Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism, Part 4

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 1Part 2, and Part 3.

Thesis 18

Contrary to the dispensationalists’ structuring of law and grace as “antithetical concepts” (Charles Ryrie) with the result that “the doctrines of grace are to be sought in the Epistles, not in the Gospels” (Scofield Reference Bible—SRB, p. 989), the Gospels do declare the doctrines of grace, as we read in John 1:17, “For the law was given by Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” and in the Bible’s most famous verse: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Response: Dealing first with the Scofield quote, we are at least glad to get a reference! But let’s reproduce the whole SRB quotation:

The doctrines of grace are to be sought in the Epistles, not in the Gospels; but those doctrines rest back upon the death and resurrection of Christ, and upon the great germ-truths to which He gave utterance, and of which the Epistles are the unfolding. Furthermore, the only perfect example of perfect grace is the Christ of the Gospels.

The only thing Scofield appears to be pointing out here is the Protestant view that the unfolding of the doctrines of grace are in the Epistles. That is why evangelicals tend to fetch their doctrinal underpinnings from places like Paul’s epistles to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc., more than from the Gospels. This is the old concern about “a canon within the canon,” which all evangelicals have been charged with; that is, deriving their doctrines from the Epistles in preference to the Gospels. It is not peculiar to dispensationalists.

I could not find the phrase “antithetical concepts” in Ryrie. It may be there but I felt no need to send out a search party for it. Ryrie is very clear on this matter:

In answer…to the…question as to the relation of the Mosaic Law to grace, it was built upon what preceded without abrogating previously made promises, and it introduced a distinctive economy [dispensation] in God’s dealings with the world. This is not double-talk, for we have already noted that a dispensation often incorporates features found in others [I highlight this because covenant theologians (CTs) are always saying each dispensation includes NO features of others]. (Dispensationalism, 111)

After citing Berkhof to show that CTs see a “dispensational” element to the Sinaitic covenant, Ryrie continues:

All writers, of whatever theological persuasion, are sensitive to the antithetical nature of law and grace, and at the same time they all desire to maintain the doctrine of salvation by grace at all times. Both emphases are necessary, for there is an antithess between the law and grace (or what do John 1:17; Rom. 6:14, and Gal. 3:23 mean?), and salvation has always been by grace. (Ibid.)

Thesis 19

Contrary to the dispensationalists’ historic position that the Sermon on the Mount was designed for Israel alone, to define kingdom living, and “is law, not grace” (SRB, p. 989), historic evangelical orthodoxy sees this great Sermon as applicable to the Church in the present era, applying the Beatitudes (Matt 5:2-12), calling us to be the salt of the earth (Matt 5:13), urging us to build our house on a rock (Matt 7:21-27), directing us to pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13), and more.

Response: That some older dispensationalists viewed the Sermon on the Mount as for Israel, or as “law” is true. But SRB should not be misunderstood here: “The Sermon on the Mount is law, not grace, for it demands as a condition of blessing (Mt.5:3-9) that perfect character which grace, through divine power, creates (Gal.5:22,23).” Scofield and Chafer believed that the Sermon held many secondary applications for today. Other dispensationalists, meanwhile, like Ryrie (and perhaps the majority of others), recommend Lloyd-Jones’s exposition as an accurate interpretation at most points (see Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 98). They also see an eschatological aspect to the Sermon in view of the coming Millennial Kingdom. But so do some non-dispensationalists. Furthermore, no dispensationalist would deny what is said above about “historic evangelical orthodoxy’s” applying the Sermon to the Church. Although many evangelicals might not be prepared to repeat “the Lord’s Prayer” as the 18th thesis appears to recommend.

All concerned should read John A. Martin’s “Dispensational Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount” in Toussaint & Dyer (eds.), Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, 35-48.

Thesis 20

Despite the dispensationalists’ vigorous assertion that their system never has taught two ways of salvation (Couch), one by law-keeping and one by grace alone, the original Scofield Reference Bible, for instance, declared that the Abrahamic and new covenants differed from the Mosaic covenant regarding “salvation” in that “they impose but one condition, faith” (SRB, see note at Ex. 19:6).

Response: For arguments sake we shall allow that Scofield meant to teach two ways of salvation. If he did, he was wrong. Does that mean all dispensationalists must be painted with the same brush? Darby certainly did not teach such a thing. Neither did Brookes, or Peters or Scroggie or Sauer or Walvoord or Pentecost or McClain, or a hundred other dispensationalists.

