Supersessionism Rising: Dispensationalism...? Part 1

Republished, with permission, from Voice magazine, Sept./Oct 2011.

In October, 2010 many in the evangelical world were focused on the third Lausanne Conference in Capetown, South Africa. The Lausanne Movement begun in 1974 by Billy Graham, John Stott and others in Lausanne, Switzerland has had only three such major conferences in its over sixty-year history.

The purpose of the movement was ostensibly to unite and focus the efforts of global evangelicalism for the task of global evangelization. The preparations for the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Capetown included papers from several study groups; one such group was the Lausanne Theology Working Group. This group produced a document entitled “The Whole Church Taking The Whole Gospel to The Whole World.” This document was published on the Lausanne website1 and in the January 2010 issue of Evangelical Review of Theology (vol. 34, no. 1, p. 4-13).

In one startling paragraph of that paper the members of the Theology Working Group at first affirmed the unity of the church: “We give thanks that the one Church that God has called into being in Christ is drawn from every nation, tribe, people and language,” but they then went on to assert that “no single ethnic identity can any longer claim to be ‘God’s chosen people.’” The theologians of the Lausanne Movement who produced this document further argued “God’s election of Old Testament Israel was for the sake of the eventual creation of this multi-national community of God’s people.” In other words, they assert that the purpose of the election of Israel was for the creation of the Church! This, of course, is a denial of God’s purposes for the ethnic descendants of Abraham and of a future for the nation of Israel.

The statement also asserted, “It is vital that we strongly affirm, therefore, that while there are multiple ethnicities within the one church by God’s clear intention, no single ethnic group holds privileged place in God’s economy of salvation or God’s eschatological purpose” [italics original]. And just in case the theological and practical thrust of that assertion was not clear enough the paragraph concluded, “For this reason, we strongly believe that the separate and privileged place given to Jewish people today or to the modern Israeli state in certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism, should be challenged, inasmuch as they deny the essential oneness of the people of God in Christ.”

Many readers of this publication will recognize immediately that in this statement is a fairly obvious assertion of “covenant theology,” and an affirmation of “supersessionism,” or “replacement theology.” That is, the theology that denies that God has a future program for the nation of Israel and denies that the promises God has made to the ethnic descendants of Abraham—the Jewish people—will be kept fully and literally.

Why is this important?

Why should we be aware of this statement and what might be its import?

We might begin by observing that the general drift of wider evangelicalism is decidedly in the direction indicated by this statement, namely toward supersessionism.2 Many, both inside the Lausanne movement and those close to it, when made aware of this statement and this paragraph found it unobjectionable and many endorsed it. This might have been surprising since, as noted, one of the professed purposes of the Lausanne movement was to create unity for the evangelistic enterprise of the church and this statement is obviously dismissive of a certain segment of evangelical Christianity. But authors of the statement and its subsequent defenders clearly felt that they were on a sufficiently solid theological footing when they choose to advocate for a particular supersessionist biblical/theological position and chose to dismiss those who hold to “certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism.” The authors of the document certainly believed that the advocates of “certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism” were insignificant enough as a group that they could be dismissed without significantly impacting the unity of the movement or the cause of global evangelization.

In short, it would appear that the authors of the statement believed that most of the Lausanne movement, and the wider evangelical public would agree with them in this dismissive marginalization of dispensationalism and the theological tradition that holds to a future for ethnic Israel. Sadly, I would have to agree with them in that theoretical estimate; that is, the proponents of “certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism” have been by and large marginalized by the wider evangelical community. The fact that this paragraph went largely unnoticed and its implications largely dismissed cannot be due simply to the relatively obscure place of publication. The very fact that it was written, published and originally endorsed by the leaders of the Lausanne Movement demonstrates that they and others believed that it reflected (or would reflect when published) the viewpoint of a considerable majority of its adherents. In short, they determined that it was safe to advocate for supersessionism and to dismiss dispensationalism.

The broader picture

Again, why should this matter to us? At this point I want to try and bring into focus the broader picture. That is, I want to widen the focus and by that to enable us to see an even more alarming trend—namely, the marginalization of the dispensational theological tradition and the rise of supersessionism. To be clear, I am asserting here that the statement of the Lausanne Theology Working Group is by no means an isolated aberration but merely one more example that dispensationalism, grounded in the Old Testament covenantal promises to Abraham and his descendants, established in promises to David and the nation of Israel, is a theological position that is an “endangered” position,3 whereas supersessionism is finding a wider and growing support. I have several reasons to think this.

