Progressive Dispensationalism and Normative Dispensationalism

Those in the progressive dispensationalist camp are comfortable with disposing of grammatical-historical hermeneutics, whereas normative dispensationalists align themselves closely with it. The fact that Darrell Bock could write a Forward commending William Webb’s controversial X-Y-Z approach shows that they are both influenced by modern hermeneutical theorizing. Bock himself emphasizes the supposed problem with saying that Scripture may be read in a consistently literal manner[1]; Schleiermacher’s warning about imposing a rigid set of rules upon the text before we actually read it[2]; the importance of “preunderstanding”[3]; and sensitivity to literary genres.[4] This is why he, along with his fellow Progressive Dispensationalists, has bid adieu to consistent grammatical-historical interpretation (G-H) and has adopted a “complementary hermeneutic” wherein the passage being read is helped by the rest of the Biblical Canon. The hermeneutical tool chosen to ground this approach is an adaptation of the “already-not yet” hermeneutic.

Progressive Dispensationalism: A “Search for Definition.”

Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) is a hybrid of concepts borrowed from both dispensational and non-dispensational schemes. By “progressive” the leaders of this movement mean, not new or novel dispensationalism. In fact, they mean it as a description of its chief characteristic, which is to see a progression between the Testaments.[5] That is to say, they favor continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament instead of the discontinuity that is the unavoidable outcome of sharply distinguishing Israel from the Church, a distinction that is drawn whenever G-H hermeneutics is allowed to investigate the prophetic texts of Scripture. Indeed, Blaising described it as “post-Essentialist” dispensationalism.

PD should be seen as a rapprochement[6], an olive branch extended to Covenant theology. The forces that brought it into being appear to be, a. The issue of how the Old Testament is interpreted by the New[7] b. The impact of secular theorizing about the philosophy of language that many PD’s have been exposed to.[8] c. The lack of new scholarly works being produced by classic dispensationalists which address the postmodern context. This has produced a vacuum of scholarly interaction, which has in turn made it difficult for modern dispensationalists to develop their theology; d. This problem has been exacerbated by a number of young dispensationalists going off to universities in Europe where the system is looked upon as sensationalistic, and often derided as unscholarly.

Some Divergences from Classic Dispensationalism.

Therefore, PD introduces significant changes in the normative system.[9] For example, normative dispensational scholars like Charles Ryrie have noted that PD includes the eternal realm in its concept of history.[10] This means that Eternity has been incorporated in the so-called “Zionic” dispensation (coupled with the Millennium).[11] Leading progressive dispensationalist Darrell Bock has been quoted as declaring that progressives and covenant theologians (though not normative dispensationalists) share the same basic already/not yet hermeneutic.[12] This means that they can no longer subscribe to any part of Ryrie’s proposed sine qua non of dispensationalism. They even have a section in their book, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church entitled, “Beyond the Sine Qua Non.”[13]

Hermeneutically speaking, the following passage helps to bring out the different outlook taken by PD. We have inserted the names of leading hermeneutical theorists in order to show how thoroughly entrenched PD’s are in the landscape of modern hermeneutical theory:

Over the past three decades important developments have taken place in the evangelical perception and practice of historical and literary interpretation. Appreciation has grown for the historicity of both subject and object in the act of interpretation. This includes respect for the problem of historical distance [e.g. Lessing, Ricoeur] resulting in horizontal differences between text and interpreter [Gadamer, Ricoeur], the role of the interpreter’s preunderstanding [Schleiermacher, Gadamer], and methodological applications of the hermeneutical spiral [Gadamer, Thiselton]. Likewise, the role of community in interpretation is increasingly recognized [Fish, Derrida]. This leads to an awareness of the influence of tradition upon the interpreter’s preunderstanding [Gadamer, Ricoeur] as well as the broader dialogic context [Bakhtin, Vanhoozer] of interpretive questions and possible answers.[14]

In PD the Church is not an intercalation, so its distinction from Old Testament Israel becomes unclear to say the least. In a chapter devoted to PD, Ryrie demonstrates the knock-on effects of the beliefs of this new movement. Among these effects are, redefining the concept of “mystery” so that it is not a truth previously unrevealed in former ages, but is instead a truth previously unrealized[15]; and making the baptism with the Holy Spirit an Old Testament work.[16] This has already led one PD proponent (David Turner) to call the Church the “new Israel”.[17]

