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Christ's Prophetic PlansA Futuristic Premillennial Primer
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2012 John Macarthur and Richard Mayhue
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Chapter OneWhat Is Dispensationalism?
Nine-year-old Danny came bursting out of Sunday school like a wild stallion. His eyes were darting in every direction as he tried to locate either mom of dad. Finally, after a quick search, he grabbed his daddy by the leg and yelled, "Man, that story of Moses and all those people crossing the Red Sea was great!" His father looked down, smiled, and asked the boy to tell him all about it.
"Well, the Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. So the Jews ran as fast as they could until they got to the Red Sea. The Egyptian Army was getting closer and closer. So Moses got on his walkie-talkie and told the Israeli Air Force to bomb the Egyptians. While that was happening the Israeli Navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross over. They made it!"
By now old dad was shocked. "Is that the way they taught you the story?"
"Well, no, not exactly," Danny admitted, "but if I told it to you the way they told it to us, you'd never believe it, Dad."
That is the way that many believe dispensationalists treat prophetic Scripture. They have to jazz it up to make it believable. But nothing could be further from the truth. With a few fringe exceptions, dispensationalists want to say no more and no less than what the Bible reports. The design of this chapter is to set the record straight about dispensationalism.
Much has been written about dispensationalism in general and Futuristic Premillennialism in particular. In order to accurately understand dispensationalism, one must have a proper perspective on what this theological approach actually involves. So, this chapter will set forth dispensationalism's essential or foundational characteristics. These beliefs define the heart of dispensational theology—perspectives that differentiate dispensationalism from other systems of theology, especially Covenant theology. In order to accomplish this, we will survey how leading representatives of dispensationalism have defined dispensational theology, followed by a list of unique features that comprise the core beliefs of dispensationalism.
Recent Background to Dispensationalism
In his 1965 book Dispensationalism Today, Charles Ryrie offered three points that he considered to be the essentials of sine qua non of dispensationalism: (1) a distinction between Israel and the church, (2) an approach to hermeneutics called literal interpretation, and (3) the belief that the underlying purpose of God in the world is God's glory. Ryrie's sine qua non was well received by most dispensationalists and was often used as a starting point for explaining dispensationalism. Opponents also grappled with Ryrie's findings and used them as starting points for critiquing dispensational theology.
In his 1988 article "Systems of Discontinuity," John Feinberg presented six "essentials of dispensationalism": (1) belief that the Bible refers to multiple senses of terms like "Jew" and "seed of Abraham"; (2) an approach to hermeneutics that emphasizes that the Old Testament be taken on its own terms and not reinterpreted in light of the New Testament; (3) belief that Old Testament promises will be fulfilled with national Israel; (4) belief in a distinctive future for ethnic Israel; (5) belief that the church is a distinctive organism; and (6) a philosophy of history that emphasizes not just soteriology and spiritual issues but social, economic, and political issues as well.
Although not giving a list of "essentials," Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock offered a list of "common features" of dispensationalism in their 1993 book Progressive Dispensationalism. These features included: (1) the authority of Scripture; (2) dispensations; (3) uniqueness of the church; (4) practical significance of the universal church; (5) significance of biblical prophecy; (6) Futurist Premillennialism; (7) imminent return of Christ; and (8) a national future for Israel.
Not all the characteristics mentioned in the above lists, particularly those of Blaising and Bock, are unique to dispensationalism. Many nondispensationalists, for instance, believe in the authority of Scripture, dispensations, and the significance of biblical prophecy. Some nondispensationalists also believe in Premillennialism—holding that a future millennial kingdom will be established with the second coming of Christ. George Ladd, for instance, held to Historic Premillennialism while also arguing against Futuristic Premillennialism. Thus, being a Premillennialist does not necessarily make one a dispensationalist.
Ryrie's claim that a defining mark of dispensationalism is belief that the underlying purpose of God in the world is God's glory has been controversial. When properly understood, Ryrie correctly pointed out that dispensationalists have a broader understanding of God's purposes in the world than nondispensationalists who often focus mostly on the doctrine of salvation. But the wording Ryrie offered was not helpful. Many nondispensationalists take the glory of God seriously, and to them Ryrie seemed to claim that dispensationalists valued the glory of God more than nondispensationalists. But telling a Covenant theologian that he did not emphasize the glory of God as much as a dispensationalist was not received well. So while there was a sense in which Ryrie was correct, his wording was not as clear as it could have been. John Feinberg was more precise when he pointed out that dispensationalists promote a philosophy of history that emphasizes the spiritual and physical implications of God's purposes more so than their nondispensational counterparts. Dispensationalists emphasize the fulfillment of both the spiritual and physical promises of the biblical covenants. In this sense, dispensationalists are more holistic in their understanding of God's kingdom purposes than many nondispensationalists.
