Whither Dispensationalism?

Came across an interesting video that I posted below. He takes a little while to start rolling, but he’s got some decent arguments that are worth your thoughts. I don’t agree with all of his theology, but his critiques should cause pause for those of us that have grown up soaking in dispensationalism. The thing that’s always gotten me about a pre-trib rapture is the misuse and weaving of Scripture before a coherent theology emerges. For instance, how many times have you heard this passage (Matthew 24:40-42) used as an argument for pre-trib rapture?

Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

But all the preceding context is forgotten: these individuals aren’t being taken in a rapture, they’re being taken in judgment!

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Those who are being judged are the ones taken, not the ones left behind.

Watch this video, and at least think about it. Prophecy and the end times are not so cookie cutter clear… as most dispensationalists would have you believe.

I welcome comments!

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  1. #1 by Dave James on September 4, 2009 - 11:19 am

    No responsible dispensational theologian I know of believes that this passage in Matthew is talking about the Rapture. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some out there – but I have not heard anyone say this is the Rapture for at least 20 years.

    Dave James
    The Alliance for Biblical Integrity

  2. #2 by vizaviz on September 4, 2009 - 11:44 am

    Agreed. No “responsible” dispensationalist argues from this passage. Still, it was just last week that I heard someone use argumentation from this passage for pre-trib rapture.

    So, I’m not really railing against dispensationalism; I just would like to see more Scripture and less Left Behind. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. #3 by Chris Ames on September 4, 2009 - 11:59 pm

    Well, that got me upset. I’m trying not to lash out here.

    How does this fellow contribute to understanding when he has chosen not to understand what he’s railing against? If he perhaps were to study the history of the position and its theological implications a bit more closely and respectfully, he wouldn’t say the things he says. Poor argumentation. Also, he’s treading on thin ice in his opening volley: what grounds does he have for casting aspersions on the salvation of dispensationalists? Is the identity of Israel and the Church a salvation essential in his mind? That’s kind of a serious problem if he really has to wonder aloud in front of students if dispensationalists are true believers. Until dispensationalism is well articulated and systematized by responsible theologians, it probably deserves to be picked on, but come on, questioning their salvation? How many times does he have to say “I hope J. Vernon McGee is with the Lord” before we stop believing that he actually hopes anything of the sort?

    I understand that dispensationalism is the red-headed stepchild of the theological world today: an easy target. It has been beat up by smart, popular guys; rendered into pop culture caricatures (Left Behind books, movies, action figures, cutlery, breakfast cereal, dog toys, etc.); oversimplified at the academic level; and often clumsily championed by folks who couldn’t assemble IKEA furniture, much less systematize a doctrinal position. It deserves to be picked on for these reasons, I suppose. I think that it is not honest, however, to characterize a belief system by the morons on its fringe when better spokespersons could be cited and an honest debate could be had. Pastor Tim could do better if he wanted to.

    I still love ya, Viz! I felt like spouting more, but I’d hate to have to hit the sawdust trail on Sunday morning! 😉

    Chris

  4. #4 by Dave James on September 5, 2009 - 12:29 am

    I would take serious exception to the characterization that dispensationalism hasn’t been well articulated and systematized by responsible theologians. There are a significant number of incredibly capable theologians who have done copious amounts of work on this – like Walvoord, Pentecost, Toussaint, Whitcomb, Ryrie, Showers, Kent, MacArthur – and the list just goes on an on. Anyone who has not engaged their writings can only be relying upon the work of others – who apparently also only take hollow cheap shots. These men have hardly done oversimplified word at the academic level – and to say they are championed by folks who couldn’t assemble IKEA furniture says far more about the author of that line than it does about those he ridicules. There is no place in a responsible discussion of God’s Word for ridicule, cycnicism, sarcasm or foolish caricatures.

    If we’re going to claim to be followers of Christ – and his disciples – let’s allow not only the world to know it – but let it be obvious to one another by our love for one another – as characterized by at least our words. We can disagree and challenge with at least a bit of humility at times.

    (By the way, I was a red-headed stepchild – and now I am a committed dispensational theologian. I wonder what this says about me?)

