This completes the thoughts offered previously (see Part 1).
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 (DT) 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 tacked 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 area 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 DT’s formulations of all the theological areas 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.
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.
We are not free as Christians to indulge ourselves in the speculations of immanentistic philosophies (to use Dooyeweerd’s term). Our descriptions of the world must comport with the new man (cf. Rom. 12:2, 1 Cor. 10:31). Because we don’t begin with man but with God the Revealer, our comprehension and description of the world differs from the worldly descriptions. The worldly descriptions all fall under the cosh of Hume’s critique of induction and causation. They eventually have to appeal to the pragmatic for verification. But we must see the world as God sees it. That requires a comprehensive Systematics, not a piecemeal approach.
Again the covenants help us do this. Since the biblical 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 and among the nations, the promised Seed, 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; centering them in Jesus Christ, through whom they must pass, will produce a certain kind of Systematic Theology and Worldview. Because of the tight relationship between Systematic Theology and Christian Worldview the one represents just a different perspective on the other. And because they both grow from the soil of “Biblical Covenantalism” the Biblical Theology behind them lends itself well to preaching the whole counsel of God.
These are just some thoughts which I hope will help reignite the flame of Dispensational Theology.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.