For those of you who have wished that yours truly would come into the 21st Century and list my answers to the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism in order…well, you have your wish!
Here are some further thoughts on the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism. I could wish that these criticisms of Dispensationalism were less hapless. The system itself is open to more piercing critical analysis than has been demonstrated by the “Nicene Council.” I do not really care whether I am this or that kind of theologian; I do care about being biblical! So if I am “dispensational” in my outlook rather than leaning to Covenant Theology so be it. As I have said before I prefer to be viewed as a “Biblical Covenantalist” and have done with the dispensational moniker altogether. That said, this will be my last post on this particular issue. For continuity’s sake I have started numbering where I left off last time.
5. Although there is no explicit mention of Covenant Theology (CT) in the list of criticisms, it is always lurking in the background, shaping the thinking behind the formulations of the Nicene Council. Now it is certainly not a crime to be a covenant theologian. Christians generally have benefitted greatly from some of the work of the Puritans and the Dutch Nadere Reformatie. None can read the works of Boston, Edwards, the Hodge’s, Warfield, Cunningham, Candlish, Kuyper, Bavinck, Murray, Van Til, and a host of others without being benefitted. But I make bold to suggest that none of the really beneficial materials produced by these men; that is to say, nothing that can be shown to come directly from the text of Scripture, is reliant upon Covenant Theology for its existence, other than the fact that CT has a conceptual and thus instrumental genius for promoting abstract thought (no small complement coming from a Dispensationalist).
Where CT is most noticeable is when they are trying for a forced unity (e.g. Thesis 10) or they cannot bring themselves to believe what Scripture plainly says (e.g. Thesis 77). In Thesis 77 the problem is that a literal reading of Revelation 20 would lead one to conclude that a rebellion against King Jesus will occur at the end of the future Millennium. This is thought to be somehow “a second humiliation,” when in fact, it is Satan and his hordes who will be humiliated – and in no uncertain terms (Rev. 20:9f.). In Thesis 10 one may spot the forced unity easily in the thread of reasoning from “the unity of redemptive history” to “the New Testament people of God are one olive tree rooted in the Old Testament (Rom 11:17-24).” Translated into “Reformed speak” this means “the one people of God within the covenant of grace is the Church in both Testaments.” Of course, the Bible does not teach this anywhere. The Church began at Pentecost and is a different entity to OT Israel. Nevertheless, this assumption is back of these objections.
It is good to look for unity between the Testaments (I see it in the interconnections between the biblical covenants from Noahic to New as they telescope out to God’s foreordained culmination in the Eternal State). Covenant theologians love to speak about the continuities within their system, while pointing to the discontinuities in Dispensationalism. But CT is not devoid of major discontinuities. Read more »
When I began answering the ‘Nicene Council’s’ 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism I did so to help myself and other readers think through our position. I do not want to stand before God as a dispensationalist if God is against Dispensationalism. And as a very fallible human being I hope I shall always be open to correction and reproof on that score.
Nonetheless, after trying to respond fairly in a concise but adequate fashion to the objections of these men I still find myself with both feet planted firmly in the soil of Dispensationalism. May the Holy Spirit persuade me otherwise if I am in error in this matter! (I fear the Nicene Council’s work has left me very much where I was before). In that spirit then, I offer the following assorted reflections:
A Word About My Procedure:
The responses I have given have been in line with a primary tenet of mine, which is that the Bible should be left alone to say what it says before the minds of men organize it into a systematic theology. As one who loves systematic theology I naturally want mine to be decidedly scriptural. I have a basic rule that I try to follow: “Explication before Application.” In simple terms this means that I do not deduce or infer doctrines or make theological connections unless and until I have completed my induction (or exegesis) of the text in hand. Further, I do not bring in the “analogy of faith” rule until I think I know what any given text is saying within its context. I want to give each passage of Scripture “breathing room” to say what it has to say before comparing it to another text or moving on to theological formulations based thereon.
