Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism


The Israel/Church Distinction is the Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism

As Dispensationalists cannot agree upon a unified agreement as to what “literal interpretation” is, Progressive Dispensationalists have proposed a returned to the first sine qua non (i.e. the distinction between Israel and the church) as its “distinguishing factor.”

Blaising, a progressive dispensationalist, observes that “among contemporary dispensationalists a general consensus exists that a distinction between Israel and the church is the essential distinguishing factor of dispensationalism.”[1] Saucy concurs, saying that “the key distinctive of dispensational theology . . . is the recognition of Israel as a nation set apart from other nations by God for the service of universal salvation for all peoples.”[2]

The recognition of the Israel/Church distinction as the sine qua non of Dispensational theology is consistent with the observations of Non-dispensationalists. For example, Poythress perceives that this distinction is more fundamental than a literal hermeneutics. He writes, “Their [the Dispensationalists’] approaches toward strict literalness seem to be subordinated to the more fundamental principle of dual destinations for Israel and the church.”[3]

Mathison, a Non-dispensationalist, likewise reaches the following conclusion:

“The only one of Ryrie’s three distinctives of dispensationalism that has always been acknowledged as true is the distinction between Israel and the church. The particular dispensationalist understanding of this distinction is the heart of that system of theology. Dispensationalism may, therefore, be defined as that system of theology which sees a fundamental distinction between Israel and the church. This distinction is the cornerstone of dispensational theology.[4]

Coming from a historical-theological approach, it is notable that Clarence Bass identifies the Israel/Church distinction as a novel theological innovation within Christendom:

“It is not that exegetes prior to his [John N. Darby’s] time did not see a covenant between God and Israel, or a future relation of Israel to the millennial reign, but they always viewed the church as a continuation of God’s single program of redemption begun in Israel. It is dispensationalism’s rigid insistence on a distinct cleavage between Israel and the church, and its belief in a later unconditional fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, that sets it off from the historic faith of the church.”[5]

As a previous Dispensationalist himself, Bass agrees that the distinctive of Dispensationalism is, indeed, the dichotomy between Israel and the Church.

Likewise, Charles Ryrie makes the following observations:

The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain or historical-grammatical interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well.”[6]

In this definition of Dispensationalism, Ryrie is making three assertions. First and foremost, the essence of Dispensationalism is the distinction between Israel and the church. This distinction is the result of an alleged, consistently literal hermeneutics. Furthermore, this distinction reflects the understanding that God’s fundamental purpose is to glorify Himself.[7]

Robert Lightner, a Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, reinforces the fact that a Dispensationalist is not merely one who adheres to a certain number of “distinguishable economies.” He further reaffirms that premillennialism cannot be equated with dispensationalism. Lightner writes:

“Granted, there are differences among dispensationalists over the number of dispensations and, as already stated, over the time when the church began. The question then becomes, What is the least common denominator? What must one believe to be classified legitimately as a dispensationalist? It certainly is not the number of distinguishable economies one holds to. “It is not the fact that Scofield taught seven dispensations and Hodge only four that makes the former a dispensationalist and the latter not.” Since some committed premillennialists reject dispensationalism, premillennialism is not determinative either. One must look elsewhere for the sine qua non of dispensationalism.”[8]

Lightner subsequently concludes that the “all-determinative” sine qua non of Dispensationalism is the distinction between Israel and the Church:

“Friends and foes of dispensationalism must agree that the all-determinative conviction without which one cannot be a dispensationalist is the distinction between God’s program for Israel and His program for the church. This distinction is based solidly on the literal (or as many dispensationalists prefer to call it, the normal) interpretation of Scripture. A consistently literal or normal hermeneutic brings one to see distinctions in God’s program with Israel and His program with the church, and that underscores the theological rather than the soteriological nature of God’s primary purpose in the world.”[9]

Bateman, in his concluding essay in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, documents the general consensus amongst Dispensationalists. This consensus, that “Israel is not the church,” is what distinguishes a Dispensationalist from a Non-dispensationalist. Bateman writes:

“What, then, unites one dispensationalist to another? Simply put, the basic unifying issue for all dispensationalists is that Israel is not the church. In fact, [Charles] Ryrie maintains that such a distinction is “the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist.” What is contended among dispensationalists, as we have seen in these essays, is how to define the nature of the Israel/church distinction. . . . Dispensationalists are, however, agreed and like-minded in their stress on the uniqueness of the church and their confidence that a future exists for national Israel.”[10]

In this section, we have seen that it has been unanimously agreed upon that the sine qua non of Dispensationalism is, indeed, the Israel/Church distinction. We can logically deduce that a Dispensationalist is inevitably one who embraces the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, i.e. the distinction between Israel and the Church.

