A Reluctant Dispensationalist

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.

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There are 6 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thought I had some issues/questions on this one, then I read it one more time. I really think this is the way to go, for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that it's not to the advantage of the body of Christ as a whole to be "identity focused" about sound hermeneutics. That is, the existence of an identifiable group/tradition/movement called "dispensationalism" is not what matters here. What matters is stemming the tide (as much as possible) of hermeneutical decay that begins with selectively turning the meanings of texts into something quite other than could have been possible at the time and place they were written/spoken.

Dispensations flow from looking properly at texts; we don't look properly at texts by committing first to dispensations.

So refocusing the process on covenant integrity could turn out to be very fruitful. How to get that ball really rolling though....

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture


Mark Ward, Bible typography ninja and Logos warrior, is posting the introductions he wrote to various portions of the Bible over at his blog. I linked to his overview of the whole Bible in the filings yesterday. He posted his OT introduction this morning.

I think he did a fine job. His intro is perhaps 500 words, so I would challenge anybody to try to do a better job with those space limitations! There are many ways to frame the Biblical narrative. One good OT biblical theology (Dominion and Dynasty, Stephen Dempster) puts a whole lot of emphasis on Israel; as its subtitle proclaims, it's a biblical theology of the Hebrew Bible only. Some strong dispensationalists would explain the OT by using the various dispensations. Ward is taking the whole Bible approach, rather than making OT and NT biblical theology stand apart. He ends with a description of the New Covenant to come.

It made me think of Dr. Henebury's point here - a very profitable (and perhaps better?) way to structure a whole Bible biblical theology is to simply use the covenants as the framework - the real  covenants (sorry, my Covenant Theology friends!).   

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Covenant theology has its speculative "covenant of grace." Some versions of dispensationalism have their speculative dispensations ("innocence," "human government" etc.). CT depends on its speculations. Dispensationalism's hopeful guesswork is peripheral.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

josh p's picture

This is really the crux of the matter. So much theology is impacted by the speculative covenants that then ends up being isogeted into other contexts. This is why I am so thankful for continuing discussion about dispensationalism. Covenant theology appears to be the flavor of the week and (in my experience) many Christians tend to uncritically accept what they commonly hear.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Great point, Aaron.

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks for these comments.  In the end my objective is to make 'Dispensationalism' more prescriptive. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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