    Dave James
    The Alliance for Biblical Integrity

  5. #5 by Chris Ames on September 6, 2009 - 11:01 pm

    Dave,

    Perhaps my post was not clear, or maybe my harsh tone kept me from communicating well. I was not writing against you or any of the men you list, or against contemporary dispensationalists who are holed up in institutions and kept too busy to write. You have to admit that your list consists of an “old guard,” most of whom are past their best years and many of whom are passed on to their reward. What muscular dispensationalist thinkers could you name who have taken the baton from these men (and others) and continued, not into Prog Disp like Bock and Saucy, but the more traditional dispensational position? I think of Rodney Decker, Doug Bookman, Roy Beacham, Kevin Bauder (there are probably a half dozen other guys whom I have never heard of) who are sharp, qualified, and capable writers. They aren’t given a seat at the Sys 4 discussion table. You have to admit that the Reformed guys have cornered the market (yep, that’s the word I meant to use) right now.

    I guess it makes me cynical because Pastor Tim (and guys like him) can engage in very similar tactics to those of KJV Only dudes and he receives a hearing because he’s swatting at a caricature of a theological that AT MOST LEVELS is poorly articulated and weakly supported. In the greater theological discussion (read: internet, journals, etc.) it’s a non-player.

    As far as “challenging and disagreeing with a bit of humility at times,” do you really mean to give me an out at other times?

    BTW, I have red hair. So does the author of this blog, I sat by him in classes in undergrad. “Red-headed step child” is a euphemism meaning “the opposite of fair haired boy,” or “lightnin’ rod for reproach, deserved or no.” What does it mean about you? The fortune cookie I had after lunch today said something like “you will have lots of friends and prosperity, but only if you do not have red hair” so we’re both in trouble I guess.

    chris ames (chriswhodontsing@gmail.com)

  6. #6 by Dave James on September 6, 2009 - 11:22 pm

    Well, one of my great concerns is this lack of good younger dispensationalists that you cite. In fact, it is this situation that is actually one of the catalysts for starting our new ministry, “The Alliance for Biblical Integrity.” It seems that a lot of new reformed guys are getting a lot of experience by taking on the dispensaitionalists without much in the way of well-argued, well-articulated rebuttals. I am in the process of both identifying and training such men – because we are losing a whole generation. Actually, only one in my list has actuallyed died – and I do know them all – but time is running short. And since I believe that the biblical hermeneutic that yields a pre-trib dispensational theology is critical and is being lost to a lot of allegorical interpretation that has no exegetical “referee” – I don’t know who is going to meet this challenge.
    Dave James
    The Alliance for Biblical Integrity
    http://www.biblicalintegrity.org

  7. #7 by vizaviz on September 26, 2009 - 10:59 am

    Dave, I was taught dispensationalism by the same teacher who taught Chris in systematic theology at our college. In the class, we were taught that the “literal hermaneutic” meant that we were to take every verse at face value unless explicitly told otherwise by the text. So when the NT talks about OT promises, and doesn’t take them as “literally” as dispensationalism does, how do you respond?

    Some texts to consider are Acts 15:16-17, Hebrews 10:16-18, and Acts 2:17-21. I would simply argue that the way the NT treats the OT is much more in line with a covenantal reading than a dispensational reading. Can you cite other verses to show a literal fulfillment of promises given to Israel that exclude the Gentiles (as they all seem to throughout the OT)?

    P.S. Dave, sorry about your comment not being posted until 3 weeks after you put it up. For some reason it was put into my spam comment folder.

    P.P.S. Pretty funny that we’re all red-heads.

  8. #8 by Dave James on September 26, 2009 - 8:47 pm

    Well, the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants have land components that are quite difficult to spiritualize / allegorize without doing serious damage to the text.

    Ephesians makes it clear that the Church is a *new man” – something that had not existed prior to Christ’s death. This seems to clearly preclude the Church going back to Abraham. Therefore it is very difficult to say the land promises weren’t specifically to national Israel – and that they must be fulfilled. No Jew would ever have understood them in any other way – either the writer, prophet or recipients.

    Furthermore, the Davidic Covenant cannot be abrogated by disobedience of Israel, because a provision for failure is built into the covenant – that promises it won’t be abrogated even in the case of disobedience.

    Psalm 89:28-37 seems to very strongly argue for an exclusively Jewish fulfillment that cannot be abrogated. Even if we are the spiritual seed of Abraham, we are not the spiritual seed of David.

    And Jeremiah 33:25-26 brings in the descendants of Jacob – and also argues against abrogation of literal fulfillment in the strongest possible terms. It also speaks of failure – which brings about the Babylonian captivity – and yet national Israel will return to experience the fulfillment of the promises.

