Dispensationalism

Some Mud That Sticks: An Insider’s Criticism of Dispensationalism

This is a repost of an article first posted in 2009.

 

It is well to note that the following charges against dispensationalism are not theological and exegetical in nature, but are more psychological and sociological.  Here is my opinion:

a. Pragmatism

 

It is our opinion that dispensationalism can be (and ought to be) wedded to a full-orbed systematic world and life view, but only if it begins to take itself more seriously and starts the painful process of self-examination.[1] In order to do this it must divest itself of the pragmatic outlook that it often clings to, and which spoils its thinking and stunts its theological development.  For present purposes we have in mind the following helpful definition of Pragmatism: “Pragmatism as a theory of knowledge says that a person is warranted in believing any proposition or theory that produces good results.”[2]

The lure of pragmatism is its emphasis upon short-term goal setting and tangible “success.”  This vision is what drives American society[3], and Christian institutions and publishing houses have, by and large, fallen for it “hook, line and sinker.”  It is our conviction that most if not all of the observations that follow stem from the influence of a pragmatic mindset.  Comments like “will it sell?” betray this wrong-headed attitude.  The real question is “is this important?,” “is it right?”  It ought to be borne in mind that many of the books cited in important theological works are not big sellers.  But it is superficial thinking to equate large sales numbers with influence. (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (PT.3)

Part Two

After the vision of the enormous temple which ends Ezekiel one is left with some questions.  How could such an immense structure fit in Jerusalem as we know it?  Why would any cultic priesthood be necessary once Jesus had come and died for our sins?  And, doesn’t the Book of Hebrews negate the whole idea of priests and sacrifices?

I am going to leave aside the last two questions until I examine some objections in Part Four.  But this post will answer the first problem.  But before I do that I want to fill in the picture a little more by looking at some more prophetic references.

In Daniel’s prayer of confession in Daniel 9 we see him specifically make supplications for “Your city Jerusalem” (9:16) and “Your sanctuary” (9:17).  Gabriel’s answer addresses Jerusalem (9:24, 25) and the temple, which is doomed to destruction (9:26).  I am not concerned with the identity of the sanctuary in verse 26 (other than to say that, in my opinion, it is not Herod’s temple).  My interest is in whether Gabriel has any positive answer regarding God’s temple.  I believe he does.

In the list of six eschatological details which must be fulfilled after the seventy weeks (490 years) prophecy in verse 24, the sixth concerns the anointing of “the Most Holy” (this particular Hebrew term always designates a devoted thing or place in its other OT uses, never a person, as even some amillennial scholars are forced to admit).  Unless one spiritualizes the other five items and makes the sixth mean something different than its previous uses in the OT, this passage refers to a future temple which will stand when transgression is finished; when everlasting righteousness has been brought in, and all vision and prophecy has been sealed up.  Since none of these things happened at the first coming of Christ anyway (even prophets were functioning many years after Calvary), and since the anointing of the “Most Holy [Place]” is the last on the list, it makes more sense to put the fulfillment of this verse after the second coming.  This fits hand in glove with the provisions of the Priestly Covenant, with Jeremiah 33, and with the predictions in the last part of Ezekiel.

In Joel 3:17-21 we find ingredients which remind us of the kinds of eschatological blessings God promised to Israel.  Jerusalem will be “holy” (3:17), there will be blessings in production and general fecundity (3:18).  And, lo and behold, “A fountain shall flow from the house of the LORD (which means  a temple, just as we saw happening in Ezek. 47:6ff.).

This picture is further enhanced by the prophet Zechariah after the Exile.  For instance, in chapter 1:16-17 the message of the comforting of Zion and of the Lord’s own return to his house were hardly fulfilled from 500 B.C. through A.D. 70.  The Lord did not return to the Zerubabbel/Herod temple at all!  Yet in 2:10 we read,

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion!  For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst…

In the sixth chapter we have a prophecy of the Branch who, as is stated with great emphasis, will build the temple. (6:12-13a).  This man will also “bear the glory” and, as a priest-king (combining both offices in Himself), “will sit on His throne.” (6:13b).