1. Over and over again in responding to the 95 Theses I had to call attention to the fact that the authors did not pay attention to what the texts they used actually SAID, but instead used them in service of an already determined theological outlook; a measure I dubbed “textual kidnapping” (e.g. Theses 26 & 42). But a text cannot be “let loose” to “speak” if it is straight-jacketed by a controlling idea that is alien to its nature. For instance, a dispensationalist might aver that making the “leaven” of Matthew 13:33 mean something other than sin and corruption could only come about because interpreting it negatively (as Christ’s disciples certainly would have done) would put paid to some treasured beliefs of some folks among the Nicene Council. Dispensationalists surely make a valid argument for their interpretation of this text.
2. The alert reader who has plowed through all 95 objections would have noted a lot of ad hominem (“to the man”) fallacies and other logical bloopers. Theses 8, 12, 25, 36, 59, 82, and 90 are examples of this maneuver. Thesis 59 mounts an attack on the divisions within the Plymouth Brethren and tries to make an argument against Dispensationalism from it. This is a sad attempt at prejudicing their constituency against the system since its followers have sometimes been guilty of schism. “Schism” is a subject often associated with Reformed movements and reported on by their own historians. Some of John Frame’s writings have of late dealt with it.
The fact is, whether a person be a Presbyterian covenant theologian or a Southern Baptist premillennarian, or a Bible Church dispensationalist, a combination of these, or none of these, we all know internecine squabbles too well. Perhaps we ourselves have been part of the problem? Does this mean that our theology must thereby be judged to be wrong? Are any of us the kind of Christians we would like to be? Are any among us close to attaining Christ-likeness (Phil. 3:7-16)? Is it wise to cast stones at the Plymouth Brethren like this? We find nothing logically or scripturally compelling in these sorts of objections.
3. Sad to relate but ad hominen and off-the-subject remarks are not the end of it. The 95 Theses have been padded out with the inclusion of several harsh and uncharitable charges against dispensationalists (Theses 30, 34, 45, 59 serve to illustrate this). Thesis 45 charges us with believing in “race-based salvation.” Well, one or two populist dispensationalists might teach that heresy but they are scarcely representative of the movement. The Reformed scholars Bruce Waltke and Peter Enns openly advocate theistic evolution (and Knox Seminary has just hired Waltke!). Should we say that on this score all covenant theologians teach the heresy (and that is what I think it is) that we evolved from monkeys? Wouldn’t it be a tad unkind and a little deceptive if I attempted to persuade people against Reformed theology this way? Besides, could I actually dent covenant theology itself by employing this tactic? Read more »
90. Despite the dispensationalists’ affirmation of the gospel as the means of salvation, their evangelistic method and their foundational theology, both, encourage a presumptive faith (which is no faith at all) that can lead people into a false assurance of salvation when they are not truly converted, not recognizing that Christ did not so quickly accept professions of faith (e.g., when even though “many believed in His name,” Jesus, on His part, “was not entrusting Himself to them.”—John 2:23b-24a).
Response: It comes as news to many of us poor benighted Dispensationalists that we have one “evangelistic method.” Reformed believers could be excused for giving someone a sideways look were they accused likewise. Similarly, it is a long stretch to throw “presumptive faith” at all of us because it is a symptom of our “foundational theology.” We believe our foundational theology is biblical (or should be). The Master’s Seminary faculty do not fit the description above. After being on a theological faculty at a Dispensational Seminary myself I can say truthfully that “easy-believism” was abhorred. Many Dispensationalists hold the same position on faith as John Calvin; it is a receptacle put in the heart by God. As one African Christian memorably put it, “faith is the hand of the heart.” (in Godet’s Romans). Even those holding tenaciously to Covenant theology ought to take Paul’s advice in 2 Cor.13:5 now and again.
91. Despite the dispensationalists’ declaration that “genuine and wholesome spirituality is the goal of all Christian living” (Charles Ryrie), their theology actually encourages unrighteous living by teaching that Christians can simply declare Christ as Savior and then live any way they desire. Similarly, dispensationalism teaches that “God’s love can embrace sinful people unconditionally, with no binding requirements attached at all” (Zane Hodges), even though the Gospel teaches that Jesus “was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine’” (John 8:31) and that he declared “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27).
Response: How easy life becomes when we can just tar everyone we don’t like with the same brush! “Dispensationalists teach presumptive faith”, “Dispensationalists are pessimillennialists”, “Dispensationalists have a tendency to date-setting”, “Dispensational theology encourages unrighteous living.” Of course, two can play at that game. How about these? “Covenant theologians are anti-Semitic”, or “Covenant theology leads to self-righteousness and arrogance.” Since we all know proud, sanctimonious Reformed Christians and can find anti-Semitic sentiments in the writings of some Covenant theologians is it right to infer that their theology makes them this way? It takes no time at all to descend into pettiness arguing like this.
