Editor’s note: This interview dates back to last fall, but I only recently discovered it—and found it quite interesting. The interview was conducted by Adrian Isaacs, M.Rel., Th.D (Cand.). He interviewed Dr. Christopher Cone for dissertation research at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.
Isaacs: In your estimation, how would you describe the current level of scholarly, academic discussion regarding dispensationalism within the overall evangelical academic community (eg. virtually non-existent, some discussion exists, still a fair amount of discussion)?
Cone: Dispensationalism has always been a grassroots movement, more centered on the folks than on the ivory towers. Still there has been and is quite a bit of academic discussion of dispensationalism. Currently, the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, the Pre-Trib Study Group, and the Journal of Dispensational Theology are just a few of the numerous entities committed to academically handling dispensational issues. I assess that academic discussion is actually increasing in dispensational circles, as dispensationalists seek to become even more biblically consistent, and as we seek to provide better (more biblical) answers to the critiques.
Because dispensationalism is not a hermeneutic in itself, but is actually the result of applying the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic to the Bible, any context in which biblical hermeneutics is on the table is a context in which dispensational issues come into play. Hermeneutics is the key.
Isaacs: Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising pioneered “progressive dispensationalism” a few decades ago. Some, both within dispensationalism and outside of it have questioned whether this form of dispensationalism is really dispensationalism at all. Do you believe Bock and Blaising’s system merits the “dispensational” designation, or is the normative vs. progressive argument blown out of proportion (i.e. it’s really not a major issue at all)?
Cone: In a sense, we are all dispensationalists—if you aren’t taking a sacrifice to the temple in Jerusalem, then you hold to some dispensational distinctives. The question is to what degree does the Bible speak of different administrations or economies in God’s working.
Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, and Robert Saucy were (and still are) all very influential in the popularization of progressive dispensationalism. It is a very significant development, because it is the result of a subtle departure from the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic in favor of a canonical hermeneutic (similar to that of Brevard Childs) that has been referred to as the complementary hermeneutic. Essentially the complementary hermeneutic reads (at least aspects of) the OT through the lens of the NT, rather than reading the NT through the lens of the OT (the latter is consistent with the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic). The resulting “already not yet” of progressive dispensationalism is a substantial shift from historical dispensational understandings—though I readily admit (and critique) that traditional dispensationalists have not been entirely consistent either in how we handle some of these things. Still, the differences between traditional and progressive dispensationalism are primarily grounded in that hermeneutic device (primacy of the NT over the OT), and are therefore very significant, I believe.
Because of the hermeneutic departure, I do not see progressive dispensationalism as akin to traditional dispensationalism, per se—I agree with Ryrie’s assessment that the system more resembles covenant premillennialism.
Isaacs: The nation of Israel has always had a key eschatological role in dispensationalism. Do you think the establishment of the modern, secular state of Israel in 1948 vindicates—or at least adds more credibility to—dispensational premillennialism over the other millennial systems (amillennialism, postmillennialism, historic premillennialism)?
Cone: 1948 was a significant date for Israel, of course, but it isn’t necessarily a prophetically significant date. Some suggest that 1948 could be a fulfillment of the first part of the Ezekiel 37 prophecy (flesh on bone, with no breath), but I think that is a tough connection to make. Still, it is significant that Israel is in the land, but if God so desires, He could allow her to be removed again. I don’t expect that to happen, but it wouldn’t violate biblical prophecy if it did.
We see that associated with God’s fulfilling His new covenant with Israel, Israel will return to the land—will be brought back by God to the land—and will not just be physically restored, but also will receive a spiritual restoration. The two go hand in hand. We expect literal future fulfillments of these promises.
In the meantime, clearly God is working with Israel, and the pieces are moving into place for literal fulfillments of the prophecies of Revelation, for example, but I am very cautious about trying to connect prophecy with snapshots in time. I suggest that events of our time don’t add to or detract from the credibility of dispensational premillennialism—it is either a correct understanding of Scripture or it isn’t. If it is, then there is a timeline of future events we can map out, but date setting is never wise (or biblical)—nor is trying to build an eschatology from the news of the day.
Isaacs: Dispensationalism has often been looked down upon—sometimes with ferocious contempt—by the wider evangelical academic community. In your opinion, what do you think might be some reasons for this attitude of contempt?
Cone: While it is true that the “wider evangelical academic community” has recently been largely non-dispensational, the actual evangelical community has been more dispensational than you might think. What you are observing, I think, is an ongoing struggle by those in the academy to attain respect within the academy.
Here’s what I mean: the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic is for the most part very simple to apply. There is not much room there for scholarly advances, at least in comparison with newer hermeneutic theories, which can sometimes offer a whole new perspective on texts. On the one hand, scholarship in general is very receptive to novelty. On the other, biblical scholars have a challenge to handle the Bible accurately—knowing that we are dealing with finite quantities (i.e., ancient texts) without being caught up in the search for theological baubles. Certainly, sometimes we discover things we have missed and we have to recalibrate our understanding, but for the most part the first two-thousand years of history (Genesis 1-12) models a very clear biblical hermeneutic. So, while we learn much about the relevant cultures and manuscripts through archaeology and textual disciplines, not a whole lot of new information has been added over the years that would dramatically effect our interpretations of the Bible. Instead, we primarily have confirmations of what is already there (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Every time a dissertation is written, there is a quest for at least some degree of novelty, lest the readers question the necessity and validity of the research. It’s kind of boring to just do what has already been done. So there is an appeal to newness. We need to be very careful regarding that temptation when we are handling Scripture, and we need to be certain we are not complicating what God has made simple. Again, it is a hermeneutic thing.
