Dispensationalism: Concerns of the Progressive position by Traditionalists

Note:  This post contains a new direction for the terminology of my position, in the color ORANGE of course.


As Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) continues to make strides away from what I feel is a faulty position within the dispensational camp, not everybody is happy about it.  I came across an article on the web that you can view which is written by a Traditional Dispensationalist who is wary of the movement of Progressive Dispensationalism.  Reading over this article gives me more insight into the debate within dispensationalism and raises a few more issues that I would like to address in this post.


First, the article is by Dr. Mike Stallard, read it here.  Second, he is obviously slanted toward preserving certain traditions within dispensationalism.  Third, the picture he paints of Progressive Dispensationalism I cannot guarantee to be completely accurate.  I will assume he is presenting it accurately, but since there are only three books published on the issue, it is still an emerging position and perhaps a bit undefined in some areas.


I’m sure readers of my blog know me to be a non-dispensational Historic Pre-Millennialist.  There are aspects of dispensationalism which I agree with, but I can’t swallow the whole position.  I view Progressive Dispensationalism as a vast improvement from traditional dispensationalism over several key issues which I can prove to be biblically inaccurate.  I hope that it will be interesting that I’m presenting my views on the debate within dispensationalism even though I myself am not a dispensationalist.  It should make me to be somewhat of a neutral party, although I’m not really neutral on individual issues.  Let us proceed with a review of this article.


The outline is quite simple.


I. Introduction


II. A Description of Progressive Dispensationalism


            A.  Rejects an essentialist approach

            B.  Literal interpretation

            C.  Complementary hermeneutics

            D.  The Messianic Age

            E.  The Pre-Trib Rapture is not significant


III.  Concerns of Traditional Dispensationalists


            A.  Tradition

            B.  Literal Interpretation

            C.  Complementary Hermeneutics

            D.  The Present Reign of Christ

            E.  The Negotiability of the Pre-Trib Rapture


IV.  Conclusion


The introduction is quite basic, but if you are unfamiliar with this whole subject, it should help you transition quite nicely into an informed student of the issue.  If you notice, each tenet pointed out in the description is attempted to be addressed in the concerns section.  It is also interesting to note that the first two points are not issues that are actually there, but issues that PD does not make a priority.  It’s as if the author is saying that because PD doesn’t include a certain list, they may not be able to call themselves dispensationalists.  Let’s work our way through the rest of the outline.


Rejects an essentialist approach.  The author seems to be upset that PD doesn’t have this list of tenets that you must ascribe to in order to be “in the dispensational club”.  Instead, they have basic views which have bound together dispensationalists of all types throughout the years.  The author suggests that a dispensationalist must do as Ryrie did and have three tenets (at least) which are indispensable.  Those three are #1- Dispensationalists should hold to a distinction between Israel and the church.  The author is probably wary of PD’s view of direct continuity between Israel and the church instead of separating them via a dispensation.  #2- Literal interpretation should be key.  Since it has its own section I’ll expand on this when he does.  #3- The author feels that traditional dispensationalism focuses on the glory of God instead of the salvation of man and stands in opposition to Covenant Theology which focuses on individual redemption.  The author further asserts through Ryrie that Covenant Theology overlooks God’s plan to fulfill national and community promises to the nation of Israel.  There is nothing in the concerns section that responds to the last point so let me mention here that I feel that it is misrepresentative of Covenant Theology.  The author paints a certain picture of Covenant Theology so that when PD moves a bit closer to it, Traditional Dispensationalists can claim they are moving toward a view which is not biblical.


Literal Interpretation.  The author seems to be upset that PD is not making a bigger deal out of literal interpretation than Traditional Dispensationalists have in the past.  It’s sort of like he’s saying, “Hey, we had an agreement to be divisive over this issue.”  Read his paragraph and see if you come away with that conclusion.  I believe he has PD’s position correct in his last statement.  PD believes that competing views should not be due to a commitment to certain exegetical rules of interpretation (i.e. dispensational extrapolation) but on how one integrates different Biblical texts.  I grow weary of someone saying that entire passages cannot be applied since they are for Israel and not the church.  You can see why I prefer PD over the traditional view.  I especially believe this is true when integrating how the NT authors quoted OT authors.  I cannot see establishing one blanket rule for all passages, but instead going to each passage individually and proving the alleged view.  It’s a situation of either establishing a hermeneutic first which then becomes your lens through which you see every scripture passage, or allowing each passage to prove the hermeneutic independently.


Complementary hermeneutics.  The author presents PD’s idea that some OT promises can be expanded in the NT.  The expansion of the promise does not undo the original premise.  Thus the church is being blessed presently while Israel still awaits fulfillment in the age to come.  This presents an “already not yet” approach to various texts in the Bible.  This leads into the comparison with George Ladd’s theology, which I think it’s hilarious that he has his own category.


