Supersessionism Rising: Dispensationalism...? Part 2

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

Part 1 concluded with the observation that many young evangelicals in colleges and universities have decided eschatology is not very important and that many lay people share that opinion.

Scholarly embarrassment?

Furthermore, and perhaps this is in part the cause of the point just made, it is my impression that Christian scholars, even the biblical scholars and evangelical theologians, are not all that interested in pursuing issues related to eschatology or even in advocating a particular position on eschatology. This is becoming more pervasive among premillennial dispensationalists. This may be (and I think it is) caused by the embarrassment that many of them feel when rubbing elbows with the wider scholarly evangelical community. It is something of a long-standing fact of scholarly life (nearly a “tradition”) that when one enters the “serious academy,” matters of eschatology are relegated to relative insignificance.1

One could recount dozens of testimonies of scholars who grew up in or were saved in churches that regarded the New Scofield Reference Bible with the highest esteem, churches that held Prophecy Conferences regularly if not annually, churches whose libraries were well stocked with the books of Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost, McClain, Feinberg and the other luminaries of classic dispensationalism. But when those young scholars went off to graduate school or seminary (even evangelical seminaries) they were disabused of those resources and enlightened to the profundities of Ladd, Dodd, Bruce, Barr, and Barth (!)…and these days James Dunn and N. T. Wright among others.

As an illustration I would offer the example of the book 20th Century Theology by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen.2 In many ways this is a fine piece of historical theology. And while no survey can cover everything, yet in that book none of the “old Dallas Seminary” authors are even mentioned and the subject of eschatology appears in only one index reference and that’s under the theology of Rudolph Bultmann! The message is clear: “scholarly theology” is simply not interested in the timing of the Rapture or the future of ethnic Israel.3

Resurgence of reformed theology

Also, there has recently been a resurgence of Reformed theology among a broader range of evangelicals. The rise of Reformed theology (Westminster Confession of Faith type of Reformed), especially among the so-called “young restless and reformed”4 has generally and in some cases specifically had a deleterious effect on the study of eschatology. And more to the point, it has contributed to a movement away from premillennial dispensationalism toward a murky amillennial covenantalism.5 Popular preachers in that mode like John Piper6 (not so young but very popular with the young, restless and reformed men), Mark Driscoll,7 Kevin DeYoung8 and others as well as Reformed bloggers like Tim Challies9 have been on record as discounting prophetic themes while pushing a Westminster Confession of Faith/Reformed point of view that is inherently supersessionist. My point is that many of our young people, influenced by the popularity of the preachers and bloggers noted above, are becoming supersessionist almost without thinking. And this is happening even if they will somewhere in their theology affirm a form of premillennialism.

Spiritual vision eschatology

Next is the pervasiveness of what Blaising himself calls a spiritual-vision eschatology. This he defines as a “traditional eschatology which sees eternal life as a timeless, changeless, spiritual existence consisting primarily in the human soul’s full knowledge of God…. This is the sum total of what eternal life is, and it defines what is meant by heaven.”10 In short, the sum total of the eschatology of many Christians is this simple phrase: “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” For many Christians (and many of them in our own churches) this simple formula entails all that one needs to know about eschatology. And this fits well with the vision of supersessionism.

According to this view, everything in this life is “a symbol of spiritual realities” so “Israel can only be a symbol of a spiritual people to come.”11 In this view, one can easily turn the Old Testament land promises to Abraham and his seed into “spiritual promises.” They fit into a spiritual-vision eschatology. But viewing the land promises as promises that are to be literally fulfilled seem less than credible (or even pertinent) to a simple eschatology defined as “going to be with the Lord” at one’s death and nothing more. The very earthly (to be fulfilled literally “on the very ground”) and temporal (in time and space) eschatology of dispensational premillennialism seems less credible to many believers than the vision of this pervasive “spiritual-vision” eschatology. The latter is simple and satisfying, the former (dispensational eschatology) seems complicated. And in the end, they ask “who’s going to care about the Antichrist when they are with Jesus?”

