Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Lesson number one

I think the most important lesson I have learned so far in my life is, God is more interested in being good to me than in my being good for Him.

Now why did that take so long?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


I was driving home from work yesterday, singing something from the Spiritual Songs:

How great Thy grace! No mind of man can grasp
The love told out in suffering on the tree;
Love that has gathered now within its clasp
Those once far off, but now brought home to Thee.

Today I got the words right, because I have a hymn-book I can look at. But I was pretty close yesterday. And I'm a terrible singer, so it's a good thing you weren't there to hear it.

And it got me thinking: perspective is important. It's far too easy to reduce Jesus Christ to a religious figure. I suppose He is that in some sense. But I notice a trend (and I was recently reminded of it on Facebook) where people refer to themselves as "Christ followers". I think the title is good, it replaces the much-abused "Christian" with something a little more meaningful in pseudo-Anglo-Saxon words.

But it's so little of the real story. Jesus came and said "follow Me". But He also said "Where I am going, you cannot come." Any number of people are willing to say "follow me". Some of them even lead, rather than throwing their "followers" into the front lines to absorb the cannon-fire (if I haven't mixed too many metaphors there). But I know of none who are willing to say "where I go, you cannot come."

And the wonder of it is, He said "where I go, you cannot come" only to elucidate "that where I am, there you may also be." There are depths no one else will ever experience: horror, pain, anguish that no one else can ever feel. And He went through that not because He was a martyr, but because He was determined not to go back to the Father without taking us along (eventually).

Like so many, I'm full of criticisms and complaints. I have an infinitely long list of criteria with everything I read or hear: I'm very stereotypically "brethren" that way. I frequently think more highly of myself than I ought.

But the perspective that the Scripture gives is, the Son of God came here to die for worthless sinners. That's the perspective that makes Christianity meaningful in any way at all.

I just need to be reminded of it a lot.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Whaddya want?

So what are you actually looking for?

Good question. Rather than just griping about what is, I'm going to talk briefly about what should be. But before I do, let me make a note: as much as possible, I'm going to try and keep these non-sectarian. It's very hard for me (or apparently for anyone else) to separate principle from form. In concrete terms, I frequently have trouble imagining how to practice a principle I see without seeing it in terms of how we practice it. So where I see "the Priesthood of all Believers" as a biblical principle, I have trouble seeing how that might look other than the "brethren" form I've been exposed to. I just want that out in the open. A disclaimer, if you will.