This Messianic prophecy has Christ sitting as King.  He is a temple-builder!  Is this heaven and a spiritual throne and temple?  Only if you are an amillennialist bent on ignoring the Priestly Covenant and its promises.  Chapter 8:3 again has God returning to Jerusalem, which shall be called “the City of Truth”.  This is hardly an accurate description of Jerusalem in the first century A.D.

In Zechariah 13:2-3, after a New Covenant prediction of cleansing for Israel, there is an intriguing passage about a young man who attempts to act the prophet and who gets thrust through by his own parents for doing so.  I take this to apply to the time after Christ has come back in power, when certainly there will be no need of prophets.  I relate it to Gabriel’s fifth prediction in Daniel 9:4 about the sealing up of “the vision and prophecy.”  Then in chapter 14 we find the LORD coming with His saints (14:5c), ruling as “King over all the earth” (14:9), and then a passage which has the nations coming up to Jerusalem to “worship the King” who is explicitly called “the LORD of hosts” (14:16-17).  The “LORD’s house” and “sacrifices” are mentioned clearly in 14:20-21.  The eschatological context includes radical topographical changes which will completely alter Jerusalem – thereby very possibly making room for Ezekiel’s massive temple to be built (14:4-5).

Finally the last prophet in the OT, Malachi, has God directly speaking of “My covenant with Levi” which He wants to “continue” (Mal. 2:4).  In the next chapter, in a context reminding one of the second coming (cf. Rev. 21:11f.), we read about God purifying “the sons of Levi” (3:3) that they “may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness,” (and you need to have a temple to offer such sacrifices).  So the very last Old Testament prophet still appears to think that there is a future function for priests in a temple.  Did this occur in Jesus’ day?  When have Levites been purified?  The only question then is whether one is going to remember the covenant terms in Num. 25, Jer. 33, etc, and stick with them, or whether one is going to turn it magically into “Jesus and the Church” using typological and symbolic alchemy.

As for me, more than enough evidence has been presented to put forward a solid case for an incontrovertible and everlasting Priestly Covenant.  Next time I will consider some objections to what I have written.

 

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.2)

Part One

Biblical Covenantalism tracks the covenants through Scripture for the sake of putting together a composite picture of God’s plan.  The covenants are the backbone of Scripture.  If we pay careful attention to these covenants as they arise, we will not be able to bypass the everlasting “covenant of peace” which God made with Phinehas and his descendents in Numbers 25.  The fact that a covenant of this kind is casually passed over with barely a mention and not traced out in Scripture is telling.  I think what it tells is that we tend to want to read our endings to the story into passages like this.  Coming to the covenants like this tends to muffle their testimony with a pious overlay of ‘the finished work of Christ.’

The Witness of Ezekiel

Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, was a priest (1:3), but evidently not in the line of Phinehas.  In chapters 10 and 11 we find the vision of God’s glory departing the (literal) Temple in Jerusalem.  Then after many chapters filled with denunciations and the occasional promise of blessing, we arrive at chapter 34.  Ezekiel 34 – 39 are tied together by the repetition of the refrain “mountains of Israel.”  The prophet had employed this phrase before, though sporadically (in chapters 6, 19 & 33), but now it becomes a kind of mantra, appearing eleven times in these chapters.

Examination of the uses of this refrain does not come within the scope of the present study, but I might notice the following:

1. Each usage is connected with a prophetic oracle, whereas in the first part of the book it centers on contemporary events.

2. In chapters 36, 37, and even 38 the reference is to deliverance and kingdom blessing.

3. In chapter 39 the refrain is used to locate the scene of future judgment of Israel’s enemies prior to the kingdom age.