The lack in our pulpits

Finally, it seems to me that behind much of the uncertainty of dispensationalism in the pew and the classroom stems from the fact that doctrine in general and eschatology in particular is not being taught in the churches or preached from the pulpits. I realize this may seem a wild generalization. But the penchant for relevance in preaching and the cry for practical instruction in the church has pushed doctrinal study to the periphery in many churches. I see it in the incoming students even in Bible college. Doctrine is often viewed as dry and unrelated to life; and that seems especial ly so when the doctrine concerns matters like the tribulation and the millennial kingdom. Besides, these matters are controversial and seem to generate more heat than light and the post-modern student looking for cultural and practical relevance and the entrepreneurial pastor seeking to grow his church soon learn to avoid such matters.12

Implications of all this

All in all, I may be wrong on this and I deeply hope I am. But I’m afraid that premillennial dispensationalism is on the wane, and not because there are better arguments for other millennial views, or for supersessionism. I think this is because the scholars have decided there have been enough arguments over eschatology and that one’s view of the millennium is, well, inconsequential and that to advocate a particular view is in poor scholarly taste. And students are looking for cultural acceptance more than theological precision because they think this is a better way to reach the world with the gospel. The effect of such trends, I fear, is simply to cede ground to views that are by default supersessionist.

Why does this matter? For one consequential matter is Jewish evangelism. It is much more likely for those who believe Scripture teaches a future for nation al Israel will be involved in ministries devoted to Jewish evangelism. It should be a concern for all of us who understand the Scriptural priority of Jewish evangelism to see that the theological tradition that has nurtured much of the impetuous for Jewish evangelism is healthy. One author made the telling observation that there are few staunchly Reformed organizations devoted to reaching the Jewish people.

But even more widely, we should be concerned because the truth we affirm from the Scriptures is in danger of being lost not in the rigors of theological debate and a progressively clearer understanding of the program and plan of God revealed in His Word. It is in danger of being marginalized by those who dismiss it while at the same time it wanes from lack of affirmation, advocacy and teaching by those who formally affirm it. It is one thing for our churches and students to be drawn away by advocates of other eschatological viewpoints. But it is another thing to allow them to drift away by our relative neglect. At the present time both developments are taking place.

Conclusion

Perhaps the optimists are right and supersessionism will not overtake the more Scriptural view that God indeed has a future for ethnic, national Israel. But even if they are right, it is appropriate for us to consider the challenges I have mentioned carefully and to address them boldly and confidently.

How then must we respond? The prescription is, I think very simple to state but will take some determined effort if there is to be a reversal of these trends.

Those who are undecided and on the fence regarding eschatological matters need to get off the fence! Study and show yourself approved! I’m confident that a serious of study of eschatology, looking at both sides and reading both covenant theologians and dispensational authors (such as those books mentioned above) will lead you to a firm conviction of dispensational eschatology.

Also, we educators need to teach this to our students and we pastors need to preach this to our flocks. The trends noted have not risen over night and will not be easily reversed—but they are reversible. If IFCA International does not stand for dispensational theology, who will?

Notes

1 See for instance (and this is only one) the testimony of Richard S. Hess, in his chapter, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium,” in Blomberg and Chung, eds., A Case For Historic Premillennialism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), pp. 23-24. Hess writes, “Several experiences in my life moved me away from this fascination with, and focus on, the details of Christ’s return.” “The ensuing years occupied me with the study of the Hebrew Bible in its original context and kept me safely away from the prophecy wars in evangelicalism.” The message is clear: serious scholars are not interested in the details of prophecy—they have “matured” beyond such a “fascination.”

2 Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992)

3 Another indication of the lack of scholarly interest in these matters is the rather lack-luster attendance at the Dispensational Study Group at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This is purely anecdotal but it has appeared to me that while overall attendance at the ETS meeting has grown over the last few years, attendance at the meetings of the Dispensational Study Group has dwindled.

