Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why No Focus on Progressive Dispensationalism?

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

A leading focus of our research labor here at NiceneCouncil.Com is to offer critiques of dispensationalism. Hence we have erected AgainstDispensationalism.com as an informative blogsite. We are Reformed in our theology; and within evangelical thought, Reformed theology is virtually the opposite of dispensationalism. Hence, our critiques are designed to expose the errors of dispensationalism and encourage those caught up in it to “rapture” out of it.

But dispensationalism is currently undergoing something of a “great tribulation.” That is, most of its major academic institutions (most notably Dallas Theological Seminary) are vigorously challenging the theology of older, more classic forms of dispensationalism. And they are training the minds (yes, these people actually have minds) of the next generation of ministers.

This is causing much woe and concern among the diehard name-the-Antichrist-predict-the-rapture-thump-the-table-and-yell-“literalism” dispensationalists. Indeed, old school dispensationalists have published books spreading the alarm about the new form of dispensationalism, known as “progressive dispensationalism.” They are warning of the coming of the Antidispensationalist (i.e., the progressive dispensationalist movement) that has arisen in these last days. They now bemoan: “they went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John Walvoord 2:19).

Some books that the standard dispensationalists have published that include warnings of this new breed are:

  • Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, Issues in Dispensationalism
  • Roy B. Zuck, Vital Prophetic Issues: Examining Promises and Problems in Eschatology
  • Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy, When the Trumpet Sounds: Today’s Foremost Authorities Speak Out on End-Time Controversies
  • Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism
  • Herbert W. Bateman, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views
  • Ron J. Bigalke Jr., ed., Progressive Dispensationalism: An Analysis of the Movement and Defense of Traditional Dispensationalism

    Since there is a brain-drain out of classic dispensationalism, the more influential publications of old school dispensationalism bypass the brain and go straight to the heart. They are simple novels rather than theological treatises. The leading influence for dispensationalism in recent times has been the Left Behind series (even though the title itself suggests the proper response to the question: “What really should I have done with this book when I picked it up at the bookstore?”).

    From time-to-time we get inquiries regarding why we do not focus on progressive dispensationalism. I thought it might be a good idea to offer our reasons why we are not responding to the newer form of dispensationalism. Perhaps someday we will turn our attention to the new variety, but for now our focus remains on the older view. But why? Consider the following reasons.

    First, classic dispensationalism dominates the publishing market. When you survey the books on eschatology that sell well in Christian bookstores, you will discover that they are invariably of the older variety of dispensationalism. The average evangelical Christian has been so brainwashed with his rapture predictions, antiChrist-search, great tribulation hopes, and sensationalism orientation, that he will continue buying new books on predictions — even though these books are simply re-mixing the information from the previous book he bought last week.

    Thus, in the publishing world classic dispensationalism is the real menace. It is still governing the minds of tens of millions of evangelicals. With its resistance to rigorous intellectual research it almost seems that the motto of classic dispensationalism is: “The mind is a terrible thing. And it must be stopped in our lifetime. Before it kills somebody.”

    Second, classic dispensationalism dominates the airwaves. We live in a visual era. Consequently, televangelists have enormous influence with their television shows. You simply will not find a progressive dispensationalist establishing a televangelism ministry. There is absolutely nothing exciting about progressive dispensationalism. In fact, it requires Bible study that is too demanding and has not presented one innovative colorful chart. (They do have two black-and-white charts they have created, but they are not even of the fold-out variety.)

    Furthermore, progressive dispensationalism is not very exciting: It has absolutely no clue who the next Antichrist candidate should be — despite our era having a President of Muslim background and who hides his birth documentation. It offers no solid evidence for the next date for the rapture — despite our era experiencing enormous earthquakes and tsunamis. You simply cannot sustain a multi-billion dollar television empire with such a tentative theology.

    Thus, in the entertainment world classic dispensationalism is the real problem. It is the behemoth that controls the airwaves. And in our highly visual, short-attention-span era this insures an enormous following, and with it, a large influence.

    Third, classic dispensationalism dominates the pews. Because of its enormous influence through publishing and broadcasting, classic dispensationalism owns the pulpits of our land. And he who owns the pulpit controls the pew. Those sitting in the pews are the ones buying the books and watching the televangelists. It is a vicious cycle. And the circle, it seems, will be unbroken.

    If you took all the pew-sitting dispensationalists in America and lined them up end-to-end, it would be good thing. Because this would get them out of the bookstores and away from their televisions. (Of course, if you took all church attenders who fall asleep during the sermon and lined them up end-to-end, they would be more comfortable. But that is another story.)

