Dispensationalism
in
Transition
Challenging Traditional Dispensationalism's "Code of Silence"
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., 1997 February 1997

 

OUT WITH THE OLD; IN WITH THE NEW:

INTRODUCING THE MAJOR PLAYERS IN DISPENSATIONAL EVOLUTION

This is my second issue in the resurrected Dispensationalism in Transition newsletter. Along with the first issue last month, this will provide introductory material to bring new readers up-to-speed in our concerns over dispensationalism. (Be forewarned: I enjoy mixing playful humor with informative and serious study in this newsletter. I do this to make our studies a little lighter and more enjoyable, not to demean or deride.)


HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDS

Dispensationalism arose around 1830 in England as a new theological construct. It was one aspect of the teaching of John Nelson Darby and the Brethren Movement.

Darby and the Brethren were seeking the unity of true believers in Christ apart from ecclesiastical government and the freedom to worship without civil governmental intrusions. As it turns out, their eschatological musings became their greatest influence, while their peculiar ecclesiastical views have had only a very minimal institutional impact. Their eschatology, however, was originally generated out of their concern for a "heavenly" people. As I will note below, an analysis of this heavenly v. earthly distinction is an important marker in the development of dispensationalism and a useful tool for classifying it into its three major stages.

When dispensationalism migrated to America in the mid-1800s, it began quickly to gather a following through the growing Bible conference movement (1870s and later). Prominent American dispensational ministers of this first phase of dispensationalism included D. L. Moody (1837-1899), prominent evangelist (who was later condemned by Darby); C. I. Scofield (1843-1921), editor of the Scofield Reference Bible; and A. J. Gordon (1836-1995), founder of Gordon College and Divinity School. Oddly, its growth and influence in America proved to be greater than that on its home soil in Britain. (That is one battle with America that the British won; the other was in the 1960s with the "British Invasion" beginning with the Beatles).

This remarkable growth seems to be related to a peculiar nineteenth century American interest in prophetic things. Evidence of this absorbing American concentration on prophecy lies not just in the spread of dispensationalism (a fundamentalist phenomenon), but in the concurrent arising of the many last days/millennial cults. We think especially of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints (the Mormons began the same year as dispensationalism, 1830); the Jehovah's Witnesses; the Seventh Adventists. (See: Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Propohecy Belief in Modern American Culture [Harvard University Press, 1992]).

Dispensationalism insured its place as a major influence in American religious history largely through the popularity of the Niagara Bible Conferences of the 1870s, the publication of Jesus Is Coming by W. E. Blackstone in 1898 and, especially, the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 (rev. 1917). The rest, they say, is history, which proves Mark Twain's maxim: "History is just one darned thing after another."


FUNDAMENTAL CHANGES

Despite the alleged simple, plain method of interpretation claimed by the average dispensationalist, the supposedly self-evident nature of the system, and the fact that it appears at the bottom of the page of the world's most popular reference Bibles, like all other theologies dispensationalism has undergone development. Though the dispensational theologians have always understood this, the average Joe Dispensationalist today does not fully appreciate this fact. "If it was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for me!" Many Christians sincerely — and wrongly — believe that dispensationalism was held in the early church. This is at least partly related to the concerted dispensational effort to couple the fortunes of dispensationalism with those of premillennialism, which did have early origins.

Nor does Joe Dispensationalist take easily to system-tinkering. "How dare you question Scofield!" (In later issues I will show the horror among the previous generation dispensationalists regarding the radical emendations of the current generation.) Nevertheless, the system has evolved. And it is one of the purposes of this newsletter to trace that evolution and highlight its implications.

As noted by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, there are three basic stages of dispensational development. In this edition of our newsletter I will briefly survey these stages so that we might get our historical bearings. I will then introduce the reader to the major theologians in the two main co-existing schools of contemporary dispensational thought, the first school being virtually non-extant today. (The quickest and easiest way to tell the difference between representatives of the two current forms is to look at book sales figures and subject matter: If a book sells in the millions and proves from the newspapers that the world is going to end tomorrow, it is by a first or second generation dispensationalist; if it sells in the thousands and is actually engaging in theological discussion with the rest of evangelical world, it is by a third generation dispensationalist.)