4 Cf. Colin Hansen, “Young, Restless and Reformed,” Christianity Today, September 22, 2006; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html; accessed march 22, 2011; see also Colin Hansen, “Reflections on Young Restless and Reformed,” Reformation 21, February 2009 http://www.reformation21.org/articles/reflections-on-young-restless-and-reformed.php accessed March 22, 2011.

5 A popular website resource for the “young, restless and reformed” is http://www.monergism.com/; this site is decidedly anti-dispensational and pro-covenant theology. However, it has many good and useful sources for other aspects of Bible and theological study.

6 See http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/what-does-john-piper-believe-about-dispensationalism- covenant-theology-and-new-covenant-theology; this page indicates that Piper “is probably the furthest away from dispensationalism, although he does agree with dispensationalism that there will be a millennium.” I would conclude that Piper holds to a form of “historic premillenialism.”

7 http://www.marshillchurch.org/markdriscoll

8 http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/about/; DeYoung’s tag line is “DeYoung, Restless and Reformed.”

9 http://www.challies.com/; Challies clearly does not accept dispensationalism but periodically it comes up on his blog and he is a fair critic.

10 Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 119. 25.

11 Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 119.

12 For more on this point see John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 3rd edition, 2010).


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 43 Comments

James K's picture

Anne, the "tradition" the disciples held to was 40 days of Jesus (post resurrection) teaching on the kingdom. It wasn't their own traditional ideas at all. Please note in Acts 1 that Jesus did not correct them. He only concerned himself with the timing of the kingdom being restored.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

James K's picture

Consider this:

Paul taught the thessalonians a specific position on the Lord's return. The failure on the part of some of them caused them to get into sin. Some of their sin was serious enough that Paul advocated separation from those who would not repent. It doesn't say they had bad doctrine about Christ and the church. Their bad doctrine was eschatology.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Quote:
Please note in Acts 1 that Jesus did not correct them. He only concerned himself with the timing of the kingdom being restored.

You realize that when you argue from what the Bible does not say, rather than arguing from what the Bible does say about the passage, you are committing a hermeneutical fallacy.

James K's picture

Sorry Joel, I could have quoted it I guess.

Acts 1:3

Quote:
After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

So Jesus instructed his disciples post resurrection. The topic specifically mentioned: the kingdom of God.

When Jesus said to stay in Jerusalem, the disciples asked if the kingdom would be restored to Israel. Here is the quote so there is no confusion.

Acts 1:6

Quote:
So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?”

Jesus answered by only dealing with the timing of the question, like I already said. Again, let me quote it.

Acts 1:7

Quote:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.

So after 40 days and lots of kingdom talk, presumably you and your ilk would have us believe that NONE of the disciples were paying attention to what Jesus said. Further, Jesus didn't correct them on anything they asked. He only spoke to them about them not needing to worry about the timing.

There is seeing and there is seeing. Yours is the former.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

Andrew K.'s picture

James,

First, I'm glad you affirm that Abraham is our father. The one who told me he was not, however, likely had much higher credentials in dispensational circles than you and was much smarter than I. I'm sure he had a way around the passages where Paul asserts that Abraham was indeed our father, but to me it sounded like a dispensationalist, something I considered myself at the time, trying to get around the plain meaning of Scripture.

Leaving that to the side, however; regarding your assertions about Acts 1, aren't you sort of begging the question by assuming the kingdom of God and the kingdom ostensibly to be restored to Israel are one and the same?

As counter-evidence, in Acts 8:12, Philip is preaching the good news of the kingdom of God to the Samaritans. Are we really to think that a bunch of Samaritans would consider a future restoration of the kingdom to their bitter rivals great news? Would they really get that excited about a future thousand-year kingdom at all?

神是爱

James K's picture

Hi Andrew, I think the dispensationalist you must have spoken to was more of the Scofield/Chaferian or possibly even McClain/Ryrie brand. Those guys are all dispensationalists, but my point is that you don't have to be a dispensationalist to think that. Consider the MacArthur/Thomas or Saucy/Blaising brands. They would each affirm that Abraham is our father.

