The Development of a Literalist Christian Zionist Hermeneutic

The literal interpretation of Scripture, as opposed to the allegoricalism found in Roman Catholicism, was generally normative among Protestant denominations from the Reformation until the rise of liberalism in the 19th Century.5
From the early 19th century literalism increasingly became associated with evangelicalism and fundamentalism to the point where today they are now virtually synonymous.6 Within this broad movement, which was predominantly postmillennial in outlook, the development of a distinctive Christian Zionist hermeneutic can be dated to the early 19th Century and the influence of a group of British and Irish evangelical leaders who began meeting together to study what they perceived to be as yet 'unfulfilled' prophecies concerning the Jews. The Albury conferences brought together Edward Irving's innovative and pessimistic form of premillennialism, Lewis Way's preoccupation with the literal and futurist fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and Joseph Wolff's quest for the 'lost tribes' of Israel. These meetings and those held subsequently at Powerscourt in Ireland and the journals and books published by the Albury Circle, such as in the Morning Watch, provided the catalyst for what became the increasingly popular conviction that God had a continuing and separate purpose for the Jewish people, apart from the Church. The Albury Circle popularised the belief in the imminent rediscovery of the ten lost tribes, their mass conversion and return to Palestine just prior to the return of the Messiah. While the conviction that such events would occur in their own life time proved unfounded, the belief that such events were nevertheless predicted in the Bible became the theological foundation for 20th Century Christian Zionism.

Edward Irving and the Revival of 19th Century Premillennialism
The revival of premillennialism in the nineteenth century as well as the novel doctrine of the rapture, have been attributed to the Scottish preacher, Edward Irving7
. Set against the prevailing utopianism which saw the founding of many missionary societies following the Great Revivals of the 18th Century and the ministry of the evangelists such as the Wesleys and Whitfield, Irving's critical pessimism provoked a furore.8 A popular Scottish preacher working in London, Irving had been invited to preach at the annual service of the London Missionary Society in 1824, and a year later in 1825 to the Continental Society. Irving's address in 1825 was entitled, 'Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed'. In reaction to the prevailing optimistism and postmillennial drive toward missionary expansion, Irving predicted that the world was about to experience a 'series of thick-coming judgments and fearful perplexities' before the imminent return of Jesus Christ.9 Irving insisted that missionary work, especially in Southern Europe where the Continental Society concentrated its ministry, was utterly futile because God's judgement was about to fall on these lands of the former Roman Empire. Some walked out of the meeting in protest while the leaders of the Society accused Irving of undermining their ministry.10

The origin of what came to be known as a 'futurist view' of end time prophecy, upon which Irving based his innovative eschatology, has been attributed to the works of a 16th century Jesuit, Francesco Ribera, whose writings were later popularised in the 19th century by another Spanish Jesuit, Manuel Lacunza. Lacunza used the pseudonym Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, allegedly a converted Jew, for his book, 'The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty'. Available in Spanish and manuscript form from the 1790's, it was Edward Irving's English translation of 1827 which brought the work to popular attention.11
Irving's 203 page preface to the translation indicated his own emerging prophetic speculations about the end of the world, the apostasy of Christendom, the restoration of the Jews and the imminent return of Christ.

As early as 1828 the critical Christian Observer attributed to Irving and his Albury colleague M'Neile responsibility for the controversial teaching that God was about to destroy the world and inaugurate a 'whole new dispensation' on earth. Those who opposed Irving's views among the established mission agencies saw themselves as 'ministers of mercy, and not of wrath'.12
Irving become increasingly preoccupied with speculative interpretations of the apocalyptic writings, especially of Daniel and Revelation. He predicted, for example, that the Church had suffered under Papal rule from 533 when Justinian recognised the Bishop of Rome as head of the Church until 1793. He saw the French Revolution and Industrial Revolution as evidence of the "signs of the end". The first six vials referred to in the Book of Revelation had been poured out, while he argued the seventh vial referred to the 1820's. This final era would see the final battle of Armageddon, the Second Advent and the beginning of the Millennium.13 Irving's prophetic views came to have a profound influence on many other Christian leaders and politicians not least John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Brethren as well as Henry Drummond who, together with Irving, founded the Catholic Apostolic Church.

