Five Difficulties for Progressive Dispensationalism


There are at least five reasons that progressive dispensational (PD) represents a departure from a normative hermeneutic (literal grammatical historical) and reading of the Bible. The first two pertain to methodology in arriving at conclusions, and the latter three have to do with theological conclusions which are not exegetically derived.

The Complementary Hermeneutic Is a Departure from Fixed Meaning

Blaising and Bock recognize that methodology is definitive in the formation of PD, and acknowledge that PD is the result of a methodological departure from the hermeneutic of classical and revised dispensational thought, as they observe that,

Evangelical grammatical-historical interpretation was…broadening in the mid-twentieth century…And by the late 1980s, evangelicals became more aware of the problem of the interpreter’s historical context and traditional preunderstanding of the text being interpreted. These developments…have opened up new vistas for discussion which were not considered by earlier interpreters, including classical and many revised dispensationalists. These are developments which have led to what is now called “progressive dispensationalism.”1

Milton Terry represents classical and revised perspectives of the historical aspect of the literal grammatical historical hermeneutic when he notes that,

The interpreter should, therefore, endeavour to take himself from the present, and to transport himself into the historical position of his author, look through his eyes, note his surroundings, feel with his heart, and catch his emotion. Herein we note the import of the term grammatico-historical interpretation.2

Robert Thomas states adeptly the differing PD perspective as represented by Bock:

Bock, on the other hand, advocates a multilayered reading of the text which results in a “complementary” reading (or meaning) that adds to the original meaning determined by the text’s original setting. The “complementary” perspective views the text from the standpoint of later events, not the events connected with the text’s origin. He proposes a third layer of reading also, that of the entire biblical canon. In essence, he sees three possible interpretations of a single text, only one of which pertains to the text’s original historical setting. He refers to his method as a historical-grammatical-literary reading of the text. He notes that “such a hermeneutic produces layers of sense and specificity for a text, as the interpreter moves from considering the near context to more distant ones.” By thus ignoring the way the original historical setting “freezes” the meaning of a text, Bock concludes that the meaning of any given passage is not static, but dynamic. It is ever changing through the addition of new meanings.3

This shift in definition means a shift in emphasis. In classical and revised perspectives, the meaning of a passage is embedded in the passage at the time of writing and is not adjusted by later related writings. The difference between meaning and significance is evident in that the meaning of a passage doesn’t change with forthcoming data, though its usage (significance) may. In PD perspective, meaning does change as complementary passages provide new information. In classical and revised perspectives, the earlier texts have primacy in providing definitions and precedents for meaning. In PD perspectives, the complementary passages have primacy as they provide the fuller meaning. This is a key methodological maneuver that removes certainty of understanding from all but the latest interpreters (and who is to know whether there might not be more revelation coming which might provide further redefinitions?). This is a change, but not progress.

“Already Not Yet” Is Not Exegetically Demonstrable

One prominent advocate of PD has justifies already not yet as a hermeneutic device by appealing to salvation, and the future aspects embedded along with the past and present, and concluded that if there are already not yet aspects of salvation, then there can be already not yet aspects of the covenants. The problem with that appeal is that one would have no idea of past, present, or future aspects unless they were (at least) first explicitly stated as individual propositions in a given text. For example, in Ephesians 2:8, we have been delivered (from being children of wrath), in Ephesians 2:10 we are presently His workmanship, and also in Ephesians 2:10 it is intended that we walk in good works. In Romans 5:1 we have been justified, we have peace with God, and we will be delivered from the wrath of God Romans 5:9. My point here is that each aspect is stated separately and is exegetically defensible. There is no already not yet to be applied in the hermeneutic of salvation passages, nor should there be in covenant passages.

Right Hand of a Throne Is Not a Throne

The phrase “the right hand” is used 35 times in Scripture, and never once refers directly to royalty or kingship. Further, according to Romans 8:34, Jesus’s role at the Father’s right hand is to intercede, not rule. Also, in Hebrews 8:1 we learn that Jesus is at the right hand of the throne, and is never elsewhere said to be presently on any throne. Further, while “angels and authorities and powers have been subjected to him,” we learn in 1 Peter 3:22 that this was before Jesus even ascended. Thus there is no “already” aspect of Davidic Covenant fulfillment, nor any assumption of authority embedded in His being seated at the right hand of the Father. On the other hand, Jesus Himself asserts in Matthew 25:31 that it will be when He comes in glory with His angels that He will sit on His glorious throne. There is no other throne identified in Scripture upon which Christ has sat or will sit. Revelation 19:11-14 describes a future event in which Jesus returns in glory—with “the armies of heaven.”

Is the Kingdom Here or Near?

