This is blog number six in the series on why I am not a dispensationalist. In short, as I hope has become clear, I believe dispensationalism to be based upon an inadequate hermeneutic which leads to unbiblical theological conclusions. In my previous blogs, I outlined why a dispensational hermeneutic and the dispensational view of Israel and the Church as two separate people of God are both in error. In my last blog, I explored the implications of moving away from these two dispensational core values and thus dispensationalism as a whole.
Let me remind you once again that we should not believe, or move away from, dispensationalism because we like or don’t like what it says. We are to believe only that which is in accord with the whole counsel of God in Scripture. It is on these grounds that I reject dispensationalism.
In my last blog, I explained five points that result from a rejection of dispensationalism. They were:
- The need to rethink your understanding of the Old Testament and its connection with the New Testament.
- The need to rethink your understanding of the tribulation.
- The need to rethink your understanding of the second coming of Christ.
- The need to rethink your understanding of the millennium.
- The need to rethink your understanding of present-day Israel.
In this blog, I would like to explore where we should go once we have rejected dispensationalism. In other words, there is a better way of looking at the things we talked about last time. I understand that for those who grew up breathing dispensational air, this can be a bit overwhelming. This is a lot of new thinking to take in! So let me walk through these items in a better, more biblical way, although we will only get through the first one this time. There is some overlap with what we have talked about in blogs past, but when we are trying to correct our thinking repetition is a very good thing.
The number one issue we have identified in our discussion of dispensationalism is their inconsistent hermeneutic and thus their wrong view of many biblical passages. Above all, dispensationalism is an interpretive system that creates a distinct theology. (A system that is only about 90 years old) This interpretive system is driven primarily by two things, both of which we have examined in earlier blogs but are worthy of comment once again.
- Dispensationalism claims that it uses a literal hermeneutic. But what we have seen is that ‘literal’ is not always best and that, dispensationalism itself does not apply this principle consistently – they apply ‘literal’ hermeneutics to the promises given to Israel and a different hermeneutical principle to everything else. They are hermeneutic dualists and thus, as Poythress comments on Schofield, literal hermeneutics for the dispensationalist becomes at best a “half-truth.”
- Dispensationalism sees a significant difference between Israel and the church. The former is earthly, the latter spiritual. Thus any promises given to Israel are earthly and must be fulfilled on the earth; the promises given to the church are spiritual and are fulfilled differently. This means that the promises given to Israel – land, kingdom, king, etc. – must be fulfilled on this earth and the church may not take part. (The church may receive blessing from the fulfilment of those promises, but the promises are not properly for them.) Again, we have seen this claim to lack in biblical support.
Together these create the chicken and the egg causality dilemma for dispensational thought. Which one comes first? It’s not entirely clear, but both are in error and thus bring down the other one that is reliant upon it.
So where do we go from here? How should we approach Scripture in order to interpret it properly? I think the Bible itself provides us with the answer. We need to think of Scripture in covenantal terms. God making a covenant with humanity began his revelation and it finishes it. Along the way, his covenantal arrangements with his people have provided further understanding of who God is and how his creation and his people, in particular, are to relate to him and he to them. It shows us how he is the King, Judge and Savior and how he is going to “make all things new” one day.
Vern Poythress explains, (Understanding Dispensationalists)
Covenant theology organizes the history of the world in terms of covenants. It maintains that all God’s relations to human beings are to be understood in terms of two covenants, the covenant of works made with Adam before the fall, and the covenant of grace made through Christ with all who are to believe. The covenant of grace was administered differently in the different dispensations (Westminster Confession 7.4), but is substantially the same in all.
Now covenant theology always allowed for a diversity of administration of the one covenant of grace. This accounted in large part for the diversity of different epochs in biblical history. But the emphasis was undeniably on the unity of one covenant of grace.
In short, covenant is the architectonic principle of Scripture; it is what gives Scripture its redemptive-historical shape and it is what moves Scripture forward. (cf Westminster Confession of Faith, ch 7) While ‘dispensations’ are artificial constructions applied to the text, the covenants of God are the way in which Scripture structures itself. Each covenantal arrangement in Scripture is not individual and distinct, but part of a great tapestry, each thread being individually visible yet intimately and organically related to the rest creating a beautiful fabric of God’s relationship to all of creation, not just to one nation.