    Fourth, classic dispensationalism is an embarrassment to the integrity of the Christian faith. Progressive dispensationalism is much more tolerable than the classic variety. It has ceded ground to covenantalism and has given up on much of the naivete that permeates classic dispensational “thought” (I use the term loosely).

    Classic dispensationalism functions as the Chicken Little of the evangelical world, continually predicting the end. Consider the titles of the following (from the 1980s–1990s):
  • Lindsey, Planet Earth -- 2000: Will Mankind Survive? (1994).
  • Sumrall, I Predict 2000 (1987).
  • Lewis, Prophecy 2000: Rushing to Armageddon (1990).
  • Terrell, The 90’s: Decade of the Apocalypse (1992).
  • Hunt, How Close Are We?: Compelling Evidence for the Soon Return of Christ (1993).
  • Graham, Storm Warning (1992).
  • Ryrie, The Final Countdown (1991).
  • Jeffries, Armageddon: Appointment with Destiny (1988).
  • McKeever, The Rapture Book: Victory in the End Times (1987).
  • McAlvanny, et al., Earth’s Final Days (1994).
  • Marrs, et al., Storming Toward Armageddon: Essays in Apocalypse (1992).
  • Liardon, Final Approach: The Opportunity and Adventure of End-Times Living (1993).
  • Webber and Hutchins, Is This the Last Century? (1979).

    How many times can “prophecy experts” and “end times authorities” miss, but keep on selling books? Apparently the number is legion. These people still continue as the following recent titles prove:
  • Jeffrey, Countdown to the Apocalypse: Learn to Read the Signs, the Last Days Have Begun (2008).
  • Hitchcock, The Late Great United States: What Bible Prophecy Reveals About America's Last Days (2009).
  • Jenkins, Rapture: In the Twinkling of an Eye Countdown to Earth's Last Days (2006).
  • Hunt, Countdown to The Second Coming: A Concise Examination of Biblical Prophecies of The Last Days (2005).
  • Laurie, Are These the Last Days? How to Live Expectantly in a World of Uncertainty (2006).
  • Hatch, The End: A Futurist Looks at the Very Last Days (2006).

    In the final analysis, classic dispensationalism is an embarrassment to Christianity. Because of its large presence it has an enormous negative impact on our culture’s perception of the Christian faith.

    Fifth, progressive dispensationalism is still relatively rare. Though this approach is making its presence felt in academic circles, it has little influence beyond the ivory towers. It could well begin asserting itself if it continues teaching future preachers in its seminaries. But currently it has a minimal impact on our culture. Besides, since it is a work in progress and clearly has been impacted by covenantal theology, it may well be that it will drift away from premillennialism altogether. Time will tell.

    For these and other reasons we will keep our focus on behemoth dispensationalism. It poses the larger threat to Christianity and our culture.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Land and Jesus

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

The question of “the Land” is of paramount importance for the dispensationalist. Dispensationalism is a whole systematic theology — not simply an eschatology — that has as one of its chief cornerstones the predominant role of Israel in God’s plan for history. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to a dispensationalist’s heart is through the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, the whole New Testament contradicts it.

The Land question is also of enormous significance in the current wider world of politics and international relations. Many Christians consider themselves to be “Christian Zionists,” and strongly urge Western governments to support Israel — regardless.

In this blog I will provide a brief review of an excellent new book on the subject of the Israel and the Land: Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Baker Academic, 2010; 153 pp; soft cover). The author is Gary M. Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School

Dr. Burge is a competent New Testament scholar, holding a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen. He is a member, The Society for Biblical Literature; Institute for Biblical Understanding; and Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, Cambridge, England. He is also very knowledgeable regarding contemporary “Holy Land” issues. Besides this work he has authored Who Are God's People in the Middle East? (1993) and Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (2003). He holds membership in Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, as well as Holy Land Ecumenical Fellowship.

Though well qualified in the field, I confess that he does lack qualifications in three important areas: (1) He does not have a degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. (2) He is not a televangelist. (3) And as a consequence of #2 he does not appear to have bleached-white teeth. As a result of these three deficiencies he will not receive a wide reading among dispensationalists-in-the-pew.

The book is composed of eight succinct chapters and a helpful “Further reading” section. The chapters are: (1) The biblical heritage; (2) Diaspora Judaism and the land; (3) Jesus and the land; (4) The Fourth Gospel and the land; (5) The book of Acts and the land; (6) Paul and the promises to Abraham; (7) Developments beyond Paul; (8) Land, theology, and the Church.

