Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, Part 3

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 and Part 2.

10. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ commitment to compartmentalizing each of the self-contained, distinct dispensations, the Bible presents an organic unfolding of history as the Bible traces out the flow of redemptive history, so that the New Testament speaks of “the covenants [plural] of the [singular] promise” (Eph 2:12) and uses metaphors that require the unity of redemptive history; accordingly, the New Testament people of God are one olive tree rooted in the Old Testament (Rom 11:17-24).

Response: Dispensationalists see the dispensations (divine economies) as a biblical way of viewing the history of providence (See e.g. Renald Showers, There Really is a Difference). They believe these dispensations, or at least some of them, can be derived inductively from the Scriptures (e.g. Eph. 1:10, 3:2. cf. Jn. 1:17, Rom. 5:13, Gal. 4:1-5).

The Bible certainly stresses “the covenants [plural] of the [singular] promise” in Eph. 2:12. The covenants Paul mentions are the biblical covenants readily identifiable in Scripture (stemming from Abraham, especially the unconditional covenants), not the extra-biblical covenants (e.g. “works” and “grace”). Paul sometimes uses the singular “promise” and sometimes the plural “promises” (e.g. Rom. 9:4, 15:8). It is special pleading to make this a proof for some kind of organic unity of redemptive history. Christians do not build altars and make animal sacrifices. This blatant fact shows that there is some “disunity” in redemptive history which has to accounted for (see Hebrews). The authors are here sneaking in the covenant of grace to impose their brand of unity. Hoehner (Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 358) writes that this “is an example of theology controlling exegesis rather than exegesis controlling theology.”

This very thing—theology controlling exegesis—is put on display before the reader when the authors state; “the New Testament people of God are one olive tree rooted in the Old Testament (Rom. 11:17-24).”

The authors should have noted 11:16 which refers to the root and the branches. This might have stopped them from making the people of God “the one olive tree,” for clearly the branches, and not the tree, are the peoples of God, as the passage makes plain. The branches, whether “natural” (Israel) or “wild” (Gentiles), not the root or trunk of the olive tree, correspond to the people groups. The “root and fatness of the olive tree” (vv.17-18) is neither Israel or the Gentiles; it stands either for the specific covenant with Israel quoted from Isaiah 59 (vv.26-27), or perhaps better, the promises mentioned at the beginnng of the section (9:4-5).

The authors of the 95 Theses are so controlled by their theology that they did not see that throughout Romans 11 the Apostle does not confuse (believing) Israel with (believing) Gentiles. In fact, he keeps them apart in his thought. Remember, in this section he is dealing with the question of the promises given to Israel. Gentiles have entered into these promises (specifically via the New Covenant), but they are warned in this very passage not to think that God is through with ethnic Israel (Rom.11:18, 23-25). He is not (Rom.11:1-2,12,15, 25). “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (v.29).

Covenant theology imposes an artificial unity between the Testaments which ignores biblical distinctions. While the motives behind this are not blameworthy, any resultant distortions are, and this is true of any theological error, whether issuing from the Dispensational camp or the Covenant theology camp.

11. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ structuring of redemptive history into several dispensations, the Bible establishes the basic divisions of redemptive history into the old covenant, and the new covenant (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:8; 9:15), even declaring that the “new covenant…has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete is ready to disappear” (Heb 8:13).

Response: No dispensationalist denies the division of the Bible into OT and NT. Neither does he deny the “old covenant”/”new covenant” division (which is not the same). These verses speak to the biblical covenants. The passages (e.g. Heb. 8:13) refer to the replacing of the Mosaic institutions by the work, both past and present, of Christ. They do not bear upon the progressive revelation which is found within the outworking of these covenants. Even covenant theologians identify differing periods of the outworking of the Covenant of Grace.

Any redemptive history must make a difference between Man in Eden and Man after the Fall. In Romans 4 Paul makes a big point of Abraham receiving the promise before he was circumcised. There are recognizable transitions in redemptive history.

12. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ frequent citation of the King James Version translation of 2 Tim 2:15, “rightly dividing” the truth, as evidence for the need to divide the biblical record into discrete dispensations, all modern versions of Scripture and non-dispensational commentators translate this verse without any allusion to “dividing” Scripture into discrete historical divisions at all, but rather show that it means to “handle accurately” (NASB) or “correctly handle” (NIV) the word of God.

Response: Some dispensationalists (Scofield, Larkin) emphasized the King James translation of 2 Timothy 2:15. They laid the emphasis upon “correctly handling” the Word. Some popular dispensationalists have incorrectly used the verse as a mandate to uncover divisions in Scripture, but this has not been true of most of its scholars: e.g., Chafer (Systematic Theology), Pentecost (Things to Come), Ryrie (Dispensationalism) do not even cite that text. And most others interpret it simply as correctly handling the Bible. This hardly deserves mentioning.

