Day: 10 February 2011

Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise: An Opinion (Pt.4)

In this last installment of this little series I want to try to offer some thoughts on a few things which would redress the present stalemate that much of Dispensationalism finds itself in.  If you don’t agree with me that DT is not what it ought to be – i.e. that it has yet to realize what it is capable of – then these posts would not have done much for you.  But if you have been thinking along the same lines as me, I hope these articles have encouraged your own thinking about the subject, regardless of whether you would endorse everything I’ve written on this matter.

Let me first of all issue a small reminder of the problems I see in Dispensational Theology:

  • There has been very little first-rate work produced by DT’s for over 50 years.
  • Nearly all the work that has been done is in eschatology.  Most of it is popular.
  • An academic torpor has taken up residence within Dispensationalism.
  • Dispensationalism offers no full-orbed theology of its own.
  • It dovetails awkwardly with Reformed theology, which is usually Covenant theology.
  • Dispensationalists themselves seem reluctant to own their troubles.
  • This set of circumstances is directly connected to the defection from Dispensationalism.
  • The self-defeating and repressive view that DT is only relevant in a few areas of theology.
  • Lack of development of DT incurs lack of originality in other disciplines.
  • The inadequacy of present definitions of (D) which fasten upon nugatory “dispensations.”

For the record, here is my working definition of DT: “an approach to biblical theology which attempts to find its raison d’etre in the Scriptures themselves, and which constructs its systematic presentation of theology around a primary focus on the biblical covenants.”

All of these points could be elaborated on, and all of them would make excellent discussion points for dispensationalists in the academy to address.  What I want to see (and what I believe is both desirable and possible) is a DT which is constructed on its own methodology from the ground up.  What follows is a way (there may well be others ) of “getting the wreck in gear” and moving forward and so making DT more venturesome and more attractive and more authoritative.

1. Preliminaries

a. Any approach to theology must find its warrant in the accurateness of its positions relative to Holy Scripture.  Scripture must always be allowed its head, however well we think we are doing our theology and however far along we have come to completing a coherent system.

This is just to say that we must humble ourselves before the Word of God when doing theology.  The fruit of the Spirit is to come out in every endeavor.  Systems are good things as long as they are not considered sacrosanct.  No person or group possesses the Whole Counsel of God if by this we mean that we have the whole truth contained in a Confession or system.

b. We should not be as concerned about defending a system as we are about letting Scripture speak.  When we stand before Christ at the Bema I doubt we will be awarded prizes for dogmatics, especially if they are discovered to be at variance from what God has actually stated in His Word.

To read some Christian writers one would think anyone who is outside of their confessional circle cannot be a Christian.  But while it may be that laying outside of a denominational credo might condemn one to a lesser share of the theological pie than those within the circle, at the end of the day what matters is whether we have represented God’s Word accurately.  This work is hampered if we allow our theological assumptions to dictate to texts instead of the other way around.

c. All theologies have “frayed edges.”  To give a few examples: i. the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation; ii. the correct representation of the sovereignty of God and the will of man; iii. the exact relation of God to time; iv. the pre-lapsarian “innocence” and fall of Satan; v. the precise reconciliation of the Gog/Magog texts in Ezekiel and Revelation.  This means that we must be alert to the propositional limits of our theological statements.

We can say things without having sufficient warrant from the texts we teach from (we can all do this!).  I would not want to draw a line, to step over which would bring one into the fields of speculation, but there ought to be some self-awareness here.  It ought not to be as common as it is to find believers insisting on theological tenets which, upon comparison with the texts they cite, attach themselves obliquely to those texts.  This is where we can all help each other; where iron sharpens iron.  Disagreements will remain, but mutual understanding will be promoted.

2. On Questions of Method:

a. Therefore, we ought to have some sort of grid whereby we can categorize Direct from Indirect usage of the statements of Scripture, and get an idea of the degree of indirectness of our statements.