My response to this objection will be from personal experience:
After I was saved in 1985 I attended a Reformed (5-point), amillennial (Baptist 1689) Calvinist church in England. As a young believer I was witness to power struggles, gossip, compromise, overweening pride, posturing and the rest of it. The Reformed pretensions of some (not all) of these Christians did not prevent them from acting worse than the unsaved friends I had previously hung around with (they just didn’t swear or get drunk). After about two years of this I told the pastor I was leaving. He told me I was young and ignorant and proud (all quite true) and we parted company. The next time I saw this man he was in a casket. He had asphyxiated alone while performing some perverted sexual act. At the funeral a well-known Calvinist preacher read Psa.116:15 and told us not to judge. Believe me, I have witnessed plenty of “presumptive faith” from Reformed anti-dispensationalists. Read more »
86. Despite the tendency of some dispensationalist scholars to interpret the Kingdom Parables negatively, so that they view the movement from hundredfold to sixty to thirty in Matt 13:8 as marking “the course of the age,” and in Matt 13:31-33 “the mustard seed refers to the perversion of God’s purpose in this age, while the leaven refers to the corruption of the divine agency” (J. D. Pentecost), Christ presents these parables as signifying “the kingdom of heaven” which He came to establish and which in other parables he presents as a treasure.
Response: It has to said that the composers of these 95 Theses have not proven themselves shining examples in rightly representing the opinions of Dispensationalists. A quick perusal of several authors (e.g. Pentecost, Things To Come; and the commentaries on Matthew by Toussaint and by Glasscock) revealed they believed nothing of the sort about Matt. 13:8, unless, of course, it be the standard view that the four soils represent four kinds of receptors (hearts) and their attitudes to the Word. Those whose hearts receive the Word grow in understanding (Toussaint). Is this objectionable?
On the “Mustard Seed” Ed Glasscock wisely states, “Trying to identify the birds is useless speculation, and to build doctrine from such obscure analogy is dangerous.” (292). He may well be right. Pentecost’s negative view is based upon the way the Lord used “birds” in the previous parable (13:4 & 19) so it cannot be brushed aside simply because it is “negative.” Perhaps Pentecost’s interpretation is wrong? Some Dispensationalists disagree with it (e.g. Toussaint and Glasscock!). Christian interpreters get it wrong sometimes. What one must ask is whether they provide any decent textual and theological arguments for their view. At any rate, one would not expect to be at the pointed end of a “Thesis” just because certain brethren didn’t like your “negative” explanation.
With respect to the “leaven” in Matt. 13:33, before complaining about the negativity of Dispensationalists, it would be salutary for these objectors to at least think seriously about three things. First, they might think about the fact that “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 13 is depicted by Jesus as containing evil (13: 19, 36-42). Second, “leaven” definitely has its share of negative connotations in the OT (Exod. 12:15,19; Lev. 2:11; 6:17; Deut. 16:4; Amos 4:4-5), and these continue unabated into the NT (Matt. 16:6; 1 Cor. 5:6-7; Gal. 5:9). Only here are we supposed to put a positive spin on it. But why? Doesn’t a “negative” interpretation make sense? Granted, it doesn’t do much to support the postmillennialism of many on the Nicene Council. Nor does it help those who hate Dispensationalism. But surely the burden of proof is on those who do not believe “leaven” in Matt. 13:33 is to be interpreted negatively! Read more »
82. Despite the dispensationalists’ commitment to the Jews as important for the fulfillment of prophecy and their charge of “anti-Semitism” against evangelicals who do not see an exalted future for Israel (Hal Lindsey), they are presently urging Jews to return to Israel even though their understanding of the prophecy of Zech 13:8 teaches that “two-thirds of the children of Israel will perish” (Walvoord) once their return is completed.
