Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, Part 2

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 Part 1.

7. Despite the dispensationalists’ general orthodoxy, the historic ecumenical creeds of the Christian Church affirm eschatological events that are contrary to fundamental tenets of premillennialism, such as: (1) only one return of Christ, rather than dispensationalism’s two returns, separating the “rapture” and “second coming” by seven years; (2) a single, general resurrection of all the dead, both saved and lost; and (3) a general judgment of all men rather than two distinct judgments separated by one thousand years.

Response: We have commented above (see Response to #6) on the the fact that the major creeds were written after chiliasm (early premillennialism) preponderated in the early centuries. (G.N.H. Peters’ great work, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1. 494-495 mentions 15 early chiliast sources). For example, Victorinus of Pettau’s (d. 304) Commentary on Revelation was definately chiliast according to David L. Larsen, The Company of Hope, 70-71.

Dispensational Premillennialism has no problem accommodating the basic statements of the Apostles or Nicene Creeds on eschatology, such as they are. Dispensationalists hold to a “two-phase” return (as do partial preterists, though their first phase occurred 2,000 years ago!). As for the other matters, it is superfluous to argue about what the creeds can be interpreted to teach. The belief that Jesus Christ is returning bodily is of the greatest moment. That is what they teach and that is what all true believers affirm, regardless of their millennial views. These matters of secondary importance (e.g. pre-, post-, or a-millennialism), and even tertiary importance (pre-, mid-, or post-tribulationism) have their places, but the creeds were not formulated to deal with them.

Much as we value the historic creeds, we are not bound by them. Scripture alone is the real determiner of truth and fidelity.

8. Despite the dispensationalists’ general unconcern regarding the ecumenical Church creeds, we must understand that God gave the Bible to the Church, not to individuals, because “the church of the living God” is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

Response: And the Church includes many more than those bound by creeds and confessions, however noteworthy. If I feel constrained by Scripture to disagree with a creedal formulation, I or any one else may humbly do so.

Robert Reymond (who is quoted with approval by the “Nicene Council” at the head of the 95 Theses), felt he was within his rights as a Christian to challenge certain formulations of the Niceno-Constantinoplean Creed in the first edition of his Systematic Theology. The fact that he changed his mind (perhaps after reading R. Letham’s review) is not important here. He felt at liberty enough to disagree with the Creed in places, and he was within his rights biblically to do so. We shall take the same leave if necessary with regard to any man-made creed, and we shall not be concerned if one part of the Body thinks the creeds are somehow inviolable.

9. Despite the dispensationalists’ proclamation that they have a high view of God’s Word in their “coherent and consistent interpretation” (John Walvoord), in fact they have fragmented the Bible into numerous dispensational parts with two redemptive programs—one for Israel and one for the Church—and have doubled new covenants, returns of Christ, physical resurrections, and final judgments, thereby destroying the unity and coherence of Scripture.

Response

a) Dispensationalists have not “fragmented the Bible into numerous dispensational parts;” they have observed divine administrations in the Bible itself. As Chafer and others have said, “Anyone who does not sacrifice an animal at the Temple on the [Jewish] Sabbath is a dispensationalist.” If you believe in an Old Testament and a New Testament you believe in dispensations. Charles Ryrie (Dispensationalism, 16) shows how Berkhof allows distinctions within the history of redemption (i.e. the outworking of the so-called “covenant of grace”) in his Systematic Theology.

b) If Scripture reveals two redemptive programs—one for the future Israel and one for the Church then that is what it reveals. It is not our business to ignore it because we wish to force some extra-biblical covenantal structure upon Holy Writ to ensure a contrived “unity.” Dispensationalists hold to the unity of the divine plan, though it may find diverse expressions. This is not problematical. Anyone who believes in a biblical worldview believes that God has a single comprehensive plan for His creation, although there are many diverse patterns within the world.

c) The charge that dispensationalists “have doubled new covenants” is a misrepresentation of the system. It is true that Chafer held to two new covenants, but he has not been followed by the vast majority of dispensationalists. Therefore, he is not here representative of dispensationalism, per se. The authors of the 95 Theses either know this—in which case they are guilty of bearing false witness and should withdraw the charge—or they are ignorant of it—in which case they need to do more study!

d) As to “two…returns of Christ,” dispensationalists hold to the distinction they see between Christ’s return for His Church in the air to take them to heaven (Jn. 14:1-3; 1 Thess. 4:13-18) and His return with His saints to the earth (Rev. 19:11-14; cf. Zech. 14:4; Acts 1:9-11). Many of the signatories to the 95 Theses believe that Christ returned spiritually in AD 70. They await another return in the future. They profess to fetch their interpretation from Scripture. One is reminded of the goose and the gander.

e) On “two…physical resurrections,” one can read of those who rose with Jesus in Matt. 27:52-53. This does not compromise the coherence of Scripture. But the real problem here is that they spiritualize (allegorize) the first resurrection in Rev. 20:4-6. Employing a non-literal hermeneutic, these resurrected saints are actually not resurrected (resurrections are physical according to Paul in 1 Cor. 15). Although differing on the historical meaning, according to the Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer, “We may not tamper with the real, graphic nature of the vision of Revelation 20, nor may we spiritualize the first resurrection.”(The Return of Christ, 307. Earlier (304) he shows that “soul” in Rev. 20:4 means “soul-body”).

f) Finally, any comparison between the Judgment of the Nations (Matt.25) and the White Throne Judgment—such as it taking place after the dissolution of the planet (Rev. 20:11. cf. 2 Pet. 3:10-12) will show that they are not the same. The same is true of the Bema Judgment of Christians (2 Cor. 5:10. cf. 1 Cor. 3:11-15). Of course, if one uses a different set of hermeneutics on one passage as opposed to another, it is not to be wondered at why these and other contrasts between the “final” judgments are not perceived.