13. Because the dispensational structuring of history was unknown to the Church prior to 1830, the dispensationalists’ claim to be “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” by structuring history that way implies that no one until then had “rightly divided” God’s word.

As most dispensationalists do not lay any stress on the verse, even when they cite it, this charge is obviously false. That some amateur Bible students may have claimed this is undoubtedly true, but what does this prove about mature dispensationalism?

This has every look of being a argument put into the mouths of “the dispensationalists” by people willing to scrape barrel-bottoms!

14. Dispensationalism’s argument that “the understanding of God’s differing economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within those various economies” (Charles Ryrie) is an example of the circular fallacy in logic: for it requires understanding the distinctive character of a dispensation before one can understand the revelation in that dispensation, though one cannot know what that dispensation is without first understanding the unique nature of the revelation that gives that dispensation its distinctive character.

Response: Covenant theologians make exactly the same claim for their extra-biblical covenants of works and grace. In fact, they are often quite adamant that not holding to “the Covenant of Grace” destroys the unity of Scripture (Thesis 10 presupposes CT). Even if we read Ryrie’s statement in the worse light, the most that can be said is that both dispensationalists and their opponents are sometimes guilty of overstatement and poor logic. We all are!

But if we are a little less ready to pick up the nearest stone, we suggest that Ryrie’s statement is not circular if he is speaking of the process of ongoing study. He could have in mind a kind of “hermeneutical spiral” by which one appreciates the contents of a passage more and more. That would not be circular reasoning. It is a pity we weren’t given the documentation of the Ryrie quotation to help us in this matter!

15. Despite the dispensationalists’ popular presentation of seven distinct dispensations as necessary for properly understanding Scripture, scholars within dispensationalism admit that “one could have four, five, seven, or eight dispensations and be a consistent dispensationalist” (Charles Ryrie) so that the proper structuring of the dispensations is inconsequential.

Response: This “Thesis” seems to be pitting the Ryrie quotation above with another undocumented Ryrie quotation. Nearly every dispensationalist scholar will put little emphasis upon the number of dispensations. The charge is trivial and rather desperate.

16. Despite the dispensationalists’ commitment to compartmentalizing history into distinct dispensations, wherein each “dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose” and includes a “distinctive revelation, testing, failure, and judgment” (Charles Ryrie), recent dispensational scholars, such as Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising, admit that the features of the dispensations merge from one dispensation into the next, so that the earlier dispensation carries the seeds of the following dispensation.

Response: There is no “commitment to compartmentalizing history.” There is a commitment to observing what the Scriptures say. If this involves the recognition of dispensations so be it.

The Thesis is saying some dispensationalists disagree among themselves. Are we to suppose that no covenant theologians (CTs) disagree among themselves? Did Hoeksema agree with Berkhof? Does Frame always agree with Horton? Do all CTs agree with Kline?

Whether Blaising and Bock are dispensationalists other than in name is a matter that has been discussed by both dispensational theologians (DTs) and CTs. Most traditional DTs would agree with CTs Vern Poythress and Keith Mathison that “progressive dispensationalism” totally redefines dispensationalism, and is, in fact, much more closely related to the premillennialism of George E. Ladd.

17. Despite the dispensationalists’ affirmation of God’s grace in the Church Age, early forms of dispensationalism (and many populist forms even today) deny that grace characterized the Mosaic dispensation of law, as when C. I. Scofield stated that with the coming of Christ “the point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation” (cf. John 1:17), even though the Ten Commandments themselves open with a statement of God’s grace to Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:1).

Response: Grace has always characterized God’s dealings with sinful men. No dispensationalist would deny such a thing. Dispensationalists do teach that the revelation of divine grace increases within the progress of redemption, and this is especially true in reference to Jesus Christ (Jn.1:17. Compare Rom. 10:4-10; Eph.3:2, 7-8).

The Scofield quotation has been explained countless times. Certain CTs will bring it up perpetually as if it had never been addressed. They will never stop. Still, what Scofield meant was that there was no salvation under the Law if one flouted the sacrificial cultus. The sacrifices anticipated the cross. Good intentions didn’t cut it under Moses’ Law. Substitutionary animal sacrifices were mandatory. John 1:17 cannot be ignored as if the revelation of grace under the Law was the same as it is after the cross.

This objection, like many of the foregoing, is inconsequential. The “Nicene Council” are grabbing at straws. The “former dispensationalists” who signed the Theses ought to have known this. Perhaps their aquaintance with dispensationalism was rudamentary? One thing is clear. The “Nicene Council” would do better if they concentrated on more substantive charges and provided more documentation of them.


Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and 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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Ted Bigelow's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:
This very thing--theology controlling exegesis--is put on display before the reader when the authors state; "the New Testament people of God are one olive tree rooted in the Old Testament (Rom. 11:17-24)."