In Revelation 12:10 the Kingdom is described as having “now” come during the day of the Lord when the accuser is thrown down. Prior, it is said to be “at hand” or “near” except for a few exceptions within parable references4 and Jesus’ eschatological statement in Luke 17:1-3 that people in the future will not say to look here or there, for the kingdom would be in their midst. In John 18:36, Jesus acknowledges that His kingdom is not (present tense) “from here.” In order for an “already” aspect of the kingdom, something explicit would need to change to make the kingdom “from here.” A parable reference to a nobleman who traveled to receive a kingdom, for example, does not constitute eschatological bearing on the timing or sequence of events related to the arrival and installation of the Messianic kingdom. In Revelation 19, on the other hand, it asserted explicitly that Christ comes in glory and in judgment and, in Revelation 20:4 and 6 it is asserted that Christ is reigning at that point, and others share in that reign for one thousand years.

In the meantime, the kingdom of the heavens is not here, though its citizens are. Colossians 1:13 explains that we have been rescued from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of Christ. Because of that transfer, Paul adds in 3:1-4 that we ought to set our minds on things above (not on things of earth), because we have been raised up with Christ, and He is seated at the right hand of God. One day Christ will be revealed in glory, and we with Him. It is then that we will no longer need to have our minds set on things above, as He will return and His kingdom will be inaugurated in glory.

Distinctions and the Body of Christ

Ephesians 2:12 describes (believing) Gentiles’ past tense separation from things of Israel, including the covenants, yet in the following verse (2:13) these Gentiles are not brought “in” but rather they are brought “near.” Near is not in. The two (Jew and Gentile) are indeed one new man in the body (2:15,16, 19). Gentiles don’t become Jews or even spiritual Jews. There is simply unity in the body, and our identity in the body of Christ has nothing to do with ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic standing. If this assertion represents an invalidation of ethnic distinctions altogether, then it also invalidates, for example, any gender distinctions. The kingdom, on the other hand, is broader than the scope of the body, as there will be citizens of the kingdom from Old Testament times (Abraham, etc.), but those citizens are not part of the body of Christ. Recognizing that not all citizens of the kingdom are from the body of Christ yet all members of the body of Christ are citizens of the kingdom is to observe a vital distinction embedded in the Biblical narrative. As is often the case, acknowledging textually explicit distinctions can help keep us from a confused theology that blurs definitions and juxtaposes things which are separate.


1 Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton: Victor, 1993), 35-36.

2 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 231.

3 Robert Thomas, The Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism, TMSJ 6:2, Spring 1995: 88.

4 E.g., Matthew 13:31,33,44,45,47,52, 20:1, Mark 4:26, Luke 13:18, 19:12,15.


Progressive Dispensationalism, like Dispensationalism, represents a range of views. If you think of the difference between Scofield and Ryrie, for example, they are in the same broad camp but differ on some points. I have long thought that Saucy’s perspective was better than Bock’s on several points.

But I do agree with the idea of “layering” in texts in the sense that the Scriptures demonstrate the concept of near, less-literal fulfillment — and distant more literal fulfillment (or possibly the reverse). This is not the same as saying the meaning of the text changes. Nothing is eliminated, but less literal fulfillments are ADDED, which is why I believe they are perhaps referred to as “mysteries.” This is tied into the concept of midrash in which less obvious (but sometimes legitimate) meanings or implications of a verse are derived. We see Jesus doing this when He proves the afterlife by referring to God telling Moses that He “is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The afterlife is implied in the verse, but that is not the context of the verse. Thus Jesus has unlocked a “mystery.”

This distinction is important to understand. In Covenant theology, the literal fulfillment is often eliminated and replaced with a less literal one.

Examples of more literal/less literal fulfillment are all over the New Testament. John the Baptist was the less literal fulfillment of the Malachi 4 prophecy, but Elijah (literally) will come as prophesied, perhaps one of the two witnesses in Revelation.

Pentecost fulfilled Joel’s prophecy in a less-literal way, but the prophecy will be more literally fulfilled during the Tribulation. Some of Jesus’ disciples would witness the coming of the Kingdom of God before they died, and they did in the Transfiguration, which was a less-literal preview and referred to later by Peter as the “coming” of the Lord (2 Peter 1:16-18). The less literal fulfillment of a virgin birth from Isaiah 7:14ff is less-literally fulfilled in the context, Isaiah 8:1-4, but its more literal fulfillment in Matthew 1-2. These are a few glaring examples.

Saucy rightly emphasizes the mirror image concept. The Law (Tabernacle, sacrifices) were literal but foreshadowed spiritual concepts. The church is a spiritual entity, but will be followed by a literal Millennium with Christ physically present. Millennial promises made to the gentiles are fulfilled less literally in the church but more literally in the Millennium. This, I argue, is a more natural, unstrained reading of the text.

I find myself between traditional dispensationalism and progressive, but I think there are some shortfalls in traditional dispensationalism that the progressive version corrects — but — at the same time — many versions of progressive dispensationalism create new problems (like Christ reigning from David’s throne now — a concept with which I disagree).

"The Midrash Detective"