We saw in earlier blog posts that Khoo, the Academic Dean of Far Eastern Bible College, agrees that “God has two programmes in His salvation plan: one for Israel, and another for the Church.”[11] He also admits that Far Eastern Bible College embraces the sine qua non of Dispensationalism.[12]

Despite his adherence to a Reformed soteriology i.e. the five points of Calvinism, famous pastor-teacher - John F. MacArthur Jr. - rightly describes himself as a Dispensationalist. In the following transcript from Bible Questions and Answers, MacArthur says:

Here’s my dispensationalism - I’ll give it to you in one sentence: there’s a difference between the church and Israel - period! If you understand that, you understand the essence of what I believe is a legitimate, biblical dispensationalism. That permits a kingdom, that demands a kingdom, and that makes you premillennial.”[13]

Although MacArthur rejects antinomianism and accepts Reformed soteriology, he does not call himself a Reformed theologian. He perceives that he is a Dispensationalist simply because he adopts the sine qua non of Dispensationalism.

Blaising, a Progressive Dispensationalist, similarly emphasizes that progressive dispensationalists are dispensational because they “clearly articulate (1) a future for ethnic Israel and (2) distinguish between the Church and Israel as functioning institutions throughout the plan of God.”[14]

It becomes apparent that Bible Presbyterians may need to redefine their theological-hermeneutical grid, or perhaps even simpler, to rename their theological appellation. Since they embrace the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, is there, therefore, a need to drop the label “Reformed?” Otherwise, one would have to redefine the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, so as to preserve the “Reformed” designation.

Various Degrees of Distinction between Israel and the Church

It is generally agreed that Dispensationalists of different varieties hold to various degrees of distinction or dichotomy between Israel and the Church. These range from a radical dichotomy adhered to by Classical Dispensationalists, to a more moderate Israel/Church distinction held by Progressive Dispensationalists.

Classical Dispensationalism

By the term “Classical Dispensationalist,” I refer to theologians like Cyrus I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, A. C. Gaebelein, and Clarence Larkin. Classic Dispensationalists maintain a metaphysical distinction between Israel and the Church. They believe that Israel and the Church will be forever distinguished even unto eternity. Israel will inhabit the New Earth, and the Church heaven. Thus, there seems to be an eternal separation between Israel and the Church in this variety of Dispensationalism.

Toussaint explains:

“In the original form of Darby’s dispensationalism, the line drawn between Israel and the church was heavy, dark, and broad. According to Darby, the promises to the church are spiritual and heavenly whereas those to Israel and the nations are earthly. The Tribulation and the Millennium do not concern the church for those prophecies are earthly.”[15]

Burns elucidates that according to Classical Dispensationalism, “the underlying premise was that national Israel, as the physical seed of Abraham, was to be eternally bifurcated from the church, a heavenly mystery that could not have been known in a dispensation of earthly issues.”[16]

Hence, in the classical form of Dispensationalism, we see a radical dichotomy between Israel and the Church.

Revised/Normative Dispensationalism

As Dispensationalism developed, “the New Scofield Reference Bible, Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today, and other dispensationalists in the mid-twentieth century modified the heavenly/earthly dualistic language, diminished future distinctions between the peoples of God, and debated about how the new covenant should be applied in the present age.”[17]

Revised Dispensationalists include John F. Walvoord, Charles C. Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost and Alva J. McClain. These Dispensationalists jettisoned the eternal metaphysical distinction between Israel and the Church. They allowed a temporal, earthly distinction rooted in a difference between two redemptive-historical purposes, rather than in two different programs extending towards eternity.

Campbell, a Dispensationalist and Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, elaborates:

“The distinction between Israel and the church extends beyond the present age into the future. Some dispensationalists [i.e. Classical Dispensationalists] make a sharp distinction between Israel as God’s earthly people and the church as God’s heavenly people, both continuing as such throughout eternity. Others [i.e. Normative Dispensationalists] favor a blurring of such distinctions in eternity. Charles C. Ryrie states, “The redeemed in the Body of Christ, the Church of this dispensation, are the continuation of the line of redeemed from other ages, but they form a distinct group in the heavenly Zion (Heb. 12:22–24).’”[18]

Revised Dispensationalists perceive two groups of God’s redeemed humanity existing in and confined to redemptive history. The Church exists with its own principles and purposes differing from those of national Israel. According to Campbell,

“The church of Jesus Christ has a glorious future. Her destiny includes being taken out of this world before the Tribulation woes to be with Christ (John 14:1-3), being a part of the “ruling aristocracy” on earth during Christ’s millennial reign, and serving God along with other members of His family in the New Jerusalem for all eternity.”[19]

Israel’s ultimate historical purpose will be realized in the future, literal, earthly millennium. This is understood as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants with national Israel. Following the millennium, there will be a union of the two people in one redeemed mass forever.

