Diagnosing The Dispensational Malaise: An Opinion (Pt.2)

In this post I will conclude one or two things I was writing about in Part One.  Then, in Part Three I will say something about the definitions of Dispensationalism.  Finally, I will itemize what I believe is the most important work which needs to take place if Dispensational Theology (DT) is to survive and prosper as it should.

At the end of the first post I was writing about the notable ignorance of many so-called “former dispensationalists.”  I had occasion to mention this once or twice when responding to the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism – a document signed by a number of these former dispensationalists.

When I have interacted with those who have left DT I have often been surprised by what they said they once believed.  Not unusually they seem to have been taught a neat and tidy version of a basic ‘Scofieldism’ or ‘Larkinism’ which was not designed to address many of the larger questions of theology.  Emphasis rested upon the identifications of the seven dispensations, the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of heaven, the pretribulation rapture, the Antichrist, the restoration of Israel, , etc.  All of these are legitimate areas of study.  The first two are rather less important than the others and produce little light anyway.  The timing of the rapture and (to a large extent) the identity and function of Antichrist, while important, must be derived from a framework beyond themselves – a framework that is often not assimilated comfortably within a theological vision.  Thus, while solid foundations are laid down with regard to the progress of revelation, the relationship of DT to Systematic Theology is rather awkwardly explained.  Too often this has lead to a portrayal of Dispensationalism as piggy-backing on more rounded theological systems (especially Reformed theology).  And once the eyes are averted to these fuller systems it is not surprising that they should capture the allegiance of many a dispensationalist raised in this way.

Further, explanations of the restoration of Israel, if they are tethered to Reformed theology produced via a Reformed theological method, always seem a little incongruous in their strict dispensational presentation.  While John MacArthur may enjoin a dispensational eschatology as a logical corollary to his Reformed commitment, it will not escape the notice of some of his more astute critics that if he had employed the same Reformed interpretive tools by which he arrived at Limited Atonement and regeneration prior to faith on the Millennial Question, he might not end up insisting on anything more than a historic premillennial interpretation of the relation between Israel and the Church!

What I am leading into here is something I have said before: when DT is tagged onto an already developed system of theology it can only present itself as a correction to certain aspects of that system of theology.  In so doing it tangles with the methodological presuppositions of  that theology.  But because it allies itself to say, Reformed theology, it must act deferentially towards its formulations in areas other than ecclesiology and eschatology.  For if it failed to acknowledge Reformed theology’s right to assert itself in these other areas – the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man and sin, the doctrine of salvation, for example – it could not think of itself as Reformed.  Why so?  Because in claiming its right to question Reformed assumptions in any theological corpora save in regard to the Church and the Last Things, Dispensational theology would be asserting its right to formulate ALL its own doctrines independently of other theologies.  Thus, even if its formulations of these other corpora were closely aligned with Reformed theology, they would be its own formulations!  This is precisely what I am pleading for!

So going back to the superficiality apparent in many ex-dispensationalists’ knowledge of DT, I want to ask why they were not better taught.  And I am persuaded that the final answer comes out looking much the same as the foregoing paragraph.  The larger theological context of DT is often absent, leaving a gaping hole to be filled by, especially, Reformed theology.  And what is Reformed theology in essence but covenant theology?  Thus:

Reformed theology is synonymous with covenant theology” – Michael S. Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, 11. (Emphasis his).

Recognizing this sober truth would constitute a healthy wake-up call to many DT’s.  Perhaps then they would understand why many young dispensationalists who jump onto the Merry-Go-Round of “Reformed” theology end up riding it (after reading and listening to Piper, Horton, Mohler, Dever, et al) as “former dispensationalists”.

Now I know that some readers may wish me to start being more positive and recommend some cures for the sickness I’m seeing.  I will try to meet that requirement by-and-by.  But there is more to say, especially in terms of DT’s self-perception and definition.  But this will have to wait for next time.

Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise (3)


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9 comments

  1. Excellent insight Dr. Henebury.

    I believe that the Doctrines of Grace (5P. Calvinism) is true and also in the Israel/Church distinction a la Dispensationalism.

    In fact I think would most identify with the doctrinal system taught by John Macarthur and his church/seminary.

