We have always had wars and confrontations over the Bible, the Word of God. Through the centuries they have been about (1) heretical teachings, (2) misinterpretation, (3) the nature of the church, (4) outright liberalism and the denial of the inspiration of Scripture, (5) and the very nature of its message. The last issue (5) is now taking prominence. Presently, the war is over the basic messages (or message) of the Bible, Bible prophecy, and what God has said about the nation of Israel.
For this discussion I will confine the issues to three modes of thinking about how the Word of God is constructed and interpreted: (1) Covenant theology and amillennialism, (2) biblical dispensationalism, and (3) progressive or revisionist dispensationalism. I will then focus on answering progressive dispensationalism (PD) by showing what the Bible teaches in opposition to their views.
Covenant Theology and Amillennialism Many chapters in many of my books have dealt with the failure of Covenant theology to represent the structure and the flow of the Bible. So, little discussion space will be given here on the subject, except to say: Covenant theology, built on amillennialism and allegorical interpretation, will not hold up under honest scrutiny. Even the Covenant guys admit that their Covenants of Works and Grace are only implied and are not explicit in the Bible. In other words this is a man-made system imposed on Scripture and does not represent the message of the Word of God.
Here is what the leading Covenant thinkers say about their own system as quoted in my Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics (Kregel), [pp. 158-59]:
The Scriptural character of the name (covenant of redemption/grace) cannot be maintained, but this, of course, does not detract from the reality of the counsel of peace. – Louis Berkhof
It is enough to say here that Covenant theology is lacking of firm evidence as to its biblical validity. It is a man-made system built on thin ice! James Orr rightly criticizes this false "biblical" system and writes:
Covenant theology failed to seize the true idea of development, and by an artificial system of ... allegorizing interpretation; sought to read back practically the whole of the New Testament into the Old. But its most obvious defect was that, in using the idea of the Covenant as an exhaustive category, and attempting to force into it the whole material of theology, it created an artificial scheme which could only repel minds of simple and natural notions. It is impossible, e.g., to justify by Scriptural proof the detailed elaboration of the idea of a covenant of works in Eden, with its parties, conditions, promises, threatenings, sacraments, etc. (Couch, p. 157)
Biblical DispensationalismDispensationalism is not a manmade system imposed upon the Scriptures. The Bible IS dispensational! It is easy to see how in His providence God deals with His history in different ways. Dispensation is the Greek word oikonomia which means house-law, or economy. The key verses dealing with this subject are found in: 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2; Col. 1:25. The Bible focuses on the two largest of the dispensational periods, the period of the Mosaic Covenant and the period of the New Covenant, or the period of the church age.
What is an easy way to describe dispensationalism? Everyone runs their house with their own economy, i.e. they do things differently in their house. You do not put the kitchen utensils in the garage; you do not store the ironing board in the living room. Everything has its place. Since all history is God’s history, He does things differently through different periods in the unfolding of the historical plan.
It escapes me why some have such a problem understanding what is so obvious in the Word of God. The Pre-Fall period is not the same as the Mosaic Law period, and the Mosaic Law period is not the same as the church age. The millennial kingdom, with Christ reigning from Jerusalem in an autocratic system of kingly rule, is not the same as the church age!
Dr. John F. Walvoord used to say, if you did not take a sacrifice to Jerusalem last year, you were a dispensationalist! You understand the difference between the Law and the Church dispensations!
One of the unfounded criticisms against dispensationalism has been that the walls were like concrete between the various dispensations, i.e. there is little flow between one dispensation to another. But this is a misunderstanding and a straw man often used to discredit what the Bible is clearly teaching. Most dispensationalists are not wooden-headed about this issue. For example
- The nature of sin is the same in all of human history, from one dispensation to another people are the same spiritually and morally.
- The nature of God is the same from one to another, though through the ages God may reveal progressively more about Himself as the Bible unfolds.
- In all dispensations salvation is always by faith and trust in what God says, though He did not fully reveal the "mechanics" of salvation as they would unfold when Christ died on the cross.