Blaising and Bock categorize the three forms of dispensationalism as: classic dispensationalism, revised dispensationalism, and progressive dispensationalism. [Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, Ill.: BridgePoint, 1993. See also: Blaising, "Contemporary Dispensationalism," in Southwestern Journal of Theology, 2:37 (Spring, 1994): 5-13.] Obviously, though, systemic evolution is incremental and therefore not conducive to clear-cut categorization. But this particular outline is becoming widely-known and accepted; it provides a serviceable description.


CLASSIC DISPENSATIONALISM

"Classic dispensationalism" includes the earliest phase of dispensationalism from the time of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) up to and including Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). The remarkable success of dispensationalism in this formative phase firmly established it as a major theology of long-lasting and enormous consequences among evangelicals.

Of course, Darby, the putative founder of dispensationalism (but see the historical works of history sleuth Dave MacPherson), is important as its earliest promoter. Though his books are rarely read or referenced today, Darby's influence lingers as "the ghost of dispensationalisms past" due to his pivotal historical role rooted in his successful ministerial and writing labors. Ryrie notes that Darby "did not fully develop all aspects of dispensational teachings, [yet] certain teachings were paramount and were expressed clearly" [Ryrie in Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, Issues in Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 17]

Universally acknowledged as the most important American figure in the spread and establishment of dispensationalism is classic dispensationalist Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921). As Ryrie notes, his Scofield Reference Bible (1909, rev. 1917) "popularized dispensationalism as much as any other single entity." [Ryrie in Issues in Dispensationalism, 22.] The Scofield Reference Bible, by means of its succinct footnotes and thousands of cross-references, popularized dispensationalism by making the system easily accessible to millions of Christians by importing it into the Bible itself. Having a compact theology in one's Bible gave dispensationalism sort of a Paladin success: "Have theology; will travel."

L. S. Chafer was dramatically important for establishing dispensationalism as a theological force, rather than just as a populist phenomenon. His influence is rooted in two of his life's major labors: (1) With encouragement from Scofield, he founded Dallas Theological Seminary (1924). DTS has produced thousands of dispensational pastors, many of whom have founded dispensational churches, mission agencies, para-church ministries, Bible colleges, and seminaries. DTS is one of the largest and most influential evangelical seminaries in America today. (2) He is the author of the landmark, eight volume Systematic Theology (1947). This was an important tool that carefully systematized dispensational theology into a coherent package.

Finding what distinguishes one phase of dispensationalism from the next is almost as difficult as discovering what distinguishes one alleged dispensation in Scripture from the other six. It is difficult, but not impossible, however. As DTS professor Craig A. Blaising notes: "Perhaps the most important feature of classical dispensationalism is its dualistic idea of redemption. In order to understand the Bible, one needed to recognize that God was pursuing two different purposes, one related to heaven and one related to the earth. These two purposes affected God's dealings with humanity. In fact, they resulted in an anthropological dualism: a heavenly humanity and an earthly humanity." [Blaising in Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 23.]

Basically put, this means that God has an earthly people, Israel, who are destined for earthly glory in the millennium and in the New Earth; and he has a heavenly people, the church, who are destined for glory in heaven. These two destinies would forever separate Israel and the church. This theological principle receives modification in revised dispensationalism, then is abandoned in progressive dispensationalism.


REVISED DISPENSATIONALISM

According to Blaising again: "the most important revision introduced by the dispensationalists of the '50s and '60s was their abandonment of the eternal dualism of heavenly and earthly peoples.... Instead, they reworked the dualism in more of an organizational sense (closer to the meaning of the term dispensation). There were simply two groups of people. Not heavenly versus earthly, but those represented by Israel and the church.... They are structured differently, with different dispensational prerogatives and responsibilities.... There will be an eternal distinction between Israel and the church, not in metaphysically distinctive kinds of salvation, but in name — the church is always church, Israel is always Israel." [Blaising in Bock and Blaising, Progressive Dispensationalism, 31-32]

The term "revised dispensationalism" is derived from the 1967 revision of The Scofield Reference Bible, known as The New Scofield Reference Bible. The revision work in dispensationalism was transpiring behind the scenes in the 1950s and 60s, but was essentially codified by two major publications:

(1) This major new edition of the famed Scofield Reference Bible.

