Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Pesky Progressives

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.


Anonymous said...

While what you wrote is all well & good. But for the not so "educated" whose ministries have over the years have been Christ & Him Crucified using the KJV of the Bible...how could,would or might such an argument you post be of use or value to that kind of minister or preacher ? for my self trying to teach or preach anything like you have written to say the average joe on the street would be like trying to tell the truth at a pathological liars convention in washington, dc...please understand I am NOT againsted higher education getting some letters behind one's name and all of that..and while the world could or does have need of more Dr. Ravi Z's out there talking to the educational institutions & leaders around the globe but for many of the chosen few who go to places and streets around the world many of the harvard divity school grads would fear to even die in...what good is what you said & wrote to me? A bare knuckled take no prisioners old tyme Salvation Army style of street preacher...after much prayer..and seeking God's wisdom I still don't get it...if you feel the need to talk with me...here is how you can contact me: steve henderson- muddpup1@hotmail.com...Now in closing let me say again...I am NOT against anyone going to a bible college,seminary if God has lead one to go...but for this blood bought preacher...the only letters I need or desire behind my name are H I S..as in HIS...and when one looks at that as God would...isn't that all that relly matter ? I do thank you for your time, energy and efforts.respectfully in Christ's name..steve henderson Winston-Salem,NC

Reformed Baptist said...

Dr. Gentry:

I enjoyed your insights in this article as always do in almost all your writings. One of the things that prevented me from remained at Progressive Dispy in my eschatological journey, was the fact that it is so complicated to fully grasp it. Even though I had a pretty good knowledge of Dispensationalism in general, I couldn’t see how the system was really different from the traditional Dispy.

Also, I like the way Gary North refers about the fast disappearing of Dispensationalism. He says that it is like an onion whose advocates where peeling off until there were no more layers to take out –referring to the most embarrassing eschatological doctrines in classical Dispy. That is true. Truly, Dispendationalism was not, as North asserts, “killed by its opponents, but by ITS SUPPORTERS”. How true this is! And the most recent attack to this system is the new breed of Progressive Dispensationalists at the very center of Dispensationalism: Dallas Theological Seminary.

Thank you for the work you are doing. I wish you a very happy new year and a very successful work on eschatology in this 2010!

God Bless
Daviel D’Paz

Vance said...

In line with what you're saying, PD advocate Tim Warner states that PD "is simply a return to the 'Chiliasm' of the early Church before the Greek influence overturned the ancient hope of a restored creation. Darby took the first major step, that of taking a literal approach to Old Testament prophecy. We are simply taking the next step that puts our theology in line with that of the early Church (and the Bible)" (http://www.pfrs.org/pd/index.html). How Greek philosophical thought might have affected the eschatological views of the church fathers would be a good subject for a blog.

NiceneCouncil.com said...

The matter I deal with in this particular blog-note reports what is going on in the academic world of dispensationalism. In the past academics such as Ryrie and Walvoord have presented their views in an academic manner. And yet their presentations were picked up by "average Joe" preachers, distilled, and put into lay level sermons.

The point is: Dispensationalism is changing at the academic level. This will eventually produce dispensationalist preachers who hold to the new views. This will result in fewer old-line dispensationalists in the pews -- because they will be hearing the new-model dispensationalism. Old-style dispensationalism will die from neglect.

Old-style dispensationalism began with a fairly academic presentation in the ministry of John N. Darby. Nevertheless, it was filtered through Bible conferences to ministers who then filtered it to the churches.

Eventually this will happen with progressive dispensationalism. The "plain and simple" hermeneutic is not so plain and simple. It is generating a new form of dispensationalism.

NiceneCouncil.com said...


Three problems plague your response:

(1) The early Church was not wholly committed to premillennialism. Alan Patrick Boyd's Dallas Seminary master's thesis exposed this error by agreeing with wider evangelical historical research. Premillennialism had a large presence, but was not the unified commitment of the earliest Church.

(2) The early premillennialism is not to be sought as a pure form of theology prior to a Greek influence. Actually, it was the result of a problem seen in the Apostolic Church: premillennialism was a hold-over from Judaism. In Acts we see the gradual emergence of Christianity from its Jewish confusion. Premillennialism picked up on strand of Jewish eschatological thought. Thus, premillennialism may avoid hellenistic distortions but it does so by continuing a Judaic distortion (cf. John 6:15, for instance).

(3) Progressive Dispensationalists such as Saucy, Blaising, and Bock have criticized the naivete of "literalists" such as Ryrie. The main movement in PD thought is away from the (allegedly) "plain and simple" approach to interpretation.

Thus, you may be realigning with the early church, but it is with one phase of the early church, a phase that was infected by Judaistic tendencies. You have jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.

mark pierson said...


Would you say that the apostles and early church grew out of and away from the notion that an earthly kingdom would be restored to Israel, as seen in Acts 1:6-7? In other words, did their eschatological views change throughout the remainder of New Testament times?

Mark Pierson

NiceneCouncil.com said...

    Given the size of your arms in your photo, I will say anything you want, sir. :)
    Early in the Gospel record we see Christ's disciples constantly confused on things. Peter insists he will not allow Christ to die (Matt. 16:20-21). Only after they discover the empty tomb do they realize that Jesus had taught his coming death and resurrection throughout his ministry (Jn 2:22; 20:8-9).
         In Acts 1:6-7 they appear to have been confused about when the Jews would be converted. (Many modern interpreters miss the point of their question: They ask about the timing of the Jews return to God in conversion and their restoration to his gracious kingdom. They do not ask about a political Messianic kingdom.)
         However, by the time the Spirit was poured out upon them and they began to preach and write, they understood the biblical eschatology properly.
        However, we must understand that even after Pentecost some things dawned on the them slowly. This did not affect their doctrinal teaching, but it did impact their ministerial outreach. For instance, Peter has to defend himself for going to the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 11:1-4).