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.