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.

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Bob Hayton's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:
If Scripture reveals two redemptive programs--one for the future Israel and one for the Church then that is what it reveals. It is not our business to ignore it because we wish to force some extra-biblical covenantal structure upon Holy Writ to ensure a contrived "unity."

Are you saying there are actually two "redemptive programs"? How are you defining "redemptive"? I thought most dispensationalists today had abandoned Scofield's views about salvation in the Old Testament.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Bob, the plural in Paul's quote is not "redemptive" but "programs."

Paul is not saying that salvation comes by two ways, but God's plan/program for Israel and the church are indeed different. The church was not given the Mosaic Law, yet Israel was to live it out in faith. If they did, forgiveness was promised (Lev. 16).

Israel was not given the Messiah until the fullness of time. With His coming, Israel was to believe in Him, who embodied the Mosaic law. They did not, and God cut them off. The church is not to live out the Mosaic law by faith, but instead, to believe in the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law.

Two programs. One redemption from sin. Both obtained by faith.

Bob Hayton's picture

Ted, you're losing me here. Forgiveness comes by law for Israel but by faith for the church??? I understand the program idea, but how are they "redemptive" programs?

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Paul Henebury's picture

Bob,

In speaking of two redemptive programs - one for Israel and one for the Church, I was picking up on the wording of the objection. However, dispensationalists do believe that God has promised final redemption to the nation of Israel and also separately to the Church; ergo, two redemptive programs. This is all I mean to say.

Ted is correct to state that the emphasis should here fall on number ("programs") not kind ("redemptive"). IF there are two programs then that fact ought to be recognized and dealt with. If there is only one program - viz. for the Church, then so be it. But the thesis objects to the number of redemptive programs and does not argue about kinds.

My position is similar to most DT's of every age (including Scofield, whose intention was not to teach OT salvation apart from grace), in that I hold that God saves by grace through faith even though the content of what is to be believed may be different depending on what era in the progress of revelation one is talking about. But that is another issue not addressed by this thesis.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Ted Bigelow's picture

John 1:17 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.

I should have referenced Lev. 4, not Lev. 16, where 4 times the worshiper is promised forgiveness. Such forgiveness came as the worshiper believed what God said in Lev. 4 - for example, v. 31: "Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven."

If you put your faith in that, you will not be forgiven, and will dishonor God. But back in the Mosaic economy, when an Israelite put their faith in God's promise in Lev. 4:31, he was forgiven, and he honored God. Two programs, both bringing redemption. One is no longer valid.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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I don't think I disagree with "two programs" as its meant, but given the history of confusion on this point (and how easy a target we tend to become) perhaps dispensationalists should work on better ways to summarize what we mean.
If nothing else, the critics will have to recalibrate before shooting again. Biggrin

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:
dispensationalists do believe that God has promised final redemption to the nation of Israel and also separately to the Church; ergo, two redemptive programs.

Thanks Paul. Adding in the phrase "final redemption" is helpful and joyful. I was looking retrospectively.

We eagerly await the redemption of our bodies - a final redemption, a glorious resurrection - which I also see promised to a future generation of believing Israelites, "what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?"

However, in that future generation of believing Jews, they will place faith explicitly in Christ, even as we in the church must. In that sense then it is only one program, looking forward.

This assumes that a program is defined as its object of faith. In the OT, the promises in the Mosaic Law, in the present age, and the age to come, the promises about Christ.

Bob Hayton's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
John 1:17 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.

I should have referenced Lev. 4, not Lev. 16, where 4 times the worshiper is promised forgiveness. Such forgiveness came as the worshiper believed what God said in Lev. 4 - for example, v. 31: "Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven."

If you put your faith in that, you will not be forgiven, and will dishonor God. But back in the Mosaic economy, when an Israelite put their faith in God's promise in Lev. 4:31, he was forgiven, and he honored God. Two programs, both bringing redemption. One is no longer valid.

Amen, Ted. I agree with you here on forgiveness. And yes they looked forward and through types and shadows, we look backward at the antitype and fulfillment of what the sacrificial system pointed to.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Bob Hayton's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:
Bob,

In speaking of two redemptive programs - one for Israel and one for the Church, I was picking up on the wording of the objection. However, dispensationalists do believe that God has promised final redemption to the nation of Israel and also separately to the Church; ergo, two redemptive programs. This is all I mean to say.

Ted is correct to state that the emphasis should here fall on number ("programs") not kind ("redemptive"). IF there are two programs then that fact ought to be recognized and dealt with. If there is only one program - viz. for the Church, then so be it. But the thesis objects to the number of redemptive programs and does not argue about kinds.

My position is similar to most DT's of every age (including Scofield, whose intention was not to teach OT salvation apart from grace), in that I hold that God saves by grace through faith even though the content of what is to be believed may be different depending on what era in the progress of revelation one is talking about. But that is another issue not addressed by this thesis.


That helps Paul. Thanks for clarifying.

As for your statement: "Scofield, whose intention was not to teach OT salvation apart from grace", that may be true. But we do find a definitely misleading note where he states OT salvation was apart from grace. This note has been removed in later Scofield Bibles (and for good reason). Here's the quote and a link to see it in the 1909 Scofield Bible on Google Books (I believe it also was in the 1917 edition).

C.I. Scofield wrote:
As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ.... The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation.... (note on John 1:16, in 1909 Scofield Reference Bible)

Click http://books.google.com/books?id=nec8AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Sco... ]this link to see the quote in context.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

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