The Changing Face of Dispensationalism

There are 42 Comments

Craig Toliver's picture

Re: " If the defining doctrine of dispensationalism is the two-peoples-of-God theory, then to reject that theory is to reject dispensationalism itself"

Response: Didn't know two-peoples-of-God theory was a "defining doctrine of dispensationalism"

M. Osborne's picture

I skimmed the article in the OP, and I see that this statement comes from a postmillennialist critic Keith Mathison. But then, I check the glossary, and I see that the publication itself would own that notion.

Two-peoples-of-God Theory is a defining aspect of Dispensationalism that views Israel and the church as separate entities with distinct promises.

What are your thoughts, Craig? Would you distinguish between the notion of "two peoples of God," and the better-known sine qua non from Ryrie?

It makes a clear distinction between Israel and the church in God’s purposes.

When I read Robertson's Christ of the Covenants, I was intrigued when he dismissed the "literal hermeneutic" as the big dividing point, but instead pointed to the earthly/heavenly dichotomy as the real driving force behind Dispensationalist theology.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

Ron Bean's picture

I was confused about this when I was first introduced to dispensationalism. I probably still am. I could see a literal hermeneutic and pre-millennialism. What confused me was the "Israel is the Wife but the Church is the Bride" and having Abraham and his OT associates waiting in some backroom while I enjoyed the Bridal Supper of the Lamb. The teaching/implication that redeemed Israel was not part of the Body of Christ was beyond me as was the idea that the Gospel that was preached to Abraham was a different Gospel.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Jim's picture

Couldn't both of these be true?

  • The church is NOT Israel
  • But there is one people of God

I mean, I am not ethnically a Jew (not a blood descendant of Abraham!). I never was part of the nation of Israel (and still am not)

But ... I am a spiritual heir of Abraham

 

Ron Bean's picture

Jim said:

Couldn't both of these be true?

The church is NOT Israel

But there is one people of God

I mean, I am not ethnically a Jew (not a blood descendant of Abraham!). I never was part of the nation of Israel (and still am not)

But ... I am a spiritual heir of Abraham

As one who sees a difference between the Church and Israel, I agree but I've been told by some that this doesn't "fit".

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

M. Osborne's picture

Jim, if I remember right, Chris Barney offered the formula, "one people, two institutions" as a possible way that both those propositions could be true. I don't remember the details of how that works out in practice, because I think the sticking point is in what ways, if any, the "church" benefits from the promises made to "Israel."

I don't consider myself a Dispensationalist, but if forced to answer true-or-false for "The church is NOT Israel," to me it still seems clearest to answer "true." But...there's a lot more to it than that.

Michael Osborne
Philadelphia, PA

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think dispensationalism, as a system, is not comprehensive and is an external framework forced upon Scripture:

  • I believe the Biblical covenants are a far better roadmap to the Biblical story.
  • And, it's hard to boast that you have a complete theological system when all you focus on is eschatology and selected aspects of ecclesiology.

However, dispensationalism has many true insights (e.g. the two-peoples concept, etc.) that I am very grateful for and believe in. If you pin me down, I'd say I'm kind of dispensational. I'm very unmoved by appeals to be faithful to one particular strand of dispensationalsm vs. the other. I don't think it's a wholistic interpretive grid; it only covers eschatology and fragments of ecclesiology. It's a still-born system that people try to make wholistic.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that a lot of the difference between a system "forced upon Scripture" and one that works well with it is whether one describes the core of dispensationalism (or whatever system) primarily in terms of its ingoing assumptions, or its conclusions.  If I viewed, say, Ryrie or Hagee's conclusions in the same way that Presbyterians would view the covenant theology portions of the Westminster Confession, I would entirely agree with Tyler.  I would not be a dispensationalist simply because I could not go along with each conclusion.

If, however, I viewed dispensationalism primarily as the notion that we ought to view God's promises as literal unless the context of the promise makes clear that it's figurative, then I can sign on 100% as a dispensationalist.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I believe the Biblical covenants are a far better roadmap to the Biblical story.

