Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (1)

What is a Dispensationalist Theology?

For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students.  The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary.  Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves.  As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems.  And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of Biblical and Systematic Theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by ‘dispensations’ is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT).  The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible.  They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are.  What do the concepts “innocence”, “conscience”, “government”, “promise”, “law”, “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

Why, for example, would “government” be a more emphasized stewardship than “conscience” after Noah?  Wasn’t Israel’s theocracy far more of a government than anything found in Genesis 9?  The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise.  But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham?  Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, ‘the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise.’ – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421.

Realizing that Sailhamer is referring to the promise-fulfillment motif, but this is certainly relevant to the ‘Dispensation of Promise’ which assumes such a motif.  If Sailhamer has a point it would seem wise to replace the imprecise term “promise” with “covenant.”  But once we do that we will be required to drop the theme of “dispensation” too, so as to give the Abrahamic covenant the developmental scope it clearly must have.

In addition to this change of emphasis from what seems nebulous and inexact to what is plainly revealed and stressed in the biblical text there needs to be a rethink about what dispensationalists mean when they refer to their theology as a “system.”  It needs to be made clear that if dispensationalists continue to accept a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of theology, or, (which is much the same thing), if they are content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of “dispensational premillennialism,” then they have admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete “system.”  Restricting, as many dispensationalists tend to do, DT to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a systemof theology.”  Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the Church or the Last Things is being discussed does not qualify – neither does it deserve to be identified – as a system of theology.  And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!

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.”

You will see that I have booted out the dispensations and thrown the spotlight upon the covenants in the Bible.  That may disturb some people, but the profit of this move is immense.

2. Hermeneutics

Dispensationalism has often been associated with grammatico-historical interpretation.  Quite apart from whether many older dispensationalists actually contented themselves with approach, the fact is that the very term “grammatico-historical” no longer enjoys a static meaning.  So it becomes necessary to spell out what kind of hermeneutics is envisioned by that terminology.

In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words.  God is the Author of language and when He speaks in the early chapters of the Bible there is a correlation between His thought, the words selected to convey His thought, and the product brought into existence by His word.  This flow from God’s word to God’s action is so obvious in the Bible that it scarcely needs proof.  Let the reader study the Bible Story with this in mind and he will see it everywhere.  Thus we have an important hermeneutical marker from inside the Bible.

As we have seen God also makes covenants.  We may easily locate Divine covenants, for instance, in Genesis 9, 15-22, Exodus 19-24; Numbers 25; Deuteronomy 29-30; 1 Chronicles 17; Psalms 89; 105; 106; Jeremiah 31, 33, Luke 22 and many other places.  God does not need to bind Himself by an oath, so why does He do it?  One reason, I want to suggest, is because of our propensity judge God’s word by our own capacity for belief.  Like Eve sizing up the forbidden tree, we want to come to our own conclusions independently.  It is our default position, and the covenants set up the boundaries within which our interpretations ought to operate.  The biblical covenants might well be seen as ‘a reinforcement of Divine speech.’  If this be the case then God’s covenants serve to boldly underline the God’s word/ God’s action motif we saw earlier.

Hermeneutically speaking then, we have two powerful interpretive ideas coming at us from the pages of the Bible itself.  And this is given further emphasis in such places as 2 Kings 1 and John 21 where goes out of His way to explain that He means what He says.

This hermeneutics take us a surprisingly long way when applied to all of Scripture.

3. Biblical Theology

If there is one thing that most biblical theologies fail to take seriously it is the doctrines of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture.  These concepts are inseparable.  If Scripture isn’t clear (except, of course, to those highly skilled practitioners in the genres of ANE and typology), then for sure it isn’t sufficient.  When one adds to this the miraculous coincidences wherein each type and genre corroborates the particular theological bent of the writer it all begins to look a little suspicious and question-begging.  Understandably, dispensationalists prefer to stake out their hermeneutical tents on firmer ground.  But the myopia induced by paying too much attention to dispensations prevents them from setting out a sound alternative Biblical Theology.  Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them. 

