Dispensationalism, Theonomy, and Biblical Theology (Lints)

The Fabric of Theology It is very important to remember that there is historical progression in Scripture. The Bible is a historical book that records stories from the beginning of the world to the 1st century AD (and beyond, if you think of the prophecies).  But the Bible isn’t a regular history book; it is what we call redemptive history.  That means the Bible contains the inspired history of God’s redemption of his people.  Hand in hand with this truth is the fact that there is also a progression of God’s revelation in Scripture.  As time marches on, God slowly but surely reveals more of himself to his people.  There is progression in God’s revelation from Genesis to Revelation.  These are some assumptions of biblical theology gleaned from Scripture.

Richard Lints does a nice job explaining the importance of bibilcal theology in chapter seven of The Fabric of Theology. He wrote this in 1993, so it might be a bit more nuanced today, but it is still a helpful quote:

“A theological framework that fails to capture the ‘organic unity’ in this flow of redemption and revelatory history will likely be guilty of unnecessary abstraction from the text of Scripture.  Normally one of two errors is committed by modern evangelical interpreters who take this route.  Some overstress the continuity between the epochs (a la theonomy); others overstress the discontinuity of the epocs (a la dispensationalism).  I concur with Edmund Clowney’s observation that ‘modern dispensationalism rightly recognizes that there are great divisions in the history of redemption; it errs in failing to grasp the organic relation of these successive eras, as the developing manifestations of one gracious design.'”

“The theonomic movement rightfully recognizes the underlying unity of the Old and New Testaments but fails to notice the organic progression present between the two Testaments.  While I cannot settle all of the exegetical questions that arise in this context, I do think it is important to remember that an interpretive framework built on the assumption of divine authorship in history will seek to make clear the organic relations among the divergent epochs of the Bible.  This need not result in a bland uniformity or essential contradictions of principles across epochs; rather, it should help the reader to see the overarching purpose progressively revealed through the different epochs of the Scriptures.”

Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 278.

Shane Lems

The Rapture and 1 Thessalonians 4

Some Christians believe in a two-fold coming of Christ.  They say the first coming is a rapture where Jesus will quietly and secretly take his people and they will simply disappear from the face of the earth.  The Scripture used to back up this theory is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  For example, verse 17 says, …then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air… (NASB).   Much more could be said on this, but I like William Hendriksen’s brief critique:

“Dispensationalists like to stress the statement, ‘and the dead in Christ will rise first.’  They interpret as if the entire passage were somewhat on this order: ‘And the dead in Christ shall rise first; then, a thousand years later, the dead not in Christ shall rise.’

“However, nowhere in the entire paragraph does Paul say, ‘then the dead not in Christ shall rise.’  Paul is thinking only of believers, of no one else.  He is drawing a contrast between the dead in Christ and the still living in Christ.”

“On the one hand there will be those believers who at Christ’s coming will already have died.  On the other hand, there will be the survivors, children of God who will still be living on earth.  What the apostle is saying, then, amounts to this: ‘Don’t worry about your dear ones in the Lord, who have already died.  In no sense at all will they suffer any disadvantage when Jesus returns.  On the contrary, those who are still alive on earth will have to wait a moment until the souls of those who died have re-inhabited their bodies.  In that moment of waiting the survivors will be changed in the twinkling of an eye.  Then together, as one large multitude, those who formerly constituted the two groups will go forth to meet the Lord.”

Also, as far as a “secret” rapture goes, Hendriksen points out verse 16 in 1 Thessalonians 4:

“Note the words: ‘For with a shouted command, with a voice of an archangel and with a trumpet of the God the Lord himself will descend from heaven.’  This has been called ‘the noisiest verse in the Bible.’  It surely indicates that the coming of the Lord will be public and audible.”

William Hendriksen, The Bible on The Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 183-184 (emphasis in original).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24, Mk. 13, Lk. 21)

Bible and the Future The Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24, Mk. 13, & Lk 21) is the teaching of Jesus on the destruction of the temple and the coming of the Son of Man.  This is a complex passage to be sure.  The preterist view says that the discourse had everything to do with the fall of the temple in 70 AD.  Some dispensationalists say it has nothing to do with the fall of the temple in 70 AD but has everything to do with the end times.  I believe both of these positions are incorrect.  Anthony Hoekema gives a good amillenial explanation of the Olivet Discourse, one that I very much appreciate:

“As we read the discourse… we find that aspects of these two topics [when will this be and what are the signs] are intermingled; matters concerning the destruction of the temple (epitomized by the destruction of the temple) are mingled together with matters which concern the end of the world – so much so that it is sometimes hard to determine whether Jesus is referring to the one or the other or perhaps to both.  Obviously the method of teaching used here by Jesus is that of prophetic foreshortening, in which events far removed in time and events in the near future are spoken of as if they were very close together.  The phenomenon has been compared to what happens when one looks at distant mountains; peaks which are many miles apart may be seen as if they are close together.”

