I believe that if you were to ask the knowledgeable dispensationalist to specify the most basic and fundamental element in his system, he would probably say consistent literalism or some equivalent expression. The dispensationalist believes that consistent literalism is the basic key to the correct interpretation of Scripture and the only sure hedge against liberalism. The dispensationalist’s main criticism of the Reformed theologian is that he “spiritualizes” or “allegorizes,” which is to say that he is not consistently literal in the dispensational sense of the expression.
This dispensational criticism most often refers to the Reformed theologian’s directly applying Old Testament prophecies that speak of Israel and the Messianic age to the New Testament church. Many dispensationalists also regard the Reformed theologian as an incipient liberal because they believe that it is only the Reformed theologian’s inconsistency and his failure to apply his non-literal hermeneutic (i.e., system of interpretation) throughout his system of theology that saves him from liberalism.  After all, the Reformed theologian’s “spiritualizing” away Jewish prophecies by applying them directly to the church differs only in degree from the liberal’s spiritualizing away the creation account or the virgin birth by saying that these are myths, reasons the dispensationalist. The dispensationalist is emotionally committed to his literal hermeneutic and believes that he alone has the moral courage and integrity necessary to accept what Scripture literally teaches.
Dr. Charles C. Ryrie explains the dispensational emphasis on consistently literal interpretation as follows:
The distinction between Israel and the Church is born out of a system of hermeneutics which is usually called literal interpretation. … The word literal is perhaps not as good as either the word normal or plain, but in any case it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as nondispensational interpretation does. … Consistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture. And it is this very consistency — the strength of dispensational interpretation — that irks the nondispensationalist and becomes the object of his ridicule. 
If plain or normal interpretation is the only valid hermeneutical principle, and if it is consistently applied, it will cause one to be a dispensationalist. As basic as one believes normal interpretation to be, to that extent he will of necessity become a dispensationalist. 
Dr. Walvoord captures the spirit of dispensational literalism in his dramatic statements:
History is history, not allegory. Facts are facts. Prophesied future events are just what they are prophesied. Israel means Israel, earth means earth, heaven means heaven. 
The importance of consistent literalism to the dispensationalist cannot be overstated. Dispensationalists like to argue that consistent literalism is their first principle and that the dichotomy and parenthesis theories logically follow from the application of this first principle to the study of Scripture. I believe that the reality is the reverse: dispensational interpretation uses the degree of literalism necessary to interpret prophecy in terms of the dispensational dichotomy and parenthesis assumptions. Beyond this, differing degrees of figurativeness and literality can be found in dispensational interpretations.
Certain passages dramatically demonstrate the difficulty in trying to interpret prophecy with so-called consistent literalism. One such class of passages are those which dispensationalists apply to their Jewish millennium and which refer to some ancient enemies of Old Testament Israel which long ago passed out of existence, such as the Ammonites (Isaiah 11:14; Daniel 11:41), the Assyrians (Micah 5:5; Isaiah 19:23-25), the Edomites (Isaiah 11:14; 63:1-6; Joel 3:19; Amos 9:11-12; Daniel 11:41), the Egyptians (Zechariah 14:16-19; Isaiah 19:23-25), and the Moabites (Isaiah 11:14; Daniel 11:41).  Dr. William Everett Bell has made the following observations in this regard:
One wonders why if “Israel means Israel,” why Assyria does not mean Assyria and Egypt mean Egypt. The answer, obviously, is that plain common sense militates against any interpretation that sees a necessary revival of ancient peoples who passed off the scene of history thousands of years ago. No Christian would deny that God could once again bring together an Assyrian empire or a Philistine nation if He chose to do so, but few expositors, dispensationalists included, look for such an occurrence. 