 Using something like the revised definition of DT given above, it is possible to trace out what I like to call “the Creation Project” using the two hermeneutical guidelines previously discussed.  When this is done we begin to see something like the following:

a. Creation involves both a teleology and an eschatology (thus a study of the End Times involves a study of the Beginning Times)

b. The Fall introduces the noetic effects of sin which resets our default from dependence to independence.  Genesis 3:15 covers the major work of Christ in a fallen world.

c. The Noahic Covenant provides a predictable framework for history till the consummation, and further stresses the nature of Divine covenants as reinforcements of language – since all interpreters take this covenant ‘literally.’

d. The Abrahamic Covenant sets out a blessed future for at least two lines of humanity: those from Isaac and Jacob who inherit “the land of Canaan” and “the Nations.”  It also picks up on the Promised Seed idea from Eden.

e. The Davidic Covenant promises a great King who will pull the strands of the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants together.

f. The New Covenant brings all the other everlasting covenants into itself in the Person of Christ, through whose redemptive death and new life the covenants must pass in order to find their specific fulfillments.

g. The Church as a “new man” created after the resurrection of Christ also enters into specific blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenants.  In fact, in a real sense, it enters them before those with whom they were originally promised. 

h. The Second Coming, which is given more emphasis in the Bible than the First Coming, brings the earth’s Owner and the second Adam back as King to judge, restore and beautify it.  Just as all the covenants run through Christ, so Christ is Maker, Owner, Redeemer, Restorer, and Ruler as the physical world as a physical Being in the world.  The two comings of Christ are in reality one work separated by time, as is evident from the Messianic prophecies in the OT and the Lord’s Supper in the NT.  This fact also shows us that the teleology/eschatology motif inaugurated at Creation and instilled in the biblical covenants is yet unfolding.  

i. Because this world is cursed even Christ cannot remove the ravages of God’s curse on the ground without constantly exercising His miraculous restraint on it.  This explains the need for a New Heavens and New Earth wherein there is no more curse.  This completes the original “Creation Project.”  The whole Bible program is radically (but not artificially) Christological.            

That, I submit, is a lot more promising than talking about the dispensations and restricting it to the Church and Israel.  I call it, for want of a better term, ‘Biblical Covenantalism.’

The second part of this article will be posted soon.

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12 comments

  1. Paul, great article! Ryrie gives his three essentials in Dispensationalism Today (literal hermeneutic, Israel and Church distinction, glory of God). How would Biblical Covenantalism differ from these essentials in terms of an overall emphasis of the system (if at all).

    Also, Progressive Dispensationalism is often accused of devaluing a pre-tribulational rapture. Could this same charge be made towards BC?

    Thx in advance.

    1. Good questions Steve.

      BC can incorporate all three of these criteria, but I believe it actually intensifies them. The reason for this is because of the cumulative factor within BC. Aside from very obvious references to earlier texts (e.g. John 1 making Christ the Word in Gen. 1; Peter speaking of the pre-flood world as ‘the world that then was…’) BC as I conceive it refuses to admit later texts until the earlier texts have been fully considered in context. Some thoughts on this are contained in my posts on Progressive Revelation: http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/what-is-progressive-revelation-pt-1/

      The most debatable of Ryrie’s three essentials is the third because it is too nebulous. Further, it is hard to substantiate from Dispensationalist writings. I would want to replace it with something like ‘the Tenacity of the Creation Project’ which would combine teleology and eschatology.

      Because PD employs grammatical-historical-canonical-theological hermeneutics it gets easily befuddled about the Tribulation, Millennium, and New Creation. There is much more to say on that, but it has been easy for PD’s to go any which way in their approach. This is because of their emphasis on canonical interpretation, which introduces all sorts of assumptions tied to the interpreter’s understanding of what he is doing. It seems to me to be vulnerable to the charge of eisegesis to the extent that it allows the whole Bible to have an early say on how each passage should be interpreted.

      BC does not tether itself to such an approach. It’s presuppositions of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture and the reason for language seeks to permit each passage to speak, even if a full understanding (either of what? or how?) must be suspended for a time. We are not first to formulate; we must give priority to listening.

      As for pre-trib., well I would say the cumulative case for it is better seen through BC than via the usual Dispensational way of dealing with it. What I call the ‘Rules of Affinity’ help to show that the pre-trib position is an inference to the best explanation (a C3): http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/category/rules-of-affinity/

      Hope this helps,

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

  2. After reading the first section and as a relatively new dispensationalist (read Charles L Feinberg’s “Millennialism –the 2 major views” as a beginning exposure to Eschatology a few years back) I have always seen the focus of our approach to be concerned with a view to the covenants and the Kingdom as central- primary — NOT the dispensations themselves… This, of course, was a response to the LACK of focus and attention to these 2 area’s (MAJOR THEMES) of the bible by the other approaches (i.e. Covenental theologians)….this is my experience.

