Understanding The Bible

"New Directions In Dispensationalism"
Dr. Gerry Breshears, Ph. D.
Western Conservative Baptist Seminary

Used by Permission (1)

Gerry Breshears, Ph.D.
Professor of Systematic Theology
Western Conservative Baptist Seminary
Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society
November 23, 1991

Dispensationalism is often portrayed as a rigid system of hermeneutics stressing separation of Israel and the church as the key to understanding the Bible. The watch word has been "rightly DIVIDING the Word," stressing radical disjunctions between Israel and the church, between the Testaments, between law and grace, between the kingdoms of heaven and of God. It emphasizes two peoples of God, two new covenants, two ways of salvation, and a postponed kingdom according to common portrayal.

If John Gerstner's critique is to be believed, dispensationalism is a spurious Calvinism, a dubious evangelicalism, whose doctrines undermine the salvation that is found only in Jesus Christ. He sees dispensationalists as people who deny grace altogether. Its preaching places souls in jeopardy. They must be corrected because the church is not called to spare false doctrine or false teachers. They are preaching nothing less than a false gospel and must show genuine repentance before the Lord Jesus Christ.

Gerstner challenges dispensationalists to show him his fundamental error. While my paper is not intended as a specific response to his book, I think it will, in part, answer the extremely serious charges he raises against dispensationalism. I will show that contemporary dispensationalism is quite different from the movement he attacks. This paper will help others who wonder what's developing among the dispensationalists to know that we are still alive and thinking.

Some of Gerstner's charges against dispensationalism can be answered easily. For example he correctly observes that most dispensationalists hold that believers are no longer bound to the Mosaic Law as a covenantal system. But he errs when he infers that dispensationalists are antinomian.

His logic seems to be that if one dismisses Mosaic Law, then one dismisses all law. This simply does not follow. Dispensationalists (and many others ) consistently affirm that the believer is under another law, the law of Christ. Since they are accountable to that law, they are not antinomian.

A second charge easily answered is that dispensationalism is spurious Calvinism. First, dispensationalism has never had consensus on the issues in the Calvinist-Arminian debates over soteriology. I personally know dispensationalists who range from consistent five point, double predestinarian Calvinists whose position might satisfy even Gerstner to those who affirm a Wesleyan-Arminian system of soteriology. One cannot brand dispensationalism wrong as a system because it does not rest on a particular soteriological paradigm. Gerstner has every right to disagree with the positions of dispensationalists who claim to be Calvinistic in their theology, but this does not mean that dispensationalism as a system is wrong.

One may also take issue with Gerstner's charge that anyone who disagrees with his particular version of Calvinism is guilty of spurious Calvinism. It is true that the vast majority of dispensationalists affirm universal atonement. But so do many covenantal theologians. The debates over Calvin's position on this question probably will never end. The question is who gets to define authentic Calvinism. Gerstner does not have that prerogative.

Thirdly, Gerstner levels charges against the anti-lordship salvation position advocated most consistently by Zane Hodges. He must realize that dispensationalists vary widely on this issue. John MacArthur, a dispensationalist, forcefully rejects Hodges' position. At the 1990 ETS meetings he was joined by Robert Saucy, a leading theologian of dispensational theology, in advocating a lordship position. Charles Ryrie, Darrell Bock and Roy Zuck have printed carefully nuanced statements establishing mediating positions between Hodges and MacArthur. This debate springs from different models of sanctification. Hodges, Chafer and Ryrie work from a Keswick model while MacArthur and Saucy work from a Reformed model.

These sorts of differences are typical within a movement whose identity comes from other areas of theology.

In these areas Gerstner's charges against dispensationalism as a system fail since he does not allow for the diversity within the movement or because he defines orthodoxy more narrowly than is his right.

Many others have erroneously identified a cessationist view of sign gifts with dispensationalism. Sometimes, their motive seems to be to indict the cessationist position by labeling and attributing guilt by association. It is true that many dispensationalists adopt a cessationist view, but it is false to say that cessationism is unique to dispensationalism. It was articulated by the Reformers and defended powerfully by B. B. Warfield and held by such non-dispensational theologians as Anthony Hoekema. Neither is a cessationist view necessary to dispensationalism. Many Pentecostals, such as the Assemblies of God, work with a dispensational theological frame work. Obviously they are not cessationists. Further, I personally know many dispensationalists who refuse to take a cessationist position. Again the misunderstanding stems from unwarranted restrictions in the definition of dispensationalism.