The great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck’s words concerning the importance of covenant in the pages of Holy Writ are surely correct, “In Scripture “covenant” is the fixed form in which the relation of God to his people is depicted and presented.” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2, 569) We thus must come to the same conclusion of the great Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline, who wrote,
Because the Bible is the old and new covenants and because the canon is inherent in covenant of the biblical type, canonicity is inherent in the very form of Scripture as the Old Testament and the New Testament. The canonical authority of the Bible is in a class by itself because its covenantal words are the words of God… All Scripture is covenantal, and the canonicity of all the Scripture is covenantal. The biblical canon is covenantal canon. (The Structure of Biblical Authority, 75)
So what does this mean? It means that Scripture is unified by God’s covenant making and keeping. It means that all of Scripture anticipates, or looks back on, the new covenant of Christ (cf. Genesis 3:15) which unifies Jew and Greek (believing Israel and believing Gentiles) in the gospel. It means that we must read all of the Bible according to this new covenant. No need for dispensations. No need for forcing a difference between God’s promises to national Israel and the church, for there is no difference. No need to confuse end times events with a strange two stage second coming (rapture and the second coming proper) or a thousand-year earthly reign of Christ in Jerusalem or anything that dispensationalists associate with that reign.
A covenantal reading of Scripture pays close attention to the point of the Bible – God redeeming a people unto himself through the new covenant in Jesus Christ. This was promised in the Garden and reiterated to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and in a different form to King David. It is this covenantal promise of grace that structures Scripture and it is through this promise that we must read Scripture. In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ is our hermeneutic no matter where we are in Scripture. We must pay attention to historical-grammatical aspects to reading literature, but we must pay closer attention to the point of the grand metanarrative of Scripture – the gospel of Jesus Christ. So whether you are in Exodus, Ruth, Daniel, Amos, Matthew, Hebrews or Revelation, God’s new covenant in Christ must dominate our understanding of Scripture.
In short, our hermeneutic needs to look like this, (Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, parenthetical comments within [ ] are mine)
(1) We use grammatical-historical interpretation. That is, we ask what the passage meant in the historical and linguistic situation in which it was originally recorded.
(2) We use Scripture to interpret Scripture. Clear passages can sometimes help us with more obscure. When fulfillments actually come, they help us to understand the prophecies more fully. [Dispensationalists do not agree with this aspect of biblical interpretation. They prefer to let the Old Testament speak on its own and the same for the New Testament; especially when it comes to future prophecies relating to Israel.]
(3) Main points are clearer than details. We can be sure of the main points even at times when we are not confident that we have pinned down all the details. Things that the Bible teaches in many places or with great emphasis are held with greater confidence than things taught once or in passing (because we are not so sure that we have understood the details correctly).
(4) We may rightly expect “cumulative fulfillment” of many prophecies that envision long-range promises or threats. [In other words, the fulfillment of prophecies in the future may, and often, do look different than they are described in their original context.]
The first two points are absolutely key and together they set covenantal hermeneutics apart and provide proper direction for dealing with prophecies and promises in the Old Testament. (points 3 and 4)
Since the hermeneutic issue is so key to the reasons why I am not a dispensationalist, let me offer you a few resources to read / view. Don’t be intimidated. Since covenant is the basic structural principle of Scripture it is actually far easier to understand and follow than dispensationalism.
An excellent overview of the differences between dispensationalism and covenant theology by Ligon Duncan, a premier pastor/theologians
An excellent overview of covenant theology by the astute J.I. Packer,
Richard Pratt explains the intimate connection between Reformed theology and Covenant theology
Vern Poythress presents an irenic discussion of dispensationalism with an eye to productive dialogue.
Soli Deo Gloria
If you have any questions about what you have read in this or previous blogs, don’t hesitate to contact me via email. I would love to chat with you!