The Albury Circle and the "Unfulfilled Prophecy" Conferences
On the first day of Advent in 1826, the same year Irving was translating Lacunza's work on the Second Advent14
, Henry Drummond opened his home at Albury Park to a select group of invited evangelical leaders for a week long retreat to discuss matters of unfulfilled prophecy. This was to become the first of five annual conferences held there until 1830.

Henry Drummond was a banker, Member of Parliament and at one time High Sherif of Surrey.15
Significantly, he was the Vice President of the recently formed London Jews Society as well as influential in the Continental Society. Besides Henry Drummond, those who attended included nineteen Anglican, two Dissenting and four Church of Scotland ministers. The Anglicans included Lewis Way and Joseph Wolff of the London Jews Society, Hugh M'Neile the Irish Rector of Albury and eventually Dean of Liverpool, Daniel Wilson who became Bishop of Calcutta, Hatley Frere, Spencer Percival and John Tudor, who became the editor of the Morning Watch, the short-lived quarterly journal of the 'Albury Circle'. The Church of Scotland representatives included Edward Irving and his friend Robert Story of Rosneath.16 Later participants included Lady Powerscourt of Dublin.

According to Roy Coad, the Brethren historian, Albury became, 'the centre for wild speculation'.17
It lay the seeds not only for 19th Century Millenarianism and Darby's Dispensationalism but also the future direction of the London Jews Society and Christian Zionism. The rise of biblical literalism, so central to Christian Zionism, and a renewed interest in the Jews, can be clearly attributed to Edward Irving, Lewis Way and their associates at the Albury Conference of 1826.18

In 1821, Way had published a pamphlet called 'The Latter Rain' in which he called Christians to pray for the Jews in the belief that the prophecies of the Old Testament had a, 'primary and literal reference to the Jews' rather than the Church.19
Hugh M'Neile, one of the Albury Circle, published a similar but longer book, 'The Prophecies Relative to the Jewish Nation.' in 1830.20 Like Irving and subsequently Darby also, M'Neile advocated a separate status for the Jews from the Church which, he claimed, existed within different dispensations. He believed that the future repentance and then restoration of the Jews, as well as their pre-eminence on earth, were the result of a literal reading of Old Testament prophecies. He was also preoccupied, like Joseph Wolff, with locating the so called ten 'Lost Tribes' of Israel, so indispensable to any future restoration.21 Edward Irving compared the first Albury conference with that of the Apostles in Jerusalem in Acts 15 and acknowledged the influence of Wolff's knowledge of Hebrew.

Edward Miller's quotations from Irving's notes of the first Albury conference in 1826 confirm that the origin of the dispensational distinction between the Jews and the Church and the restoration of the Jews before the return of Christ may be attributed to Edward Irving.23

The conference of 1828 similarly focussed on speculation concerning the imminent restoration of the Jews. Irving, for example, records the momentous news which Drummond shared of the discovery of some 20 million of the 'ten lost Hebrew' tribes allegedly now living in Cashmere.25 It is possible that Joseph Wolff's lifelong search for the 'Ten Tribes' which began in the same year may have been sparked off by this 'discovery'.26 In the later conferences the emphasis shifted to the imminent Last Days 'preparations' or signs of the Second Coming.27

In 1866, Hugh M'Neile, whom Drummond had appointed Rector of Albury, looked back and acknowledged how, a generation earlier in the 1830's, such futurist interpretations of the prophetic books of Daniel and Revelation advocated by himself, Way and Irving had been viewed as something of a novelty by sceptics he describes as 'anti-restorationists'.28 He admits that it had, 'no place in the battle-field of the Reformation' or among theologians in the 18th century.

