Dispensationalism’s Progressive Death (Part 2)
by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
My previous blog post reviewed an article by progressive dispensationalist, Dr. Robert Chisholm of Dallas Theological Seminary. In that review I noted that Chisholm’s observations effectively drive a stake in the heart of dispensationalism. But I did not give a complete review of his article. Consequently, one Anonymous respondent wondered if my blog failed of its purpose.
In this follow-up blog I will present a related observation regarding the interpretation of prophecy that serves as the second of the one-two punch Chisholm lands on his own theology. This still falls under the category of “progressive dispensationalism” in that Chisholm favorably cited this material in his own article, though he did not press home the point.
I am referring to the chapter by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. that appears in J. I. Packer and Sven K. Soderlund, eds., The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke (2000) on pages 180-203.. That chapter is titled: “Historical Contingencies and Biblical Predictions.” So now I will offer a brief summary and review of Reformed theologian Pratt’s article which was endorsed by progressive dispensationalist theologian Chisholm. This article takes an additional important step for undermining the dispensational method of prophetic interpretation regarding Israel’s future.
In Pratt’s article he opens with a lament regarding the naive and reckless enthusiasm of dispensational populists (whom he obliquely refers to as “North American evangelicals”). He complains that their “enthusiasm” for prophecy has caused them to “become monomaniacal in their interpretation of biblical prophecy” (p. 180).
Basically he argues that historical contingencies affect the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. As does Chisholm in his article, he points out that many biblical prophecies do not find fulfillment in the expected literalistic fashion that we often expect. He argues that this “failure” of prophecy to occur according to our expectations does not undermine “the immutability of God’s character and eternal decrees” (p. 181). That is, this “failure” does not prove God a liar nor does it dismiss the eternal nature of his decrees.
He argues from Scripture that “divine providence provides a perspective that complements divine immutability” (p. 183). That is, God is behind both the eternal decree and historical providence, and that one does not contradict, but rather complements the other. He continues:
“Old Testament prophets revealed the word of the unchanging Yahweh, but they spoke for God in space and time, not before the foundations of the world. By definition, therefore, they did not utter immutable decrees but providential declarations. For this reason, we should not be surprised to find that intervening historical contingencies, especially human reactions, had significant effects on the way predictions were realized. In fact, we will see that Yahweh often spoke through his prophets, watched the reactions of people, and then determined how to carry through with his declarations.”
Three Kinds of Predictions
Pratt then outlines and discusses “three kinds of predictions: (1) predictions qualified by conditions, (2) predictions qualified by assurances, and (3) predictions with out qualifications” (p. 183).
1. Predictions qualified by conditions. Of course, everyone recognizes that when a prophecy expressly mentions conditions, those conditions will affect the outcome of the prophecy. Pratt surveys several conditional prophecies, such as Isa 1:19–20; 7:9; Jer 7:5–7; 22:4–5). For instance, Isaiah 7:9 declares: “If you are not faithful, then you will not stand at all.” This is clearly conditional and affects the historical outcome of the prophecy. Of course, the problem for many populist prophecy-enthusiasts (who usually designate themselves “prophecy experts”) is: they almost never admit this truth about prophecy.
2. Predictions qualified by assurances. These prophecies include announcements of inescapable doom or of God’s refusal to reverse himself or of oath-bound prophecies. Samples include: Jeremiah 7:15–16; 11:11, 14; 14:10; Ezekiel 5:11; 14:16, 18, 20; 20:3; 33:27; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 13; 2:1, 4, 6. Pratt observes that “we must remember that these kinds of predictions are few in number and usually not very specific in their descriptions of the future” (p. 187). The very existence of these few prophecies clearly indicate “that not all predictions shared this heightened certainty,” otherwise these assurances would have been wholly unnecessary to state.
3. Predictions without qualifications. Pratt notes that “the OT abounds with examples of unqualified predictions of events that did not take place” (p. 187). He lists a few samples, such as Jonah 3:10; 2 Chr 12:5–8; 3 Kings 22:16–20. For instance, “what caused these turns of events? Each text explicitly sights [sic] human responses as the grounds for the deviations. The people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:6), the leaders of Judah (2 Chr 12:6), Josiah (2 Kgs 22:18–19), and Hezekiah (Jer 26:19) repented or prayed upon hearing the prophetic word” (pp. 187–88). This shows that prophecies contained implied conditions. This also is not admitted by traditional dispensationalists.
Pratt then cites Calvin’s Institutes (1:17:14): “Even though [the prophets] make a simple affirmation, it is to be understood from the outcome that these nonetheless contain a tacit condition” (p. 188). Pratt then points to the lesson we learned from the image of God as the potter. He argues that “the universal perspective of Jer 18:1–12 strongly suggests that all unqualified predictions were subject to implicit conditions” (p. 189).
Historical Contingencies and Expectations
In his next section (pp. 191–95) Pratt asks the question: “If human responses could affect the way Yahweh directed history afer a prediction, how did prophets or their listeners have any secure expectations for the future?” (p. 191).
To answer this question he points out that “the covenantal parameters surrounding Yahweh and his people provided a basis for many expectations, but they did not settle every question. They set limits, but much latitude existed within these boundaries” (p. 192). Regarding any given prophecy: “Latitude remained. . . . When? How? By whom? How long? These more specific questions remained unanswered for the prophets and their audiences” (p. 193).
I would point out in this regard that when we come to the New Testament and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, we discover that “how” God blesses Israel is different from the way that the Jews (and dispensationalists) expected. He blesses her through the salvation of a remnant and by re-constituting Israel by making even Gentiles “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). The Church of Jesus Christ is “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).
Therefore we must understand what the last great old covenant prophet John the Baptist (Matt 3:9) stated when he warned Israel: “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” And ultimately Israel’s salvation comes on the same terms and in the same manner as the salvation of Gentiles, rather than through their exaltation (as per dispensational theology).