Why I still can’t call myself a dispensationalist.
I’m a Pre-Millennialist. That much I know. I believe that Jesus Christ will physically return to earth as He promised, set up a kingdom that will last 1000 years (after which it will transition into the eternal state, whatever that is), and that the righteous dead will be physically resurrected at the beginning of this 1000 year period. The promises to the ethnic nation of Israel to be raised to a place of prominence among the Gentile nations will be fulfilled during this 1000 year reign of the Messiah.
Dispensationalism believes these same things. Dispensationalism is a system which leads to a Pre-Millennial view and has been the champion of the promulgation of that view. But dispensationalism leads to a couple of other things as well that I don’t ascribe to. #1- In its classic form, it has asserted that there are two peoples of God, or at least two differing plans for the church and Israel, a heavenly program and an earthly program. I believe in only one people of God and in one program fulfilling the agenda for that people. #2- The hidden church age is something that I’ve found to be quite opposite of the scriptures. Instead, the current timeframe which we live in was prophesied by the OT prophets being identified as a time for salvation to be preached among the Gentiles until the nation of Israel’s blindness be lifted. #3- Dispensationalism has popularized the PreTrib Rapture theory which is quite opposite of the scriptures as well. Setting forth a two part coming of Christ and stretching the concept of imminency to mean an “any-moment” coming to apply to the first phase, it has separated the rapture from where it truly belongs, which is at the physical return of Christ at the end of the Great Tribulation when He comes to pour out His wrath. #4- And lastly for my post, it results in an Israel-centered eschatology with the Abrahamic Covenant being the foundation.
I have longed for some position between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism which affirmed the Pre-Millennial position. A friend told me that Progressive Dispensationalism is that position. I bought two books, Progressive Dispensationalism by Bock and Blaising, and The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism by Saucy. I’m almost through reading the book by Bock and Blaising, but I’ve only skimmed the book by Saucy. I am very impressed with the book by Bock and Blaising. Here we have a very well put together thesis which will form the foundation for a position which should last for some time. I’d like to point out some good and not so good in what I see is a huge stride for the dispensational position.
Why the term dispensationalism? Bock and Blaising set forth that the word is a biblical word which has the idea of stewardship. At various times the stewardship which God entrusts to mankind has resulted in different arrangements. The arrangement of that stewardship varied in different dispensations. So far so good. I can see God working throughout the Old Testament in different ways, using different arrangements, and requiring mankind to be faithful with different things being entrusted to him. I also see that the prophets have foretold of a new arrangement which will be established during the Millennial Kingdom. So I appreciated the explanation for why the term dispensationalism is a biblical term. But the question is, can I buy into the whole system?
I also appreciated how they set forth the continuity in the covenants. Progressive Dispensationalism brings together many of the different aspects of the covenants into one theme. Instead of the New Covenant being something completely separate from the Old Covenant, they stand in direct continuity with each other. The Abrahamic Covenant is foundational picking up on the promise of the Noahic Covenant. The Mosaic Covenant is the national fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Davidic Covenant is directly related to the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. In short, God has one overall program with several covenants which He established which interact with each other as a whole with one purpose.
Those of you who regularly read my blog can probably already guess what my big problem with the above scheme is. I’ll get to it at the end of my post. But I’ll give two little tweaks here before reviewing how Progressive Dispensationalism deals with the four issues that I mention above.
First, there was no mention of the Palestinian Covenant which God made with Israel just before entering the promised land. The end portion of Deuteronomy is said to be another covenant beside the one which He established in Horeb (Sinai, which indicates the Mosaic Covenant). With Progressive Dispensationalism’s approach in making continuity in the covenants a priority, to include the Palestinian Covenant in the study of the covenants would greatly strengthen the Pre-Millennial position. This covenant interacts directly with the Mosaic Covenant and apart from it has no basis whatsoever. It was foretold that Israel would break the covenant, God would scatter the children of Israel, yet He would still bring to pass a regathering into the land establishing them as His people forever. If Progressive Dispensationalism were to include the future ramifications of the Palestinian Covenant into their study, it would greatly strengthen the position that Israel must be regathered into the promised land in belief in order for the LORD to fulfill His covenant to Israel.
