The Dispensational Continuum

If there were a line between Traditional Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism, I suspect I would be barely over that line. But there is no line. The relationship between Traditional Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism is anything but clear cut.

Although the Traditional Dispensational camp views the Progressive Dispensational position as a compromise or infringement upon the clarity of its divisions, modern Traditional Dispensational interpreters often interpret passages using the basic principles of Progressive Dispensationalism—either without recognizing it or without admitting it.

The Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutic Is Commonly Found in Traditional Dispensationalism

In a nutshell, the Progressive Dispensational hermeneutic takes the promises Yahweh made to Israel and understands them (as much as possible) as they might have been originally understood.

At the same time, the Progressive Dispensationalist observes how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament Millennial prophecies to relate (in some way) to the church age (like Romans 15:8-10). The promises made to Israel are understood in a natural sense as applying to ethnic Israel, but the promises made to ethnic Israel are also understood—in a less literal sense—as sometimes applying to the church age.

Whereas Traditional Dispensationalism has to frequently do hermeneutical gymnastics when addressing the use of the Old Testament in the New, the Progressive Dispensationalist accommodates this use and forms its hermeneutic based upon it.

What we now call “Progressive Dispensationalism” has been innate within Traditional Dispensationalism for many decades, and represents a nuancing of Traditional Dispensationalism, not a rejection of it.

Sometimes the Traditional Dispensationalist—in an attempt to defend his position—uses the straw man fallacy to characterize Progressive Dispensationalism. This is the same technique some Covenant Theologians use to denounce dispensationalism in general. For example, some early dispensationalists taught the people were saved by keeping the Law in the Old Testament, but are saved by grace in the New Testament. This is certainly not the view to which most dispensationalists subscribe, but such a straw man view is easy to refute and even mock. Thus, adversaries of dispensationalism assert that all forms of dispensationalism are ridiculous based upon the straw man fallacy. Dispensationalists sometimes refute Covenant Theology in the same way—pointing to the behavior of the Puritans who advocated burning witches.

One Continuum

Because there is a spread of beliefs among Progressive Dispensationalists, Traditional Dispensationalists tend to lump all Progressives Dispensationalists into the same group with those who lean more closely to a Covenant position. In reality, both Traditional Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalists represent a continuum—a range of perspectives. I will argue below that they share the same continuum.

In general, many Progressive Dispensationalists differ only slightly from the Traditional Dispensationalist perspective. The Progressive Dispensationalist sees both a literal interpretation of Old Testament promises to Israel and a secondary, spiritual application to church age believers. Many Progressive Dispensationalists are Pre-tribulational (like Robert Saucy and yours truly), but, unlike Traditional Dispensationalists, Progressive Dispensationalists can accommodate all positions on the rapture. Since Progressive Dispensationalism is not tied to the rapture question, it does not rise or fall on this issue—as does Traditional Dispensationalism. Its main focus is God’s faithfulness to Israel and His ongoing program in the current form of the Kingdom (the church)—not the timing of the rapture.

Most Traditional Dispensationalists use a Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutic Without Recognizing It

Are you a Traditional Dispensationalist and yet believe that church age believers are, in some sense, under the New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-37? If so, congratulations. You are using a Progressive Dispensational hermeneutic to reach that conclusion.

Do you believe that the prophesy of Joel 2:28-32—in some sense or another—was partly fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:14-21? If so—once again—you have used a Progressive Dispensational hermeneutic.

Was the Sermon on the Mount presented only to the Jewish believers at the time (or only for end time Israel), or was it intended for all believers of all time? If the latter, how do you account for the sermon mentioning leaving a gift at the altar? If you believe the Sermon on the Mount applies to all of Jesus’ disciples—but you consider yourself a Traditional Dispensationalist—you have used a Progressive hermeneutic to get there!

Does Progressive Dispensationalism Really Exist?

The term “Progressive Dispensational” exists only because this nomenclature helps us locate a position on the dispensational continuum. But even the term Progressive Dispensationalism represents a range, not a specific point. The term should not be necessary: Progressive Dispensationalism is simply Dispensationalism of a more complex kind.

At the far left (which represents a starting point, not a political statement), we would find hyper-dispensationalists (who believe that only the writings of Paul are relevant to the church age), then many of the older dispensationalist who believed (1) that salvation was once by Law but now by Grace (2) Christians are not under the same New Covenant spoken of in Jeremiah, and (3) the Sermon on the Mount has no relevance to the New Covenant believer. As we move further right, we find some dispensationalists who embrace a Progressive Dispensational hermeneutic here and there—perhaps recognizing that we are under the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31, but rejecting the notion that Acts 2 is a prophetic fulfillment of Joel (they might say Joel is quoted merely as an illustration).