Some authors such as Craig Blaising, have suggested that the view that “God’s covenanted promises regarding Israel’s future… were transferred by God to the institution of the church” and that “the church was seen as the new Israel,”4 is a view that is “increasingly being rejected by Christians as not accurately representing the message of Jesus, his apostles, or Scripture generally.”5 Other authors, however, suggest otherwise. For instance, Barry E. Horner has documented the rise in church history and in the history of Christian thought and has clearly demonstrated the pervasiveness of this view of supersessionism throughout church history and in current Christian thought.6 While it might be true that premillennialism and dispensational eschatology reached in the twentieth century something approaching (at least among North American evangelicals) a degree of “popular theological hegemony” there are reasons to think that that status is very much in question in the early years of the twenty-first century. In short, certain trends seem to be indicating that supersessionism is on the rise and dispensationalism is on the wane.

For instance, as a very general indication of this development it can be observed that three of the latest major evangelical systematic theologies, Wayne Grudem’s,7 Millard Erikson’s,8 and Robert Reymond’s9 each advocate some degree or form of supersessionism.10 It is not a stretch to argue that these systematic theologies represent something of a consensus of a “broad evangelical theology.” And if that is so, then they indicate supersessionism is far from vanishing but is in fact becoming more and more the viewpoint of the academically oriented and theologically minded evangelicals. Furthermore, as these texts are assigned and read in evangelical seminaries and Bible colleges they are more likely to move students in a supersessionist direction.

Furthermore, I have seen a growing weariness, even resistance to the study of eschatology and in particular the study of the details of premillennial dispensationalism.11 It may be fatigue from the best-selling Left Behind series or the influence of post-modern relativism.12 In any case, many of my students and their friends in other Christian colleges and universities13 have decided that eschatology is just not that important.14 And the students are not alone in this regard. Many lay people are of the same opinion.

Part 2 continues tomorrow.

Notes

1 http://www.lausanne.org/documents/twg-three-wholes.html accessed March 22, 2011; while the majority of the statement is still posted the offending paragraph discussed in this article has subsequently been removed. However, the original statement remains a matter of record in the journal article cited in the text above (http://www.lausanne.org/docs/TWG/LOP64-2009Panama.pdf, accessed Nov. 7, 2011.)

2 I am using the term “supersessionism, supersessionist” as Michael J. Vlach does, Has the Church Replaced Israel?, (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010) as “the view that the NT church is the new and/or true Israel that has forever superseded the nation of Israel as the people of God” (p. 12). Vlach’s refinements of the definition/position in his chapter on “What is Supersessionism?” (pp. 4-17) inform my use of the term in this article.

3 Some may think that is something of an overstatement or exaggeration—and perhaps it is. But I would contend that if the trends I identify in the rest of this article are not addressed, “endangered” is not too strong a term.

4 Craig A. Blaising, “The Future of Israel as a Theological Question,” in To The Jew First: The Case for Jewish Evangelism in Scripture and History, ed. by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2008), 103; i.e. “supersessionism.”

5 Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 103.

6 Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2007). Horner styles this view “anti-Judaism” and traces its origins to (mainly) the writings of Aurelius Augustine. See pages 3ff, 22, 65ff, and many other references.

7 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) ” … we should notice the many New Testament verses that understand the church as the ‘new Israel’ or new ‘people of God.’” (861). Grudem holds to “historic premillennialism” (1127).

8 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1053; Erickson can say “the church is the new Israel,” and yet also affirm, “There is a special future for national Israel. They are still the special people of God.” Erickson is premillennial (1224) but post-tribulational (1231).

9 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith 2nd Edition—Revised And Updated, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998); Reymond is a signatory of the Open Letter discussed in the point above.

10 Cf. Vlach, Has The Church Replaced, 22-23; Vlach locates Erickson and Grudem in the category of “moderate supersessionism” along with George Ladd.

11 In what follows I will not attempt to document all of my concerns, some of which are admittedly anecdotal in nature; however, I believe that many IFCA pastors could corroborate these concerns from their own experiences.