That is one of the core parts of dispensationalism, particularly the covenants with Abraham, Moses/Israel, David, and the New Covenant. You can't have dispensationalism without dealing with these covenants.

Roy Beacham recently delivered the Rice Lectures on this topic at DBTS: http://www.dbts.edu/rice/

It's worth the time.

And, it's hard to boast that you have a complete theological system when all you focus on is eschatology and selected aspects of ecclesiology.

The reason for this is that only eschatology and ecclesiology are distinct in dispensationalism (and a bit of pneumatology). The rest is virtually the same as non-dispensationalism. So it is complete. It simply mirrors what is widely accepted in other systems as well. Here you can see Dispensational systematics and see that there isn't much difference elsewhere.

So there may be good reasons not to be a dispensationalist. I don't think these are those reasons.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Larry:

When I wrote "roadmap," I meant "framework." DT does not use the covenants as the skeletal framework to tell the Biblical story. It uses the dispensations. To be sure, DT contains the covenants and mentions them, but the framework hangs on the dispensations. It always has. A far better framework is to use the covenants themselves (e.g. Nohaic, Abrahamic, Old, Priestly, Davidic, New) as the skeleton to flesh out the story - not the dispensations.   

The covenants are explicitly mentioned and discussed in the text. The dispensations are not; they're assumed. Consider the alleged distinction between Promise and Law, for example.

I owe a great deal of my thinking on this subject to Paul Henebury. I was groping my way towards his same conclusions in an unfinished form, but I've been very, very pleased read Henebury's more mature version of my own thoughts over the past several years. I look forward to his book on this matter.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

When I wrote "roadmap," I meant "framework."

But history predates the covenants. So where does that fit? And the covenants (except the Noahic) are with Israel, yet God's plan is bigger. So where does that fit? And now, there is no covenant in force. So where does that fit? For these reasons, I think the framework of covenants is too small and too limited.

The idea of progressive revelation in which God outlines his working with humanity is a better and more comprehensive idea. And since we are dealing with revelation I am not sure of the basis for the claim that this is not mentioned in Scripture. Do you mean by that that the word "dispensation" is not mentioned in these places? It seems to me that the progress of revelation is explicit and the changes in how God relates to man is explicit in that.

G. N. Barkman's picture

How did I miss this?  All this time I thought the New Covenant was in force now.

G. N. Barkman

Jim's picture

Dispensationalism has never been completely monolithic and has been somewhat amorphous

HT: this

"That's my story and I'm stick'n to it!"

Larry's picture

Moderator

How did I miss this?

Cuz you didn't read the Bible closely enough. Biggrin ... Seriously, the New Covenant is with Israel who is now in rejection for their sins. The church may participate in some of the blessings of the NC, but according to the Scripture, they are not party to it. The NC passages in Scripture are clear and unequivocal about the parties: God and the house of Israel/Judah, those who were led out of Egypt by God, those who broke the old covenant. It is with the offspring of Israel, the nation of Israel. It is not with the church.

Again I commend the lectures by Roy Beacham at http://www.dbts.edu/rice/.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Dispensationalism has never been completely monolithic and has been somewhat amorphous

This is true, and even with the NC. There are various views on the church's participation in the NC and there is a new book out on it. However, all believe (I think) that the NC is at least for future Israel. And there are severe exegetical problems with the assertion that the church participates in it now.

Ron Bean's picture

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”

― Isaac Newton

Old Isaac would have had a tough time with dispensationalism.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Larry's picture

Moderator

Old Isaac would have had a tough time with dispensationalism.

Perhaps so, but Old Isaac was likely wrong, and we know that because of his own scientific work which is, in many cases, anything but simple. 

But I think part of the genius of dispensationalism is in its simplicity. It requires less explanation than the alternatives. It derives more easily from the text of Scripture and the resultant theology of Scripture. For me, the positions of non-dispensationalism are far more confusing and complex. 

Jim's picture

There's a lot of "slippery slope" in the article:

These trends, coupled with the recent popularity of Reformed teaching, have caused many seminaries and Bible colleges to retreat from defending Dispensational Theology.