Many chastise dispensationalism because of its relatively recent arrival on the theological scene. While many elements of dispensational theology can be traced back to the earliest church, it is a relatively new synthesis achieving popularity in the third quarter of the 19th century. This relative newness on the theological scene does not render it mistaken. However, in a church that is ever reforming, new emphases, new syntheses will always be developing. The Reformers, the Wesleys, the Pentecostals, to name only a few, were all novel in their day.

Much of the difficulty in assessing dispensationalism comes from the identification of dispensationalism with the Scofield Reference Bible and the systematic theology of Lewis Sperry Chafer. While this identification is understandable, it is as incorrect as identifying covenantal theology with the systematic theology of Louis Berkhof or Wesleyan theology with the system of H. Orton Wiley. In each instance the system is much more diverse than the perspective in the widely used systematic theology.

It is vital to differentiate between Scofieldianism (to coin a term) and contemporary, modified or progressive dispensationalism. Scofieldianism is a subset of the much larger category, dispensationalism. The Scofieldian form of dispensationalism went into homes everywhere in the Scofield Reference Bible. Because of its "wonderfully accessible synthesis of dispensationalism with the expository heritage of the Bible Conference movement" it had enormous popular impact. It took on an informal confessional status for friend and foe alike.

Because dispensational distinctive come primarily in certain aspects of hermeneutics, ecclesiology and eschatology, there has always been significant diversity in the other areas of theology. One need only see the striking differences between Darby and Scofield to know that dispensationalism is not monolithic. This diversity has not been widely recognized even by dispensationalists themselves.

Even within the Scofield-Chafer-Dallas Seminary tradition there has been significant development. Such early distinctions as the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of God, Law as opposed to grace and an earthly Israel as opposed to a heavenly church have few supporters among contemporary dispensational theologians. Craig Blaising has surveyed this development in the first paper presented to the Dispensational Study Group.

Because of its popularity and because of a certain level of theological naiveté, dispensationalism came under attack during the fundamentalist-modernist debates following the first world war. Some critics were liberals attacking its fundamentalism. Others were evangelicals criticizing it because of its absolute distinctions between Israel and church or its eschatology. Like many groups under attack, dispensationalism took on a defensive posture, retreated into its institutions, and became quite ingrown.

With the death of Lewis Sperry Chafer, the movement began to move again, though very tentatively. In the mid-sixties Ryrie published Dispensationalism Today to express some of the movement away from a pure Scofieldian version of dispensationalism. The revision of The Scofield Reference Bible also appeared. Blaising designates this stage essentialist dispensationalism.

Within the confines of the major educational institutions, significant changes in teaching appeared. However, they were not published. The fear of popular reprisal may have hindered a movement away from Scofieldianism. Certainly those who studied under men of such stature as Scofield and Chafer held them in high honor and they would not criticize them lightly.

In the past decade, these changes became more obvious as dispensationalists became more committed to self-examination. In 1985 the Dispensational Study Group started as a forum for discussions among ourselves as well as dialogue with representatives of other evangelical traditions. This dialogue has been characterized by a commendable level of creativity and evangelical ecumenism. Many articles and several books have come into print, illustrating both the development and diversity of dispensationalism.

Earlier critics, for example Daniel Fuller or Anthony Hoekema, probably could not be faulted for equating Scofieldianism and dispensationalism. There was little in print to let them see movements within the system. However, this is no longer the case. Vern Poythress is one example of a friendly critic who reviewed the literature, talked to current proponents of the system and interacted helpfully. One could wish that Dr. Gerstner had also given attention to the developments since his Primer on Dispensationalism was published in 1982.

In order to chronicle the continuing development in dispensationalism, I will look at several questions. What is the definition of a dispensation?

What are the sine qua non of dispensationalism? How is the theology of the Kingdom of God developed in recent dispensational thinking?

The definition of dispensation sets the agenda for the whole theology. Developments in this definition show the progress in the movement as a whole.

Scofield's definition appears in the note on Genesis 1:28: "A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God." In this model, dispensation focuses on different tests of human obedience. As applied Scofieldians stress the divisions in God's working in history, especially in the rigid division of Israel and the church, making this differentiation the hermeneutical key to Scripture. As a result Scofieldians attack any blurring of this distinction viciously. Many here will recall the vitriolic attacks on George Ladd as an apostate. The contrast between these attacks and today's cordial interchanges in the Dispensational Study Group is stunning.