As an insignificant aside: the book does have one layout oddity. When the Arabic numbering of pages begins (after the Roman numeral front-matter), page 1 is on the left hand page rather than the right (as are all following odd numbers). Someone in layout stumbled.

But now: why does the book have the title “Jesus and the Land” since only one chapter deals directly with Jesus’s ministry? Judging from the chapter titles you would think it might be better titled “The New Testament and the Land.” However, the title perfectly captures the point of the book. As Burge compellingly argues: Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant and all of its promises, including the Land. Let us see how this unfolds.

After important introductory material in chapters 1 (Abraham and the Old Testament backdrop) and 2 (non-Judean, diaspora Judaism), we come to Burge’s central chapter: “Jesus and the land” (ch. 3). Here he carefully surveys relevant highlights from Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. He points out that despite the longing and perspective of many (not all!) first-century Jews, Jesus downplays the Land — as well as two other “holy places” for Israel: Jerusalem and the Temple. In a later chapter Burge captures this point well: “the lens of the incarnation had now refocused things completely. Christian theology had no room for ‘holy places’ outside of the Holy One who is Christ” (p. 94).

In his preaching the Lord begins transferring Israel’s hope from a Land to a Person; that is, to himself as the Messiah who has now come in fulfillment of the old covenant types, promises, and prophecies. Burge then traces and develops this theme in John, Acts, and Paul, with a briefer analysis of Hebrews and Revelation. He argues that as Israel rejects Christ: “The city at the center of Judaism’s religious aspirations has now failed some test that will lead to its judgment” (p. 45). As a consequence of Jesus’ teaching and Israel’s failure John develops his “theological agenda” which is “his messianic replacement (or fulfillment) motif” (p. 46).

In chapter 5 (“The book of Acts and the Land”) Burge shows Luke’s intentional theological structure, which traces Christian’s message and movement. He notes that both begin gradually to discount the Land: He reminds us that Jesus himself only ministered within Israel (Matt 10:5; 15:24). And though the Church begins in Jerusalem (Acts 1-5), it quickly starts moving away from Jerusalem and out of the Land (Acts 6ff). The largest discourse is Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 (which is the last speech given in Jerusalem): it represents diaspora Judaism outside of Israel rather than Judaism in the Land. Then Acts moves quickly to the Gentile world (Acts 9ff), ultimately focusing on and emphasizing Paul’s ministry in bringing in Gentiles.

In Acts, Luke does not appear simply to be tracing Christianity’s historical chronological growth. Rather Luke’s structure is more interested in presenting Christianity’s redemptive-historical theology. That is, Christianity is developing away from a Land-based theology to a Christ-based theology, away from a Jewish focus to a Gentile-focus.

As a result of all of this theological-structuring of Christianity’s development, Burge shows that “early Christian preaching is utterly uninterested in a Jewish eschatology devoted to the restoration of the land” (p. 59; emph. his). And this is despite the fact that Paul usually begins his ministry in diaspora synagogues before reaching out to the Gentiles. Thus, Acts shows that “the Land of Promise was the source of Christianity’s legacy but no longer its goal” (p. 61). Thus, “the striking thing is that Paul here can refer to the promise of Abraham and not refer to the Land of Promise. . . . Paul is consistent with all the speeches in the book of Acts. Paul as well as Peter can consistently ignore the central elements in Abraham’s life according to Jewish teaching: land and progeny” (p. 68).

Though I wish he had developed the issue further, I was pleased to see that Burge at least holds to a semi-preterist understanding of Revelation, a view that is generally called the “idealist-preterist” approach. He even allows that Babylon “may also refer to Jerusalem, but also alludes to Rome itself” (p. 105). What is more, he states that “it may be that the harlot refers to Jerusalem or the high priest in his final corruption before the war” (p. 106) — which happens to be the view that I am developing in my commentary on Revelation. Thus, regarding the Land and the Book of Revelation, Burge properly notes: “In Revelation it is the Holy Land that becomes a land of violence toward the people of God and in the end is subject to judgment and devastation” (p. 108). This is right on target, and well put.

I highly recommend this book as a judicious and insightful study of the question of the Land of Israel in Scripture and theology. It deserves wide reading and discussion. Order it from NiceneCouncil.com today. In fact, I recommend ordering two copies so that you can read both to make sure he is consistent.