So without further ado, here is a point-form list of some things I'm looking for, in no particular order. There is no way this is complete, but it is a reasonable sketch:
  • Worship is central. This is the biggest requirement I have. This is the one reason I would consider an Episcopal church over say a Baptist church. I have no interest at all in a gathering where the central activity is a lecture or (let's be honest) a guilt-trip.
  • Worship isn't entertainment. I can tolerate a lot, but I have little use for a choir and less for a "worship team". Worship is a participative thing, not a spectator sport. I wouldn't necessarily reject a gathering because of a choir, but it is definitely a negative, in my book. And I would frankly take a choir over a "worship team" every time. At least choirs tend to sing participative hymns: that is, they tend to sing songs that are (in principle) designed for congregational singing. But performance-based music is worse than worthless for me. I can buy a CD of better musicians performing the same music; why would I go to church to hear a second-rate rendition? If your worship team is good enough to cut a record, I'll buy it and listen to it in my car; if not, I'll buy the one from the group that is. Either way, entertainment is for the commute to work, not for the gathering's limited time to worship.
  • Small is good. I wouldn't necessarily reject a gathering because it's too big, but I prefer small. Smaller lets me interact with more people more meaningfully. Big is fine, but I like small better.
  • Informal is good. By "informal" I don't mean "casual" (although I like casual too), but I mean "not ritualistic". I mentioned Episcopal churches above: I've been to a couple, and I frankly enjoyed them. But the whole "stand up, sit down, bow, genuflect, repeat" routine gets in the way of heartfelt worship far too often. Some people claim it helps them worship... I'm not going to call them liars; but ritual is a good hiding place for hypocrisy. And before I go further, the pseudo-ritual all too often where I fellowship is just as bad. Don't take this as an attack on anyone else, ritual comes in many forms.
  • Buildings are irrelevant. I don't mind being in a gathering that owns a building, but I'm just as happy in a home. In fact, I'm willing to host a gathering in my own home.
  • Sectarian titles are bad. I'm not interested in having a name other than "Christian". If there's one thing that makes me grit my teeth in meetings, it's when a group meeting in a school gym is referred to as "such-and-such Hall" or "such-and-such Chapel". They're not a hall or a chapel: those words refer to buildings. If a gathering owns a building, they have every right to name the building however they like: but the name refers to the building, not the gathering in it. To refer to a gathering like that is a sectarian title and nothing more. And don't get me started on the pseudo-title "the assemblies"...
  • Leadership is not authoritarian rule. I see nothing in Scripture indicating church leadership is to be a "cram it down their throats" sort of thing. I am personally an "elders are not for today" kind of guy, but I would happily fellowship in a place where elders/overseers are doing the job Scripture lays out for them: not lecturing, not guilting, but leading and shepherding. Teaching is good too (they ought to be "apt to teach"), but there's nothing wrong with having someone else do the teaching. Not all good teachers are good elders.
  • The Bible is the authority. This one is a lot harder to practice than it might sound, but a reasonable attempt it really what I'm looking for. If someone demonstrates a willingness to change based on Scripture, I think that's all we can ask. No one understands Scripture perfectly; but when we treat it like it judges us, rather than us judging it (to quote someone else); then we're on the right path.

So that's it: an incomplete list, but a good starting-place.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Freely give

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
-- 1 Corinthians 12:3 (NASB)

A discussion on a message board has gotten me thinking. And the more I think, the more I see something I ought to have figured out earlier.

When I was growing up, my parents were constantly having Bible studies in our home. Sometimes it was Thursday night, but typically it was Tuesdays. They'd start at (I think) 7:30 PM, and go until quite late (which was probably 10:00 or thereabouts). That meant we kids were just getting ready for bed as the people were arriving. We'd say "goodnight" to everyone, then go off to bed.

My bedroom was on the other side of a wall from the "rec room" in our house. Sometimes the Bible Studies were in the living room, but more often they were in the rec room. That was probably because the woodstove that heated our house was in the rec room: it was the warm, comfortable room. I was an insomniac then as now, so I would lay awake until after everyone left, listening to the Bible Studies. I had to be quiet and not disturb the people out there; but there was a lot for a young boy to learn by eavesdropping on a Bible Study every Tuesday night.

One of the features of the Tuesday Night Bible Study was, it was totally oblivious to sectarian or denominational boundaries. It was full of Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Pentacostals, Foursquares, and even "brethren". My parents let anyone in. My parents, you see, believed in One Body (1 Corinthians 12:13).

As I think back over my personal experience, there is a common thread I can't help but notice: when there is a free giving of what we have to other Christians because they are other Christians, with no attention to whether they are with our group or not (whatever "our group" might be); there are inevitable positive outcomes. And I've seen it many times: the more open-handed we are with all members of the Body, the more the Lord gives us to pass on to them.

If you spend any time at all in any but the most liberal of "brethren" groups, you hear loud wailings, bemoaning the fact that we are in unmistakable decline: assemblies are closing, whole generations are leaving to go to some mainline church or another, parking lots are empty. These are all accurate observations, but I can't help but wonder whether we are so sparse precisely because we have been self-centered. Perhaps people are leaving because we've been worried about keeping them. It might sound corny, but I am more and more convinced that the key to building up an assembly is precisely offering whatever we have to offer (I'm thinking primarily spiritually here, but I'm sure there is a physical application too) freely to any in the Body who need it, regardless of whether they intend to "join us" or not.

