Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise: An Opinion (Pt.4)

In this last installment of this little series I want to try to offer some thoughts on a few things which would redress the present stalemate that much of Dispensationalism finds itself in.  If you don’t agree with me that DT is not what it ought to be – i.e. that it has yet to realize what it is capable of – then these posts would not have done much for you.  But if you have been thinking along the same lines as me, I hope these articles have encouraged your own thinking about the subject, regardless of whether you would endorse everything I’ve written on this matter.

Let me first of all issue a small reminder of the problems I see in Dispensational Theology:

  • There has been very little first-rate work produced by DT’s for over 50 years.
  • Nearly all the work that has been done is in eschatology.  Most of it is popular.
  • An academic torpor has taken up residence within Dispensationalism.
  • Dispensationalism offers no full-orbed theology of its own.
  • It dovetails awkwardly with Reformed theology, which is usually Covenant theology.
  • Dispensationalists themselves seem reluctant to own their troubles.
  • This set of circumstances is directly connected to the defection from Dispensationalism.
  • The self-defeating and repressive view that DT is only relevant in a few areas of theology.
  • Lack of development of DT incurs lack of originality in other disciplines.
  • The inadequacy of present definitions of (D) which fasten upon nugatory “dispensations.”

For the record, here is my working definition of DT: “an approach to biblical theology which attempts to find its raison d’etre in the Scriptures themselves, and which constructs its systematic presentation of theology around a primary focus on the biblical covenants.”

All of these points could be elaborated on, and all of them would make excellent discussion points for dispensationalists in the academy to address.  What I want to see (and what I believe is both desirable and possible) is a DT which is constructed on its own methodology from the ground up.  What follows is a way (there may well be others ) of “getting the wreck in gear” and moving forward and so making DT more venturesome and more attractive and more authoritative.

1. Preliminaries

a. Any approach to theology must find its warrant in the accurateness of its positions relative to Holy Scripture.  Scripture must always be allowed its head, however well we think we are doing our theology and however far along we have come to completing a coherent system.

This is just to say that we must humble ourselves before the Word of God when doing theology.  The fruit of the Spirit is to come out in every endeavor.  Systems are good things as long as they are not considered sacrosanct.  No person or group possesses the Whole Counsel of God if by this we mean that we have the whole truth contained in a Confession or system.

b. We should not be as concerned about defending a system as we are about letting Scripture speak.  When we stand before Christ at the Bema I doubt we will be awarded prizes for dogmatics, especially if they are discovered to be at variance from what God has actually stated in His Word.

To read some Christian writers one would think anyone who is outside of their confessional circle cannot be a Christian.  But while it may be that laying outside of a denominational credo might condemn one to a lesser share of the theological pie than those within the circle, at the end of the day what matters is whether we have represented God’s Word accurately.  This work is hampered if we allow our theological assumptions to dictate to texts instead of the other way around.

c. All theologies have “frayed edges.”  To give a few examples: i. the mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation; ii. the correct representation of the sovereignty of God and the will of man; iii. the exact relation of God to time; iv. the pre-lapsarian “innocence” and fall of Satan; v. the precise reconciliation of the Gog/Magog texts in Ezekiel and Revelation.  This means that we must be alert to the propositional limits of our theological statements.

We can say things without having sufficient warrant from the texts we teach from (we can all do this!).  I would not want to draw a line, to step over which would bring one into the fields of speculation, but there ought to be some self-awareness here.  It ought not to be as common as it is to find believers insisting on theological tenets which, upon comparison with the texts they cite, attach themselves obliquely to those texts.  This is where we can all help each other; where iron sharpens iron.  Disagreements will remain, but mutual understanding will be promoted.

2. On Questions of Method:

a. Therefore, we ought to have some sort of grid whereby we can categorize Direct from Indirect usage of the statements of Scripture, and get an idea of the degree of indirectness of our statements.

I approach the issue using the grid of “Category Formulations“:

First, I try to remember that some doctrines can be formed by direct reference to the wording of Scripture.  Such a doctrine would be justification by faith (appealing to, e.g., clear statements in Romans 3:23 – 4:25 and Galatians 3).  I refer to them as Category 1 Formulations; not because they are the most fundamental necessarily, but because they are most easily formulated.  For instance, no Bible reader will dispute that it tells us that Jesus is Savior and Lord.