If you change the rules to the game, you change the game. The theological disagreements between non-dispensational and dispensational systems are rooted in hermeneutics. When those hard headed dispensationalists refuse to “progress” in their hermeneutic thinking, and consequently hold to ideas like God fulfilling promises to national Israel literally, that arouses passions in some people.
Just as we see groups of people trying to inherit the covenant promises of Israel through Islam—with one brother (Ishmael) trying to take the blessings of another (Isaac)—I think we sometimes see the same thing in the church. The amillennial and postmillennial systems represent, I believe, attempts for the church to displace Israel and claim Israel’s promises for the church.
When you have two little kids fighting over the same toy, sometimes things get heated. God promised Ishmael his own blessings, and He promised Isaac others. Likewise, God promised Israel blessings, and he promised the church other blessings. God has the right to determine who gets what toys, and we should be able to rejoice for each other in the fact that God has given us each our own toys. But we prove time and time again that we aren’t mature enough to do that. Praise God for His patience and grace.
Isaacs: Dispensationalism’s treatment of Israel and the church is probably what most sets it apart from other interpretive systems. How would you respond to critics of dispensationalism who say that dispensationalists have drawn too sharp a distinction between Israel and the church?
Cone: Once again, this is a hermeneutic issue. If the Bible, literally understood, draws a clear and complete distinction between Israel and the church, then we can’t deny the distinction. Typically those that deny such a distinction admit that the literal hermeneutic results in such a distinction, but they don’t agree theologically with such a distinction so they prefer another hermeneutic. This maneuver—preferring a theological hermeneutic over a literal grammatical-historical one is not uncommon, and dispensationalists are often guilty of the same error.
For example, some dispensationalists have gone beyond what is written and speculated on some aspects of the distinction, such as the theological idea that New Jerusalem remains forever suspended above the new earth, lest somehow OT saints and church age saints actually have some interaction. There is no biblical grounding for that concept, but yet it has been a prominent teaching in traditional dispensationalism.
The simple question here is what does the Bible teach, and you cannot answer that question without first resolving the hermeneutic issue—without acknowledging the rules to the game.
Isaacs: Normative dispensationalism speaks of a distinct church age in which Israel has been temporarily set aside, suspending the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy spoken by Israel’s prophets. How then is one to understand passages like Acts 2:14-21—where Peter identifies the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with that which was prophesied in Joel?
Cone: Acts 2:16-21 is a direct reference by Peter to Joel 2:28-29. There are a few keys in these passages to help us understand what Peter’s hearers would have understood-–primarily, it is vital to realize that Peter never uses fulfillment language. He never cites Joel 2:28-29 as being fulfilled by the events at Pentecost. Rather Peter appeals to his hearers’ expectation that God would one day pour out His Spirit, and Peter explains that this is “the having been spoken through the prophet Joel.”
This is the pouring out of His Spirit—clearly not the same event as Joel prophesied (that event would be accompanied by other cataclysmic events as described in Acts 2:19-20) that would directly precede the day of the Lord, but it is nonetheless an outpouring of His Spirit. Peter’s hearers should not have been surprised at what they were observing, as it was not out of character for God to work that way. He would pour out His Spirit before the day of the Lord, so He could choose to pour out His Spirit in a similar way earlier, if He so desired. The response of Peter’s listeners (at the end of Acts 2) illustrates that they did not perceive the event to be a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy—they were not expecting heavenly cataclysms at that moment. Instead, they seemed focused on simple devotion—as Peter was exhorting them.
Had Peter said that Joel’s words were actually fulfilled, that would have been a different statement altogether—and a huge, huge issue. But he didn’t. In fact, nothing in Joel 2:28-29 fits what happened in Acts 2, accept that the Spirit was working in a very unique way (Acts 2:4). Thus Joel’s prophecy remains still yet unfulfilled.
As for Israel’s current role, Romans 11:25 is pretty straightforward. But then again, so is 11:26.
Isaacs: A few years ago, a book was published by Alistair Donaldson entitled “The Last Days of Dispensationalism.” Do you think dispensationalism has seen its “final days,” or is there reason to be hopeful about the future of dispensational theology?
Cone: If dispensationalism is not an accurate understanding of Scripture, then I would hope it would fade away quickly. I would welcome its demise. However if it is essentially representative of the biblical revelation, then it will stick around for a while.
I have no concern whatsoever for the future of dispensational theology, other than that those of us who hold to it continue to refine and be sure that we are being biblical in our theology—the same concerns I would have for those adhering to any theological system. We need not be defenders of theological systems—even biblical ones. His word can take care of itself. Our job is to learn it, to do it, and to teach others as He provides opportunity.
To put it another way, we should not be loyal to theological systems. We must be loyal to God’s word, and we need to understand it as He intended us to. And that is the basic question posed by the non-dispensationalism/dispensationalism debate: “What did God really mean when He said…?” My prayer is that we each simply grow more and more submissive to His word, allowing the Bible to speak for itself, and avoiding reading our own theological concepts into the text. It’s about Him, not us!
Isaacs: Thanks again for your time and contributions!
Cone: Absolutely, Adrian, hopefully this has been helpful!
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.