Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dispensationalism's Confused Model

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

        In response to my last blog "Pesky Progressives" a reader named Vance argued that progressive dispensationalism was overturning the Greek influence of later Christianity by returning to "restored creation" hope of the early Church. I gave a brief response to his reply, but I would like to say a little more about this subject in a separate blog article.

        In Zondervan’s millennial debate CounterPoints book Three Views of the End of History and Beyond, Craig A. Blaising provides an interesting summation of a theological paradigm shift in the early Church. He outlines the early Church’s developing understanding of the Christian’s eternal destiny. He sees this as affirming his (progressive) dispensationalist premillennialism and as countering the spiritualistic models of amillennialism and postmillennialism. His argument is also welcomed by more traditional dispensationalists. In fact, dispensationalists believe that this represents a key problem in non-premillennial eschatological systems.
        But what is this “spiritualistic” problem? And is it a valid objection against non-premillennial eschatologies?

Model Argument Presentation

    Blaising argues that a spiritual model for eternity soon displaced the more biblical new creation model. That is, he argues that the Church eventually began to set aside the concept of a new, physical creation wherein the redeemed will dwell in resurrected bodies for eternity. Instead, he complains, the Church began to “spiritualize” our eternal destiny as being in heaven rather than in a new creation.
        Actually I as a postmillennialist endorse the basics of Blaising’s preferred new creation model for eternity. As Blaising put it: in that model the “scope of eternal life is essentially continuous with that of present earthly life except for the absence of sin and death.” Thus, the new creation models sees a physically restored new heavens and new earth as the eternal destiny of physically resurrected saints.
        Although Blaising associates the arising of the spiritual model of eternity with the birth of amillennialism and postmillennialism, both of these non-premillennial eschatologies now strongly affirm a new creation model. In fact, since 1992 I have argued for this approach in my exposition and defense of postmillennialism (see the latest version of Shall Have Dominionailable at NiceneCouncil.com). Interestingly, even in the CounterPoint debate book in which Blaising wrote, amillennialist Robert Strimple affirmed this view.
        But Strimple is not promoting a new innovation within amillennialism, for amillennialist Anthony Hoekema provided a thorough-going presentation of the new creation model in his 1979 book, Bible and the Futureat is more, the new covenant model appeared in the writings of anti-premillennialist John Calvin in the 1500s. Thus, dispensationalism’s alleged development of the new creation model appears almost 500 hundred years after Calvin!

Model Argument Error
        Interestingly, Blaising supports his argument for the new creation model from several passages of Scripture: “Following the language of Isaiah 24, 65 and 66, of Revelation 21, and of Romans 8, the new creation model expects the earth and the cosmic order to be renewed and made everlasting through the same creating power that grants immortal and resurrection life to the saints.” But this is not helpful to h is defense of dispensationalism at all.
        Blaising himself later states regarding one of his foundational passages for the “renewed” and “everlasting” new creation order (Isaiah 65): “curiously death still remains a feature in that world order (Isa. 65:20).” This curiosity is explained by a proper understanding of Revelation 21:1—22:5 (another of Blaising’s passages) in its original context. Immediatelyafter the new creation / Jerusalem appears and is explained in Revelation 21:1 — 22:5, we read: “‘These words are faithful and true’; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place. . . . And he said to me, ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’” (Rev. 22:6, 10; emphasis mine). Thus, the new creation of which Isaiah and John are speaking represent a present reality in Christ. And Paul agrees with the new creation presence (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15. Cp. Luke 4:16-21; Eph. 2:10; 2:12-16; 4:24).
        Thus, surprisingly two of Blaising’s foundational passages for demonstrating a future physical new creation actually apply to a present spiritual new creation! Blaising’s premillennial presentation is self-refuting. These two passages present the coming of the new heavens / earth / Jerusalem in the permanent establishing of Christianity. This publically and finally occurs in God’s judgment on Israel when he destroyed the old covenant order in A.D. 70. Consequently, the new creation order began legally and spiritually(!) under Christ and his Apostles; it was confirmed publicly and dramatically in A.D. 70 by removing the typological, old covenant order (which was “ready to vanish away,” Heb. 8:13) so that the final new covenant order could be firmly established (Heb. 12:22-28). The “great tribulation” (Matt. 24:21; Rev. 7:14) against the first century Temple (Matt. 23:38 — 24:3, 15; Rev. 11:1-2) in Judea (Matt. 24:16; Rev. 11:8) was to occur in “this generation” (24:34; cp. Rev. 1:1, 2).
        The postmillennial eschatological schema involves gradualistic development of the kingdom of God in history. This is opposed to the premillennial catastrophism necessary to impose a bureaucratic, political, temple-based kingdom on a recalcitrant world at the battle of Armageddon. The seed principles of the new order are legally established in Christ’s redemptive work (A.D. 30) and publicly demonstrated in Christ’s judgment of Israel (A.D. 70). The outworking of the kingdom / new covenant / new creation / millennial principle begins progressing in an upward-moving, linear fashion by unfolding, incremental development through history. Ultimately this upward progress will be superseded by final perfection at the Second Advent, which will establish the consummate, eternal new creation order. Thus, Blaising rightly desires “a holistic hope in which the millennium forms one part.” Unfortunately, he looks for the wrong type of millennium (Zionistic politicism) produced by the wrong method (catastrophic imposition).
        Nevertheless, the fact of a future, physical new creation remains. It is rooted in other texts of Scripture (such as 2 Peter 3) and in the theological implications of redemptive realities (a physical resurrection suggests a physical environment in which the resurrected will dwell).