Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant.
Monergism.com, that excellent source for all things Reformed and Covenantal, has posted rebuttals of Dispensational Theology on its website. Included is a set of sixteen lectures by James Grier and a series of “95 Theses Against Dispensationalism” brought together by a group of believers (most—if not all—of them Partial Preterists) calling themselves by the collective nom-de-plume, “The Nicene Council.” There is also a DVD out criticizing this pernicious doctrine that I and many others hold.
From other posts, I have made it clear that I believe the title “Dispensationalism” is unfortunate in that it focuses attention more on the proposed economies within the history of revelation and away from the identification and outworking of the biblical covenants. This leads to misunderstandings and some lack of priority even within the ranks of adherents of the system.
It is too late to do much about that however, so I will continue to use the name “Dispensationalist” to define myself and my position in this post and the ones to follow, Lord willing.
What I would like to do is to try to answer the “95 Theses” one by one. I do this not because I am spoiling for a fight. What use is that? No, I simply wish to respond to these brethren and in so doing, perhaps help myself see my adopted position more clearly, and help others, pro and con, do the same.
Let me start off by saying that just as Covenant Theology (CT) has its proponents who do less than justice to its tenets, so too does Dispensational Theology (DT). Therefore, the erroneous views of men like John Hagee, or of ultra-dispensationalists, are not going to be indulged in these posts. Nor will I be detained by so-called “Progressive Dispensationalism,” which I believe—in agreement with covenenant theologians like Mathison and Poythress—is not really Dispensationalism at all.
I will concern myself here only with mainline classic dispensationalism as it has been represented by men like Darby, Scofield, Peters, Chafer, Sauer, McClain, Walvoord, Pentecost, Ryrie, Ice and Fruchtenbaum. Where I believe these men to be in error, I will state my disgreements as necessary. Covenant theologians differ among themselves as much as dispensational theologians do, but all agree that there are certain vital ingredients in each system which can be identified and tested.
Perhaps after this series I will interact with Grier’s critique as well.
Answering the 95 Theses against Dispensationalism
1. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ claim that their system is the result of a “plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie) of Scripture, it is a relatively new innovation in Church history, having emerged only around 1830, and was wholly unknown to Christian scholars for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian era. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)
Response: By “plain interpretation” Ryrie simply meant grammatico-historical hermeneutics (G-H. See his book Dispensationalism, 79-88). There is nothing novel about this. G-H was employed by the Reformers. To say that “plain interpretation” is “a relatively new innovation in Church History” is a bit of an embarrassing statement. It sounds like they are saying that the Bible does not mean what it says. But the issue is not “plain interpretation.” After all, I am to presume these objectors wish me to employ “plain interpretation” with regard to their statements? The issue is about whether to use G-H consistently across the board. This, as Ryrie sates, is what sets off dispensational hermeneutics from other theologies.
The idea that “plain interpretation” only came to light in the 1830′s is an egregious error which any textbook touching upon the subject will rectify. That it should be employed consistently when interpreting Scripture is more to the point. But the point is a minor one. The argument is that if something is “relatively new” it must be refused admittance. This commits two clear errors: 1. This reasoning would have to apply to both G-H (or Covenant Theology) circa 1550-1650. G-H was not the preferred hermeneutic of the “Church” for over a thousand years! It used to be “a relatively new innovation.” 2. But the main point here is that this argument abuses the quadrilateral–Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. One cannot use Tradition to trump Scripture. Tradition (as Reason and Experience) is subservient to Scripture. What really matters here is whether dispensational theology is biblical. I say it is. The authors and signatories of the 95 Theses say otherwise. That is where the matter must be settled.
2. Contrary to the dispensationalist theologians’ frequent claim that “premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church” (Charles Ryrie), the early premillennialist Justin Martyr states that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.” Premillennialist Irenaeus agreed. A primitive form of each of today’s three main eschatological views existed from the Second Century onward. (See premillennialist admissions by D. H. Kromminga, Millennium in the Church and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology). (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)
Response: We are glad that the reader is directed to two books to check out this assertion. The “quotes” from Ryrie and Justin remind us of a Watchtower magazine—no way to check them out. But to get a better idea of Erickson’s opinion I submit the following:
“The first three centuries of the church were probably dominated by what we would today call premillennialism…” (Christian Theology, 1213 cf. 1215).
