Why I Am a Dispensationalist

I was reared in a conservative Lutheran church and school where dispensationalism was a term of derision and began life as a most unlikely candidate to become a teacher of dispensational theology. Today, however, I am deeply committed to classical dispensationalism and feel so strongly about this position that it affects every aspect of my belief and practice. Why am I now a dispensationalist? I offer seven introductory reasons.

1.  Dispensationalism understands the relevance of the entirety of Scripture.

Teachers in the denomination I grew up in employed several catch phrases when they came to difficult prophetic sections of Scripture. They would speak of “closing the Book” or talk of passages like Daniel 7-12 or Revelation 4-20 being “filled with mystery.” Preterists and other non-dispensationalists also cloud such portions of Scripture by speaking of them in terms of “apocalyptic language” which is incapable of clear, systematic interpretation (especially futurist) and fulfillment.

Dispensationalists recognize that the symbols in these difficult passages are actually meant to shed light on real people and events (see Rev. 22:10; cf. Deut. 29:29, Prov. 25:2) in the same way inspired writers used devices to communicate in non-prophetic writing . Dispensationalists relish unearthing the meaning of obscure passages which may be understood only in the light of clearer (often later) revelation.

The dispensationalism I have known is not given to wild sensationalism, but rather compels the student to master the Scriptures (in their original languages, if possible) so that he or she may fully develop all that the Scriptures contain. From the dispensationalist’s vantage point, the task will never be complete this side of glory.

2. Dispensationalism employs consistent literal interpretation.

Seeing distinctions between the church and Israel, dispensationalism rightly promotes a glorious future for both. Confusing these two peoples of God has resulted in much mischief throughout church history. Conversely, when the church is understood as a New Testament mystery (Eph. 3:1-12) which began at Pentecost, the free church model and the Baptist distinctives become plainly evident.

The distinction between the church and Israel is one of the firstfruits of literal interpretation. This coincides with a proper understanding of progressive revelation, normally interpreting later revelation on the basis of that which came earlier.

In Michael Vlach’s words,

Dispensationalists want to maintain a reference point in the Old Testament. They desire to give justice to the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers in accord with historical-grammatical hermeneutics (Vlach 17).

Ronald Diprose contrasts the alternative:

The logic of replacement theology required that much of the Old Testament be allegorized. Only in this way could the Church be made the subject of passages in which the nation of Israel is addressed. This led to the virtual abandonment of the Hebrew world view and concept of God and the adoption of a framework of thought which had its roots in Greek philosophy (Diprose 169-170).

Literal interpretation involves the idea that there is no allowance for interpreting a text on the basis of any subjective influence, including the meaning of metaphors or images in a non-parallel passage. In my opinion, the consistent use of literal interpretation has been modeled best by dispensationalists.

3. Dispensationalism provides a comprehensive framework for understanding all of history.

The flow of history is obvious and logical when it is expounded through the seven dispensations of traditional dispensationalism. The God Who created all things in six days will work within history to fulfill the plan He has revealed—bringing His kingdom to earth for 1,000 years as history’s culmination.

The Bible makes it clear that in the future—as in the past—history will be marked by definite events and that the significance of these events is certain and knowable. Christ said, “When these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28, NKJV).

Above all others, dispensationalists have done well in explaining the significance of the flow of history and its signal and distinctive events. The attempt to use the system to analyze specific signs of the times is a byproduct of dispensationalism rather than its driving force.

4. Dispensationalism emphasizes the glory of God.

Though not exclusive in this regard, dispensationalists clearly proclaim that the glory of God is the purpose behind His working in history—from creation to the final judgment at the Great White Throne. With each new dispensation, God’s glory is declared in a new and fresh way, through the advance of special revelation and the additional resources which He provides, so that men might more fully reflect His glory.

In the present age, believers enjoy the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:17) and even the very mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16)—and yet these blessings pale when compared to those which still await us (1 John 3:2).

5. Dispensationalism brings the ministry of Christ into clear focus.

If one begins with the Old Testament and works forward, it becomes clear that Israel’s Messiah came offering the Kingdom which they had expected since the days of Abraham (cf. Gen. 17:6). Bible scholar extraordinaire Alva J. McClain summarized as follows:

The Kingdom announced by our Lord and offered to the nation of Israel at His first coming was identical with the Mediatorial Kingdom of Old Testament prophecy, and will be established on earth at the second coming of the King. This…is supported by the material in both Testaments taken at its normal or face value (McClain 275-276).

On the basis of this understanding, one can fit together many passages in the gospels which would otherwise remain puzzling. The work of Christ—past and future (cf. Acts 1:6, 7)—may also be set in its complete context.

6. Dispensationalism is the fulfillment of Reformational truth.

Though he would be horrified at the thought (as Dr. Myron Houghton, my theology teacher, once said), Luther taught me dispensationalism in seed form in my Lutheran grade school religion classes. His emphasis on the distinction between Law and Grace is truly the basis for understanding the Bible dispensationally. It reveals the truth that God has dealt with mankind on the basis of different stewardship responsibilities at different times in history without providing different ways of salvation.

The charge that dispensationalism cannot be correct because of the recentness of its development is impossible to reconcile with either history or theology, as the progressive refinement of the understanding of truth during the church age demonstrates. Ultimately, I do not view dispensational theology as a betrayal of my strong Lutheran upbringing, but rather, a fulfillment of it.

Dr. Thomas Ice, executive director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, introduced this concept to me during a conversation which I had with him while in seminary. In short, he explained that dispensationalism flourished—beginning in the 19th century—as a result of the literal interpretation and verse-by-verse teaching which had been re-introduced by the forces of the Reformation. Theology is the queen of the sciences, and dispensationalism is the queen of all theologies.