Comment: boogeyman alert 

PD’s inclusion of tenets from opposing systems of interpretation obscures CD’s distinctives and makes possible a progression toward the next inevitable position: Amillennialism or Postmillennialism.

Comment: Slippery slope

 

[CD It maintains a doxological focus that sees the ultimate purpose of God as bringing glory to Himself.]

Comment: A false "distinctive" of CD (other systems have a doxological focus too)

Paul Henebury's picture

Larry wrote:

Dispensationalism has never been completely monolithic and has been somewhat amorphous

This is true, and even with the NC. There are various views on the church's participation in the NC and there is a new book out on it. However, all believe (I think) that the NC is at least for future Israel. And there are severe exegetical problems with the assertion that the church participates in it now.

How do you handle 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.  What does Paul say we are remembering in v.25?

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Larry's picture

Moderator

How do you handle 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.  What does Paul say we are remembering in v.25?

Paul says we are remembering the Lord (v. 25) and we are proclaiming his death (v. 26). I guess I am not sure what the issue is here. Paul is quoting the words of Christ from the Last Supper. But there is nothing in that passage that indicates the institution, ratification, or inauguration of the NC in any way that I can see since nothing in the NC actually has come to pass yet. Here again, is where I would point us to the words of the NC as the authoritative source on what the NC is and who its parties are. 

We can't just overlook those words, can we? (I know you agree with me on that.) But if we actually use those words, there is nothing that leads us to include anyone other than Israel the nation in the NC. To include the church in the NC, you actually have to go beyond the words and develop a theological argument that, IMO, actually contradicts the whole point of the NC. The existence of the church is a sort of judgment on Israel the nation, and the NC will be the end of that judgment and the restoration of Israel the nation. 

I think the position that makes the most sense is that the church participates in the blessings of the NC in terms of forgiveness (cf. Hebrews 8), but not the NC itself. That's why the blood was poured out "for many," not just for the Jews.

TylerR's picture

Editor

DT tap-dancing on the New Covenant has always been embarrassing. One can chart the different ways DTs have tried to account for it over the years; (1) no participation, (2) two NCs, (3) partial participation in the soteriological aspects, etc., etc. It's embarrassing. Rod Decker's position on the NC, which he laid out in an exposition in this book, has always made the most sense to me. Before I stumbled across Decker's work, I'd preached through Hebrews and came to conclusion, quite independent from the guardrails of a preconceived system I felt honor-bound to defend, that the church fully participated in the NC.

Larry, I understand you're a passionate dispensationalist. I get that. I appreciate some aspects of it, and I believe in Ryrie's sine qua non of the system. I just can't get worked up about a slippery-slope argument about the boogey-man of progressive dispensationalism (i.e. this article). 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Larry wrote:

How do you handle 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.  What does Paul say we are remembering in v.25?

Paul says we are remembering the Lord (v. 25) and we are proclaiming his death (v. 26). I guess I am not sure what the issue is here. Paul is quoting the words of Christ from the Last Supper. But there is nothing in that passage that indicates the institution, ratification, or inauguration of the NC in any way that I can see since nothing in the NC actually has come to pass yet. Here again, is where I would point us to the words of the NC as the authoritative source on what the NC is and who its parties are. 

We can't just overlook those words, can we? (I know you agree with me on that.) But if we actually use those words, there is nothing that leads us to include anyone other than Israel the nation in the NC. To include the church in the NC, you actually have to go beyond the words and develop a theological argument that, IMO, actually contradicts the whole point of the NC. The existence of the church is a sort of judgment on Israel the nation, and the NC will be the end of that judgment and the restoration of Israel the nation. 

I think the position that makes the most sense is that the church participates in the blessings of the NC in terms of forgiveness (cf. Hebrews 8), but not the NC itself. That's why the blood was poured out "for many," not just for the Jews.

Larry,

 

The Apostle bluntly tells us that the cup represents the blood of the new covenant which was made for us.  What would be the point of drinking it if the NC isn't made with us?  Further, Paul preached the NC (2 Cor. 3:6).  Are the disciples in the church (Eph. 2:20)?

You state, "To include the church in the NC, you actually have to go beyond the words and develop a theological argument that, IMO, actually contradicts the whole point of the NC."  

