Saturday, January 21, 2012

The “D” Word (part 1)

Sometime in 1998 I said to myself, “When Christ does not return around the turn of the century, we’ll see dispensationalism and premillenialism wane.”

I think I was correct.  Many of my friends in Baptist and other evangelical circles have quietly moved in a generally “Reformed” direction.  Prominent teachers and preachers identifying as “Reformed” are in ascendance.  Premillenialism, where it is still held, is moving from the dispensational to the covenantal variety.  In many parts the premillenial view is being surrendered.  Interest in the “rapture” (1 Thesslanonians 4:17) has been boxed up and tossed in many a believer’s attic.  

That’s why I find articles such as this ( so perversely fascinating.  Do most American evangelicals really desire to see the U.S. and Israel provoke a conflagration that hastens Armageddon?  Judging from conversations I have with other evangelicals it seems to me that most of them, far from having apocalyptic expectations, are given to a worldview that sees the federal government’s first duty as enforcing “family values,” and its second as destroying the radical Islamic threat.  The Duggars, for example, have been compassing the country promoting the presidential candidacy of Rick Santorum, a Catholic who makes no bones about legislating morality and bombing Iranians. 

More disturbing than the doomsday pining of the John Hagee’s and Pat Robertson’s of pop Christendom is the sense of nationalistic duty and devotion among evangelicals, as confronted in this piece ( recently shared on Joel Martin’s blog.  There is a genuine conflation of American church and state going on that has unnerved me for some time.  I see it as a terribly ominous development.  Afghans and Iraqis, it seems, don’t deserve the gospel.  “Kill them all,” said an acquaintance who is a deacon at a local Baptist church.  “All of them combined are not worth my daughter’s life.”

So much for 2 Timothy 1:7.

But nothing could have been further from the convictions of the “classical” dispensationalists, John Nelson Darby[i] and C.I. Scofield.  Darby had experienced with much disgust the corruption of the etablished church in Ireland, while Scofield, a veteran of the defeated Confederate Army, lost all hope in human institutions.  The old dispensationalists had no political program whatsoever.  They were quietists and pietists par excellence.  Their relatively peaceful, ascetic theology was built on a post-Englightenment dualism that saw a clear distinction in God’s program between heavenly and earthly spheres.  The 69th week of Daniel’s prophecy had ended with the rejection, death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah.  Having received Christ on high to sit at the Father’s right hand, God had suspended the “prophetic clock,” and the seventieth and final week would not commence until He had called to Himself a heavenly bride – the Church – a mystery hidden from past ages.  The Church constitutes God's “heavenly” people and Israel, with whom He would resume his dealings and bring to national repentance during the “final week” (the Great Tribulation), His “earthly” people.  Then comes the millenium, with Christ and the glorified Church reigning above the earth while the resurrected David and renewed Israel reign below.

The second generation of dispensationalists found flaws in this scheme.  From Scripture it seemed clear enough the Church would have an earthly role in the age to come.   This was confirmed by the Apostolic Fathers, who pointed to an earthly millenial reign with Christ for all the elect.  The problem for these “revised” dispensationalists (e.g. Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost) was the new covenant.  If there was to remain a sharp distinction between the Church and Israel (not in terms of salvation, since Christ’s death provides this for all, but in identity and function), how does one get around the new covenant?  Darby said the church has no relation to it, that it is strictly for the houses of Israel and Judah for a future day, and that New Testament references to it are analogical.  Scofield said the Church enjoys the “spiritual” blessings of the new covenant (forgiveness of sins, the Spirit), while these as well as “physical” blessings will be given to redeemed and restored Israel in the future.

The revisers realized that an intersection of Israel and the Church within the new covenant could undermine the sine qua non of traditional dispensational interpretation.  Chafer and (initially) Ryrie tried to defend the notion of two new covenants, one for Israel and the other for the Church, a position that proved simply untenable.  Others (including Ryrie) wisely gave up this distinction, but labored to maintain the strict distinction between the two peoples. 

By the late 1980’s a new form of dispensationalism was actively engaged with Reformed, covenant theology.  It is a small group, led from the beginning by Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, and Robert Saucy.  Blaising coined the term “progressive dispensationalism” – progressive not in a liberal, political sense, but as denoting the progressive nature of God’s salvific plan.  As it turns out, Anglican theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas beat Blaising to the punch about a century earlier.  According to John D. Hannah,

In organizing and interpreting the Scriptures, Thomas adopted a dispensational framework that included three dispensations of the Divine revelation to man, involving a progressive economy of grace.

Like Darrell Bock, Thomas was a dispensationalist with a small “d.”  The system proved an extremely helpful way to interpret Scripture and understand the course of biblical history; but not a dogma worth emphasizing to the point of breaking fellowship with other believers.  

[i] Dispensational interpretations of Scripture long pre-date Darby, beginning with St. Irenaeus (c. 175).  Others include St. Augustine, Grotius, Cocceius, Witsius, Poiret, Isaac Watts, Fletcher, and Fairbanks before the 19th century.  What Darby introduced was an ecclesiology that sharply delineated the New Testament church from Israel.

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