Even among covenantalists themselves this point is not widely accepted. Most covenant theologians will claim the Olive Tree is the Fathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Romans 11:28, Romans 9:5). Other covenantalists will claim the Olive Tree is the church; others still that the tree is Jesus Christ.

In other words, the 95 theses and their writers are not representative of mainstream covenant theology. And as you well point out, most of the time this "Nicene Council" expresses pejoratives about dispensationalism long since debunked. They write only for their constituency, and not for those seeking Scripture, truth, and godly love. What's new among covenantalists? :~ You should see how they argue among themselves. Incredible.

Thankfully, you have identified the Olive Tree as the Fathers, although later you seem to identify it as the promises (or, unilateral covenants) made to the Fathers. It might be best to stick with the former, since the natural branches, which have the root for their source, are likewise people. We also see wild branches (us Gentile Christians) being ingrafted into the root. The promises made to Abraham are attached to him; when you get him, you get his promises, for he is the "father of us all" (Romans 4:16).

Amazingly, the covenantalists fall into the very trap Paul commands them not - "do not be arrogant toward the branches" (Romans 9:18). By claiming that the Olive Tree is themselves, and not ethnic Israel , they have placed themselves as the goal of God's redemptive history, instead of realizing that ethnic Israel is the goal of redemptive history: "a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and in this way all Israel will be saved" (Romans 9:25-26). When God is finished saving the Gentiles, He will turn to save all Israel.

Thanks, Paul, for your defense. May God show us where we too allow our theology to control our exegesis.

AndrewSuttles's picture

Quote:
The authors are here sneaking in the covenant of grace to impose their brand of unity. Hoehner (Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 358) writes that this “is an example of theology controlling exegesis rather than exegesis controlling theology.”

Dr. H rightly understands that Covenant Theologians understand the the structure of the Scriptures, which are Covenants (NOT dispensations), are an outworking of God's larger plan of redemption for fallen man. That God has this larger plan of grace to redeem fallen man is, in his eyes, theology controlling exegesis, but then uses the following sentence to defend the non-Biblical notion of dispensations, which are clearly not outlined in Scripture.

Quote:
They [Dispensationalists ] believe these dispensations, or at least some of them, can be derived inductively from the Scriptures

Dr. H rightly understands that by being grafted into the cultivated olive tree, individual Gentile branches receives the promises made to Father Abraham just as the natural branches do. When the Jewish branches are grafted back into their own tree (which is natural for them to grow out of) they will again be heirs of these precious promises. How it is that the family tree beginning with the fathers and sprouting out such that each individual natural branch is an ethnic Hebrew does not make the tree a metaphor for Israel is beyond me - especially given that the Olive Tree is a metaphor for Israel in the OT. Regardless, Dr. H claims that Covenantalists do not see a future for a restored ethnic Israel and that is just simply not true.

Regarding 2 Tim 2:15, as a Dispy, I was taught that what this verse implies is the very key to understanding all of Scripture. After all, Scofield entitled his book on Dispensationalism as "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth". One may search google for this phrase to find out whether it is a cornerstone proof text for the Dispensational system.

Regarding the dispensations themselves, I can only say that I was taught that in each dispensation, God tested man with respect to man's obedience God's program for that particular age. During Human Government, salvation was found in obedience to human rulers. During the Dispensation of Promise, man was saved by faith in God's promise. During the Dispensation of Law, man was saved by obedience to God's Law. As a matter of fact, Scofield believes the Hebrews should have rejected God's law dispensation in favor of Grace.

Quote:
The “Nicene Council” are grabbing at straws. The “former dispensationalists” who signed the Theses ought to have known this. Perhaps their aquaintance with dispensationalism was rudamentary? One thing is clear. The “Nicene Council” would do better if they concentrated on more substantive charges and provided more documentation of them.

I agree. This makes me question the validity of continuing this series.

Ted Bigelow's picture

AndrewSuttles ][quote wrote:
Dr. H claims that Covenantalists do not see a future for a restored ethnic Israel and that is just simply not true.

Andrew, I would be interested to find a single Covenantalist who sees a future for a restored ethnic Israel. If you could provide one (or more), I would be thankful.

Perhaps you meant to say that some covenantalists see a future for ethnic Israelites saved and placed in the church? That's a pretty common position. However, it directly goes against Romans 11:25-26, and even Romans 11:24, which claims Israel - the natural branches - is regrafted back again into tree (Israel), not into the wild branches (the church).

AndrewSuttles's picture

Ted -

You are right. I would hope none of the CTers would see any salvation outside the body of Christ.

Regarding a restored ethnic Israel, McCheyne and the Bonar brothers would be in your camp there. I can think of others, but they were the strongest Zionists of their day.

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