Blaising summarizes the differences between the Classical and Revised/Normative varieties of Dispensationalism:

“It is amazing that in the writings of Walvoord, Pentecost, Ryrie, and McClain published in the 1950s and 1960s, the heavenly/earthly dualistic language is gone. A distinction between Israel and the church is vigorously asserted and all the theological structures of distinction are present except that the eternal destinies of the two peoples now share the same sphere. Consequently the heavenly/ earthly descriptions are dropped. Thus is begun a slow movement away from the scholastic, classic, absolute distinction [between Israel and the Church] found from Darby to Chafer . . . .”[20]

Progressive Dispensationalism

Recent decades saw the rise of a new variety of Dispensationalism which has moved in a more covenantal direction, while maintaining the Israel/Church distinction, premillennialism, and emended dispensational distinctives. As will be discussed later, Progressive Dispensationalists allow an inaugurated phase of the Kingdom, while maintaining that the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic covenant lies in the earthly millennium. Revised Dispensationalists, on the other hand, insist that the Kingdom is still in the future.

Progressives also see Christ as sitting on the throne of David at this present age, albeit in a spiritual sense. Revised Dispensationalists dispute this view, saying that Jesus is currently exalted at the right hand of the Father, but not sitting on David’s throne in any sense. Unlike Progressives, Revised Dispensationalists do not accept the proposition that Christ’s messianic kingdom reign has begun.

Burns writes:

“A more moderate dispensational position has arisen in recent years. On the basis of the New Testament’s use of crucial Old Testament texts, progressive dispensationalists acknowledge degrees of Old Testament content in the church, though complete fulfillment of Israel’s promises awaits the Millennium as an intermediate kingdom that exists with Israel’s Messiah ruling in the midst of the nations. The progressives insist on distinguishing Israel and the church, but they see both continuity and discontinuity in Israel/church and Old/New testamental relationships. Thus, the fulfillments of messianic promises relate to both present and future ages and both advents of Messiah, an “already-not yet” mediating position.”[21] 

Progressive dispensationalists are “progressive” in the sense that they view each successive dispensation as building upon and developing the principles of the preceding economy. This allows the progression of the one plan of God for His one redeemed people, rather than distinguishing two separate plans and peoples. However, Progressives maintain that the one divine purpose for redeemed humanity will only be ultimately realized in the earthly, Davidic Kingdom. The millennial phase of God’s redemptive-historical plan is necessary so as to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies for national Israel.

Progressive Dispensationalists, of all varieties of Dispensationalism, see the least radical dichotomy or distinction between Israel and the Church.[22] But as Blaising has asserted, Progressives are bona fide Dispensationalists because they see a future for ethnic Israel, while distinguishing between the Church and Israel as functioning institutions throughout God’s redemptive-historical plan.[23]

Craig A. Blaising, Darrell L. Bock, and Robert L. Saucy are all considered to be Progressive Dispensationalists.

References

[1] Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” 273.
[2] Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 221. Saucy is also a Progressive Dispensationalist.
[3] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 78.
[4] Mathison, Dispensationalism, 8, emphasis mine.
[5] Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1960; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 27.
[6] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 41, emphasis mine.
[7] This is what Mathison observes. See Mathison, Dispensationalism, 5.
[8] Robert P. Lightner, “Theological Perspectives on Theonomy,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (1986): 34, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 44.
[9] Ibid., emphasis mine.
[10] Herbert W. Bateman IV, “Dispensationalism Tomorrow,” in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 308-309, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39.
[11] Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 32.
[12] See Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 11; idem, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 46.
[13] John MacArthur, Jr., Bible Questions and Answers (Panorama City, CA: Word of Grace, 1994), sound cassette GC 70-15. Transcribed by Tony Capoccia, Bible Bulletin Board [article on-line]; available from http://www.biblebb.com/files/macqa/70-15-12.htm; Internet; accessed 14 October 2005, emphasis mine.
[14] Blaising, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,’” 390.
[15] Toussaint, “Israel and the Church of a Traditional Dispensationalist,” 228.
[16] J. Lanier Burns, “Israel and the Church of a Progressive Dispensationalist,” in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI, MI: Kregel, 1999), 272.
[17] Ibid., 273.
[18] Campbell, “The Church in God’s Prophetic Program,” 149-150, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 154, emphasis mine.
[19] Ibid., 161.
[20] Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” 276.
[21] Burns, “Israel and the Church of a Progressive Dispensationalist,” 273.
[22] Also see Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 131-135 for a succinct discussion of the Israel/Church distinction of Progressive Dispensationalists.
[23] See Blaising, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,’” 390.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bible Presbyterianism and Dispensationalism

Introduction: The Dispensational-Covenantal Continuum

Theologians from both ends of the dispensational-covenantal spectrum recognize that theological positions can be placed anywhere within this continuum.[1] As John S. Feinberg, a Dispensational theologian, states,

“Theological positions can be placed on a continuum running from views which hold to absolute continuity between the Testaments to views holding to absolute discontinuity between the Testaments. The more one moves in the continuity direction, the more covenantal he becomes; and the more he moves in the discontinuity direction, the more dispensational he becomes.”[2]

Feinberg continues to elaborate that most theological systems, in fact, fall in between the two extreme ends of this dispensational-covenantal continuum. He writes:

“Generally, systems that move toward absolute continuity fit more in the mold of Reformed or covenantal theologies. Systems that move toward absolute discontinuity fit more in the mold of dispensational theologies. While there are varieties of both kinds, it is unlikely that any actual systems are exactly at either end of the continuum.”[3]

In order to properly identify the theological grid adhered to by a particular theologian, it is important to delineate the sine qua non of a system. The sine qua nons or the foundational principles of a theological system must be distinguished from views derived from the application of those foundational principles. Feinberg explains:

“Not all discontinuity or dispensational positions are alike. Nonetheless, it seems possible to delineate those elements essential to all dispensational systems. . . . As to the distinction, in assessing any conceptual system it is always crucial to distinguish foundational principles from notions which are applications of those foundational principles. The system is generated from the former, and without adherence to them one cannot properly claim to hold the system. Rejecting particular applications of foundational principles, however, does not disqualify one as an adherent to the system. This distinction is especially important for Dispensationalism, for both proponents and critics have too often treated applications of the system like foundational principles. Consequently, dispensationalists have assumed wrongly that rejection of such applications entails departure from the position. Likewise, nondispensationalists have wrongly understood adherence to Dispensationalism to mean agreement with every applicational point.”[4]

Feinberg makes two important points. Firstly, he emphasizes the fact that a theological system is generated from the sine qua non of that system. One who adheres to the sine qua non of that system can, therefore, be rightly perceived as an adherent of that theological system. Secondly, the rejection of certain applications of the sine qua non “does not disqualify one as an adherent to the system.”[5]

In our current discussion of what constitutes a Dispensationalist, we must define appropriately and precisely what the sine qua non of Dispensationalism is. Theologians who are adherents of this sine qua non can appropriately be regarded as Dispensationalists. But before I proceed to identify the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, I will briefly state what the sine qua non is not.

What the Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism is not

Dispensations or Economies

In his discussion of the term “Dispensationalist,” Poythress prefers a “neutral designation” for the “sake of clarity.”[6] He calls the Dispensationalists, “D-theologians.” This is to avoid any misconceptions with regard to the definition of the term “Dispensationalist.”

A common error is to define Dispensationalism as a system of theology which arises from viewing Scripture in terms of dispensations. But a Dispensationalist is not simply a theologian who understands the Bible as consisting of distinctive dispensations.

Poythress explains,

“D-theologians [or Dispensationalists] have most often been called “dispensationalists” because they divide the course of history into a number of distinct epochs. . . . However, the word “dispensationalist” is not really apt for labeling the D-theologians. Virtually all ages of the church and all branches of the church have believed that there are distinctive dispensations in God’s government of the world, though sometimes the consciousness of such distinctions has grown dim. The recognition of distinctions between different epochs is by no means unique to D-theologians.”[7]

It is obvious that a dispensationalist is not merely one who understands the Bible in terms of various divine economies or dispensations. Even Covenant theologians see at least two economies in God’s dealings with man: (1) the covenant of works and, (2) the covenant of grace.

Jeffrey Khoo recognizes this fact:

“It must be said that there is nothing wrong in seeing dispensations in the Bible. Covenant theologians like Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof have their own dispensational schemes but all under the umbrella of the covenant of grace. There are not seven dispensations, but only two: (1) the dispensation (or covenant) of works (Gen 1:1-3:14), and (2) the dispensation (or covenant) of grace (Gen 3:15-Rev 22:21).”[8]

Interestingly, Mathison correctly observes that,

“Dispensationalism is too often defined in terms of its lowest common denominator and thus is not adequately distinguished from other systems of theology. For example, Stanley Toussaint defines dispensationalism as the theological system that “recognizes various administrations or economies in (the) outworking of God’s plan in history.” This definition omits anything that is unique to dispensationalism. Virtually every system of Christian theology recognizes various administrations or economies within God’s plan, yet it would be inaccurate to claim that all of these systems are dispensational. Dispensationalism must be defined in terms of its unique essence, namely that which distinguishes it from other systems of theology.”[9]

Despite the fact that Dispensationalism is not defined by the identification of dispensations within the Bible, Khoo seems to suggest that a Dispensationalist is merely one who understands the Bible in terms of various “dispensations” or administrations. In his essay, Dispensationalism Examined, Khoo writes, “What then is dispensationalism? The word “dispensation” comes from the Greek oikonomia (literally “house law”) which means “stewardship,” or “administration.’”[10] After defining the word “dispensation,” Khoo proceeds to give a brief history of Dispensationalism, and includes an introduction to the various dispensations advocated by Dispensationalists. He also discusses dispensational antinomianism, dispensational Calvinism, and the dispensational view of Israel. Khoo subsequently concludes his treatise with this statement:

“Therefore, have we as Bible-Presbyterians become dispensational? No, because we do not hold to a dispensational scheme but a covenantal one.”[11]

Is it, then, true that a theologian is not dispensational simply because he does not “hold to a dispensational scheme”?[12]

Dispensationalist John S. Feinberg realizes that a common error is to define Dispensationalism by defining a dispensation. He concurs with the observation that Covenant theologians, likewise, perceive various administrations or economies of the overarching “covenant of grace.” Therefore, the concept of dispensations is not unique to Dispensationalism.