Irving rejoiced that the 'Albury Circle' had caused a sea change in Millennial speculation and how, 'the truth of his Son's glorious advent maketh winged speed in all the churches.'30 The Albury Circle, principally Irving, Drummond, Way, Wolff, M'Neile and Lady Powerscourt, were probably the most significant influence in the development of a literalist and futurist hermeneutic which in turn gave rise to both Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism. Between 1830 and 1834, following the model established at Albury, Lady Powerscourt hosted a series of similar prophetic conferences at Powerscourt Castle near Dublin, under the growing influence of J. N. Darby, to whom she was engaged to be married.

John Nelson Darby's Contribution to a Literalist Hermeneutic
John Nelson Darby is regarded by many as the father of dispensationalism and the most influential figure in the development of its prodigy, Christian Zionism31. Darby defended his own literalist dispensational hermeneutic on two grounds. First, because, he claimed, others had not studied the Scriptures correctly.

Second, Darby insisted that his own interpretation, over against that of the Millenarians, was correct because the Lord had revealed it to him by special revelation.

Darby's literal hermeneutic, typical of popular Christian Zionist writers today, might be summed up in his own words, 'I prefer quoting many passages than enlarging upon them.'34 In response to the negative reaction his controversial teaching about a future dispensation of Jews on earth after the church had been removed, Darby wrote,

Even Coad, in his otherwise positive history of the Brethren Movement, admits that 'For the traditional view of the Revelation, another was substituted.'36 Barr is less sympathetic arguing premillennial dispensationalism was, '...individually invented by J. N. Darby... concocted in complete contradiction to all main Christian tradition...'37 It was Cyrus Scofield, however, and principally his Scofield Reference Bible, who synthesised and popularised a literalist and futurist reading of Scripture based on Irving and Darby's distinctive rupture between the Church and Israel.

Scofield's Hermeneutic - Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
According to one of Darby's biographers, 'His perceptions of Scriptural truths are the source from which Scofield Reference Bibles get their characteristic notes.'38 Others have noted that the resemblance between Scofield and Darby 'is deep and systematic.'39 It is significant, however, that neither in the Introduction to his Reference Bible, nor in the accompanying notes does Scofield acknowledge his indebtedness to Darby, any more than Darby credited Irving. In 1888 Scofield published his first work called 'Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth'.40 In it Scofield presented the hermeneutical principles of dispensationalism he had allegedly been teaching his Bible classes and which would become the theological presuppositions behind the notes of his Scofield Reference Bible. Not surprisingly, it was the Plymouth Brethren 'house' publishers, Loizeaux Brothers of New York, who printed the first edition,41 and continued to do so, a century later.42 The key text upon which Scofield based his scheme is the Authorised translation of 2 Timothy 2:15, in which the Apostle Paul calls upon Timothy to, '... rightly divide the word of truth.' Scofield took this as the title for his first book which elaborated on how the Bible should be divided into discrete dispensations.43

The first lesson sets the tone for all future Dispensational teaching offering a novel 'literal' interpretation of the verse 'Give no offence, neither to the Jews, nor the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.' (1 Corinthians 10:32). On the basis of this verse, Scofield justified the division of the world into three classes of people, Jews, Gentiles and the Church, an idea that is now the 'warp and woof of Dispensational teaching.'45 Others perceive that The New Testament more accurately delineates two classes of people, those who believe in Jesus Christ and those who do not, irrespective of their racial origins.46 Scofield, like Darby, insisted that promises made to the Jews in the Old Testament could not be applied to the Church in the New Testament.