Then there are those doctrines which cannot be discovered that way.  The Trinity would be one of these.  However, the plain statements of Scripture which tell us that God is One (Deut. 6:4), but that the Father is God (take your pick), the Son is God (e.g. Jn. 1:1-3; 8:58; 20:28), and the Spirit is God (e.g. Acts 5:3-4), demand we resolve on Trinitarianism.  This inference from a consideration of plain texts for related doctrines is what I call a “strong inference” and is non-negotiable.  To help myself I call these Category 2 Formulations.

Next, there are passages which point to certain doctrinal conclusions (e.g. the rapture), which by themselves do not tell us enough for us to be able to come to surefire doctrinal conclusions (as is the case with the Trinity).  But we may feel we can infer things quite confidently (like the timing of the rapture) by a consideration of all the pertinent texts.  From this consideration we will arrive at a defeasible position based upon what view of the rapture we think is least problematical.  I personally believe the pre-trib position answers the most questions and has the least difficulties to overcome, but I may be wrong.  Hence, I (speaking only for myself) cannot accord pretribulationism the same doctrinal credence as I give to justification by faith or the Trinity.  This is a Category 3 Formulation. It has credibility and weight insofar as the Bible can be justly prevailed upon to substantiate it in preference to its competitors.  

Finally, Category 4 Formulations are those doctrines which are not really solidly rooted in any exegesis of Scripture, but are theological inferences wrought from other theological inferences.  Formulations of this cloth often rely heavily on the early (premature) deployment of the Analogy of Faith so as to steer an interpretation in a more favorable direction.  Though I may regret it I think that, e.g., infant baptism, grounded as it is in a certain forced typology and an implied covenant of grace is such a doctrine.  Category 4 conclusions ought to be held to tenuously if at all, since they cannot provide  any direct support from any passage or group of passages with indisputable correlation to the doctrines themselves.

Now, applying this grid to some select doctrines, this is how I would categorize them:

  • Ezekiel’s Temple belongs, I believe, either in Category 2 (borderline) or in Category 3.
  • Total Depravity in C1 or C2 because of, for example, Romans 1-3; Eph. 2:1-3.
  • The Restoration of Israel in line with the OT New Covenant passages (like Jer. 31-33; Ezek. 36-37) would go in C1 or C2
  • No death before the Fall, based on Genesis 2-3; Romans 8:18-23, would be a C2 formulation
  • Unconditional Election I would locate as C2, maybe C3
  • Libertarian freewill would be C4 because of its lack of exegetical support and theological coherence (it would separate the will from the nature).  Whereas something like Bruce Ware’s “compatiblist middle-knowledge” would score a C3
  • Finally, I would have to place things like the Covenant of Grace, the Church as the “New Israel”, Regeneration prior to faith, and Particular Redemption in C4, since I do not see how these doctrines can be maintained without reading ones theology into Scripture (however “frayed” are the edges with which we have to deal as a result).

b. In pursuance of an accurate statement of theological truth it seems to me that we should first study the correspondence between God’s thoughts (either reported or spoken) and His deeds.  Does God say what He thinks and do what He says?

When God said “Let there be light”, lo and behold “there was light” and not something other than light.  We see the same thing in many other places: E.g., Gen. 1:11-12, 26-27; 2:16-17, 18; 6:13-22; 8:21-22;  9:8-17; 11:7-9; 2 Ki. 1:3-17; Jn. 21:21-23, etc.  This is only intensified when God enters into a covenant bond (see below).

c. We must see that God has made covenants for fallen men in this post-flood world.  What are these covenants if not clear statements of God’s decretive and providential intent?  And what use are they if they as covenants if they do not mean what they say?

Without going into the matter much here I think much ground can be cleared by asking the question, “If God can be so particular about Zedekiah keeping exactly to “the words of the covenant” (Jer. 34:18) which he made when he “passed between the parts of the calf” (34:19), how can He be any less particular about keeping “the words of the covenant” that He vowed when He passed between the parts of the animals in Genesis 15?

If God always means what He says (always allowing things like poetic license), and the covenants of Scripture must mean what they say, and are, moreover, God’s blueprint for our history, then clearly, correctly understanding the content of these covenants becomes of paramount importance.  Any system which passes over or ignores aspects of the covenant-oaths taken by God for man should be viewed with suspicion, since any man-made system can only call itself truly biblical when it properly reflects the intention of the Divine Author.

d. Since these covenants deal with matters like the uniformity of nature, the physical world and its inhabitants, recognition of the fallenness and wickedness of man, the land of Israel on the earth, the promised Seed, the law, the role of Israel among the nations, the Priesthood, the Davidic kingship and kingdom, the new birth, the Church, and the restoration of all things, it appears that rightly connecting the doctrines one with another in conformity with the covenant stipulations and requirements will produce a certain kind of Systematic Theology and Worldview. 