As we move further right, we move to a position where many modern Traditional Dispensationalists have set up camp in recent decades, namely: salvation by grace as the norm in both testaments, recognizing that New Testament believers are truly under the New Covenant (although certain aspects are futuristic), the Sermon on the Mount is intended for church age believers, and Joel 2 has something to do with Pentecost. This hermeneutic—if carried out consistently with other passages—would land us smack dab in the middle of the Progressive Dispensational camp.

A Better Approach

In my opinion, all believers who recognize that God will exalt, and grant special status to, the nation of Israel in the future during a literal Millennium should be thought of as part of the dispensational camp. God’s faithfulness to Jacob—and God’s very integrity—should be the main issue. God is either sovereign or He is not. If He is sovereign, He does not need to pull a switcheroo by redefining clearly understood terms: by Israel, He means Israel. But He is always free to extend His blessings beyond Israel. He may add to His promises, but He does not subtract from them.

If yesterday’s Traditional Dispensationalists ostracized those who deviated from their paradigm, almost all modern Traditional Dispensationalists would have a strange qualifier before their name, too. Perhaps it might be, “Occasionally Progressive Dispensationalism.” The trend within Traditional Dispensationalism is toward Progressive Dispensationalism, and Progressive Dispensationalism has long been latent within Traditional Dispensationalism.

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Appreciate your thoughts on this, Ed. In general, I'd like to see dispies of every flavor identify more strongly with one another.

In that spirit, a few points of agreement:

  • agree there is a spectrum (of sorts) of positions on various points among dispensationalists
  • agree that traditional/classic disp. (TD)  and progressive disp. (PD) have a lot in common
  • agree that PD generally wants to see NT fulfillment of OT promises with more duality than TD does
  • also share some uncertainty about how useful terms like TD and PD really are.

Where I see a few things differently...

  • I think you have parts of the history/dynamic backwards: rather than TD carrying bits of PD in it, it's really PD carrying (lots of) bits of TD in it   (but I think this is probably hair splitting...  doesn't seem terribly important)
  • Use of OT in NT: TD doesn't have do any more "hermeneutical gymnastics" than anyone else. Several of these passages are difficult for any internally-consistent approach. And when I read Saucy and Kaiser, I remember plenty of "OK, that sounds plausible.... and that... but woah, wait a sec--this one requires a hermeneutical rotating double backflip in the pike position!")
  • Where TDs depart a bit and take a particular passage or prophecy in a way that agrees more w/PDs... I don't think they are necessarily adopting a different hermeneutic. At least in some cases, there is room to see some passages differently within the same TD framework that has guided disp. for many decades.

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.

Rolland McCune's picture

I would recommend, as collateral reading, a digest and understanding of:

1. Roy Beacham, "Progressive Dispensationalism: An Overview and Personal Analysis," dbts.edu/journal, Vol 9, Fall, 2004.

2. Mark Snoeberger, "Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics?"  Sharper Iron, July 8, 14, 23, 29, Aug 3, 2015 

 

Rolland McCune

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron said:

 In general, I'd like to see dispies of every flavor identify more strongly with one another.

Yes. that is my desire, too.  I think PD is just a nuanced version of TD, but is viewed as being more radical than it is.  TDs -- perhaps from being under attack so much -- are distrustful of this assertion.

Aaron said:

rather than TD carrying bits of PD in it, it's really PD carrying (lots of) bits of TD in it

Fair enough.  PD is merely a moderate adjusting of TD, but my point is that many who are TD have adjusted their views to resemble PD in certain instances, like the New Covenant.

Aaron said:

Use of OT in NT: TD doesn't have do any more "hermeneutical gymnastics" than anyone else.

Yes, but in PD, gymnastics are consistent with the system;  In TD, they are not.  The PD understands a secondary, less literal fulfillment of OT prophecies.  The "less literal" or "spiritual" fulfillment allows for flex and especially Midrash.  Having said that, however, it is important to assert that this use of spiritual application is apostolic privilege.  If we follow their pattern, we may be correct at points and incorrect at points -- we are not inspired and thus we are not infallible.  From my second book, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul as Midrash

Paul did not merely interpret texts as you or I or a respected Talmudic sage could. He often began with Old Testament Scripture, but he hybridized it in light of the New Covenant age, the current form of the Messianic Age. The apostles were not merely organizational leaders, theologians, or teachers, but were foundation layers (Ephesians 2:20), authorized to make such a transition. Paul was perhaps most instrumental in defining the place of gentile Christians within the church, though not without the approval of the other apostles and leading elders (Acts 15:1-30).