Scofield's literalism extended even to exact verbal phraseology. This led him to claim, for example, that there are seven dispensations, eight covenants, and eleven great mysteries.48 To justify this perpetual and 'eternal' distinction between Israel and the Church, even under the New Covenant, Scofield insisted that Israel is the 'earthly wife' of God and the Church is actually the 'heavenly bride'' of Christ. Commenting on Hosea 2:2, Scofield writes,

That Israel is the wife of Jehovah (see vs. 16-23), now disowned but yet to be restored, is the clear teaching of the passages. This relationship is not to be confounded with that of the Church to Christ (John 3.29, refs.)... The N.T. speaks of the Church as a virgin espoused to one husband (2 Cor. 11.1,2); which could never be said of an adulterous wife, restored in grace. Israel is, then, to be the restored and forgiven wife of Jehovah, the Church the virgin wife of the Lamb (John 3.29; Rev. 19. 6-8); Israel Jehovah's earthly wife (Hos. 2, 23); the Church the Lamb's heavenly bride (Rev. 19.7)49

Scofield therefore concluded that Israel and the Church were separate bodies. 'A forgiven and restored wife could not be called either a virgin (2 Cor. 11: 2,3), or a bride.'50 Such novel teaching about two separate people of God - that of an 'earthly wife' and a 'heavenly bride' contradicts other passages such as John 10:16 and Romans 11:24, neither of which warrant any comment in Scofield's Reference Bible. Scofield's footnotes and systematised scheme of hermeneutics, however, were seen as inspired and used as a test of orthodoxy among fundamentalists in the early 20th Century.

One of Scofield's disciples, Lewis Sperry Chafer who founded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, became his most articulate and influential exponent, producing the first and definitive eight volume systematic theology of Dispensationalism based on Scofield's scheme. Before his death in 1952 Chafer described what he perceived to be his greatest academic achievement. 'It goes on record that the Dallas Theological Seminary uses, recommends, and defends the Scofield Bible.'52

A Dispensational Definition of Biblical Literalism
Lewis Chafer defines the literal hermeneutic upon which dispensationalism and contemporary Christian Zionism is based in the following way.

The biblical text therefore needs little or no human interpretation. Like Chafer, Charles Ryrie insists that it is only dispensationalists who are consistent in applying a literal interpretation.

Louis Goldberg claims that it is those who reject a literalist hermeneutic who are imposing their theological framework on the Scriptures.

However, without the foundational dispensational presupposition that God's purposes for Israel and the Church are and remain eternally separate, Chafer insists the Bible is incomprehensible.

Chafer taught that without this dispensational distinction between Israel and the Church, a simple literal reading along with other 'non literal' methods of interpretation are confusing and lead to internal inconsistency. Dwight Pentecost, also of Dallas Theological Seminary similarly insists,

Scripture is unintelligible until one can distinguish clearly between God's program for his earthly people Israel and that for the Church.57

Patrick Goodenough of the International Christian Embassy explains the consequences of this simple 'literal' hermeneutic.

In the 1980's the Churches Ministry Among Jewish People went further, locating the origin of what they term a 'spiritualised' reading of the Bible in the heresy of Marcion who proposed the abandonment of the Old Testament.

Hal Lindsey also attributed the development of erroneous views concerning Israel to an allegorical, non-literal hermeneutic allegedly advocated by Origen.60 Others, however, have argued that it was the consistent approach of the Post-Apostolic Fathers, including Origen, to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures typologically, that is as 'types' of New Testament realities61, as the Apostles had done before them.62 In his commitment to literalism, Lindsey and other dispensationalists do not distinguish between figurative or typological approaches acknowledged by covenantal theologians from the allegorical methods of interpretation seen typically in pre-Reformation Roman Catholicism.63 The distinction between these two methods of interpretation is significant since the former places particular emphasis on the historical context of passages as well as the way scripture interprets scripture.64 An allegorical approach finds eternal truths in the Bible without reference to their historical setting. A typological approach highlights the way New Testament writers see Jesus Christ to be the fulfilment of many Old Testament images and types.65 There is good evidence that a typological interpretation of the Old Testament was consistently followed by the Church from the 1st Century, and did not arise with Origen as Lindsey alleges.66

The Political Implications of a Zionist Literalist Hermeneutic
It is when such a literalist hermeneutic, combined with the dispensational distinction between Israel and the Church, is applied to the prophetic books of Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation, that the political ramifications of Christian Zionism are seen to be so controversial. Hal Lindsey, for example, has been largely responsible for popularising a futurist and predictive view of ancient prophecies applying promises made to the ancient Jews to the contemporary State of Israel.