12 By that I mean, if we find the interpretation of the past a confusing mix of multi-cultural analyses and ideologically driven revisionisms and reconstructions then how can we possibly say for certain what the future will hold?

13 Here is just one “young evangelical’s” view, but it rings true to things I myself have heard: “I get the sense that for many of my young evangelical peers, the doctrine of eschatology is less important not because of careful reflection upon the Scriptures, but because of the political and cultural scorn the doctrine has earned. For most young evangelicals, eschatology is cringe inducing not because traditional formulations are wrong, but because they are weird. That all Christians would disappear in a flash will hardly earn Christians cultural acceptability—and cultural acceptance, today, is their paramount desire.” (Matthew Lee Anderson, “The New Evangelical Scandal,” The City: A Publication of Huston Baptist University, January 15, 2009; http://www.civitate.org/2009/01/the-new-evangelical-scandal/ accessed Nov. 7, 2011); the whole article is worth reading.

14 See Paul Martin Henebury, “Where Are All The Young People? The Pre-Trib Conference 2010,” http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/where-are-all-the-young-peop… ; Henebury (aka Dr. Reluctant) observes that young people are not flocking to the Pre-Trib conferenre held annually by Tim LaHaye Thomas Ice; “We may wish to point our fingers at the undoubtedly faddish “Young, Restless and Reformed” movement [see the discussion below], but the lack of new blood in dispensationalism is very worrying, even if it was predictable.”


Dr. Kevin D. Zuber is Professor of Theology at Moodly Bible Institute and Pastor of Grace Bible Church Northwest.

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There are 12 Comments

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Thanks to SI for running it! I would love to read some insightful iron-sharpening comments from some enterprising dispensationalists.

(Or, to state it negatively, I am hoping this doesn't turn into a food fight...) :X

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Be sure to read footnote 13. Quite interesting.
I think the "young evangelical" being quoted is onto something there, though it's impossible to prove.
...and I'm sure that for many eschatology has become somewhat passe for different reasons.
In my own case, I can relate to the general lack of enthusiasm. Traveling evangelists had me convinced as a kid that I would never be on the earth long enough to graduate from high school. Christ was going to return before that because things were getting so bad so fast... all the "signs" etc.

So that's a factor for alot of us.
But if I can list:
1. Excessive/inaccurate past hype
2. Difficulty of arriving at much certainty about the details
3. Difficulty seeing the relevance of the details to Christian living and worship
4. Divisiveness of the details where we have so much common otherwise

These are the reasons eschatology has not been a focus in my ministry, though we have occasionally visited the whole premillennial system, charts and all (Powerpoint now of course. Smile )

So my feeling is that the important thing "Christ returns and establishes His kingdom as He said," and I have difficulty getting very excited about the particulars beyond that.

That said, I do get excited about the focus of this two part article: I do not believe the land and kingdom promises to a nation called Israel have been abrogated or absorbed or "expanded" out of existence. So the "His kingdom" part of what I mentioned above includes the fulfilling of those promises with real land and real ethnic Israelites. (And I have given that a fair amount of emphasis in my ministry).

Charlie's picture

Aaron, I wouldn't say that young people today lack enthusiasm for eschatology. I think that the majority of the Christian community has a broader idea of what eschatology includes. So, it's like two people having a conversation about baseball, but one person thinks that baseball means relief pitchers.

Also, to all, I think the idea of "witness" theology is interesting. Beginning with Augustine (see http://sacredpage.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/review-augustine-and-the-jews... Augustine and the Jews by Paula Fredriksen), there has been a strain of Christian teaching that God has specially preserved the Jews as a witness to the truth of his revelation. I think many modern-day scholars (Richard Hays) would have something of this idea as well. As long as people are thinking of a single opposition of covenant vs. dispensational theology, they're missing most of what is going on in the theological world.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Mathew Sims's picture

Within the resurgence of reformed theology there must be also a resurgence of reformed eschatology. I don't think it's indifference at all. I think it's an uneasiness with the Left Behind Series dispensationalism where every detail is measured out to the teaspoon.

