There are varieties of dispensationalism, from C.I. Schofield (1843-1921) and his study Bible to the Progressive Dispensationalism of Dallas Theological Seminary. I’m not going to try to sort out all the various combinations and variations – go Google if you’re curious. I’m going to pick on the popular level, old-fashioned dispensationalism.
Up front, let me say that I am an amillennialist …. Mostly. I do have some reservations with classic amillenialism, as I do with all systems, but I would gladly identify with the descriptions of amillenialism presented by Anthony Hoekema and Kim Riddlebarger. I do, however, have a greater understanding of and appreciation for a Reformed postmillennialism, particularly since reading Puritan Hope by Iain Murray and an article in Modern Reformation on Old Princeton eschatology (the article does not appear to be available any longer).
Part of the reason that I am a Fellowship Baptist is that this association is one of the few that officially has room for me. If you do a search of the major denominations in Canada, you will find that the affirmations of faith of almost all evangelical groups have at least a premillennial clause if not overt dispensationalism in their statements. I’ve had leaders from the Evangelical Free, for example, say, “Oh, that’s okay, you don’t have to agree with all of our eschatology,” but I’m not comfortable with fudging my agreement with affirmations of faith. AWANA is another example. I have to register a caveat if I’m going to sign their statement.
Why is dispensationalism so popular? If I may engage in a bit of psychological speculation, I believe the motivation for the development of the dispensational scheme is the centuries-old tension between the sense of imminence of the return of Christ in the New Testament and the time constraints for particular prophecies to be fulfilled. With a two-stage return of Christ – the rapture and the Second Coming – these tensions are relieved for some. This tension of “any time, but not until” is real, and it has been a confusing aspect of end-times teaching for Christians over the years, and a source of scorn among non-believers (which we should expect, anyway).
I believe that a better way to relieve this tension is to understand some of the prophecies as being fulfilled earlier rather than later. That is, the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD. What is the “generation” of Matthew 24, for example? This view that much of NT prophecy was fulfilled in the past is called preterism. This position does not convince me enough for me to adopt the label, but there are some good insights here (in partial preterism, that is, not the full version – that is another story altogether). Lest you think this is a way-out there, fringe view, see R.C. Sproul’s The Last Days According to Jesus. Also take a look at older commentaries on passages such as Daniel 9 or Matthew 24. Scholars before 1948, and particularly before the 19th Century, were not afraid to speak of the prophetic significance of 70 AD.
I realize that I’ve bit off a lot here. I might be chewing for some time, off and on. For my impatient readers, here is a list of things that bother me about dispensationalism:
- An apparent bias towards using the Old Testament to interpret the New, in spite of what the Apostles have to say about shadow vs. reality (Colossians 2:17, let alone the book of Hebrews).
- A selectively literal hermeneutic. I’m sure dispensationalists are very tired of this charge, but there it is.
- Too sharp of a discontinuity between Israel and the Church (however, I believe that classical Reformed Covenantal theology over emphasizes the continuity – I’m a hard guy to please).
- The idea that the church age is a parenthesis in God’s scheme of history. I am aware that my dispensational friends with a high view of sovereignty would say that God planned all this, but it still sounds pretty “plan B” to me.
- The idea of a new temple with memorial sacrifices is not consistent with the finality of Christ’s sacrifice and the “obsolete” nature of the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8). It’s pretty gross too. I think God likes animals.
- How can people become Christians in the tribulation if the church (and the Holy Spirit, by some accounts) is withdrawn into Heaven at that time?
- Political blinders regarding Israel. Not so much the whole Israeli / Palestinian thing (I root for the modern democracy, mostly), but the fact that Israel is a secular state, not “almost Christian.”
- A tendency by dispensational teachers to focus so much on Israel and the millennium that present and future (eternal) aspects of prophecy are overlooked, particularly as they apply to the church.
I could go on. Have I raised any blood pressure yet? I will explain myself on these points in future posts.