    Concerning the NT usage of the OT – obviously that is a big question – for any theological system. One thing that does need to be considered, however, is that the Holy Spirit is responsible for the interpretation of those texts. And without contextual reasons for taking the text other than literally, then there is no textual “referee” to determine the correct interpretation – forcing us to handle them this way unless the Lord has told us otherwise.

    Have you ever / would you ever reconsider dispensationalism? Just asking…. 🙂

    By the way, we were discussing the issue of younger dispensationalists: I was just in a room full of excellent younger dispensational theologians at Baptist Bible College in Clarks Summit at the 2nd annual Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics. It was the first time I had heard Rod Deckker – and he was excellent – a brilliant NT scholar. (I just heard that he is publishing a Greek textbook that may give Mounce a run for his money.)

  9. #9 by vizaviz on September 28, 2009 - 2:29 pm

    To a certain degree we’re dealing with this a priori: my assumption is an NT priority as a “referee”, and yours is an OT priority. I just take the way the Holy Spirit interprets the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament to be the standard by which we should interpret the OT. It’s a very standard Covenantal hermeneutic in that way.

    For instance, you may go to the OT and read it in a “literal, grammatical” way and let that be your “referee”, but that’s not the same as saying that the Holy Spirit is the “referee.” It may be common sense (i.e. appearance = actuality), but the difference between appearance and actuality is clear in the way the Holy Spirit interpreted the OT text through the inspired writings of the NT. I’ll look at a couple passages here after I respond to your one NT reference.

    Response to Ephesians 2:15

    First, to address the one NT verse you bring up (Eph 2;15), it does not say that the “new man” was created apart from/alongside of the “old man”; instead, the text says that He created a new man from the two (Gentiles and Jews). This one new thing, the Church, is indeed new, and it has been erected in place of the old division. For here there is neither Jew nor Greek, etc. The ESV says “in place of” which may be a jump in the translation of ‘eis’, but it well reflects the rest of the NT in what it’s trying to say.

    The rest of that context (in Ephesians 2) gives some interesting tidbits: the Ephesian readers were previously “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” But in Christ they have been brought near to both the promises of covenant and the commonwealth of Israel in some sense. Since the plural is used, I assume that more than one covenant promise is in view, but they remain unnamed. So, as an argument from silence, I cannot arbitrarily say that the covenant of promise refers to anything other than that which pertained to Israel.

    Implications of Covenant Promise of Land to the Church

    Second, in light of this, where does the promise of the land fall? Are there any NT texts that indicate that non-Israelites can become part of that covenant promise? There are several NT texts that indicate that 1) the promise to Abraham’s offspring meant more than a portion of land in the Middle East, and 2) that the offspring that would inherit the land encompass more than the physical descendants of Abraham.

    In Romans 4:13, Paul says that “Abraham and his offspring” were to inherit the ‘kosmos’; he then goes on to make the point that the offspring are not those who follow the law, but those who are of the same faith as Abraham. Those who inherit the ‘kosmos’ are those who hold to the faith of God in Christ.

    ‘Kosmos’ is not used in the LXX to refer to any of the promises given to Abraham, nor the promises given to the Israelites. Also, in the NT it’s not used to denote a portion of land. As such, I conclude that the use of ‘kosmos’ here applies to the land that is promised Abraham and his offspring. The use of ‘kosmos’ implies that Abraham’s offspring were to inherit the whole world, as the modern translations take it. The ‘offspring’ in question are those who are in Abraham according to their similar faith. This includes believing Jews and Gentiles, as Paul makes clear in 5:16-17.

    Next, in Ephesians 6:2, Paul quotes the fifth commandment and includes the promise that is attached with it… “that you may live long in the land.” Since most scholars believe that Paul is talking to a primarily Gentile audience here (as previously seen in the examination of Ephesians 2), it’s odd that Paul would use this promise when speaking to Gentiles. Not as much can be inferred, but it does present an interesting question for those that say the covenant promise of land is only for Israel. Of course, Paul may be using the OT quotation differently, but the plainest (most literal?) reading of the text indicates that Paul thought the benefits of the promise were for his Gentile readers.