The author compares the similarities between PD and Ladd’s views of the already/not yet, but fairly contrasts obvious differences.  Ladd viewed the kingdom as beginning in the gospels where PD views it as beginning with the ascension of Christ.  Then there is the issue that so many other authors make the mistake with in thinking that Ladd viewed the church as the new Israel.  I will take exception to it here as I have in the past.  Ladd is often misunderstood because the language that he used was similar in some aspects to Covenant Theology, but Ladd was not a Covenant Theologian.  His language and approach differs greatly but he was saying things in a way that many people (especially dispensationalists) simply couldn’t understand.  His approach was that the church is the true Israel, that is, the spiritual remnant within ethnic Israel through whom God had been working all along.  The author states that “Ladd treats the Church as a kind of “New Israel” in his commentary on Revelation.” (which book I have in front of me.)  Ladd is hard to follow sometimes and uses language that favors one position in one paragraph and in the next favors another position.  Here is a great example.  Favoring a future for the ethnic nation of Israel, we read this from the aforementioned book:


Many interpreters understand this passage spiritually and apply the words “all Israel” to the gentile church.  This view makes Paul merely assert that God’s entire people will be saved – that spiritual Israel will be complete.  This interpretation does not suit the context.  There is a movement throughout Romans 9-11 from literal Israel to the gentile church, and in its context, “all Israel” must refer to an entire generation of living Jews.  God has not finally cast off his people; when the full number of the gentiles have been saved, God will turn again to Israel, and they too will experience a nationwide salvation.


But coming from the other side which makes Covenant Theologians stand up and say “Amen”, here is a paragraph which makes the church out to be, not the new Israel, but the true, spiritual Israel.


The New Testament clearly conceives of the church as the true, spiritual Israel.  To be sure, the work “Israel” is never used of the church, unless it is so used in Gal. 6:16; but the exegesis of this verse is disputed.  However, it is beyond debate that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).  Again, Abraham is “the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11), whether they be circumcised or uncircumcised.  “He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical.  He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom. 2:28-29).  “We are the true circumcision who worship God in spirit and glory in Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:3).  If believers are the true sons of Abraham, the true circumcision, then we must conclude that the church is the true spiritual Israel, even though the word itself may not be used of the church.  This we believe to be confirmed by the expression, “the Israel of God,” in Gal. 6:16.


So you can see where Ladd could be misunderstood.  Personally, I don’t agree with everything he had to say.  His works, however, remain brilliant to this day.  I agree that the kingdom began in the gospels because the law and the prophets were until John the Baptist who heralded the kingdom, Matthew 11:11-13, Luke 16:15-17.  But I don’t quite go as far as he does in equating the church as the true Israel, although I affirm that basic principle.  I believe that the root of the church is spiritual Israel with believing Gentiles grafted in.  Believing Gentiles have Abraham as their father, not Israel.  Abraham was not a member of the nation of Israel, but was a pagan Gentile who lived by faith.  God did not change Abram’s name to Israel, but to Abraham, which means father of a multitude; God further explaining that this means he would be a father of many nations because in him all nations would be blessed, see Genesis 17:5 and Paul’s quotation of it in Romans 4:16-17.  Never is it taught that all who are children of Abraham are made a part of one nationality, but instead Abraham is the father of many nations.  Every NT passage that cites the Abrahamic Covenant being fulfilled in the church refers to the promise to bless all nations, not the portion where God promises to make a (singular) great nation of Abraham’s seed.  One thing that I appreciate about PD is the section on The Multicultural Body of Christ, see Bock and Blaising’s book.


Enough of that tangent.  The author seems uncomfortable with the fact that PD resembles Ladd’s theology which is too close to Covenant Theology in his view.  So it is guilt by association which the traditional dispensationalist cites in this instance.


The Messianic Age.  The author states that PD believes we are currently in the Messianic Age.  I must have completely missed this one.  The only thing I read was that they believed that Jesus had ascended to the Davidic Throne at the ascension.  Maybe I was sleep reading through that section, but I don’t remember the words Messianic Age being applied to the church dispensation.  I’ll write a little more on this in the response to this section below.


The Pre-Trib Rapture is not significant.  In short, the author is upset that the Pre-Trib Rapture is not an essential part of dispensationalism in PD’s view.  While affirming the Pre-Trib Rapture, PD views it as a minor issue in contrast to the traditional dispensationalist who views it as a crucial issue.  Now let us proceed to the concerns of Traditional Dispensationalists.