Finally, progressives, utilizing a version of the “already/not yet” hermeneutic[18], think that Christ is now seated upon the throne of David (citing, e.g., Psa.110). In other words, since the Melchisedekian priesthood of Christ has been inaugurated (Hebrews 5, 7), the promised Davidic reign, mentioned in the same Psalm, has already been inaugurated (seeming to run contrary to Rev. 3:21)! This completely re-jigs both the standard view of a Divine economy, and forces the progressive dispensationalist into employing his “complementary hermeneutic,” which is little more than admitting that the New Testament re-interprets the Old Testament.[19]

These things considered it is hard to see progressive dispensationalism as anything else but a more literal form of historic premillennialism, and not a relative of dispensationalism at all.[20] Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that many PD’s wish to distance themselves as far as possible from classic dispensationalists. For example, Blaising’s apology for what he calls “recent” dispensationalism ends up reading like an attempt to disengage himself from his dispensational predecessors. Interestingly, this is how it is taken by one of his Reformed critics.[21]

[1] Darrell L. Bock, “Response” to Elliott Johnson in, ed., Herbert W. Bateman IV, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 77.

[2] Bock, “Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism,” ibid, 86.

[3] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, (Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint, 1993), 59-62.

[4] Ibid, 85ff.

[5] Bock, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism, 90.

[6] The word crops up in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).

[7] See the formative essay by Kenneth Barker “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments” JETS 28 (March 1982).

[8] Cf. Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 58.

[9] We do not say that there have not been changes and disagreements within dispensational circles. This is plain enough to see. But we are saying that PD and the changes it introduces really do alter the overall tenets of normative dispensationalism. It adopts a different set of hermeneutical rules, which lead to a different theology.

[10] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 167.

[11] Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 281-283.

[12] Bock, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism, 135.

[13] Craig A. Blaising “Beyond the Sine Qua Non,” in Blaising and Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, 30-34.

[14] Ibid, 30.

[15] See particularly Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 143ff. Idem, “The Church as the Mystery of God,” in Blaising and Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church.

[16] Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 176-177.

[17] See David L. Turner’s essay, “The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1-22:5: Consummation of a Biblical Continuum,” in Blaising and Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, 288.

[18] This is not an easy concept to see fully. One may think it stands for one thing when, in fact, it stands for something else. There is no room to go into it here, but this method should not be mistaken as the teaching, long accepted by dispensationalists, that there are eschatological aspects which are present in the lives of believers in the Church age (e.g. Rom. 8:28-30; Col. 3:1-4). Rather, it forces the interpreter into a more wide-angled “canonical” hermeneutic, thereby introducing the “Analogy of Faith” as a hermeneutical principle in its own right. Cf. Three Central Issues, 75-76.

[19] This matter of the interpretation of the Old Testament by the New is thought by Bateman to be the crux of the argument of what it means to be “literal” in ones interpretation. See Bateman IV, ed., Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism, 38.

[20] This is how it is seen by at least one Covenant critic. See appendix A to Keith A. Mathison, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1995), 135-137.

[21] See Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn, III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow, (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1989), 436.

14 thoughts on “Progressive Dispensationalism and Normative Dispensationalism”

  1. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for your blog. Here are some thoughts about your article.

    I have some background in both classic and progressive dispensationalism. I must say I prefer the former and remained unconvinced of the latter. Much of what I’ve read by PD’s seems confusing and I wonder – perhaps they really not simply “more sophisticated” but really are confused about Israel and the Church?

    Bock’s approach to “genre sensitivity” and “preunderstandings” is probably quite similar to those espoused by many non-dispensationalists today in the Academy. I think genre needs to be considered in Biblical interpretation and doubt if anyone would disagree (it was in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, way back in the 20th C. modern era of history). However, genre shouldn’t be a straitjacket that rigidly dictates rules of interpretation.

    Bock is significant, because he seems to be the point man for the PD movement in general. His overall approach to hermeneutics moves us distinctly away from the traditional Protestant G-H. It seems to be a departure that moves us into Post-Modernism. “Back during the modern era that ended on 9-11-2001 we were modern people who thought that the meaning of Scripture was in the text and we could discover it using G-H., but things have changed and we’re much wiser now”.

    I know Bock would strongly disagree but it’s hard for me to see it any other way. Likewise, can we affirm the movement’s insistence on “dialog” and “conversation” among different denominational/theological camps as a means of (re-)developing theology without at the same time deemphasizing the authority of Scripture? Thus theology begins to emerge more as a product of the consensus of the Academy rather than truth which is read out of the biblical texts.