This is the outlook I am recommending. I believe concentration on the biblical covenants and their outworking in Scripture will yield much more theological and worldview materials from which to construct a rounded Systematic Theology and Christian Worldview.  (See my other posts under Biblical Covenantalism, especially here and here).  On the other hand, demoting the biblical covenants to a subservient or even trivial role, or else not allowing the covenants to always have their full say, will produce certain varieties of systematic theologies and Christian worldviews which will overlap the biblical covenant model (since they are based on the same Bible), but will inevitably misrepresent God to the extent that their theologies fail to conform to the words of those covenants.

3. In Conclusion

So there it is!  “Thus far mine errand.”  I repeat, I am a committed traditional dispensationalist, but I believe DT is in trouble and will find itself in deeper trouble if it doesn’t “shape itself.”  These observations are my opinions.  Their relative worth remains to be seen.  I have a set of posts forthcoming (DV) that will add somewhat to these ruminations.  I do understand that I have not here directly addressed Dan’s disagreement over my comment about finding TULIP as classically formulated (a phrase I need to explain) “impossible” to agree with DT built upon its own foundation.  Lest it believed that I shall go on to advocate a genus of Arminianism I shall deal more with this in another article.

9 thoughts on “Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise: An Opinion (Pt.4)”

  1. …I have not here directly addressed Dan’s disagreement over my comment about finding TULIP as classically formulated (a phrase I need to explain) “impossible” to agree with DT built upon its own foundation

    Did you do it indirectly?


  2. Dan,

    My main duty in this article was not to address your response to something I said in the comments section in the previous one. I will give you a more worthy response soon.

    What you are looking for is some explanation of what I see as an incongruity between DT and TULIP as expressed, say, in the Canons of Dordt.

    Do I give an indirect response? I think so.

    “Finally, I would have to place things like the Covenant of Grace, the Church as the “New Israel”, Regeneration prior to faith, and Particular Redemption in C4, since I do not see how these doctrines can be maintained without reading ones theology into Scripture…”

    The grid that I use for convenience sake and which I describe above, deals with theological propositions in their relation to literal hermeneutics. It does not measure the veracity of a proposition, only its textual and exegetical support. As I have placed two crucial tenets of TULIP in my “C4” category I would say I have set up an indirect reply.

    Whatever, I’ll try to offer something more substantial as soon as I can.

    God bless you and yours,


  3. Dr. H, I am finding myself agreeing more and more, I have been a dispensationalist for at least 10 yrs now…and have found my interest in dt waxing and waning for some of the reasons mentioned above; plus the current mentality toward systematic theology vs. prosperity(materialism)theology. Which is a real shame because I believe that dt or bible covenantism had much to offer! Some suggestions that I would recommend is: 1. A better recognition of our dt forefathers and their thought systems ……(it took me years to find a book that compared the dt thought systems of Darby/Chafer. Maybe we need to go back in order to move ahead.

    2. A more centralized/localized source of dt information….once again I have spent years searching for dt books and original sources. This might be easier to those with seminary resources ,but harder to the average guy who lacks access to conferences, or traditional dt bible college/ seminary. Many of dt resources I found were peiced together from out of print bibliographys and vague references.

    3. Literature that expressedly mentions “a dt framework is being used here” which would make my pastoral job a lot easier because new disciples are constantly buying literature hoping that it teaches what pastor is preaching but most is reformed or basic evangelical.

    Sory post is so long

  4. I have just recently discovered your website and find it very interesting. How does this category formulation idea interact with denominational distinctives in your view? Is it right to divide the church over issues that have lesser biblical warrant? Hope this question isn’t too off the wall for an article about dispensationalism. It is wonderful to see someone defend dispensationalism in a theologically driven way.

    1. Hi Paul,

      I nearly lost your comment. Your question is very pertinent, even though I had not thought of it. I would say that the “Category Distinctives” could help a lot in clarifying what lies behind certain opinions from one camp about other camps. They could also focus the question to exegetical matters and leave the emotional stuff to the side more easily. E.g., if I said a person could loose their salvation on the basis of some verses in Matthew and Hebrews, the analysis of these verses through the Categories C1 to C5 in light of any proposition being asserted on the basis of those verses would show up how strongly such an assertion should be made (or how tentatively it should be held). The Categories measure the strength of the correspondence between a doctrinal assertion and the passages it appeals to.

      Does that make sense?

      Thanks for visiting and commenting.

      your brother,


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