Within dispensational circles, a theological controversy has been brewing since the late 1980’s. A special study-group of dispensational scholars began gathering prior to meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society. Their purpose was to discuss and re-think various issues pertaining to dispensational doctrine – to respond to covenant theology critiques of Dispensationalism, and to fix perceived weaknesses in traditional dispensational thought. Slowly, a series of new ways of thinking about a set of key dispensational topics emerged. Journal articles appeared. Eventually books were written and published. One of those books was Progressive Dispensationalism, courtesy of Dr. Craig Blaising and Dr. Darrell Bock. It is primarily this book that I am evaluating here.
Dispensationalism was originated by the Rev. John Nelson Darby (early leader in the Plymouth Brethren movement.) It was codified in L.S. Chafer’s systematic theology books, and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensational theology was revised in the late 1960’s by “second-wave” dispensational theologians like John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie. Further tinkering occurred during the 1970’s.
But PD (Progressive Dispensationalism) changes several important features of even Revised Dispensationalism. Therefore if qualifies as a truly new phase in Dispensationalism and not just more tinkering. PD addresses itself to issues:
· How does the plan of salvation relate to the distinctions made in the New Testament between Israel and the Christian Church?
· Just how distinct is the distinction between Israel and the Christian Church?
· Granting that there are distinct periods in history during which God administrates His people in particular ways, how many periods are there and what are they?
· Are Old Testament prophecies interpreted and applied in the New Testament in exactly the same sense that they were originally given, or are they ever expanded?
· Is God’s Kingdom in any way present in this current dispensation? If so, how, and how much?
· In the same vein, is Christ’s reign as the Davidic King in any way happening now? Or are all of the Davidic prophecies reserved for the second advent?
1. One plan of salvation: There is only one plan of redemption, not one for Israel and a different one for Christians. There is only one New Covenant, not two. The redemptive plan is revealed through God’s covenants. It begins with Abraham’s covenant, which combines physical and spiritual promises. David’s covenant, as developed by the later prophets also has redemptive application, since the Savior would be the Son of David. The New Covenant obtains redemption in fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic. The redemptive plan is holistic, not manifold.
2. Four dispensations: There are four dispensations:
3. One people of God: The Christian Church is quite distinct from Israel, but not radically distinct. The Church is not a mere “parenthesis” in an otherwise-Jewish divine plan. The Church is not “Plan B”. It is not a separate category of humanity, in the way the Bible speaks of Jews or Greeks. There is continuity between the Church and Israel, not discontinuity alone. All believers from all dispensations are united in one general assembly in heaven (Hebrews 12.)
4. Complimentary hermeneutics: The old claim that a consistent grammatical-historical method of interpretation will always produce traditional dispensationalists is demonstrably untrue. The NT doesn’t follow Charles Ryrie’s definition of “consistent literalism” in the way that it handles OT prophecy. The NT often expands upon the OT prophecies, without contradicting their original contexts. Implications are developed from words which were not developed in the OT. PD calls this a “complementary” hermeneutic: The NT adds onto the OT prophecies in a way complementary to their original context.
5. Already/Not Yet: The Kingdom of God’s blessings are mostly reserved for Christ’s second advent, but parts of it are manifested today through the Holy Spirit. The geo-political aspects will occur in the future. The Church is grafted into some key aspects of the New Covenant (justification, the gift of the Spirit, resurrection hope), but the geo-political features for Israel have not yet happened.
6. Davidic Reign Now: Christ’s Davidic reign began in part when He ascended to the right hand of the Father. Some of the Davidic promises have been fulfilled, many others must wait until Christ returns. Salvation blessings are mediated to us through Jesus, who fulfilled Psalm 110:1-2. “Christ” and “Son of God” were both Davidic titles. Jesus’ priesthood is that of Melchizedek, an office originally given to David. Jesus’ Davidic kingship was the method by which God would fulfill all of His promises to Abraham (Luke 1:55)
Dispensationalism is a reaction against covenant theology. Reaction is not always a bad thing. Pastors and theologians of the past came to see deep flaws in covenant theology. Transferring all of Israel’s as-yet-unfulfilled millennial promises to the visible Church is one of its major errors. A failure to grasp all the historical changes and developments from Eden to Revelation 22 is a flaw. A chronic inability to completely shake free from bondage to the Mosaic Covenant is yet another critical flaw.
But reaction often blinds us too. We are so driven by a pre-determination to not slide back into covenant theology that we can’t see when they are correct. We build our beliefs on the basis of a “slippery slope” argument: any doctrinal changes which adjust toward covenant theology is condemned as wrong, ipso facto. But that assumption itself is wrong.
Speaking for myself, I find Progressive Dispensationalism appealing. In fact, I discovered that what the PD theologians did professionally, I’d already amateurishly half-done on my own, since I graduated from a dispensational Bible college in 1982.
· Israel and the Church have as much in common as they differ from each other.
· There is only one redemptive plan of God, not one for Israel and one for the Church.
· The pillars of God’s redemptive plan are the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New covenants. The covenants are the scriptural foci of redemption, not the dispensations.
· There is only one true nation of God in heaven as well as on earth, not two (Rom. 11)
· Four dispensations (Patriarchs, Law, Church, Kingdom) make more sense to me than six or seven. Less is better.
· The New Testament does not use a dispensational hermeneutic with OT prophecies. The Apostles often expanded on, or re-applied the original prophecies.
· The blessings and powers of the Kingdom are partly spilling backward into our current dispensation, on the grounds of Christ’s atonement, by means of the Holy Spirit.
· Christ is the Davidic King now, and the conversion of Gentiles represents the beginning of the re-building of David’s tent (Acts 15:12-18.)
However, I am not a covenant theologian! I am still dispensational, because I still believe:
· The Christian Church began on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.)
· There will be a real 1,000 year reign of Christ some day in the future.
· The geo-political prophecies of the Old Testament will all be literally fulfilled.
· Ethnic Israel will be nationally converted in the end-times (Zech. 12.)
· Christians are not under the Law, including the Fourth Commandment.
· The Kingdom is not exhaustively experienced in the earthly church.
· Christ’s kingship is not fulfilled until He sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem.
There are still some hazy spots in PD. A book or tape series which evaluates covenant theology from a PD perspective would be helpful, and also show the ways in which PD is not just a weird covenant/dispensational hybrid.