Still another problem for the theory of consistent literalism are those passages which dispensationalists refer to a future Jewish dispensation and which specifically mention Old Testament family and tribal relationships. Dispensationalists argue that there is a future generation of Jews who will fulfill the Old Testament prophecies about a Messianic age, but some of these prophecies specifically mention the existence of ancient family and tribal relationships. For example, Zechariah chapters 9-12 is usually considered by dispensationalists to be a passage especially supportive of their system. Zechariah 12:11-14, however, specifically speaks of the separate and distinct existence of the families of David, Nathan, Levi and Shimei. Other passages about the Messianic age speak of the distinct existence of the tribe of Levi (Isaiah 66:21; Malachi 3:3), and some even speak of the continued existence of the sons of Zadok within the tribe of Levi (Ezekiel 44:15; 48:11). Other prophetic passages speak of all the separate and distinct twelve tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 48; Revelation 7). These tribal and family relationships, however, have long been lost. God has not seen fit to preserve these genealogical distinctions past the time of the New Testament. Once tribal and family relationships are lost, they cannot be restored except by resurrecting the family and tribal heads and starting over again. Because of such considerations, Patrick Fairbairn has said the following:
So long as any prophecies were depending for their fulfillment on the separate existence of tribes and families in Israel, the distinction betwixt them was preserved; and so, also, were the genealogical records, which were needed to attest the fulfillment. These prophecies terminated in the Son of Mary, the branch of the house of David, and the lion of the tribe of Judah; but with him this, and all other old things, ceased — a new era, independent of such outward and formal differences, began. Hence, we find the apostle discharging all from giving heed to endless genealogies, as no longer of any avail in the church of God; and the providence of God shortly after sealed the word by scattering their genealogies to the winds, and fusing together in one undistinguishable, inextricable mass, the surviving remnants of the Jewish family. Now, prophecy is not to be verified by halves; it is either wholly true, in the sense in which it ought to be understood, or it is a failure. And since God’s providence has rendered the fulfillment of the parts referred to manifestly impossible on the literal principle of interpretation, it affords conclusive evidence, that on this principle such prophecies are misread. In what it calls men to believe, it does violence to their reason; and it commits the word of God to expectations, which never can be properly realized. 
The passage most commonly mentioned in discussions of the difficulty presented by dispensational literalism is Ezekiel’s temple vision (Ezekiel 40-48).
The dispensationalists are looking for a reinstitution of bloody animal sacrifices in a millennial temple built in accordance with the description found in this passage.  Dispensationalists are careful to specify that these sacrifices are merely memorials of Christ’s death and will be the millennial equivalent of the Lord’s Supper. The problem with this is that Ezekiel’s vision refers to these sacrifices as literally making atonement (Ezekiel 45:15,17,20; Hebrew: kaphar, atone). Of course, a dispensationalist can go to the book of Hebrews to prove that animal sacrifices in the Old Testament never literally atoned for sin (Hebrews 10:4). When the Reformed theologian, however, goes to Hebrews to prove that animal sacrifices were done away forever by Christ’s once for all offering (Hebrews 10:10-18), then that is “theological interpretation” and “reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament,” two practices which dispensationalists routinely criticize.
Another area where strict literalism is difficult are those prophecies which dispensationalists interpret as end-time events and which refer to ancient weapons systems.
For example, Ezekiel 38-39 is a passage which dispensationalists interpret as referring to an end-time invasion of Israel by a Russian army. And yet the prophecy speaks of this army as equipped with primitive weapons: “shields and bucklers, … bows and arrows, and … handstaves, and … spears” (Ezekiel 39:9). These weapons are largely made of wood as evidenced by their being burned as firewood. Dr. John F. Walvoord suggests the following explanation:
Modern missile warfare will have developed in that day to the point where missiles will seek out any considerable amount of metal. Under those circumstances, it would be necessary to abandon the large use of metal weapons and substitute wood such as is indicated in the primitive weapons. Whatever the explanation, the most sensible interpretation is that the passage refers to actual weapons pressed into use because of the particular circumstances of that day. 
Not all dispensational interpreters guard the literal hermeneutic as carefully as does Dr. Walvoord.
The popular dispensational writer Hal Lindsey, a graduate of the seminary where Dr. Walvoord is president, shares his hermeneutical approach to the book of Revelation:
Some writers have chosen to interpret each symbol quite literally. For example, a locust with the face of a man, the teeth of a lion, a breastplate of iron, a tail that can sting, and wings that made the sound of many chariots would have to be specially created by God to look just like that description.
I personally tend to think that God might utilize in his judgments some modern devices which the Apostle John was at a loss for words to describe nineteen centuries ago! In the case just mentioned, the locust might symbolize an advanced kind of helicopter. 