In this prophetic climactic context we read about God raising up David (34:23-24; 37:24-25) in an Edenic environment (34:25-27; 36:35).  This recalls the promises in the Davidic Covenant which we saw in Jeremiah 33.  But the Priestly Covenant is also alluded to by Ezekiel in these contexts.

First, it ought to be clear that we are driven into the future by the New Covenant language of 36:26-28.  Add to this the picture of restoration in 36:34-35 and one is presented with a decision: either turn the whole context into some sort of overdone typological mirage, or take it as read and place it in the eschaton.  This end times scene is furthered with the famous prophecies of the dry bones and the two sticks in chapter 37.  Right at the tail end we come across this statement:

Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst foreverMy tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  The nations also will know that I, the LORD, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore. (37:26-28).

This sets the scene for what is coming in chapters 40 to 48 and the detailed blueprint for a future temple or sanctuary in Israel’s New Covenant age.

The Millennial Temple and the Priestly Covenant

I take the liberty of speaking of the great temple in Ezekiel 40 and following (which is logically equated with the new sanctuary in chapter 37), as “the millennial temple.”

I referred to the “covenant of salt” with the Levites in Numbers 18:19.  That covenant had to do with the right of the priests to eat off the daily offerings.  This covenant was within the Levitical prescriptions of the Mosaic institutions, but was everlasting and so would be expected to transcend the curtailment of the Mosaic Covenant.  Hence, it is also seen under Israel’s New Covenant conditions. (There is another covenant of salt in 2 Chronicles 13:5 which relates to David and his lineage.  As such it is within the terms of the Davidic Covenant, if not synonymous with it).  As salt does not perish the idea as related to covenant is probably of indestructibility (G. Wenham) and remaining inviolate (A. Noordtzij), although it may invoke a curse against the violator (F.C. Fensham).  Unsurprisingly then, in Ezekiel’s future temple administration the priests are given the offerings as food, just as the covenant of salt would demand (Ezek. 44:29-31).

Just consider these ten lines of evidence (extracted from a previous post) for the actuality of a future ‘Millennial’ Temple: (more…)

The Forgotten Covenant (Pt.1)

Question: Which plainly stated Covenant in the Bible is most often neglected?

The answer is the covenant which the LORD made with Phinehas in the Book of Numbers.

The circumstances surrounding this covenant centers around the doctrine of Balaam as it was realized at Baal Peor (Cf. Num.31:16; Rev. 2:14).  Amid the idolatry and fornication a Simeonite by the name of Zimri openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp of Israel and took her into his tent to have sexual relations with her.  This happened even while Israelites were “weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.” (Num. 25:6).

Phinehas, who was Aaron’s grandson, witnessed this brazen act of “sexual liberation” and struck the man and the woman through with a javelin (25:8).  This act of priestly zeal stopped a plague which had broken out within the camp which had claimed the lives of twenty-four thousand people.  God’s response to this act was to initiate a “covenant of peace” with Phinehas and his descendents.  This is said to be “a covenant of an everlasting priesthood.” (25:13).

Some centuries later, the Psalmist, in recounting some of the most memorable moments of Israel’s history, referred to the incident at Baal of Peor (Psa. 106:28-31).  In verses 30 and 31 it says,

Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped.  And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore. 

This covenant of peace between God and the descendents of Phinehas comes after the mention of a “covenant of salt” given to the Levites “as an ordinance forever” (Num. 18:19).  The ordinance has to do with eating from the heave offerings.  The exact relationship between these two covenants is not easy to pin down, although they are certainly complementary.  I shall say a little more about this further on.

The descendents of Phinehas the son of Eleazar (Exod. 6:23) include Zadok, who is identified as “of the sons of Eleazar” in 1 Chronicles 24:3.  During the attempted usurpation of the throne by Adonijah (1 Ki. 1:7-8), Abiathar deserted David.  The aged king responded with having Abiathar removed from the priesthood, thus ensuring that Zadok’s line (the descendents of Phinehas), kept the High Priesthood (1 Ki. 2:26-27).  This becomes important when we get to Ezekiel.