- In all dispensations all who believe in what God reveals are ultimately saved by the sacrifice of Christ. God applied back that sacrifice on those who have faith but were living in Old Testament times. And He applied forward the work of Christ on the cross on future believers.
- The hope of all saints in all dispensations has been the resurrection from the dead. In the Old Testament we have the expression about the patriarchs that they "slept with their fathers." And from the Gospel of John (that was still in the dispensation of the Mosaic Law), Martha told the Lord in reference to the death of Lazarus, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day" (John 11:24). This indicates that those living under the Law economy understood clearly the dynamics and the promises of the resurrection.
- There is progressive revelation in Scripture, i.e. God does not reveal everything at once in His Word. He "progressively" added new revelation or revealed more about Himself, about His world plan for the future, and about the nature of salvation through Christ. This is an important fact for dispensationalism.
- The church is not Israel and Israel is not the church. These are two distinct entities in the Lord’s outworking in history. It does not take much to prove this point. The organization of the church, and Israel, are so distinct. And certain promises were made to the one that are not given to the other.
- While there are certain things that are common in all dispensations, for all who trust God, the Bible never tells us there is but one people of God. God dealt in a very unique way with Israel in the Old Testament. All Gentiles then who trusted in God had to come under the directive of the Law and of the requirements of the sacrificial system. They had to also be circumcised. When Israel’s kingdom is restored, the Lord will be the sovereign over the Jewish people in a different way in which He now works in the church age. It is true however that now, in the church dispensation, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Both stand together in the spiritual body of Christ. But the church age will end with the rapture, and following the seven year tribulation, the dispensation of the kingdom will follow that will be distinct from the church age.
- God’s dealing with Israel, and the establishment of the Davidic millennial kingdom, has been postponed. The Bible will say this flat out! Meanwhile, the Lord is reaching the entire world, saving both Jews and Gentiles, and placing them into the spiritual body of Christ. The promised messianic kingdom will then be established following the seven year tribulation. Christ presented the kingdom to the Jewish people when He was on earth; they rejected His offer and turned against Him as king and had Him crucified. But we await the promise of that kingdom to be established on earth in Jerusalem. God has not abrogated nor annulled those promises.
- The kingdom dispensation is different from the church dispensation. And while church saints will enjoy Christ’s earthly rule of peace, the key people will be the Jews. Christ will reign as a benevolent Despot, and that reign is certainly nothing like the present church age.
- The church is called a mystery, i.e. it was something not before revealed in the Old Testament. It is foolish for the PDs to argue that the church was revealed in the Old Testament but just not recognized. If this was so, where is it revealed in the Old Testament books?
- Concerning the Covenant theologians and allegorists, they do not take future Bible prophecy in its normal and literal sense. They "spiritualize," allegorize, and re-define prophecy. By this, they can get rid of the doctrines of the rapture of the church, the literal seven year tribulation, and the actual historic kingdom reign of Christ over Israel and the world! While there can be figures of speech, illustrations, parables, symbols, and hyperbole in prophecy, at its base prophecy is to be taken in a normal, literal, and historic sense. For example, when the Old Testament speaks of the church, we should not interpret that as Israel, or when it refers to Jerusalem, we cannot say that means the church!
Dispensational hermeneutics is just plain old sound and solid hermeneutics. If one uses all the guidelines of proper hermeneutics one will become a dispensationalist! Dispensationalism rests on tried and true literal, grammatical-historical study. Taking the Greek text at face value then leads one to dispensationalism! I write in my Classical Evangelical Hermeneutcis:
Dispensational theology, or dispensationalism, results from a natural, normal reading of Scripture, consistently taken in context and at face value. Such a reading is the logical and obvious way to read any body of literature. ... A normal reading of Scripture is synonymous with a consistent literal, grammatico-historic hermeneutic. When a literal hermeneutic is applied to the interpretation of Scripture, every word written in Scripture is given the normal meaning it would have in its normal usage. Proponents of a consistent, literal reading of Scripture prefer the phrase a normal reading of Scripture to establish the difference between literalism and letterism. (p. 33)
Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) began at Dallas Seminary under the influence of (at that time) some of the younger faculty, Drs. Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock. At first the "system" seemed innocent enough, but upon a second glance, it was realized that there were terrible flaws in what was being propounded. In a Christian magazine it was stated (paraphrased) by the authors that classical dispensationalism was too restrictive, but as well, some things in the classical system needed to be changed so that the criticisms would not be so acute.