The misunderstandings of Scofield's definition abounded. The idea of a revelation by which God tests humans sounds very like a way of salvation. This connection led many to understand that Scofield taught differing ways of salvation in different dispensations. The anger leveled against the Scofieldian system for a double way of salvation has yet to abate.

Grace seemed to be revealed only in the sixth dispensation. Grace is set in total contrast to law. Under law, God demands righteousness from man and expects blessings be earned; under grace He gives righteousness to man as a gift. The statement in the summary note on grace supports the conclusion that grace begins only with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The New Scofield Reference Bible kept Scofield's definition, but expanded on it at length with the intent of putting this charge of a double way of salvation to rest:

Three important concepts are implied in this definition:

(1) a deposit of divine revelation concerning God's will, embodying what God requires of man as to his conduct;
(2) man's stewardship of this revelation, in which he is responsible to obey it; and
(3) a time period, often called an "age," during which this divine revelation is dominant in the testing of man's obedience to God. . . .

The purpose of each dispensation, then, is to place man under a specific rule of conduct, but such stewardship is not a condition of salvation. In every past dispensation unregenerate man has failed, and he has failed in this present dispensation and will in the future. But salvation has been and will continue to be available to him by God's grace through faith.

The editors failed to quiet the criticism because of a double way of salvation because the problem is built into a definition which focuses on testing.

To separate testing from salvation consistently is virtually impossible. For example, in the note on the fifth dispensation -- the Law -- the point of testing is the Law not as a way of salvation but as a rule of living. In the sixth dispensation -- the Church -- the point of testing is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ that emphasizes the utter sinfulness of humanity and the adequacy of the work of Christ to save by grace through faith all who come to Him. The latter is a way of salvation, leaving the suggestion that the Law really is a way of salvation too.

A second weakness of Scofield's definition results from its emphasis on testing which leads to failure of all humans. Even the giants of the faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob failed in respect of the tests of faith and obedience and were judged. Critics legitimately ask how often God must prove sinfulness? Why does man have to be tested anew in every dispensation? Is not the failure in Eden sufficient to show that salvation through grace is the only hope? The depressing cycle of revelation, test, failure, judgment differs significantly from the redemptive scenario of Scripture that pictures the gracious God who works persistently to reconcile His sinful people, freeing them from the snare of evil and bringing them into the blessings of His beneficent reign.

A third weakness of Scofield's definition results from its focus on the discontinuity of wholly distinct time periods without at least a corresponding emphasis on the continuity of God's working in building His kingdom. This historical divisiveness parallels the divisiveness it produced in evangelicalism.

Ryrie made a major advance by defining dispensation as "a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purpose." He continues by noting that "a dispensation is primarily a stewardship arrangement and not a period of time (though obviously the arrangement will exist during a period of time.)" It builds directly on the Greek word, oikonomia, meaning stewardship, administration, oversight or management of other's property. It connotes endowment, a stewardship responsibly exercised in place of a sovereign.

The word distinguishable maintains the diversity in God's working and the outworking of God's purpose maintains the unity. It speaks to an organic unfolding of God's purpose, giving natural place for unity within the diversity. There are changes in God's governmental relations with man, but these changes need not rule out the continuities. Some principles end, others begin. But some are trans dispensational.

Ryrie's definition emphasizes the progressive nature of God's work. God's plan unfolds in a series of progressive revelatory actions, each of which make significant changes in His working. The progression makes reading Bible in its historical context vital for proper understanding.

Ryrie's definition is goal oriented: God will be vindicated and glorified both in and beyond history rather than failure oriented. This gives purpose to God's working.

More recently Gordon Lewis suggested that we focus on the unity of one redeemed people of God throughout history and the diversity of the various administering institutions God establishes and endows to strengthen His people collectively and through them bring blessing to the whole world. The point is that "God gives different administering orders for the world at different times, and new orders constitute a new dispensation."

