Twelve years ago this month I was digging trenches at an archaeological site in Israel. Unfortunately, I dug myself into a theological hole with my fellow excavators before we were even close to removing all the dirt from our square. One old-school professor at an East Coast college was particularly troubled by my admission of dispensational leanings. He gave me the predictable rundown of objections. â€œDoc, have you read Progressive Dispensationalism by Blaising and Bock?â€ I asked. â€œYou might be surprised by some of the things that they say,â€ I quickly added. His response, which Iâ€™ll never forget, was both witty and warped: â€œIâ€™m not interested in progressing in dispensationalism!â€
I give the man props for his clever rhetoric. But if a guy chooses to ignore changes in the script, then itâ€™s probably time to step off the stage. Of course, no one is obligated to get up to speed with current trends in dispensational thought. But I donâ€™t think itâ€™s out of line to say that folks who adopt a â€œtalk to the handâ€ stance should be the last ones to dig in their heels.
Whew. This little series is proving rather cathartic. On to the business at handâ€¦
Review: Three Brands of Dispensationalism
In Part 1 we introduced the three following schools of dispensational thought:
1. â€œClassic Dispensationalismâ€ (CD)
2. â€œRevisedâ€ Dispensationalism (RD)
3. â€œProgressiveâ€ Dispensationalism (PD)
We then briefly compared the schoolsâ€™ historical roots, primary distinctives, and well-known adherents. This was done with the sole intention of showing that the quip â€œbirds of a featherâ€¦â€ wonâ€™t stick to dispensationalistsâ€”no matter how much theyâ€™re tarred!
In this second entry, I want to briefly compare CD, RD, and PD with respect to their hermeneutics, the dispensations, and biblical covenants.
We noted earlier that the CD scheme is driven by the belief that God is redeeming two distinct groups of people that will remain separate throughout eternity. Likewise, CD employs a two-pronged hermeneutic. On the one hand, CD adherents interpret the Old Testament literally to determine a textâ€™s earthly purpose. On the other hand, they interpret the Old Testament spiritually to determine a textâ€™s spiritual purpose. It is this â€œspiritualâ€ reading of an Old Testament text that past popularizers of CD meant by the word â€œtypology.â€
RD rejects the spiritual interpretive method referred to as â€œtypologyâ€ by CD adherents. Thus, RD does not employ a two-pronged hermeneutic. Instead, RD uses what it calls a â€œliteral,â€ â€œplain,â€ or â€œnormalâ€ interpretation of Scripture. â€œLiteral if possibleâ€ has become the mantra of most RD adherents.
Formally speaking, the PD hermeneutic (a.k.a., â€œcomplementaryâ€ hermeneutic) has been heavily influenced by studies in literary genre, literary form, and rhetorical structure. It is marked by an emphasis upon typologyâ€”not the spiritualizing version of â€œtypologyâ€ employed by earlier CD adherents, but one that locates patterns of similarity between earlier and later historical persons or events. Practically speaking, the PD hermeneutic lets key Old Testament promises stand as originally given to their original recipients, while allowing New Testament revelation to â€œcomplementâ€ those promises by broadening their application. More specifically, PD adherents believe that God leaves intact key Old Testament promises originally given to Israel, but he adds subsequent â€œridersâ€ that extend the benefits of those promises to redeemed Gentiles.
CD views each dispensation as a period of time during which the human race is tested according to the specifically revealed will of God. The failure of mankind in any given dispensation results in the divine establishment of a new economy distinguishable from the one preceding it. Each distinguishable economy is selfâ€‘contained and mutually exclusive from other economies. Of present schemes, CD places the most emphasis upon the number of dispensations in Scripture (usually seven).
RD adherents generally maintain the dispensational scheme found in CD, but with two subtle revisions: (1) individual dispensations are not necessarily seen as watertight compartments (the distinctions between ages are not as sharp); and (2) the emphasis on the number of dispensations is significantly lessened.
PD adherents do not view the various dispensations as different arrangements, but rather as successive arrangements in progressive revelation. Any differences are primarily a matter of emphasis. The dispensations are to be seen as multifaceted expressions of redemption, all culminating in one redemptive plan that finally encompasses both political and spiritual elements.
CD views the Abrahamic Covenant as foundational to all other covenants. It is interpreted literally to derive an earthly application and spiritually to derive a heavenly application. The Mosaic, Palestinian, and Davidic Covenants are all agreed to be earthly, but the New Covenant is viewed from different perspectives. Chafer saw a new covenant in the New Testament that was different from the New Covenant of Jeremiah, while Scofield applied his two-pronged hermeneutic to arrive at a simultaneously literal and spiritual application of Jeremiahâ€™s New Covenant. According to CD adherents, all covenants find their fulfillment in the Millennium.
RD retains the CD notion of a foundational Abrahamic Covenant, as well as earthly Mosaic, Palestinian, and Davidic Covenants. However, it looks from the cheap seats like RD adherents have, in some sense, returned to the spiritual hermeneutic of CD in their handling of the New Covenant. I donâ€™t know how else to make sense of the fact that many RD proponents view the New Covenant as being spiritually fulfilled today while awaiting literal fulfillment in the Millennium.
PD also views the Abrahamic covenant as foundational, though the later Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New Covenants are seen as merely expounding upon it. For example, in this present age, the New Covenant is the form of the Abrahamic Covenant expressed, whereas the Davidic Covenant is the means of its expression. Belief in the successive, interconnected nature of biblical covenants leads PD adherents to find the inauguration of covenants in the present age, while looking for their consummation in the future. You have likely heard the phrase â€œalready/not yetâ€ used to describe this tension.
Weâ€™ve â€œalreadyâ€ seen significant differences between the interpretive approaches represented by CD, RD, and PD. But weâ€™ve â€œnot yetâ€ touched upon the ramifications of these approaches where we feel them most. In our next (and final) installment, weâ€™ll see what each school has to say about the Church, the Kingdom, and salvation. Iâ€™ll wrap things up with a quick review and suggest some further reading.