In time, most of the "older" faculty and many of the graduates began to point out the errors of PD, but it was too late. The lay board of the seminary voted to accept both PD and classical dispensation. Both views could be taught in the classrooms.
What does PD teach?
In some ways, this may be a little hard to grasp. Even Dr. John Walvoord with a chuckle told a public audience he had trouble discerning what its position was in regard to certain prophetic issues! In comparing the two systems Bock said that PD is "less land centered" and less "future centered."1 Charles Ryrie quotes many Covenant theologians who have rejoiced over the coming of PD. They consider it a compromising position with Covenant theology and a slow melting away of dispensationalism from the theological scene.2
Poythress concluded, Ryrie noted, about PD that "provided we are able to treat the question of Israel’s relative distinctiveness in the Millennium as a minor problem, no substantial areas of disagreement [between progressive dispensationalism and covenant theology] remain." Covenant theologians Van Gemeren pointed out that "Bock agrees with covenant theology that the eschatological kingdom was inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus." Elwell adds, that PD "will be warmly received by nondispensationalists" and concludes that "the newer dispensationalism looks so much like nondispensationalist premillennialism that one struggles to see any real difference." Poythress predicts that PD "is inherently unstable.
I do not think that they will find it possible in the long run to create a safe haven theologically between classic dispensationalism and covenant premillennialism. The forces that their own observations have set in motion will most likely lead to covenantal premillennialism …"
[To get a more specific and detailed handle on what PD teaches, I suggest the following books: (1) Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, Mal Couch, gen. ed., (Kregel), (2) Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis and John Masters, gen. eds. (Moody), (3) Dispensationalism, Charles Ryrie (Moody), (4) Evangelical Hermeneutics, Robert Thomas (Kregel).]
Specific Issues in the PD System.
While other propositions of the PD system could be mentioned, for this article I will confine my theological answers to the following: (1) The PDs say God’s throne in heaven is the Davidic kingly throne, (2) Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood is tied to and related to the Davidic covenant, (3) The church fulfills the prophecy of the coming of the New covenant as referred to in Acts 2 and Joel 2, (4) Christ the Seed does His work through messianic prerogatives that involve His mediating deliverance to God’s people (by the Davidic covenant), (5) The blessings today include the "law of God written on the heart through the Spirit of God in us and [gives] the provision of forgiveness of sins (by the New covenant)," (6) God has the right to expand the beneficiaries [of the covenants] as He wishes (as He does through Christ), (7) While there are distinctions between Israel and the church, there is still the "oneness of God’s people." (8) And they add, as a mystery the church was in the Old Testament, concealed, and not to be revealed until the New Testament period. [Much of this wording comes from a blog posted by Darrell Bock on June 28, 2006.]
God’s throne in heaven is the Davidic throne.
The PDs teach that God’s throne in heaven is the Davidic kingly throne. Psalm 110:1-2 is one of the most referred to Old Testament passages quoted in the New Testament. And this is the passage they use for support. But what does it say? Christ is now seated in heaven at the right hand of God the Father (v. 1). He is waiting until the Father makes His enemies "a footstool for [the Messiah’s feet]" (v. 2), i.e. until the earthly enemies are finally defeated in the tribulation. Interestingly, verse 2 seems to clearly indicate that the kingdom reign does not begin until Christ returns to earth and "stretches forth His strong scepter from ZION (not heaven)," with God the Father saying then "Rule in the midst of Your enemies."
