Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dispensationalism’s Progressive Death

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

Dispensationalism is changing. And as it does so, it is dying; death is the most radical form of change for a living entity. Just think of the death of the prehistoric creature known as the Freborg. They no longer exist anywhere in the world. (The Freborg had the wings of an eagle, the body of a lion, and the head of an accountant. A terrifying image.)

In this blog article I will show that dispensationalism’s death is being effected by suicide. Apparently no amount of embarrassment and humiliation has been able to discomfit dispensational pew-sitters. Like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” they mindlessly wander about to their doom. They drift into Christian bookstores and pick up the latest mind-numbing, apocalyptic drivel. Neither wrong rapture dates nor wrong Antichrist spottings phase erstwhile dispensationalists. Their motto is: “Grin and Bear It.” But now we see that suicide might just do the trick. But first let me give a brief history lesson.

A Brief History Lesson
In the early 1990s Darrell L. Bock and Craig A. Blaising led the establishment of what is known as “progressive dispensationalism.” In presenting the changes they effected in the dispensational system, they described three major phases of dispensationalism:

(1) Classic dispensationalism, which was promoted by J. N. Darby through C. I. Scofield to L. S. Chafer. Key components of its success can be traced to Larkin’s charts and Scofield’s Bible.

(2) Revised dispensationalism, which was promoted by Charles C. Ryrie, John F. Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, and the New York Times Bestseller List. It is called “revised” because of the major revision of the Scofield Reference Bible, which was revised in 1967 to become the “New Scofield Reference Bible.”

(3) Progressive dispensationalism, which is being promoted by Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, Robert Saucey, and others. It is called “progressive” because it no longer sees the seven dispensations as discrete, impermeable units of time. Rather dispensations are gradually unfolding, progressing stages of historical development. That is, older forms of dispensationalism kept each dispensation separate as self-contained, never-merged units, whereas “progressive” dispensationalism sees the seeds of the next dispensation already forming in the preceding one and anticipating the changes to come. Progressives are under vigorous attack by the Revised dispensationalists who have published numerous articles, chapters, and books raising the alarm about the radical changes the progressives are effecting.

But now: Why do I believe dispensationalism is committing suicide? In the first place I should note that dispensationalism has suffered a “brain drain.” And as is so often the case, living without a brain is difficult — if not downright tedious. The leaders of the older form of dispensationalism are now populist, sensationalist, televangelist types such as Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and the other guys whose books crowd the shelves of Christian bookstores with excited alarms of the approaching end. But the progressive dispensationalists are producing many academic studies — even outside the field of eschatology. They are showing themselves to be noteworthy and impressive scholars.

This leads me to my second point, which is really my main point: Progressive dispensationalists are not only moving dispensationalism in a more covenantal direction, but are establishing principles that wreck the dispensational system. By way of illustration I will give a brief review of a remarkable article in the latest Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (September 2010, pp. 561-578): “When Prophecy Appears to Fail, Check Your Hermeneutic.” Dr. Chisholm is chair and professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. I even went to seminary with him at Grace Theological Seminary — when I was a dispensationalist. You really need to order this article through your local public library’s inter-library loan department. You will thank me for this tidbit.

Jerry Johnson and I are currently working on the script for Late Great Planet Church, volume 2. This article came at just the right time since we will be exposing some of the key errors in dispensationalism (particularly their naive hermeneutic and their love affair with Israel).
In this blog I will not provide a full review of “When Prophecy Fails.” I will simply highlight a few of its key observations which will provide forensic evidence proving suicide. This evidence will show how this dispensationalist is driving a stake through dispensationalism’s heart.

Before I even do that, though, you must bear in mind the following theological truth: Israel is the center of the dispensationalist eschatological system. In fact, an exalted future for Israel in the millennium is the main reason progressive dispensationalists are still dispensationalists. They see a future for Israel restored to the land and offering sacrifices, which makes them differ from historic premillennialists (though they differ from the more popular dispensationalists by not publishing full-color wall charts or playing “Name the Antichrist” or “Guess the Latest Date for the Rapture” games).

Now for the overview (I simply must get back to working on the Late Great Planet Church script; so I will have to be brief.) Note that parenthetical page references are to the JETS article by Chisholm.