To this agree John Hannah (Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine, 306), and James Orr (The Progress of Dogma, 345-346). Orr writes, “So far as the early Church had a doctrine of the last things it was prevailingly chiliastic, i.e., millenarian.” In a footnote he gives Papias, Justin and Irenaeus. It would not be difficult to find similar statements in most authoritative texts.
This is another incidental matter. That a minority held differing views on the millennium in the first three centuries may be true. But premillennialism (though not dispensational) was the popular view.
3. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ attempt to link its history to that of early premillennial Church Fathers, those ancient premillennialists held positions that are fundamentally out of accord with the very foundational principles of dispensationalism, foundations which Ryrie calls “the linchpin of dispensationalism”, such as (1) a distinction between the Church and Israel (i.e., the Church is true Israel, “the true Israelitic race” (Justin Martyr) and (2) that “Judaism … has now come to an end” (Justin Martyr). (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)
Response: Basing “theses” upon unsubstantiated and undocumented quotations is not wise. Where does Ryrie assert this? Are these individuals trying to say that Ryrie or other dispensational scholars have tried to claim that the early Church held to dispensational theology? Ryrie does notice “dispensational-like concepts” in the early Church (Dispensationalism, 63-64), but he says clearly (plainly?): “Dispensationalists recognize that as a system of theology it is recent in origin.” (63. For more on these proto-dispensational concepts see e.g., David L. Larsen, The Company of Hope, ch.4).
Perhaps they are merely saying that Ryrie linked dispenasationalist belief in a literal millennium with early Church belief? Well, yes, he did. And why shouldn’t he? Doesn’t that at least show that holding to premillennialism is not “an innovation”?
4. Despite dispensationalism’s claim of antiquity through its association with historic premillennialism, it radically breaks with historic premillennialism by promoting a millennium that is fundamentally Judaic rather than Christian.
Response: Dispensationalism only claims antiquity for a belief in a literal 1,000 year millennium and for some proto-dispensational schemes in the early Church. It does not claim that dispensational theology can be found in the Church fathers (see the documented quote from Ryrie above).
What of the “Judaic rather than Christian” view of the millennium? This is true. Dispensationalists see that the promises God made with Israel He made to the nation (this has to do with the doctrine of the Remnant). Ergo, if the fulfillment of these promises casts a “Judaic” hue upon the earthly reign of the King of Israel (Jesus) then so be it. “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
What Christian influences there will be at that time is not extensively taught in Scripture. But it will be marked, since we shall be reigning with Christ. It is not our job to iron out what we don’t like about Scripture by devising non-literal interpretations.
5. Contrary to many dispensationalists’ assertion that modern-day Jews are faithful to the Old Testament and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Hagee), the New Testament teaches that there is no such thing as “orthodox Judaism.” Any modern-day Jew who claims to believe the Old Testament and yet rejects Christ Jesus as Lord and God rejects the Old Testament also. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)
Response: Really? John Hagee? Is he an accepted authority? Of course he is up the wrong turnpike. Isn’t Harold Camping a non-millennialist? Can we move on?
6. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ assertion that the early Church was premillennial in its eschatology, “none of the major creeds of the church include premillennialism in their statements” (R.P. Lightner), even though the millennium is supposedly God’s plan for Israel and the very goal of history, which we should expect would make its way into our creeds. (95 Theses, accessed 8/6/2010)
Response: The mix and match of assertions is rather like reading a Gail Riplinger book. Now, the early Church was predominantly premillennial (try J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 465), but most if not all of the major creeds were formulated after the Second Century so one wouldn’t expect to find it there.
That will do for now. There is nothing of any substance in any of these assertions. The “Nicene Council” have gotten off to a bad start. Maybe they will do better? We think they will prove more formidable later, and I’m glad for that. But as far as the first six theses are concerned, there is nothing to write home about.
We do hope that if they are going to build “theses” on what somebody is supposed to have said, they would be good enough to provide the right documentation so that we may check to see whether they are doing right by their Christian brothers, however we may differ on these things.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and am a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (M.Div., Ph.D). 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 Veritas School of Theology.