Feinberg reasons:

“While οἰκονομία [oikonomia] is a biblical word, and a dispensation is to be defined roughly as these men [referring to certain Dispensationalists] have, none of this defines the essence of Dispensationalism, a system or approach to Scripture. . . . The initial error is thinking that the word “dispensation” and talk of differing administrative orders only appears in dispensational thinking. Which covenant theologian thinks οἰκονομία [oikonomia] is not a biblical word? Moreover, covenantalists often speak, for example, of differing dispensations of the covenant of grace. Since both dispensationalists and nondispensationalists use the term and concept of a dispensation, that alone is not distinctive to Dispensationalism. It is no more distinctive to Dispensationalism than talk of covenants is distinctive to Covenant Theology. Dispensationalists talk about covenants all the time.”[13]

Tim Warner and other progressive dispensationalists see a single, unfolding redemptive plan within Scripture. Furthermore, all dispensationalists recognize various covenants (i.e. Abrahamic, Davidic, New) in God’s dealings with Man. Warner reveals that “Progressive Dispensationalists see a progression of dispensational economies in a single unfolding plan to redeem mankind. We acknowledge only one means of salvation for all time, by grace through faith.”[14]

Covenant theologians would likewise affirm that there is “a single unfolding plan to redeem mankind,” and that there is “only one means of salvation for all time, by grace through faith”. Have Progressive Dispensationalists, therefore, become Reformed theologians? In the same breath, Warner emphasizes that, “surely progressive dispensationalists are true dispensationalists.”[15] This is because they affirm the dispensational sine qua non.[16]

While it is true that the recognition of covenants within the Bible does not necessarily make one a Covenant theologian, the acknowledgment of dispensations within Scripture, similarly, does not turn a theologian into a dispensationalist.

Feinberg goes further in his analysis of Dispensationalism. He explains that the concept of dispensations is not even a foundational principle of Dispensationalism. Also, “the number of dispensations one holds is not an essential of the [Dispensational] system. . . . The number of dispensations is not at the heart of the system.”[17] Therefore, it is not essential whether a Dispensationalist adhere to three or even seven dispensations. The number of dispensations recognized does not make a theologian any more or less dispensational.

Feinberg continues his reasoning:

“The error, however, is at an even deeper level. The term and concept “dispensation” are not even at the essence of the system. The fundamental error of [Elliot] Johnson, [Stanley] Toussaint, and others is thinking that they can define a conceptual scheme (Dispensationalism) by defining a term (“dispensation”). Defining a word and defining a concept are not the same thing. Defining a word involves giving an analysis of the ways in which the word is used in various contexts. Defining a concept involves delineating the fundamental qualities that make it what it is. Dispensationalists apparently have not understood the distinction and so have assumed they could define a system of thought (a conceptual matter) by defining a word. Defining the term “dispensation” no more defines the essence of Dispensationalism than defining the term “covenant” explains the essence of Covenant Theology.”[18]

Therefore, in the current theological dialogue between Dispensationalists and Reformed theologians, scholars “should not shift the ground in the discussion by maneuvering with the term “dispensationalist.’”[19] Bible Presbyterians should not attempt to define Dispensationalism as a theological system by defining the term “dispensation.” In the same vein, a theologian is not Reformed simply because he does “not hold to a dispensational scheme but a covenantal one.”[20]

Antinomianism

In his essay, Dispensationalism Examined, Jeffrey Khoo attempts to argue that “Dispensational Antinomianism” is a distinctive of Dispensationalism. He claims that “the dispensational aversion to the Moral Law has led some dispensationalists to advocate that salvation involves receiving Jesus only as Saviour, but not as Lord. This has to do with the “Lordship Salvation” debate.”[21] In this manner, he intimates that the Bible Presbyterians’ agreement with the Reformed view of the Moral Law distinguishes them from Dispensationalists.

However, it is recognized by Dispensationalists that the “dispensational understanding of the law is not an essential of the system. Some argue that Dispensationalism entails antinomianism, since dispensationalists claim that the law is done away, for Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). Though some may hold this view, it is hardly the norm or necessitated by Dispensationalism. . . . Dispensationalism is neither antinomian nor entails it.”[22]

Once again, Khoo fails to address adequately the foundational principles of Dispensationalism in his essay, Dispensationalism Examined. Instead, he prefers to discuss certain applicational points of those foundational principles, and only briefly mentions the sine qua non of Dispensationalism at the close of his essay.

Calvinism

In his essay, Khoo argues that Dispensationalists are “four-point Calvinists.”[23] He seems to suggest that “Dispensational Calvinism” is characteristic of Dispensationalism.[24] Khoo writes,

“Most dispensationalists are four-point Calvinists. The point they reject is the third point - Limited Atonement. They believe that the atonement of Christ is unlimited in both its sufficiency and efficiency. Christ died sufficiently and effectively for the whole world, though only the elect are saved. This is no different from Arminian [sic] view of the atonement.”[25]

Again, it is imprecise to define Dispensationalism via the applicational points of its foundational principles. This manner of argument is a red-herring at best.

