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.


Chuck Hicks said...

Excellent summation as always, Ox.

One statement you made is striking:

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.).

That to me became problematic of dispensationalism. Passages like Romans 13:8-10 and especially 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (where "all scripture" refers primarily to, or is at least inclusive of, the Tanakh, or Hebrew scriptures) need further elaboration from the dispensational perspective.

A slightly different perspective on the Law is, I think, very helpful in this regard. The Law, among many things, provided a barrier of separation between Israel and the nations until Messiah came. The ceremonial aspects of the Law clearly have no application in any age for a Gentile believer (cf. Galatians 3:16, where the stress is upon the works of the Law, i.e. circumcision, keeping Sabbaths, kosher food, etc.). On the other hand, the moral dimension of the Law has been on the heart of every human from the beginning (Romans 2:14-16) and is thus a just basis for his/her condemnation, since all have sinned.

No one is saved by keeping the Law, and you rightly bring out the point that dispensationalist never taught that anyone ever was. The question is whether the Law/Grace dichotomy and (by consequence) the Israel/Church distinction is really as sharp as dispensationalists (of all shades) make it out to be.

The lesser that distinction, the more a "troublesome" epistle like James fits into the overall message of the New Testament.

Anonymous said...

Those outside of Dispensationalism tend to lack in their definitions of hyper, classic, pauline, or acts 2 definitions. A Pauline Dispensationalist who "rightly divides the Word of truth" recognizes that the Church the Body of Christ began with the Apostle Paul and he is the preacher and teacher to the Gentiles as God left His program with Israel for a season and a reason and is now dealing with the Gentiles through Christ in the heavenly places as God reveals the "mystery" of Christ to the Apostle Paul. Paul did not have the full revelation of the "mystery" and would come to "visions and revelations", these were not completed until his last epistle. Paul explains Christ according to his gospel according to the revelation of the mystery which the world hath not known since the world began. God had kept it a secret until due time. A hyper-dispensationalist believes the Body of Christ started in Acts 28, and of course an Acts 2 dispensationalist believes the Body starts in Acts 2. This however is the stance of most Christianity, however if looked and studied carefully, the Body of Christ is made up of both Jew and Gentile, and Acts 1 to Acts 9 are specifically Jewish and God is still dealing with His prophetic program with the nation of Israel. Paul is a type of the Body of Christ being a Jew himself, yet having Roman citizenship. God is dealing with specifically Gentiles and sees Jews as the rest of the world like Gentiles, because of their disobedience. Also, Paul epistles deal with the Spirit of Grace, not a new covenant which was given specifically to Israel. God will deal with Israel under grace as He provides the new spirit and new heart for them to obey His commandments, however we as the Body of Christ are not under that law. Hebrews, James, Peter, and John and Revelation, deal with God's program with Israel again in the future, as they receive the new covenant and the commands they have to follow through the tribulation period and the events of God in the end times. All the Word of God is for us, but it is foolish to think that all the Bible is to us, for it is not and anyone who is Jewish can tell you that. Pauline Dispensationalist who preach and teach the Word rightly divided teach the whole counsel of God in its proper place where as most of Christianity does not resulting in utter confusion and a wrestling and twisting of scriptures. Try putting God's Word on a timeline and you will be surprised, but it takes study and thinking and common sense in which most people do not have today. Try it I dare you, be honest with God's Word and fit the verses on a timeline starting from the beginning. The Pauline Dispensationalist that I know study the Word of God more then anyone I know and I know a lot of pastors and "godly men", they are bereans who search the scriptures daily to see if these things are true and what is not.

Justin said...

I appreciate your post. I have been having a hard time finding people who are not extremely covenant in their theology, when I search for dispensational discussions. I have been turned on to MJS and recently by my father. What I have read I like. In saying all that thanks for your post.

Anonymous said...

For some earth-shaking prior to Halloween, see "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" on Google (the best version is on the "Powered by Christ Ministries" site). Bennie

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