Dispensationalism and the Eclipse of Christ (An Open Correspondence)
As many of you are no doubt aware, I was raised a Dispensationalist. When I first became convinced that the teachings of Dispensationalism are not supported by an honest assessment of scriptures, I determined to change my thinking on the topic, and so be done with the issue summarily. Such were my intentions, but I found, much to my surprise, that the roots of Dispensationalism are so deep, and they affect so profoundly one's way of thinking about virtually every theological issue, that the task of rejecting one's own Dispensationally-flavored way of viewing the Bible is no simple task. It is a monumental struggle that requires years of deep, intense, Spirit-reliant searching of the scriptures. As I embarked on this long process, I slowly became aware of a vast array of manners in which a thorough grounding in the Dispensational ideal tends to influence one's beliefs and emphases. This in itself was shocking to me; but what came as the severest shock of all was the reflection that virtually every one of these Dispensationally-derived misunderstandings tended in some way towards the eclipse of Christ as the sum and substance of every redemptive promise and reality, the One for whom, to whom, and by whom are all things, the One who sums up all of reality, brings all things under his feet, and is in himself all the fullness of the Godhead. Let me be clear here: I have no doubt that many, if not all Dispensationalists would affirm in theory the Christo-centrism of all reality; nevertheless, the fact remains that in practice they deny the explicit Christ-centeredness of many times, persons, and realities in history - and not just minor, inconsequential persons and things, but those that stand out as epoch-defining and historically-pivotal.
I am indeed grateful for the many resources available today which demonstrate scripturally that Dispensationalism is in error. I think that our current need is not so much to argue that Dispensationalism is wrong - although such efforts will certainly continue to be helpful - as it is to show just how grave and far-reaching the errors really are. In contribution to this latter goal, I have reproduced a portion of an interaction that I had some time ago with one of my Dispensational friends. My hope is that the preceding comments and following correspondence will not be unduly inflammatory or derogatory in nature, but that they will be used by God "for the equipping of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edification of the body of Christ, until we all attain, in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect manâ€¦" (Ephesians 4:12-13). We all retain errors of some sort in our striving after the full knowledge of Christ and his great work: God grant that such dialogues between fellow-believers in Christ may be useful in the doctrinal maturation of each one of us!
I will begin with a portion of a letter written by my friend, in which he responds to a comment I had made labeling Dispensationalism as "dangerous"; and then proceed to my response to his letter.
Initial Letter from a Dispensationalist Friend
I understand that you think my teaching is dangerous, but I am at a loss as to what makes it so.
I am Trinitarian according to the 1689 Baptist Confession. I believe in inerrancy as explained by Warfield. I believe in the substitutionary death and physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. I believe in the resurrection of all the saints to glory, and in the just, eternal, conscious torment of all the damned. I teach Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola fide, Sola Gracia, Sola Deo Gloria, total depravity (and inability), unconditional (individual) election, particular redemption (as generally expressed by Grudem), irresistible grace (and the priority of regeneration to conversion), and perseverance of the saints (including the Reformed view of sanctification as presented in 1689 Baptist Confession and Sinclair Ferguson's essay in the five-views book). Though those in the Reformed camp have traditionally disagreed on apologetics (Warfield vs. Kuyper; Clark vs. Van Til; Sproul vs. Bahnsen), I am, as you are, presuppositional in my apologetic, understanding the Christian worldview to provide the only reasonable basis for knowledge, ethics, morality, and brushing one's teeth. I fail to see how a distinction between the eschatological roles of true Israel and the true Church puts any of these doctrines in danger. While other dispensationalists may not be as conservative on these things as I am, they made up a strong contingent of conservative, Bible-believing Christians in America of the twentieth century.
As [ ____ ] said, eschatology is a difficult subject, but it is worth our study. Your change in position implies that you agree with me on both counts. I understand that you passionately believe what you have stated; I too passionately believe what I have stated elsewhere on this forum. That means that we both think the other person is dead wrong. Nonetheless, patience with one another is essential to forwarding the conversation, and, in my view, calling one another "dangerous" should be somewhat further down the road of disagreement.
My Letter in Response
I accept your rebuke all the more seriously, perhaps, by reason of my own experiences in being labeled unorthodox for teaching what I understood then, and still understand, to be derived exclusively from the scriptures. Before I respond specifically to your question as to my labeling of Dispensationalism as "dangerous," let me affirm to you that I am not now, and certainly never intended before now, to call you a heretic, or to say that what you believe, as you have explained yourself, is heresy. I truly and honestly rejoice at your clear and sincere commitment to the great and fundamental doctrines of the faith. I am both encouraged and rebuked by your passionate love for Christ and your diligence in studying carefully the word of our God. But I am not sure (even if I stated it too harshly or was too little specific in what precisely I was warning against) - I am still not sure that I am ready to rescind my assessment of Dispensationalism as "dangerous." Even in using the term, I intend to imply a difference between heresy and the simple schema of Dispensationalism - it is dangerous because it may lead (as I believe) to heresy, or it may assume forms which are heretical. Although those specific forms of Dispensationalism which I would call heretical I have never heard espoused by you or anyone I know from your particular circles, and neither do I expect to. But let me move from these realms of vague generalities, and mention what I perceive to be dangers of the system. All of these "dangers" are either things that I have been clearly and specifically taught as Dispensationalism, or things about which I have been confused - things which largely shaped my thinking - when I was a dispensationalist. I think some of these things you will agree with me are "dangerous" (or downright heretical): but you will not agree that they are necessarily dispensational. I would argue that they are (1) clearly taught by many dispensationalists, or (2) clearly demanded by consistent loyalty to dispensational tenets.
1. Dispensationalism tends to a Kierkegaardian conception of faith.
I adduce this danger as one having suffered from it personally. I was always taught that, although salvation was always by faith alone, the content of that faith differed in other dispensations (the position which Ryrie clearly espouses). The way this was presented to me (and the way I understood and believed it) was that, essentially, Noah was saved by believing it would rain. And so on. In other words, it was not faith in Christ alone, but faith with respect only to itself that saved a person (and similarly, even today the abstraction "faith" has some mystical eternal life-giving power in itself). Obviously this conception of faith is somewhat Kierkegaardian, but I am convinced that it affects the minds of far more evangelicals than we would like to admit. Faith in itself is nothing, it only turns our eyes to someone who is everything. Dispensationalism taught me that faith was what saved, and not that faith was the means through which Christ saved. Regardless of how else we may differ on Acts 2 interpretations of OT prophecies, I think we would both admit that Peter was quite confident that David had a faith which looked ahead to a resurrected Christ, as did all the OT saints. The genuinely Christocentric nature of faith and salvation from the beginning is obscured (dangerously) by dispensationalism.
2. Dispensationalism was destructive to my ability to grasp the unity and significance of the biblical story.
For instance, when I was a dispensationalist, the Davidic Covenant was of almost no import whatsoever to me. It revealed God's gracious condescencion to mankind, as did, for instance, his promise to Hezekiah that he would live fifteen more years, and so on. But as far as structuring the biblical story, I saw nothing monumental in it. I thought the bible was structured in "dispensations," and the giving of the covenant did not mark a new administration essentially different from that of "law". When I forsook dispensationalism, I was shocked by how central that covenant was, particularly among the writing prophets, in advancing the eternal kingdom of God. And I was much better equipped to make sense of Acts 2 (again) and Christ's reigning from the throne of David in the New Testament. In brief, the grand, Christ-centered, organically-connected, unified story of redemption and the spread of the kingdom was for me split into several inter-related, but not organically progressing, periods. And in the process the glory of Christ and his grand drama of redemption was dangerously eclipsed. In the exchange, by the way, the stories of the OT became "Aesop's fables," tales that contain a moral for upright living, but have no real connection to me, and no real glorying in Christ alone, and no real awe-struck wondering at how the story of redemption was unfolding until it reached its height of glory in the spiritual realities of the New Testament that were promised and typified and illustrated and yearned for in the Old Testament - much as a mustard tree growing until it is the greatest of all the herbs, and excels in the glory which inhered in its seed from the beginning.
3. Dispensationalism tainted my mindset with leanings towards Arminianism.
This particularly with regard to the dispensational teaching of the offering of the kingdom. What is more absurd than the idea of a king "offering" to reign? This whole mindset of a God who is "sovereign" by invitation only - who reigns unless he is rejected - strikes me as fundamentally Arminian. Again, I know that you are not in any way Arminian - but I believe that Arminianism is consonant with dispensationalism, and that the largely Arminian worldview of many Christians is reinforced by dispensational teaching. Let me add here, dispensationalism contributed to my blind acceptance of the philosophy of easy-believism. If Christ was only teaching that we must give up everything to follow him into some crassly physical thousand year reign, then eternal salvation (in my mind something wholly distinct) might well have had other demands. Simply faith, which was ultimately Kierkegaardian, and demanded no accepting of Christ as "Lord," became the abstraction by which I assured myself of eternal life, with no regard for the persevering work of Christ continuing in my life.
4. Dispensationalism (as it was taught to me) embraces a horrendously insufficient view of the new covenant in Christ's blood.)
I have had more than one well-respected dispensationalist (in our old circles) try to convince me that the new covenant in Christ's blood has nothing to do with us. Because (forget the four gospel accounts, I Corinthians 11, Hebrews 8, 10, etc.) the new covenant was prophecied for "Israel" which can never be anything other than ethnic Israel (forget also what Paul said about a true Jew being one who is a Jew inwardly). So how does the blood of Christ affect us, the church (as distinct from the rest of the redeemed)? We get, (and I quote) "peripheral benefits" of Christ's blood. I consider this blasphemy, and although I do not believe that you hold to this assessment (on the contrary, your comments have apprised me otherwise), yet I think this position is one that is ultimately demanded by the dispensational way of reading OT prophecies.
5. Dispensationalism (as it was taught to me) embraces what must be considered a blasphemous idea of a return to a system of priests and sacrifices of bulls and goats.
The author of Hebrews leaves me no doubt that any return to priests other than Christ or any spilling of sacrificial blood now that Christ's has been spilled, can be nothing other than blasphemy. But this is precisely what has been taught to me by many well-respected dispensationalists.
6. Dispensationalism, in destroying the unity of God's redemptive purpose in the Church, minimizes the singular, all-encompassing headship of Christ.
All of creation and history was devised with the purpose of showcasing the glory and nature of God. This is particularly true with Christ's great work of redemption, the work to facilitate the accomplishment of which all of history was designed. Now, what are some of the things that Christ's great work was intended to reveal about Christ's glorious person? That he occupies the unique and solitary position of the one true bridegroom to the one pure bride (Ephesians 5:23), the one Head to his one Church (Ephesians 1:22-23), the one who, with respect to redemptive history, gathers all things together in himself (Ephesians 1:9-11). If God's redeemed are comprised of different peoples with different destinies, contra Ephesians 2:11-22, then there no longer remains a unique and all-encompassing position of highest glory for Christ to fulfill. He is effectually made one Head to two bodies which are independent of each other; one king to two different countries, each with their own customs and peculiar characteristics; one bridegroom to two brides; the one who gathers all things together in himself, and yet keeps them at distinction within himself, withholding from them the unity that his blood is elsewhere said to accomplish. It is a glorious king who can rule two mutually distinct peoples; it is a far more glorious King who can unite them both into one unique people who forever sing his praise as their one unique King.
7. Dispensationalism tends toward a real ethnocentrism as regards Israel (which springs from a veiled materialism).
I used to think that America's allying herself with Israel, regardless of the political situation and Israel's justice or injustice at the time, would unconditionally result in blessings from God. This thinking did not come isolated from my dispensationally-flavored world view. Where, exactly, did this whole mode of thinking come from? From embracing old types and shadows to the minimization of the spiritual realities that they were meant to convey. The vast extent of NT teachings on the particular members of the Church loving and caring for each other must be a truer response to the status of "Israel" as God's chosen people than the modern cult of red-heifer hopefuls displaying a racist favoritism toward a particular ethnic group.
8. In summary, Dispensationalism tends to downplay the Christocentric nature of all reality.
If some of these other things are true - if faith, not the object or "content" of that faith is what is important - and if the physical offspring of Abraham, not those who are in Christ, the true seed of Abraham, are God's chosen people - and if a physical Jewish millennium, not Christ's spiritual reign over the entire earth is the goal of human history, and so on - if all these things are true, then the extent to which all of history and reality can be said to be Christocentric must be dangerously limited. This is my biggest problem with dispensationalism.
I want to reaffirm that I am not accusing you of believing any of these things specifically, or of teaching anything which you suppose may detract from the glory of Christ. But I am observing that these results are very real and very extreme in many dispensationalists I have known (even in myself, when I was a dispensationalist). And I don't think it is because all of those affected misunderstood what dispensationalism really is. I think it's because the very schema of dispensationalism lends itself to these conclusions.
Please don't doubt my sincere love for you in the bonds of our precious Savior, Jesus Christ. If these things I have written are not true, show me (scripturally) how they are not, and I will, to that extent, modify my position.
I have come to the conclusion that Dispensationalism is a much more serious threat to a well-informed biblical worldview than I was once inclined to think of it. Dispensationalism is not exclusively (or even predominantly) a complicated eschatological schema that lends itself to bizarre novels. The eschatological phenomena, which are so predominant to many people, have their roots in a soil from which spring ideas and conceptions of all of redemptive history, and which even extend to one's understanding of the position and nature of the Redeemer. Thankfully, many Dispensationalists are affected in their understanding of these weightier issues only to varying degrees, some quite minimal. However, this ameliorating circumstance can only come through allowing inconsistencies with their basic worldview to predominate in certain areas. And as Dispensationalism is allowed to flavor their thinking, to that extent their understanding even of matters of great importance will be dangerously clouded. It is a task of the greatest importance to be diligent in exposing the underlying beliefs of the Dispensational ideal, examining those beliefs in the light of scripture, and informing our brothers and sisters who have, to varying degrees, been affected by this system.
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