The Witness of Jeremiah

Jeremiah wrote during some of the most turbulent times in Israel’s history.  Chapters 30 through to 34 (and even possibly 35) form a sort of thematic scholia on the covenants.  Among the main prophetic teaching in the section is the prediction about “the time of Jacob’s trouble” in 30:7 (cf. Mk. 13:19-20), a forecast about Israel serving “divid their king, whom I will raise up to them” (30:9), God’s overtures of covenant steadfastness towards Israel in 31:1-4, with the LORD even calling the families of Israel “O Virgin of Israel!” in 31:4 and 21.  Then there is New Covenant language in 31:11-12, which goes on to include the line,

I will satiate the soul of the priests with abundance… (31:14a).

This comes before the famous New Covenant promise of 31:31-37.  The next chapter is about Jeremiah purchasing “poor” real estate amid promises of future peace and prosperity (32:14-15, 36-42).  Next comes the great (and much neglected) thirty-third chapter.  First we get a description of the tearing down of the houses to serve as fortifications against the Babylonians (33:4-5), but it quickly turns in outlook to more prosperous times to come, including cleansing from sin (see 33:8).  Then comes the passage in 33:14-26 which cites or alludes to four covenants within a New Covenant setting (This highlights my contention that the New Covenant is needed for the [literal] fulfillment of these other covenants).  Coupled with the promise to fulfill the Davidic Covenant in 33:17-18 and 21-22 are promises that God will also preserve the Levites to minister to Him.  The latter passage reads,

Thus say the Yahweh: If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night [which I take as a reference to the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 8:22], so that there will not be day and night in their season, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant, so that he will not have a son to reign on his throne, or with the Levites, the priests, My ministers.  As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, nor the sand of the sea measured [a clear allusion to the Abrahamic Covenant], so will I multiply the descendents of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.

The type of ministry which the Levites are promised is described as offering “burnt offerings…to kindle grain offerings, and to sacrifice continually” (33:18).

While nobody disbelieves the Davidic Covenant in Jeremiah 33, the same cannot be said for the covenant with the Levites mentioned in the same breath.

More to come…

 

Has the Davidic Covenant Been Initially Realized in the Church?

This is a slightly revised version of what I wrote as a response to a question from progressive dispensationalist Darrell Bock about the inauguration of the Davidic Covenant at the first coming of Christ.  

Darrell Bock: How can a dispensationalist see the current application of the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant (see the Last Supper in procuring forgiveness we now experience) and not see the Davidic covenant being initially realized by what Jesus has done, as Luke 3:16 predicts and Acts 2:14-36 proclaims?

My Answer

With regard to the Abrahamic and the New Covenants, I think the NT is very clear about their application to the Church.  Galatians 3 and Romans 4 deal with the application of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Church; at least the parts of it which are appropriate.  1 Corinthinans 11:23-26, 2 Corinthians 3:6 (cf. also 2 Cor. 6:14-18) pin the New Covenant securely on the Church.  These explicit statements settle the question for the Abrahamic and New Covenants.  But the Davidic Covenant is quite another issue.  Here one is dealing with implications and inferences which can bend in different directions.

Firstly, in Luke 3 Jesus has not yet been baptized and presented as Christ. The two phases of Christ’s work are bundled together in the passage in typical OT fashion. The baptism with the Holy Spirit I take to be the New Covenant promise of the Spirit’s vitalizing coming to Israel with the kingdom. There is no Church yet in view as far as the context of the revelation goes. Jesus is rejected by Israel, but He has come, and that fact cannot be reversed. At His coming Jesus introduced the New Covenant (Lk. 22:14-20), yet in a context in which the kingdom is now driven into the future (Lk. 22:29-30).