    The only concern I would sound for us is to not lose sight of the centralness of Christology in our attempt to widen the churches understanding of the importance of the covenants and the kingdom from God’s perspective as given to us in the scripture.

    This of course lead naturally to a discussion of hermeneutics. I’ve come to the conclusion that the covenants form a frame, some what like the frame of a car, giving us form and stability to what surrounds the frame…yet it is out of sight and it does take some extra diligence (2 Tim 3:15) to first recognize the frame and to uncover the importance of it …..If this analogy holds water (so fun to mix metaphors) the the fact that the approach we hold to (“dispensationalism as Paul & I appreciate and understand the term) would logically be a later development in the understanding of scripture– and in the especially in context of the development of prophecy this is specifically is to be expected (see Dan 12:1-4).

    A comment on typology– yes a dangerous area where one can end up just past Pluto (it is still a planet isn’t it?) if one isn’t careful– however: once organized facts and features can be established using other sound hermeneutical tools available one can then safely, abet cautiously, employ typology to round out the wonderfully surprising depth of design our God has placed into the scripture. The cautiousness is bound by abiding in the hermeneutical rule that scripture (and hence the interpretation of scripture) does not contradict itself……thank you for allowing me to state the obvious and I request a smattering of patience here as I have drifted of track a bit here.

    As to the final 3rd of the article you have well said the somewhat obvious unity, and in a sense the circularness, of the bible from Genesis1-3 to Rev 21-22 and you have made an excellent case for us to focus on and thereby gain a fuller understanding of both the cause (Elohim’s Word) and effect (action resulting from said Word) surrounding said unity. Bravo and amen. Pv 16:3

  3. I like your post a lot. I have also been really tracking with your “Transmission of the Soul” series. I’ve come a lot of similar conclusions!

    Anyways, here are two follow up questions. First, in terms of the clarity of Scripture, it seems that two distinct views are present in Christian thought. The first sees the “major points” of the gospel as being clear, but other some other point of theology as less clear (i.e. millennium, rapture, etc.). The second sees basically the same amount of clarity along all parts of Scripture concerning all the teachings of Scripture. What kind of view do you take concerning the clarity of Scripture?

    Second, I have always thought the distinction between Israel and the church as a poor distinguishing mark of dispensationalism, because don’t all Christians (except maybe theonomists) see the church as distinct from Israel in some sense?

    1. Okay, let me try to answer your questions back to front.

      I think the Israel/Church dichotomy is very important because behind it lies two more basic theological truths. The first has to do with integrity of the OT as the Word of God. The second has to do with the integrity of the God who gave us the OT. A decisive offshoot of this has to do with the cognitive effects of double-speak (;-)) A person who believes God means one thing when His words easily lead people to believe another thing is a person whose God equivocates. That is why they are often less than forthcoming about what they really believe. They want to protect God from the suspicion of prevarication and this leads them to adopt the same prevarication. Of course, God does NOT prevaricate. His actual words in context are often ignored. I addressed that issue here and its preceding posts: http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/let-god-be-true-and-say-what-he-means/

      As to the first question, which is a very good one, I have tried to approach it in terms of the Rules of Affinity and Parameters of Meaning (which I DO need to finish!):

      http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/category/rules-of-affinity/

      and

      http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/the-parameters-of-meaning-pt-1-introduction/

      Of course there are clearer passages than others, but it is amazing how much doctrine is very clear, which the Positive Application of the Rules of Affinity demonstrate. The covenants themselves really help provide clarity – indeed, that is one of the key reasons they were given. In truth, it is my opinion that the amount of unclear revelation in the Bible is minimal once a right approach is followed. that approach itself MUST be simple (in the scientific sense of a beautiful simplicity which unlocks profundities). This is what I am striving for, although I do not profess to have mastered it). Suffice to say, for most evangelical theologies of which I am aware, the clarity of Scripture is held to in theory but rejected in practice.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

      1. I pretty much agree with you on the first point about God’s truthfulness.

        Can you help me think through some objections to this? What I have seen from “progressive” Christians is that when someone appeals to the “plain-sense,” “literal-sense,” or “clear” meaning of Scripture, they usually respond, “Clear to whom?” They usually argue that each text is set in an ancient near eastern context, and that it might not be all that clear because we are using “Western” categories. And usually it comes down to that we all have our “interpretations” of the text and not the actual meaning of the text.

