Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 2

This completes the thoughts offered previously (see Part 1).

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology, the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology (DT) cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely contented to append their eschatology on to the end of another system—most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

When DT is tacked onto an already developed system of theology it can only present itself as a correction to certain aspects of that system of theology. In so doing it tangles with the methodological presuppositions of that theology. But because it allies itself so often to say, Reformed theology, it must act deferentially towards Reformed formulations in areas other than ecclesiology and eschatology. For if it failed to acknowledge Reformed theology’s right to assert itself in these other areas—the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man and sin, the doctrine of salvation, for example—it could not think of itself as Reformed. This is because in claiming its right to question Reformed assumptions in any theological area save in regard to the Last Things (and perhaps the Church), Dispensational theology would be asserting its right to formulate all its own doctrines independently of other theologies. It would grow to dislike its assumed role as a beneficial parasite, cleaning up areas of another theological system, and would wish to be “Dispensational” in every area! Ergo, even if DT’s formulations of all the theological areas were closely aligned with Reformed theology here and there, they would be its own formulations. This is precisely what I am pleading for!

Every knowledgeable person knows that Systematic Theology ought to be an outgrowth of Biblical Theology. The fact that most Dispensationalists are content to tack their views on to an already existing whole system doesn’t speak well for their Biblical Theology. For if Dispensational Biblical Theology cannot produce the impetus to formulate a distinctive and whole Systematic Theology of its own perhaps the trouble goes deeper? I believe it does, and that reformulating Dispensational Theology from a Biblical Covenantalist viewpoint gives you all the main points of traditional Dispensational Eschatology and Ecclesiology, but it also gives you enough material from which to formulate clear and distinctive versions of Prolegomena, Theology Proper, Anthropology, Christology, Pneumatology as well. As I have said elsewhere, I do not think that tracking the “dispensations” produces enough usable doctrine to work up a solid systematics or worldview. If one is going to follow the standard definitions of Dispensationalism as a “system of theology” there will be slim pickings when it comes to forging a Dispensational Systematic Theology. The irony should not be lost on us.

In the last part of my series Christ at the Center I tried to sum up the strong Christological emphasis of Biblical Covenantalism with some of the solid by-product from which robust doctrines in Systematic Theology could be constructed. Although I have recorded over two hundred lectures in Systematic Theology along conventional lines, I think if I were to try to write a volume I would use the triad God, Man and the World. Beginning with the title “God Has Spoken” and introducing epistemological and ontological concerns, which in turn require ethical responses, I would ask questions about the knowability of God and (following Calvin) the knowability of ourselves in Creation. This introduces the doctrine of Revelation. Here I would want to press the joint reliance of the Sufficiency and Clarity of Scripture for the job ahead. That would open the door to hermeneutical questions.

Even so, dealing with Christ, I would take up the same rubric: God, Man and the World. In this way I would attempt to discuss the pre-existence of Christ along with the incarnation and cross and resurrection. I would want to “lace” the whole Systematics with Eschatological (and teleological) concerns, being careful to converge these themes in the section called “Eschatology” at the end of the work. This way one would hopefully see the inevitability of the convergence rather than now turning to “The Last Things.” The covenants of Scripture, dealing as they do with the same triad of God, Man and the World, could help accomplish this.

5. Worldview

Contrary to some views, Systematic Theology sets out the Bible’s teaching on God, Man and the World. It does not go cap-in-hand to worldly science and unbelieving philosophy, because it knows that the Biblical Worldview is the only workable worldview.

We are not free as Christians to indulge ourselves in the speculations of immanentistic philosophies (to use Dooyeweerd’s term). Our descriptions of the world must comport with the new man (cf. Rom. 12:2, 1 Cor. 10:31). Because we don’t begin with man but with God the Revealer, our comprehension and description of the world differs from the worldly descriptions. The worldly descriptions all fall under the cosh of Hume’s critique of induction and causation. They eventually have to appeal to the pragmatic for verification. But we must see the world as God sees it. That requires a comprehensive Systematics, not a piecemeal approach.

Again the covenants help us do this. Since the biblical covenants deal with matters like the uniformity of nature, the physical world and its inhabitants, recognition of the fallenness and wickedness of man, the land of Israel on the earth and among the nations, the promised Seed, the Priesthood, the Davidic kingship and kingdom, the new birth, the Church, and the restoration of all things, it appears that rightly connecting the doctrines one with another in conformity with the covenant stipulations and requirements; centering them in Jesus Christ, through whom they must pass, will produce a certain kind of Systematic Theology and Worldview. Because of the tight relationship between Systematic Theology and Christian Worldview the one represents just a different perspective on the other. And because they both grow from the soil of “Biblical Covenantalism” the Biblical Theology behind them lends itself well to preaching the whole counsel of God.

