Herbert W. Bateman IV, General Editor. Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999. See here to buy the book.
I have been interested in dispensationalism lately, so I typed “dispensationalism” into my local library’s search engine. This is the book that came out!
As the title indicates, the book is about three central issues in contemporary dispensationalism, and how traditional and progressive dispensationalists see them. The first issue is biblical hermeneutics. Elliott E. Johnson explains and defends his traditional dispensationalist approach, whereas Darrell L. Bock explains and defends his progressive dispensationalist approach. The second issue is the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the New Covenants. Again, Johnson and Bock share their perspectives. The third issue is Israel and the church. This time, Stanley D. Toussaint articulates a traditional dispensationalist view, though his essay actually focuses more on the Kingdom of God. J. Lanier Burns offers a progressive dispensationalist perspective.
The book also has a foreword from Charles Swindoll, and a thoughtful introduction and conclusion from the book’s general editor, Herbert W. Bateman IV.
Here are some thoughts:
A. What exactly is the difference between traditional and progressive dispensationalism?
Traditional dispensationalism, as I understand it, states that Jesus on earth (and later the early Christians) offered the Davidic kingdom to Israel. This Davidic kingdom was also the Kingdom of Heaven, or (for some traditional dispensationalists, but not all) the Kingdom of God. Had Israel repented and accepted Jesus, God would have restored the Davidic dynasty and inaugurated an age of peace and paradise then and there. But Israel largely did not repent, so God instead inaugurated a new dispensation: the church age. In this church age, Jewish and Gentile believers are equals in a body, the church. In inaugurating the church age, God postponed God’s plan to restore the Davidic Kingdom/Kingdom of Heaven. At some point in the future, however, God will literally fulfill God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament prophecies, restoring her to her land, with Jesus Christ ruling her as king. Traditional dispensationalism distinguishes between Israel and the church.
Progressive dispensationalism, by contrast, thinks that the church participates in God’s promises for Israel. It also maintains that, rather than being postponed, the Davidic Kingdom/Kingdom of God exists now, in some sense, as Christ sits on the throne of David. Christians also participate in the new covenant, which God promised to make with Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 31:31). Progressive dispensationalists still claim to adhere to a literal (or grammatical-historical) interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies, like traditional dispensationalists. Like traditional dispensationalists, they also think that God will restore physical Israel nationally and spiritually, as those Old Testament prophecies foretell.
According to Bateman, there was doubt about whether progressive dispensationalists were truly dispensationalists. After all, one can get the impression that progressive dispensationalists conflate Israel with the church, somewhat, since they think that the church receives some of God’s promises and privileges for Israel, in this age. That arguably differs from traditional dispensationalism’s distinction between Israel and the church. Still, like traditional dispensationalists, progressive dispensationalists reject the idea that the church has replaced Israel or is a new Israel, and they hold that God still has a future for physical Israel, which includes Christ’s earthly millennial reign of the earth.
These are the distinctions, but there are areas in which the distinctions get fuzzy. Johnson, a traditional dispensationalist, seems to acknowledge that the church participates in the new covenant, which God promised to make with Israel. But Johnson rejects the idea that the church is actually in a covenant with God, in that case. For Johnson, apparently, receiving the blessings of a covenant is not the same as being in a covenant. Then there is the issue of biblical hermeneutics, which is my next item.
B. Traditional dispensationalists are committed to a literal, grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible. They also are not particularly open to seeing spiritual symbolism of New Testament themes in the Hebrew Bible. In short, they shy away from reading the New Testament into the Old Testament. They want to accept the meaning of Old Testament passages according to their grammar, their context, and their intent at the time of their composition. My impression is that the traditional dispensationalists believe that the progressive dispensationalists compromise on this principle, somewhat.
And yet, Johnson, a traditional dispensationalist, seems to acknowledge that an Old Testament passage may not be clear until the time of its fulfillment. God promised Abram that the nations would be blessed through Abram’s seed. For Johnson, this would find fulfillment when Christ, who is of the seed of Abraham, brought blessings (including the Holy Spirit) to Gentiles. In a sense, in this case, Johnson himself interprets the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. But Johnson probably does not believe that this nullifies the literal meaning of God’s promise to Abraham: God is still bringing blessing to the Gentiles through Abraham’s seed, as God promised. It’s just that the details of what that meant and how that would occur were not plain until Christ fulfilled that aspect of the promise.