Response: Two things: in the first place while some people like Lindsey (if we can trust the Nicene Council) do accuse other evangelicals of anti-Semitism, it is by no means all Dispensationalists who do. Barry Horner’s Future Israel or David Larsen’s Jews, Gentiles and the Church ought to be consulted on this. Some of my former teachers are eminent Dispensationalists (Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Robert Lightner, Thomas Ice) and they are all hesitant to use that term, especially against most evangelicals who happen to hold to a different eschatology. However, a minority of Dispensationalists do freely accuse other Christians of anti-Semitism. I have been accused of it myself, because I think our focus today needs to be where God’s focus is – on the Church! Still, I have also encountered mild anti-Semitism many times among some, not all, amillennialists and postmillennialists, who believe the Church is the “New Israel” and are thus eager to assign ethnic Israelites in present-day Israel to the status of a Geo-political anachronism. These people often believe what they hear on CBN about “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.”
But as just another ad hominem complaint, this thesis has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of Dispensationalism.
On the second point it should again be noted that these men can understand an OT prophet literally when they want to. It is a shame they can find no better use for Zech. 13:8 (which refers to the Tribulation) than as a launch-pad for another ad hominem attack on a few people (I have never urged a Jew to return to Israel and I don’t know a single person who has). Pathetic is the word which comes to mind. There are better arguments than these surely! Read more »
80. Contrary to dispensationalism’s teaching that a physical temple will be rebuilt, the New Testament speaks of the building of the temple as the building of the Church in Christ, so that “the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:21); the only temple seen in the book of Revelation is in Heaven, which is the real and eternal temple of which the earthly temporary temple was, according to the book of Hebrews, only a “shadow” or “copy” (Heb 8:5; 9:24).
Response: It will be noticed that this objection is a deduction from these passages, not a plain declaration of the texts themselves. Do these passages deny “that a physical temple will be rebuilt”? No they do not. But let’s take a look at some that do teach that a literal temple will be rebuilt in the future:
Matthew 24:15: “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place..”
The geographical context is “Judea” (the next verse), and the eschatological context is “the end” (vv.3,6,14,21,27, 29-30). The Nicene Council notwithstanding, these verses are not referring to AD 70! They are speaking about a time of “tribulation” (vv.21, 29) occurring right before the Second Coming of Christ (vv.29-31). The “holy place” of verse 15, then, is standing in Judea just prior to Christ’s return!
2 Thessalonians 2:3-4: “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.”
I realize the writers of the 95 Theses have their own antidote to this passage by, for example, changing Paul’s temple into the Church (Riddlebarger). But this temple, it is admitted by most interpreters, is a future temple. The question is, does Paul mean a literal temple (Dispensationalism) or a spiritual one (e.g. Amillennialism etc.)? Certainly the Church is called a “holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21), and a “spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). But in these contexts one is told that a spiritual temple is in view. Not so in the eschatological passage in 2 Thess. 2. There a particular personage (the man of sin) sits in a temple as God. It is very hard to “sit” in a spiritual temple! Moreover, the Church as a spiritual temple is comprised only of born-again believers. It is built up by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18-22!), and is never said to include unbelievers. No unbeliever could “sit” in the spiritual temple however hard he tried! And what child of God would “exhalt himself above all that is worshiped” and pretend to be God?
Thus those who turn the temple in 2 Thess. 2 into the Church have ignored the context and have based their interpretation on a deduction (Paul must be referring to a spiritual temple – the Church – in 2 Thess. 2:4), supplemented by another deduction (the Church as a spiritual temple can include someone who is an unbeliever). With all due respect this looks more like a parody of Paul’s teaching rather then a serious interpretation of it. Read more »
75. Despite dispensationalism’s “plain and simple” method that undergirds its millennial views, it leads to the bizarre teaching that for 1000 years the earth will be inhabited by a mixed population of resurrected saints who return from heaven with Jesus living side-by-side with non-resurrected people, who will consist of unbelievers who allegedly but unaccountably survive the Second Coming as well as those who enter the millennium from the Great Tribulation as “a new generation of believers” (Walvoord).
Response: The “former dispensationalists” among their number ought to have been able to explain this “problem” to their brethren on the Council.
1. Concerning the “unaccountability” of unbelievers in the Millennium Robert Thomas writes: “…the battle of 19:19-21 resulted in death for all those not faithful to the Messiah. However, the redeemed but nonglorified population on earth survives the battle, enters the Millennium (cf. 11:13; 12:13-17), and reproduces offspring some of whom do not become saved as they mature. These unredeemed will comprise Satan’s rebellious army at the Millennium’s end.” – Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary, 410-411.