These are just some thoughts which I hope will help reignite the flame of Dispensational Theology.

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There are 13 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

I've been giving this some thought.

I'm not sure at this point why a system has to be complete to be a "system," though I don't mind using a less expansive term for my dispensationalism, in the interest of precision. I'm also not clear on why--if dispensationalism only modifies Reformed theology on eschatology and ecclesiology (to a degree)--this is not OK.  I'm open to persuasion, but I'm not sure I see yet what the benefits are to a systematic theo. that is distinctively "dispensational" (or "biblical covenantal") from top to bottom.

Paul Henebury's picture



Thanks for the questions.  I have a few minutes to reply:

1. A 'system' that cannot be systematized isn't much of a system.  As I believe Systematic Theology to be God's 'worldview' I see the goal of of any system to reflect what is revealed about God, Man and the World.

2. Reformed theology is covenant theology according to many of its brightest lights.  E.g. M. Horton in God of Promise; R. C. Sproul in Grace Unknown.  J.I. Packer, in his introduction to Witsius's Economy of the Divine Covenants says that the covenant of grace is the hermeneutic of CT.  Similar statements are made by G. Vos in his essay on 'The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.'  Quite simply, the theological methodology of Reformed theology (the methodology, I might add, which also produces their formulations of TULIP) is inimical to dispensationalism.

3. Dispensationalists have been retrograde in the area of prolegomena and method.  For this reason they have borrowed ideas from others which (for me) cannot be sustained by their own hermeneutical precommitments.  I realize that is saying a lot and I don't have time to fill it out.  but it is not for nothing that many Reformed groups hold dispensationalism as unorthodox (or nearly so) and unacceptable for any one to hold and remain in their denominations.  they see better than many DT's that dispensationalism undermines their whole theological presuppositions.


God bless,



Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Aaron Blumer's picture

That does help. Would you hold that using a uniquely non-CT methodology would necessarily lead to different soteriological conclusions than those of Reformed theology? Would it necessarily lead to different pneumatological conclusions? Different Christological ones? 

My skepticism in this area springs mainly from not seeing how the soteriology, Christology, etc. crumble if stripped of CT methodology. I am usually not even seeing CT methodology in the sources, but when I do, it's not hard to imagine how things look with that extracted. Typically, as far as I can tell, not all that different. It often appears to be tacked on needlessly by folks excessively dedicated (maybe infatuated?) with it and I wonder why they bother.

I realize I'm being really vague... and probably can't fix that anytime soon. I'm not immersed enough in the literature these days to recall specifics to mind (and time for digging is, alas, minimal)

Ed Vasicek's picture

I, too, am willing to be convinced and I do see your point, Paul, but only somewhat. I tend to agree with Aaron when he wrote:


My skepticism in this area springs mainly from not seeing how the soteriology, Christology, etc. crumble if stripped of CT methodology. I am usually not even seeing CT methodology in the sources, but when I do, it's not hard to imagine how things look with that extracted. Typically, as far as I can tell, not all that different. It often appears to be tacked on needlessly by folks excessively dedicated (maybe infatuated?) with it and I wonder why they bother.

I see it the same way.  What would change in the realm of Theology Proper, for example?  Or Bibliology?  Why reinvent the wheel?

I don't know whether you consider Chafer's Systematic complete in this regard, but he does quote Darby an awful lot more than any covenant source, IMO.

Also, I would argue that, while Dispensationalists have corrected the eschatological flaws of CT in the realm of eschatology, they have not gone all the way in the realm of Ecclessiology.  The way dispensationalists do church and think of church is greatly colored by the Reformers.  For example, the idea that the church gathers primarily for "worship" has never been proven Biblically (unless one believes that the church is a continuation of Israel and Temple worship).  Gene Getz has probably done the best job here, but I would argue that ecclessiology needs a lot of help.  In Christology, the Dispensational perspective can help further define Jesus' Jewishness.  And, as Arnold Fruchtenbaum reminds us, Israelology is the missing link in all versions of Systemaitc Theology.