7. Godly dispensational teachers have modeled this theology for me.

God has given me the indescribable privilege of receiving dispensational theology directly from some of its greatest teachers. Among them have been Dr. Rolland McCune, Dr. Charles Ryrie, Dr. Renald Showers, Dr. John Whitcomb and the late Dr. John Walvoord.

I have found that dispensationalism is not a distraction for such men, nor does it deter them from teaching “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23, NKJV). Rather, it drives them to perfect their understanding in all areas of theology so that they might build upon the foundation offered by historic, orthodox Christianity with the surpassing glory of dispensational truth.

A new generation of “faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2) is committed to carrying these teachings forward. Efforts such as the Pre-Trib Study Group (with its annual conferences) and Baptist Bible Seminary’s Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics evidence new energy which will continue to drive serious study and advance within dispensationalism for many years to come, should Christ tarry. By His grace and for His glory, I hope to be in the center of that movement.

Works Cited

Diprose, Ronald E. Israel and the Church: The Origin and Effects of Replacement Theology. Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Media, 2004.
McClain, Alva J. The Greatness of the Kingdom. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1974.
Vlach, Michael J. Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths. Los Angeles: Theological Studies Press, 2008.


Paul J. Scharf is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI) and Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (Ankeny, IA). He is the editor of the Columbus Journal in Columbus, Wis., an associate with IMI/SOS International in Hudsonville, Mich., and a ministry assistant for Whitcomb Ministries, Inc. in Indianapolis, Ind. Scharf served as a pastor for seven years and has taught the Bible on the elementary, secondary and college levels. He is a contributor to Coming to Grips with Genesis: Biblical Authority and the Age of the Earth (Master Books, 2008) and has written numerous articles for Gospel Herald and The Sunday School Times. He is a member of the Pre-Trib Study Group. Paul is married to Lynnette, and the couple resides near Columbus, WI.
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Greg Long's picture

Thank you, Paul, for this article. I concur!

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Brian Jo's picture

Thanks for the article. May God continue to bless you in the study of His Word.

Interestingly, I would also use #'s 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7 to describe my Non-Dispensational Theology. I would also use #2, but I would mean something different than you by it.

Red Phillips's picture

Quote:
when the church is understood as a New Testament mystery (Eph. 3:1-12) which began at Pentecost, the free church model and the Baptist distinctives become plainly evident.

I am not sure that all the Baptist distinctives are "plainly evident" as many are as often debated as is dispensationalism. But that said, I don't think the Baptist distinctives rise and fall on dispensationalism although there is some interplay.

Quote:
The charge that dispensationalism cannot be correct because of the recentness of its development is impossible to reconcile with either history or theology, as the progressive refinement of the understanding of truth during the church age demonstrates.

Since I have used this argument let me clarify. I don't think the argument is usually that dispensationalism "can't" be true due to its novelty. I have never said that. I think it should be looked at skeptically as should all novel ideas about Scripture that people claim to have discovered. The burden of proof lies on the novel idea, so to speak. What I have said is that dispensationalism can't be the self-evident result of a "plain reading" of Scripture because if it was everyone wouldn't have missed it for the first 1800 +/- years of the Faith.

Charlie's picture

Quote:
6. Dispensationalism is the fulfillment of Reformational truth.

Though he would be horrified at the thought (as Dr. Myron Houghton, my theology teacher, once said), Luther taught me dispensationalism in seed form in my Lutheran grade school religion classes. His emphasis on the distinction between Law and Grace is truly the basis for understanding the Bible dispensationally. It reveals the truth that God has dealt with mankind on the basis of different stewardship responsibilities at different times in history without providing different ways of salvation.

The charge that dispensationalism cannot be correct because of the recentness of its development is impossible to reconcile with either history or theology, as the progressive refinement of the understanding of truth during the church age demonstrates. Ultimately, I do not view dispensational theology as a betrayal of my strong Lutheran upbringing, but rather, a fulfillment of it.

In order for a doctrine to be present in "seed form," the doctrine in question must be shown to be the logical conclusion of a trajectory of reasoning. For example, Calvin is often credited with being the inspiration for presuppositional apologetics, or at least the Kuyperian "antithesis." Such a connection is confirmed by the similarity in approach between Calvin and Kuyper, and the manner in which Calvin develops his Institutes.

Your assertion, however, that Dispensationalism is a fulfillment of the Reformation, is entirely contrary to fact. Luther, for example, expressly indicated that the Church is the true Israel and the heir of the Old Testament promises (any work on Luther and the Jews will abundantly confirm this). Moreover, the mere presence of similar words in Luther's thought and in Dispensationalism's terminology do not necessarily indicate any similarity of meaning. First and most importantly, Luther does not use the categories "law" and "grace," (that was Karl Barth) but law and gospel (not interchangeable terms). At this point, your comparison is already ridiculous. It gets worse, though. The Lutheran view of law/gospel is entirely opposed to Dispensationalism. Far from seeing law and gospel as differing in regard to chronology or economy, the Lutheran teaching of law and gospel affirms that the two run side-by-side throughout the pages of Scripture and are fulfilled in Christ. Luther's "law" does not primarily refer to a time period, or even the content of the Mosaic Law, but to God's eternal demand on each person which condemns them to judgment. Similarly, the "gospel" does not refer to an age of fulfillment, but to the timeless promise of Scripture that "the just by faith shall live," known by all the Old Testament states and specifically stated in Habakkuk 2:4. In short, there is no plausible connection between Reformational theology and Dispensationalism.

Quote:
Dr. Thomas Ice, executive director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, introduced this concept to me during a conversation which I had with him while in seminary. In short, he explained that dispensationalism flourished—beginning in the 19th century—as a result of the literal interpretation and verse-by-verse teaching which had been re-introduced by the forces of the Reformation. Theology is the queen of the sciences, and dispensationalism is the queen of all theologies.