C. Which perspective did I find more convincing, the traditional or the progressive dispensationalist views in the book? Each side had its positives and negatives.
Is Christ ruling on the throne of David right now, as many progressive dispensationalists assert? Or is the Davidic kingdom postponed, as many traditional dispensationalists maintain? I thought that the progressive dispensationalists in the book leaned too heavily on Psalm 110, which early Christians interpreted to mean that Christ would sit at God’s right hand. I agree with traditional dispensationalists that God’s right hand in heaven is not necessarily the same as the throne of David. At the same time, I am hesitant to say that the Davidic promises are altogether irrelevant in the church age. In Acts 15:16, James interprets the inclusion of Gentiles into the church in light of God’s promise to restore the tabernacle of David.
That said, I would prefer for the traditional dispensationalist view to be true because that could solve the problem of imminent eschatology: that Christ predicted the end would come soon, but that did not happen, raising the question of whether Christ made a false prophecy. For traditional dispensationalists, Christ did predict the end, but God postponed it in response to what humans did.
Do Christians participate in blessings that God promised to Israel? The progressive dispensationalists in the book made a fairly decent case for the affirmative. In discussing the Parable of the Banquet in Luke 14, Bock noted that the banquet continued, even though the original invitees did not come and the master invited others to take their place. For Bock, I presume, the banquet represents Israel, the original invitees are the Jews who rejected Jesus, and the new invitees who took their place are the Jews and Gentiles who accepted Jesus. For Bock, the banquet has not been postponed, but Gentiles can enjoy it now. A progressive dispensationalist also noted that, in Acts, the Gentiles receive blessings that God gave to the Jewish believers, and that God before promised to Israel, namely, the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Is the Kingdom of God future, as many traditional dispensationalists have argued? Or is it also present, in some sense, as many progressive dispensationalists contend? Toussaint, a traditional dispensationalist, argued future, even concerning passages that many say present the Kingdom as present. Toussaint does well to raise the question of whether these passages necessarily entail the Kingdom being present. At the same time, I thought that Toussaint was slightly inconsistent: in interacting with Jesus’ statements, Toussaint was trying to say that the Kingdom would come suddenly (without observed signs, a la Luke 17:20), yet he also appeared to depart from that, somewhat.
D. In saying that “traditional dispensationalists believe this” and “progressive dispensationalists believe that,” I cannot exactly stereotype. There is diversity among traditional dispensationalists. Some traditional dispensationalists have changed their minds over the years. Charles Ryrie’s threefold definition of what dispensationalists believe in contrast to non-dispensationalists has been nitpicked and extensively critiqued. The discussion still goes on. For example, in the 1990’s, according to Bateman, there was less focus on whether an interpretation of the Bible was literal and more focus on what an interpretation was saying. Bateman’s essay sensitized me to this flux in discussions about dispensationalism. At the same time, I would still say that there are beliefs that mark traditional dispensationalism, particularly the distinction between Israel and the church.
E. A question that some critics of traditional dispensationalists have raised concerns whether traditional dispensationalists believe that the cross of Christ was unnecessary. Suppose that Israel had received Christ’s offer of the Kingdom at Christ’s first coming. Would Christ then have restored the Kingdom, without going to the cross to die? Johnson, a traditional dispensationalist, answers in the negative. Johnson states on page 142:
“Had Jerusalem recognized the time of her visitation and received God’s Messiah, Jesus would have protected Jerusalem as a mother hen gathers and protects her chicks from the inevitable invasion by Rome (Luke 19:43-44). As a mother hen, He would have died at the hand of Rome for Jerusalem.”
I am trying to envision this scenario. It reminds me, somewhat, of a medieval Jewish scenario that I read in A. Neubauer’s The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters (which, by the way, is now on archive.org—-see here!). In this scenario, the Messiah suffers in doing battle for Israel against her Gentile oppressors, and that fulfills Isaiah 53. Does Johnson think that Jesus would have died in a battle against Rome, while protecting Israel from Roman invasion?
Overall, this was a worthwhile book to read. Some essays were clearer than others. There were also times when some of the authors seemed to be making distinctions without a difference (i.e., partial fulfillment vs. provisions of the covenant being realized now, yet that not counting as a fulfillment). I am encouraged to read more about the differences between traditional and progressive dispensationalism.