I approach the issue using the grid of “Category Formulations“:

First, I try to remember that some doctrines can be formed by direct reference to the wording of Scripture.  Such a doctrine would be justification by faith (appealing to, e.g., clear statements in Romans 3:23 – 4:25 and Galatians 3).  I refer to them as Category 1 Formulations; not because they are the most fundamental necessarily, but because they are most easily formulated.  For instance, no Bible reader will dispute that it tells us that Jesus is Savior and Lord.

Then there are those doctrines which cannot be discovered that way.  The Trinity would be one of these.  However, the plain statements of Scripture which tell us that God is One (Deut. 6:4), but that the Father is God (take your pick), the Son is God (e.g. Jn. 1:1-3; 8:58; 20:28), and the Spirit is God (e.g. Acts 5:3-4), demand we resolve on Trinitarianism.  This inference from a consideration of plain texts for related doctrines is what I call a “strong inference” and is non-negotiable.  To help myself I call these Category 2 Formulations.

Next, there are passages which point to certain doctrinal conclusions (e.g. the rapture), which by themselves do not tell us enough for us to be able to come to surefire doctrinal conclusions (as is the case with the Trinity).  But we may feel we can infer things quite confidently (like the timing of the rapture) by a consideration of all the pertinent texts.  From this consideration we will arrive at a defeasible position based upon what view of the rapture we think is least problematical.  I personally believe the pre-trib position answers the most questions and has the least difficulties to overcome, but I may be wrong.  Hence, I (speaking only for myself) cannot accord pretribulationism the same doctrinal credence as I give to justification by faith or the Trinity.  This is a Category 3 Formulation. It has credibility and weight insofar as the Bible can be justly prevailed upon to substantiate it in preference to its competitors.  

Finally, Category 4 Formulations are those doctrines which are not really solidly rooted in any exegesis of Scripture, but are theological inferences wrought from other theological inferences.  Formulations of this cloth often rely heavily on the early (premature) deployment of the Analogy of Faith so as to steer an interpretation in a more favorable direction.  Though I may regret it I think that, e.g., infant baptism, grounded as it is in a certain forced typology and an implied covenant of grace is such a doctrine.  Category 4 conclusions ought to be held to tenuously if at all, since they cannot provide  any direct support from any passage or group of passages with indisputable correlation to the doctrines themselves.

Now, applying this grid to some select doctrines, this is how I would categorize them:

  • Ezekiel’s Temple belongs, I believe, either in Category 2 (borderline) or in Category 3.
  • Total Depravity in C1 or C2 because of, for example, Romans 1-3; Eph. 2:1-3.
  • The Restoration of Israel in line with the OT New Covenant passages (like Jer. 31-33; Ezek. 36-37) would go in C1 or C2
  • No death before the Fall, based on Genesis 2-3; Romans 8:18-23, would be a C2 formulation
  • Unconditional Election I would locate as C2, maybe C3
  • Libertarian freewill would be C4 because of its lack of exegetical support and theological coherence (it would separate the will from the nature).  Whereas something like Bruce Ware’s “compatiblist middle-knowledge” would score a C3
  • Finally, I would have to place things like the Covenant of Grace, the Church as the “New Israel”, Regeneration prior to faith, and Particular Redemption in C4, since I do not see how these doctrines can be maintained without reading ones theology into Scripture (however “frayed” are the edges with which we have to deal as a result).

b. In pursuance of an accurate statement of theological truth it seems to me that we should first study the correspondence between God’s thoughts (either reported or spoken) and His deeds.  Does God say what He thinks and do what He says?

When God said “Let there be light”, lo and behold “there was light” and not something other than light.  We see the same thing in many other places: E.g., Gen. 1:11-12, 26-27; 2:16-17, 18; 6:13-22; 8:21-22;  9:8-17; 11:7-9; 2 Ki. 1:3-17; Jn. 21:21-23, etc.  This is only intensified when God enters into a covenant bond (see below). (more…)