(2) Ryrie's Dispensationalism Today (1965). Although he did not intend to highlight a new stage in dispensational evolution [See: Ryrie in Willis and Master, Issues in Dispensationalism, 20.], Ryrie's seminal work is considered by many a watershed work pointing to just such a formal and consequential change. The New Scofield Reference Bible harmonizes with Ryrie in this major evolutionary development.

The major theologians of revised dispensationalism offer a blend of theology and populism. Consequently, they produce not only carefully argued theological treatises but best-selling populist books as well. They are "two, two, two mints in one" (because of their sales figures they are a monetary mint for theology and a monetary mint for apocalypticism).

The leading names among revised dispensationalists are: Charles C. Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, and John F. Walvoord. Each one of these men has served in faculty positions at Dallas Theological Seminary; each one has sold hundreds of thousands of books; each one has written both theological and popular prophetic books; each one gets excited with each new political development anywhere in the Middle East or Europe (they seem especially excitable over a Palestinian assassination or Middle East border war).

Furthermore, each one of these men is still writing and influential today — and greatly disturbed by the arising of progressive dispensationalism, which is a kind of punctuated equilibrium evolutionary spurt rather than an incremental Darwinian evolutionary development. Each of these men is also a member of the "Pre-Trib Study Group" which is fighting battles on several fronts, two major ones being against the progressive dispensationalists and against the Christian Reconstructionists.

Ryrie's influence is due to three primary factors:

(1) He served long on the faculty of DTS, training thousands of dispensational pastors.

(2) He has written numerous best-selling and influential works, most notably his Dispensationalism Today (1965, rev. 1995).

(3) He entered the lucrative study-Bible-of-the-week market, editing the best-selling Ryrie Study Bible. (Why should Scofield's heirs get all that study Bible money? I have even thought of editing one, but I can't figure out when the world is going to end, so it wouldn't sell well. However, I do know when I am going to die: my birth certificate has an expiration date on it. I hate expiration dates: the other day I was walking down the street when suddenly my vision blurred because my glasses prescription expired.)

Pentecost has a wide-ranging impact due not only to his long tenure at DTS but especially because of his best-selling and massive tome: Things to Come. This work, his doctoral dissertation, has served as an eschatology textbook in many dispensational colleges and seminaries. (I cannot understand why he has not produced a study Bible; he has the credentials. Perhaps he does not need the money because he invested his book royalties in long term land development — just in case the imminent rapture is delayed another 2000 years.)

Walvoord's influence results from a combination of his long presidency at DTS, his co-editorship of The New Scofield Reference Bible, and his many popular and theological works on eschatology. During the Gulf War he re-issued his Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis, which enjoyed sales in the range of 1.5 million copies. (We know why he does not need to produce a study Bible!)


PROGRESSIVE DISPENSATIONALISM

The latest stage of dispensationalism is known as progressive dispensationalism; it is actually the most theologically astute and intellectually engaging form of dispensationalism. It is also the least likely to engage in over-statement, date-bating, sensationalism, and newspaper exegesis. (Ironically this change within dispensationalism is welcomed by postmillennialists as an optimistic sign of theological rapprochement, while bemoaned by revised dispensationalists as evidence of their pessimistic view of history, involving the decline of theological integrity! Darned if you do; darned if you don't!)

Though the term "dispensationalism" is worn as a badge of honor by the two earlier forms of this theological perspective, progressive dispensationalists "are not happy with the word dispensationalism." [Blaising, "Contemporary Dispensationalism," 5.] And although revised dispensationalists downplay their differences with the earlier stage [Ryrie in Willis and Master, Issues in Dispensationalism, 20.], progressives admit great distinctions between the three phases, recognizing "important differences between them which must be discerned" [Blaising, "Contemporary Dispensationalism," 6.]

