Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist. In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker (“Dr. Reluctant”) as a title.
Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors. They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals. Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all. And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.
For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, nor should not be, fixated on the defense of a system. Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing—its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible. We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right. That is a good thing. But the last word will not be said in this life. We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know). The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders. Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.
We have work to do to make Dispensational theology more prescriptive. We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling). “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains. Okay, I reply, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit? Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there? Can’t we make it run better and farther?
God has given us the Bible to understand Him, ourselves, and our world. He has not just given the Bible to tell us how to get saved. We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior and we discover who the Savior is and we discover our responsibility. Therefore hermeneutics becomes extremely significant to the understanding of truth, reality, God, salvation, and destiny. God invented communication in order for Him to communicate Himself to man. From the beginning God created man to understand His revelation; even before the Fall.
God has done the same thing with His Word. God has created man and given to him His Word in order for God to be understood. Man has an automatic system of hermeneutics built inside of him in order to interpret God’s revelation. Of course, the effects of sin have perverted our ability to observe and understand revelation. However, with the regeneration of the Spirit man’s ability is enhanced. Without hermeneutics we cannot communicate whatsoever, whether reading, writing or speaking. We need know the correct method of interpretation in order to distinguish between the Voice of God and the voice of man.
Craig Blaising, though identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist, has shown that this straightforward way of reading Scripture is in agreement with the way performative language is understood (see his essay in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds, Darrell Bock & Mitch Glaser, esp. 160-161). In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I have tried to show that all the primary doctrines of the Christian Faith are drawn from either direct (word for word) affinities between biblical texts and doctrinal propositional statements or from “inevitable” conclusions based on the collusion of those direct affinities. The Dispensational method of interpretation, which gives preference to these affinities, is therefore naturally geared to producing doctrines from one clear spring of vocabulary, not from a wider variety of murkier ones.
Personally, I am an avid advocate of a “Dispensational” account of every aspect of Truth in theology and worldview. But for this to become a reality, I am convinced that it ought to stop defining itself by dispensations and begin opening up the possibilities of unifying itself around the biblical covenants and defining its system and procedures by them. Then a fully-rounded theology which includes all the corpora of theology, not merely ecclesiology and eschatology, will be created, with the result that a Dispensational worldview will be developed and proclaimed.
One may argue back and forth about the dispensations; their number and features, without abandoning “Dispensationalism.” But one cannot ignore the biblical covenants without demolishing the whole project altogether. I only wish the position that I love to be freed from the torpidity which is often the unintended outcome of defending a point of view rather than of strengthening it. I am in sympathy with the Dispensational understanding of the Bible, and it has many advocates more able than I on its side. My main qualm concerns its understanding of itself. Many reflective dispensationalists will tell you that the dispensations themselves, both in definition and number, are not at the central core of what it’s all about. But because the name has stuck it creates almost an apprehension to look beyond it.
The covenants stand there upon the open pages of the Bible but they are rarely heard outside of a prearranged “Dispensational” recital. Given their wings, their power to organize, punctuate, and direct the eschatological movement of the Bible Story is unexcelled—and only “Dispensationalism” is in the right position to unleash their power. But … those dispensations!
My plea is for the biblical covenants to be given their rightful place and dispensations to be made subordinate to them. This will do nothing but invigorate the whole enterprise. Nothing would be lost; much would be gained. And I think the enemies of Dispensational theology would be harder put to disparage it.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.