Actually, the Reformers had a well-thought out hermeneutical program and expository method of preaching hundreds of years before Dispensationalism. Their hermeneutics did not lead them toward Dispensationalism, but rather toward the opposite. Some other factor must have intervened in order to make such a large theological shift. The 2 major forces influencing the move to "Dispensational" hermeneutics were Jacksonian democracy (populism) and Baconian inductivism turned toward intuitionism. Some studies relevant to this subject include Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity, Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and This World Is Not My Home by Michael Williams. There are many others, but that should be enough.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

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

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Well, I probably wouldn't have put it quite so strongly myself... queen of all theologies...but I continue to find the dispensational approach to answer best to the whole of Scripture. Also, a couple of "the seven" seem to be mostly imaginary to me, but these are quibbles.

Red Phillips's picture

Charlie, I agree with Joseph in the other thread that there is a connection between Arminianism and democratic Americanism, but I don’t see the connection to dispensationalism. Unless you are just suggesting that an everyman his own theologian attitude allowed a bad doctrine to prosper. Make that connection a little clearer for me if you will.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Charlie ][quote wrote:
, Luther does not use the categories "law" and "grace," (that was Karl Barth) but law and gospel (not interchangeable terms). At this point, your comparison is already ridiculous. It gets worse, though. The Lutheran view of law/gospel is entirely opposed to Dispensationalism. Far from seeing law and gospel as differing in regard to chronology or economy, the Lutheran teaching of law and gospel affirms that the two run side-by-side throughout the pages of Scripture and are fulfilled in Christ. Luther's "law" does not primarily refer to a time period, or even the content of the Mosaic Law, but to God's eternal demand on each person which condemns them to judgment.

While you are most accurate (but not exclusively accurate), regarding the intent of law and gospel with Lutherans you wrongly employ this distinction as if it qualifies them as rejecting dispensational schemes when in fact not only does the LCMS but so did Martin Luther accept such distinctions though not with the thoroughness of later theologians, with clear expressions such as rejecting Sunday being the new Sabbath seeing that now we were and are in the age of the church in which Christ is our Sabbath, a theological contradiction always resting uneasily upon the heads of Reformed believers who assert Sunday is the new Sabbath (this is but one observable admission by Lutherans they understand divine economies and their consequences practically and doctrinally).

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Alex, I think a distinction between what Luther meant by "gospel" and what dispensationalists mean by "grace" is pretty hard to sustain. In any case, Scharf's point is that he sees the seeds of dispensationalism in the distinction between law as what condemns and gospel as what forgives. He is clear in the paper that Luther would be appalled at the idea of dispensationalism.

In general, I think too many approach the whole notion of dispensationalism with a strong bias in favor approaches that are perceived to predate it and a strong aversion to newness... though I continue to be amazed at how selective the aversion to newness is.
For example, though this doesn't describe anyone here (let's hope), many who disdain dispensationalism out of the box because it's a theological innovation (in their eyes), turn around and gleefully embrace Wright's "new perspective on Paul."
So "new is bad" or "new is good" depending on what day it is and the price of eggs in China, I guess.

Joseph's picture

Aaron,

I'm afraid your comparison of N.T. Wright and dispensationalism is rather poor, indeed catastrophically so (if I may exaggerate, ever so slightly). Besides the fact that I think you idea about an aversion to newness is wrong and therefore not a helpful way of viewing the issue, the comparison misses some crucial points.

First, Wright is a brilliant scholar and theologian; Dispensationalist's founders were nowhere close to Wright in their theological, philosophical, and hermeneutic depth, breadth, and sophistication. Even if one disagrees with Wright about many things (and I'm sure I would if I read much of his work), no one denies the above characterization. Wright's brilliant, an intellect of the first order. Not only does dispensationalism not have any founders in a league with Wright's calibre, it has produced no theologians who have done work of the same calibre, breadth, and depth as Wright. And, in case people don't know, I do not buy the New Perspective (of Wright's) but have read enough of Wright and enough about him to have an enormous respect for him and for what he is doing and has done positively for Christianity.

Second, it's often things the same things that draw people towards Wright that draw people away from Dispensationalism (certainly it is so in my case), like Wright's impressive grasp of philosophy, intellectual history, hermeneutics, theology, and his own discipline. A guy like Wright has more academic authority than any dispsentionalist has ever had, and he deserves to because of the scholarship he's done. Just as an example regarding hermeneutic naivety and lack of a sense of history, Wright has co-authored a history of of N.T. Interpretation (Oxford: 1988), L.S. Chafer was proud of his lack of formal education and helped lead the bastion of dispensationalism. Wright's written books on hermeneutics and its history; I'd be surprised if Chafer read any books on hermeneutics and its history. Wright reads all the relevant biblical, cognate, and research languages, and has mastered a significant amount of cultural, historical, and textual information ranging from jewish history to Greco-Roman culture to modern theology, philosophy, and culture. Chafer studied music and did not finish his degree. And this could go on, and on. The comparison is embarrasing, but you asked for it, I'm afraid.

There's no denying that silly and thoughtless people have always existed, and that such people often adopt positions for bad reasons. But a selective aversion to newness seems to me a strikingly poor suggestion as to why people reject dispensationalism. It's not newness; it's lack of historical awareness, groundedness, and scholarly and intellectual acumen (esp. among its founders), among a veritable plethora of other factors. Moreover, with respect to innovations, you need to read Wright's latest book, Justification, before you speak too much of innovation, for there Wright affirms practically every major Protestant distinctive, with one exception. See Craig Blombergs review here: http://www.denverseminary.edu/article/justification-gods-plan-and-pauls-...