Mr. Lindsey later suggests that the composite locust creatures of the Apocalypse might be Cobra helicopters that spray nerve gas from their tails.  And yet, interpreters such as Mr. Lindsey also argue that Reformed interpreters are making a serious and fundamental error in teaching that the Old Testament prophets at times spoke of the coming church age in terms of the Old Testament religious economy with which the people of God were then familiar!
Another passage where dispensationalists generally insist on strict literality is the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.
The new Jerusalem vision of Revelation 21, if interpreted with strict literality, involves the coming down to earth of a city whose length, width and height are each 12,000 stadia (i.e., about 1,500 miles). Just stop and try to visualize a city fifteen hundred miles long, wide and tall resting on planet earth. Such a metropolitan mass would put a definite wobble in this planet’s orbital spin! Of course, God could do such a feat and overcome any such difficulties, but is it not more likely that these outrageous dimensions were used intentionally to prevent an overly literal interpretation?
Also, the use of the highly symbolic number 12,000 would seem enough to indicate that this city, which elsewhere is literally said to be the Bride of Christ (Revelation 21:9-10), is a symbol for the full number of the people of God of all the ages. The number twelve is associated with the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (Revelation 21:12,14) and therefore with the covenant people of both ages. The numbers ten and thousand are associated with fullness or completion. Why the insistence on a literal city with such outrageous and disproportionate dimensions relative to planet earth?
The dispensationalist Dr. Paul Lee Tan explains that the dispensationalist believes that Biblical prophecy should be interpreted literally whenever this is possible or plausible. As an example of what he is talking about, he mentions the pearls that are to serve as gates in the extraordinarily large city described in Revelation 21.  Of course, it is possible for God to create such extraordinary pearls. And it is possible for omnipotent God to recreate many elements of the Old Testament world and to cataclysmically rearrange the earth’s topography in order to allow for a very literal fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. The question, however, is not whether or not such fulfillments are theoretically possible by any stretch of the imagination. The issue is what God was intending to communicate by the language used in Biblical prophecy.
Dispensationalists sometimes do lay aside this insistence on literality if possible by any stretch of the imagination in prophetic interpretation. For example, in Psalm 22, it was prophesied that the Messiah would be surrounded by “bulls of Bashan.” Most interpreters take this prophecy to refer to those people who persecuted our Lord at His passion. One must admit, however, that this interpretation is not a “literal if possible” interpretation of the passage. And yet, I am aware of no dispensationalist who insists in the name of literalism that our Lord at His second coming must suffer again under the threats of literal bulls from literal Bashan in order to fulfill all prophecy literally. Yet these same interpreters argue that Christ will not begin His prophesied Messianic reign until He is ruling from a literal Mount Zion in literal Palestine (Psalm 2:6) even though the New Testament teaches both that Christ obtained His Messianic throne at His ascension into heaven (Revelation 12:5; 2:26-27; compare Psalm 2:9) and that Mount Zion and Jerusalem in the age are heavenly realities (Hebrews 12:22).
The editors of the New Scofield Reference Bible have made a significant admission regarding literalism and the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.
They have acknowledged that the animal sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple vision do not need to be interpreted literally but may be validly regarded as a general prophecy of future worship in terms of the Old Testament economy with which the original recipients of the prophecy were familiar.  If this principle can be applied here, then why not elsewhere in other prophecies of the Messianic age? If this principle applies to the sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple vision, then why not also to the entire temple setting? Once this principle is acknowledged in regard to one element of Old Testament worship in a Messianic prophecy, it is arbitrary to deny it in regard to other elements of Old Testament worship and other Messianic prophecies. The more this principle is applied in dispensational interpretation of prophecy, the less Judaistic will be the dispensational millennium and the closer dispensational interpretation will come to traditional Reformed prophetic interpretation.
I opened this chapter with some criticisms that dispensationalists have of the Reformed hermeneutic. Allow me to close by answering these criticisms.
First, consistent literalism is not the final key to proper Biblical interpretation. It is too subjective and rationalistic. One man’s consistency is another man’s absurdity. Consistent literalism means that the interpreter must ultimately look to his own personal sense of literary usage to determine the degree of literalism and figurativeness in prophecy.