Lindsey's eschatological speculations, while criticised by some dispensationalists68, are nevertheless representative of numerous other popular Christian Zionist writers such as Tim LaHaye69, Mike Evans70, John Hagee71, Randall Price72, Charles Dyer73, Grant Jeffrey74 and Dave Hunt75. Leslie Flynn of Jews for Jesus, for example, illustrates how Old Testament prophecies can be used to describe future events and thereby reinforce a Zionist agenda.

While not a dispensationalist, Basilea Schlink, on the basis of a literalist reading of the Bible, similarly equates the ancient Jews with the contemporary State of Israel, and elevates them to a privileged status far above human sanction or criticism. Indeed she warns that those who reject such a conclusion are opposing God.

The outworking of this hermeneutic can also be seen in the conclusions Anne Dexter reaches concerning the territorial extent of Israel.

The implication is clear, only those who read the Bible 'literally' are being faithful to the integrity of the Scriptures. It is interesting to obgserve how far this literalism is sometimes pressed by Christian Zionists. For example, while the promises of blessing made to Abraham in Genesis 12 were made personally to the patriarch, the International Christian Embassy not only applies them to the way other nations treat the State of Israel today but insists the promises also provide divine justification for Israel's continued occupation of parts of Syrian and Palestine.

Mike Evans, Founder and President of Lovers of Israel Inc., interprets the same passage in Genesis as meaning that as long as the United States supports Israel, it will survive and prosper. He argues that demonic forces are attempting to force America to betray Israel and that America's very survival will depend on her continued support of Israel.80

An Appraisal of the Christian Zionist Hermeneutic

With sales of over 40 million books in over 50 languages, Hal Lindsey is undoubtedly the most influential Christian Zionist writer today.82 This appraisal will therefore use Lindsey's own writings as illustrative of, as well as representative of, other Christian Zionist writers apply a 'litreral' hermeneutic.

Changing Interpretation
It is noticeable how some authors have altered their interpretations to suit changing events.83 For example, in There's a New World Coming (1973), Lindsey was relatively circumspect in his interpretation of what some of the symbols used in the Book of Revelation.

By the time he wrote Apocalypse Code (1997), 24 years later, however, as new and more destructive military hardware became available, Lindsey's speculations became more dogmatic and specific. So, for example, "might symbolize" becomes what the apostle John "actually saw."

1980's Countdown to Armageddon Planet Earth 2000 A.D.
    Today, the Soviets are without question the strongest power on the face of the earth. Lets look at recent history to see how the Russians rose to the might predicted for them thousands of years ago.86
We see Russia as no longer a world threat, but a regional power with a world-class military - exactly what Ezekiel 38 and 39 predicted it would be.87
Late Great Planet Earth (1970) Apocalypse Code (1997)
The Russian force will establish command headquarters on Mount Moriah or the Temple area in Jerusalem. ...he seeks to utterly destroy the Jewish people.90 ...the Russian-Muslim force retreats back to Israel and sets up command HQs on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. These forces try to annihilate the Jews as they do this.91

While dispensationalists claim to use a consistent, plain and literal interpretation of Scripture, at times, even though they share the same theology and eschatology they nevertheless reach very different, and sometimes contradictory, conclusions. For example, in their interpretation of Revelation 9:13-19, Hal Lindsey and M.R. DeHann contradict one another:

M.R. DeHann (1946) Hal Lindsey (1973)
In Revelation 9:13-21 we have a description of an army of two hundred million horsemen... seems to be a supernatural army of horrible beings, probably demons, who are permitted to plague the unrepentant sinners on the earth...103 The four angels of Revelation 9:14-15 will mobilize an army of 200 million soldiers from east of the Euphrates... I believe these 200 million troops are Red Chinese soldiers accompanied by other Eastern allies...104

86 Lindsey, 1980's., p. 68.

87 Lindsey, Planet., p. 216.

88 Lindsey, Chapter 1 of The Final Battle, (Palos Verdes, California, Western Front, 1995), is entitled "The New Islamic Global Threat". p. 1.