However, I think in broader evangelicalism and certainly in fundamentalism dispensationalism is still the primary eschatology of choice. Although reformed theology has made a resurgence I wouldn't say so much so that's it's overtaken dispensationalism. However, I'm not sure what the rub is…how many post- a- or even historic pre- are invited to dispensational conferences or to participate any in kind of hand in hand. Fundamentalism according to Michael Riley's guest contribution on Nick of Time is mainly a dispensationalist movement and certainly hasn't been all that eager to participate with those of a different eschatological stripe. I don't think unity in these kinds of parachurch "events" must be so inclusive so as to include every possible form of acceptable Christianity. It's not possible and it's probably not beneficial.

Mathew Sims

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
In my own case, I can relate to the general lack of enthusiasm. Traveling evangelists had me convinced as a kid that I would never be on the earth long enough to graduate from high school. Christ was going to return before that because things were getting so bad so fast... all the "signs" etc.

Good post, Aaron. I certainly can understand where you are coming from.

I guess my experience was the polar opposite. I grew up as a confessional Lutheran, but with the unique situation where my mother, a pre-mill, pre-trib going back to her days in the Evangelical Church (pre-United Methodist), also taught me these truths privately at home. So I guess you could say that I was pre-mill before I understood what that term even meant. All I knew at the time was that my mom knew things about the end-times that my pastor and teacher hadn't discovered yet. Cool

Thus, when I became a teenager and started listening (of my own accord) to people like Dave Breese, Bruce Dunn and John MacArthur, my prophecy pump was already primed. Thank God, I never had the negative experience you did with the evangelists. I can see how that would indeed be a hindrance.

As far as whether or not the details of prophecy are still relevant in today's sthophisticated sthociety, I like what David Jeremiah says: "The minute the Lord returns the details are going to get really relevant, really quickly!"

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'd have to disagree w/D. Jeremiah on that point. Once Christ returns, the details will sort of be moot, know what I mean?

Charlie... I'm not sure what you mean. Surely we all still believe eschatology is about the eschaton, yes? The end/consummation?

It might seem weird for a dispensationalist to say this (even weirder that I'm saying it to a passionate historical theology buff) but I tend to think all the really important theology happened a long time ago. There is a finite amount of information in the Book and we've had a couple thousand years. Don't get me wrong, I'm still all for study--and I think there is more to learn, but I have to think that "what's left" is small potatoes compared to what we figured out a long, long time ago.
(Sometimes, after intense scrutiny past a certain point, people start seeing things that aren't there.)

So to me, theology is mostly about teaching the old stuff, not keeping up with "what's happening in theology" now.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
It might seem weird for a dispensationalist to say this (even weirder that I'm saying it to a passionate historical theology buff) but I tend to think all the really important theology happened a long time ago. There is a finite amount of information in the Book and we've had a couple thousand years.

Aaron,

I am going to disagree with you, but probably not in a way that will make Charlie rest easier tonight. Smile

As a dispensationalist, I think that there are actually probably scores of passages in Psalms and the Major and Minor Prophets that have never been fully mined as to their true and complete meaning in light of a fully mature, dispensational understanding of eschatology -- comparing passage with passage in light of valid theological inferences.

Is what lies there still to be found going to shake the world with the force of Luther's hammer? Of course, not -- and I am not looking for something akin to Harold Camping's dating schemes either. However, sometimes little ideas add up to something noticeable when you get enough of them -- at least in terms of clarifying or correcting common misconceptions.

For instance, read some of the older pre-mill commentaries on Dan. 12:11-12, and those guys were wandering all through the dessert to try to figure out what the extra 30/75 days were for. Nowadays, to the average dispensational student that passage is as simple as falling off a log.

At the very least, God put all the details there, and I do believe He is glorified and pleased that we take the time to study them. H:)

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Charlie's picture

Right, Aaron, I get what you're saying. I think theology is somewhat like fashion - there's new and trendy, old and classy, and awkwardly dated. The problem is that right now, dispensational theology is awkwardly dated, like 80's hair. Practically speaking, if it's going to have a future, it needs to attach itself more strongly either to cutting-edge theory or it's going to have to spin a plausible story about how it arises naturally from the historical development of doctrine. For example, the Reformation did both, which is probably why (in human terms) it attracted so many followers in its time. On the one hand, it was "edgy" in its full-fledged embrace of the newly developed humanist rhetorical and linguistic criticism; on the other, it claimed to be a ressourcement, cutting through the cobwebs of scholasticism and returning to the pure sources.

