Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read the series so far.
Despite the dispensationalists’ claim that Christ could return at any minute because “there is no teaching of any intervening event” (John Walvoord), many of their leading spokesmen hold that the seven churches in Rev 2-3 “outline the present age in reference to the program in the church,” including “the Reformation” and our own age (J. D. Pentecost).
Response: It is true that some dispensationalists have regarded the seven churches as a kind of prophetic outline of church history. But not all have, and it is a mistake to think it is necessary to the dispensational system. Robert Thomas has a lengthy excursus on this teaching in the first volume of his Commentary on Revelation in which he rejects it. This view reflects an unhealthy admixture of speculative historicism to the futurism implicit in dispensational premillennialism.
Still, those who advocate the historical-prophetic view of Revelation 2-3 are careful to say that the churches are types of the visible church in every age, with one type predominating at one particular time. Thus, the prophetic portion is more in the way of application than strict hermeneutics.
As one who holds that it is often precarious to teach doctrine from types I would be glad to see this approach abandoned.
Despite the dispensationalists’ widespread belief that we have been living in the “last days” only since the founding of Israel as a nation in 1948, the New Testament clearly and repeatedly teach that the “last days” began in the first century and cover the whole period of the Christian Church (Acts 2:16-17; 1 Cor 10:11; Heb 1:1-2; 9:26)
Response: The first part of this assertion is false. While one or two dispensationalists may have “begun” the last days with 1948, there are many more who would be much more guarded. This skews the second half of the assertion because most dispensationalists agree that the “last days” when applied to the Church does cover the entire history of the Church (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:20, 1 John 2:18 and other NT texts also show this).
The problem arises because of common parlance, which asks, “Are we in the Last Days?” meaning something like “Are we close to the rapture?” or “Is Christ coming back soon?” This way of speaking is then read back into the NT.
However, as Pentecost, Ice and others are quick to point out, when the phrase “the last days” (e.g. Isa. 2:2, Jer. 23:20), “on that day” (Amos 9:11f.), “latter days” (Deut. 4:30, Jer. 30:24, Dan. 2:28) and similar statements are made in the OT (see especially Dan. 12:1,4, 9, 13), they refer to Israel’s “last days.” (This is how to view Acts 2:16-17.)
Not only that, but it is clear that Jesus’ reference to “the last day” in John 6:39-40, 44 and 54 speak of a future happening. Thus, one must study each passage carefully and be careful not to construct an unbalanced eschatology through inattention, particularly to the OT witness.
Despite the dispensationalists’ claim that the expectation of the imminent Rapture and other eschatological matters are important tools for godly living, dispensationalism’s founders were often at odds with each other and divisive regarding other believers, so that, for instance, of the Plymouth Brethren it could be said that “never has one body of Christians split so often, in such a short period of time, over such minute points” (John Gerstner) and that “this was but the first of several ruptures arising from [Darby’s] teachings” (Dictionary of Evangelical Biography).
Response: This is an ad hominen argument and does not deserve much of a response. We could say John Darby never believed that heretics should be killed for their beliefs or in bragging about it (Calvin). Nor did he condone the travesty of the Salem Witch Trials (Cotton Mather). Gerstner might have taken a look over his shoulder at his fellow Presbyterians if he wished to highlight internal rancor.
The fact is, we are all dirt bags—every one of us. Perhaps we should try to remember that before trying to make cheap points from the sins of others?
For all that, I might recommend reading the book For Zion’s Sake: Christian Zionism and the Role of John Nelson Darby by Paul Wilkinson. I might also point out to these Nicene brethren that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones referred to Darby as “the great.” (Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing, 48). Without meaning to be disparaging, we will take MLJ over Gerstner any day of the week.
Contrary to the dispensationalists’ creation of a unique double coming of Christ—the Rapture being separated from the Second Advent—which are so different that it makes “any harmony of these two events an impossibility” (Walvoord), the Bible mentions only one future coming of Christ, the parousia, or epiphany, or revelation (Matt. 24:3; 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8; Jas. 5:7; 2 Pet. 3:4; 1 Jn. 2:28), and states that He “shall appear a second time” (Heb 9:28a), not that He shall appear “again and again” or for a third time.
Response: First, we may point out that many of the signatories to the “95 Theses” believe that Christ came again invisibly in AD 70! More to the point, it ought to be stated that the belief in a so-called “double coming of Christ” is a strong implication drawn from exegesis. A strong implication is a conclusion coming from clear statements of Scripture (e.g., the Trinity). A weak implication is a conclusion that depends almost exclusively on deductions from one doctrine to another without much or any clear reference to Scripture (e.g. the supposed “Covenant of Grace”).
Many texts predict that Christ will return to this earth ready for war (e.g. Rev. 19:11f.; cf. Matt. 24:26-31, 2 Thess. 1:7-8, Isa. 63:1-3, Dan. 7:21-27, Rev. 14:14f).
Once again, more than an indiscriminate string of proof-texts is necessary. For example, the Matthew 24 passage refers to events during the Tribulation, which dispensationalists see as taking place after the removal of the Church. In 1 Thessalonians the Apostle Paul reminds these saints that they are not ignorant of “the times and seasons” concerning the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:1-4). But in the chapter before this he tells them about a coming of Christ—not to earth to Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-16)—but “in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17) to meet the Lord. This they did seem to be “ignorant” about (1 Thess.4:13) even though Jesus Himself had promised something like this in John 14:1-3.
Notice that the John 14 passage does not have saints going up to meet Christ only to come straight back down to do battle. Rather, they are taken to glory! This, briefly, is one reason why most dispensationalists infer a two-stage coming of the Lord.
But non-dispensationalists also infer “two-stage events.” In reference to 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 Hoekema sides with Calvin and Berkouwer in teaching a two phase interpretation of the believer’s glorification. (The Bible and the Future, 104-106, 108). Thus, if it is permissible for Hoekema, why is it to be discounted for dispensationalists?
Moreover, this two-stage coming seems to have been taught by Hyppolytus in the early church.