Regarding the kingdom, I don't think I am begging at all. There is nothing in the NT that changes the OT expectation of the kingdom. When Jesus teaches on it post resurrection and after all that the disciples ask about it, Jesus only refers to the timing. Peter expected that the Jews would experience the times of refreshing when they repented. This times of refreshing included the Lord's return. This is consistent with Matt 19:28 and other passages.

About the Samaritans, they should be thrilled that they who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. They would not aliens but full citizens. Also, they would know that since God keeps His promises to Israel, He would also keep promises to them, a people not His people.

To be honest, I know that ruffles the feathers of a lot of old school dispies. So be it.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

Anne Sokol's picture

that the disciples didn't understand Jesus' coming:

Quote:
Luke 18:31-34 Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 "For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, 33 and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again." 34 But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.

James K's picture

No doubt Anne. This is why I emphasized the post resurrection instruction.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

dmicah's picture

James,

I understand that supersessionism was a key point of the article. I'm taking exception to the author and yourself that I have to accept the scaffolding of dispensational thought to avoid the moniker of theological rube. You don't seem to be able to grasp the essence of these arguments and the nuances of theological divergence, not only on a forum, but the divergences over the 2000 year history of the church. You continue to rage blindly about this entire discussion. Your coupling of logical absurdities with inflammatory accusations makes interacting with you a Proverbs 14:7 scenario.

Micah

James K's picture

Dmicah, your inability to actually discuss this and then bow out because of some feigned piety is noted. I have never said you have to accept the scaffolding of dispensational thought. Yet again though, anyone could turn your same arguments against any theological position you hold to with dogmatism. You should not define your theology by who agrees or disagrees with you. That is something you seem to be content to do. Do the hard work of study yourself so you can own it rather than checking to see if it is within an imaginary acceptable list of dogmatic positions.

Just so you know, if dispensationalism was Chafer/Scofield or even Ryrie/Walvoord, I wouldn't be dispensational either.

I hope that helps you understand.

1 Kings 8:60 - so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.

JT Hoekstra's picture

My history with amills, post-mills, mid-tribs and anyone else who is not pre-mill, pre-trib is...

first they say Jesus can come at any time (usually in spooky tones). Then they start singing a familiar seasonal song:

"Ya better watch out, ya better not cry, ya better not pout I'm tellin' you why _________ __________is coming to town!

He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows when you've been bad or good so be good for GOoDness sake!"

So I usually run back under my Ryrie/Walvoord/Scofield/St. Paul umbrella of pre-trib, pre-mill COMFORT zone, knowing I am delivered from His wrath, like those believers 1 Thess.

~Cheers

JT Hoekstra's picture

Quote:
Like this: recently, we as a youth group read Matthew 24 and we took note of very specific keys that Jesus gives us--if we are here during this time, we need to be aware of these things:
1. Many will say they are Christ
2. They will do miracles--they want to trick the elect even
3. Many will fall away, betray others
4. Many false prophets will come
5. People will try to get us to go and see "Christ" but don't believe them! Don't go.
6. Christ's coming will be like lightening.
7. No one knows the day or the hour (Harold Camping, anyone?)

The trick is to compare the last days, after the church age, to the things that were happening while Jesus Christ was walking the Earth. The things predicted these days (like Harold Camping) are not possible unless there is mass demonic activity, causing many anti-christs to actually do miraculous/prophetic/ yet false signs such as not seen since that day (like Legion going over the cliff). Unlike the days of Stalin, Hitler, (which were terrible, for sure) these false things will occur world-wide. No corner of the world shall be spared either true witnessing of the 144,000 or false teaching everywhere TOWARD receiving the mark of the Beast, or believing the Messiah is coming. I humbly submit these 5 sentences as some of the top reasons eschatology/BK of Revelation is so EXTREMELY important as a teaching/doctrine in our churches today!!

~Cheers

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