Notice right now I am limiting this generosity to members of the One Body. I am not thereby saying we ought not to be generous to lost sinners. But there is a very real difference between those inside and those outside. General benevolence is a good thing: but there is a much more pressing need for Christians to help one another. While we ought to do good for all men, there is the "especially those of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).

But I want to also caution about giving to get. Regardless of what televangelists say, you can't manipulate God. The key is not to offer a "loss leader" that lures people in. The key is to understand that the One Body transcends any sectarian or denominational ideas we might have. I am responsible for any child of God He has put in my acquaintance. If a child of God has a need, then I am to do what I can to help. If that child of God attends a Baptist church (shudder), that is not to influence my willingness to help. It might affect how I help, but it is not to affect whether I do so. If I can encourage and help a Christian who is walking with the Lord---regardless of what sort of Church she attends---then I have done work for the Lord.

We need to learn to see ourselves as part of One Body. Gifts are given in the Body (Ephesians 4:11--12), not in a gathering or a denomination. To the extent that God has given us something, we need to share it in the Body, not only in our little group. We need to develop this sense of washing each other's feet; and we need to expand it to the whole household of faith. I need to learn to be genuinely concerned how other Christians are doing: how they are growing, how they are walking. Yes, physical needs are part of it, but there needs to be a concern for the spiritual too. We need to learn to be genuinely caring for one another. And we need to learn it in the context of the One Body.

Now to get a little sectarian on you... the "early brethren" were successful, I think, precisely because of this attitude. It is true that we can't be "in fellowship" with everything out there labeled "Christian." There is heresy, blasphemy, and immorality all over; much of it is marketed inside the Church. We ought certainly to turn away from such things. But we ought to see how far we can go to help other Christians, rather than how far we can get away from them. We ought to be genuinely sorrowful when we realize there is a limit to how far we can fellowship with another Christian, rather than smug. Darby, Grant, Kelly; all these guys had precisely this attitude. They weren't forming a party, they were expressing the One Body.

One point of concern with me is the constant refrain I hear in ministry from "open brethren", a repeated call for formalizing the meetings, for having a hard and fast list of "who's in fellowship". Guys, we already tried that, it's called "denominationalism". It hasn't worked terribly well for anyone else, although it seems te be a default state towards which all Christians tend. It fundamentally denies "One Body," and certainly casts aspersion on everything you claim to believe.

I can't help but think that our attitude of hoarding is a large reason why the Lord has seen fit to ensure we have so little.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Escape Plan

What can we say? Does He not know us? Does He not remember our frame? We often think He does not. The time of weaning is often one of great suffering to the soul, but a necessary time. No soul learns truly to be independent of infant helps until it is weaned. It is. surprising how many nurses we have, and it is just in proportion as we attain strength to get on without any of them, that our age, or advance in life, is determined. --J. B. Stoney

As usual, I'm pretty thick-witted and slow to clue in to what's going on. I've been doing this "Christian Life" thing a long time (not as long as some of y'all); and I find myself constantly realizing I haven't made nearly so much progress as I once thought. Once again, I find myself learning a lesson I already thought I knew.

I hate that.

I mentioned once before that the Lord loves me too much to let me cheat in His school. That is, He loves me too much to circumvent the painful lessons He has for me. Sometimes I think I could handle Him loving me a little less... but of course that's nonsense. If I knew everything like He knows everything, I'd choose for myself exactly what He's chosen for me.

The most recent disappointment is with "open brethren". Thought I'd gotten over that, didn't you? Well, since I'm so thick, I just finally realized something I should have figured out months or years ago. I just finally realized that I've been (in the back of my mind) holding "open brethren" as sort of an escape plan: a "Plan B" in case what I'm doing now falls through. I guess my thinking went something like this: "If all else fails, I can always head back over to the open meeting. They're sure to let me in, they let anyone in!" Eleven years is a long time to hang onto a Plan B.

