This is a follow-up to my post about the lack of young people at the Pre-Trib Conference.
I promised to write a kind of follow up to my musing about the disturbing absence of young people from the Pre-Trib Conference. In this post I try to interact with some of the comments that were made and to do a bit of diagnosis of the problems I think I see within “The Dispensational Camp.”
In one of his comments on my previous lament my esteemed friend Tony Garland points to a general downgrade within the evangelical constituency as a whole. The trend I am seeing is, therefore, part of a larger trend within the Churches.
In reply, while I think this needs consideration, I do not think it furnishes a major cause of the trend I believe I am seeing. My reasons for saying this are that, firstly, if there is a trend away from more conservative positions – and there may be – this does not seem to have impacted those teaching Covenant Theology (CT) or Arminian theology or other positions within evangelicalism. How is that to be accounted for?
Secondly, Dispensational theology (DT) was almost overnight replaced by Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) in many formerly Dispensational schools. That this could happen as it did shows that the old teaching did not claim for itself the sort of credibility which is necessary for any teaching to persevere in the academy. And while it might be admitted that DT came to be equated with the naivete of the post-war age, the question still lingers as to why it was abandoned so painlessly by so many former adherents and why many young dispensationalists continue to leave it after finding it unsatisfactory.
I must confess that I tend to resist defensive answers which divert attention away from what may be real concern within DT. Tony himself is not averse to internal critique (besides, he is more gracious than I), but I believe he would even say that most leading Dispensationalists tend to react rather than re-think.
When a certain system is under the cosh its best friends will listen to the criticisms being leveled against it; take notice of any decline, and then seek to improve the system and arrest the decline: not by going on the defensive, but by positively engaging the dispute by developing Dispensational doctrine and how it reflects Biblical revelation. But this, by and large, has not been done.
It could be pointed out here that Covenant Theologians are themselves very sensitive to criticism, especially when it comes to the “doctrines of grace.” But in reply I would point to the many and varied works of CT’s which make real contributions to the development and vivacity of that approach. Moreover, these works cover a great deal of theological and apologetic ground. They are interesting and serious and challenging (in the best sense of the word). Whatever may be said about “the cult of Piper” or the “young, restless and reformed” brigade, it remains an insurmountable truth that John Piper has written fine works bringing his doctrine to bear on many important issues. The same truth bears the imprimatur of the likes of John Frame, Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, G. K. Beale, Thomas Schreiner, Michael Horton, and a host of others. Furthermore, their ranks are swelled by a wealth of young talent whose voices are beginning to be heard.
Over in the ranks of the PD’s we could assemble a large shelf of popular and academic books from many fields of study written over the past twenty years. Meanwhile, there is scarcely anything to point to from classic Dispensationalists. And the ailment reaches back a lot further than twenty years.
This is where I usually loose my sympathetic hearing 🙂 But I still insist that it takes a very little effort to push ones way past Hoehner on Ephesians or Fruchtenbaum’s Israelology to the vast open spaces unfilled with Dispensational works of equal caliber with those of the previously mentioned CT’s and PD’s. What have Dispensationalists been writing about for the past half century (circa 1960)? What are they writing about right now? At what level?
I am no enemy of DT. I am a traditional Dispensationalist! But where do I have to turn for the best current Systematic Theology or Biblical Theology? Where do I go for the best work on Apologetics and Worldview? If I want a top-tier Commentary on Romans or Isaiah or Acts, who do I turn to? These questions are not unimportant, neither are they beside the point. They actually constitute a decisive prong of my argument.
Tony Garland makes an important observation when he says:
I myself am not overly concerned about the possible demise of dispensationalism. Why do I say that? Because of how I myself came to be a dispensationalist: I’m a dispensationalist first and foremost because of what I believe about how to read the Biblical text (a literal hermeneutic). The view that the scriptures are to be taken at face value will always enjoy an inherent advantage and will lead readers to see the distinctions at the core of the dispensational system. So long as people read the Bible much in the same way they read the back of a cereal box — using natural language — then there will be dispensationalists around. So I see the bigger issue to be a failure to hand off the baton to the upcoming generation (for a variety of reasons)…
I agree totally with that statement (even though I snipped the last part off where Tony says that DT is not alone in its decline – a sentiment I personally can’t agree with. But if I grant him his point I am not relieved of my burden). The trouble is that it does not really address Dispensational Theology, nor the dearth of written work above first year graduate level by DT’s. And I am persuaded that there is a concrete connection between these phenomena and the abandonment of DT which is occurring. What is more, I am also persuaded that the connection holds good in answer to the question of why hardly anyone under 50 attended the Pre-Trib Conference. I truly believe I am witnessing a trend that can only be arrested when Dispensationalists stop writing paperbacks with solar eclipses on the cover and start reevaluating the system. Chafer is fine, Ryrie is fine, but it does them an injustice to act as though there is little else to do. Sterility and academic torpor sets in when such convictions are entertained. But I must move on.
Another matter which concerns me about the state of DT comes from reading and interacting with former dispensationalists. This problem may only be in my mind, but, for what it’s worth, I shall spill the beans (it is my blog!):
I think many former dispensationalists betray a pretty abysmal appreciation of DT, and this lack of appreciation may be traced back to how and what they were taught!
There, I said it!! We can’t label all former DT’s ignoramuses. And some of the most articulate ones have proved themselves to be pretty smart fellows. How come they left a dispensationalism they barely understood? and how come they embraced CT so easily? Any thoughts anyone?
I may be irritating but at least I am probing the issues! I don’t think a properly formulated Dispensational Theology has much of anything to fear. Neither do I think it need be outclassed in any setting. But it must define itself better. And it must portray itself better.
That’s where I will leave it for the present. Look forward to any thoughts, pro or con. 🙂