As I view the above factually incontestable given its profound unoriginality and obviousness (it's hardly my "opinion"; I could have just quoted reviews and blurbs from everyone else, ranging from liberals to conservative evangelicals, all of whom recognize the above qualities in Wright) I won't "defend" Wright further if someone attacks him or this post. If one can't recognize the difference in quality between Wright and the founders of Dispensationalism, there's no argument that will help resolve that dispute.

Greg Long's picture

...and once again Joseph ends a post with a variation on "this point is so obvious it can't be argued"...

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Joseph's picture

Greg Long wrote:
...and once again Joseph ends a post with a variation on "this point is so obvious it can't be argued"...

Greg,

On a charitable reading, I'm struggling to see the relevance or value of what you say here. Do you think 1) I am misinformed regarding Wright's stature as a scholar, or 2) that I have intentionally misspoken in saying that what I reported was factual and could easily be corrobated by Wright's academic peers, from far Left to far Right? I'm struggling to see other options but am happy to consider them if you provide them.

If you think 1, I suppose I'll just wait for you to substantiate your opinion. If 2, the proper mode of confrontation would be private, as it's would be a distraction to the forum to impugn my character publically.

In either case, if I'm wrong it should be terribly easy to show that, seeing the very public nature of my claims. I don't particularly wish to, but should anyone be huffy or skeptical I'm willing to spend a few minutes on google collecting the quotes I said I could have substituted for my own comments on Wright.

Joseph's picture

Red Phillips wrote:
Charlie, I agree with Joseph in the other thread that there is a connection between Arminianism and democratic Americanism, but I don’t see the connection to dispensationalism. Unless you are just suggesting that an everyman his own theologian attitude allowed a bad doctrine to prosper. Make that connection a little clearer for me if you will.

Red,

The following paper provides a helpful and concise overview of some of the main issues that I think Charlie was referring to. And it also cites most of the relevant literature on the topic, at least enough to get one started.

http://bible.org/article/relationship-common-sense-realism-dispensationa...

Charlie's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:

While you are most accurate (but not exclusively accurate), regarding the intent of law and gospel with Lutherans you wrongly employ this distinction as if it qualifies them as rejecting dispensational schemes when in fact not only does the LCMS but so did Martin Luther accept such distinctions though not with the thoroughness of later theologians, with clear expressions such as rejecting Sunday being the new Sabbath seeing that now we were and are in the age of the church in which Christ is our Sabbath, a theological contradiction always resting uneasily upon the heads of Reformed believers who assert Sunday is the new Sabbath (this is but one observable admission by Lutherans they understand divine economies and their consequences practically and doctrinally).

The recognition of distinctions between the Old and New Testament does not make one a Dispensationalist. All of the Reformers recognized distinctions between the Old and New Testaments. The Reformed doctrine of exclusive psalmnody, for example, rests on the idea of instruments being an "Old Covenant" form of temple worship. (FWIW, I disagree with EP.) Even the Reformed view of the Sabbath doesn't ignore the difference between Mosaic and New Covenants. It appeals to the idea of a creation Sabbath principle that is actuali. You may not find the argument persuasive, but there is a recognition of historical progression. All the major Reformed biblical theologians (Witsius, Cocceius, Owen, Edwards, Vos) have affirmed many distinctions between different economies.

The key issue, though, is that neither Luther nor Calvin nor any other "Reformational" theologian affirmed the kinds of distinctions that Dispensationalists do. In fact, they expressly denied them. Luther's arguments against the Jews are a pretty strong form of "replacement theology." It's not possible that Dispensationalism is in "seed form" in Luther if he is adamantly opposed to all of its main tenets. Also, I'm not aware that any of the early Dispensationalists claimed to be following through any particular line of Lutheran/Reformed thinking.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

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

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joseph wrote:
The comparison is embarrasing, but you asked for it, I'm afraid.

I'm trying really hard to be embarrassed, but just can't seem to work it up.
How bright Wright is has absolutely nothing to do with my point... nor does it have a whole lot to do with how right Wright is.

My point is a very simple one. One of the most often touted arguments against dispensationalism is that it's a new kid on the block and does not adequately respect the corpus of orthodox historical theology. My answer to that is, in part, that folks are very selective about their use of the newness argument, dismissing one set of ideas out of hand on that basis while embracing other ideas that really are new and dramatic departures from the supposedly much beloved body of historical theology.
The reception many have given N.T. Wright's new perspective is a prime example of what I'm talking about.

Wow, I've said it twice and I'm still not embarrassed.
(I'm afraid that I'm hopelessly beyond the persuasive power of long paragraphs extolling the brilliance of scholar X and decrying the ignorance and stupidity of dispensationalists... and the word philosopher just doesn't quicken my pulse or make my eyes go starry at all... though I'll admit to finding several of them interesting).

Joseph's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

My point is a very simple one. One of the most often touted arguments against dispensationalism is that it's a new kid on the block and does not adequately respect the corpus of orthodox historical theology. My answer to that is, in part, that folks are very selective about their use of the newness argument, dismissing one set of ideas out of hand on that basis while embracing other ideas that really are new and dramatic departures from the supposedly much beloved body of historical theology.
The reception many have given N.T. Wright's new perspective is a prime example of what I'm talking about.

Craig Blomberg wrote:

More clearly and in more detail than in any of his previous works, Wright demonstrates repeatedly that he wishes to maintain all the most central doctrines of the Reformation, including the Reformers’ (and especially Calvin’s) reading of Paul’s major affirmations. Indeed, only one doctrine, and that one not uniformly held by all Calvinists (though passionately promoted by Piper), appears to Wright not actually to be found in Scripture.
From Blomberg's review of Wright's "Justification," (linked above).

