by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
Dispensationalism is undergoing a gradual, evolutionary change of mammoth proportions. Since the late 1980s many dispensational scholars have been tinkering with the system trying to make it more palatable to evangelical theologians — as well as more biblical. They are doing a pretty good job on both accounts. Their new system is called "progressive dispensationalism." But their work is not done. And it will not be done until they remove the word "dispensationalism" from their title. In other words, their work will not be complete until they no longer classify themselves as dispensationalists. I think that day is coming. (I will not, however, predict the day nor the hour lest I become like unto them.)
You can hear the alarm being sounded in the more popular, more traditional dispensational camp. That is, you can hear it from those few traditional dispensationalists who are somewhat studious and alert. The average dispensationalist-in-the-pew is too busy trying to identify the Antichrist, predict the date of the Rapture, and create a better system for full-color, fold-out charts. (I was just kidding about the last point; as strong advocates of the tri-partite view of man they are resolutely committed to tri-fold charts.)
In the 1990s a number of books attacking progressive dispensationalism were published by the old guard. And several significant debate books were generated out of their intermural debate. One of these debate books was: Herbert W. Bateman, ed., Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999). In this work we see the enormous changes being effected on the theological sub-structure of dispensationalism. (The more popular brand of dispensationalism that dominates the market does not actually have what we would call a "theological sub-structure." Basically their simple motto is: "I believe therefore it am").
To get a feel for the radical nature of the changes being effected, we may quote a brief section of this book. I will cite a couple of paragraphs by Stanley D. Toussaint, an older school dispensationalist. Toussaint writes on p. 227:
"In his classic work Dispensationalism Today, Ryrie sets forth a threefold sine qua non of dispensationalism — a distinction between Israel and the church, a literal hermeneutic, and the glory of God as His purpose on earth. Of these three, undoubtedly the most important is the distinction between Israel and the church. Ryrie calls this ‘the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist.’ He calls it the ‘essence of dispensationalism.’ He goes so far as to say, ‘The nature of the church is a crucial point of difference between dispensationalism and other doctrinal viewpoints. Indeed, ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, is the touchstone of dispensationalism.’ All dispensationalists would agree that these statements are true. However, the degree of the difference has been and still is a matter of debate. If the church and Israel become so blurred in dispensationalism that there is no separation between them, dispensationalism will become as extinct as the pitied dodo bird."
As you can see: the foundational touchstone of dispensationalism is being reformulated. And "if the foundations be destroyed, what will the populist do?"
Since dispensationalism is a theological system, we can expect that reworking the foundations will impact the rest of their theology. And such is certainly the case. Toussaint goes on to note on p. 228:
"Progressive dispensationalism has taken a new tack. It still makes something of a difference between Israel and the church, but that distinction is not nearly as sharp. Those who hold to this position believe that the promised kingdom has already begun; progressive dispensationalists assert that the Old Testament covenants and promises have had a beginning, a partial fulfillment in the church, but will have their ultimate fulfillment in the Millennium and eternity. Their view of the kingdom is similar to Ladd’s; that is, progressive dispensationalists believe that the kingdom was present when Christ ministered on earth but His reign was not initiated until His ascension. At that time He took His seat on the throne of David. Thus, the kingdom has been inaugurated but will come in fullness only in the millennium and eternity."
These are enormously significant alterations occurring in this popular eschatological system. Dispensationalism is in serious trouble. It is not simply changing, it is becoming its opposite. But again: they are not there yet, though the prospects look good for the final demise of dispensationalism. Of course, if the average dispensationalist ever gets wind of what their theologians are doing, they will simply write it off as another one of the signs of the times. And they will return to the mountain top with their friends to eagerly wait.