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.