Article Overview

Dr. Chisolm begins his article by pointing out something that most Christians do not realize: “A close analysis of OT prophecy reveals that many prophecies were not fulfilled either in part or in whole” (p. 561). He quickly dismisses “two extremes” in responding to this problem: (1) The liberal view which denies supernatural revelatory prophecy. (2) The popular evangelical view which assigns all such unfulfilled prophecy to the final days of history, the eschaton.

Chisholm then makes the following observation which is a two-pronged stake in the heart of dispensationalism: “Prophecy can appear to ‘fail’ if we approach it with a faulty hermeneutic that treats it as inherently unconditional and demands precise fulfillment of any and all details” (p. 561). The two deadly prongs here are: (1) This undermines revised dispensationalism’s second sine qua non: interpretive literalism. (2) This also destroys dispensationalism’s first sine qua non regarding Israel. That is, it removes one of dispensationalism’s strongest arguments for a future for Israel in returning to the land to rule the world and kill sheep: If prophecy is conditional (not “unconditional”) and if it does not demand “precise fulfillment of any and all details” then Israel’s future may not be what dispensationalists depend on it being.

Wow! In one statement Chisholm has driven the stake in the heart of dispensationalism. And he has done so by using a ten ton vibratory pile hammer operating by an intricate system of counter-rotating eccentric weights, powered by hydraulic motors which reduce horizontal vibrations so that its full power may be transmitted vertically into the pile. Well done!

The article shows that prophecy is dynamic, intending either to change or encourage the hearers rather than simply to record the future in advance. Chisholm notes that prophecy “announces God’s intentions conditionally and is intended to motivate a positive response” so that “the prophecy’s predictive element is designed to prevent (in the case of judgment announcement) or facilitate (in the case of a salvation announcement) its fulfillment” (p. 563). That is, prophecy has a hortatory dimension, which means that it seeks to encourage good behavior by promising (conditionally!) blessings in the future or to warn against bad behavior by threatening judgment.
In a section titled “The Contingent Nature of Prophetic Language” Chisholm proves his point by several lines of evidence from the Old Testament.

His first point presents Jeremiah 18 as the key illustration of the matter. He demonstrates that the potter (God) improvises his plan for the clay (Israel) which shows that he can change his (apparent) plan for her. Citing Richard L. Pratt (author of another excellent article in this regard): “The universal perspective of Jer 18:1-12 strongly suggests that all unqualified predictions were subject to implicit conditions” (p. 564). The classic illustration of the implied condition in prophecy is Jonah’s prophecy threatening that Nineveh will be destroyed in forty days (Jon 3:4). Though no conditions were mentioned, the prophecy did not come to pass. Because the implied condition allowed for repentance to remove the judgment threat.

Secondly, Chisholm argues that Micah 3:12 is “the clearest example of God’s relenting from a conditional announcement of judgment” (p. 566). There Micah announces that Zion will be destroyed (Mic 3:1-11). Hezekiah understood this prophecy as threatening imminent doom (Jer 26:18-19). But in Jeremiah 26:17-19 Hezekiah repents, which leads the Lord to withdraw the threat. Micah’s prophecy does not come to pass.

Third, in 2 Kings 22:15-20 Huldah prophesies that Josiah would die in peace and not witness Jerusalem’s destruction. But in 2 Kings 23:29-30 Josiah is killed in battle — hardly an example of dying in peace!

Chisholm provides several other clear evidences of prophecy functioning as a goad to either repentance from sin or continuance in righteousness. This is prophecy’s main point: to either dynamically alter or effectively reinforce a people’s moral/spiritual condition, not to foretell the future for political pundits.

Dispensationalism’s Ultimate Death

I believe Chisholm is correct in his view of the conditional nature and dynamic purpose of prophecy. And if he is correct, dispensationalism is no longer theologically viable.
On Chisholm’s principles we can argue that the future of Israel is not necessarily to involve a return to the land to rule the world and re-establish the temple sacrificial system. The dynamic purpose of Old Testament prophecies of Israel’s future glory were intended to encourage faithfulness. But Israel rejected all of her prophets and then when God finally sent his Son, they said: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and seize his inheritance” (Matt 21:38). As a result, God gave them a final forty years after Christ to repent and turn to him.

Tragically, Israel did not repent and her temple was destroyed in AD 70. As a result, Israel’s prophetic hope of future world-dominion will not be fulfilled in the literal terms of the Old Testament hope. We should not be surprised at this for Jesus himself taught:

“I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 811-12).

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.” (Matt 21:43).