So Paul, I agree with you that some work needs to be done.  But I disagree that we need a wholisitic approach.  When a theologian (even a Covenant one) accurately interprets and sets forth an area of theology that converges with a truly Biblical, full understanding -- we should snatch it up.  The ESV is a revision of the RSV which is a revision of the ASV which is a revision of the KJV which is a revison of the Bishop's Bible, etc., etc.. The same may apply to systematic theology, especially considering that even systematics have their stronger portions and weaker portions.

I am curious: which are your favorite dispensational systematics?  





"The Midrash Detective"

Larry's picture


I wrote a response in our previous conversation and I will post it soon. But I am not seeing how this moves us forward anywhere. Somehow and for some reason I am not yet clear on, you don't think DT is a system, and somehow apparently that is connected to the fact that DT shares some common beliefs with CT. To me, there is some work that needs to be done before that can be considered a part of the conversation. I would want to know what you mean by that.

So, what do you mean by the idea that is isn't a full-orbed system? How would, say, Theology Proper differ? What is it about DT and CT that means they can't share a Theology Proper (or any other doctrine)? How would DT systematize itself in a way that would satisfy you?

Paul Henebury's picture

These are good questions, but I do not have time right now to address them fully.  Give me a few days and I shall hopefully be able to oblige you.

I shall say this though: to call dispensational theology a system means it is a system in its own right, not that it is a correction of some aspects of a pre-existing system (usually CT).  Because DT focuses on dispensations, which are descriptive not prescriptive, it does not generate the systematic and worldview output which CT (without DT) produces.  I want it to do just that on its own terms.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Paul Henebury's picture

Aaron, Ed, and Larry,

A subject like this can (and ought to) go on being debated for a while.  I don't think any of us has the time to do this so I shall have to be content with giving this rejoinder:

1. "System" - Many of the definitions of Dispensationalism refer to it as "a system of theology".  I challenge this designation because DT can hardly be a system if it only has to do with two or three aspects of the theological corpus.  That is to say; DT is offered often as a sort of correction in only some areas of the system itself, and not as its own alternative system!  To call it a system when its adherents are often content with DT adjusting an already existing system is to waffle.  As I have said, Reformed covenant theology existed as a system before DT came along.  DT often tries to correct CT in this or that area, but not the whole system.  Ergo, it is not itself an alternative "system".  As such, DT cannot be systematized unless it attaches itself on to a pre-existing system.

2. The true system which DT most usually attaches to is CT.  But CT is not developed using what usually passes for dispensational hermeneutics.  For example, CT employs three theological covenants whose textual right to life is slender.  The covenant of grace acts as a hermeneutical lens through which CT's view the Bible.  Hence, their soteriology is focused through the covenant of grace.  This means there can be only and always one people of God in CT and no crucial Israel/church dichotomy.  This in turn affects their ecclesiology and their Pneumatology (since they hold that OT saints were regenerated and placed into the Body of Christ).  

3. Turning again to soteriology I tried to compare Reformed formulations of the Doctrine of Grace (TULIP) with plain-sense hermeneutics and I concluded that dispensationalists could not follow their deductive procedures (while they could agree here and there).  Here is the link to the last installment which links to all the others:

4. You all ask about the Doctrine of God and how a Dispensational (can I say Biblical Covenantal?) theology might differ.  This question is too involved to deal with properly here, but here are some thoughts:

i. The Doctrine of God is really the control for the other doctrines.  The other doctrines all rely somewhat on the picture of God developed in a system.  In Reformed CT God is dealt with in connection with the theological covenants and the doctrine of election which employs those covenant categories.  This can be seen well in the recent systematics of Horton and Frame.  Instead of picking out the bones of the theological covenants and trying to keep what's left together, what I suggest is that dispensationalists simply get ALL their doctrines from the Bible without feeling the need to agree or disagree with Reformed theology.  

ii. As I said, because God is conceived in terms of His operations within the framework of the theological covenants, these covenants drag matters soteriological, anthropological, ecclesiological into their orbit.  In soteriology it affects things like the extent of the atonement, regeneration prior to faith (logically), double predestination for the non-elect.  In anthropology it affects the nature of spiritual deadness etc.  In ecclesiology it affects the understanding of the Law in the Christian Life, the nature and standing of Israel, the mode of baptism and nature of election within the covenant.  In bibliology it affects the way the Bible is often seen as revelation to the elect only.  I simply cannot take the time needed to prove these statements (although see the posts linked to above).  As one who has familiarized himself with many Reformed Systematic Theologies I say that these things are entailed by a certain deductive approach to the Doctrine of God.  This is why fiddling with e.g. Reformed eschatology doesn't really work.  Their eschatology is informed by their formulations within Theology Proper, which affect their soteriology, ecclesiology etc.    