Feinberg correctly observes that,

“Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism is at the essence of Dispensationalism. Some Calvinists are nondispensationalists, and others, like myself, are dispensationalists. The same is true of Arminians. This matter is not at the essence of Dispensationalism, because Calvinism and Arminianism are very important in regard to concepts of God, man, sin, and salvation. Dispensationalism becomes very important in regard to ecclesiology and eschatology, but is really not about those other areas. Some think salvation is at the heart of Dispensationalism, because they erroneously think Dispensationalism teaches multiple methods of salvation. Those who properly understand the position realize its emphasis lies elsewhere.”[26]

Here, Feinberg makes some important remarks. The sine qua non of Dispensationalism has its greatest ramifications in the areas of “ecclesiology and eschatology.” Therefore, in Khoo’s definition of Dispensationalism, it is not helpful to evade a discussion of its foundational principles that have their furthest applications in ecclesiology and eschatology.[27]

Premillennialism

I agree most heartily with Khoo when he says “that taking a premillennial position does not necessarily make one dispensational.”[28] Dispensationalism cannot be equated with Premillennialism. Covenant Premillennialists, such as George Eldon Ladd, do not adhere to the sine qua non of Dispensationalism. Not only do they disagree with dispensational ecclesiology, their concept of the Kingdom is diametrically opposed to that of Dispensationalism.[29]

Mathison concurs:

“Some have argued that the essence of dispensationalism is premillennialism. That would make it at least part of the definition of dispensationalism. But [Charles] Ryrie disagrees, noting that “being a premillennialist does not necessarily make one a dispensationalist.” . . . If dispensationalism is not simply the recognition of various dispensations, and if it is not premillennialism, then what is it? What distinguishes dispensationalism from other systems of theology?”[30]

In the following pages, we shall begin our discussion of what truly constitutes Dispensationalism.

Who is a Dispensationalist?

We shall now attempt to define the term “Dispensationalist” generally. At the same time, we recognize varieties within Dispensationalism i.e. Classical, Revised/Normative, and Progressive.[31]

Poythress rightly perceives that the Israel/Church distinction is what sets Dispensationalists apart from Non-dispensationalists. This distinction is applied through one’s theological-hermeneutical grid, as Poythress explains:

“What these men [i.e. Dispensationalists] primarily have in common is a particular view of the parallel-but-separate roles and destinies of Israel and the church. Accompanying this view is a particular hermeneutical stance in which careful distinction is made between what is addressed to Israel and what is addressed to the church. What is addressed to Israel is “earthly” in character and is to be interpreted “literally.’”[32]

On the other hand, Tan correctly identifies Covenant theologians as those who do not see a distinction between Israel and the Church. This understanding falls at the other end of the dispensational-covenantal continuum. Tan writes:

“Covenant theologians believe that Israel and the church are one and the same people; dispensational theologians believe that Israel and the church are two distinct peoples of God.”[33]

A dispensationalist is, therefore, one who sees a distinction between Israel and the Church. But how is this distinction applied by the Dispensationalist? Tan elucidates that this Israel/Church distinction is primarily a hermeneutical distinction. That is, a Dispensationalist applies the Israel/Church distinction in his reading, interpretation and exegesis of Scripture. Tan also states that this hermeneutical distinction is what qualifies a theologian as a Dispensationalist:

“The basic test of a dispensational interpreter is his willingness to distinguish, via normal reading of the Scriptures, the difference between Israel and the church. To see the church as the Body of Christ, an organism different from Old Testament Israel, is to read Scripture dispensationally and to qualify as a dispensational interpreter.”[34]

The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism as Defined by Ryrie

What, then, is the dispensational sine qua non?[35] According to Charles C. Ryrie, the well-known dispensational theologian:

“A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct . . . This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.”[36]

Therefore, according to Ryrie, “the most practical and conclusive” theological test to distinguish a Dispensationalist from a Non-dispensationalist is whether the theologian adheres to the Israel/Church distinction.

Ryrie continues to explain that Dispensationalists generally espouse a “consistently literal” hermeneutics:

“This distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation. . . . Consistently literal, or plain, interpretation indicates a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture.”[37]

Also, Dispensationalists assert that God’s purposes center in his glory, rather than the single purpose of salvation.[38] Russell Bowers, Jr. summarizes for us the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, which forms a threefold test to identify a Dispensationalist:

“[Charles C.] Ryrie proposed a threefold test to determine whether a theologian is a dispensationalist: (a) a distinction between Israel and the church, which grows out of (b) a consistent use of literal (normal or plain) interpretation, and (c) an understanding that the display of God’s glory is His underlying purpose in the world.”[39]

Despite the threefold sine qua non as defined by Ryrie, Stanley Toussaint reminds us that the most foundational principle of Dispensationalism is the Israel/Church distinction. He writes:

“In his classic work Dispensationalism Today, Ryrie sets forth a threefold sine qua non of dispensationalism - a distinction between Israel and the church, a literal hermeneutic, and the glory of God as His purpose on earth. Of these three, undoubtedly the most important is the distinction between Israel and the church. Ryrie calls this “the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist.” He calls it the “essence of dispensationalism.” He goes so far as to say, “The nature of the church is a crucial point of difference between dispensationalism and other doctrinal viewpoints. Indeed, ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, is the touchstone of dispensationalism.” All dispensationalists would agree that these statements are true.”[40]

With regard to the threefold sine qua non formulated by Ryrie, Khoo exclaims:

“The sine qua non (i.e. essential elements) of dispensational theology are the (1) distinction between Israel and the Church, (2) literal interpretation of prophetic texts, and (3) unifying principle of the glory of God. We, as reformed premillennialists, can agree to all three points.”[41]

Elsewhere, Khoo reiterates:

“The BPCS [Bible Presbyterian Churches in Singapore] and FEBC [Far Eastern Bible College] – being covenant and premillennial in theology – are agreeable to all three points [of the sine qua non of Dispensationalism].”[42]

Dispensationalists would agree that, if one embraces the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, one is essentially a Dispensationalist. This is because sane logic demands that “things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.”[43]

It is interesting to note that Ice, a Revised Dispensationalist, describes Dispensationalism in the following words:

“By Dispensationalism, I have in mind that system of theology that was developed by J. N. Darby that gave rise to its modern emphasis of consistent literal interpretation, a distinction between God’s plan for Israel and the church, usually a pretribulational rapture of the church before the seventieth week of Daniel, premillennialism, and a multifaceted emphasis upon God’s glory as the goal of history. This includes some who have held to such a system but may stop short of embracing pretribulationism.”[44]

In previous blog posts,[45] we have observed that Bible Presbyterian theologians in Singapore generally adhere to the pretribulation rapture of the Church. Therefore, even if we use Ice’s definition of Dispensationalism, we are confident that the Bible Presbyterians in Singapore will fit that description perfectly.

It becomes necessary for us to recognize that, although covenantal, Reformed Baptists do recognize a distinction between Israel and the Church (national Israel as an Old Testament type of the Church, with the Church as the anti-type), Dispensationalists see Israel and the Church as distinct in the sense that there are separate redemptive plans and programs for national Israel and the Church, with the Church's inception on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament. Reformed Baptist covenant theology (also known as 1689 Federalism) as developed and popularized by theologians like Pascal Denault and Samuel Renihan, and seminaries such as the IRBS Theological Seminary, are variations of Reformed covenant theology espoused by their Presbyterian and Reformed brethren in other denominations.

The Reformed Baptist understanding of a distinction between Old-Testament-national-Israel and the Church, and the type-antitype relationship between the two respective entities, should not be confused with the Dispensationalist's sine qua non. Reformed Baptists do not believe that God has separate redemptive plans or destinies for national Israel and the Church. In covenant theology, the Church includes Jewish and Gentile believers justified by faith alone from both the Old and New Testament dispensations, and from all nations. Ethnic Israelites do not have unconditional salvific privileges based upon the earthly, physical promises of the Abrahamic covenant of their patristic fathers. All salvific benefits of redemption are found in Christ alone, through the New Covenant or the Covenant of Grace in Reformed Baptist understanding. As such, one would be acutely confused to confound Reformed Baptist covenant theology with Dispensationalism.


The Consistently Literal Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism is not a Clearly Defined Distinctive

With regard to the threefold sine qua non proposed by Ryrie, the first two points are intimately interlinked.[46] On a general note, one cannot apply the Israel/Church distinction in one’s interpretation of Scripture unless one attempts to adhere to a “consistently literal” meaning for the word “Israel.”[47]

Concerning this “literal” hermeneutics, Poythress observes that “nearly all the problems associated with the dispensationalist-nondispensationalist conflict are buried beneath the question of literal interpretation.”[48] But the definition for “literal interpretation” has received inconsistent, sometimes even opposing, answers from those who claim to adhere to this hermeneutics. Furthermore, the attempt to define “literal hermeneutics” has been confounded by the difficulty of conclusively answering the question of “what is meant by literal?”[49]

Blaising, in fact, concludes that “consistently literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of dispensationalism. Development is taking place on how to characterize a proper hermeneutic for dispensationalists. Many do not feel, however, that the hermeneutic itself will be distinctively dispensational. Furthermore dispensational interpretations of various texts are likely to modify as this development continues.[50]

Elsewhere, Blaising argues that a consistently literal hermeneutics is not a historically clearly defined sine qua non for dispensationalism.[51]

As discussed in chapter 2, Reformed theologians do not allegorize or spiritualize Scripture. Covenant theologians, like Dispensationalists, understand the Bible literally. Furthermore, both Dispensationalists and Reformed theologians recognize typological and symbolical elements in Scripture. Therefore, as Mangum has lamented, “simply parroting the older dispensationalist canard that the dispensationalist-covenant theology debate is between those who take the Bible “literally” and those who “allegorize” or “spiritualize” Scripture should come to an abrupt halt.”[52]

If the “consistently literal” hermeneutics of Dispensationalism does not effectively define its theological-hermeneutical grid, what, then, is the distinctive of Dispensationalism? We shall answer this question in the next blog post.