It's clear, Aaron, that you did not read what I said carefully, or read the article I linked. As the above quote makes quite clear, there is good reason to question your comparison just on the grounds of novelty alone. The kind of "novelty" people accuse dispenationalism of is hardly of a piece with the "novelty" of N.T. Wright (at least, such a claim would need to be established, not assumed). Much of what Sanders originally argued with respect to Second Temple Judaism has been, in large measure, accepted, even by evangelicals, as a needed corrective to the historic position, for the articulation of which the Reformers did not have the historical resources we now have (See, for example, Carson's introduction and Conclusion to Vol. 1 of Justification and Variegated Nomism).

Wright's is not rooting himself in nothing or denying the link to his tradition. Moreover, on the matter of Wright's achievements, they are not inconsequential when the validity of a comparison between his work and that of dispensationalism is in question. As I noted, people like myself appreciate Wright for some of the same reasons we reject Dispensationalism.

If your point remains, it seems to me to have an unclear target and to be based on an comparison that is far from apt.

Even if what you said was true and your comparison was apt, it would merely indicate that people are inconsistent, which, while unfortunate, is not apparently relevant to the questions at hand.

Finally, the only part of my post you quoted was unnecessary polemic on my part, and given that you fixated on it, rather than on the substance of my post, I have been duly punished and regret the offending sentence.

Bob Hayton's picture

I'm a convert away from dispensationalism for the record. And I agree that "newness" is a big argument against it. So I can see Aaron's point as being true among many young fundamentalists I've heard of. This isn't to say a straight comparison can be made to Wright. And I'm not disagreeing with the assessment Joseph gave of Wright. I just think Aaron was just briefly mentioning newness and used Wright as an off-hand example, and then this was jumped on with an incredibly detailed response. I agree with most of the response, I just don't see how it was "asked for" by Aaron.

I'm surprised that classical dispensationalism is what is being held to here, really. And I agree that many of the 7 points characterize my understanding of Scripture based on covenantal thought.

I also take exception to the phrase "replacement theology". That is a loaded phrase in my opinion that tries to stack the deck against CT. CT doesn't claim to be replacement theology in this sense at all.

I think the two articles pro and con to dispensationalism were pretty good, but neither really presented an overwhelming or fascinating case. But the limitations of a blog post probably prevent that. It's been interesting reading the comments. I'm enjoying jumping back into Sharper Iron for the first time in a while.

God Bless,

Bob Hayton

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Red Phillips's picture

Joseph, thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

I don't know much about Wright so I'll take your word for it, but I don't think excessive credentialism is helpful. Neither is deliberate anti-intellectualism, but you know what Buckley said about being governed by the first 100 people in the New Haven phone book vs. the faculty at Yale. The modern academy has a bias that is self-fulfilling. It elevates its own and suppresses dissent. Hence people can be learned fools. The system as it is today often miseducates and you leave more foolish than when you went in. So saying Wright is a a brilliant scholar, and bozo dispensationalist wasn't only gets you so far. In fields that I know a little more about, history and political science, some brilliant highly regarded scholars have written some nonsensical trash.

I agree with Aaron that there is a lot of selective rejection of novelty on the part of some although Wright would not be my example. Most of the Baptist distinctives are novel to some extent. All the people extolling the virtues of separation of church and state when we were discussing the wisdom of the BJIII endorsement of Romney come to mind. My point is not to open up that can of worms. My point is that most Americans are infected with a lot of modern notions that they simply take for granted. They reject the novelty of dispensationalism because it is an issue that has come up. They do not always look at their own modern biases with equal skepticism.

Joseph's picture

One of the things that I find perplexing and frustrating is the way in which Fundamentalists seem to have a kind of monolithic idea of "the academy" or "scholarship," as if they are things that one can simply endorse or cast a skeptical eye upon. There are qualitative differences among scholars, and I'm not merely saying Wright is a good scholar. He is a theologian and biblical interpreter, as well as a historian, of really remarkable gifts, ability, and cultivation, and this fact is important. It reflects ignorance, perhaps in combination with other factors, but nothing positive, when a person rejects something of which they are ignorant. Much of the Fundamentalist responses to "scholarship" and "philosophers" strikes me as having the tone and perspective of people distinctly on the outside, just as Fundamentalists always find descriptions about them somewhat bizarre, even if sort of correct, so too I think people like myself, who are in the academy, find many Fundamentalists reaction to the academy bizarre and difficult to square with the way things look from the inside.

I don't presume to dismiss professions about which I am ignorant in some substantial way merely because I dislike aspects of those professions, and it certainly seems that this is a good principle, but one which people do not apply when it comes to scholarship, about which we are all , it seems, qualified judges who can proudly profess our imperviousness from and issue judgment upon the intellectual morass of the modern academy.

I think people don't really understand anti-intellectualism, or they would not deny it about themselves because sometimes, like right now, I sort of start and realize that what I'm desribing sounds an awful lot like anti-intellectualism. Indeed, much of this is manifest in the fact that many people, including many Fundamentalists, do not seem to distinguish scholarship from supporting education, or having universitives, or having gone to college, as if going to business school or learning computer programming is the same thing as preparing for or undertaking the profession of a teacher and/or researcher in the university. or that it automatically means one is not anti-intellectual. There's no real way to point this out and not be "the bad guy," although Charlie has already referenced some works that go a long way towards explaining this sensibiltiy, which I hasten to add is shared by others (it's largely an American thing), but is unsettingly prevalent among conversative Christians.

Unfortunately this is not off topic, for, as the article about dispensationism that I linked to indicates, this mentality is not wholly dissimilar from that held by many of the early dispensationalists. There is a distrust, having nothing to do with Christianity and having everything to do with American cultural sensibilities, of "eggheads" and "intellectuals" that pervades certain regions and sub-cultures of America, as any student of American history of politics realizes, and this distrust is strong still among many Fundamentalists.