I have begun to realize that the Lord doesn't like me to have escape plans. He certainly has an exit strategy for me (and it might well involve people lowering my body into the ground); but that's His right. He doesn't give me the right to develop exit strategies and contingency plans.

See, the whole problem with contingency plans is, they are a matter of trusting in my own ability to plot and scheme my way out of a problem. But we as Christians are not called to scheme our way out of trouble. We're actually called to live in the middle of it.

So my exit plan for a while has had a contingency that if things get "that bad" (whatever that means), then I can always just leave the assembly where I am and head over to the Bible Chapel across town. That's not an unreasonable plan: I got here by leaving there. I mean, I could eat a little crow and they'd more or less welcome me back in. Well, that's a slight exaggeration---I wouldn't have to eat any crow, as they have doubtless forgotten my very existence.

But I can't. He won't let me.

Don't get me wrong: He might well lead me right back over there, and might ensure they have a healthy portion of crow, steaming and ready for me. It's the sort of thing He might do. Or He might put me somewhere else. Or (as Gordon Korman might say) He might even have a city bus with my name on it, hurtling toward me now. It's His right to arrange everything and anything as He sees fit; and frankly, it's better that way.

But the point is, it's His right, not mine. I can't plan things out, I need to just let Him do that.

I guess I ought to have figured that out a long time ago.

I actually went to that Chapel a few weeks ago. I was going to tell you about it, but I don't think it matters now. I think the lesson was a lot more about my not letting God be God than about the state of the folks over there.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Prayer Meeting

If I might venture to say one word about the prayer meeting it would be this: I do not believe any brother should take part unless he has some definite petition to present. I have been in prayer meetings where I have felt as if brothers began without knowing a single thing they were going to ask for, and discoursed about every subject that happened to come into their minds. This may be profitable religious exercise, but it is certainly not prayer.
- C. A. Coates, The Believer Established, p. 58

You know, I tend to come off a little negatively sometimes. OK, most of the time. But today I have some very positive things to say.

Yesterday was Wednesday, which means it was Prayer Meeting last night at the assembly where we fellowship. I'm frequently reluctant to attend Prayer Meeting, since it often feels more like a waste of time than anything else. Nevertheless, I've been endeavouring to be "good" in my attendance for the last month or so. I've been out the last two weeks with some minor health problems, but yesterday we were all hale and hearty.

Let's review that last point a minute: I've skipped two Sunday evening meetings in the last month, both for rather spurious reasons. Wednesday nights has seen good attendance, except for the last two weeks.

Well, yesterday I was thinking about going to the meeting. I was planning on attending, but I almost refused to go when we got a guilt-trip email about Prayer Meeting yesterday: that sort of thing just makes me want not to go. Why not? Think Pavlov: if I get a guilt-trip email and then I go, the would-be guilt-trippers might get the idea they succeeded. But I prayed about it, and suddenly had the thought that even though there has been little to make me want to attend for the last few months, I could certainly go as an act of sacrificial worship. Does that sound corny? It does to me, but I sincerely felt that I could lay a Wednesday night on the altar, so to speak, and go "as unto the Lord".

So we went.

In case you've never been to a Prayer Meeting in an assembly like the one where we fellowship, let me give you a brief sketch. Prayer Meeting lasts about 1 1/2 hour. It's typically opened with a hymn, then the person who handles correspondence on behalf of the assembly reads whatever letters have come in the last week. Those letters are from other assemblies, missionaries, traveling preachers, etc. They're frequently thank-you notes for money we sent them, or sometimes updates about what they're doing, etc. Frequently there are letters or emails containing prayer requests. Those are all read. Then anyone with an announcement or prayer request not in the letters will give those out verbally. After all that, everyone quiets down and people take turns standing and praying. That's the first hour. Then there's a half-hour Bible Reading.