Thus I see the first phase of John’s prediction; the baptism with the Spirit (Lk. 3:16) initialized in the New Covenant made with those who would be foundational to the Church (Cf. Eph. 2:20). This explains the use of Spirit language in Acts 2 where these ‘foundations’ (minus Paul) were present.

Yet the full realization of that blessing as it pertains to Israel (per John’s audience and context in Lk.3), awaits the Second Advent. At that time Jesus comes in judgment (the “fire” and “winnowing” language in Lk. 3:16 & 17), after which He inaugurates the New Covenant with Israel along the OT pattern.

That there is some sort of “already” aspect here is true, yet I would want to lay stress upon the object of that “already” – viz. the “new man”, the Church, not Israel. Here is where there is some chronological transition between “the Church age” and the “times of restoration” which Peter was holding out to Israel in Acts 3 (and in Acts 2 for that matter). I take Acts 3:19-21 as referring to the Davidic New Covenant Kingdom.

In the Acts passage (Acts 2:14-36) we face several issues, none of which I will pretend to give the final answer to. I will try to move through the passage briefly to bring out the logic of my position.

In Acts 2:14-21 there is the debated use of the Joel prophecy preceded by the “this is that” formula (v.15). The first thing to say is that whichever interpretation is brought to the use of Joel 2, nobody believes these extraordinary happenings (of vv.19-20) actually occurred at Pentecost (e.g. R. N. Longenecker). Further, the Holy Spirit was not poured out on “all flesh” (v.17). So we have to ask, what was Peter doing?

My answer is that Peter was still thinking within the basic framework of OT eschatology and Jewish expectation which we find in the Gospels and in Acts 1:6. His immediate concern in this setting was to point to the Cross and (especially) the Resurrection as the eschatological breaking- in of God into Israel’s history. The “this” of v.15 is answered by the references to the resurrection throughout Peter’s speech (vv. 24, 30, 31, 32). This is what proved that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (v.36).

The reference to the outpouring of the Spirit (vv.17-18, 33) is intended to show the Jews that the New Covenant has been inaugurated, and that there is still opportunity for them to repent and believe (in this sense the baptism of v.38 may be seen as a partial fulfillment of John’s baptism).

Of course, the nation did not believe this message. They rejected it again in chapter 3:12-26, where the expectation of the arrival of the Davidic Kingdom was still patently in the air (see esp. 3:19-21). In other words, these were good faith offers of the kingdom, referred to by Peter as “the times of refreshing” (3:19) and “times of restoration” (3:21), which were rejected by all but a relative few.

Viewed this way the one work of Christ in its two phases of Cross and Crown are still held together in Acts 2 and 3. If so, the “signs and wonders” of Acts 2:19 are in a real sense, still at the doorstep pending national acceptance of Jesus as Messiah; not only crucified Messiah, but Risen Messiah – bringing the two phases into close proximity.

Allowing this line of reasoning helps us with the Joel prophecy. How so? Because the “signs” and “wonders” which Jesus did prior to Calvary (v.22), portend the “signs” and “wonders” of v.19 which speak to the Second Coming. Here I again appeal to Acts 3:19-21 for help.

If I haven’t lost everyone, let me proceed to Acts 2:25-35 and try to fit it into my picture.

Jewish national acceptance in the fact of the Risen Christ ought to have come because the OT predicted it (vv. 25-28 cf. Psa. 16). For present purposes I shall forego verses 25-29 and pick it up in Acts 2:30. Progressive Dispensationalists like Dr. Bock appeal to this verse because it speaks about the “raising up” and the investiture of Christ upon the Davidic throne. If this was what actually happened in Acts 2 I would have to concede the point. But as I see it this “raising up” is a reference to Christ’s resurrection not installation (see esp. v.32). As I have said, the resurrection was uppermost in Peter’s mind in these verses. The next verse proves this by saying that David “spoke concerning (peri) the resurrection.” (2:31). In verse 33 the emphasis is now on the ascension “to the right hand of God”, which I do not take as a reference to the throne of David, for otherwise Acts 3:19-21 makes no sense to me (cf. also Rev. 3:21).