But you are using a theological argument!  And what is "the whole point of the NC"?   

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Larry's picture

Moderator

DT tap-dancing on the New Covenant has always been embarrassing. One can chart the different ways DTs have tried to account for it over the years; (1) no participation, (2) two NCs, (3) partial participation in the soteriological aspects, etc., etc. It's embarrassing.

Why is that embarrassing? 

... that the church fully participated in the NC.

So let's explore:

  1. The NC text identifies the parties, and the church isn't one of them. On what NC textual basis do you add them? 
  2. The NC is made with the same people with whom the OC was made. Are you asserting that the church was under the OC?
  3. The NC specifics that the city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt again and inhabited by Israel as part of the NC. How does that apply to the church?
  4. The NC specifies that Israel will be restored to the land after having been scattered in judgment. How does that apply to the church?
  5. The NC specifies a material prosperity in the land. How does that apply to the church?

There are others as well, but let's press on to this: These are parts of the NC. If they are not here (and I think we all agree they are not), then how is the NC in force?

I am not a passionate dispensationalist as much as I am interested in the accurate interpretation of the Word. And that's where I think the issue is. We know nothing about the NC except what Scripture says (and you agree with me on that). Yet it seems to me that people are willing to omit parts of the NC in order to shoehorn the church into it, and that is what I struggle with. On what basis do we simply declare that certain parts of the NC don't matter or don't apply?

Larry's picture

Moderator

The Apostle bluntly tells us that the cup represents the blood of the new covenant which was made for us.

Actually, the Apostle doesn't tell us that. He is quoting Christ. As I think you would agree, quoting an earlier text does not necessarily imply a direct fulfillment of it or a direct application of it. There are a number of different ways to use texts. In this case, I think Paul is establishing the command to observe communion by showing that the Lord himself ordained it. Hence, it is an ordinance of the church.

What would be the point of drinking it if the NC isn't made with us? 

Based on the text, the point of drinking it is to remember his death and to proclaim it until he comes.

Further, Paul preached the NC (2 Cor. 3:6).  Are the disciples in the church (Eph. 2:20)?

I take 2 Cor 3:6 to be a reference to a sort of ministry--a new covenant type of ministry marked by the work of the Spirit in a way that the OC does not have. It can't be the NC per se because of what the NC is based on the words. Your position, IMO, would require us to deny what the NC language of the OT specifies. I will say that if there is a passage that could persuade me the "other way" on this, it would probably be this one. But I am not (yet) persuaded that this is what Paul is talking about. I don't see Paul referring to the NC specifically here as the church being part of it. 

As to your second question, I am not sure what that refers to. My apologies.

You state, "To include the church in the NC, you actually have to go beyond the words and develop a theological argument that, IMO, actually contradicts the whole point of the NC."  

But you are using a theological argument!  And what is "the whole point of the NC"?

I think I am using a textual/exegetical argument, aren't I? I am saying we need to go to the actual words God inspired to describe the NC and see what they say and what they mean. The "whole point of the NC" is the restoration of those who were under the OC and who were evicted from the land and God's blessing by disobedience (cf. Jer 31:31-40). The NC promise their restoration. That can't be the church because the church was never under the OC and was never evicted from the land for their disobedience.

TylerR's picture

Editor

It's embarrassing because Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the writer of Hebrews seem to apply the New Covenant to the church. For a responsible discussion of the data from Hebrews, see Decker's contribution to the book I linked to, above. The NT data indicates that the NC is here. The OT data indicates the NC will also be applied to Israel, with several consequent blessings. So, how shall we harmonize?

Briefly, I believe the things you mentioned for Israel (e.g. rebuilding, national prosperity, land, etc.) are the results of the NC, not the NC itself. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Some dispensationalists are puzzled that students who grew up in DT are now abandoning it, some for Covenant Theology, others for Progressive Dispensationalism.  I suspect that one reason is what we are seeing on this thread.  Rejecting the normal reading of Scripture in several passages, DT's fail to acknowledge that Christ ratified the New Covenant with His blood, ushering out the Old Covenant (Mosaic), and ushering in the New.  Tyler is right, the explanations of DT are embarrassing.