We argue that God prepared Paul throughout his life for this specialized task. If you peruse Galatians 1:15– 24, and you note the proximity of statements within the context, it seems obvious that Paul understood his entire lifetime as one of preparation for the ministry he had – with a special focus on gentiles...Paul was moved and taught by the Spirit to understand this new turn of events: Messiah had come, the people of Israel had rejected him, and the present form of the Kingdom of God (which included gentiles) altered the nature of the Messiah's church. Not only was the church becoming increasingly gentile, but believing gentiles were to have an equal status with believing Jews. The Apostle's task, then, was to take the Tannakh (Old Testament) and bring its relevant implications to bear upon gentiles who were not expected to keep the Law of Moses, but were expected to live godly, righteous lives.

Aaron wrote:

Where TDs depart a bit and take a particular passage or prophecy in a way that agrees more w/PDs... I don't think they are necessarily adopting a different hermeneutic

Let me suggest this: a PD could get to these conclusions almost instantly, for TDs, it may take decades.  Also, if they applied the same approach they apply to the instances mentioned above (like the New Covenant or Acts 2 and Joel, etc ) to other uses of the OT in the New, they would be PDs, IMO.  I am not saying that any system should refuse deeply contemplated exceptions, so your point is valid in that regard.

"The Midrash Detective"

alex o.'s picture

After reading a sample in my Kindle, I just ordered The Promise Plan of God. I came to the same conclusion as Kaiser by reading great swaths of scripture systematically over the years. Of course, from the sample Kaiser gives more insight and connects various terms which I did not see.

Of the 4 redemptive theologies (Covenant, Progressive Covenantalism, Dispensationalism, and Progressive Dispensationalism), none quite fit with what I saw in scripture. Who else has interacted with Kaiser what he wrote in this and previous forms of this work?

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Larry's picture

Moderator

I had a class with Kaiser (wonderful man, very personable, not a great class). I reviewed the Promise Plan for the DBTS journal here (http://archive.dbts.edu/journals/2010/BookReviews.pdf ... on p. 131).

Kaiser has a lot of helpful stuff. I was not impressed by the Promise Plan as a paradigm for interpreting Scripture. Too many holes, not enough unity, too much strain to make it fit, IMO.

However, he did sign my copy with "To my favorite Old Testament scholar, Larry!" as you can see in the picture below. I don't know how to make the picture just show up. But you click on it and see it.

 

alex o.'s picture

Larry wrote:

I had a class with Kaiser (wonderful man, very personable, not a great class). I reviewed the Promise Plan for the DBTS journal here (http://archive.dbts.edu/journals/2010/BookReviews.pdf ... on p. 131).

Kaiser has a lot of helpful stuff. I was not impressed by the Promise Plan as a paradigm for interpreting Scripture. Too many holes, not enough unity, too much strain to make it fit, IMO.

However, he did sign my copy with "To my favorite Old Testament scholar, Larry!" as you can see in the picture below. I don't know how to make the picture just show up. But you click on it and see it.

 

Hopefully, others will chime in and give their thoughts. What I read seemed convincing about the use of "promises" to refer to The Promise given in Gen. 3.15. I have only read the intro. and 1st chapter which I agreed with wholeheartedly. 

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Ed Vasicek's picture

I heard a lecture by Kaiser in about 1978 when a student at Moody (presented by the Student Theological Society).  His early book, Toward An Exegetical Theology was quite valuable -- i read it not too long after that lecture (can't remember if it was out already or not)

Thanks, Larry and Walter, for sharing your thoughts and the link to the review.

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Joel Tetreau's picture

So - I've never kept it quiet. I love Dr. McCune for a variety of reasons. His teachings on dispensationalism and a dispensational approach to Scripture were ministry impactful for me. For the three of you who care, I'm perhaps not as "tight" a dispensationalist as Dr. McCune is however....with his teaching....I had an excellent instruction on careful yet "classic" dispensationalism before allowing my dispensationalism to be altered....a bit. For those who continue to see any kind of an Grace/Law.....Church/Israel......literal/allegorical distinction between the various hermeneutical approaches to Scriptures, my suggestion is you read Dr. McCune. His teachings on dispensationalism include Scriptures teachings on stewardship responsibilities for God's people in different  eras....and Dr. McCune's clarity on Old Testament Theology shoes that Covenant Theology's approach to a single arching "covenant of grace" and their (what I call a slippery) handling of hermeutics undermines a right interpretation of Scripture. I'm sure you can find his teachings on dispensationalism by contacting Detroit Baptist Seminary. Dr. McCune helped our church in a bible conference several years ago on the topic of dispensationalism and it frankly was one of the best bible conferences we ever had as a congregation.