When examined closely, however, the lists of Ryrie, Feinberg, and Blaising and Bock reveal three important marks of dispensationalism. First, all mention the uniqueness of the church as a characteristic of dispensationalism. Though disagreement may exist on some details of this distinction, dispensationalists are agreed that the church began at Pentecost (see Acts 2) and is not to be identified as Israel. Thus, all dispensationalists reject "replacement theology" or "supersessionism" in which the church is said to have permanently replaced or superseded the nation Israel as the people of God.
Second, Ryrie, Feinberg, and Blaising and Bock point out that dispensationalists believe in a future for the nation Israel. Dispensationalists assert that Old Testament promises and covenants made with Israel will be fulfilled in the future. Though dispensationalists may disagree as to how much the church also participates in the Old Testament promises and covenants, they are agreed that Israel will experience a future salvation and restoration.
Both Ryrie and Feinberg mention a third area—a dispensational approach to hermeneutics—as somehow being distinctive to dispensationalism. For Ryrie, dispensationalists interpret the Bible in a consistently literal (i.e., normal) manner while non-dispensationalists do not.
Feinberg claims that Ryrie was "too simplistic" in stating the matter this way. According to Feinberg, the issue of hermeneutics "is not an easy issue," and he points out that many nondispensational theologians claim to interpret the Bible literally. Their literalism, though, differs at points from the literal approach of dispensationalists. Thus, for Feinberg, "The difference is not literalism v. non-literalism, but different understandings of what constitutes literal hermeneutics."
According to Feinberg, the difference between dispensational and non-dispensational hermeneutics is found in three areas: (1) the relation of the progress of revelation to the priority of one testament over the other; (2) the understanding and implications of the New Testament's use of the Old Testament; and (3) the understanding and implications of typology. In sum, the main difference rests in how dispensationalists and nondispensationalists view the relationship between the testaments.
Feinberg's analysis is accurate. The main difference between dispensationalists and nondispensationalists on the matter of hermeneutics is not simply "literal" versus "spiritual" interpretation, but how each camp views the relationship between the testaments. As Herbert Bateman puts it, the central issue is "testament priority." Testament priority is "a presuppositional preference of one testament over the other that determines a person's literal historical-grammatical hermeneutical starting point."
An interpreter's testament-priority assumptions are especially significant when interpreting how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. Dispensationalists want to maintain a reference point for meaning in the Old Testament. They desire to give justice to the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers as discovered by historical-grammatical hermeneutics. Nondispensationalists, on the other hand, emphasize the New Testament as their reference point for understanding the Old Testament. In other words, they start with the New Testament to understand the Old Testament. Feinberg explains the difference:
Nondispensationalists begin with NT teaching as having priority and then go back to the OT. Dispensationalists often begin with the OT, but wherever they begin they demand that the OT be taken on its own terms rather than reinterpreted in the light of the NT.
Thus, nondispensationalists start with the New Testament to understand Old Testament prophetic passages. And the New Testament is the lens for viewing the Old Testament. This is what often leads to a "non-literal" understanding of Old Testament texts since nondispensationalists believe the New Testament sanctions less than literal understandings of Old Testament passages, especially prophetic texts about Israel. In other words, for nondispensationalists, a literal interpretation of the New Testament sanctions a non-literal understanding of some Old Testament passages, especially those regarding Israel.
Six Essential Beliefs of Dispensationalism
This section presents the essential beliefs of dispensationalism. By "essential" I mean foundational beliefs that are central and unique to the system, beliefs upon which the system stands of falls. These are also beliefs that if denied would probably make one a nondispensationalist. This list takes into consideration the contributions of Ryrie, Feinberg, and Blaising and Bock, but also offers my own distinctions that hopefully add clarity.
1. Progressive revelation from the New Testament does not interpret Old Testament passages in a way that cancels the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics.