    If PD is indeed a “post-essentialist” dispensationalism, then it has no essentials and it becomes whatever people say it should be. “Dispensationalism” means whatever I want it to mean because I don’t like the old definition — “John Calvin was a dispensationalist because he believed in dispensations.”

    On the other hand, all PD’s seem to affirm a national future for Israel that distinguishes PD from covenant theology, but then again, if an a- or post-millennialist can say, “somewhere off in the future a great many ethnic Jews will get saved,” that may be close enough to the Progressive’s position that in reality the remaining distinctives between PD and replacement theology are trivial.

    One final thought. Some of the less-prominent PD’s would hold in general to much of the themes present in PD but disavow the Christ-already-seated-on-the-throne-of-David doctrine. These include many of the professors at Western Seminary (good men whom I love and respect).

    My (rather unscholarly) musings thus far … hope I didn’t muddy the waters too much.


  2. Thanks for your comments David, they add to my little essay in several places.

    I would like to comment on some of your paragraphs if I may:

    First, i para. 2 you mention Bock’s acceptance of “pre-understanding.” I think you are right, but I think it quite interesting that his approach to preunderstanding is more along the lines of governing presuppositions than what either Schleiermacher or Gadamer had in mind. They were more concerned with the ongoing effects of each new reading of a text upon the outlook previously held.

    On paras. 2 & 3 I would give him the benefit of the doubt here. I don’t think your interesting quotation shows him to have absorbed a postmodern ethos. E.g. not everyone who thinks that Wittgenstein was on to something with his ‘language-game’ theory adopts the PoMo belief that truth can’t escape the barriers of a language community. But I do think that he is too concerned with what other scholars think than with what his theology actually produces as doctrine.

    Thanks for telling me about the Western Seminary guys. I wonder, though, how they can accede to an “already-not yet” strain in their hermeneutics and resist putting Christ on David’s throne today?

    Thanks again for your helpful response.

    Your brother,


  3. Dear Paul,

    Thanks for responding to my comment. I haven’t read much on PoMo and I apologize if I seemed to mischaracterize Bock as PoMo, and furthermore, the quotation was NOT from Bock — it was one of my random rants which I hereby retract. It’s been years since I read any Wittgenstein and I’m not well educated in terms of modern linguistic and hermeneutical theories.

    As far as PD and the Davidic throne is concerned, you may want to visit this web page by Michael Vlach, and do a search for “Saucy”:

    A quotation:
    “Saucy also equates the right hand of God with the throne of David but does not see Christ ruling from this throne. According to Saucy, being at the right hand of God, i.e. David’s throne affirms the present exaltation of Jesus but not a present function of ruling.”

    Just now I scanned quickly through Chapter 8 of “The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism” and I think Vlach’s understanding is correct.

    Incidently, I didn’t have any long talks with my profs at Western about the Davidic throne, although I was relieved to hear that they believed that a literal fulfillment was yet future.

    What I’m wondering is the following: perhaps the Christ-on-David’s-throne-now theory is really a red herring, and not really a PD “sine qua non”? Normative Dispensationalists seem to like to draw attention to this issue, but I think it could fade away without causing much of a disturbance in the PD movement.

    Perhaps there is a loose analogy to the two-new-covenant theory. It never really was an essential in Dispensationalism, but it was an easy target for the Covenant folk to shoot at. One can hold to different interpretation of the New Covenant and still be a Dispensationalist.

    The main issues, as you and others have pointed out, have to do with the blurring of the distinction between Israel and the Church and a movement away from the time-honored G-H hermeneutic.

    Thanks for reading my comments, and may the Lord bless your endeavors at Veritas School of Theology (BTW, I couldn’t find the location of your school on your web site.)


  4. Thanks again Dave. I will check out those sources. And I will ponder your ‘red-herring’ theory. I think you’ve got something there. If it isn’t a necessary implication of PD I should treat it accordingly.

    You ought to be able to link to Veritas School of Theology from the top of the page, but here it is:

  5. It may indeed be true that PD owes part of its existence to post-modernism, but I think it is almost certain that Dispensationalism as a whole would not exist without the Enlightenment, and PoMo is a reaction against that.

  6. I didn’t say that PD owes any part of its existence to postmodernism. I think I was more reserved. I would incline to associate PD with the ongoing philosophical work of the Germans from Schleiermacher to Gadamer than the French (Ricouer, Derrida, Barthes). Thiselton’s influence has been marked I think.

    Would Dispensationalism exist without the Enlightenment? Are the two that closely connected? I really doubt it! Although the intellectual culture does affect theological thinking (e.g. the Princetonians), this does not mean that culture is the seedbed of a theology.