I close by noting that the often justified distrust of aspects of the academy, which has done much to muddle and contribute to the disorder of culture, is often poorly expressed, and this is unfortunate. The best way to deal with bad work in a field is to find others, who actually are in the field, to do the criticism, rather than risk launching a screed or making oneself appear ignorant and therefore obfuscating one's poorly presented yet still valid criticism. This, I fear, is a rather common problem among conservatives, both politically and religiously, and hence we are often dismissed with a certain justification by those against who we rage. Tempered and thoughtful critics who are able to criticize nonsense always exist, and if they are not invoked it indicates that a person has not even done sufficient homework to know who, within the area they are attacking, supports what they are saying and has articulated in terms plausible to members of the discipline.

But that is quite enough of this; I hope some little clarity is brought to my dissatisfaction with certain kinds of responses (the content is rarely the main problem; the form is).

Greg Long's picture

Aaron, I too find the charge that dispensationalism is recent and therefore to be distrusted humorous, especially when made by Covenant Theologians. As I understand it, Covenant Theology as a system wasn't developed until the 16th and 17th centuries.

So I guess those 200 years between the development of the system of Covenant Theology and the development of the system of Dispensationalism makes all the difference as to whether or not a doctrine is too new to be dismissed out of hand!

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Greg Long's picture

BTW, my earlier post directed at Joseph was snarky and did nothing to contribute to the discussion. For that I apologize, Joseph.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've argued here that the dismissal of dispensationalism on the grounds of newness/departure from historical theology is weak because people apply that criticism very selectively.
Greg has enhanced that part of it by pointing out how new Covenant Theology is.

So here's another line of defense against the newness argument... I think I'll frame it with a question. Are there any circumstances under which it is proper for students of the Bible to depart dramatically from what I'll loosely label "the consensus of historical theology" ? How about the Reformation itself as an example. Was Luther being brash, arrogantly innovative or anything of that sort by proposing sola fide?
I'm assuming the answer to my first question is yes and the answer to the second is no. So my followup questions are when is that appropriate and why was it OK for Luther and the other Reformers to reject large chunks of the accepted theology of the day? [br ][br ]
Edit: a couple of other questions related to these... Is it the brilliance of the scholars involved that makes departures and innovations good? Is it the general esteem in which a thinker is held by other thinkers that makes innovation on his part a good thing? Is it how strongly he claims affinity with the past?

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Charlie wrote:
The recognition of distinctions between the Old and New Testament does not make one a Dispensationalist. All of the Reformers recognized distinctions between the Old and New Testaments. The Reformed doctrine of exclusive psalmnody, for example, rests on the idea of instruments being an "Old Covenant" form of temple worship. (FWIW, I disagree with EP.) Even the Reformed view of the Sabbath doesn't ignore the difference between Mosaic and New Covenants. It appeals to the idea of a creation Sabbath principle that is actuali. You may not find the argument persuasive, but there is a recognition of historical progression. All the major Reformed biblical theologians (Witsius, Cocceius, Owen, Edwards, Vos) have affirmed many distinctions between different economies.

The key issue, though, is that neither Luther nor Calvin nor any other "Reformational" theologian affirmed the kinds of distinctions that Dispensationalists do. In fact, they expressly denied them. Luther's arguments against the Jews are a pretty strong form of "replacement theology." It's not possible that Dispensationalism is in "seed form" in Luther if he is adamantly opposed to all of its main tenets. Also, I'm not aware that any of the early Dispensationalists claimed to be following through any particular line of Lutheran/Reformed thinking.

I personally would not attribute to Luther a "Reformational" identity though his body of work coincides with this age seeing that often he refuted the rationalism of Reformed theology but I do understand the use of the identity if it is respective of his period and not his theology, he simply is too distinct.

And I am certainly not arguing Luther was a dispensationalist but that observably Luther went notably further in his theology than Reformers in regarding economic distinctions and the theology behind it which lends the idea that Luther recognized without unnecessary resistance, this kind of scheme. But his eschatology, one must say, would not point to any attempt by him to approach or validate classic dispensationalism.

I believe my front here stems from an unhealthy practice I have observed by Reformed believers who too often borrow the name of Luther as their ally and theological comrade when, while his respect and appreciation for Reformed teachers certainly can be observed, his opposition to Reformed rationalism is as clearly observable, if not more so.

An interesting quote by "father" Chafer on dispensationalism and the Reformation:

http://bartimaeus.us/pub_dom/dispensationalism.html

Quote:
1. The term modern dispensationalism implies that dispensationalism is modern. In the recovery of vital truth in the Reformation dispensational distinctions, like various other doctrines, were not emphasized. The truths thus neglected in the Reformation have since been set forth by devout Bible students, but against the opposition of those who assume that the Reformation secured all that is germane to Systematic Theology. The testimony, already cited, of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) that in his day dispensational distinctions were a living topic of theological discussion indicates the fact that these themes were dominant nearly three hundred years ago. Similarly, a worthy and scholarly research of the Bible with dispensational distinctions in view was made during the last century in England by J.N. Darby, Charles H. Mackintosh, William Kelly, F.W. Grant, and others who developed what is known as the Plymouth Brethren movement. These men created an extensive literature of surpassing value which is strictly Biblical and dispensational, though this literature has been strangely neglected by many conservative theologians. The term anno Domini is intensely dispensational in itself and the familiar dictum attributed to Augustine (354-430, A.D.), "Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures harmonize," could hardly be considered modern.
(Bold mine)

Aaron, I do agree that "law and gospel" and "law and grace" should not be view as synonymous terms though they are quite familiar with one another. It might be with the latter, its development is built upon some of the fundamental concepts found in the former.