This first point, a hermeneutical issue, is the most foundational of all the points. All dispensationalists affirm that the starting point for understanding Old Testament passages are the original Old Testament passages themselves. The meaning of Old Testament texts is not primarily found in New Testament interpretations. The New Testament may, with progressive revelation, shine light on Old Testament passages, offer commentary, of add additional applications of referents, but the New Testament does not override the original intent of the Old Testament writers. In the progress of revelation, the New Testament writers may provide more in the way of application or fulfillment of Old Testament passages, but they do not nullify or transfer the meaning of Old Testament passages in a way that goes against what the Old Testament writers originally intended. Thus, as Paul D. Feinberg states, "The sense of any OT prediction must be determined through the application of historical-grammatical hermeneutics to that text." Bruce A. Ware applies this principle to promises made to Israel:
There can be no question that the prophets meant to communicate the promise of a national return of Israel to its land. To the extent that our hermeneutics are regulated by the principle of authorial intent, we are given ample reason to accept this literal rendering of what God, through the prophets, originally promised to his people Israel.
Let's look at one key passage as an example. Hebrews 8:8-12, which quotes the original new covenant passage of Jeremiah 31:31-34, certainly includes the church in the spiritual blessings of the new covenant, but since the new covenant was originally promised to Israel, the full fulfillment of the covenant must involve national Israel. The author of Hebrews includes the church in the blessings of the new covenant, but he does not exclude national Israel from the covenant. Thus, the new covenant has a "both/and" element to it—both Israel and the church. The church is related to the new covenant (Heb. 8:8-13), and Israel will be related to the new covenant at the second coming of Christ (see Rom. 11:25-27). Bock is right when he states, "The additional inclusion of some in the promise does not mean the original recipients are thereby excluded. The expansion of promise need not mean the cancellation of earlier commitments God has made. The realization of new covenant hope today for Gentiles does not mean that the promise made to Israel in Jeremiah 31 has been jettisoned."
This approach is different from that of nondispensationalists who often view the new covenant as being entirely fulfilled with the church in such a way that does not include national Israel. With this approach, the physical and material blessings of the new covenant are believed to find a more spiritual of less literal fulfillment with the church, which is now viewed as the new or true Israel. Thus, one should not look for a future inclusion of national Israel into the covenant.
The dispensational principle of maintaining the original authorial intent of Old Testament texts has great importance for understanding the eternal and unconditional covenants given to Israel in the Old Testament (Abrahamic, Davidic, New). John Feinberg points out that God's unconditional covenants with Israel guarantee that the New Testament would never introduce the idea that God would not fulfill His covenants and promises with Israel, the people with whom the original promises were made. To do so, God would have to contradict Himself, and that is not possible. If an Old Testament promise is made unconditionally with a specific group such as Israel, then that promise must be fulfilled with that group. Progress of revelation cannot cancel unconditional promises to Israel. Feinberg states:
If an OT prophecy or promise is made unconditionally to a given people and is still unfulfilled to them even in the NT era, then the prophecy must still be fulfilled to them. While a prophecy given unconditionally to Israel has a fulfillment for the church if the NT applies it to the church, it must also be fulfilled to Israel. Progress of revelation cannot cancel unconditional promises.
David L. Turner points out that "covenant theologians and dispensationalists disagree on the nature of progressive revelation." He writes, "Each group accuses the other of misinterpreting the NT due to alien presuppositions." Turner states that dispensationalists deny that the New Testament reinterprets Old Testament promises to Israel: "It is their contention that the NT supplies no 'reinterpretation' of OT prophecy which would cancel the OT promises to Israel of a future historical kingdom. In their view the NT use of the OT does not radically modify the OT promises to Israel." Turner contends that the nondispensational understanding brings into question God's faithfulness to Israel: "If NT reinterpretation reverses, cancels, or seriously modifies OT promises to Israel, one wonders how to define the word 'progressive' [in progressive revelation]. God's faithfulness to His promises to Israel must also be explained."
Ryrie, too, asserts that the New Testament does not contradict the meaning of Old Testament texts. He states, "New revelation cannot mean contradictory revelation. Later revelation on a subject does not make the earlier revelation mean something different." "If this were so," says Ryrie, "God would have to be conceived of as deceiving the Old Testament prophets when He revealed to them a nationalistic kingdom, since He would have known all the time that He would completely reverse the concept in later revelation." For Ryrie, the concept of progressive revelation can be likened to a building in progress: "The superstructure does not replace the foundation." Thus, maintaining the original authorial intent of Old Testament passages is an essential of dispensationalism.
2. Types exist, but national Israel is not a type that is superseded by the church.
The issue of typology has significant implications for eschatology. Nondispensationalists hold that national Israel functioned as a type of the New Testament church. Once the greater antitype (the "fulfillment" of the type), the church, was revealed, Israel's place as the people of God was transcended and superseded by the church.
Excerpted from Christ's Prophetic Plans Copyright © 2012 by John Macarthur and Richard Mayhue. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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