Reflections on the 95 Theses (1)

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?  

Thesis 91 takes aim at dispensationalist theology by saying it “encourages unrighteous living.”  Given that many dispensationalists have written books on how to live for Christ this immediately strikes one as off beam.  One thinks of Griffith Thomas’s Grace & Power; Chafer’s He That Is Spiritual; Pentecost’s Pattern for Maturity; Ryrie’s Balancing the Christian Life, and a number of books by John MacArthur on the subject.  True, one may not agree with the Keswickian flavor of some of these works (i.e. all but MacArthur), but there is much here to edify the believer, and dispossess anyone of the fancy that dispensationalists are encouraged by their theology to live unrighteously.

Of course, the thesis goes on to single out Zane Hodges’ teaching, to which a fair number of dispensationalists of a certain stripe are attracted.  I think the so-called “Free Grace” view runs into difficulty in a few places, not least of which is its discrepant view of faith as being unattached to repentance; a view which must assume an ability or faculty in the unregenerate that would overturn, for example, Romans 1:18-22 and 8:7.  But since nothing in Dispensationalism demands the approval of this teaching the thesis misses the mark.

We know that the Law does not justify anyone, nor can it sanctify anyone.  It can only tell us that we fall far short of holiness (Rom. 7:14-25).  It shows us we need help from the outside; that we need God’s grace.  Those on the “Nicene Council” need it just as much as any dispensationalist, whether they are right in their basic beliefs or not! These sorts of irrelevant charges are spiritually myopic and hardly showcase the Christian truth these people claim to be upholding.

4. The subjectivity of many of the 95 Theses is seen again by the fact that many of them are just desperate attempts to make Dispensationalism look bad, but without anything substantial to reinforce the claims (Theses 13, 15, 21, 33, 38, 39, 42, 45, 52, 83 & 89 are examples of this).  Theses 12 and 13 concerning 2 Timothy 2:15 hardly register since probably the majority of dispensationalists do not put the verse to the use objected to there.  In Thesis 83 we meet the charge of “Judeaolotry” wherein we are supposed to prefer the Jews above all else.  This is as untrue to say as it was unwise to think.  It probably says more about the anti-Israel views of the Nicene Council than it does about what dispensationalists actually believe about the present nation of Israel.  For thoughtful treatments of the issue I suggest a reading of Barry Horner’s Future Israel or non-dispensationalist Ronald Diprose’s Israel and the Church.

If I were to waste my time penning 95 Theses Against Covenant Theology I would at least not include criticisms that my opponents would consider plain silly.  It appears the only reason why these rather hokey objections were included was to achieve the magic number “95”, thence to recollect Martin Luther’s more noteworthy sentiments.  This bombastic association with Luther’s 95 Theses reveals at least that the Nicene Council and those who support them take these criticisms of Dispensationalism very seriously; they suppose them to be weighty and powerful.  In truth we wish they were!  Iron sharpens iron, and (to speak personally) I think dispensationalists need to be “shook up” to produce newer and better articulations of their basic system.  It is regrettable, therefore, that the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism constitute, not an anvil upon which dispensationalists can test their theological mettle, but a series of rubberized McGuffins promulgated as if something important was going on, when, unfortunately, there is nothing of the kind.

I still have some more comments to add, but this post is long enough so they’ll have to wait for another time.

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5 comments

  1. Hi Paul. You are correct in what you have pointed out. I personally have been subjected to # 20 of the 95 Theses againist dispensationalism in discussions on a message board before when they found out I am dispensational. And I ended up having to refute that false charge of teaching two ways of salvation. I quoted the New Scofield revised note on John 1:17, The Bible Commentary OT exposition of Gen. 15:6 and the Mac Arthur Study Bible note on Gen. 15:6 and Rom. 4 and the Dallas Theological Seminary doctrinal statement as proof. Now with the original note from the Scofield Study Bible on John 1:17 I dealt with it rather simply. I pointed out Scofield expressly taught the entire sinfulness of the human race. And that he taught Jesus is the only one without sin. And that Christ alone ever fulfilled the law of Moses pefectly. Since he taught Jesus is the only one who will never sin it impossible to claim he taught two ways of salvation. If Scofield taught law keeping brought salvation in the OT to a person like they claimed then they must provide a listing of who Scofield listed as being saved in that manner. I do not believe Scofield have a problem with the note being revised in the New Scofield Bible on John 1:17 at all. To me it’s note there reflects what is in the DTS doctrinal statement on that issue which was written by Lewis Sperry Chafer. It would be nice if Covenant Theologians as a whole take in to consideration present day dispensationalist statements on that issue which deals with it. Even if Scofield taught what they claimed they still need to allow a refinement of it by other dispensationalist and deal fairly with that.

    I do agree with you that they listed 95 Theses to match up Martin Luther’s 95 Theses when he posted that for debate within the Roman Catholic Church which ended up being one of the primary causes of the Reformation. I do question the motives of those who wrote the 95 Theses againist dispensationalism. It appears to me that they wanted to copy what Luther did. Great job in answering the Covenant Partail Preterist theologians.