Acts 2:33 appeals to the coming of the Spirit, yet actual fulfillment of the Joel New Covenant prophecy awaits the condition of national repentance, which was not forthcoming. The quotation of Psalm 110:1 refers then to the present continuing session of Christ in heaven awaiting the fulfillment of the Davidic New Covenant kingdom announced, first by John the Baptist, and then by Peter.

I hope this rather convoluted explanation will be seen as viable. Whichever position is taken on Acts 2 and 3, it is easy to get ones theological wires crossed. This is my attempt to sort them out.

Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (2)

PART ONE

This completes the thoughts offered previously.

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely contented to append their eschatology on to the end of another system – most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

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 so often to say, Reformed theology, it must act deferentially towards Reformed 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. This is because in claiming its right to question Reformed assumptions in any theological corpora save in regard to the Last Things (and perhaps the Church), Dispensational theology would be asserting its right to formulate ALL its own doctrines independently of other theologies. It would grow to dislike its assumed role as a beneficial parasite, cleaning up areas of another theological system, and would wish to be “Dispensational” in every area! Ergo, even if its formulations of all the theological corpora were closely aligned with Reformed theology here and there, they would be its own formulations! This is precisely what I am pleading for!

Every knowledgeable person knows that Systematic Theology ought to be an outgrowth of Biblical Theology. The fact that most Dispensationalists are content to tack their views on to an already existing whole system doesn’t speak well for their Biblical Theology. For if Dispensational Biblical Theology cannot produce the impetus to formulate a distinctive and whole Systematic Theology of its own perhaps the trouble goes deeper? I believe it does, and that reformulating Dispensational Theology from a Biblical Covenantalist viewpoint gives you all the main points of traditional Dispensational Eschatology and Ecclesiology, but it also gives you enough material from which to formulate clear and distinctive versions of Prolegomena, Theology Proper, Anthropology, Christology, Pneumatology as well. As I have said elsewhere, I do not think that tracking the “dispensations” produces enough usable doctrine to work up a solid systematics or worldview. If one is going to follow the standard definitions of Dispensationalism as a “system of theology” there will be slim pickings when it comes to forging a Dispensational Systematic Theology. The irony should not be lost on us.

In the last part of my series Christ at the Center I tried to sum up the strong Christological emphasis of Biblical Covenantalism with some of the solid by-product from which robust doctrines in Systematic Theology could be constructed. Although I have recorded over two hundred lectures in Systematic Theology along conventional lines, I think if I were to try to write a volume I would use the triad God, Man and the World. Beginning with the title “God Has Spoken” and introducing epistemological and ontological concerns, which in turn require ethical responses, I would ask questions about the knowability of God and (following Calvin) the knowability of ourselves in Creation. This introduces the doctrine of Revelation. Here I would want to press the joint reliance of the Sufficiency and Clarity of Scripture for the job ahead. That would open the door to hermeneutical questions.

Even so, dealing with Christ I would take up the same rubric: God, Man and the World. In this way I would attempt to discuss the pre-existence of Christ along with the incarnation and cross and resurrection. I would want to ‘lace’ the whole Systematics with Eschatological (and teleological) concerns, being careful to converge these themes in the section called “Eschatology” at the end of the work. This way one would hopefully see the inevitability of the convergence rather than now turning to “The Last Things.” The covenants of Scripture, dealing as they do with the same triad of God, Man and the World, could help accomplish this.

5. Worldview

Contrary to some views, Systematic Theology sets out the Bible’s teaching on God, Man and the World. It does not go cap-in-hand to worldly science and unbelieving philosophy because it knows that the Biblical Worldview is the only workable worldview. (more…)

Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (1)

What is a Dispensationalist Theology?

