I have recently returned from attending the 2010 Pre-Trib Conference in Irving, TX. Among the speakers were Michael Vlach, Wayne House, David Larsen, Paul Wilkinson, Andy Woods, Mike Stallard, and Barry Horner. Each presentation from these speakers was of high quality. In my opinion the two most noteworthy presentations were by Wilkinson and Horner. This is not to criticize the other men mentioned above, but just to say that Wilkinson’s excellent lecture about the disturbing rise of Anti-Israelite Christian Palestinianism (as advocated by the likes of Stephen Sizer and Gary Burge), and Horner’s eloquent assessment of latent anti-Israelism residing within replacement theology were both weighty and up to date.
I was there mainly for the reason of manning a table for Veritas School of Theology: to talk to prospective students and to get some “visibility” for the seminary. During the first day there was something concerning me which I could not put my finger on. It was not just the presence of books about the rise of the “Nephilim” or “America in Prophecy” and such like which supplied the angst, but something else. That “something” hit me when I stood at the back of the room for Paul Wilkinson’s morning lecture. I looked out at the attendees and it dawned on me that there were hardly any young people among the throng of three or four hundred. If I were to hazard a guess I would put the average age of those present at no less than 50 years old. And if I pushed that up to 55 I would still feel comfortable with the mean. Where were all the young people?
It had been about five years since my last attendance at this venue so I expected there would be many faces I wouldn’t be familiar with. But young faces, young men hungry for the Word, there were none to speak of! I don’t know if this disturbing fact was noticed by anyone else. I spoke with some about it but hardly an eyebrow was raised. The truth is, if this is a symptom of the eroding constituency of classic dispensationalism things are bad! We may wish to point our fingers at the undoubtedly faddish “Young, Restless and Reformed” movement, but the lack of new blood in dispensationalism is very worrying, even if it was predictable.
For years I have watched the Reformed community encourage and promote new writers and speakers and new thinking. I believe this is a major reason for the high standard of their materials. In contrast I have not witnessed the same dynamic within the Dispensational community. While I don’t want to diagnose the trouble here, I think it is obvious that Reformed thinkers speak and write about far more topics and often about more important subjects than Dispensational thinkers have done for many a year. The dearth of first rate Dispensational materials which address “the whole counsel of God” thus appealing broadly to young Christian men and women is the inevitable result.
I have always had an uneasy attitude towards the Pre-Trib Conference and Tim LaHaye’s ‘Pre-Trib Research Center’ which supports it. In the first place the idea of starting a ministry wholly devoted to defending a less than crucial End Times teaching (which I happen to hold); never mind putting on an annual conference to regurgitate the same old arguments, seems unnecessary, unhelpful and narrow. It is unnecessary because although pre-tribulationism is supported by good theological argumentation, it is not a cardinal tenet of the Christian Faith. As far as its support from Scripture is concerned it can only be regarded as enjoying indirect testimony. And this indirect scriptural witness, though I believe it to be stronger than the alternatives, is a fair reflection of the tertiary importance of the doctrine when compared to the Person of Jesus Christ, Justification by Faith, or the Trinity.
Further, the Pre-Trib ministry is unhelpful because it majors on such a less than vital doctrine in isolation from the rest of Theology. This lack of integration makes the ministry off-balance (which is not unusual for dispensationalists of the last generation), and fails to incorporate the teaching within the broader perspective of Biblical and Systematic Theology and exegesis. Thus the Bible student must look elsewhere to get a proper theological diet.
Finally, it is narrow for the obvious fact that it encourages fixation on one aspect of God’s Truth – and not a primary one at that. This problem is only made worse because of the populist nature of LaHaye’s whole approach, epitomized by those awful “Left Behind” novels, which republished more or less Biblical Eschatology as pulp fiction. Whether one believes in the pre-tribulational Rapture or not, the portrayal of parts of God’s Word in such commercialized garb is embarrassing (whatever the pragmatist supporters of this sort of thing might say).
These are things which someone must say. All the sturdy work of Thomas Ice beside, the “pre-tribbers” must awake to the demise of Dispensational theology under their watch. Surely it is time to stop following this restrictive path? Surely it is time to open up the doors and let the fresh air of serious holistic theological thinking in again! If that doesn’t happen soon, I fear we can not expect our ranks to be refilled from among the Christian Twenty and Thirty-Somethings.
See the follow up article: Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise (1)