Second, I don’t believe that the Davidic Covenant is being fulfilled right now in the way that Progressive Dispensationalism teaches. Bock and Blaising teach that Christ has already ascended into heaven and taken His place on the Davidic throne. The blessings that come to the church are currently fulfilling the Davidic Covenant. In contrast, my view is that the Davidic throne is something that Jesus will ascend and establish at His second coming. By way of using David’s life as a pattern for the Messiah, David ascended the throne at his second appearing to His people after His long rejection and exile. When His people as a nation willingly anointed Him as king, that’s when he became Israel’s king (messiah). In the same way, Jesus will not ascend the Davidic throne until the rejection period is over and the nation of Israel has repented. When the apostles spoke of Jesus as Messiah, they spoke in terms of His rejection proving His identity as the future, Davidic ruler, not that He currently occupies that seat of power. So while I agree with Bock and Blaising that there are inferences in the apostles’ preaching to that Davidic throne, I disagree with their application of Christ presently occupying that throne.
On to my problems with classic dispensationalism which I listed above. I must say overall that Progressive Dispensationalism is a nice choice if you have to call yourself a dispensationalist. I found myself agreeing with many things in Bock and Blaising’s book. Some things were insightful as well, such as the study on the kingdom of God
#1- Progressive Dispensationalism does not believe in two peoples of God. There is direct continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. This was a huge eyesore for the dispensationalist position. It seems to be resolved quite well while maintaining a future for the nation of Israel based on the Abrahamic Covenant’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed.
#2- The hidden church age seems to be completely sidestepped in Bock and Blaising’s book. It’s like they want to avoid the subject. They don’t come out and say one way or the other. However, Saucy believes in a hidden church age. I was disappointed when I read that quote while skimming a certain portion. Future proponents of Progressive Dispensationalism should seriously consider distancing themselves from and biblically refuting this “hidden church age” teaching.
#3- I didn’t read of any affirmation or denial of the Pre-Trib Rapture position within Progressive Dispensationalism. In the introductory chapter, they list it as one of the teachings in dispensationalism as a whole, but they don’t get into clarifying it for their position. Bock and Blaising had a section concerning The Day of the LORD when writing about the kingdom of God in the Old Testament and New Testament which was quite insightful, but it steered clear of the finer details instead pursuing matters of the establishment of a future kingdom. This is understandable since they are trying to establish some type of unity within dispensationalism. To embrace one rapture position would be to alienate others. But one thing is to be applauded, there were no huge dispensational extrapolations. There was no taking whole sections of scripture and dispensationalizing them as being inapplicable because they were intended for another dispensation. The Pre-Trib Rapture is a result of that very type of application.
#4- Last but not least, dispensationalism makes the Abrahamic Covenant the foundation resulting in Israel centered eschatology. Here is my big problem. I have my own theology which has something else as the cornerstone for all the covenants beside the Abrahamic Covenant. Bock and Blaising do not settle this issue to my satisfaction. When Bock and Blaising begin their chapter entitled The Structure of the Biblical Covenants: The Covenants Prior to Christ, they begin with the Noahic Covenant. This section constitutes a whole page. The next section is the Abrahamic Covenant which spans 11 pages, and that just serves as an introduction. Discussion regarding the Abrahamic Covenant pops up in sections concerning the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and Jesus and the Fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. So in giving a nod to the Noahic Covenant, it’s a step in the right direction, but only a baby step. The vast portion of their foundation is still built on the Abrahamic Covenant. It’s no surprise that their summary is worded in this way. “The covenant with Abraham is foundational, for it picks up the promise of the Noahic covenant (made with all life) and directly addresses human existence.” This is better than nothing, but continue on to the end to read my solution.
Saucy has the same theology. I’ll let his book speak for him directly. “Only with the call of Abraham does God step into human history to initiate his own kingdom program of salvation. The gracious promises given to Abraham in covenant appear throughout Scripture as the foundation and essential ingredients in germinal form of all subsequent salvation history. In addition to the content, the paradigmatic divine-human relationship evident in the covenant with Abraham constitutes the root of all salvation.” From here Saucy continues with his Abrahamic Covenant centered theology which results in an Israel centered eschatology.
