Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tackling Dispensationalism, Part II

From the Bible Institutes that grew out of Fundamentalism of the early 20th Century to the “Left Behind” series, dispensationalism has become the dominant form of end-times belief among Western Christians. It seems that if Christians know anything about eschatology, it is some form of dispensationalism. Many people that I’ve met don’t even know that there are other options.

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.

18 comments:

Brad Harback said...

I'm with you, Terry!
You know, I was never comfortable with the whole "I Wish We'd All Been Ready-Thief-in-the-Night-Distant-Thunder-Hal-Lindsay-Says-the-Locusts-Are-Actually-Helicopters" phenomenon of my chilhood and teen years. The only prophesy book I ever owned was "99 Reasons Why No One Knows When the Lord will Return."
I started finding a home after reading Eugene Peterson's "A Reverse Thunder." Shortly after that, Christianity Today had an issue on variations of Preterism, and more and more I've found a more comfortable fit with the thought that the book of Revelation was not a complete mystery to the people to whom it was actually written. Nero Caesar fits the whole 666 thing better than Napolean or Gorbachev or the flavor of the month today.
I'm interested in the discussion, because I haven't been too hard and fast about any of this other than to run screaming from the room when "Left Behind" comes up in a conversation.
I may say more later. I'm enjoying your blog, by the way. Reminds me of some great conversations we had on our Northwest days.
Brad

BugBlaster said...

Oh man, I must now shun you. Have a nice life, and I sincerely hope that you someday repent, so that we may rule together in the literal 1000 year reign.




Nah, you're still okay. I'll read this some more when not on the company clock, and when the yardwork is done and when the garage is cleaned. (been reading kerux and my conscience is pricked)

stauf46 said...

Hey, Brad! Thanks for the comment. I didn't know that you were lurking out there.

Terry

stauf46 said...

Thanks, Buggy

I'll eagerly await your comments when (if?) I really get going here.

Lumpy

Ian said...

Hey Terry,
Looks like it'll be a great series of posts, I'm looking forward to reading them.
As a side note, Iain Murray no longer is postmillennial. I got that from Erroll Hulse, who is a postmill and a close friend of Murray.
Riddlebarger's book on Amillennialism is one of the best I've read, very balanced.
Also, you spelled Scofield wrong in the second paragraph! Sorry! I'm an editing idiot!!!

Garry Weaver said...

OUCH! I feel like I've been....tackled!

Anonymous said...

Did I tell you that "Thomas Ice (Bloopers)" and "Pretrib Rapture Diehards" which are both in Googleland will leave you laughing and crying, in that order?

BugBlaster said...

I think that seven star hand has nailed it.

stauf46 said...

Looks like certain words attract, uh, attention. I thought I was generating an in-house debate, but our friend SSH is on a different planet.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Great post, Terry. I share your concerns, both with Dispensationalism and classical Covenantalism.
I would add that in many cases, the changes made in Progressive Dispensationalism tend to bring it more in line with Covenantalism in certain places, so even though it is somewhat better than Dispensationalism, it really isn't a good option, in my mind.

BugBlaster said...

Seriously though Terry, if you don't have a "no wingnuts allowed rule", you might want to consider a "no blasphemers allowed rule".

On this basis you would be completely justified in deleting would-be Messiah ssh's comment and the links to blasphemy contained therein.

stauf46 said...

I agree, Bugblaster, thanks for the advice. Is there a way to delete a comment without hiding or trashing them all?

BugBlaster said...

It seems that you found it!

If you don't want moderation, you don't actually have to have it enabled in order to delete comments.

As long as you logged onto blogger first, you will see the little garbage can icon.

On my own blog, I am poised of the garbage can with the tension of a tightly coiled spring whenever Jeremy comments, hoping to delete him, but alas, his comments generally seem to make much sense, so I have yet to act on the impulse.

BugBlaster said...

And of course with moderation enabled, people will comment multiple times, thinking something is wrong when it doesn't show up right away.

BugBlaster said...

And of course with moderation enabled, people will comment multiple times, thinking something is wrong when it doesn't show up right away.

BugBlaster said...

And of course with moderation enabled, people will comment multiple times, thinking something is wrong when it doesn't show up right away.

BugBlaster said...

And of course with moderation enabled, people will comment multiple times, thinking something is wrong when it doesn't show up right away.

stauf46 said...

Thanks, Buggy

I figured it out, but my little garbage cans only show up immediatly after I comment.

I let your little joke through because I like seeing such a high comment number - and I thought it was pretty funny!

Moderation is off now.

Terry