For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students.  The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary.  Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves.  As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems.  And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of Biblical and Systematic Theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by ‘dispensations’ is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT).  The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible.  They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are.  What do the concepts “innocence”, “conscience”, “government”, “promise”, “law”, “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

Why, for example, would “government” be a more emphasized stewardship than “conscience” after Noah?  Wasn’t Israel’s theocracy far more of a government than anything found in Genesis 9?  The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise.  But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham?  Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, ‘the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise.’ – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421.

Realizing that Sailhamer is referring to the promise-fulfillment motif, but this is certainly relevant to the ‘Dispensation of Promise’ which assumes such a motif.  If Sailhamer has a point it would seem wise to replace the imprecise term “promise” with “covenant.”  But once we do that we will be required to drop the theme of “dispensation” too, so as to give the Abrahamic covenant the developmental scope it clearly must have.

In addition to this change of emphasis from what seems nebulous and inexact to what is plainly revealed and stressed in the biblical text there needs to be a rethink about what dispensationalists mean when they refer to their theology as a “system.”  It needs to be made clear that if dispensationalists continue to accept a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of theology, or, (which is much the same thing), if they are content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of “dispensational premillennialism,” then they have admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete “system.”  Restricting, as many dispensationalists tend to do, DT to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a systemof theology.”  Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the Church or the Last Things is being discussed does not qualify – neither does it deserve to be identified – as a system of theology.  And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!

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.”

You will see that I have booted out the dispensations and thrown the spotlight upon the covenants in the Bible.  That may disturb some people, but the profit of this move is immense.

2. Hermeneutics

Dispensationalism has often been associated with grammatico-historical interpretation.  Quite apart from whether many older dispensationalists actually contented themselves with approach, the fact is that the very term “grammatico-historical” no longer enjoys a static meaning.  So it becomes necessary to spell out what kind of hermeneutics is envisioned by that terminology.

In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words.  God is the Author of language and when He speaks in the early chapters of the Bible there is a correlation between His thought, the words selected to convey His thought, and the product brought into existence by His word.  This flow from God’s word to God’s action is so obvious in the Bible that it scarcely needs proof.  Let the reader study the Bible Story with this in mind and he will see it everywhere.  Thus we have an important hermeneutical marker from inside the Bible.

As we have seen God also makes covenants.  We may easily locate Divine covenants, for instance, in Genesis 9, 15-22, Exodus 19-24; Numbers 25; Deuteronomy 29-30; 1 Chronicles 17; Psalms 89; 105; 106; Jeremiah 31, 33, Luke 22 and many other places.  God does not need to bind Himself by an oath, so why does He do it?  One reason, I want to suggest, is because of our propensity judge God’s word by our own capacity for belief.  Like Eve sizing up the forbidden tree, we want to come to our own conclusions independently.  It is our default position, and the covenants set up the boundaries within which our interpretations ought to operate.  The biblical covenants might well be seen as ‘a reinforcement of Divine speech.’  If this be the case then God’s covenants serve to boldly underline the God’s word/ God’s action motif we saw earlier.

Hermeneutically speaking then, we have two powerful interpretive ideas coming at us from the pages of the Bible itself.  And this is given further emphasis in such places as 2 Kings 1 and John 21 where goes out of His way to explain that He means what He says.

This hermeneutics take us a surprisingly long way when applied to all of Scripture.

3. Biblical Theology

If there is one thing that most biblical theologies fail to take seriously it is the doctrines of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture.  These concepts are inseparable.  If Scripture isn’t clear (except, of course, to those highly skilled practitioners in the genres of ANE and typology), then for sure it isn’t sufficient.  When one adds to this the miraculous coincidences wherein each type and genre corroborates the particular theological bent of the writer it all begins to look a little suspicious and question-begging.  Understandably, dispensationalists prefer to stake out their hermeneutical tents on firmer ground.  But the myopia induced by paying too much attention to dispensations prevents them from setting out a sound alternative Biblical Theology.  Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them.  (more…)

(Repost) What is a “Dispensationalist” Theology?

