A bit of background. In the New Year, I began speaking on the book of Revelation at Covenant Reformed Church in Steinbach, MB. Needless to say, there are A LOT of dispensationalists in our area. Hence the need to revisit and expand a series of blogs I wrote a number of years ago. I will republish them on my personal website as they appear on the CRC site. If you are interested in the sermons on Revelation go here.
We have begun a sermon series on Revelation which will last until mid-June. We are only into chapter 2, but I’m sure it has already become evident that my understanding of eschatology (end times) and my reading of Revelation is not the typical reading that we are bombarded with in mainstream Evangelicalism. Most of us are used to hearing about the end times from the mouths or pens of people like David Jeremiah (Agents of the Apocalypse; Is This the End?); John Hagee (Earth’s Last Empire; Your Guide to the Apocalypse; Four Blood Moons); John MacArthur (Because the Time is Near; editor and contributor, Christ’s Prophetic Plans); Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Left Behind fictional series); and Joel Rosenberg (The Last Jihad fictional series; Israel at War). There are also a number of dispensational theologians that we may have encountered as well — John Nelson Darby; Cyrus Scofield (Scofield Reference Bible); Charles Ryrie (Ryrie Study Bible); Lewis Sperry Chafer; as well as the many writings of John Walvoord and Dwight Pentecost. A new understanding of dispensationalism has been put forth by Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, and Robert Saucy (Progressive Dispensationalism). Dispensationalism is also a fundamental belief of a number of large schools in the United States – Dallas Theological Seminary, Grace Theological Seminary, The Master’s Seminary, Moody Theological Seminary, et al.
As a result of its influence dispensationalism is probably the default hermeneutic and eschatology of evangelicalism – pre-tribulation, futuristic premillennialism. Or to put it in the vernacular – the belief that Christ will come back to rapture the church in secret followed by a 7-year tribulation intended to purify and save national Israel. Once the tribulation is completed, the nation of Israel will be restored as a nation and Christ will rule in Jerusalem on the literal throne of David and the temple there will be restored and worship reinstated. This happens during the 1000 year millennial reign of Christ. Following the millennium God will loose Satan who will deceive the nations and gather them for one final battle against Christ, the battle of Armageddon. Christ will defeat Satan and his armies and then judge, finally, the living and the dead and usher in the eternal states for both the righteous and the wicked.
Sadly, this perspective has become part of the theological DNA of many believers, churches and denominations. Influenced by the writings and lectures of the men listed above dispensationalism has made its way into the church without question. In fact, it is often seen as the ONLY proper view to hold such that if you believe differently you are a liberal or you deny the authority of Scripture. As a result of the influence of dispensationalism, many have become convinced that we are living in the end times, or at least they are very, very close. Thus we become obsessed with Israel, the rapture, Babylon, Rome, the tribulation and the concomitant desire to identify every detail related to these and other figures and events related to the end times. We are concerned by the appearance of blood moons, or the existence of the Dome of the Rock on the traditional temple site in Jerusalem, the advance of Islam and basically anything that happens in the Middle East. But should we?
The short answer is no. As you can tell by the title of this blog series, I am not a dispensationalist of any stripe. I believe that dispensationalism is an aberrant view of Scripture as a whole and eschatology in particular and thus it reads the book of Revelation wrong. I also believe that the ever-presence of dispensational books, movies and preachers in the North American church means that all of us have been influenced by this perspective in some way. Hence the need to push back against the mainstream and offer a corrective (and more biblical) view.
I trust that you are listening closely to the sermons on Revelation. If you are, it will go a long way to understanding these blogs. The two together will help you to develop the proper perspective on eschatology in general and the book of Revelation in particular. My intention in this blog series is two-fold. First, I want to correct the error of dispensational belief. Second, I want you to be able to understand more fully the Scriptures and what they say regarding eschatology which will allow you to better understand the book of Revelation as we go through it on Sunday mornings.