    I have this struggle to sympathize with both camps. I can see the theological depth and soundness of a “reformed” view of salvation, 5 solas, etc…and yet I think that we need to turn to Dispensationalism to get our eschatlogy, ecclesiology.

    I could wish that these things were neatly wrapped up in ONE macro-theology. And here is how I have tried to “systemitize” or synthesize it all in my head:

    God is sovereignly working out his purposes in all things in Christ in various administrations and covenants through time all to His glory.

    I see that God is sovereign in giving man new progressive revelation with attendent responsibilites. I see that God has people in every age, every dispensation, whom he purposes to save by grace in Christ. I don’t see the contradiction with the Doctriens of Grace.

    But at present, I can not identify with any one systematic household. I must live in one, and visit the other time to time. So to speak.

    I think that your Biblical Covenantal view is a good place to start. It’s on the right track for sure.

  2. Sorry Pierre, I’m a bit rushed at the moment. allow me to pick up on one or two things you mentioned:
    1. Although I am not persuaded that the 5 points, especially as they are formulated by the Reformed Confessions, reflect exactly what the text of Scripture is saying, I do hold strongly to the Sovereignty of God.
    2. Because the Sovereignty of God is definitely taught in Scripture I teach that all theology must be “run” through that doctrine.
    3. I also hold to what is called unconditional election and total depravity, but I cannot find definite atonement in the Bible, nor can I see perseverance as over against eternal security (they are not the same).
    4. Even if I might disagree with others about these teachings I believe I am open to being persuaded about them. but my presuppositions about interpretation and the subservient role of logic in the formulation of ones theology make it unlikely, I believe, that I will be converted to TULIP.
    5. You may see things differently, which is fine, but I myself tend to the belief that although the hermeneutics of dispensationalism lead to the doctrines I listed in points 2 & 3 above, there is no perceivable crossing from such hermeneutics to regeneration before faith or limited atonement any more than there is a crossing from self-conscious DT over to infant baptism or the covenant of grace.

    Naturally, as I am fallible and am probably wrong in at least 25% of what I believe i would not want to do anything but reason and discuss these issues with others in order to grow a bit more.

    I think many dispies would echo your comments here. As to why the others haven’t chirped up on this post I cannot say. Maybe they’ll say something when I discuss the definitions of DT in part 3?

    🙂

    God bless

    P.

  3. ” I myself tend to the belief that although the hermeneutics of dispensationalism lead to the doctrines I listed in points 2 & 3 above, there is no perceivable crossing from such hermeneutics to regeneration before faith or limited atonement any more than there is a crossing from self-conscious DT over to infant baptism or the covenant of grace. ”

    From my own experience from my own study of Scripture since I first became born again in 1992 lead me to a belief in Premillennialism, then the concept of a future period of time called respectively the tribulation period through my study of Daniel 9 and many other passages and the consistant distinction between Israel as God’s earthly elect people yet to be restored and the Body of Christ / the Church as God’s heavenly people. I was very early on able to see the distinction between what we know as the dispensation of law, the dispensation of the grace of God and the dispensation of the Kingdom reign of Christ on the earth through the extended revelation given in Scripture concerning those three dispensations. Though I do hold to 7 dispensations but the earlier ones prior to the dispensation of law very brief information are really given in Scripture concerning them as compared to the 3 major ones. The covenants that are presently taught in dispensational premillennialism, I actually saw it for myself in reading Scripture verse by verse before I even know what a Scofield or Ryrie study bible were or knew what they were. I believe that Scripture teaches total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace and eternal security. I believe that Christ propitiation, redemption and reconciliation is made provisionally for lost humanity and yet applied only to the elect at the time of their regeneration by the Holy Spirit when they have faith in Jesus Christ. I would agree with you that Scripture does not teach ” Limited atonement ” . I view regeneration as occurring at the moment of faith in Jesus Christ. I make a distinction between irresistible grace / efficacious calling and the act of regeneration. Irresistible grace or efficacious calling would be the pre-faith work to the elect by the Holy Spirit which most probably is the ” convicting work of the Holy Spirit on a lost person ” which empowers one to have faith in Christ. In which we have regeneration and faith taking place at the same time. That is the corrective I made on that issue from classical Calvinism which affirm regeneration procedes faith and in some case where they place regeneration even before the efficacious call ( Dr. John Gerstner and possibly WCF when reading it appears to teach that ). I did that correction of this due to Scripture because I did not want to force a concept that is not taught in Scripture. My soteriological beliefs were formulated prior to me ever knowing of what Calvinism teaches. I started with the basic view of justification by faith when I embraced the gospel under the teaching of the late Dr. Dave Breese in his The King is Coming program he held when he was alive. I was converted out of Roman Catholicism and started all over with Scripture and always remained reading and doing my study of it throughout these past 18 years. I had seen the great doctrine of justification years before as a kid and was told I was wrong in the Roman Catholic Church. And when I saw Dave Breese teaching the same exact thing I had see it was a great thing . I was brought under conviction by the Spirit of God and had faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