The pieces I was working on are not quite finished so I thought I would give this one another spin. 

A Dispensationalist is a Christian who sees in Scripture certain clear divisions in the progress of revelation in which God governs history.  At its best this is done on the basis of the covenants revealed in the Bible.A “dispensation” (Gk. “oikonomia”) is an administration or economy, wherein, within a certain period of time (known to God, but afterwards revealed to man), God pursues His plan through the lives of men.The term oikonomia is made up of two other words: “oikos”, meaning house, and “nemo”, meaning to administer, manage, or dispense.Literally, an “oikonomia” is a house-management or household administration.In its theological usage it is well suited to describe what we might call a “Divine economy.”This is much the way the word is used in Ephesians 1:10; 3:2, 9; Colossians 1:25-26, and 1 Timothy 1:4.These passages also show that Paul held to the reality of certain dispensations in the broad sense given above.

Not unsurprisingly therefore, even Covenant theologians often speak of dispensations. (more…)

Science and Theological Method: Some Thoughts (Repost)

As I’m too busy to finish anything I thought I’d re-post this article from 2008:

Scientism, the belief that science provides the epistemological framework upon which reality can be known, enjoyed its heyday in the first part of the Twentieth Century,[1] until roughly the early 1960’s when it started to come under increasing scrutiny.During that time it was widely believed within academia that “science was the answer.”The very word “scientist” was enough to make people expect “the facts.”Science in this atmosphere did not need to give theology a second thought. Science, indeed, especially since Darwin, had gleefully pushed theology and religion off the intellectual map.Together with some creative rewriting of history (e.g. the Galileo affair[2]; the Scopes trial) the scientist (a name coined only in 1834[3]), had become mankind’s savior.

Certainly, scientism has not gone away.It is still promoted in numerous textbooks and TV specials as the voice of calm reason.It still has its superstars: the late Carl Sagan, who famously began his book (and TV series) Cosmos with the words, “The cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever shall be.”[4]The late Stephen Jay Gould, whose NOMA attempted forever to separate the realm of facts (occupied, of course, by science), and the realm of private spiritual metaphor (occupied by theology and religion).[5]And, of course, Richard Dawkins, author of The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, who calls religion “a virus of the mind,”[6]and the source of such one-liners as, “Nothing in the mind exists except as neural activity.”[7]Their creed is summed up accurately by Phillip Johnson:

Science may not be able to answer all questions, at least for the time being, but some of the most visionary scientists already speak of a “theory of everything,” or “final theory,” which will in principle explain all of nature and hence all of reality.Because (in this view) science is by far the most reliable source of knowledge, whatever is in principle closed to scientific investigation is effectively unreal.[8] (more…)

Link: “3 Premillennialists Duke It Out”

As previously noted, I was asked to represent Traditional Dispensationalism for a set of interviews conducted by Lindsay Kennedy.  Two far more noteworthy contributors; Darrell Bock (Progressive Dispensationalism), and James Hamilton (Historic Premillennialism), were also interviewed.

After the interviews were completed, each man was given the opportunity to ask one of the others a question.  Darrell Bock asked me about Acts 2 and the Throne of David.  I drew Jim Hamilton and promptly snuck-in two questions.  The second was deliberately “open” to see what Hamilton would do with it.  I intend to say a bit more on his answers, both to myself and to Bock, in another post.

Anyway, Brother Kennedy has posted the Q & A under the enticing title “3 Premillennialists Duke It Out.”  Click on the link, have a gander and see what you make of it.  I should say that I was the most verbose.  The only excuse I can come up with is that Dr Bock asked me a question particularly germane to the Trad. Disp/PD debate which I felt required the sort of response I gave.

Enjoy.