  2. I have found this subject very interesting and have been thinking along these lines for a long time. i have now come to the conclusion that under law God required a certain kind of life for Israel and that those who kept or forsook the Mosaic law were called by God righteous or unrighteous respectively. Nobody was able to keep the law perfectly as sinners but the sin offering enabled the law keeper to be maintained in his covenant position. His sin was covered yet there was no clear conscience. How different was the merit system of Law to Grace. Under law the Jew had to do everything but under Grace Christ has achieved everything. Under law sins were only covered but under Grace they are removed completely. Under law the Holy Spirit came on men at times to enable them to do extraordinary things but Under Grace the Holy Spirit comes to abide with us forever, The question remains are the OT saints saved as christians are? The answer must be no. Nobody is saved under law. The Law brings the knowledge of sin but no salvation. I believe that the New Covenant is something that the Lord will bring the righteous of the OT into prior to the Millennium. Israel living and resurrected will meet the glorified Christ and will have a born again experience. John 3v3. These saints will then be saved by Grace not law. However they will be brought into a legal position under the law written on their hearts. So salvation in the end is always by Grace through faith and always through the atoning work of Christ but it was not experienced under law for the OT saints. This is proven by the simple fact that OT saints are never converted as NT believers are. They hear no gospel and there are no evangelists. They enter into the Old Covenant by circumcision but the NT saints enter salvation by faith. I would appreciate your comments..

  3. Hi Stephen,

    I deal somewhat with OT salvation in this post: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/repost-the-holy-spirit-in-the-old-testament-2/

    Further, I think I basically agree with your scenario but for a couple of things. First, I would replace the word “salvation” with final justification or even perhaps regeneration (if e.g., Ezek. 37:11-14 refers to an actual resurrection of OT saints after the Tribulation but at the cusp of the Millennial Kingdom). I realize you do qualify it with “saved AS CHRISTIANS ARE.” I do think OT believers were saved (by grace through faith), and that they compose the “cloud of witnesses” of Heb. 11 & 12. Whether their complete justification occurred until after the resurrection I doubt. There is certainly room to keep a question mark over OT Israeli believer’s regeneration in terms of the New Covenant until Christ returns (as that is when the NC is made with Israel). I’m open to correction but that’s about the gist of my view.

    Second, in view of Eph. 4:7-8 I am prepared to say the OT saints ARE secure. So I wouldn’t say something like “These saints will THEN be saved by grace not law.” That’s too untidy really. I would say the OT saints ARE/WERE saved by grace through faith. There was never any chance of salvation any other way. Plus, the importance of grace is key to understanding the Mosaic Covenant too. John Sailhamer’s “The Meaning of the Pentateuch”, which I reviewed on this blog shows this.

    Hope these thoughts help.

    God bless,

    Paul

  4. Dr. Paul, I hope I’m not bombarding you too much, but I have another question – this time a bit more complicated.
    The simple question would be: what do you think of Keswick movement and Henry Blackaby’s books ?

    The long story: there was a debate between 2 big theologians in my country, and the debate hit a soft spot for me. Basically one of the best preachers in my country wrote a book, and another pastor wrote a book in which he criticized the former, charging him with “mysticism”.
    The preacher then went and wrote an article where he defended his book – and this is where I need your opinion.

    The preacher (Iosif Ton) said that there are 2 types of evangelicalism: one that is purely theoretical, that says the Holy Spirit no longer speaks today personally (only through Bible), and that relies on having certain intelectual beliefs (which are correct, but they remain only at intelectual level).
    The other type is one that tries “to live” the Bible, and seeks a personal relationship with God and the union with Christ and Holy spirit (he points to texts like 1 corinthians 6:17,19; john 14:15-23; ephesians 3:16-19; 1 john 1:4-7).

    He then gives an example of the first type – I quote:”I asked once a theologian what does he do during his devotional time. He replied: I read the bible, I meditate at what I was reading and think how to apply it in my life. Then I asked him – so you don’t meet with a Person which to talk to ? He answered – No. Then, I told him, you don’t have a personal relationship with God – you have a relationship with a book.”

    This hit a soft spot for me, and I don’t know what to say about this. On one hand, I want to have a closer relationship with God, I really want this personal experience and communion. But on the other hand – how do you do ? In theory, I agree with Ton, but in practice I don’t see how to apply it in practice.
    Understanding God’s will is a point I’m still struggling with – I asked the Lord for guidance in my life (I even based myself on dreams), but I failed to understand. I don’t know if/how God speaks personally today. I linger to have a personal relationship like David has – when he was asking the Lord “should I go to battle, Lord ? the God answering him plainly, yes, or no”.
    That’s why these ideas from Ton seems very appealing to me – but I also wonder if they are not just a bunch of pretty words.

    This situation is very similar to my position regarding miraculous gifts and penticostalism. I believe in theory that the Holy spirit can and might give the gifts of miracles and healings today – I couldn’t find a solid text that says these gifts are no longer for us today (but not the gifts of languages and prophecy – these are obsolete today). But in practice, every experience I had with pentecostals left a sore taste in my mouth.

    Iosif Ton says that his position is along the lines of Keswick movement, Henry Blackaby’s books, and the “deeper life movement”. So, I’m curious, if you are familiar with this debate – what do you think of these movements/books ? Is it something real, or just a bunch of pretty words that don’t hold any water ?
    Sorry for the long post.

    1. Well Emanuel, you require more time than most 😉

      I think Blackaby’s books are dangerous because they drift into mysticism and extra-biblical authority. The sufficiency of Scripture is always the brunt of the most subtle attacks.

      As for Iosef Ton, he has argued a false dichotomy. Of course a mere intellectual faith is wrong, but that does not make mysticism right.

      Some good men embraced the old Keswick, but in the end it suffers from a false definition of faith as something that can grasp instead of something that trusts.

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