Monday, February 20, 2006
Growing up, one learns reluctantly that what seems perfectly clear to you may well prove to be equally perfectly opaque to others. Much danger, weeping, gnashing of teeth and pounding of keyboards lies in the way of ignoring this principle. So when I say I am a dispensationalist, I find that even the best-informed may think something totally different from what I mean.
“Reformed” folks bristle, rightly, at how Arminians (some of whom are dispensationalists) misrepresent and shallowly interact with their beliefs. Then they attack dispensationalism — unaware that they often are returning the misfavor.
I get it both ways. I tell dispensationalists that I’m Reformed in most areas of theology, and run a real risk of getting a sort of Church-Lady-voice, “Oh, reeeeealllly?”
But the same thing happens when I tell Reformed friends that I’m a dispensationalist. I even had the late William Hendriksen blast me in a letter decades ago, thundering that I couldn’t be “100% Reformed” and a dispensationalist. (I hadn’t written about dispensationalism, just mentioned it in passing.)
Though there are substantial and real areas of (what should be) brotherly disagreement, I think both are often reacting to a misunderstanding, rather than to the actuality.
So what do I mean when I say I’m a dispensationalist, and what don’t I mean? I can put it very, very briefly, believe it or not. Charles Ryrie identifies as three items as the irreducible sine qua non‘s of dispensationalism, in the first — and, to my mind, better — edition of Dispensationalism Today (Moody, 1965, pp. 43-47). In my own words and order, they are:
- Grammatico-historical hermeneutics applied to all Scripture
- The Christian church and Israel distinguished from each other
- The glory of God seen as the center of history
I think that the second and third grow out of the first, which really is the pivotal point. (This is deliberately oversimplified. Michael Vlach gives an admirably brief but more nuanced discussion here.)
Now, that is what I mean by dispensationalism. Sadly, some dispensationalists have gotten attention by teaching other doctrines which may or may not be true, but are not in any way integral to dispensationalism — any more than Harold Camping’s nuttinesses are integral to Calvinism or amillennialism.
So, without further eloquence, here is my partial, exploratory list of What Dispensationalism Isn’t.
- It isn’t belief in any particular number of dispensations (all Christians believe in dispensations).
- It isn’t any particular position on the “Lordship”/”grace” controversy.
- It isn’t any particular position on the “continuationism”/”cessationism” controversy.
- It isn’t any particular position on the KJV-only issue.
- It isn’t about multiple ways of salvation.
- It isn’t any particular position on Calvinism/Arminianism/Amyraldianism or any other soteriological “-ism.”
- It isn’t any particular position on baptism.
- It isn’t any particular position on church government.
- It isn’t any particular position on the age of the earth, or meaning of the days of Genesis.
- It isn’t about huge, complicated charts. (Any theological position can be turned into a huge, complicated chart.)
- It isn’t contrary to any of the “five Sola’s.”
- It isn’t anything that any Reformed person shouldn’t be able to embrace — unless his definition of “Reformed” means “non-dispensational,” or even “amillennial.”
- It isn’t any particular position on the use of alcohol, movie-attendance, dancing, nylons, lipstick, tattoo’s, or tobacco.
- It isn’t any particular position on the significance of the current nation of Israel.
- It isn’t inherently divisive — any more than any other distinctive doctrine (i.e. the five sola’s) divides one position from its contraries.
Now, it is true that one can find some or many dispensationalists who occupy particular positions under these categories. One might even find majorities on various positions. What one has to ask is, “Is this integral to the position? Does one of the three core-beliefs necessarily lead to that position?”
For instance, some date-setters have been dispensationalists. But there have been amillennial date-setters, too. If all dispensationalisms are to be blamed for Edgar Whisenant, then surely all amillennialists are equally to be blamed for Harold Camping. Which is to say, not — in either case.
Likewise, it could be argued that the same principles that incline one towards dispensationalism might incline one towards certain truths and certain errors. But if they’re not inherent to the system, then they neither credit nor discredit the system. For instance, I think a consistent application of the grammatico-historical hermeneutic will lead one to the poorly-named “cessationist” view, or to affirm that holiness is a necessary fruit of salvation, and that obedience is integral to the Christian life. But those positions aren’t necessary to dispensationalism, nor are they confined to dispensationalism.
For instance, it has been said that all dispensationalists are also inerrantists, and all liberals are amillennialists. There is some truth in this. But does one position necessarily and exclusively give rise to the other? Not at all. There might be room for fruitful discussion as to whether affirming the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture most naturally lends itself to a grammatico-historical hermeneutic (it does); and whether a grammatico-historical hermeneutic most naturally lends itself to a dispensational approach to Scripture (it does). Further, it might be discussed whether a person with a low view of Scripture is not likelier to be dismissive of the details of prophecy (he will), and whether that dismissiveness is likelier to yield something more like amillennialism than dispensationalism (you decide!).
The first distinctive led me to be basically “Reformed” on theology, Christology, anthropology, Bibliology, soteriology — but equally to a distinct position on ecclesiology and eschatology.
But it also cannot be denied that some of the very best, most convinced and convincing stalwart defenders of the authority of the Word have also been convinced amillennialists — such as Edward J. Young, to name only one of scores.
It would be nice if the two camps (“Reformed” and “dispensationalist”) would stop lobbing grenades at each other. It would be nice if they’d recognize each other as co-combatants under a common flag and against a common enemy, would sweep aside straw men, non-sequiturs and old grudges, and would confine the discussion to the only thing we all should care about: what does Scripture teach?
Hey — a man can dream, can’t he?
UPDATE: looking for something else, I stumbled across Revealing The [sic] Dispensational Straw Man, which does a good job of making the specific case that nothing in being a 5-point Calvinist precludes being a dispensationalist, nor vice-versa. Check it out.