2. Those who enter into the Millennium will be those who do not take the mark of the Beast and who escape the death in the Tribulation. These will be protected in some way (cf. note the contrasts in Rev. 14:14-20) before the Second Coming (see 2 Thess. 1:7-10). The details are not supplied on just how this will transpire, but the indications are clear enough that it will happen. There is no problem here.
3. What one thinks is bizarre in these matters is rather subjective. In heaven we shall be among all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures for example. Perhaps from our perspective the future may seem a little fantastic. That does not make it false. For our part, we think it bizarre that God could say what He said in Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 15:7-21; Isa. 62; Jer. 33:15-26; & Zech.8:1-8, etc., etc., and not mean it! Read more »
71. Despite the dispensationalists’ claim that their so-called literalistic premillennialism is superior to the other evangelical millennial views because Revelation 20:1-6 is one text that clearly sets forth their system, this view imposes the literalistic system unjustifiably and inconsistently on the most symbolic book in all the Bible, a book containing references to scorpions with faces like men and teeth like lions (Rev 9:7), fire-breathing prophets (Rev 11:5), a seven-headed beast (Rev 13:1), and more.
Response: First, it is not “literalistic” premillennialism. Dispensationalists recognize one can’t be literalistic in ones interpretation of anything, including daily conversations. By “literal” we mean what everybody else means by it unless they are trying to give the term a spin it does not normally have in day to day usage. We mean what the Nicene Council meant when they posted the 95 Theses and expected people to take their objections to dispensationalism at face value, believing that folks are smart enough to interpret any figures of speech correctly. These objectors assert that, “dispensationalism has at least crippled the Church in her duty of proclaiming the gospel and discipling the nations” (Preface). When they wrote that sentence, these brethren took it for granted that people could identify the metaphor in it and make a literal sense out of it. That is, they assumed readers would know that “crippled” was not to be taken literalistically, but that it was functioning as a figure meaning, “harmed” or “impaired.” Indeed, if they didn’t think others would be able to derive a literal sense to the metaphor they would not have used it! They wish to be interpreted in a plain-sense manner, though not literalistically. They do not wish us to place some fanciful midrash upon their words so as to distort the plain sense out of all recognition. Well, this is how dispensationalists approach God’s Word. They ask, “Can it be taken at face value? And if not, what are its parameters of meaning?”
This first question is crucial, for it is often not asked by Covenant theologians when they come up against prophetic texts. That said, let us see if the rest of this objection holds water.
First off, notice that Rev. 20:1-6 (actually 1-7) “is one text which clearly sets forth their system.” This is true to a degree. It is one text. There are very many others! But this text does provide the duration of the future millennium. All one has to do is to read it to find out what that is. But can they? What about all the symbolism in the Book? Dispensationalists will ask the questions put above: The first is, “Can it be taken at face value?” We answer, “Certainly! why not?” It is easy to interpret these verses literally. As non-dispensationalist George E. Ladd said, “The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous…The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally.” (‘The Meaning of the Millennium‘ ed. Robert Clouse, 37). Read more »
68. Contrary to dispensationalists’ view of the mark of the beast, most of them seeing in the beast’s number a series of three sixes, the Bible presents it not as three numbers (6-6-6) but one singular number (666) with the total numerical value of “six hundred and sixty-six” (Rev 13:18b).
Response:Our friends have been reading the enthusiasts again, and lumping all dispensationalists in with them. How would they feel if we cited Harold Camping and used him as our exemplar to critique Reformed theology? But the reader is advised to check the works of Ryrie, Walvoord, Pentecost, Fruchtenbaum, Couch, Ice and others for himself and see whether they commit this error. Most dispensationalists are wary of saying much about this number (singular), but are content to say that its meaning will be apparent to those wise enough to recognize it in that day.
As it appears that many will not take the mark associated with this number it should not be thought that it will be particularly difficult to “count” the number of the Beast when he shows up. In fact, given that damnation is the punishment for taking the mark (Rev. 14:9-11) it is probably not assuming too much to believe there is a degree of willfulness in many who actually do take the mark. Read more »