References


[1] For example, see the heuristic spectrum of eschatological positions espoused by Mangum. See Mangum, “A Future for Israel in Covenant Theology: The Untold Story,” 15.
[2] John S. Feinberg, “Preface,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), xii.
[3] John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 64.
[4] Ibid., 67-68.
[5] Ibid., 68.
[6] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 9.
[7] Ibid., 9-10.
[8] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 5.
[9] Mathison, Dispensationalism, 3-4, quoting Stanley Toussaint, “A Biblical Defense of Dispensationalism,” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 82-83.
[10] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 2.
[11] Ibid., 11.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 69. I highly recommend the reading of Feinberg’s essay “Systems of Discontinuity” on pp. 63-86; it gives a good analysis of what Dispensationalism is as a system of thought.
[14] Tim Warner, Progressive Dispensationalism 101 [article on-line]; available from http://www.geocities.com/~lasttrumpet/prodisp.html; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005, emphasis mine.
[15] Ibid.
[16] We shall discuss the sine qua non of Dispensationalism further in later posts. Dispensationalists are in agreement that the true sine qua non of Dispensationalism is the Israel/Church distinction.
[17] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 70.
[18] Ibid., 69, emphasis mine.
[19] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 11.
[20] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 11.
[21] Ibid., 7. The section on “Dispensational Antinomianism” forms part of Khoo’s treatise on what Dispensationalism is and is not.
[22] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 71.
[23] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 9.
[24] Therefore, he seems to imply that Bible Presbyterians are not dispensational because of their Calvinism.
[25] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 9. He seems to have left out John F. McArthur, Jr. of The Master’s Seminary, who is a self-professed “five-point Calvinist,” as well as a full-blooded Dispensationalist.
[26] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 70-71, emphasis mine.
[27] It is also telling that Bible Presbyterian ecclesiology and eschatology are essentially similar to those of Revised Dispensationalism.
[28] Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 1.
[29] See George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974). In contrast, the Bible Presbyterian’s concept of the Kingdom is similar to that of Dispensationalists. This is discussed later in chapter 22 of this book.
[30] Mathison, Dispensationalism, 4, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 44.
[31] According to Poythress, “representative D-theologians [or Dispentionalists] include Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles L. Feinberg, Arno C. Gaebelein, J. Dwight Pentecost, Charles C. Ryrie, and John F. Walvoord.” See Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 9.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Hong Kong: Nordica International, 1974), 246. Tan is a Revised Dispensationalist.
[34] Ibid., 251.
[35] See Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1965), 44-48. This book was subsequently revised and expanded; see idem, Dispensationalism, 38-41 for the sine qua non of Dispensationalism.
[36] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39.
[37] Ibid., 40.
[38] See Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 40-41.
[39] Russell H. Bowers, Jr., “Dispensational Motifs in the Writings of Erich Sauer,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (1991): 262.
[40] Stanley Toussaint, “Israel and the Church of a Traditional Dispensationalist,” in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 227, quoting Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1965), 45, 47, 132.
[41] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 11, emphasis mine. I would contend that Khoo is a dispensational premillennialist, and not a Reformed premillennialist like George Eldon Ladd. Covenant premillennialists do not accept the Israel/Church distinction.
[42] Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 46. It, indeed, stretches the imagination to conceive of a theological system that concedes with the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, and yet claims to be Covenantal or Reformed.
[43] This rule is also known as one of Euclid’s five common notions.
[44] Thomas Ice, The Calvinistic Heritage of Dispensationalism [article on-line]; available from http://www.raptureready.com/featured/TheCalvinisticHeritageofDispensationalism.html; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005.
[45] See prior posts in this blog.
[46] The first two points are (1) the Israel/Church distinction, and (2) the “consistently literal” hermeneutics of Dispensationalism.
[47] It is interesting to note that “the measure to which literal interpretation is to be followed in Old Testament interpretation is directly related to the problem of the restoration of Israel. [A. B.] Davidson lists four opinions in this regard: (i) those who assert that God’s dealings in Christianity are completely personal so a restored national Israel is unthinkable; (ii) those who believe in Israel’s conversion but not restoration; (iii) those who believe in a conversion and restoration but with no special prominence for Israel; and (iv) those who believe in a conversion of Israel, a restoration of Israel, and the millennial preeminence of Israel.” See Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 255.
[48] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 78.
[49] See ibid., 78-96.
[50] Craig Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (1988): 272.
[51] See Craig Blaising, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,’” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41, no. 3 (1998): 388-390.
[52] Mangum, “A Future for Israel in Covenant Theology: The Untold Story,” 21.