Well, last night there was the typical spate of letters, then we got into the prayer part. It was great! Rather than the typical muttering out everything that comes to mind and throwing in an "O Lord" every sentence or two, people prayed like they meant it. They prayed for what they were concerned with rather than presenting an omnibus to the Lord; and they prayed with obvious care and compassion. There was prayer for all the sick and needy people in the letters (which is very right and good), but there was prayer for our attitudes with one another, our obvious lack of love for one another, etc. There was meaningful prayer. The prayers were shorter, but they were obviously more earnest, honest, and heartfelt. And all but a few stood and prayed.

The Bible Reading afterwards was good too. Rather than the typical long silences punctuated by either pointing out the obvious or inventing some sort of mystical interpretations; there was real insight. Lots of people chimed in, and everyone seemed to have something to say.

In other words, it was a meeting that made me want to go back next week.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Down to the goal I press

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:8--11, NASB

In his excellent devotional commentary on Philippians, Sacrifices of Joy, G. C. Willis renders Philippians 3:14 as "Down to the goal I press." I've frequently had that phrase run through my head over the last decade or so, ever since I first read it in Willis' book. And one question that must arise from such a statement is this: what is the goal?

Right at the start of this blog, I wrote a post titled It's About Him. I want to revisit the ideas in there a little bit: especially in light of the recent discussions of dispensationalism.

Study of God's Word is necessary for the believer. I want to make that absolutely clear; I've been accused of anti-intellectualism far too many times. But I must insist that study is only a means to an end. Theology can be a very good thing, but as my good friend Chuck says, it becomes a black hole very quickly. Theology is a worthless end in itself; the only value in it is as it drives us to know God.

Paul, an Apostle, called by the ascended Christ, through whom so much of the New Testament was written, who received his doctrine by direct revelation; said "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord". Doctrine and theology are among the "all things": they have value if they drive you to Christ; but they are worthless in an of themselves.

Christianity is a revealed religion. That is, we base our faith on what God has said. If we're too lazy to figure out what that is, we have an empty faith. I am frankly appalled by the number of Christians who are thoroughly ignorant of their Bibles. Regardless of the excuses they give (and I've heard them all), you can't have a strong Christian life if you neglect the Word of God.

But on the other hand, a Christian life characterized by the academic study of the Bible is empty. A collection of facts is a poor substitute for a relationship.

So I want to try and keep perspective here. I didn't set out to write a theological blog (and I'm far too casual and informal to seriously be accused of that anyhow), but I wanted to put up a couple things about dispensationalism because people specifically asked.

Interestingly, the Dawg just made a similar statement on his blog. As much as I'm not trying to just imitate the Dawg, it seems he's been a step ahead of me for the last week or so. I suppose that's natural: I've looked up to him as a sort of "big brother" figure for the last ten years. Still, it's a little awkward...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Dispensationalist questions

Mr. Ox, can you elaborate on the differences you see between Darby dispensationalism, classical dispensationalism, and Pauline dispensationalism?

I think the term "Pauline Dispensationalism" is used almost exclusively by MJS et al. There is a book by MJS on the subject; according to it,
The glorified Lord delivered His sanctifying and glorifying message exclusively to His Bride through Paul—a life-giving Word infinitely higher than His earthly message to the nation of Israel. The Pauline Gospel, governed by Pauline Dispensationalism, belongs to the Church.

I've known people who claim to be "Pauline Dispensationalist" who were pretty close to Scofield ("Classical Dispensationalist"), and I've known some who were pretty close the Stam ("Hyper-Dispensationalist"). The fundamental concept is that our faith should center on Paul's epistles. Some hold Peter's and John's Epistles aren't "to us"; others hold they are, but we are to understand the rest of the Epistles in light of Paul's. My reading of MJS has given me the impression he had trouble figuring out his own position: he seemed to span the whole range.

Doctrinally, I haven't got a problem with 95% of what Paulines say. My problem with "Pauline Dispensationalism" is not with the propositions, but with the paradigm: there is no Biblical reason to prefer Paul's Epistles to John's or Peter's. I am convinced the Epistles teach the Old Testament is not "to us": Romans, for example, declares the believer is "dead to the Law". But to say that John's Epistles are somehow inferior to Paul's is to set one's self up as judge over the Word of God. The Whole Counsel of God includes both Paul's teachings and John's (or Peter's, Jude's, James', etc.).