iii. Since Vos CT's have been busy developing attractive Biblical Theologies from which to fund their systems.  CT's Systematic Theology grows naturally out of their Biblical Theology.  If DT's followed the example of CT their Systematics would also grow out of their Biblical Theology.  BUT, I believe Dispensationalism as presently set-up has defined itself in such a way as to prevent this development from happening.  And, indeed, it does not!  Note what I have already stated about dispensations being descriptive not prescriptive!

5. I think there is an ongoing misunderstanding of what I'm talking about.  Of course we can "snatch up" a rightly formulated thread from a CT (or a Roman Catholic for that matter!).  But what I am concerned about is the construction of a system of theology.  I have no problem with anyone who is content to let matters alone where they are.  I cannot rest content though, even if my argument does not produce the king of jolt I would like it to.  

6. Ed asked about my favorite Dispensational systematics.  There's not much to choose from, but Chafer (which I have taught through) would still be tops.  Btw, Robert Lightner, Thomas Ice, and Arnold Fruchtenbaum were all my professors. 

God bless and thanks for your prompting.

Paul H


Dr. Paul Henebury

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

josh p's picture

Anyone who has not yet read McCune's systematic theology should check it out. I really liked his dealing with the dispensations.

TylerR's picture

Larry wrote a lengthy response, but it disappeared! 

I believe the basic point Paul is making is perfectly sound. Everybody acknowledges the dispensations themselves are somewhat vague; even Dallas Seminary in their doctrinal statement acknowledges that only three dispensations are clearly delineated in Scripture. The value of using the explicit Biblical covenants themselves as your framework is that you'll be building a BT, and eventually an ST, around an explicitly Biblical framework; not around the dispensations, many of which are admittedly vague and somewhat arbitrary. 


Dr. McCune does nothing in his ST that hasn't already been done before. He presented the standard DT scheme, I believe. Nothing against his presentation; it was sound and perfectly mainstream. It does nothing to address Paul's point. 

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

josh p's picture

Yeah I realize that it doesn't interact with what Paul is saying but since the idea of Dispensational ST came up I thought I would mention it. Although he does lay out his view of dispensations he affirms with Ryrie that the number of dispensations is open for debate.

josh p's picture

Paul, I know that you came from Tyndale and I assume that you know Christopher Cone. What did you think about his Prolegomena? Did you see in it something of what you are saying? I remember him spending some time relating DT to epistemology. 

Also you mention that DT cannot be considered a system since it borrows from CT in certain areas. Couldn't that be said of any system? CT gets its eschatology from Rome for instance. If I understand you correctly you are saying Dispensationalism has been a correction of CT rather than a ground up theology. With others I wonder how it might look different.

Paul Henebury's picture


Chris was working on his Prolegomena when I left Tyndale.  His article on the Four Pillars was published in the last Journal I edited.  I don't use them myself, but I think the pillars are a good idea.  I have not read the book, but I understand he has more than seven dispensations.  I am not aware of any work he has done which agrees with my basic Biblical Covenantalism, although I am aware that he would not agree with me on the New Covenant.  I believe the New Covenant is made with the Church since we are saved by the blood of the new covenant and Christ Himself is that covenant (Isa. 49:8).  I have little time for dispensations other than as epochs. 

Btw, I have read McCune's work.

As for your second question about what a full-orbed DT or BC would look like; again I think it misses the point.  My argument is that we should have a Biblical Theology from which a whole Systematics can be constructed.  The one naturally produces the other.  That is what we don't have now.

Although amillennialism comes from Augustine, there are threads of it in e.g. Origen, who despised the 'Chiliasts'.  Either way, it is not technically Roman Catholic.  Further, the kind of eschatology taught by CT's is derived, not from Catholic theology, but from CT.  This only supports my contention.

God bless,


Paul H

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul wrote:

 Instead of picking out the bones of the theological covenants and trying to keep what's left together, what I suggest is that dispensationalists simply get ALL their doctrines from the Bible without feeling the need to agree or disagree with Reformed theology.  

Good, clear statement as to what you are getting at, Paul.  You had some great professors at Dallas! 


"The Midrash Detective"

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