Throughout the whole of history there is one way of salvation -- by grace through faith in the promises of God based on the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. If there is one way of salvation, one God, one Messiah, one Spirit, then there can only be one spiritual people of God throughout all time. Though physical, ethnic, institutional differences remain, there are no essential walls between God's people. Though people living after the death and resurrection of Jesus have seen many Old Testament promises inaugurated with resulting advance in their relationship with God, they are spiritually related through Jesus Christ with God's people in other ages. In the sense of their spiritual unity, all saved humans are in Christ. We see this unity in the common designation of saved persons as the seed of Abraham (Rom.4:12; Gal. 3:29) who share the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant (Rom. 4:16; Gal. 3:7-9). This stress on the spiritual unity of the people of God is an important step forward in dispensational thinking.

God works out His kingdom program through a progression of revelatory acts and administering institutions. As His plan progresses He organizes the one spiritual people of God into distinctive social institutions. Lewis suggests four: family, nation, church and messianic rule in the millennium. They are distinguished by such matters as organizational structure, form of government, manner of worship and membership requirements. For example Israel has a national structure with a king, a capitol city, an army -- none of which should be found in the church. Each institution has varying responsibilities and endowments for carrying out its specific mission. For example Israel's mission focused on being a holy nation whereas the church focuses on making disciples of all persons throughout the world.

This economic definition of dispensationalism develops that of Ryrie in a helpful way. Because each institution is an organization of the single spiritual people of God, it gives heed to both the continuity and discontinuity seen in the progress of God's revelation and work. It builds directly from the biblical meaning of okinomia -- administration, stewardship of an estate. The point of the varying institutions is not testing, but administering God's kingdom purposes in the world while dispensing God's blessing to the world.

This progress of revelation and divine working through the ages has implications for qualitative advance in relation to God and completeness of salvation. For example, those living after Sinai have the privilege of the Mosaic Law that earlier believers did not have. Paul makes it clear that this is a great advantage (Deut. 4:8; Ps. 147:19-20; Rom. 2:17; 3:2). Those living after the death and resurrection of Christ have the further advantages of knowing their justification (Rom. 3:21-26; 4:24-25), not having to do the continual sacrifices and having full access to God through the completed work of Christ (Heb. 10:15-22). These advantages flow out of the inauguration of the new covenant at Pentecost, as the writer of Hebrews delineates carefully. As Saucy notes, "Surely some added measure of enabling grace is included in the new covenant that was absent under the old economy."

All theological systems are plagued by the question of authoritative definition. What defines a particular system? Who is the official spokesman for the system? What are the sine qua non, the essentials of dispensationalism?

There are really two different questions involved. First, what are the elements that one must affirm to be a dispensationalist. Second, what are the elements that are unique to dispensationalism, elements that if affirmed will nearly guarantee that one is a dispensationalist?

The first question, the essentials of dispensationalism, could be expanded to cover all the essentials of evangelical theology. That is unnecessary and could be offensive, since it would seem to claim a widely held point for one's own system. For example, Ryrie attempted to claim the theme of the glory of God as an element of dispensational theology as opposed to a human redemption motif in covenantal theology. Such a claim is amazing to anyone who has read the first question of the Westminster Catechism. It is better to affirm the essentials that relate to the unique aspects of dispensational theology.

Most dispensationalists agree that the foundational principle lies in the area of hermeneutics. But the key is not "literal hermeneutic" as Ryrie argues. I prefer not to use the term "literal hermeneutic" because of the confusion of what literal means. Ryrie asserts that the proper interpretation is the plain or normal meaning of a word. This is very simplistic, seeming to believe that every text is equally clear. This often results in a "no-alternative" approach to biblical interpretation and theological formulation. It can dissolve the tension between the sophistication of biblical interpretation and the vital doctrine of perspicuity of Scripture. Losing sophistication will enmesh dispensationalists in simplistic dogmatism. Losing perspicuity will not only take the Bible out of the hands of the people, but will also surrender the authority of the Bible to the authority of the interpreter.

Affirming the literal hermeneutic as using the plain, normal meaning of a word also confuses the critical point that meaning is associated with propositions rather than words. It also leaves dispensationalists open to the charge that one must interpret figures of speech as literal statements rather than figures. Attempts to avoid such misunderstandings while maintaining the term literal hermeneutic has been taken to absurd lengths such as differentiating between plain literal and figurative literal interpretations.