Tradition.  The author sees dispensationalism as a framework which has a history of authors which have agreed on some basics.  Now along comes PD and wants to set aside some of these basic tenets which have embodied the dispensational position.  I personally am not against tradition unless it goes against the Word of God.  But I am also not against examining with great scrutiny a tradition for the sake of determining how it relates to the Biblical text.  Traditional dispensationalists should not shy away from this scrutiny.  If their framework is rooted in scripture, it will stand.  If it is not, wouldn’t they want it to fall?  If there is some truth contained within the position along with some aspects which could be refined, shouldn’t they look forward to the refining of their position?  Note that the author only traces this long, historical tradition back to the days of John Nelson Darby.  Hint, hint: Darby wasn’t one of the church fathers.


Literal interpretation.  The author’s critique here is of Covenant Theology’s approach, not PD’s approach.  I agree with his view that we must be careful with any attempt to read the NT back into the OT.  One example would be to read the word “church” in an OT book which has the word “Israel” in a certain passage.  Another example would be to read the word “elect” in place of “Israel”.  Another would be to read the word “Christ” where the word “Israel” is.  I agree that we must be careful, and I further agree with the author that the debate has gotten more sophisticated with the introduction of new points of view.  This leads me to further caution in literal interpretation, and in simply using the phrase “literal interpretation”.  I would point out here that PD in no way ascribes to Covenant Theology’s approach, so I feel his comments are relevant to the issue of literal interpretation, but perhaps the two positions [of PD and TD] are not as far away from each other on this issue as he may think.


Complementary Hermeneutics.  The author seems concerned that the “already/not yet” view may lead into a framework through which the entire Bible will be interpreted, although he affirms that PD does not do this.  The real concern here is the opportunity for subjectivity.  If a NT passage is expanding an OT promise, how much of the OT promise is being fulfilled in the church?  I fully appreciate his statement, “The answer which both progressives and traditionalists should give is that the NT text draws the appropriate boundaries.”  This is my point exactly when writing about each text proving the hermeneutic independently.  Instead of creating a blanket statement and assuming all scripture is going to fit under that statement, each passage should be examined for itself.  I also agree with his statement, “the real difference between progressives and traditionalists lies in the exegesis of NT passages which allude to OT texts.”  This is exactly what has led me to reject Traditional Dispensationalism and to have issues with Progressive Dispensationalism.  More directly, my differences lie with how the NT writers quoted how the OT prophecies applied to the NT arrangement (dispensation, if you will).  In my view, it IS complementary hermeneutics since God still intends to fulfill those OT promises while progressively revealing His kingdom plan through the church.  I further believe that each OT passage will draw the appropriate boundaries when studying them in their context before even looking at the NT passages.


The Present Reign of Christ.  Here the author uses the terminology which I remember in Bock and Blaising’s book, the present reign of Christ on David’s Throne.  Here I surprisingly agree with the author that PD has not proved its case that Jesus is currently reigning from the Davidic Throne.  Only similar language or verbal analogy is used.  The foundation that they build their case on is shaky.  My view is that Jesus will assume the Davidic Throne after His rejection by the nation of Israel, just as happened in David’s life.  The psalms remain a testimony to this pattern of anointing, presentation to the nation, rejection, exile, then return, belief, and reign.  I realize there is a lot packed into that sentence, but readers familiar with my views understand where I’m coming from.


The Negotiability of the Pre-Trib Rapture.  Here is an issue I completely don’t understand.  PD has not denied the Pre-Trib Rapture, but simply hasn’t given it a central place in their writings.  Traditional Dispensationalists raise concerns over this lack of attention.  The idea that PD will collapse into a form of Covenant Pre-Mill on the basis that they aren’t putting the Pre-Trib Rapture at the center of their theology just seems strange to me.  PD still has many dispensational distinctions which distinguish their position from the Covenant position.  I would encourage PD to move toward Historic Pre-Mill, and I believe they already have.  The strangest statement though, is that the lack of a Pre-Trib Rapture with immanency as its core ingredient would undermine the distinction between Israel and the church.  What a huge chasm was just leaped in equating those two teachings!  What is most frustrating for me about this issue is that I can easily prove the Pre-Trib Rapture to be a grossly inferior teaching.  The debates always end the same.


The conclusion gives me mixed emotions.  On one hand he hopes that future dialogues between traditional dispensationalists and progressive dispensationalists will be friendly, but would remind everyone of the great tradition that spans from Darby to Ryrie.  He hints at the already/not yet issue by inferring that perhaps the traditionalists need to hear about the already portion a bit more while the progressives need to hear about the not yet portion.  PD seems to have a handle on both aspects in my view (with the exception of beginning the kingdom at Pentecost instead of with John the Baptist), but I still can’t call myself a dispensationalist.


Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13


-The Orange Mailman

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