  4. Thank you for these thoughts Bryan. If I may, one of the problems with just saying that regeneration and faith occur simultaneously is that it does not actually deal with the theological problem. It is not for nothing that R. C. Sproul says “Reformed theology always and everywhere insists that regeneration precedes faith.” This is because Reformed theology depends on this order for its most cherished beliefs. Hence, the question for Dispensationalists is whether they can uncover this theological teaching by their own methods. I don’t believe they can, but someone may correct me.

  5. “Thank you for these thoughts Bryan. If I may, one of the problems with just saying that regeneration and faith occur simultaneously is that it does not actually deal with the theological problem. ”

    Yes I would agree with you. My issue would be to demand Scripture from them for their position which I have always done in discussions with them when they claim ” regeneration procedes faith ” . I have to deal with their misuse of logic and their presupositions which plays a large part in their formulations. The impression that I get sometimes is they sometimes appear to place their so called logic equal with Scripture rather than conforming our logic with what Scripture teaches. They violate their own principle of Sola Scriptura in that alot. One thing I learned is that systematic theology in it’s roots must come from an exegesis of the Scripture first.

    “It is not for nothing that R. C. Sproul says “Reformed theology always and everywhere insists that regeneration precedes faith.” ”

    Yes I have that book where he said that. I question Sproul on that one. In the past Reformed Theology did not make the proper distinction betweeen regeneration and conversion as present day Calvinist have done such as for example Dr. Charles Hodge in Volume 3 of his systematic theology set. Sproul thinks that only in Reformed Theology we can only find true belief in the Sovereignity of God. Anything else for him involves either Arminianism or Semi-Pelagianism. He in his other book strongly impied Lewis Sperry Chafer and John Walvoord were more or less Arminian in their beliefs. And did not fairly interact with their view and gave a false impression. Though I did agree with Sproul that Billy Graham and Norman Geisler are Arminian in their views of the work of grace in salvation. Chafer and Walvoord held to a work of the Holy Spirit that is irresistable that is distinct from the work and act of regeneration. Yet Sproul persistanted in painting them as Arminian or Semi-Pelagian in a most unfair presentation of their positions.

    “This is because Reformed theology depends on this order for its most cherished beliefs.”

    Their premise is essentially defending the sovereignity of God. Evidently they feel by placing regeneration prior to faith logically is they feel is the only way to defend that when such is not necessary. And fail to see their is a better solution to the issue on that point.

    “Hence, the question for Dispensationalists is whether they can uncover this theological teaching by their own methods. I don’t believe they can, but someone may correct me.”

    It can be done. I strongly believe that dispensationalist have the exegetical advantage when it comes to Scripture verse by verse in contrast to Covnenant Calvinist often mess up by forcing concepts to Scripture that is not there.

    1. Bryan,

      Your reply is another proof of why DT must stand on its own feet. You are right to say that logic is often permitted to trump exegesis in CT. They would not say so, but this is because deduction and inference play a huge role in their exegesis of texts. They use theological hermeneutics which presupposes of course that ones theology is already in hand.

  6. Bro. Paul,

    one thing I really appreciate in your writing and interaction and something I still need to learn is a humble kindness toward others who dissent. I have friends who are covenantal and I try not to get into discussions with them on this topic to avoid argument, when really i probably need to learn loving humility in my interaction. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and we are called to love. Thanks for your example.

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