Neither is the key dividing the Bible between Israel and the church as Scofieldians have maintained. Scofieldians used this principle to argue that the church could not fulfill prophecy given to Israel. Some go so far as to argue that the church cannot even participate in promises to Israel. The consistent application of such a principle would reduce most of the Bible to a merely historical book. The Old Testament, most of the Gospels including the Sermon on the Mount, and Hebrews only tell us how God deals with other people with no direct relevance for Christians. For example, those who follow this principle are pushed to conclude there are two new covenants. Application to the church refused because the prophecy of the new covenant is addressed to Judah and Israel (Jer. 31:31), not the church. It could not refer to the church, they argue, since the church is a mystery, wholly unknown to the Old Testament writers. Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount cannot apply to Christians because it is description of Israel's kingdom. Even Ryrie argues that the fulfillment of the Sermon related to the kingdom of Messiah. His argument rests on a literal reading of the commands included. If one consistently used the principle, then one would join Bullinger in saying that Acts, Paul's prison epistles, Peter's letters cannot be for the church, for they all tell of the church's participation in prophetic fulfillment, an understanding denied even by Scofieldians.

Many contemporary dispensationalists argue that the key is interpreting the entire Bible according to the intent of the author in the original context. This is applied to all literary genre, including prophecy. Thus when the writers of Hebrew Scripture prophesies that Messiah will regather His people from the nations, establish them as a nation in Palestine and rule over them from Mount Zion, dispensationalists believe this will indeed occur because that was what God's word meant to the first audience.

Of course, this is not unique to dispensationalists. Walt Kaiser, who does not identify himself as a dispensationalist, is probably the leading spokesman for this position among evangelicals. Dr. Kaiser limits meaning to what was understood by the author. Elliot Johnson and Darrell Bock are more open to development of meaning by later inspired authors. However, they are adamant in contending that any development must not negate the original meaning.

John Feinberg gives specific examples of this principle as he discusses the different senses of terms like "Jew," "seed of Abraham," "chosen people." He argues that they can be used ethnically, politically, spiritually, or topologically. The point that dispensationalists insist on is that one cannot limit such terms to a spiritual or typological sense, canceling the ethnic or political senses. All senses are operative in both Testaments. The more one recognizes the multiple senses of these concepts, especially the ethnic and the political or national ones, the more one will become dispensational.

However, contemporary dispensationalists are more likely to affirm that a prophecy or a promise may be applied in a way unanticipated by the author without contradicting his intent so long as the unanticipated application does not invalidate the original one.

An obvious example concerns the Abrahamic covenant. These promises were addressed to the ethnic descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. That they are also applied to Gentiles does not invalidate the promise if it will yet be applied to his ethnic descendants.

In place of the popular principle that the church cannot fulfill Israel's prophecy, I suggest God may do more than He promised, but He will not do less.

This dispensational distinctive comes to the fore in this understanding of God's covenantal promises to Israel. Dispensationalists believe God addressed them initially to ethnic Jews as a nation. These promises include spiritual, social, material and national blessings, all of which have unconditional elements. Some elements can be applied to God's redeemed people of any race or nationality. Others can only be fulfilled by ethnic Jews. An example is the new covenant statements addressed to Judah and Israel, promising to regather them from among the nations and bring them into their land (Jn. 31:27-40; also see Gen. 12-17; Isa 60; Zeph. 3:11-20; Zech. 12-14).

If these promises do have conditional elements, and if the promises are interpreted according to the intent of the author, then they must be fulfilled by ethnic Jews in a national regathering and restoration. Since the promises have never been fulfilled completely. There must be a future fulfillment of these spiritual, social, material and national promises. This is to say, there must be a national future for Israel under the reign of Messiah made up of believing Jews in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

These Old Testament promises are specifically brought to memory in the New Testament in places like the birth narratives, in Luke 1:45-79; Matthew 24:29-30 and Revelation 19-20. Paul is most specific when he predicts a future salvation for Israel as a nation, concluding, "God's gifts and calling are irrevocable." (Rom. 11:25-29).

This affirmation of a national future is both essential and virtually unique to dispensational theology. Non-dispensational systems usually believe that the church replaces Israel with any future for Jews only as members of the church. Ridderbos states the position unequivocally, "The church takes the place of Israel as the historical people of God." It has been, " . . . endowed with all the privileges and blessings of Israel." The social, material and national promises are absorbed into the spiritual promises for the church in the new heavens and new earth.