The tide is against dispensationalism now, because much of my generation is keenly aware of the historical depth and intra-confessional breadth of Christian theology. By contrast, dispensationalism appears as a relatively localized, time-bound theology. It feels provincial. I honestly don't know if dispensationalists have the heart and brains to make dispensationalism attractive to a new generation. In one sense, I hope so. A more presently-applicable and yet historically-minded dispensationalism would certainly be a good thing.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Charlie wrote:
The problem is that right now, dispensational theology is awkwardly dated, like 80's hair. Practically speaking, if it's going to have a future, it needs to attach itself more strongly either to cutting-edge theory or it's going to have to spin a plausible story about how it arises naturally from the historical development of doctrine...

Charlie, this sounds wonderful!! But although your analogy is extremely picturesque, I am not sure I follow. What is dated about dispensationalism?? The presentation of it?? How can a certain theology be dated?? I do not follow...

Also, I am wondering what you would accept as meeting your standards in these regards. Frankly, a tremendous amount of this work has already been done. Do you know how many dispensational professors have had doctorates from world-class seminaries and universities? And how many doctoral dissertations were written through the years at Dallas and Grace Seminaries that touch on these issues??

Charlie wrote:
The tide is against dispensationalism now, because much of my generation is keenly aware of the historical depth and intra-confessional breadth of Christian theology. By contrast, dispensationalism appears as a relatively localized, time-bound theology. It feels provincial. I honestly don't know if dispensationalists have the heart and brains to make dispensationalism attractive to a new generation. In one sense, I hope so. A more presently-applicable and yet historically-minded dispensationalism would certainly be a good thing.

Again, I would love to have breakfast with you and get your full thoughts on this (especially the last part of the last sentence [we might find some common ground there ]), but (as far as your opening sentence here goes) I simply don't know what you are talking about.

It sounds wonderful -- but what does it mean??? Frankly, I think you may be reacting to a caricature of dispensationalism -- or at least a poor representation of it that you saw somewhere (such as the evangelists Aaron spoke of earlier). Your brush does not cover the dispensational theologians I have known -- who both plumb the depths of theology because they are dispensational, and also are dispensational because they plumb the depths of theology.

I DO appreciate the iron-sharpening interaction, my covenantal friend... Cool

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Dispensationalism: neither trendy nor slavishly devoted to historical precedent.

Time will tell. I appreciate the article's author calling attention to the trend. In the long run, I'm confident that theology that is bibilically solid will endure.

In the mean time, what concerns me most about the trend is not that less attention is going into eschatological details, but that the non-detail of the nature of the kingdom and the mission of the church is far more easily confused where "supersessionism" prevails.

Not a prophet or the son of a prophet but I'll hazard that if Christ does not return in the next couple of decades we will see a new wave of evangelical institutions/ministries dissolving into the Christian left by way of kingdom/mission concept decay. That is, more and more evangelicals will mix the gospel into the social agenda until they lose sight of it completely and go the way of the mainline denominations of a century ago.
This time, they'll go not because of theological liberalism bearing fruit in mission creep, but by way of mission creep taking root in theological weakness. (Lots of pragmatism in the mix)
The few not jumping on the social-agenda band wagon will tend to be mostly dispensationalist.
(I can think of a few scenarios where things don't go this way, but at the moment they don't seem likely)

x_delete_jhowell's picture

As I read Charlie's response, I must say that when I attend the Council for Dispensational Hermeneutics at Baptist Bible Seminary, I am extremely impressed with the depth and breadth of the scholarship of the leading proponents of dispensational theology in the greater evangelical church. There is really no lack of brains or courage among those men who rightly handle God's Word.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

jhowell wrote:
As I read Charlie's response, I must say that when I attend the Council for Dispensational Hermeneutics at Baptist Bible Seminary, I am extremely impressed with the depth and breadth of the scholarship of the leading proponents of dispensational theology in the greater evangelical church. There is really no lack of brains or courage among those men who rightly handle God's Word.

I would love to attend that conference. It looks like it is extremely well-done. For those who have not heard any of it, http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?seriesOnly=true&currSection=sermon... ]we carry the audio from 2010 (Thomas Ice) on Whitcomb.SermonAudio.com.

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