The proper hermeneutic involves a study of how Scripture interprets other Scripture as a guide to what is Scripturally normal language. If Matthew’s interpretation of prophecy seems abnormal to us, then we should adjust our understanding of what normal language is.
The proper hermeneutic involves a willingness to interpret difficult passages of Scripture in the light of the teaching of clearer passages of Scripture and with a sensitivity to literary genre. One should not build a theological system on possible interpretations of poetic or apocalyptic passages when those interpretations require one to twist the clear meaning of straightforward didactic passages. For example, the clear teaching of the New Testament on the finished sacrifice of Christ should guide one in interpreting the animal sacrifices in Ezekiel’s vision.
The proper hermeneutic involves a prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies in truth. The interpreter should not be a rationalist who puts his ultimate trust in his own personal sense of language. The interpreter’s own personal sense of language is reliable only to the extent that it has been sanctified by the Spirit in truth. The interpreter should humbly acknowledge that his ultimate dependence is on the Spirit’s illumination for spiritual discernment and for deliverance from sinful biases and blindnesses. Interpretation of Scripture is a moral endeavor as well as an intellectual endeavor. We are dependent on the Spirit to help us to understand Scripture as God meant it to be understood.
Second, strict literalism is not the final hedge against liberalism. Both liberals and cultists defend their distorted theologies both by literalizing Scripture and by allegorizing Scripture. For example, Armstrongism literalizes the eternal throne in the Davidic covenant and insists upon a fulfillment involving a literal, physical throne. The true hedge against doctrinal distortion is not literalizing. The true hedge is a real submission to the illumination of the Holy Spirit and to the teachings of Scripture. Only here in this double combination of Word and Spirit does one find truth safely hedged against error.
What is truly objective interpretation? The ultimate objectivity is found in the divine subjectivity as expressed in the “thus saith the Lord” of the written Word. And for us to have reliable access to this ultimate objectivity, we are ultimately dependent on the Spirit’s work in giving us the subjective ability to understand God’s Word. In the last analysis, truth and understanding are gifts from God. But for the grace of God, I, too, would be blinded to God’s clear revelation and I would be enslaved by cultic error. As is true with many issues, we in the end come to the apparent antinomy between human responsibility and divine sovereignty. I am morally responsible for seeing and obeying the clear message of Scripture.
Apart from Christ, I can do nothing and am spiritually blind and dead. When I do understand and obey God’s message, it is an unmerited gift from God. And yet my natural inability and my total dependence on God does not relieve me of my responsibility to use all my God given facilities in an effort to understand His Word. And if I am right and my dispensational friends are wrong in understanding prophecy, I have no basis for boasting. For what do I have that I did not receive? Every good and perfect gift is from above.
1 “The amillennial method of interpreting Scripture is correctly defined as the spiritualizing method. It is clear, however, that conservative ammillennialists limit the use of this method, and in fact adopt the literal method of interpreting most of the Scriptures. …
“The modern liberal scholar, who is also an amillenarian, feels free to use the spiritualizing method rather freely in areas other than prophecy whenever it suits his fancy, and being bound by no law of infallible inspiration need not be concerned if the result is not consistent. The spiritualizing method once admitted is not easy to regulate and tends to destroy the literal method. While the amillennial use of the literal method is general among conservatives, among liberal groups it has less standing and use.”
John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), pages 62-63. See also Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Rockville, Maryland: Assurance Publishers, 1974), pages 275-277.
2 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), pages 45-46.
3 Ibid., page 21.
4 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pages 129-130.
5 Ibid., page 200.
6 Compare John F. Walvoord, The Nations in Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967) pages 160-169.
7 William Everett Bell, Jr., “A Critical Evaluation of the Pre-tribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology” (dissertation, School of Education of New York University, 1967), pages 85-86.
8 Patrick Fairbairn, Prophecy Viewed in Respect to Its Distinct Nature, Its Special Function, and Proper Interpretation (n.p.: T. & T. Clark, 1865; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), pages 276-277.
9 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), page 519.
10 John F. Walvoord, The Nations in Prophecy, page 116. Quoted in Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, page 224.
11 Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming: “A Prophetic Odyssey” (Irvine, California: Harvest House Publishers, 1973), page 16.
12 Ibid., pages 138-139.
13 Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, pages 157-160.
14 C.I. Scofield, editor, The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), page 888