        My response would be that our goal should be to get as close to the author’s intended meaning as possible. Just like getting to know other people, I cannot allow my pre-conceived notions to override what they say about themselves! Also, I would say that Scripture’s clarity has to do with its ability to be understood by your average person. You don’t need to be a scholar to understand God’s Word.

        What would you say?

      2. More good questions, a lot of my writing actually touches in one way or another with them. As I proved to Steve Hays a while back, when these guys use the word “literal” and “literally” and “face value” they always want to their words to be given what is known as the plain sense. The very fact that these people ask (as Hays did) “clear to whom” shows that they don’t like the plain sense. They know what it says, but they don’t like it and so they “transform” it using typology or some other convenient fillip.

        I have said that the clarity of Scripture and its sufficiency go together. Throw a typological or apocalyptic shroud over one and you obscure the other. Eventually all you are left with are empty slogans. In fact, this happens so much as to be endemic. “This is apocalyptic language” say one. But does he even know what it is? Does he not know that there is no sure definition of apocalyptic genre? Does he realize that John’s Apocalypse is not an obfuscation but a revelation?

        As for typology; just saying it is a type does not make it so. Types are interesting things. they always prove the theology of the one adopting the type. Curious!

        Anyway, along with the Rules of Affinity, these posts may also help.

        http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/what-is-progressive-revelation-pt-1/

        http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2012/05/21/what-the-bible-really-really-says/

        God bless,

        Paul

      3. As to types — there must be a antitype (in a sense a fulfillment) and as a sub-category of hermeneutics , as long as the type and antitype are congruent with other theological truths we may proceed prudently.

  4. I am wondering if you could suggest a New Testament Theology that would be in line, for the most part, with Dispensationalism/Biblical Covenantalism. Also, is there anything from this perspective that is equivalent to Vaughan Roberts “God’s Big Picture”? It seem that book, and Graeme Goldsworthy’s basic “Kingdom Story Line” has had a huge impact on your average lay person for the cause of Covenant Theology. In fact, I would love to offer this book to my congregation simply because it presents the Biblical Story in such a simple and cohesive way. But since I am a dispensationalist I can’t. So what’s the alternative? Any suggestions?

    Also, if you are considering writing a book from a Dispensational/Biblical Covenantalism perspective, I think a simple lay-person friendly book like Roberts would be the way to go. Just check out the recommended reading at the Gospel Coalition, for example, and see how many have this book at the top of their list.

    Thank you for your website and work.

    1. Jay,

      Thank you for your thoughtful questions. To be brief, there is no NT Theology from a D/BC perspective that I would recommend, apart from Erich Sauer’s ‘The Triumph of the Crucified’. That fact itself shows the severity of the hole in Dispensational scholarship.

      The DTS work ‘A Biblical Theology of the NT’ ed. by Zuck & Bock is pretty good, but not especially consistent. Eugene Merrill’s ‘Everlasting Dominion’ is a very competent OT Theology, though a little dry. And Walter Kaiser’s ‘The Promise-Plan of God’ covers both Testaments and is very helpful. If I were spending money I would go for Kaiser (though he doesn’t claim the dispensational tag).

      Goldsworthy’s work is notable because it is quite holistic. E.g. He not only sets out a perspective he comes from and a goal he pursues, he also lodges it in some solid presuppositional soil. What I like about Goldsworthy (aside from his facility with language), is that he is very up-front about what he is doing. He tells his reader he spiritualizes. He tells us that the NT is needed to reinterpret the OT. He tells us that he wants to see Christ everywhere. He is controlled but clear on his agenda. I like that and I have learned from him, while disagreeing.

      As for writing a book myself, I am trying to do that in the midst of my other responsibilities. I sympathize with your opinion about simplicity. Trouble is, I need to get a mental handle on the twists-and-turns of BC in a more detailed fashion before feeling comfortable with foisting a basic work on the unsuspecting.

      If you would like some idea of where I would go may I refer you to my posts on ‘Christ at the Center’? Here is the final installment and links to all the other posts: http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/christ-at-the-center-conclusion-pt-7b/

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

      1. Wow, thanks for that quick reply!

        I appreciate your suggestions. I recently purchased Kaiser’s “Unity of the Bible” and have found it helpful. I will definitely check out “Promise Plan” too.

        One more question: What book(s) on hermeneutics would you recommend?

        And finally, would you consider writing a critique of Progressive Dispensationalism? Addressing the main differences with “Normative Dispensationalism”? I recently read “Three Issues in Dispensationalism” and was kind of disappointed.

        Jay

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