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.
When I began answering the “Nicene Council’s” 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism I did so to help myself and other readers think through our position. I do not want to stand before God as a dispensationalist if God is against dispensationalism. And as a very fallible human being I hope I shall always be open to correction and reproof on that score.
Nonetheless, after trying to respond fairly in a concise but adequate fashion to the objections of these men I still find myself with both feet planted firmly in the soil of dispensationalism. May the Holy Spirit persuade me otherwise if I am in error in this matter! (I fear the Nicene Council’s work has left me very much where I was before). In that spirit then, I offer the following assorted reflections:
A word about my procedure
The responses I have written have been in line with a primary tenet of mine, which is that the Bible should be left alone to say what it says before the minds of men organize it into a systematic theology. As one who loves systematic theology I naturally want mine to be decidedly scriptural. I have a basic rule that I try to follow: “explication before application.” In simple terms this means that I do not deduce or infer doctrines or make theological connections unless and until I have completed my induction (or exegesis) of the text in hand. Further, I do not bring in the “analogy of faith” rule until I think I know what any given text is saying within its context. I want to give each passage of Scripture “breathing room” to say what it has to say before comparing it to another text or moving on to theological formulations based thereon.
1. Over and over again in responding to the 95 Theses I had to call attention to the fact that the authors did not pay attention to what the texts they used actually said, but instead used them in service of an already determined theological outlook; a measure I dubbed “textual kidnapping” (e.g. Theses 26 & 42). But a text cannot be “let loose” to “speak” if it is straight-jacketed by a controlling idea that is alien to its nature. For instance, a dispensationalist might aver that making the “leaven” of Matthew 13:33 mean something other than sin and corruption could only come about because interpreting it negatively (as Christ’s disciples certainly would have done) would put paid to some treasured beliefs of some folks among the Nicene Council. Dispensationalists surely make a valid argument for their interpretation of this text.
2. The alert reader who has plowed through all 95 objections would have noted a lot of ad hominem (“to the man”) fallacies and other logical bloopers. Theses 8, 12, 25, 36, 59, 82, and 90 are examples of this maneuver. Thesis 59 mounts an attack on the divisions within the Plymouth Brethren and tries to make an argument against dispensationalism from it. This is a sad attempt at prejudicing their constituency against the system since its followers have sometimes been guilty of schism. “Schism” is a subject often associated with Reformed movements and reported on by their own historians. Some of John Frame’s writings have dealt with it.
The fact is, whether a person is a Presbyterian covenant theologian or a Southern Baptist premillennarian, or a Bible Church dispensationalist, a combination of these, or none of these, we all know internecine squabbles too well. Perhaps we ourselves have been part of the problem? Does this mean that our theology must thereby be judged to be wrong? Are any of us the kind of Christians we would like to be? Are any among us close to attaining full Christ-likeness (Phil. 3:7-16)? Is it wise to cast stones at the Plymouth Brethren like this? We find nothing logically or scripturally compelling in these sorts of objections.
3. Sad to relate, but ad hominen and off-the-subject remarks are not the end of it. The 95 Theses have been padded out with the inclusion of several harsh and uncharitable charges against dispensationalists (Theses 30, 34, 45, 59 serve to illustrate this). Thesis 45 charges us with believing in “race-based salvation.” Well, one or two populist dispensationalists might teach that heresy but they are scarcely representative of the movement. The Reformed scholars Bruce Waltke and Peter Enns openly advocate theistic evolution (and Knox Seminary hired Waltke!). Should we say that on this score all covenant theologians teach the heresy (and that is what I think it is) that we evolved from monkeys? Wouldn’t it be a tad unkind and a little deceptive if I attempted to persuade people against Reformed theology this way? Besides, could I actually dent covenant theology itself by employing this tactic?
Thesis 91 takes aim at dispensationalist theology by saying it “encourages unrighteous living.” Given that many dispensationalists have written books on how to live for Christ, this immediately strikes one as off beam. One thinks of Griffith Thomas’ Grace and Power; Chafer’s He That Is Spiritual; Pentecost’s Pattern for Maturity; Ryrie’s Balancing the Christian Life, and a number of books by John MacArthur on the subject. True, one may not agree with the Keswickian flavor of some of these works (i.e. all but MacArthur), but there is much here to edify the believer, and dispossess anyone of the fancy that dispensationalists are encouraged by their theology to live unrighteously.
Of course, the thesis goes on to single out Zane Hodges’ teaching, to which a fair number of dispensationalists of a certain stripe are attracted. I think the so-called “Free Grace” view runs into difficulty in a few places, not least of which is its discrepant view of faith as being unattached to repentance; a view which must assume an ability or faculty in the unregenerate that would overturn, for example, Romans 1:18-22 and 8:7. But since nothing in dispensationalism demands the approval of this teaching the thesis misses the mark.
We know that the Law does not justify anyone, nor can it sanctify anyone. It can only tell us that we fall far short of holiness (Rom. 7:14-25). It shows us we need help from the outside, that we need God’s grace. Those on the “Nicene Council” need it just as much as any dispensationalist, whether they are right in their basic beliefs or not! These sorts of irrelevant charges are spiritually myopic and hardly showcase the Christian truth these people claim to be upholding.
4. The subjectivity of many of the 95 Theses is seen again by the fact that many of them are just desperate attempts to make dispensationalism look bad, but without anything substantial to reinforce the claims (Theses 13, 15, 21, 33, 38, 39, 42, 45, 52, 83 & 89 are examples of this). Theses 12 and 13 concerning 2 Timothy 2:15 hardly register since probably the majority of dispensationalists do not put the verse to the use objected to there. In Thesis 83 we meet the charge of “Judeaolotry” wherein we are supposed to prefer the Jews above all else. This is as untrue to say as it was unwise to think. It probably says more about the anti-Israel views of the Nicene Council than it does about what dispensationalists actually believe about the present nation of Israel. For thoughtful treatments of the issue I suggest a reading of Barry Horner’s Future Israel or non-dispensationalist Ronald Diprose’s Israel and the Church.
If I were to waste my time penning 95 Theses Against Covenant Theology, I would at least not include criticisms that my opponents would consider plain silly. It appears the only reason why these rather hokey objections were included was to achieve the magic number “95,” thence to recollect Martin Luther’s more noteworthy sentiments. This bombastic association with Luther’s 95 Theses reveals at least that the Nicene Council and those who support them take these criticisms of dispensationalism very seriously; they suppose them to be weighty and powerful. In truth we wish they were! Iron sharpens iron, and (to speak personally) I think dispensationalists need to be “shook up” to produce newer and better articulations of their basic system. It is regrettable, therefore, that the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism constitute, not an anvil upon which dispensationalists can test their theological mettle, but a series of rubberized McGuffins promulgated as if something important was going on, when, unfortunately, there is nothing of the kind.
I still have some more comments to add, but this post is long enough so they’ll have to wait for another time.