89 Lindsey, Planet., p. 171.

90 Lindsey, Late., p. 160.

91 Lindsey, Apocalypse., p. 153.

92 Lindsey, Briefing., 7th January 1999.

93 Brickner, Future., p. 7.

94 Brickner, Future., p. 17.

95 Brickner, Future., p. 18. See also his 'prophetic parenthesis' timetable, p. 130.

96 Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness (Atlanta, American Vision, 1997), p. 81.

97 Lindsey, Israel., pp. 32-33. This chapter is reused heavily in Apocalypse Code, pp. 30-44.

98 Lindsey, Apocalypse., p. 42.

99 Lindsey, Apocalypse., p. 72.

100 Lindsey, Planet Earth: The Final Chapter, p. 247.

101 J. N. Darby, 'The Hopes.,' The Collected Writings, Prophetic I, Vol. II, p. 380; C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, fn. 1, p. 883.

102 Lindsey, Final., p. 2.

103 M. R. DeHann, Revelation, 35 Simple Studies in the Major Themes of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1946), p. 148;

104 Hal Lindsey, There's A New World Coming (London, Coverdale, 1973), pp. 142-143.

105 Lindsey, There's., p. 143.

106 Frank Kermode, "Can we say absolutely anything we like?" Art, Politics, and Will: Essays in Honour of Lionel Trilling. ed. Quentin Anderson, et. Al. (New York, Basic, 1977), pp. 159-72, Cited in Kathleen Boone, The Bible Tells Them So (London, SCM 1989) p. 44.

107 Lindsey, Road., p. 176.

108 Lindsey, Apocalypse., p. 78.

109 Rosen, Overture., p. 152.

110 Lindsey, 1980's., p. 65.

111 Jeffrey, Armageddon., pp. 98ff.

112 Edwin Yamauchi, Foes from the Northern Frontier (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1982), pp. 19-27.

113 Lindsey, Final., p. 183; Planet Earth: The Final Chapter, p. 213.

114 Lindsey, International Intelligence Briefing, 7th January 1999. Lindsey also claims a 'gigantic fault' runs through the Mount of Olives. Late., p. 174.

115 Charles Dyer, The Rise of Babylon (Wheaton, Illinois, Tyndale House, 1991), p. 198; Grant Jeffrey, Armageddon, Appointment with Destiny ( Toronto, Frontier Research, 1988), pp. 185-187.

116 Brickner, Future., p. 70.

117 Brickner, Future., p. 73.

118 C. Van der Waal, Hal Lindsey and Biblical Prophecy (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada, Inheritance Publications, 1991), p. 51.

119 Lindsey, Late., back cover.

120 Lindsey, Late., p. 18.

121 Ernest R. Sandeen, "Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism," Church History 36 (1967), 70. Cited in Gerstner, Wrongly., p. 100.

122 Bass, Backgrounds., p. 151.

123 See Galatians 4 where the Gentiles are now regarded as the children of Sarah and the Jews who have rejected Jesus are the children of Hagar.

124 Kyle regards this form of hermenutics as 'Pesher' which is Aramaic for 'interpretation' Richard Kyle, The Last Days are Here Again, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1998), p. 199.

125 see Hebrews 1:1-4, 8:13, 10:1.

126 R.T. Kendall, "How literally do you read your Bible?" Israel and Christians Today, Summer 2001, p.9.

127 Kathleen C. Boone, The Bible tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism (London, SCM, 1990).