It is true that Paul was the instrument God used to declare the truth of the Church. But it is equally true that John is the instrument God used to declare the truth of Eternal Life. And, Peter's teaching focuses on the life we are to walk in the world now. I have examined the question for a long time, and come to the conclusion that choosing to adhere to either one at the expense of the other is to disregard the Whole Counsel of God.

Please bear in mind that one of my closest friends is self-proclaimed "Pauline". I am not accusing them of any blasphemy or heresy. I am saying the position is fundamentally built on the flawed paradigm of letting theology dictate to Scripture, rather than the other way around.

Where Pauline's get it right is, they have a real understanding of what they term "Identification Truth": Romans 6--8, Colossians 3, etc. They have an appreciation of the believer's death, burial, resurrection, and ascension with Christ. This is nothing short of utterly Scriptural, and sadly lacking amongst the vast majority of believers. Although I have real problems with the underlying assumptions of "Pauline Dispensationalism", I highly value their emphasis on "Spiritual Growth".

"Classical Dispensationalism" is the system of Scofield, Larkin, and (hitherto) Dallas Theological Seminary. Incidentally, this is what I grew up with. It's the "mainline" seven-dispensation (Larkin is an exception here) breakdown from Creation to Eternity. If you've seen the "Eternity to Eternity" charts by A. E. Booth or the various other "History of the Ages" diagrams, you've seen "Classical Dispensationalism".

I think it's correct in principle, but I find the divisions are somewhat more marked in their system than what I see in Scripture. For example, the events of Acts 2--9 are not quite so smooth as Larkin's charts would indicate. To quote Darby, Stephen's stoning was a major turning point in God's dealing with Israel. "Classical Dispensationalism" doesn't really recognize much between the major dispensational breaks: there are "minor" events that are extremely important in biblical history, but "Classical Dispensationalism" tends to obscure some of them.

I suspect in Scofield's mind, one dispensation ended Tuesday at 2:00 PM, and from 2:01 PM on that Tuesday, they were in a new dispensation with different rules. I think the "Classical" dispensationalist view is a bit of an over-simplification.

One feature of Scofield's dispensationalism is his view that dispensations start with a covenant and end with a jugment. This has the tendency to over-simplify Scriptural history. For example, the year at Sinai when Moses got the Law was a lot more complex than just "a covenant was given". In fact, Deuteronomy 29:1 alone makes the "Classical Dispensationalist" view suspect: "These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb." (NASB). This almost indicates two Mosaic covenants; and that is a bit of a problem for the "Classical" dispensationalist.

Having said that, I think "Classical Dispensationalism" is an honest attempt to understand Scripture. And I think it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. I prefer it to the "Pauline" version, because it is built on a better paradigm, although there is a tendency among those who hold "Classical Dispensationalism" to miss out on some of the very Scriptural teachings more common amongst the "Pauline" crowd.

And as an aside, I really hate the title "Age of Grace". Grace is God's character, not some sort of covenant. God has always been gracious. I prefer the term "Church Age", although I think it's misleading. I lean to the Darby/Kelly/Booth idea that the Church is really more of a gap between dispensations than a dispensation in and of itself.

So I find the "Pauline" view is built on very shaky hermeneutical ground, but tends to bring out a lot of the New Testament in
a very powerful way. The "Classical" view is more hermeneutically sound, but tends to over-simplify things, which has the effect of taking the edge off some vital truth.

Darby's dispensationalism is probably the least well-formulated, but possibly more consistent than the others.

If you haven't read Darby, I highly recommend it. He's not very easy to read, incredibly smart, and more than a little obtuse. But of everyone I've ever read, he is the most eager and consistent in respecting the Word of God as the Word of God. He is extremely consistent at not trying to "explain away" problem passages. I think this is one reason I like reading him so much.