This first blog will be dedicated simply to a brief summary of dispensationalism by dispensationalists using the words of dispensationalists themselves to explain their viewpoint. But before we get started, we must note that dispensationalism is a multi-dimensional belief system that has evolved since its inception 165 years ago. The dispensationalism of Darby, Scofield and Chafer, is not the same belief of Ryrie and Walvoord or of modern writers like MacArthur, LaHaye & Jenkins, Jeremiah, Lindsey, Hagee, etc.. Yet after a century and a half, and after some pretty significant debate amongst themselves, dispensationalists can still identify a number of core beliefs that unite them. These beliefs are nuanced theological points, and I hope I can present them fairly and in language, we can all understand. Don’t worry, if you don’t fully understand them as articulated below, we will explain each of them in more detail as we progress.
To explain the theological distinctives of dispensationalism, I will use a recent dispensational text, Christ’s Prophetic Plans (edited by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue). This book is edited by one of the most popular preachers in North America, is easily accessible, and is fairly easy to read. Thus I will be using it to speak on behalf of dispensationalism. Chapter 1 of this book speaks directly to our current purposes identifying six “essential beliefs” which are understood to form the core of dispensationalism.
- The meaning of Old Testament texts are not primarily found in New Testament interpretations of those texts; they are to be understood literally as they stand in the Old Testament. This means, simply, that Old Testament texts, particularly promises and prophetic passages relating to national Israel, are capable of two fulfillments/meanings. That which is stated in the Old Testament as given to national Israel, which will be literally fulfilled, and that which is understood about it in the New Testament as it relates to the Church (if the promise or prophetic passage relate to the Church). The progress of revelation does not cancel unconditional promises to Israel.
- National Israel is not a type of the Church. In other words, God makes promises to national Israel as national Israel, and to the Church as the Church, and therefore he is obligated to fulfil his promises to both groups independent of each other. The Church does not take Israel’s place in the promises of God, they are a distinct group separate from Israel.
- Israel and the Church are distinct, thus the Church cannot be identified in any way as the new or true Israel. See point 2 above. God has two groups of people he calls his own, and two groups of people to which he has made promises, Israel and the Church, and never the twain shall meet. This is the reason why the Church must be raptured prior to the tribulation. They must be removed so God can fulfil his word to national Israel.
- There is both spiritual unity in salvation between Jews and Gentiles and a future role for Israel as a nation. In other words, both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith in Jesus, but this does not mean that Jews and Gentiles become a singular people of God. God saves both Jews and Gentiles the same way, yet he sustains a distinctively different future for both groups, due to the fact that the promises he has made to each group are different.
- The nation Israel will be saved, restored with a unique identity, and function in a future millennial kingdom on the earth. This means that Israel as a nation will be restored by God, in her land, with a specific identity and role of service to the nations. This will take place after a future 7-year tribulation from which the church is raptured beforehand, and during a 1000 year period subsequent to the tribulation. (cf. Revelation 20:1-6)
- The church as the “seed of Abraham” (cf. Galatians 3:7) does not cancel God’s promises to the believing Jewish “seed of Abraham.” God can refer to the Church or to Gentiles as such, and to the Jews as such, and not mean the same thing. Once again, God has multiple ‘seeds’, both Jews and Gentiles, that are not the same ‘seeds’. God has a distinct relationship and has made distinct promises, to the Jews, that the Gentiles are not able to share.
So when I say, “I am not a dispensationalist,” what part of the above am I disagreeing with? Well, in short, all of it! Yet, while I am not a dispensationalist, I do wish to make two things very clear. First, I do not doubt the faith of those whom I will oppose. These blogs are an intramural debate, a discussion amongst fellow believers. Second, I must express my respect for many who hold this position especially John MacArthur who has been an able defender of many points of Reformed theology despite what I believe to be his error in eschatology.
The next blog will deal with point 1. Blog three will deal with points 2, 3, 6 as they are all related. Blog four will deal with point 5. Blog five will offer some ways of rethinking the above points as we move away from dispensationalism. Blog six (and maybe beyond) will offer a better way of thinking about eschatology.
If you want a more detailed introduction to dispensationalism click on the following link:
Soli Deo Gloria