However, I sympathize with Larry because he understands what some miss.  The OT predictions of a New Covenant are made to the house of Israel and Judah.  (Jeremiah 31:31)  If the New Covenant is now in effect, who are the houses of Israel and Judah?  The most obvious answer, "the church," invalidates so much DT teaching that it is unthinkable.  Hence the need for strained explanations.  

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

It's embarrassing because Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the writer of Hebrews seem to apply the New Covenant to the church.

That's actually the question: Do they? The answer to many seems to be no. And, to me, the exegesis seems to indicate no. I have read Decker and heard him. It was not convincing to me. In a recent "Three Views" book on this topic, Decker, Elliiot Johnson, and Roy Beacham interact. Beacham does an excellent job critiquing Decker's view. In the end, Beacham argues (convincingly IMO) that Decker's view does not properly account for ANE covenant. Decker affirms that no promise of the NC in Jer 31 and other OT passages is fulfilled in the church. As Beacham points out, what is left? There are no other promises. So if none of the promises of the NC in the OT are not fulfilled in the church, then what's the point?

In other words, the idea that the church participates directly in the NC doesn't deal enough with the OT text.

I don't suppose we will solve that here, but I am not the least embarrassed by the fact that people differ on how to interpret the NC (or many other passages). I think such interaction is healthy, not embarrassing.

The NT data indicates that the NC is here. The OT data indicates the NC will also be applied to Israel, with several consequent blessings. So, how shall we harmonize?

Again, the first statement is the point of discussion. I don't think the NT says that at all. So harmonization is not necessary. You seem to end up in the place of two new covenants, though I don't think you would affirm that. I don't see how you avoid it though for this reason: The NC is specific on its parties and its components. You want the NC to be in effect without the parties and without the components. How is that not another NC?

To draw a distinction between the results of the NC and the NC itself is to slice it pretty thin, IMO. 

Larry's picture

Moderator

Rejecting the normal reading of Scripture in several passages, DT's fail to acknowledge that Christ ratified the New Covenant with His blood, ushering out the Old Covenant (Mosaic), and ushering in the New.  

But is that the normal reading? And if the NC was ushered in, why is Israel still scattered among the nations rejecting her Messiah? Why does she not have renewed material blessings? Why have not the curses been removed? (Those are not rhetorical questions. I would actually like to know how you would answer them.)

The normal of these things would seem to indicate that when the NC is here, these things are here. You want to say that the NC is here without these things. What then is the NC?

If the New Covenant is now in effect, who are the houses of Israel and Judah?  The most obvious answer, "the church," invalidates so much DT teaching that it is unthinkable.  Hence the need for strained explanations.  

Isn't the strain in showing how the house of Israel and house of Judah with whom was the Mosaic covenant made, who were led out of the land of Egypt by the hand of God, who broke the Mosaic covenant is actually a multi-national, multi-racial group of people who were never under the Mosaic covenant in order to break it and who were never led out of the land of Egypt? How do those two clearly different groups become the same? 

In fact, the very language of "House of Israel and house of Judah" relies on something very specific that is only true of one group of people: the divided kingdoms of Israel.

If those words in Jer 31 actually mean something entirely different, what do the other words mean?

Can you not see why so many of us struggle to see how the church can be the "house of Israel and the house of Judah"?

There is no "normal reading of that text" that takes all those descriptors and sees them as the church. That is a very abnormal reading of the text. 

Tyler is right, the explanations of DT are embarrassing.

Have you read these explanations such as the Three Views book? If you did, you might disagree, but I can't imagine you would find them embarrassing. It is a wealth of exegesis and interpretation that is very solid.

Frankly, to call them embarrassing smacks of a cheap shot to avoid making an argument. Make the argument based on exegesis. That we can talk about. "Embarrassing" is a category that has no meaning in this discussion.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Tyler, Give us a quick evaluation of Beacham's, Elliot's, and Compton's views and why they are "embarrassing.": Where did their exegesis miss the mark? What did they fail to interact with sufficiently for you?

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