As far as I know, Darby never came up with a well-formulated dispensationalism. You need to piece it together from his writings, which span more than 50 years. But here are some characteristics I've seen:

  1. Darby fervently argued that prophecy is only for the earth: events in Heaven are outside the scope of prophecy unless they directly relate to events on earth.

  2. Darby held that dispensations started after the Flood. The ante-deluvian world was a different world, and can't properly be part of any dispensation

  3. Darby held that all dispensations end in failure, and almost at the start. He held that the Church had fallen irredeemably into corruption by the end of the first century.

  4. Darby emphasized God's grace in salvation through faith spanning all the dispensations. While all dispensationalists say this, it was a very real focus to him.

  5. Darby takes special note of covenants within dispensations.

I like the Darbyist view, precisely because it is not a well-formulated theology. Darby never set out to develop a systematic theology. But the strength in that is, it emphasizes the need to let Scripture speak.

Darby himself endeavoured to acknowledge the Whole Counsel of God, which I think is the most important thing for us to do. The accusation against dispensationalists is frequently that we do exactly the opposite: we only acknowledge the parts of the Word of God that we like, and ignore the rest. And I have seen time and time again where we do exactly that. The fact is, Romans is a much more comfortable book for me than 1 Peter. But I can't let that entice me to declare Romans is "to us" and 1 Peter isn't.

So that's a somewhat informal comparison of how I see those three. I'm certainly up for discussion or contradictions, but I think that's accurate, as far as it goes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A brief introduction to dispensationalism

There are a lot of links from this article. To be consistent, I linked to Wikipedia whenever possible. I find articles on Christianity at Wikipedia are heavily biased; I chose the links because Wikipedia covers the most names in a single resource. Please don't take Wikipedia's bias as mine: if you have comments, please make them!

A few weeks ago, Anne commented 'I am unfamiliar with “Dispensationalism” and plan to learn more about it if possible.' Well, I am not really qualified to give a definitive dissertation on dispensationalism, but I thought I'd give a quick description. And then The Dawg posted about it today, so I finally wrote down some thoughts.

Before going too far, I want to recap the two major points of an earlier article I wrote:
  1. No theology is perfect. Theology is an attempt to "connect the dots", to come up with a model for reality that is in agreement with what Scripture says. Our models end up missing a few dots. "All models are wrong, but some are useful," George E. P. Box. Dispensationalism is almost certainly wrong in at least some areas, but I think it is terribly useful.
  2. We must not confuse reality with our models of it. This the first step on the road to heresy: if we start to treat our understanding of truth as infallible, we sooner or later end up drawing conclusions that fly in the face of Scripture. The Word of God is infallible, but our understanding of it is not.

Wikipedia starts its article on Dispensationalism with:
As a current theology among many Protestant and other Conservative Christian groups, Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism which teaches biblical history as a number of successive "economies" or "administrations", called "dispensations", each of which emphasizes the discontinuity of the Old Testament covenants God made with His various peoples.
I suppose this is fairly accurate, albeit somewhat vague. I wouldn't necessarily suggest one look to Wikipedia for insight on topics like this, but it might bring a different perspective.

Dispensationalism is a theology built on three premises:
  1. Israel and the Church are distinct
  2. the Church started after the Lord Jesus' ascension
  3. God works differently with respect to His people on earth in different time frames

The most hotly debated premise of dispensationalism is undoubtedly the first. Basically, there are three views you can have on the Church/Israel question: (a) the Church replaces Israel ("replacement theology"), (b) the Church partially replaces Israel, or (c) Israel and the Church are distinct. There are godly people who take each of those positions.

I suppose the vast majority of dispensationalists hold the "Acts 2" position, which is that the Church began in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended. There are various other positions that are "Post-Acts-2" (PA2), including "Acts 9", "Acts 13", "Acts 19", and "Acts 28". There are even some who hold a "Pre-Acts-2" position, but those are much more rare in my experience. I am personally of the "Acts 2" persuasion.