May I recommend interested readers (or anyone who is planning to lambast dispensationalism) to read Tony Garland’s article, “Does Dispensationalism Teach Two Ways of Salvation?

Thesis 21

Contrary to the dispensationalists’ central affirmation of the “plain interpretation” of Scripture (Charles Ryrie) employing (alleged) literalism, the depth of Scripture is such that it can perplex angels (1 Pet 1:12), the Apostle Peter (2 Pet 3:15-16), and potential converts (Acts 8:30-35); requires growth in grace to understand (Heb 5:11-14) and special teachers to explain (2 Tim 2:2); and is susceptible to false teachers distorting it (1 Tim 1:7).

Response: How do the Nicene Council know these things? The reply comes back, “Because these verses plainly teach it!” Next…

Thesis 22

Despite the dispensationalists’ claim to be following “the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation” (Charles Ryrie), they have redefined the method in a way that is rejected by the majority of non-dispensational evangelicals (and even “progressive dispensationalists”) who see that the Bible, while true in all its parts, often speaks in figures and types—e.g., most evangelicals interpret the prophecy in Isaiah and Micah of “the mountain of the house of the Lord being established as the chief of the mountains” (Isa 2:2b, Mic. 4:1b) to refer to the exaltation of God’s people; whereas dispensationalism claims this text is referring to actual geological, tectonic, and volcanic mountain-building whereby “the Temple mount would be lifted up and exalted over all the other mountains” (John Sailhammer) during the millennium.

Response: Here is a standard definition of grammatical-historical (G-H) hermeneutics from a non-dispensationalist:

Its fundamental principle is to gather from the Scriptures themselves the precise meaning which the writers intended to convey. It applies to the sacred books the same principles, the same grammatical process and exercise of common sense and reason, which we apply to other books. The grammatico-historical exegete…will inquire into the circumstances under which [the original author] wrote, the manners and customs of his age, and the purpose or object which he had in view. He has a right to assume that no sensible author will be knowingly inconsistent with himself, or seek to bewilder or mislead his readers.” (Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 173).

Other examples from non-dispensationalists could be given. It is the authors of the 95 Theses who are not totally forthcoming with their definitions. For example, progressive dispensationalists are open about the fact that they do not employ just G-H hermeneutics. They call their approach grammatical-historical-literary-canonical or “complementary hermeneutics.” CTs will freight in theological interpretation alongside of G-H when they think it necessary.

Of course, “plain-sense [G-H] interpretation” does not ignore figures of speech in Scripture anymore than it does in daily conversation. But it insists that these figures have a literal referent! So it is with Isaiah 2:2f. Indeed, why did the authors not cite the SRB on these verses?

The difference in interpretation is not that dispensationalists have to be literalistic and ignore all figures of speech or literary genres. It is whether those who wish to ignore the contexts (e.g. “house of the Lord,” “Jerusalem,” “Jacob,” “last days”) are justified in introducing allegorical interpretation when none is needed.

Thesis 23

Despite the dispensationalists’ conviction that their “plain interpretation” necessarily “gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage” (Charles Ryrie) and is the only proper and defensible method for interpreting Scripture, by adopting this method they are denying the practice of Christ and the Apostles in the New Testament, as when the Lord points to John the Baptist as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah’s return (Matt 10:13-14) and the Apostles apply the prophecy of the rebuilding of “the tabernacle of David” to the spiritual building of the Church (Acts 15:14-17), and many other such passages.

Response: Plain-sense interpretation does not alleviate all the difficulties involved in understanding Scripture (See Thesis 21 above). Dispensationalists have never claimed to be able to unravel every verse infallibly. We are all trying to study the Bible accurately, and we can all learn from each other.

In Matthew 17:10-13 Jesus refers to John as Elijah who “has come already.” So in some sense “Elijah” has come. Yet this is not the end of the matter. For in John 1:21 John himself is asked whether he is Elijah and he forthrightly answers “I am not.” But in another passage we are told that John “shall go…in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17). In light of this, perhaps it is best to see John as encapsulating the qualities of Elijah while not entirely replacing the eschatological Elijah. This is Leon Morris’s interpretation. (The authors need to correct the Matthew reference to 11:13-14).

Regarding Acts 15:14-17, we cannot go into it here. It need only be noted that James does not say the prophets (the Amos citation seems representative) were fulfilled, only that they “agreed” that the Gentiles would also be brought in. It is perfectly possible to apply this text to the Apostolic work while preserving its original eschatological integrity.

A good brief treatment of this passage is found in Stanley Toussaint’s Commentary on Acts in the Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, edited by Walvoord and Zuck.

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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