The Double-Edged Sword of Dispensationalism: Destructive as Methodology, Constructive as Outcome (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Great Implications of a Subtle Distinction

At this point it is important note the vital distinction between (1) a hermeneutic which results in a theological system and (2) a theological system which prescribes a hermeneutic. The latter is found in most worldviews, and is easily identifiable in other Christian denominations and theological systems (e.g., the allegorical/theological hermeneutic of covenantalism, the canonical/dogmatic hermeneutic of Catholicism, etc.). Yet dispensational thought is grounded and rooted in the former: a hermeneutic which results in the theological system. The moment the theological system prescribes a hermeneutic, the theological system can no longer be considered a product of exegesis. Dispensationalism as a theological methodology is self-defeating at best and destructive at worst. Yet if it is an outcome, then it is constructive and useful, as Ryrie characterized it.

If dispensationalism is the hermeneutic, then dispensationalism is the lens through which dispensationalists seek to read Scripture, and if so, that is precisely the error Ryrie rebukes in his criticism of covenantalist thought. Especially in light of the conflating of the two (the theological system and the hermeneutic methodology) by those outside of dispensational thought, it would seem advisable to avoid any appearance of conflation and to consistently acknowledge and maintain the cause and effect boundaries and the distinctness of the hermeneutical cause and the theological effect. If one recognizes the Biblical model and consistent prescription of the LGH as integral to Biblical epistemology, and interprets all of Scripture through that lens, the outcome will be (at least the basic) traditional dispensational concepts. Critics of dispensationalism unashamedly affirm this (e.g., Berkhof, Gerstner), but believe the theological conclusions to be untenable and thus advocate a different hermeneutic approach.

A vital component of the epistemology modeled and prescribed in the Bible is the model for interpreting communication—the hermeneutic. LGH is modeled in every book of the Bible, and no alternative is announced nor extoled. If one consistently applies that hermeneutic, then they are putting into practice Biblical epistemology—they are thinking the way God revealed that He intended for humanity. If one applies those principles consistently, their theological outcome will look (at least) quite a bit like traditional dispensational thought. Thus it is fair to say that there is a distinctive hermeneutic (LGH) that results in the dispensational system. Some refer to this as a “dispensational hermeneutic,” but that is at best confusing. There is a distinctive hermeneutic (LGH) that results in the dispensational system. It is the basis of the dispensational system, but it is not part of the system, it is simply part of the sine qua non of the system. Ryrie’s sine qua non recognizes LGH consistently applied as a necessary prerequisite of dispensational thought, but never describes it as part of the thought-outcome or theological system. As LGH is directly contra the theological hermeneutic, if the hermeneutic of dispensationalism is a product of the theological system, then it cannot be LGH. Dispensationalism would be a self-defeating and hypocritical system (particularly in its critiquing other systems for embracing that very theological hermeneutic). The hermeneutic of dispensationalism is not dispensational, rather it is simply integral to communication as God created it and revealed it in the Bible, thus undergirding the Biblical worldview.

On the other hand, Kevin DeYoung argues that the “insistence on making the path between exegesis and theology a one way street is untenable and unwise.”25 He suggests that “Theology does not have to distort exegesis. Done well, it can help provide guardrails for the interpretive process [emphasis mine], honor the unity of Scripture, and throw a spotlight on the most important and most difficult issues arising from the Word of God.”26 These guardrails provided by theological conclusions would keep us from what errors, I wonder. And who will guard the guardrails? De Young provides an answer to that conundrum, as he muses, “As a Christian I hope that my theology is open to correction, but as a minister I have to start somewhere. We all do. For me that means starting with Reformed theology and my confessional tradition and sticking with that unless I have really good reason not to.”27 DeYoung joins many scholars in beginning with a system of theology in order to “better” understand the Scriptures. But at what cost. Even if the starting theological system is completely reliable, that preunderstanding shortens or short circuits the exegetical process. Theology comes last, not first, and if it attempts to do both (as DeYoung prescribes) then it comes first.

Finally, Tim Challies illustrates how a theological system as a method (rather than outcome) can be destructive. Challies’s reflection on why he is not dispensational in his theology is noteworthy:

“So why am I not dispensational? I’d like to say that I have studied the issue very closely, that I have read stacks of books on eschatology, and that I can thoroughly defend my position against every alternative. But that’s not the case. It’s more that my reading of the Bible, my years of listening to sermons, and my study of Christian theology has not been able to shake or displace the amillennialism of my youth [emphases mine]. To the contrary, it has only strengthened it. Paul Martin’s recent sermon series through Revelation strengthened it all the more. The very framework of dispensationalism appears to me to fall into a similar category as paedobaptism in that they both, in the words of Tom Hicks, “wrongly allow the Old Testament to have priority over the New Testament.”28

Challies began with an infusion of (amillennial) theology, and presupposing the principle of New Testament primacy, has found no good reason to abandon his original theology. Further, he is strengthened in his theological conclusions. It is worth noting that New Testament primacy could be characterized as sine qua non for amillennial thought. If that is so, then Challies justifies his rejection of dispensationalism based on a fundamental necessity of amillennial thought. In other words, the theological precommitment precludes hermeneutic objectivity and is self authenticating. This is destructive, because it does not allow the interlocutor to be objective in study and can obfuscate realities which might otherwise be readily recognizable in the text. If dispensational thought is guilty of theological precommitment, then it is no better off and no less destructive.

On the other hand, dispensational thought matters as a way of synthesizing history because it is the outcome of the Bible interpreted in a manner consistent with the hermeneutic principles described and prescribed in the Bible itself. Only insofar as dispensationalism is the outcome of that methodology can it provide a useful perspective of history, because as dispensational thought corresponds with Biblical methodology, it corresponds with truth. At any point at which the system trumps Biblical methodology that system is prone to error. The power of dispensationalism is not the system itself, but its distinctiveness as a comprehensive product of the Bible handled consistently according to the basic principles of normative communication (the LGH).

(Next: Case Study – Methodology and Outcome Pertaining to the Character of God, Law, and Implications)

Notes

25 Kevin DeYoung “Your Theological System Should Tell You How to Exegete” The Gospel Coalition, February 2012, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/your-theological-….

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Tim Challies “Why I Am Not Dispensational” June 23, 2016 https://www.challies.com/articles/why-i-am-not-dispensational.

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josh p's picture

I'm enjoying these. Thank you. I often say the debate is at bottom a hermeneutical debate and these articles have reinforced that conviction. 

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