A Gentle Critique of Dispensationalism

Though The Millenial Maze by Stanley Grenz isn’t my favorite resource on eschatology, it has some strong points.  For example, Grenz gives the strengths and weaknesses of each millennial position – and he does so in a straightforward and fair way.  Here’s part of his critique of dispensationalism which specifically has to do with the sharp distinction between the church and Israel (a central part of dispensationalism).

“In rejecting the literalism of its proponents, critics [of dispensationalism] appeal to the New Testament, which as ‘the only divinely inspired commentary on the Old Testament’ forms the pattern for Christian exegesis of the divine promises to Israel.  They offer several specific examples of the New Testament use of the Old.”

“According to Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2:15-21), for example, Peter found in the events of that day the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy concerning the day of the Lord (Joel 2:28ff), including cosmic disturbances.  He applied Joel’s vision not to national Israel, but to the church.  Luke’s rendering of James’ speech at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:14-18) offers a similar nonliteral interpretation of Amos’ prophecy of a future divine re-establishment of the Davidic kingship (Amos 9:11-12).  The prophet anticipated an eschatological re-emergence of Israel as a dominant nation under the reign of David’s greater son, the Messiah.  But the leader of the Jerusalem church claimed that the fulfillment of this text was the coming of the Gentiles to faith in Jesus.”

“Likewise, Jeremiah’s vision of a day of a new covenant between God and Israel (Jer 31:31ff) appears to be a prophecy of an eschatological re-establishment of Israel.  But the book of Hebrews declares that this day has already arrived, for it was fulfilled in the first coming of Christ (Heb 8:6-12).  As these and other examples indicate, nondispensationalists claim that the inspired authors of the New Testament found fulfillment in the church for certain Old Testament promises originally given to Israel.”

“In addition, some interpreters note that other promises, such as dominance over Israel’s neighbors and even possession of the land of promise, were declared fulfilled already in the Old Testament era.  Hence, in reporting the conquest of the land, the book of Joshua claims that all God had promised to do for Israel had been accomplished (Josh 23:14; 11:23; 21:43; see also 1 Ki 4:20-21).  And later prophecies of a regathering of Israel pointed to the return from exile that began following the edict of Cyrus.”

“Considerations such as these lead critics to conclude that the hermeneutic of classical dispensationalism is faulty.  Consequently, they reject as well the theological system that arises from the literalist hermeneutic.  It is erroneous to demand the strict separation between Israel and the church asserted by classical dispensationalism, they argue; it is likewise unwarranted to understand the tribulation and the millennium in terms of a program of God for Israel apart from the church.”

Stanley Grenz, The Millenial Maze, 108-109.

rev shane lems