I’m a proponent of the prophecies of Israel being fulfilled just as the prophets prophesied. The Abrahamic Covenant does indeed occupy a very important place in the Bible. As a result, Israel should occupy a central place in our eschatology. But the problem that I have is in making the Abrahamic Covenant the foundation. Instead, the foundation for the biblical covenants should be the seed-promise of Genesis 3:15. The covenants which God makes later are built squarely on this declaration in the Garden of Eden. Bock and Blaising pick up on the all encompassing nature of the Noahic Covenant, but fail to see the significance of the seed-promise as being foundational for the vast scope of God’s intentions for humanity as a whole. If the Abrahamic Covenant is prefaced by the Noahic Covenant, and if the Noahic Covenant is prefaced by God’s intentions in the Garden of Eden as iterated in the seed-promise, then our theology concerning the covenants should reflect this.
The seed-promise consists of God’s declaration [immediately after the fall of mankind] to save mankind through the seed of the woman. The bruising of the head of the serpent in the context of the Garden of Eden would consist of the regaining of all that was lost/forfeited in the fall. The serpent’s head would be the power that tempted Adam and Eve to sin. The bruising of the serpent’s head would mean that mankind’s innocence would be restored. Mankind’s personal fellowship with God would be restored. Earth would be restored to its paradise form. Death would be abolished since it did not exist for man before the fall. Some may object that Genesis 3:15 does not contain the word “covenant”. But why doesn’t Genesis 12 contain the word “covenant” in reference to Abraham? To quote Bock and Blaising concerning this, “From the beginning in Genesis 12:1-3, the blessing to Abraham is presented as a collection of promises. No single passage contains all of the various elements.” So it’s a promise, or an intention stated by God. Isn’t that exactly what Genesis 3:15 is? Genesis 3:15 should stand as the foundation for all biblical covenants because if you don’t start right, you won’t end right.
Genesis 1-4 is one narrative explaining our origin and destiny. When the animal skins were cut to make clothes for Adam and Eve, this was the shedding of blood to seal the intention of the first covenant God made with mankind. God’s decision to drive man out from the garden and place Cherubim to guard the tree of life reflects His intention to make it available at some later point in time. Since God had already stated His intention to restore mankind, the tree of life was being guarded for some future purpose. Chapter 4 is often overlooked as having any insight into our future. The seed-promise was already being examined by the first generation of mankind. Abel was the first fulfillment of that promise. His righteousness still speaks to us today, but only by the innocent blood that was shed as he was slain by the unrighteous. When Seth was born, Eve said, “God has appointed me another seed instead of Abel.” When Enos was born, the third generation of the seed-promise, then men began to call on the name of the LORD. They were already longing for the fulfillment of the promise to restore their innocence, fellowship with God, and the paradise conditions of the earth.
When we come to the Noahic Covenant, it’s not difficult to allow Genesis 3:15 to be the foundation for God allowing life on earth to continue. Since God has a covenant with Adam and Eve to save the human race by bruising the head of the serpent through some man some day, God must allow Noah to repopulate the earth. God progressively moves His plan forward by establishing nations after the flood. Before the flood, there were no nations. After the flood, God ordained nations into existence; just read about the tower of Babel. In calling Abraham (a pagan Gentile) out from his country, God began the next phase in His plan of bringing salvation to the human race by the creation of a nation belonging solely to Him. When we come to the Abrahamic Covenant, we should have established a sure foundation on which we can build a theology wherein God intends to restore the human race as a whole to its state of innocence, to fellowship with God, and the earth to paradise, with death being completely abolished. God’s plan for Israel must include all of this. At this point in the progressive revelation, it was revealed that all of this would be brought about through the nation of Israel. So the Abrahamic Covenant is important and foundational, but there are other things in the foundation which precede the nation of Israel.