Bob Hayton's picture

I think departing from "the consensus of historical theology" should be done very carefully. Scripture trumps all, certainly. However, some groups such as cults and the Church of Christ, take a certain pride in ignoring historical theology. American Baptists can tend toward the same pride in anti-intellectualism. There is wisdom in listening to spiritual teachers, both present and those of past generations.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Paul J. Scharf's picture

Charlie,

Thank you for the challenging responses. You have obviously done your homework! Perhaps you have studied Lutheran theology on a graduate level, which I admittedly have not – although I was immersed in it (no pun intended) through the 12th grade.
You are correct that perhaps “Law and Gospel” would have been a better choice of words since I was speaking in terms of Luther’s own emphasis in that sentence, whereas “Law and Grace” would be the more dispensational way of saying something very similar (see McClain’s book by the same title).
However, I agree with Aaron Blumer’s point that, at least in this context, it is basically a distinction without a difference. Lutheran scholar C.F.W. Walther, in his classic book “God’s No and God’s Yes: The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel,” states: “”The Gospel says…: ‘You have been received into God’s grace’” (p. 21). In my own experience from earliest childhood, it certainly seems like the terms “faith” and “grace” were used more often than “gospel.” (I am certainly thankful for those emphases which I received there, by the way.)
As I state in the article, Luther would be horrified at the thought of a fully-developed dispensational theology, so we are in total agreement there. This does not mean, however, that God did not use him to shine a light into a world of almost total darkness which would one day burn more brightly than even he could possibly understand at the time.
I disagree with your statement that, “there is no plausible connection between Reformational theology and Dispensationalism.” In this case, I would think the burden would be on you to show how dispensationalism, then, did indeed appear (i.e., theologically, not culturally). It certainly did not spring from Roman Catholicism, so where did it come from?
To my knowledge, Tommy Ice has done more work on this subject than anyone else on the dispensational side (except perhaps Mike Stallard), and admittedly there is a tremendous amount of historical and theological research which still remains to be completed here, and it is a subject which fascinates me personally. Please know also that my interview with Ice which I reference lasted well over an hour, I believe, and I have boiled its contents down to a few words in this article.
I disagree completely with your last paragraph. You are expressing your opinion (not historical fact) in the same way I am expressing mine, and are using well-worn arguments against dispensationalism -- arguments which have been answered by scholars with as many earned doctorates from world-class institutions as any Covenant Theologian or Lutheran scholar has.
I am arguing that the Reformation did indeed start a new trajectory which culminated in the dispensational understanding of Scripture as men came to greater light on the basis of accumulated knowledge and further refinement of doctrine. Many of these men, such as those who spoke at the Niagara Bible Conferences, came from a variety of denominational backgrounds, and several were also highly qualified to teach and interpret the Bible.
I am personally very uncomfortable with the historical ad hominem attacks being used on "the founders of dispensationalism," and do not believe they contribute much of anything to this discussion. It certainly is unrelated to my original article.

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Paul J. Scharf's picture

On a purely practical level, there have indeed been what might be called "Lutheran dispensationalists."
While I cannot speak with absolute authority on this, there was one interesting instituational example which might have been very close. It was an independent (I believe) Lutheran college, now defunct, formerly in Minnesota, called Golden Valley Lutheran College. I had literature from them when I was in high school, and was looking into the college before it closed in 1985. There is not much about it out on the Web that I can find.
They had an outstanding athletic program, and used to play Pillsbury in sports. Perhaps some PBBC grads can shed light on the situation.
Also, I have a personal acquaintance who once served under Alva J. McClain at Grace Seminary who, as recently as two or three years ago, was conducting dispensational prophecy conferences in some Lutheran churches in Minnesota. I assume the churches must be independent. I do not know any more about it than that.
If anyone (perhaps someone who ministers in Minnesota) has information on anything related to this -- I would be very interested in hearing about it.
I continue to be fascinated with Lutheran "sub-groups," and, of course, also with the spread of dispensationalism.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bob Hayton wrote:
I think departing from "the consensus of historical theology" should be done very carefully. Scripture trumps all, certainly. However, some groups such as cults and the Church of Christ, take a certain pride in ignoring historical theology. American Baptists can tend toward the same pride in anti-intellectualism. There is wisdom in listening to spiritual teachers, both present and those of past generations.

Thanks, Bob. I wonder if we could get Joseph to chime in on the question(s). (If the topic isn't simply beyond the pale of what we're capable of discussing intelligently in this venue, etc... sorry, couldn't resist teasing a little there, Joseph).

I raise these questions in particular because it seems that in many cases answers to them--or assumed answers--establish a starting point in looking at dispensationalism that isn't fair to it as an approach to theology. And I'm interested in seeing it get a chance at thoughtful evaluation by as many people as possible.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Joseph wrote:
L.S. Chafer was proud of his lack of formal education and helped lead the bastion of dispensationalism. Wright's written books on hermeneutics and its history; I'd be surprised if Chafer read any books on hermeneutics and its history.
Joseph,

Concerning this claim about Chafer, I would like to see the source, in context, as you are using it, otherwise one might be convinced you owe a retraction. As to your doubt about Chafer reading books on hermeneutics or its history here is a Theopedia entry on his education which indicates he may have read at least one book on hermeneutics :):

Quote:
Chafer received a D.D. from Wheaton (1926), Litt.D., Dallas (1924), and Th.D. from the Aix-en-Provence, France, Protestant Seminary (1946).
While your attributions of Wright's strengths are fair, it is disappointing to find your countering Chafer with dubious claims.