The key issue separating the three stages of dispensationalism, remember, is the relationship of Israel and the church. As Blaising notes: "The central assumption of classical dispensationalism was that the Bible reveals two different divine purposes regarding the redemption of the human race" [Ibid.]. He notes that "classical dispensationalism had reached a point of crisis in the 1940s with respect to the two purposes doctrine."

This crisis eventually led to the dropping of the metaphysical distinction between redeemed Israel and the church by revised dispensational theologians. Nevertheless, "revised dispensationalists kept much of the structure of the two purposes doctrine for interpreting biblical history up to eternity. The structure, however, lacked the metaphysical dualism which had given it meaning. In its place, revised dispensationalists substituted a more specific distinction between Israel and the Church as two forms of redeemed humanity, destined for the same heavenly or new earthly salvation." [Ibid., 9.]

Blaising continues his helpful historical analysis: "Through the 1980s and early 1990s... many dispensationalists have come to the position of completely abandoning the two purposes/two people theory. Instead, they believe that the Bible reveals one divine plan of holistic redemption for all peoples.... [This holistic redemption is] partially and progressively realized in biblical history through a succession of divine-human dispensations and will be ultimately fulfilled when Christ returns and completes the final resurrection. The term progressive dispensationalism is taken from this notion of progressive revelation and accomplishment of one plan of redemption." [Ibid., 11.]

Thus, again, we are reminded of the theological principle that distinguishes between the three phases of dispensationalism. But the differences do not end there. This effectively opens up a Pandora's box of troubles for the once seemingly monolithic dominance of dispensationalism. And this, of course, is what our newsletter Dispensationalism in Transition is all about.

Let me now list just a few of the leading progressive dispensationalists. Even though you may disagree with dispensationalism, you will find this school of dispensational thought much more amenable to general evangelical theology. And, therefore, much more palatable.

Perhaps the three leading catalysts within progressive dispensationalism have been: Darrell L. Bock, Craig A. Blaising, and Robert L. Saucy. They are certainly among its best scholars. These men, along with others, initiated the "Dispensational Study Group" within the Evangelical Theological Society in the late 1980s. And as I mentioned above, they are not interested in the apocalyptic mentality that has infected so much of the former stages of dispensationalism.

Darrell Bock is Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored a number of scholarly works on various issues. He is the co-editor (with Craig Blaising) of two important works highlighting the progressive dispensational approach: Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Zondervan, 1992) and Progressive Dispensationalism (BridgePoint, 1993). He is also the editor of a forthcoming three views book in which I am a participant: Three Views of the End of History (Zondervan, 1997).

Craig Blaising, an associate of Bock's, is Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the co-editor with Bock of the two progressive dispensationalist books mentioned in the last paragraph. He is also the progressive dispensationalist respondent in the Three Views of the End of History book.

Robert L. Saucy (pronounced: "SO-see") is distinguished professor of systematic theology at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is one of the earliest proponents of a systemic revision of dispensationalism in the progressive dispensational direction. His major contribution to the ongoing development is his 1993 book from Zondervan: The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-dispensational Theology.


CONCLUSION

It is growing increasingly difficult to speak of "the dispensational position." Ryrie's famous dispensational sine qua non no longer function as descriptors of dispensationalism — if they ever did (see next issue). Anyone responding to or critiquing dispensationalism today will have to make clear to which branch he is responding. A remarkable paradigm shift is underway within dispensationalism. And a major failure of critiques of dispensationalism — such as John Gerstner's Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (1992) — is the failure to appreciate these changes.

For a catalog of books, articles, and tapes on a wide-range of Reconstructionist studies, particularly of an eschatological nature, send $1.00 to me and request the catalog. Kenneth Gentry, P.O. Box 328, Conestee, SC 29636


End




Copyright 1997, Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
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