What do Bock, Blaising, and Saucy think about Genesis 3:15? Surely scholars such as these have a place for this important promise in their theology. Sure they do. Long before Bock and Blaising’s chapter on the covenants, they have a long and drawn out two chapters on interpreting the Bible. They stand as a preface to define their paradigm. Read what they preliminarily write on this passage: “But historical reading also means not being anachronistic in our approach to the text. We should be careful not to attribute to the understanding of the recipients of the text a concept that only emerges later. An example here is Genesis 3:15, what some call the “first hint of the Gospel,” the protoevangelium. This understanding argues that God predicts that Eve’s seed, Jesus, will crush the Serpent, Satan. Now in the context of the development of the theme of Adam’s seed in the Bible this meaning does eventually emerge from the text and is a legitimate reading of the passage. However, it is too specific for the original audience of Genesis. … So what did the text originally mean? It simply pointed to the introduction of chaos into the creation as a result of sin. Nature would now be in conflict with man. A snake, now limited by God’s curse to crawl on the ground, would nip at man’s heel. Meanwhile, as man attempted to defend himself, he would seek to crush the head of the serpent. Of course, this emphasis fits with the message of Genesis, explaining why God raised up Israel…” AAAUUUGH! I can’t even write any more. Do you see what I mean about an Israel centered eschatology?
Saucy’s take on it is better, but still not anywhere near what I would like to see. Catch this. “Immediately after the Fall, God promised, in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15, the future victory of humanity over evil. The “seed of the woman,” Christ, would triumph over evil represented by “the seed of the serpent.” As the conflict between good and evil is played out, the early chapters of Genesis tell of God’s intervention in history to rescue mankind from total corruption in the Flood and at the tower of Babel. These actions, however, were essentially preservative rather than positive steps in a program of salvation. It would seem that God was letting mankind demonstrate its inability to fulfill the creation mandate of ruling the earth as his representative (cf. Ge 1:26, 28) before introducing his plan of salvation in the establishment of his kingdom.” Wait, preservative, rather than positive? Isn’t the name of your position Progressive Dispensationalism? I see God as progressing from Genesis 3:15, through the first civilization witnessing the first fulfillment of the seed-promise in the life of Abel, progressing to the life of Enos when men begin to call on the name of the LORD, progressing to the Noahic Covenant, progressing to the establishment of nations with the tower of Babel. Only with this progression do we arrive at the place where God can call out a nation for Himself since previous to this, there were no nations.
I will point out that Saucy later brings Genesis 3:15 front and center when expounding on the use of the term “seed” in describing the different aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant. He writes, “We should note also that the term seed carried with it a certain “doctrinal intention” that linked it with the original promise of a victorious “seed” for all mankind (Ge 3:15). The promise of a seed to Abraham was a continuation of this original promise.” Much better, Robert. I appreciate that. But later he asserts that the seed-promise “had been channeled through divine covenants made with Israel and the patriarchs.” So I guess according to that theology, Israel has the claim on Genesis 3:15. I can’t get any satisfaction here. Progressive Dispensationalism is very much Israel centered with the Abrahamic Covenant as the foundation.
To close this post, I just want to get people thinking, because I have been thinking. Does the Bible teach that there are different dispensations? Does Covenant Theology believe there have been different dispensations, or arrangements? How does Covenant Theology reconcile the fact that after the cross the Old Testament scriptures are to be read in a completely different light than before the cross? Why do dispensationalists use the term about dispensations, but spend the vast majority of their time explaining the covenants? If Progressive Dispensationalists stress continuity, or progression between the covenants, why can’t they call their position “Progressive Covenantalism”? If Covenant Theologians claim that we are currently in a time, or dispensation where the church is the new Israel, why can’t they call their position “New Israel Dispensationalism”?
I think I’ve got just the term for my position. I’ll call it, “Seed-Promise Foundation Progressive Covenantal Dispensationalism”. Catchy, huh? Naah. I’ll just stick with Historic Pre-Millennialism. BTW, I’m reading another book by BW Newton. It’s called Thoughts on the Whole Prophecy of Isaiah. I’m on page 3. It’s really good. So far.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman