passover regulations for Israel to observe throughout its generations.

And this day [the 14th of the first month] shall be to you for a memorial; and you shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations: you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; even the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses: for whoever eats leavened bread, from the first day till the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. (Exodus 12:14-15)

If we apply Dr Fruchtenbaum’s principle and conclude the meaning of this oracle without reference to any subsequent information, then every Israelite who did not keep the Passover from the 14th day of the first month was to be excommunicated from his people.

About a year later, in the first month of the second year of the Exodus, Moses inquired of the Lord on behalf of certain persons who were prevented from keeping the Passover at the required time.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites: `When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they may still celebrate the LORD’s Passover. They are to celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight.’” (Numbers 9:9-11)

Thanks to this additional information, an Israelite in the circumstances described could keep the Passover from the 14th day of the second month, and not be excommunicated as required in terms of the earlier revelation – even though God’s response to Moses may seem to totally change or contradict the earlier revelation.

The Law of Moses comprised a covenant between God and Israel, to which nothing could be added or subtracted (Deuteronomy 4:2)). Israel would remain in right-standing with God as long as it observed all the requirements of the Law (Deuteronomy 28:58). However, the Law itself provided for a later addition to it.

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put My words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to My words that the prophet speaks in My name, I Myself will call him to account. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)

Obedience to the teachings of Jesus is required by the Law of Moses. Jesus professed: “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:24). Once the prophet like Moses was revealed,Israel could no longer keep the Law without obeying him.

God did not intend that Israel should ignore the subsequent revelation of Christ in order that it might comply with the Law of Moses as it was originally given on Mount Sinai. On the contrary, everyone who did not listen to the prophet like Moses would be totally cut off from among his people.

Once again, the subsequent revelation has an important effect on what was originally given and intended. We are seemingly ill advised to settle our understanding of an oracle without reference to a later revelation.

Can we establish with certainty the original, contextual interpretation of every Old Testament passage?

The idea that there is a fixed and definite meaning for every Old Testament scripture is Talmudic, not Biblical.

Judaism can easily assume a fixed literal meaning for every scripture (the so-called pashat),[3] since it believes that the rabbis can overrule even God in determining the meaning of an oracle. According to the Talmud, God has delegated an irrevocable authority to the rabbis to determine the meaning of His word, and they do this by majority opinion.[4]  The Talmudic tractate Babha Metsia, has God speaking out from Heaven in favour of a dissenting rabbi and being rebuked for this by one of the majority. God then submits to the opinion of the rabbinical majority and laughs, “My sons have defeated Me”.[5]

Biblical Christianity professes the Sovereign and Omniscient God, the Maker of heaven and earth, who rebukes nations in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath – whose word is like fire and breaks a rock into pieces.[6] This God is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) and does not have His will determined by the opinions of men.

Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him? (1 Corinthians 2:16)

The authors and compilators of the Talmudic pashat came from the sect of the Pharisees,[7] being the spiritual heirs of those whom Jesus called blind leaders of the blind, and whom he expressly warned his disciples not to follow.

Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit. (Matthew 14:15)

While much of the Messianic and Hebrew Roots movement has fallen headlong into the pit,[8] there are yet other Christian expositors who reject the Talmudic pashat and yet hold to the idea of a “literal, historical” meaning of scripture. While agreeing that such a meaning can be derived from the text, many are uncertain or even disagree on what precisely that literal historical meaning is. Also among dispensational expositors, there are critical differences in opinion on the meaning of certain key Old Testament scriptures.

Even the Talmud, with its conceited claim to authority, has failed to consolidate the rabbinical views into an absolute uniformity and contains multiple possible interpretations for many scriptures. For example, the Babylonian Talmud gives three plausible meanings for Zechariah 12:10.[9]

Where should the Christian then look for the definitive rendition of the contextual historical meaning of an Old Testament script that Dr Fruchtenbaum requires? If divergent opinions exist, which one should prevail – or are all equally valid, provided they were formulated without reference to the New Testament and are unaffected by the light of Christ?

We have previously considered how human limitations hinder our understanding of God’s word, and have refuted the proposition that an oracle of God must be understood in isolation from any future revelation. The only way, then, of coming to a conclusive understanding of God’s word would be if God Himself revealed His ultimate intention, providing us with that certainty.

Is this not what the New Testament claims to be – a decisive and conclusive revelation of God’s eternal purposes? We argue this proposition in part two.


[1] John Hagee’s call for military action against Iran (Jerusalem Countdown, 2007) is a well known example.

[2] See Yosef ben Mattatias (Josephus), The War of the Jews, especially Books 5 & 6.

[3] The Talmud states on two occasions that “no passage loses its pashat” – tractate Shabbat 63a; tractate Yebhamot 24a.

[4] See Daniel Gruber, Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, Elijah Publishing,Hanover, 1999, p.111 et seq.

[5] Babha Metsia 59b. See Gruber, ibid.

[6] Psalm 115:15, Psalm 2:5, Jeremiah 23:29.

[7] “The Jewish religion as it is today traces its descent, without a break, through all the centuries, from the Pharisees.” — Universal Jewish Encyclopaedia.

[8] See for example James Scott Trimm “The Four Levels of Understanding Scripture.”

[9] Sukkot 52a. “And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart …What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in the last cited verse]?— R. Dosa and the Rabbisdiffer on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph,7and theother explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.”