The PDs seem to want Christ on His messianic throne now so the church can be included presently in some way in the kingdom! But this is not what the Bible says. In fact, some PDs have changed their minds on this issue because of Revelation 3:21 that clearly separates the Father’s throne from the Davidic throne. Christ says "He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne." Also, Matthew 25:31 makes a separation from the Father’s heavenly throne and what takes place when Christ returns to rule. He will come from His Father’s throne in heaven, "come in His glory, … then HE WILL SIT ON HIS GLORIOUS THRONE" on the earth! This begins the Davidic earthly reign!
Thus, the throne in heaven is not the Davidic throne that will be set up in Jerusalem!
Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood is related to and tied to the Davidic covenant.
By this, so the PDs argue, Christ becomes a sacrifice for sins in relationship to the Davidic covenant. They say this because it is true that Psalm 110:4 follows closely with the issue of Christ being seated presently on His Father’s throne, i.e. in their view, on the Davidic throne. And because His Melchizedekian priestly position is so closely mentioned in Psalm 110, this priestly office must be related to the Davidic covenant, the PDs argue.
While it is granted that this priestly work is mentioned in the framework of Psalm 110, what does the New Testament tell us about Christ as a priest of the order of Melchizedek?
Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood is related to the New covenant (the issue of salvation and blessing) and not to the Davidic covenant (the issue of His reign over the Jewish kingdom). As a priest after Melchizedek he is "the mediator of a better covenant" (than the Mosaic Law covenant). The writer of Hebrews then quotes fully the New covenant as prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Christ then is the Savior based on His priestly office and not on His kingly, messianic office. The PDs would like to blur the distinctions of these offices. In His priestly role, not His kingly office, Christ became a sacrifice and "became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" (5:9).
Again, if the PDs can argue that Christ is a priest through the David covenant, they can argue that the church is now in the "already" kingdom that is on the earth.
The church fulfills the prophecy of the coming of the New covenant as referred to in Acts 2 and Joel 2.
Almost everyone admits the church begins in Acts 2, but there is a strong division as to what is happening with Peter’s quote of Joel 2:28-31, which reads in part: "And it will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophecy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions …" In the Hebrew the phrase all mankind is al cal basar which is never used in the Old Testament of the Jewish people but only of the Gentiles!
Peter begins this Joel 2 quote before the Jerusalem Pentecost crowd with "But this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: …" (Acts 2:16). At issue is the expression this is what was spoken. In Greek it is touto estin to eiramenon. Or, "this is that which has been written." This is that is indicating that what Joel prophesied has come up to the present time (Perfect Participle).
The question on Peter’s quote comes down to three possibilities. (1) Is Peter saying that what Joel prophesied came to pass there in Acts 2 with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in other words, the fulfillment of the giving of the New covenant with the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit? This is the view of the allegorical amillennialists and the PDs. In other words, Acts 2 is fulfilling Joel 2. (2) Or is Peter simply using Joel 2 as an illustration of what was going on in Acts 2? (3) Another view, is Peter saying that the New covenant was started, launched, begun (but not fulfilled), with the evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, yet not with the complete fulfillment of the prophecy?
If as the PDs might say, Joel 2 is fulfilled in Acts 2, and the prophecy of the New covenant is fulfilled, then the church is fulfilling the promises made to Israel back in Joel 2. But there is a better way of looking at the issue, and the Greek text would substantiate this. And thus (3) seems to hold the better and most biblical answer.
Christ made it clear to His disciples that by His death He would ratify the New covenant. "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood" (Luke 22:20). The New covenant then was launched, begun but not fulfilled or completed in Acts 2. This seems possible when Peter said this is what was spoken. If Peter meant the New covenant was fulfilled he could have used the most common expression this was fulfilled (pleeroo) that Matthew used almost exclusively in his Gospel to indicate prophecy was indeed fulfilled! In the Gospels and Acts pleeroo was used over fifty times to indicate such fulfillment. Why did Peter not use that word here in Acts 2? Because he saw the Joel prophecy begun but not finished—started but not fulfilled. The prophecy of the New covenant will be completed when it is applied finally to Israel at the start of the Millennial kingdom.