Ladd, Poythress and Van Gemeren are among the increasing number of non-dispensationalists who are open to the possibility of a national future for Israel. However, they do not affirm this as a matter of the certainty coming from God's promise. Even more heartening to dispensationalists is C. E. B. Cranfield's conclusion after his study of Romans 9-11 led him to realize the distinctness of Israel and the church, "I confess with shame that to having used in print on more than one occasion this language of replacement of Israel by the Church." With no leanings toward dispensationalism, he affirms the distinction.

Though there are significant differences in such issues as millennial sacrifices, the affirmation of a national future for Israel is a hallmark of dispensationalism.

All dispensationalists also agree that the church is an organism distinct from Israel. Another way to say this is that Christ founded the church bringing it into full existence on the day of Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit to incorporate God's one redeemed people into the body of Christ, to empower it for its mission of proclamation of the gospel to the whole world, and to gift it for the work of ministry. Saucy is correct when he suggests the dispensationalism is characterized by its insistence upon a distinction between Israel and the church that allows for the term "Israel" to stand for the covenant nation both in biblical history and predictive prophecy.

The differentiation of Israel and the church was the hallmark of Scofieldianism. Chafer argued that the Word of God clearly distinguishes between God's consistent and eternal earthly purpose, which is the substance of Judaism; and His consistent and eternal heavenly purpose which is the substance of Christianity, and it is as illogical and fanciful to contend that Judaism and Christianity ever merge as it would be to contend that heaven and earth cease to exist as separate spheres. Dispensationalism has its foundation in and is understood in the distinction between Judaism and Christianity.

The Scofieldian two program distinction leads to seeing the church age as a parenthesis or insertion in God's program with Israel. The church is unconnected to the history that preceded it on a horizontal level, though various facets can be vertically related to the overarching principles of God's program to manifest His sovereignty in His theocratic Kingdom.

The distinction was held so strongly that it led to presuppositional interpretative systems. For example, Chafer argues that one must differentiate between the marriage supper of the Lamb and the marriage feast. The former is for the church and therefore cannot include Israel. Despite the fact that the Greek text uses exactly the same word for both and since the marriage supper is used in reference to Israel, Chafer felt he had to divide the two. The distinguishing of two new covenants, one for Israel and one for the church, is an even more infamous example of such presuppositional hermeneutics, as has been noted.

Many contemporary dispensationalists have rejected the eternally distinct programs for Israel and the church. W. Robert Cook was one of the first to present an extended discussion of this in his Theology of John. He argued that the distinctive vanish at the end of the millennium with all redeemed peoples coming together as the eternal bride of Christ.

Gordon Lewis' economic definition of dispensating institutions helps us see how the church can be a purely temporal organization and yet be distinct from Israel. The People of God during a specific age are organized into a corporation, an institution, with specific endowments, authority and mission. When its purpose is complete, the corporate institution dissolves and the people are reorganized into a new institution. With the completion of Christ's work and the coming of the Spirit, a new corporate institution, the church, is inaugurated. Israel is dissolved, set aside as the mediator of God's redemptive work. The believing remnant of Jews is incorporated into the new institution, the church.

An increasing number of contemporary dispensationalists are seeing the church as an integrated phase in the development of the mediatorial kingdom. A more scriptural approach would be to see the church as one aspect of God's overall kingdom program. Key passages are John 3:3, 5; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15. We will turn to this crucial topic shortly.

Another element often proposed as one essential part of dispensationalism is the pre-tribulational return of Christ. This position is so closely linked to Israel's renewal as a nation that only those who affirm a national future for Israel affirm it. However, though it is virtually unique to dispensationalists, it is not essential to it. Even Scofieldians' did not list it as an "official" sine que non, though virtually all held it.

This is no longer true. Robert Gundry and Marvin Rosenthal have published expositions of a pre-wrath, late-tribulational position.

The responses to these books have been more criticisms of the proposed system than positive expositions affirming a pre-tribulational system. The older works on pre-tribulationalism depend directly or indirectly on the Scofieldian absolute distinction between Israel and the church. The basic argument that shapes the interpretation of key passages is that God could not have two programs in operation simultaneously. Therefore, they conclude that the church has to be removed before returning to Israel's renewal as a nation. Contemporary dispensationalists moderate this distinction to a significant degree. One wonders if there will be more post-tribulational dispensationalists. Certainly there is need for a thorough exposition of a pre-tribulational position by a contemporary dispensationalist.

