King's Evangelical Divinity School

12 October 2010

A Brief But Interesting Conversation Concerning Progressive Dispensationalism

I'm not a dispensationalist by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, far from it (my theology and influences are somewhat disparate and eclectic). Yet it is important to note how this theological system takes several different forms, and thus it is essential when discussing dispensationalism to define carefully which version one is referring to. Famously, of course, some years ago several dispensationalist scholars famously modified their position, leading to what is now known as "progressive dispensationalism". I had an opportunity to discuss briefly the nature of progressive dispensationalism with one of its architects just last week.

Like most tutors I have a special place on my bookcase, now running (quite literally) several yards of books in my own field waiting to be read (those working in the university sector will know exactly what I mean). Therefore, I've never really had chance to read the books setting out the case for progressive dispensationalism. So during our Israel and the Church conference this past week, I seized upon the opportunity to get it straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, from one of the conference speakers - Darrell Bock - who, together with Craig Blaising and Robert Saucy, is the architect of progressive dispensationalism. Hence, on one of those numerous occasions last week while driving Darrell and Mitch around, tortuously negotiating London's horrendous traffic, I had a chance to ask Darrell to spell out, in a nutshell, the essence of progressive dispensationalism (I thought: why read the book when you can get the author to encapsulate it in a few sentences?) .

I began by pointing out my struggle with what I perceived as classical dispensationalism's seemingly arbitrary imposition of seven dispensations upon the canonical narrative. I qualified this, however, by explaining how I had no problem in principle with God dealing with humanity and revealing His salvific plan in successive stages. After all, the narrative of the Transfiguration highlights the central characters of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, corresponding to three stages of God's revelation, namely, the Law, the Prophets and finally Christ (who is the ultimate revelation, cf Hebrews 1:1-2).

Darrell agreed, noting (deadpan) how actually everyone is really a dispensationalist in one form or another, which, if you think about it, is quite true. Consider how at its most basic, of course, we can at the very least divide Scripture into the Old and New Testaments. Darrell then went on to speak of three dispensations (Israel, the Church, the Kingdom), quite at odds with how classical dispenstaionalism typically postulates seven eras. Progressive dispensationalism also seems to move away from the culmination and nature of the dispensations as classically understood. All in all, while it was a somewhat brief conversation it nonetheless piqued my curiosity.  Towards the end of the conversation, I asked why they didn't ditch the term "dispensationalism" altogether which, after all, is now laden with all sorts of presuppositions and baggage (some of it fair, some not). Yet Darrell's response was the importance of defining properly terminology before modifying and/or changing it, and actually I must agree.

I'm not saying I'm fully persuaded by this modified position. For example, as a premillennialist I subscribe to posttribulationism rather than pretribulationism (I can't get away from that ancient biblical phrase referring to the parousia - the Day of the Lord - and how, arguably, it loses its impact somewhat if stretched over a seven year, two-stage return of the Lord). But I did come away from the conversation deciding to look into their views further, adding Darrell Bock's and Craig Blaising's Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Zondervan, 1992) and Progressive Dispensationalism (Bridgepoint, 1993) to my "to read" shelf. After all, it is clear these guys have given this matter some considerable thought. They are no dummies, each with a string of conference papers, journal and book publications to their names (with respected theological publishers), and I respectfully suggest that, whether you agree with them or not, anyone creating straw man parodies of their position ultimately faces the very real danger of making themselves look quite silly.

I'd certainly be interested to hear from anyone who has read either book.


Anonymous said...

Hi Calvin - I haven't read those books, but what struck me as a distinct possibility from studying J.N.Darby was that his dispensationalism grew out of Calvin's Covenantal theology - Calvin even referred to dispensations of grace. So it didn't come from nowhere, but was part of a an existing scheme of theology. Darby too was an intelligent guy and those who reject his teaching need to appreciate that. But the view of dispensationalism I gained from the Plymouth Open Brethren was in fact very similar to Covenantal theology. I never could fully grasped the Darby / Schofield scheme because it didn't fit with my reading of Scripture, especially the pre-trib rapture.

But what Darby did that was novel was to establish a dualism between Israel and the Church that wasn't present in Calvin's Covenantalism. So ethnic Israel is said to be inheriting earthly blessings; the Church spiritual blessings (N.B even Hagee seems to see the Church as Spiritual Israel). In my view the way to find a middle way is to collapse Darby's dialectic between Israel and the Church. I discussed this a bit in my book.
Andrew Sibley

Anonymous said...

"PRETRIB RAPTURE DISHONESTY" is what confronted me on Google some time ago - a piece I can recommend to all persons interested in the rapture debate. (I will not be responsible for any heart attacks or strokes as a result of anyone perusing it!)