The Double-Edged Sword of Dispensationalism: Destructive as Methodology, Constructive as Outcome (Part 4)

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Illustrating how a self proclaimed (leaky) dispensationalist can apply the same methodology (theological precommitments predetermine outcomes), John MacArthur states the precommitment this way: “God’s law is a manifestation of His nature. What God has commanded, moral attitudes and behaviors, is a reflection of His nature.”43 MacArthur recognizes this (pre)commitment has implications and explains them as follows:

“So, to come along and say that the law is unimportant is to say that the very nature of God and the will of God as reflected in His law is insignificant and unimportant, which I see as a blow or a strike against the very character of God. That is why, at the end of Romans 3, Paul says, after talking about justification by grace through faith alone, he says, ‘Do we nullify the law?’ And then he says, me genoito, ‘No, no, no, God forbid: but we establish the law.’”44

The (semi) continuation of the Law is now a necessary consequence of the precommitment, and it impacts how MacArther views the new nature (and is one of the reasons he rejects the dual nature idea): “…And that new nature is a new, divinely created disposition infused with power from the Holy Spirit so that you can now, for the first time, actually obey the law. And not just obey the law, but love to obey the law.”45 In asserting the new nature’s ability (and design) to obey the law, MacArthur seems to recognize that his words are conflicting with Paul’s, so he clarifies to resolve that apparent contradiction. Notice he doesn’t clarify his own words, but Paul’s:

“…when Paul says you’re not under the law, he first means you’re not under the law as a means of salvation. You’ve come out from under the law, and you are no longer defining your relationship to God by your ability to keep the law satisfactorily, which was impossible.”46

Based on MacArthur’s theological precommitment to God’s law as a manifestation of God’s nature (an assumed premise of both Continuity and Semi-Continuity), MacArthur asserts that believers are now enabled, equipped, and designed to keep the law, though not for justification. But it is noteworthy how on the one hand he distinguishes between justification and sanctification (not wanting to affirm justification by works of law), yet in the immediate context joins the two together again:

“…salvation is both a forensic reality—that is, God declares you righteous by imputing His righteousness to you—and it is also a real change so that you now are given the ability to live righteously, which is to live in conformity to the law of God and do so willingly from the heart.”47

On the one hand it is a forensic reality, on the other it is a “real” change. The unbeliever has “broken the law of God and He’s angry about it. Unless something happens to change your condition, you’re on your way to eternal hell.”48 That something is faith and repentance, which MacArthur (problematically) defines as “turning from sin.”49 Yet he adds that true repentance inevitably results in a change of behavior.”50 MacArthur begins with a theological precommitment that results in several theological-over-exegetical affirmations. When following this methodology it becomes apparent that objective exegesis can no longer be possible, because the theological precommitments are too influential. Often God’s character and His gospel are defined outside of the normative principles of communication because of those precommitments.

The Discontinuity view, on the other hand, is consistent (and even synonymous) with a dispensational understanding of God’s character and His relationship to good and legislation. These two ideas are consistent because they both rely on LGH and objective exegesis to derive their affirmations. Nowhere in Scripture does God reveal any ontological limitations for His declarations of good nor of His legislations, thus any assertions of such limitations would be speculative theological constructs. Discontinuity and dispensational thought attempt to avoid these because they have no exegetical basis. Further, there is no exegetical case to be made for the three-fold division of the Law, and there is no exegetical case to be made for the church to be under the Law of Moses. Instead, we discover when applying normative communication principles that God is holy,51 that God determines and reveals what is good,52 and that He works all things for His glory.53 If He desires to change, fulfill, end, or apply legislation He has sovereign rights as the Creator and as the Legislator to do so.

This particular case study is intended to illustrate how one seemingly innocuous theological precommitment can greatly impact one’s theological outcomes. If one predetermines theology and uses those predeterminations to direct their exegesis, then they must do so at the abandonment of normative communication principles (LGH) and with a departure from the exegetical process. Any theological precommitment great or small that preempts hermeneutics and exegesis is destructive if we are designed to understand truth by hermeneutic principles and through the exegetical process.

Dispensationalism is no exception. As an outcome, (traditional) dispensationalism is an excellent and helpful way to organize and understand Biblical and historical data. Yet if used as a method, dispensationalism becomes credal (just like every other theologically driven system), locking in any theological error for future interlocutors, darkening the path of exegesis. This state of affairs would necessitate constant reformation to once again return our focus to the very words that God provided for our accurate understanding of Himself and His plan insofar as He has revealed these to us. It is significant that He revealed these things employing the principles of normative communication. Consequently dispensational thought matters and is thus constructive when those same principles are acknowledged and consistently applied.

Notes

43 John MacArthur, “Sanctification, Sin, and Obedience”, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/GTY164/sanctification-sin-an….

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 John MacArthur, “Saved. From What?”, https://www.gty.org/library/articles/A242/saved-from-what.

49 John MacArthur, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles (Word Publishing, 1993), 74.

50 Ibid., 75.

51 Isaiah 6:3.

52 Genesis 1, Micah 6:8.

53 E.g., Romans 11:36.

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