The last premiss is the most often misunderstood. Dispensationalists are frequently accused of teaching that there are many ways of salvation: for example, that Jewish believers were saved by keeping the Law, while New Testament Christians are saved by faith in Christ alone. This is a false accusation, plain and simple. It is a gross misrepresentation of what every dispensationalist I have ever met holds. The idea is not that God saves different ways in different dispensations (or "economies"), but that God deals differently with His people. It is a question of God's earthly government, not of eternal salvation.

This raises an interesting point: dispensationalism has a dual focus. On the one hand, God saves individuals. On the other, God rules over the earth. Both statements are true, and dispensationalism is an endeavour to recognize both are part of the Whole Counsel of God.

Dispensationalists typically break up Biblical history into dispensations, or periods of time where God deals with people in a certain way. A typical breakdown would be the one popularized by Scofield in his reference Bible. Scofield had seven dispensations:
  1. Innocence: begins at Creation and ends when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden
  2. Conscience: begins at the promise of the Messiah to Adam and Eve, and ends at the Flood
  3. Human Government: begins when Noah and his sons are given the commandment of capital punishment and ends at the destruction of the Tower of Babel
  4. Promise: begins when Abram is called and ends in the plagues on Egypt
  5. Law: begins with the giving in the Law at Sinai and ends at the Crucifixion
  6. Grace: begins at Pentecost and ends at the Great Tribulation
  7. Millenium: begins with the battle of Armegeddon and ends with the battle of Gog and Magog
Scofield's dispensationlism (sometimes referred to as "Classical Dispensationalism") is probably the most popular breakdown. In Scofield's model, each dispensation begins with a covenant that establishes the terms of the dispensation, and ends with a judgement where man's breaking of the terms is punished.

Scofield's is not the only dispensationalist breakdown. Clarence Larkin (who wrote several books on the subject) has eight dispensations: he adds one after Scofield's, "the heading up of all things in Christ". Darby, often credited as "the father of dispensationalism" only had about three (he doesn't specifically list them, that I remember). Darby specifically taught that dispensations only began after the Flood, because they are only God's dealing with people in this world: the world before the Flood was an entirely different world, and outside the scope of prophecy.

Modern dispensationalists range from "Progressive Dispensationlists" (who are arguably not dispensationalist at all) like Chuck Swindol to "Hyper-Dispensationlists" like Cornelius Stam. Somewhere in the middle (but leaning more the hyper side) are the "Pauline Dispensationlists", including Miles Stanford.

I personally lean towards Darby's dispensationlism, which is not nearly so regimented as the Scofield "classic" version. I am not a fan of the "Pauline" views; although a very close friend is avowedly "Pauline". It's not blasphemous heresy, but there are some ideas I can't accept. It is true, however, that the "Pauline" people seem to have a handle on the necessity of Romans 6--8 in the Christian life, which others have lost. I have little or no use for the extremes: progressive dispensationalism and hyper-dispensationalism. Again, godly believers live in both camps, but I find them flawed.

Dispensationalism has some interesting consequences. Here are just a few:
  1. dispensationalists believe believers are not to keep the Law, not even the Ten Commandments
  2. dispensationalists don't vote
  3. dispensationalists believe in a literal millenial reign of Christ on the earth
  4. dispensationalists believe strongly in types and shadows of Christ in the Old Testament, and frequently have Bible studies on those topics
  5. dispensationalists frequently hold that most or all prophecies in Scripture have two fulfillments: a "greater" and "lesser" fulfillment
  6. dispensationalists are extremely literal in their exegesis and tend to know their Bibles fairly well (this, alas, is changing with time)
  7. dispensationalists are frequently Zionist, as they believe Israel is still God's chosen people; but this is by no means a hard and fast rule

So that's a very broad overview of dispensationalism. Not the most enlightening, but hopefully somewhat helpful.

I'm sure The Dawg could say a lot more, good and bad. (Not to put you on the spot, bro)