    Then, in Hebrews 11-12, the author of Hebrews makes an interesting distinction between an earthly home that the patriarchs left and the heavenly home that was intended for them. Due to the nature of Hebrews, it’s usually assumed that the audience is mostly Jewish (as I’m sure you’re well aware). The supposed future physical restoration of Israel to the land doesn’t find a place here, though. Instead, a heavenly Jerusalem is in sight, as is clear in Hebrews 12.

    Why, in a treatment of eschatological significance to a NT Jewish audience, would the promise of the land not be expanded upon? Instead, they’re told to look to what seems to amount to a New Jerusalem (ala Revelation 21-22).

    Thus, there are several points in the NT where the promise of “land” to Abraham is said to include or have implications for Gentile believers. This does not mean that a future restoration of Israel (ala Romans 11) is not possible, or that it will not include land… it simply means that the Gentiles are alongside their Jewish brothers-in-Christ in the inheritance of it. As Paul takes it in Romans 4, I believe that Abraham’s offspring are all those who have faith in God throughout the ages, and that they will all inherit the kosmos, as part of the promise to Abraham.

    Conclusion

    The point of all this is that the “referee” is indeed the Holy Spirit, and that does not mean a “literal, grammatical” hermaneutic, or making sure that we understand everything the way the original audience did, but instead that we let the Holy Spirit show us how the OT was interpreted through the NT.

    If there were more verses in the NT that took the Jewish Rabbinic perspective on the OT, or the “literal, grammatical” reading of the text, this would be more of a contest in my mind. As it stands, there’s not any NT references that I can think of that refer to the literal fulfillment of the promises for the Israelites that exclude Gentiles.

    ***

    Would I ever reconsider dispensationalism? Yes. It would take a bit of convincing that the Jews understood the true meaning of OT better than the early church did, and that the church for roughly 1800 years didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but I’m always open to reconsidering. 🙂

    For me, my current position was born out of a couldron of study prior to college. I came to middle-of-the-road conclusions (along the lines of progressive dispensationalism), assuming that the best arguments for classical and reformed dispensationalism would come in college. They didn’t, and so I sought the best arguments from other viewpoints. I’m more of a New Covenant/Progressive Covenantal guy (don’t like third use of law, believe in future restoration of ethnic Israel per Romans 11).

    I read Rod Deckker’s paper from Hebrews 7-10 over the weekend and thought it was an excellend exposition of the passage. I wholeheartedly agree with his take on the New Covenant, that it is one covenant that necessarily has to do with Christians. Do you agree with him as to the scope of the NC? Or do you think the NC has more to do with Israel in Jeremiah 31?

  10. #10 by Dave James on September 28, 2009 - 3:25 pm

    Your points are well-taken – and have been addressed numerous times by dispensationalists – so the time and effort required to duplicate that here (or even quote it extensively) is probably more than I can expend given my other ministry commitments. I do think there are legitimate answers to all of the issues.

    Concerning interpretation: I would argue more for a give-and-take, spiral-type hermeneutic involving the OT and NT. I don’t think one can handle NT passages correctly apart from understanding the OT correctly – as the original author and audience would have understood the text. Communication is at the concept level via grammar, syntax and vocabulary. If you cut that anchor rope, then there is no referee at all – OT or NT. The Holy Spirit inspired the OT at this level – and it had meaning for that audience. If one goes with double, hidden, allegorical meaning for any text that is not provided by the context, then again, there is no referee. At the same time, the OT is connected to the NT through the progress-of-revelation – and needs to be considered and interpretations must be test for accuracy – and to fully understand the implications of an OT passage – for example, in Isaiah concerning “virgin / alma.”

    I would hold to Deckker’s and Elliott Johnson’s view concerning the NC in Jeremiah 31 – contra John Master’s view of exclusively Jewish fulfillment or others who might hold to two NC’s (Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8). I don’t see how you can exclude the church from some connection. I know that the “fear” is giving too much to the Covenant position – but I feel that sometimes the case is overstated by those who want to distance themselves from Covenant concepts and language. However, I have felt they sometimes come close to a theological hermeneutic rather than contextual (literal, grammatical historical) hermeneutic. I think the upper room, 1 Corinthians 11 and Hebrews 8 indicate that the church must have some benefits. At the same time, the church cannot constitute complete fulfillment because of the “no need for a teacher” aspect of Jeremiah 31.

    I appreciate the good theological discussion – without rhetoric, venom or sarcasm. Unfortunately, these discussions often devolve into these things quite quickly.
    Dave

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