Introduction: A dispensationalistâ€™s (small â€œdâ€ intended) Gripe
At Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, weâ€™re unabashedly committed to irenic theology. This means that even when we vehemently disagree with a particular theological stance, we do our very best to describe that stance fairly and squarely. And thereâ€™s only one sure-fire way of knowing that weâ€™ve met this objective: anyone whoâ€™s adopted the position weâ€™ve put on the table could pull up a chair and say, â€œIt looks good to me!â€
Before getting to our main course, let me say that Iâ€™ve had more than my fill of current eschatological fare. In fact, these days, my stomach turns every time I catch wind of a new book someone is cooking up to satisfy our urge to know what the Bible really teaches about the end times. Itâ€™s not eschatology in itself that I find disagreeable (it is, after all, part of the whole counsel of God); itâ€™s the smug smell rising from so many contemporary popular works on the subject. And nothing stinks more than works that caricature other positions.
Letâ€™s be honest: no eschatological camp is entirely innocent of constructing and collapsing a house of cards (representing an opposing position) every now and then. Itâ€™s easy to take the path of least resistance through an opposing camp and wave a victory flag when weâ€™re done. Oftentimes, this impresses the socks off of folks who proudly display our stripes. But it always makes us look xenophobic, theologically speaking, to those on the outside who see the broader landscape.
Dispensationalism is getting a bad rap these days. Much of that rap is deserved. As someone reared theologically in this tradition, I readily admit that dispensationalists of old have made many careless, some outlandish, and even a few heretical statements. Exposing these blunders is like shooting fat carp in a slim barrel. Unfortunately, those bent on ridding the doctrinal waters of dispensational pests are so impressed with each hit (especially when theyâ€™re the ones pulling the trigger!) that they never bother to seeâ€”or simply choose to ignoreâ€”bigger fish that arenâ€™t as easy to fry.
I confess that Iâ€™m weary of witnessing assaults on dispensationalism in books and blogs where itâ€™s defined in antiquated, simplistic, myopic terms. Now let me be clear: Iâ€™m not married to dispensational thought and I donâ€™t have problems with critiques of it per se (Iâ€™ve written a few of my own!). But 9 times out of 10 when I find dispensationalism defined prior to an attempted dismantling, Iâ€™m put off by the description. It almost never â€œlooks good to me.â€
The reason for this is simple: dispensationalism is not monolithic. Itâ€™s not a one-size-fits-all system, as so many would have us think. Different brands of dispensationalists believe quite different things, and itâ€™s time that popular dispie-busters get a clue on this front. Then again, maybe thatâ€™s too much to expect. I mean, this discussion has only been going on in print for the last few decades.
Why the sarcasm? Letâ€™s just say that I finally received one too many e-mails essentially asking, â€œHow can someone who seems so smart be so naÃ¯ve as to believe that God has two plans of salvation, two distinct peoples, and two eternal destinies for those who are saved?â€ In my less charitable moments, Iâ€™m tempted to retort, â€œHow can someone who seems so interested in dispensationalism be two decades behind in the discussion?â€ By Godâ€™s grace, I havenâ€™t responded that wayâ€”yet.
Rather than merely cry foul, I want to give readers of Parchment and Pen a simple snapshot of three major schools of dispensational thought, with the hope that folks will see just how far removed many current dispensationalists are from the caricatures (which, if true, would make just about every dispensationalist with whom I rub shoulders drop the label like a bad habit!) that so readily find their ways to my inbox. So without further adoâ€¦
Three Brands of Dispensationalism
There are three primary schools of dispensational thought existing today. The different schools can be labeled as follows:
1. â€œClassicâ€ Dispensationalism (CD)
2. â€œRevisedâ€ Dispensationalism (RD)
3. â€œProgressiveâ€ Dispensationalism (PD)
In the remainder of this entry I want to briefly compare these schools by noting their historical roots, primary distinctives, and well-known adherents. [What follows barely skims the surface. I can recommend further reading if people want to unpack things.]
CD is descriptive of early British and American dispensationalism, most widely promoted during the period of time beginning with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and ending with Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) is largely credited as the key representative of this model, and his Scofield Study Bible of 1909 is used as the initial reference point for the term dispensationalism. The influence of CD has dwindled significantly over the years.
RD arose as a revision of CD in the 1950â€™s and 1960â€™s and found its clearest expression in the 1966 edition of Charles C. Ryrieâ€™s Dispensationalism Today. RD still enjoys a large following, more so outside of academia than within.
PD is the result of dialog over the past thirty or so years, and formally received its current label at the Evangelical Theological Society meetings in 1991. Spearheaded by adherents of RD who further refined historical-literal interpretive methods, its development has primarily been the result of advances in the study of biblical theology (with its focus on the historical progression of divine revelation).
The primary distinctive of CD is its emphasis upon two separate groups of redeemed people. According to CD, redeemed persons living at the time of Christâ€™s return will comprise an earthly people relieved of the curse and restored from sin. On the other hand, redeemed persons (of any dispensation) who die before the Second Coming will comprise a heavenly people privileged to inhabit a celestial world. The distinction between these two redeemed groups will remain throughout eternity.
RD abandons the idea that two distinct groups of redeemed people will spend eternities separated from one another, but nonetheless maintains a rigid distinction between Israel and the Church. Interestingly, this has required adherents of RD to choose between an eternity of all redeemed peoples in heaven or on earth. Both options are supported in the RD camp.
Unlike both CD and RD, PD sees no eternal distinction in redemptive blessing upon various groups of people. Though the Church has its own identity, it is part of the same plan of redemption with Israel. This is a rather logical development, since the very nature of PD is a complementary relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
The most visible, ardent defenders of CD are deceased. They included men such as John Nelson Darby, C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, James H. Brookes, Harry A. Ironside, William Pettingill, Henry C. Theissen and Arno C. Gaebelein.
Published, influential adherents of RD include both deceased and living men the likes of Charles C. Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, J. Alva McClain, Renald Showers, John F. Walvoord, Robert P. Lightner, Thomas Ice, and Paul Feinberg.
As far as I can tell, proponents of PD are considerably less aggressive about pushing an eschatological agenda and, in fact, are often better known for contributions to other areas of study. They include men like Darrell L. Bock, Robert L. Saucy, Craig A. Blaising, W. Edward Glenny, and J. Lanier Burns.
Preview of Forthcoming (and Much Shorter!) Entries
In the next entry, Iâ€™ll take a quick, comparative look at CD, RD, and PD with respect to their hermeneutical practices, the dispensations, and biblical covenants. In the third and final entry, Iâ€™ll overview each schoolâ€™s teaching on the Church, the Kingdom, and salvation.
By the time the three-part mini-series is complete, it should be clear that not all dispensationalists today look the same. And thank God for that! As much as I admire Darrell Bock, Iâ€™m not ready to lose my hair!