Dispensationalists in general argue for a multifaceted kingdom, often distinguishing a universal kingdom where God reigns providentially over all the universe (Ps. 47:2,8; 83:18; 103:19; 110; Dan. 4:2, 17, 25) from a redemptive kingdom where God reigns over His covenant people, especially over Israel. The kingdom involves reign, a realm in which the reign is exercised and subjects over whom it is exercised.

Most dispensationalists affirm that the redemptive kingdom involves mediatorial aspects where God exercises His rule through individual humans or through human institutions such as Israel or the church. This mediatorial aspect begins with Adam and Eve who are commanded to rule over the earth as God vice regents as related to being God's image (Gen. 1:26, 28). This rule is disrupted by the fall. God then sets Himself to progressive reestablishment of that kingdom through His grace.

He begins the redemptive kingdom work first through individuals, the patriarchs, then through the nation Israel, then in the presence of His Son, and now through the church. Finally He will reign in the millennial kingdom where He will establish his kingdom fully, completing His work in history.

Aspects of the millennial kingdom are manifested both in Israel and in the church.

A class assignment I gave at Western led to the following definition to the redemptive, eschatological kingdom: The dynamic activity of the sovereign God to manifest His authority in His sin-alienated creation, by redeeming it from the domain of evil, judging all enemies, and bestowing the blessings of His beneficent reign on and through His people in fulfillment of all His promises to the praise of His glory. Its similarity to the definitions Ladd, Marshall, Ridderbos, etc. is obvious. The difference is in the understanding of fulfillment of God's promises.

Dispensationalists affirm more aspects of the eschatological kingdom than most non-dispensationalists. For example, McClain finds six facets of the kingdom in the prophets:

  1. Spiritual: This includes the salvation by grace begun with repentance and belief looking forward to renewal as a part of the New Covenant.
  2. Moral/Ethical: Moral values will be affirmed and established in the lives of all humans. This moral economy will be established world wide.
  3. Social: Peace will be affirmed and justice will reign.
  4. Political: The righteous king (Messiah) will reign from a central capital (Jerusalem) over a regathered Israel through whom all the nations will be blessed.
  5. Physical: There will be both cosmic and geologic changes. Waste places will be fertile and fruitful. Disease, will be ended.
  6. Ecclesiastical: A group of people will be gathered in the name of Jesus over whom God will be ruler, who will belong to God. To this I would add one aspect:
  7. Doxological: God will be praised throughout the world. Most dispensationalists would agree in concept if not with every specific element on the specific list.

Craig Blaising synthesizes these in a helpful way, seeing political, earthly and spiritual aspects of the redemptive, eschatological kingdom. It is political in that God reigns over all the nations. It is earthy in that God redeems the earth from the curse, healing disease, and demonism and establishing His city in Zion. It is spiritual both individually and corporately in that God gives eternal life to His people, establishes righteousness and justice, judges and destroys the wicked, working in grace and forgiveness so that the world can again be characterized by peace, worship of God, holiness, obedience, joy and blessing. This is what Jesus and the apostles preached.

Scofieldians typically argue for a postponed kingdom of God. For example Toussaint argues that the glory of God departed the Temple in the time of Ezekiel and will not return until the millennium. There is no kingdom on earth in the meantime.

I think this error comes from an all or nothing type of thinking. Since not all elements are present today, then the kingdom is not present at all.

Many contemporary dispensationalists argue that God works progressively throughout history preparing, presenting and proclaiming His kingdom through human administrators. Saucy describes the present age "as the first phase of the fulfillment of the one promised Messianic kingdom." The key description is that phenomena belonging to the eschatological kingdom of God is present now. This is an inaugurated eschatology with an inaugurated kingdom rather than a wholly postponed kingdom. The kingdom comes in phases throughout history.

We see phenomena of the kingdom present in the reign of the kings -- especially David and Solomon -- over Israel. We find other aspects present in Jesus. Jesus affirms that the kingdom of God has come upon them (Matt. 11:4-5; 12:28; Luke 10:1-24) when He healed death, disease, and demonism and pacified the earth. However, this is not the fullness of the kingdom for Jesus also spoke of the coming time when the kingdom in its fullness would be established (Mark 13; Luke 17:22-37; 21:5-36).

