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 rest of the series.
Below are my final thoughts on the “95 Theses Against Dispensationalism.” I could wish that these criticisms of dispensationalism were less hapless. The system itself is open to more piercing critical analysis than has been demonstrated by the “Nicene Council.” I do not really care whether I am this or that kind of theologian; I do care about being biblical! So if I am “dispensational” in my outlook rather than leaning to Covenant Theology, so be it. As I have said before, I prefer to be viewed as a “biblical covenantalist” and have done with the dispensational moniker altogether. For continuity’s sake I have started numbering where I left off last time.
5. Underlying covenant theology
Although the “95 Theses” make no explicit mention of covenant theology (CT), it is always lurking in the background, shaping the thinking behind the formulations of the Nicene Council. Now it is certainly not a crime to be a covenant theologian. Christians generally have benefitted greatly from some of the work of the Puritans and the Dutch Nadere Reformatie. None can read the works of Boston, Edwards, the Hodges, Warfield, Cunningham, Candlish, Kuyper, Bavinck, Murray, Van Til, and a host of others without benefitting. But I make bold to suggest that none of the really beneficial materials produced by these men—that is to say, nothing that can be shown to come directly from the text of Scripture—is reliant upon covenant theology for its existence, other than the fact that CT has a conceptual, and thus instrumental, genius for promoting abstract thought (no small complement coming from a dispensationalist).
Where CT is most noticeable is when its advocates are trying for a forced unity (e.g. Thesis 10) or they cannot bring themselves to believe what Scripture plainly says (e.g. Thesis 77). In Thesis 77 the problem is that a literal reading of Revelation 20 would lead one to conclude that a rebellion against King Jesus will occur at the end of the future Millennium. This is thought to be somehow “a second humiliation,” when in fact, it is Satan and his hordes who will be humiliated—and in no uncertain terms (Rev. 20:9ff). In Thesis 10 one may spot the forced unity easily in the thread of reasoning from “the unity of redemptive history” to “the New Testament people of God are one olive tree rooted in the Old Testament (Rom .11:17-24).” Translated into Reformed-speak, this means “the one people of God within the covenant of grace is the church in both Testaments.” Of course, the Bible does not teach this anywhere. The church began at Pentecost and is a different entity from OT Israel. Nevertheless, this assumption is in back of these objections.
It is good to look for unity between the Testaments (I see it in the interconnections between the biblical covenants from Noahic to New as they telescope out to God’s foreordained culmination in the eternal state). Covenant theologians love to speak about the continuities within their system, while pointing to the discontinuities in dispensationalism. But CT is not devoid of major discontinuities. We have shown one of these below in the way the Nicene Council (in tandem with many CTs) fails to explain Paul’s contrast between Israel and the Church in Romans 11 (Thesis 10). Other discontinuities are seen in the application of the Law: the wresting of God’s promises to ethnic Israel while leaving them with the curses, the cessation of circumcision as a covenant rite, the abolition of the Jewish Sabbath, the matter of the indwelling of the Spirit in both Testaments, and more. Certainly some of these differences are papered over with artificial replacements like infant baptism and the “Christian Sabbath,” but the irregularities still protrude.
6. Sloppy exegesis
A further problem which presents itself is what can only be called poor or sloppy exegesis. We can all be guilty of this, and I do not wish to make hay with it, but in all fairness it needs to be addressed. Thesis 10 again serves to highlight this. In Romans 11 the apostle is at pains to distinguish believing Gentiles from unbelieving Jews (called “the rest” in verse 7). This separation is seen throughout the chapter (e.g. Rom. 11:11-13, 18-23, 25, 28, 30-32). The them/us language in the chapter shows conclusively that Paul is not teaching that “the New Testament people of God are one olive tree rooted in the Old Testament.”
In Thesis 86 the attempt to interpret every mention of “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 13 positively obviously comes a-cropper when the chapter is read carefully (see Matt. 13:24-30, 41, 47-48). Similarly, the misuse of Matthew 13:30b in Thesis 63 to refer to resurrection of believers and unbelievers is unwarranted. And saying the only temple found in the book of Revelation is in heaven (Thesis 80) is an assertion without proof or reason (read Rev. 11:1-8). The temple (and the things happening in it) in Revelation 11 is surely on earth, not heaven. Other examples of inattention to the wording of the biblical text could be adduced (Theses 23, 31, 32, 38, 39, 41, 53, etc.).
7. Former dispensationalists?
Some among those who agree with the content of the 95 Theses claim to be former dispensationalists. Perhaps they are. If that is the case it is surprising they did not correct their erring brethren when for instance, in Thesis 67 they claim we teach that the Holy Spirit will be absent from earth during the Tribulation. These same former dispensationalists ought to have been able to provide a dispensationalist account for the presence of unbelievers in the future Kingdom age (Thesis 75); or affirm the fact that very few dispensationalists will deny that the last days began after the resurrection of Christ (Thesis 58). I personally believe that Christ made the New Covenant with the church, which covenant was enabled for the Body of Christ, though not yet for future Israel, at Pentecost). We think some of the problem here could be down to the way dispensationalism has been taught. Often it is held up as a corrective only to Reformed ecclesiology and eschatology. This persistent belief among dispensationalists must change if the term “dispensational theology” is to have academic standing in its own right.
8. The best objections
The best objections are, I think, Theses 26, 27, 30, 57, 81, and 95. None of them hits the bullseye. Many former dispensationalists have stated that they used to interpret the NT by the OT. Thesis 26 levels this charge. But this is incorrect. I do not deny that some dispensationalists teach this. I just aver that it is not a necessary mark of dispensational interpretation. As I said in my response to this thesis: “both Testaments can be interpreted together satisfactorily without the adoption of such a fabricated prioritization of one Testament above the other.” God’s Word is one revelation. It makes no sense to force either Testament to line up with the other. The truth is they will fit together, contrasts and all, when they are allowed to say what they say. As fallible interpreters, we will always have “frayed edges” when all is said and done, but Christians ought to be confident that the Lord will bring things to pass in accordance to what He has actually said and in no other way than that.
When it comes to the use of the Old Testament by the writers of the New (Theses 27 & 30) we may say that this remains an ongoing focus of study for all believers. But the dispensationalist treatment of this problem is usually cautious and exegetically permissible. We don’t want to take an apostolic appropriation of an OT passage (say from Joel 2 or Amos 9) and use it to reshape other texts so as to coerce us into chopping and changing our hermeneutics when reading a NT book. We do not have all the answers, but we think there are better solutions available than saying God was equivocating when He spoke in certain OT contexts.
Likewise when some dispensational interpreters appear to read too much into biblical texts they need to be called on it (thus Thesis 57, and to a lesser extent Theses 81 & 95). But that is true of any interpreter. Reformed interpreters are not immune to this!
9. The question of antiquity
The group of criticisms relating to the antiquity (or otherwise) of dispensationalism are insubstantial. When one plots covenant theology on a time-line of church history it shows up quite late. Postmillennialism and preterism are even later. The in-vogue “Already/Not Yet” hermeneutics employed by contemporary historic premillennialists (Ladd), amillennialists (Hoekema) and so-called progressive dispensationalists (Bock) is of very recent vintage. This in itself is scarcely sufficient to throw the idea on the rubbish heap (even though I do not agree with it!). But whether a teaching is old or new is not of primary importance. One would be very hard-pressed to find any writer who taught the eternal security of the true believer prior to the Reformation. While historical precedent is important in its own way, the real question is always “Is it biblical?” By and large I am convinced that dispensationalism is just that—even if it could be more biblical still!