Note to the reader: Thanks for your patience. Carolyn and I returned yesterday from a great vacation. Postings are resuming.

Schisms Within the Church (continued)

Yet further, Catholics generally regard Protestants as dispensationalists. But here too, despite this lumping together of all Protestants on the topic, not all Protestants consider themselves to be such. A dispensationalist is a Christian who interprets Scripture with a view that God has interacted with man in a variety of different ways, labeled as dispensations, over time. Many Protestant theologians disapprove of the dispensationalist notion, arguing that the dispensational viewpoint has supported some serious theological errors in the past. Anti-dispensationalists point to the suspected origin of at least modern dispensationalism as representing an apparent misunderstanding of Scripture by John Darby, upon which he preached in the mid-nineteenth century, and which was propagated further by prominent theologians including C. I. Schofield and John Walvoord. Darby’s supposed error involved the use of the word “dividing” by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15, as translated in the King James Version of the Bible:

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

Scholars point out that whereas the word “dividing” is not the best rendition of the original word in the translation of the text into English, Darby applied it in what they label an inappropriate sense to divide, or break up, Scripture into separate “Dispensations”, or eras where God interacts with mankind in different ways.

Despite this original error, if that indeed is what motivated Darby in the first place, Protestant dispensationalists understand that it is not a logical necessity that a bad premise must result in a false conclusion. Among its adherents, dispensationalism comes in a variety of flavors, each of which has its supporters and detractors. There is a brand of dispensationalism, called “Progressive Dispensationalism,” described below, that enjoys the housekeeping benefits of dispensationalism without suffering from the most negative aspects.

Anti-dispensationalists are fond of pointing to Darby’s interpretive error to justify their attitude, but they have other intellectual arrows in their quivers also. Specifically, the following three errors which are attributed to the dispensationalist by the anti-dispensationalist are more relevant to the discussion than the “dividing” error first attributed to Darby: first, that God is subject to change rather than conforming to the Scriptural maxim that “God is the same, yesterday, today and forever”; second, that the New Testament has supplanted the Old and makes it of no relevance to Christians today; and third, that dispensationalism has led to the error of “replacement theology”, an anti-Semitic notion that teaches that following the Jews’ rejection of Jesus and His death on the cross, God transferred His affection (and corresponding promises) from the Jews to the Church. Interestingly, Darby himself rejected the notion of replacement theology, being among the first post-Reformation theologians to believe that God in the future would restore Israel as a nation. While he thought that God treats Israel differently than He does the Church, his beliefs were not anti-Semitic. More recently, dating from about 1986, “progressive dispensationalists” have brought a future Israel and the Church together under the blessings of the cross.

Before addressing the specific issues associated with the errors noted above, dispensationalism will first be defined as suggested by Grant Jeffrey, a prominent theologian who is also a dispensationalist and more closely tied to the progressive dispensationalism movement. Dispensationalism, according to Dr. Jeffrey, consists of two major parts: a new revelation to mankind by God, accompanied by a call to man’s obedience to that new knowledge of God and His interaction with man. The revelation may involve a promise or reward for obedience and a punishment for disobedience if conditions are attached, but a retraction is never involved in an unconditional promise of God.

According to Jeffrey, there will be a total of seven dispensations from God to man: first, innocence from man’s creation to his fall; second, conscience from man’s fall to the Great Flood; third, government of man from the Flood to Babel; fourth, promise from Abraham to Exodus; fifth, law from the Exodus to Jesus’ crucifixion, sixth, grace from Jesus’ resurrection and the Pentecost to the Rapture and Tribulation, and seventh, the Kingdom of God from the Rapture through eternity.

As noted above, the issues presented by the anti-dispensationalists have one supposition in common: they all assume without justification that a new dispensation cancels out the previous one. Under that assumption, in particular, the New Testament voids the Old, and God’s dealings with Israel ended with the Age of Grace.

While the concerns of the anti-dispensationalists regarding unjustified anti-Semitism and disregard of the Old Testament are certainly valid, the presuppositions that lead to their concern are not. In particular, the presupposition of anti-dispensationalists regarding the beliefs of the dispensationalists, and most particularly the progressive dispensationalists, that one dispensation voids the earlier ones, is manifestly false. Progressive dispensationalists are well aware that the Old Testament anticipated and pointed to the New, and that Jesus Christ was prominent in both, and they openly acknowledge this truth. A common phrase accepted by both dispensationalists and anti-dispensationalists alike regarding the relationship of the Testaments to each other is “The New Testament is in the Old concealed, and the Old Testament is in the New revealed”. Jesus Himself said that He came not to remove the Law, but to fulfill it. The same commentary applies to God’s dealing with Israel. Despite the great Diaspora that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, which was fully anticipated in Scripture (Deuteronomy Chapter 28, for example), God has not given up on Israel, as may be attested to numerous Scriptural passages that insist upon the unchangeable as well as unconditional nature of God’s promises to Israel, as may be seen in the recent fulfillment of Ezekiel Chapters 36 and 37.

The issue of God’s unchanging nature involves another matter, but not a very complex one. Basically, God’s unchanging nature does not logically demand or even imply that His dealings with us must be fixed and unchanging as well. Indeed, Scripture itself demands that we view our understanding of God as progressive in nature, varying with our own development. How else could Paul reveal a mystery to us as he did in Ephesians Chapter 5 and elsewhere? As the telling of a mystery intrinsically involves providing the hearer of new knowledge of the kind that demands a different response from man, the mysteries that Paul revealed to us guarantees that God’s interaction with us is progressive rather than static. This flexibility makes perfect sense if redeemed mankind is considered by God to be His children, to be treated according to our own progressive development and maturity. Does He? Paul, in Galatians 3:23-26 and Colossians 1:26, rather directly verifies that God does indeed consider us to be His children, and treats us according to how we should develop spiritually with time, having had ample opportunity to digest the implications of His interaction with us under previous theological regimes:

“But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore, the law was our schoolmaster to bring us up unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”

“. . .Even the mystery which hath been hidden from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints, . . .”

[to be continued]


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