Straight Ahead!

jt 

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Ed Vasicek's picture

Haven't heard from you in ages -- glad you are alive and well, and, frankly, miss your posts.  You are a pleasure to interact with.  I have no doubt that Dr. McCune is the amazing advocate of TD you understand him to be.

I think we need to think more in terms of "families."  For example, Non-denom Bible Churches, Grace Brethren Churches, and Baptist Churches are all in the same general family, we might say the Baptist family.  Sure, there are distinctions (just as there are between particular churches), but the idea of a family is a useful paradigm.

I think it is important for anyone in the broadly dispensational camp to work together as a "Dispensational family,"  to plug up the leak toward Covenant Theology and regain lost ground.  This includes PDs, TDs, and Olive Tree Theologies, to name a few (Olive Tree Theology is a view held by many Messianic Jews, very similar IMO to PD).

We are right to direct our energies toward interpreting Scripture as accurately as we can, and that passion is going to create variations in our hermeneutical approach as we seek to hone our approach so that it accounts more accurately for what we see in Scripture.  Of course, some people just trust the scholars in their camp to give them the rules, and they never question their accuracy by testing those rules with what we actually see in the Word, but that's a longstanding issue grounded in personality.

The Scriptures do not use the term "Trinity," but men have coined it to refer to the harmonization of the Bible's many teachings about the Nature of God, and it stands up to the Scriptural test. In like manner, we start inductively and then revert to deduction: seeing what is in the Word and then postulating a system that accounts for what we see.  We then test our deductions for consistency in Scripture, and we adjust the system and fine tune it so that it harmonizes with what we actually see int the Word.  

Although these statistics are completely unscientific, they are give as an example simply to demonstrate my subjective thinking based upon my personal biases.  They are intended merely as illustration.  Perhaps Covenant Theology accounts for 80% of what we see in the Bible (leaving much of the OT unaccounted for in a satisfying way, IMO),  Traditional Dispensationalism, let's say, accounts for perhaps 90% of what we see.  In this example (which is not factual, but my casual opinion), Progressive Dispensationalism may account for say 93% of what we see.  It is merely a fine tuning. That 3% gain, however, is in areas that pertain particularly to use of the Old Testament in the New.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Enjoying the back and forth here, despite not knowing yet exactly where I fit as I'll study more on this.  One thing to add is that IMO, the EFCA, at least at its best, belongs in the Baptistic family.  Some concerns, just as I'd have with the Conservative Baptists and even some GARBC churches, but part of the family nonetheless.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Rob Fall's picture

idea is you have:

  • immediate family-brothers
  • first cousins
  • second cousins
  • third cousins twice removed

Some you'd lend and feud for.  Others would do well a Christmas card and get invited to the family picnic.  Some you'd only know they were relate because they appeared in Aunt Matilda's family genealogy.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Joel Tetreau's picture

Ed,

Thx for the kind response. I apologize for my absence from SI......between a busy season at Southeast Valley Bible......a busy seasons at IBL (Institute of Biblical Leadership) - [I write this post from a ministry trip to Norway, Africa and Spain].....and a busy time with writing a new book - "Sharing the Pyramid and the Box - Ministry Delegation"....I just don't have the time to do much here at SI. Please understand I appreciate what you guys are doing and I do continue to read from time to time what's happening here......

I've appreciated your thoughts and agree with them on the "family" that Baptist, Brethren and Bible Churches have.....especially in the main with dispensationalism. I also agree with your thoughts about the % of accuracy cov't theology has vis-a-vis dispensationalism.......those are helpful.

Straight Ahead friends!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Paul Henebury's picture

A bit late here.  Thanks for this Ed.  I agree that some PD is compatible with a broad traditional Dispensationalism - at least the Saucyite brand.  I think the Blaising/Bock position veers a little too much into a different understanding of grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  It really holds to grammatical-historical-literary-canonical hermeneutics, with the last category determining much of the others.  

I think your percentages re. the accuracy of each system are a tad generous.  Especially CT cannot be seen as 80% accurate if one declines to accept their deductive way of going about interpreting important issues.  As for TD, well, to my mind, there is an over-focus on dispensations over covenants which needs to be corrected.  Stewardships are tertiary things in comparison to Divine oaths.  

Thanks for a thoughtful article.

 

God bless,

 

Paul

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

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