The church now benefits from the New covenant but does not fulfill or complete it. For the Jews, over and over in the Old Testament, the New covenant is fulfilled for them in the land. The New covenant brings forgiveness of sins, and gives to them a blessing in the Holy Land! Peter nor Paul say the church is fulfilling the New covenant, but they do say the church is benefiting by it. Paul writes that God "made us adequate as servants of the new covenant, not of the letter (of the Mosaic Law), but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). He adds that the Mosaic Law, when given, came with sobriety and glory, but now, "how shall the ministry of the Spirit (with the New covenant) fail to even more with glory?" (v. 8).
The PDs want to tie the church directly to Israel with this New covenant. But the apostles do not go that far. They do, however, show the church benefiting from it presently but not fulfilling it.
Christ the Seed does His messianic prerogatives that involve His mediating deliverance to God’s people (by the Davidic covenant).
While there is no doubt that it was the Messiah who died for sins, the order, and the work, of the covenants must be kept distinct, because that is what the Scriptures do! We must keep the lines straight if that is what the Scriptures do! Christ’s Messiahship has to do with His kingship. Christ’s death has to do with the completion of the New covenant so that the blessing of that covenant (salvation, forgiveness of sins, the outpouring of the Spirit) might someday come upon Israel, as a people, but now, presently, the church consisting of both Jew and Gentile, is benefited by the covenant.
The Davidic covenant has to do with the Messiah’s rule over the Jewish nation, in the land. The New covenant, ratified by Christ’s death, presently blesses and benefits the church, but will someday be directly applied to the Jewish remnant who come into the land to enjoy the kingdom promises. The PDs want to force some of these differences, and they want to co-mingle the workings of these covenants for their own agendas!
The blessings today include the law written on the heart through the Spirit of God in us and [gives] the provision of forgiveness of sins (by the New covenant).
The above statement is from Darrell Bock. He believes now those in the church are given the law within, in the heart, because of the New covenant. But this is a promise to restored Israel and is not given to the church. To the Jews, when the New covenant is fulfilled for them as they dwell in the Land during the kingdom, God says: "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Jer. 31:33). But "the law written on the heart" is never spoken to the church! When the Spirit comes upon Israel, and the New covenant is finally fulfilled, the Jews will again "walk in My statutes, and you will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers …" (Ezek. 36:27-28). Having the law and the statutes within is never promised to the church today! Notice that it is related closely to when the Jews return and are "living in the land."
However Paul says that the church is a letter of Christ, "written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor. 3:3). Paul goes on and says that "the letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life" (v. 6). The writing on the human hearts is the Spirit in this dispensation. It is not the "letter of the law, the tablets of stone" (v. 3).
The Law written on the heart is a promise from the New covenant for restored Israel living in the millennial kingdom. Paul is showing that the church today receives the benefits of the Spirit, from the New covenant, but the law is not written in our hearts, i.e. in the hearts of church saints. In other words, in the New covenant, there are things that specifically have to do with the Jews in the kingdom, and there are things addressed to the church age.
How do we know the difference? By good, solid hermeneutics and interpretation. We do not go first "theological." We practice sound OBSERVATION and from that we derive our theology!
This must be repeated: The Jews will be observing the law through the New covenant in the period of the earthly kingdom. God told Ezekiel: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My (law) statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. AND YOU WILL LIVE IN THE LAND THAT I GAVE YOUR FOREFATHERS" (Ezek. 36:27-28). Through their conversion, and by the New covenant, the Jews in the land will keep the ordinances given to them by the Lord. The New covenant will be fulfilled then for Israel; only now the church benefits from it but does not fulfill it!
The PDs want to meld everything all together and put the church somehow now in the kingdom but sound hermeneutics will not allow their view. It is true that on a few occasions the apostles preached about the kingdom of God, this does not equate the kingdom as being the church. Paul "preached the kingdom of God" (Acts 20:25), believers are even made workers of the kingdom of God (Col. 4:11), and believers are to be "counted worthy of the kingdom of God" (2 Thess. 1:5). But none of this language implies that the millennial reign is here now, or that the church is indeed that kingdom!