    Why do you think the link is “almost certain”?

  7. Well, you could take note of the fact that Dispensationalism depends on inductive logic, brainchild of Francis Bacon and foundation of Enlightenment science. You could also read Mark Noll’s assessment of the birth of Evangelicalism, featuring “a particular kind of commitment to objective truth and a ‘scientific’ approach to the Bible” and the embrace of what he calls the “Didactic Enlightenment.” The fact that Dispensationalism came about at roughly the same time that Enlightenment thinking was pervasive at all levels of society doesn’t help its case.

    Probably the easiest thing to do, however, is simply quote the early authors themselves:

    “[The Author]… has sought not to be influenced by any religious or doctrinal bias, and with an ‘open mind’ to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and let the Scriptures say what they want to say… ” — Clarence Larkin

    “The very fact that I did not study a prescribed course in theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind and to be concerned only with what the Bible actually teaches.” — Lewis Sperry Chafer

  8. You are guilty on two counts of the genetic fallacy. Your reasoning is “if it utilizes the inductive logic of Bacon or arises from within the time of the pervasive influence of Enlightenment thought it must be wrong.”

    By the same token the methodologies of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield ought to be entirely thrown out too. They too employed induction along Baconian lines. And they were most certainly not alone! Noll, for all his hatred of Dispensationalism and Young-Earth proponents, has done good work in this area, but he never advocates throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    The quotations from Larkin and Chafer ARE blameworthy, but they are no more blameworthy than Warfield saying that theologians have no more than a bystander’s interest in the pronouncements of the natural sciences.

    Inductive logic, of course, does not come from Francis Bacon (or Aristotle), it comes from God! But it is a tool and is never to play a magisterial role. Where is YOUR Christian worldview?

  9. My point is not to refute Dispensationalism because it is a child of the Enlightenment, merely to demonstrate that it is a child of the Enlightenment. The implications (rightness or wrongness) are secondary. You are right that the baby doesn’t necessarily have to go with the bathwater.

    I find both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology to be deficient in various ways and so I do not hold to either. I have been told this is a binary choice; I disagree. For my present world-view, I can only point you in the direction of Thomas Oden’s Paleo-Orthodoxy.

  10. Dispensationalism can be formulated from without an Enlightenment setting. So I find the link between it and the Enlightenment to be a rather wet blanket, although I accept that it had and has Enlightenment influences where the blind acceptance of “the scientific method” prevails. Some Dispensationalists (e.g. John Whitcomb, Thomas Ice) see this and some (Chafer, Geisler) don’t.

    There are not two choices I agree. And Oden’s Systematics is really outstanding. I refer to it in my theology lectures quite often. Especially The Word of Life. Though I do disagree with his classical Arminianism.

  11. Am enjoying your blog:)… Though I must say, I find it sorrowful that there are labels on everything to the point of too much generalization. Too much “man’s wisdom” sometimes. Thus labels are dished out and the body of Christ is divided:(

    I study the scriptures and am lead to believe things I learn from God this way. I like to study the Greek and Hebrew words when I need to, as sometimes it helps me understand what is being said.

    We should probably not take our belief from man’s words but from comparing scripture with scripture. Though we can learn things from books but we should be careful.

    After all, when the Lord was ministering to Israel He said…
    Matthew 15:3 KJV — But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?

    Mark 7:8 KJV — For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.
    9 — And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

    Mark 7:13 KJV — Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

    And Paul says…

    Colossians 2:8 KJV — Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

    We can prove all things. This is what is true.
    1 Thessalonians 5:21 KJV — Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.


    1. Bobbivilla,

      You are free with your opinions while criticizing some of mine. I wish I could capture what it is you are aiming at so that I could see your point. In the article I am differentiating different systems of interpretation. It would be considerably less easy to do so were I to avoid using “labels”. Without labels definition is impossible. This is not falling back upon “man’s wisdom” as you say, but simply the way meaningful scholarship proceeds.


      Paul H

      1. I’m sorry if I offended you. No offence intended…:) I just worry that sometimes we look to our own wisdom instead of God’s wisdom. One could easily overlook the doctrines of Grace today and our eternal purpose if we aren’t careful. That’s what I meant.
        I was 51 when I got saved. Being raised in Church… read many books. But it was in Romans where I found salvation.
        We need to believe the Bible, what it says, to whom it says it and for when is it saying it.
        Hoping all get saved!
        1 Tim.2:3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
        4 Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.

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