The theme of the nearness of the soon coming kingdom is found in Old Testament prophets who proclaimed the nearness of the Day of the Lord.

John the Baptist follows that same theme, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand (Matt. 3:2) with Jesus echoing those words at the beginning of His ministry (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15). Many miss the point that Jesus uses these exact words to the establishment of the kingdom at end of the age at the time of His second coming (Luke 21:31; cp. Matt. 24:33; Mark 13:29).

The scenario of Luke 19 describes Jesus going into heaven to receive a kingdom from the Father and then coming to establish it on earth. Most scholars -- dispensational and non-dispensational alike -- affirm that Jesus will not exercise His kingly authority until His return. Meanwhile His disciples are to do business, proclaiming the soon coming kingdom, making kingdom phenomena visible in the church, commanding people to repent and believe so as to be revealed as members of that kingdom when it is revealed as summarized in Acts 26:18.

The presence of the kingdom in the church age is clearly taught in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven (Mark 13:31-33). The kingdom is present as a hidden spiritual force in the "word of the kingdom" (Mark 13:19). It is present as "righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). Believers have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13) who gives present redemption and full forgiveness, having triumphed over all the spiritual authorities (Col. 1:14; 2:13-15). Believers who belong to the kingdom of Christ will inherit that kingdom when it is established on earth (Col. 1:12) because their citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Meanwhile believers enjoy such benefits of kingdom citizenship as the presence, gifts and fruit of the Spirit, forgiveness, regeneration, justification, authority to proclaim redemption from spiritual bondage.

Darrell Bock has suggested that at His ascension Jesus is seated on the Davidic throne because He is seated at the right hand of God. He suggests interpreting Acts 2:25-28 in light of its citation of Psalm 132:11 and 2 Samuel 7, concluding that "the resurrection of Jesus to God's right hand is put forward by Peter as a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant." He argues for an inauguration of the Davidic covenant with Jesus beginning to rule Davidic king from heaven.

It is a "sneak preview" kingdom in that this new community is to show God's active power in the transformation of men from sin to righteousness, to use Paul's phrase, and preview by its handling of life...  The "preview" is only visible in the Spirit indwelt community and it is that community's mission to reflect that divine activity as light in the world.

This rule over His community, the church, anticipates His future rule over all the earth.

The idea of Jesus inaugurating Davidic kingship in heaven is at the edge of dispensational thinking and has not won many adherents. On the other hand, the church as the place where many aspects of the kingdom of God are manifested is much more widely accepted.

I believe that the kingdom message today is very similar to the one Jesus' disciples preached: Repent and believe, for present phenomena of the kingdom in the community of the King are the first fruits of the coming kingdom, demonstrating that the full revelation and establishment of the kingdom of God is near.

I believe dispensationalism as a theological movement has always been much more diverse than most realized. An example is the Pentecostal dispensationalists. There has also been much more development in dispensationalism than most have realized. Much of the development has been to abandon zealous mistakes of the early proponents and to incorporate the best in contemporary thinking about such issues as hermeneutics and kingdom.

Some contemporary dispensationalists advocate dropping the term dispensationalism completely. My colleague at Western, W. Robert Cook, and Stan Gundry find it a confusing term that sets up unnecessary barriers between us and other evangelicals with whom we agree in virtually every facet of theology. It obscures the common ground we are establishing in our conversations in the Dispensational Study Group.

Others, including Blaising, Bock and myself, find dispensational a preferred term since it represents the biblical idea of being a steward of God's eschatological kingdom work. Because of this biblical foundation and because no better term has been proposed, we prefer to retain the term, adding an adjectival specification to differentiate from Scofieldianism. Thus we use the term progressive dispensationalism. It focuses on the progression of God's revelation and the working to establish His kingdom in history, on the progressive stages in the realization of redemption, on the progression of the steward, the dispensators, of the work. Retaining the term highlights biblical emphases we find are unique to dispensationalists. These points include a national future for Israel in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and a hermeneutic that retains the meaning of statements as they were first given, one which affirms that while God may do more than He promises, He will not do less. We hope others will join us in affirming these points.

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Gerry Breshears, Ph.D.
Professor of Systematic Theology
Western Conservative Baptist Seminary
Presented to the Evangelical Theological Society
November 23, 1991

Copyright 1991-2007
All Rights Reserved
Dr. Gerry Breshears

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