Pentecost notes: "Such references undoubtedly, are related to the eternal kingdom and emphasize the believer’s part in it. They can not be made to support the theory that the church is the earthly kingdom that fulfills all the prophecies of the Word of God." (Things to Come, pp. 471-72) Does Pentecost mean "the eternal kingdom" is the same as the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God? The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God ALWAYS refers to the future millennial reign of Christ on earth!
Colossians 1:13 is most interesting. In the Greek test it reads
Ritchie observes: "Kingdom is usually futurist, referring primarily to the visible manifestation of the kingdom when Christ comes to reign."
God has the right to expand the benefits [of the covenants] as He wishes (as He does through Christ).
No one doubts that the Lord can do what He wishes, but this is a mute point. The issue the PDs are making is that God expanded the promises of the Abrahamic covenant to the church without any mention of the same. By this they join the promises of Israel to the church thereby creating some kind of continuity and making all the saved (along with the promises) into one people of God.
But biblical dispensationalists fly their airplane by the instrument panel of the Word of God. We try not to "create" doctrines, or make them up, as we go along. We are extremely textual and try to prove only what God speaks about.
While there are distinctions between Israel and the church, there is still the "oneness of God’s people."
There are things that are common to both Israel and the church, but this is far from saying that there is but one program of God, or one people of God. It is good to read that the PDs believe there are still distinctions but the problem comes to fore when they argue for a certain sameness, or for the two bodies simply melded together. Bock does this by referring to Ephesians 2:11-22. But you cannot get out of this passage that there is one people of God that extends back into the Old Testament, includes the church age, and then goes forward and covers the tribulation saints and the kingdom saints.
Of course the church saints in their new bodies will be enjoying the kingdom reign of Christ! And all believers of all generations are saved only by the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. But this is far different from seeing One Big Program of God spanning the entire history of the world (and of the Bible)!
In my opinion Bock is somewhat dishonest. The Ephesians 2 passage is saying that presently, during the dispensation of the church age, both Jew and Gentile do form one spiritual body! Thus it could be said that there is one people of God, if you confine this to the church age! But Paul is arguing that the church age is unique and that the spiritual body of Christ constitutes both Jewish and Gentile believers. Bock’s point then must be confined to the church age.
As a mystery the church was in the Old Testament, concealed, and not to be revealed until the New Testament period.
It amazes me how the PDs have a problem reading the plain text of Scripture! They argue that the word "mystery" (musterion) in Ephesians 3:1-9 suggests that the church, with Jew and Gentile, was actually in the Old Testament though it was not understood until New Testament times. This is the way the PDs can come up with the "one people of God" theory, by arguing that this "one people" was always there in the Old Testament but we just did not recognize it!
A careful reading of Ephesians 3:1-9 will not yield that idea.
Paul writes that the "stewardship (dispensation, oikonomia) of God’s grace … by revelation" was made known to him (v. 3), and that it was a mystery. As the Ephesian saints read what he wrote, they "could understand my insight into the mystery of Christ" (v. 4). But the key idea seems to be in verse 5: "which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit." Then the mystery is spelled out in verse 6: "to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."
But it is verse 9 that the issue seems to be settled: To Paul was given the revelation "to bring to light what is the administration (dispensation, oikonomia) of the mystery which for ages had been hidden in God ..." Only God had in mind His master plan that would include both Jew and Gentile in the same body in the church age! There is no hint in these verses that the mystery only meant a certain hiding of the nature of the church in the Old Testament. On this verse nondispensationalist Alford writes:
In general, differences in interpretation and emphases among normative dispensationalists do not change the overall system of dispensationalism, whereas the differences advanced by progressive dispensationalists do form a new and revised system that some (both dispensationalists and nondispesationalists) believe is not dispensationalism anymore.3 (bold mine)
1 "Love for Zion," Christianity Today, March 1992, 50.
2 See quotes in his Dispensationalism (Revised) (Moody), 178.
3. Ibid., p. 162.