Audrey's picture

Aaron,

I certainly understand why you might say that it seems random that some "new" ideas are preferred over other "new" ideas like dispensationalism. However, I think the point that is not coming out here is that there is a qualitatively different kind of newness between, say, dispensationalism and the Reformers, which explains why it would be more understandable to choose one and not the other. For one thing, the Reformers were not a complete break with historical theology. In fact, much of their argument was that they were supported by great Catholic theologians such as Augustine, and many who stayed within the Catholic church agreed with much of what the Reformers said and wanted reform within the Catholic church. Also, the Reformers studied intensely to come to their positions. They lived in a time of renewed interest in the Classical languages and knew the Biblical languages, as well as knowing the church fathers. Their ideas were "new" but were not in any way the kind of radical break with historical views of Scripture in the way dispensationalism was. The founders of dispensationalism were, no doubt, godly men, but, and here's the key, they were not as well-prepared academically as the Reformers (Did Chafer even know the Biblical languages? Did he read the church fathers?), and their views on Scripture were a radical break from historical ways of viewing Scripture. Does this make them wrong? Of course not, but we have to realize that the only place dispensationalism could have caught on like it did among conservative Christians is in an environment that had a low view of history and academics and a high view of personal piety. So, we can say that comparing the "newness" of dispensationalism and Wright is like comparing apples and oranges because, like between the Reformers and dispensationalism, there is a qualitative difference in that newness. Wright is offering a radical view of one aspect of Paul's teaching, but he is largely in line with historical theology (and he is arguing for his point historically, from the context of the Scriptures), and he is a well-respected scholar. Thus, it is in many ways more understandable for intellectual people to follow the "newness" of Wright, while repudiating the "newness" of dispensationalism.
Anyway, the point is not so much about Wright as it is about why people choose some "new" ideas over others.

Audrey's picture

Alex,

Perhaps I'm wrong, but weren't those degrees of Chafer's honorary? I thought he didn't finish his undergraduate education.

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
So my followup questions are when is that appropriate and why was it OK for Luther and the other Reformers to reject large chunks of the accepted theology of the day?

Aaron, I was actually thinking about this before I saw your post, but you're right, it is the logical question. Is there a difference between Luther and company and Darby and friends? I think there is. Luther critiqued from a position of knowledge. He was regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in all of Europe, praised even by Erasmus. He was intimately acquainted with the scope of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology. As a professor, he had lectured through Aristotle, Aquinas, Lombard, and portions of the Scriptures. When he contradicted Catholicism, he knew whereof he spoke. Also, Luther was not quite as unique as historians have made him out to be. Recent publications in intellectual history have pointed out the presence of a schola Augustinia moderna, which was proceeding speedily down the same path by having recovered critical editions of Augustine and by using Erasmus' GNT to correct the faulty Vulgate. When Luther made his "breakthrough," there were many primed to accept it all over Europe, particularly within the rapidly developing humanist communities. With Zwingli and Calvin, you get more of the same. They critiqued from the intellectual high ground, being both brilliant and well studied. For more information, I'd point you to Alister McGrath's The Intellectual History of the European Reformation or any of the works of Heiko Oberman.

With the early Dispensationalists, I don't see that same critique from the high ground. Darby was a very intelligent man, but didn't formally study theology. One of the first things that his new theology led him to do was to declare that all institutional churches were corrupt and that any form of church government or clergy was a sin. Darby's conception of the church was that of equal authority because everyone was indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is the key point. Darby's theology was essentially populist. It operated on the assumption that learning and study, especially formal study, was really inconsequential to the illumination of the Holy Spirit. If you just read your Bible with the Holy Spirit's help, you'd get it right. (I'm not sure, though, how he explained the utter failure of past Christians to read the Bible with the Holy Spirit). In the 19th century, Darby was one among many people who acted on a new conception of Scripture. Before then, the church had always thought of Scripture as being given to the Church corporate, and containing different levels of perspicuity. No one person could interpret the Scripture by himself without the help of the Church, and not all parts of Scripture are equally easy or difficult to interpret. The emerging 19th century consensus was that Scripture was a book of facts just like any physical object. One person could simply analyze it and understand it. So, the corporate aspect of interpretation was removed as each man was encouraged simply to read the Bible for himself to determine what it said. Furthermore, understanding any one topic in the Bible was as simple as collecting the relevant verses and listing them off, adding up their teaching like a math problem. This method led to two predictable consequences: 1) the loss of the concept of hermeneutical center, and 2) the methedological breakdown of systematic theology.

(Rabbit trail: This approach to Scripture is still evident at, say, Bob Jones, where I was taught you could do a biblical theology of the book of 1 Thessalonians simply by highlighting all the verses containing the word "God" (or Father) with one color, Christ with another color, salvation with another color, etc., and adding them together. This shows quite a disregard for discourse analysis and literary sensitivity. One could randomly scramble all the sentences in the book of 1 Thessalonians and still come out with the same biblical theology!)

I won't go into detail, but Chafer had a similar background and expressed the same sentiments. His only education was in music from Oberlin College (the school where Charles Finney was president!). His theological training came pretty much from the Niagra Prophecy Conferences and his relationship with C.I. Scofield (a man of disreputable character and again, no formal theological training). I won't belabor the point.

So, I think there are 2 marked differences between the Reformers and the early Dispensationalists. First, their actual knowledge of the field in which they labored. Second, their conceptions concerning what Scripture was and how it was to be approached. I really think Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity opened my eyes more than any other single work to what happens when individualistic interpretation and a "common sense" approach combine. In the 19th century, the leaders of Methodism, Campbellism, Dispensationalism, Universalism, the Millerites (later 7th Day), the Unitarians, the Brethren, and others all had one platform in common. They all said that if the common man would just read through the Bible like they had never heard anyone tell them about it before, the people would agree with their group. Several leaders or prominent members of these groups said that they came to their theology for locking themselves in a room with their Bible for days or weeks at a time. The remarkable thing is how many of these groups either started or soon became heretical, and how none of them were able to recognize the role of presuppositions in their theology.

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