Hoekema then notes how Joel’s prediction of the Spirit’s outpouring and the sun turned to darkness are lumped together, and he notes how Isaiah mentions the fall of Babylon and the day of the Lord in the same prophecy.  Hoekema then writes,

“In the Olivet discourse, therefore, Jesus is proclaiming events in the distant future in close connection with the events in the near future.  The destruction of Jerusalem which lies in the near future is a type of the end of the world; hence the intermingling.  The passage, therefore, deals neither exclusively with the destruction of the temple nor exclusively with the end of the world; it deals with both  – sometimes with the latter in terms of the former.”

When we read the Olivet Discourse, it does have to do with the destruction of the temple, but it also has to do with Christ’s second – and final – return.  Thankfully the comfort in this text is clear: God is in total control of history, so the Christian need not be afraid when horrible things happen.  Instead, we should keep on making the good confessing and endure in the faith, looking forward to Christ’s return.

The above quotes are found on pages 148-149 of Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

Shane Lems

Reformed Theology at Odds with Dispensationalism

In his excellent book on eschatology Cornelis Venema spends some time evaluating and critiquing dispensationalism from a Reformed and biblical perspective.  Reformed theology is at odds with dispensationalism in several ways.  One of the major differences is the understanding of promise/fulfillment and type/reality between the Old and New Testaments.  There is much more to the discussion, of course, but here are a few helpful paragraphs of Venema to explain this difference.

“Perhaps the most telling evidence against the dispensationalistic hermeneutic is to be found in the book of Hebrews.  The message of the book of Hebrews is, if I may speak anachronistically, a compelling rebuttal of Dispensationalism.  Whereas the book of Hebrews is one sustained argument for the finality, richness, and completion of all the Lord’s covenant words and works in the new covenant that is in Christ, Dispensationalism wants to preserve the old arrangements intact for Israel, arrangements which will be reinstituted in the period of the millennial kingdom.

However, this would be tantamount to going back to what has been surpassed in the new covenant in Christ, reverting to arrangements that have been rendered obsolete and superfluous because their reality has been realized in the provisions of the new covenant.  The Mediator of this new covenant, Christ, is the fulfillment of all the Lord’s promises to his people.  Thus, to the writer to the Hebrews, any reversion to the old covenant types and ceremonies would be an unacceptable departure from the realities of the new covenant in preference for the shadows of the old.

Though it may seem too severe to some, no other judgment is permitted us respecting the system of biblical interpretation known as Dispensationalism: it represents a continued attachment to the shadows and ceremonies of the old covenant dispensation and also a failure to appreciate properly the finality of the new covenant.  Its doctrine of a literal hermeneutic proves not to be literal in the proper sense of the term.  Rather than reading the New Testament ‘according to the letter,’ Dispensationalism reads the New Testament through the lens of its insistence upon a radical separation between Israel and the church” (p. 294-5).

8 Points: A Critique of Dispensational Premillennialism

Bible and the Future Anthony Hoekema (d. 1988) wrote a helpful critique of dispensational premillennialism in his excellent book, The Bible and the FutureBecause I think they are helpful, I’m going to summarize and edit them below.  I strongly recommend reading the entire 20 page chapter for the full discussion – along with exegesis and detailed explanation.

1) Dispensationalism fails to do full justice to the basic unity of biblical revelation.  …One great difficulty with the dispensational system…is that in it the differences between the various periods of redemptive history seem to outweigh the basic unity of that history.  …When one does not do full justice to the unity of God’s redemptive dealings with mankind, and when one makes hard and fast distinctions between the various dispensations, the danger exists that one will fail to recognize the cumulative and permanent advances which mark God’s dealings with his people in New Testament times.  …The principle of discontinuity between one dispensation and another overrules and virtually nullifies the principle of progressive revelation.

2) The teaching that God has a separate purpose for Israel and the church is in error.  …As a matter of fact, the New Testament itself often interprets expressions relating to Israel in such a way as to apply them to the New Testament church, which includes both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Gal. 3:28-29; 6:15-16, Eph. 2:11-22, Heb. 12:22, 1 Peter 2:9, etc.).  …To suggest that God has in mind a separate future for Israel in distinction to the Gentiles is like putting the scaffolding back up after the building has been finished; it is like turning the clock of history back to Old Testament times.

