There are at least a couple blatant errors about Dispensational theology cast into the wind like dandelion seeds. They won’t actually sprout, but they do stick onto things and can be hard to get off. It’s one thing for our covenantal brothers to act like Dispensationalists aren’t cool, fine. But tagging Dispensationalism with all the baggage of hyper-Dispensationalism requires reading into rather than out of, which turns out to be a modus operandi for reading a lot of things.
It is untrue that a Dispensationalist believes in two ways of salvation. When working through the relationship between the Old and New Testament, between the Law and Gospel, there are reasonable questions about the relationship between them. But a Dispensationalist does not believe that someone before Jesus was saved in any other way than by faith in God. Old Testament saints looked forward by faith to the coming Messiah. After Christ’s coming we look back by faith. But salvation is, and always has been, by faith alone. There was one note in the original Scofield Study Bible (1909) that some misread, uncharitably, that was revised in the next edition to make it clear. Some have been purposefully blind to that clarification.
It is untrue that a Dispensationalist believes in grace without obedience. In other words, Dispensationalists are not antinomian, that is, those who don’t believe that Christians should obey God’s law or submit to Jesus as Lord. It is true that a couple Dispensationalists have taught that, for example, the Sermon on the Mount is only meant to apply to the Kingdom of God and therefore has no application for believers today. The same sort of group might say that the Old Testament law has no application for New Testament believers. But again, this is hyper-Dispensationalism, this is over-cutting, not cutting straight. It is not what we mean at all.
With that said about untruths, there are some significant unpleasantries about Dispensationlism that should be dealt with, and I’ll address those in the next post.
Or, introducing the question: What is a Dispensationalist?
Maybe you’ve heard it said before that the Millennium is one-thousand years of peace that Christians like to fight about. There are certainly other doctrines that provoke fierce debates among believers. Arminians and Calvinists have been arguing since before the foundation of the world, at least in the eternal counsels of the Trinity. But eschatology has been a ground for conflict for at least a few centuries, and will probably continue to be so, until it’s all over.
Eschatology is the doctrine of the eschatos = the end things. It is the study of what will happen in the “last days,” starting with determining when the last days were, or are, or will be. The study of the end times is a study involving prophecy and it is especially difficult, compared to other biblical doctrines, because everyone (who is orthodox) agrees that at least some things have yet to take place. Eschatological hindsight is 20/20, and many have more hind than sight.
Eschatology and confusion go together like water and electricity; water will conduct the energy but it’s hard to control. The genre of apocalypse is full of jolting imagery and it shocks the imagination. It also taxes the exegetical effort.
One of the more important charges Paul gave Timothy was to:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15).
There is one word for “rightly handling” in Greek, orthotomounta. You can hear “ortho” at the beginning, the word for “straight.” It referred to cutting a path in a straight direction, perhaps cutting a linear piece of leather for a tent, a practice with which Paul was familiar. The NAS translates it as “accurately handling,” which is okay, but needlessly abstract. The old KJV has “rightly dividing,” and this is especially interesting for a couple reasons.
First is that Dispensationalists, a category for those who believe certain things about the end times, are usually the ones who most maintain that they are the real straight-cutters. I agree with that, for reasons that will be stated later. It is why in previous posts I’ve emphasized the irony of those who claim to be the best Bible-readers missing other key parts of the Bible. Dispensationalists can get a little scissor happy. They parse the prophets with a razor’s edge and cut their Kuyperian throat in the process. This is no good, though I’d maintain this is a failure to carry the reading principles all the way through, not a failure of the reading principles at the foundation. A Kuyperian can’t be a Darwinian, a Deist, or a Dualist, but he can (we’d say should) be a Dispensationalist.
The second reason why “rightly dividing” is an interesting phrase is because one of the largest flame-books against Dispensationalism is called Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth by John Gerstner. He argues not only against the Dispensational reading, he makes up straw men and torches them like apocalyptic locusts.
Even in the context of 2 Timothy, Paul is urging Timothy to study the Word because of quarreling about words “which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (verse 14). There is “irreverent babble” that leads people “into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene” (verse 16), “upsetting the faith of some” (verse 17). Paul was not thinking about “last things.” And this is not to say that anyone who disagrees over eschatology is necessarily behaving in such an ungodly way, but there are too many discussions that uglify the doctrine rather than adorn it.
Why not just avoid the subject altogether? Well, we should be concerned with eschatology because we should be concerned with God’s promises, those fulfilled and each one yet to be fulfilled. He is the God of promise and we are His people. We should be concerned with eschatology because God has revealed things about the end. He gives us His Word for us to understand. And we should be concerned about eschatology because it is a catalyst for our current behavior. What we believe will happen affects what we we believe we’re working for.
For our purposes there are two sides of a spectrum for us to consider: Dispensational theology and Covenant theology. One side sees greater continuity and overlap between the Old Testament and New Testament, the other side points to some key distinctions. Perhaps the groups are similar to Republicans and Democrats, those who have a certain approach to reading the Constitution and laws. Dispensationalists and Covenantalists are less like the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There are extreme edges on both sides, and there are, as expected with a spectrum, parts in the middle. I’m not sure that there is an exact middle; besides, fence straddling is bound to tear a theologians pants.
Both ways, at least in terms of their labels, of defining the Bible’s teaching are new-ish in the theology of church history. Covenantalists love to point out that Dispensationalism was a system first designated in the 19th century. “How could it be any good? It’s too young! What about the previous 18 centuries?” But what they often don’t say is that Covenantalism as a system of end-times explanation was made popular only in the 17th century. Don’t let anyone tell you that Paul was a Covenantalist, let alone Augustine or Calvin.
The early church was focused on identifying the canon of Scripture—and not being martyred—then on the person of Christ and an understanding of the Trinity. By the time of the Reformation the gospel itself was in the dark and the Reformers shined scriptural light on, and through, justification by faith alone. Only then, and still a hundred years or more afterward, was there concentrated effort to organize and define the “last things.”
All the elders at our church are Pre-tribulational, Pre-millennial, Reformed and still reforming Dispensationalists. What does that mean? And how does that affect what we think we’re supposed to do today? We are trying to read the word of truth right, to rightly divide it. My goal in the upcoming posts is to define what a Dispensationalist is and then get to why a Kuyperian Dispensationalist is the best yet.