3) The Old Testament does not teach that there will be a future millennial kingdom.  When one looks at the chapter and section headings of the New Schofield Bible, one finds that many sections of the Old Testament are interpreted as describing the millennium.  However, the Old Testament says nothing about such a millennial reign.  Passages commonly interpreted as describing the millennium actually describe the new earth which is the culmination of God’s redemptive work.

4) The Bible does not teach a millennial restoration of the Jews to their land.  …To understand these prophecies (about returning to the land) only in terms of a literal fulfillment for Israel in Palestine during the thousand years is to revert back to Jewish nationalism and to fail to see God’s purpose for all his redeemed people.  To understand these prophecies, however, as pointing to the new earth and its glorified inhabitants drawn from all tribes, peoples, and tongues ties in these prophecies with the ongoing sweep of New Testament revelation, and makes them richly meaningful to all believers today.

5) Dispensational teaching about the postponement of the kingdom is not supported by Scripture.  This teaching must be challenged on at least three points: 1) it is not correct to give the impression that all the Jews of Jesus’ day rejected the kingdom he offered them, 2) the kingdom which Christ offered to the Jews of his day did not involve his ascending an earthly throne, as dispensationalists contend, and 3) if the majority of the Jews had accepted Jesus and his kingdom, how would Christ have gotten to the cross?

6) Dispensational teaching about the parenthesis church is not supported by Scripture.  It is not true that the Old Testament never predicts the church.  The Old Testament clearly states that the Gentiles will share the blessings of the Jews (Gen. 12:3, 22:28, Ps. 22:27, etc.).  The idea of a ‘parenthesis church’ implies a kind of dichotomy in God’s redemptive work, as if he has a separate purpose with Jews and Gentiles.  The church was not an afterthought on God’s part, but is the fruit of his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ (Eph. 3:8-11).

7) There is no biblical basis for the expectation that people will still be brought to salvation after Christ returns.  Dispensationalism teaches that a remnant of Israel and a multitude of Gentiles will come to salvation during the seven-year tribulation.  There are clear indications in Scripture, however, that the church (including both Jewish and Gentile believers) will be complete when Christ comes again (1 Cor. 15:23, 1 Thes. 3:12-13, Matt. 24:31, etc.).

8) The millennium of the dispensationalists is not the millennium described in Revelation 20:4-6.  Revelation 20:4-6 says nothing about believers who have not died but are still alive when Christ returns (as was argued above).  Dispensationalists teach that the millennial age will concern unresurrected people, people who are still living in their natural bodies.  But about such people this passage (Rev. 20:4-6) does not breathe a word!  Further, Revelation 20:4-6 does not say a word about the Jews, the nation of Israel, the land of Palestine, or Jerusalem.

Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, chapter 15.

shane lems

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

Lloyd-Jones on Dispensationalism

Romans 8:17-39: The Final Perseverance of the Saints I came across this helpful quote on old-school dispensationalism in chapter 17 of D. M. Lloyd-Jones’ sermons on Romans 8:17-39.

“It is important that we emphasize that the plan of salvation did not come into the mind of God after the fall of man.  It was in his mind even before the creation of the world.  The plan of salvation was not conceived after the Fall.  There have been no readjustments in God’s plan.  Some have taught and still teach, a notion of a series of readjustments in God’s plan….”

“This erroneous teaching is carried even further in the notes of a certain well-known edition of the Bible, [notes] which do not hesitate to say that even when eventually God sent his Son into the world the plan had to be changed.  They assert that the Son came and preached the Kingdom of God, and offered an entry into the Kingdom of God to the Jews simply on the terms that they should believe on him and his teaching.  Had they done so the Kingdom of God would have been established there and then.”

“But unfortunately the Jews rejected the offer, and on that account God had to introduce another way through the death of his Son.  And so the Church came into being.  The Church had never been thought of before; it came in as an after-thought, as a temporary expedient, because the Jews had rejected the teaching of the Kingdom of God and the offer of entry into the Kingdom.  The Church and salvation through the death of Christ are a kind of improvisation.  The death of Christ need not have taken place if the Jews had believed the message of the Kingdom.  God’s plan had to be interrupted.  The ‘prophetic clock’ was stopped for the time being, and after this ‘church age’, which is a digression, God’s plan and purpose will be continued again.”

“Such notions are a complete denial of the biblical teaching concerning the ‘purpose of God’ conceived in eternity before the foundation of the world and the creation of man.  They represent the teaching which is known as ‘dispensationalism.’  We must be clear about these things.  God’s purpose came into being before the foundation of the world.  There is nothing contingent, nothing temporary or expedient about it.  It does not come into being because of something unforeseen.”

D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans 8:17-39, chapter 17.

rev shane lems