Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dispensationalism, Calvinism, and Progressive Revelation

Issues Etc. recently had a very interesting interview with Dr. Thomas Ice. I appreciate the fact that Issues Etc. often has guests that disagree with the theological position of the program so that we are able to hear a representative from that theological position explain why they believe what they believe. Dr. Thomas Ice is a very intelligent man and able to defend Dispensationalism as well as anyone I've heard. There are some huge problems with his position but I thought he had some very interesting things to say.

Dr. Ice is an honest enough scholar to admit that Dispensationalism is a relatively new system of belief. Dr. Ice does not believe this is problematic because according to him doctrine is in continual development. He listed the substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, and covenant theology as all things that took time to develop in the church. Dr. Ice says that the early Dispensationalists were Calvinists and very concerned about the glory of God.

This interview with Dr. Ice made me realize something I had not noticed before. Even though most current Dispensationalists are not Calvinists and most current Calvinists are not Dispensationalists, Dispensationalism could not have developed without Calvinism.

Both the Lutherans and the early church fathers believed that the Scriptures were all about Jesus. The early church fathers found Jesus in some of the most unlikely places in the Old Testament. By doing this, they were following the Apostolic tradition. Many examples could be pointed to in the New Testament but I'll just use one as an example that I believe also demonstrates the problem with Dispensationalism. Hosea 11:1 says:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1 ESV)
If all we had was Hosea 11:1, how should it be interpreted? It would seem that according the historical-grammatical method used by most Protestants "Israel" would be understood as national Israel and God is speaking of a past even when He delivered Israel out of the land of Egypt. But how does Matthew interpret Hosea 11:1?

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15 ESV)

Matthew takes a statement that appears to be just a statement about a past even that happened to Israel and interprets it as a prophecy about Jesus. The Dispensationalist will tell us that Matthew was inspired by the Holy Spirit and free to give entirely new meanings to Old Testament texts. The Calvinist will generally accept Matthew 2:15 as giving us the authoritative interpretation of Hosea 11:1 but is uncomfortable with interpreting Old Testament texts that are not explicitly referenced in the New Testament in the same way. The Lutherans and the Early Church Fathers understood the Apostles to be providing us with examples of how we should read the Old Testament.

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27 ESV)
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, (John 5:39 ESV)
Lutherans understand the above passages to teach that all of the Scriptures are all about Jesus. Calvinists and Dispensationalists tend to take them to mean that the Old Testament contains prophecies about Jesus but that the Old Testament is not all about Jesus. The church fathers taught that the Psalms were all about Jesus, but Calvin only believed some of them were and thought that the interpretations given by the church fathers that found Jesus everywhere were ridiculous just as the Dispensationalist finds them ridiculous.

Lutherans confess with the Apostle Paul that the central message of all preaching should be Christ-crucified because ultimately the Scriptures are all about Christ-crucified for the justification of sinners. But Calvinism and Dispensationalism see God's glory as the central teaching of all of Scripture. For Calvinism and Dispensationalism, the crucifixion of Christ is part of the larger story about God's glory.

I appreciate the work done by Kim Riddlebarger and other Calvinist theologians on eschatology. Lutherans have been a little lazy. But Calvinist theologians tend to make the leap immediately to showing how the church is the fulfillment of Israel. This is partially due to the prominent place that Covenant Theology has in Calvinism. When Calvinists argue for infant baptism they tend to do so on the covenantal grounds first defended by Zwingli rather than use the historic arguments about infants being part of the nations and needing to have their sins washed away. But rather than jump immediately from Israel to the church, I think it's important to see as Matthew does that Jesus is Israel reduced to one. Jesus is the New Israel. Jesus does everything Israel failed to do. Through our union with Jesus as the church we receive the blessings promised to Israel. This keeps everything centered upon Christ rather than on a transition from Israel to the church.

I think this could be helpful from an apologetics perspective as well. Often, Dispensationalists are reacting against covenant theology which they understand to be replacement theology that replaces Israel with the church. But the Scriptures are not centered upon Israel or the church, they are centered upon Christ. What is said about both God and Israel in the Old Testament is usually metaphorically true of each of them but becomes literally true in Christ. Psalm 22 applied in some metaphorical way to both David and Israel but is literally true of Christ. When Job says that God walks on the waters, Jesus literally does that. People have managed to use Old Testament prophecy in very wrong ways to justify the taking of another person's land or slavery or something like that. But the possibility of abuses get taken off the table if you take it as all being about Jesus and it's hard to argue that the Devil is deceiving people into thinking that the Bible is all about Jesus.

Todd Wilken rightly pointed out how mainline liberals have used the idea of the continual development of doctrine to justify some pretty outrageous things. But so has Rome. And I think people would be surprised to find out that even in confessionally Calvinist circles, the idea of the continual development of doctrine is promoted. I was at a lecture done by Herman Hanko where he said that if  a church does not continue to develop in its doctrines it will die off. That's at least part of the reason why there are so many different Calvinist denominations. They have all developed in different directions.

Calvinism has to accept the idea that doctrine isn't just something to be handed down but must be continually developed. Otherwise there would be no way to justify the doctrine of the limited atonement or the idea that once someone has real faith they will never fall away from the faith. Michael Horton has tried to find these teachings in the church fathers but as I've shown in a previous blog post the scholarship is really, really bad. You can't find TULIP in the church fathers. Contrary to Dr. Ice you can find justification by faith alone and the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement does not begin with Anselm. But it's not that surprising that within the Calvinist system that believes that everyone got it wrong until they came along that Dispensationalism would develop and regard themselves as building upon and further developing what Calvinism started. If everyone got the atonement wrong for so long, how do we know that they didn't get eschatology wrong and the relationship between the church and Israel? The covenant theology taught by Calvinism is a relatively new doctrine in the Christian church, only a little bit older than Dispensationalism.

You can have your covenant theology or your Dispensationalism. I'll take Christ-crucified in my ear and in my mouth for the forgiveness of my sins.


Martin Yee said...

Wow, excellent post!


Anonymous said...

/ For variety here's what I saw on the amazing net. Gerald /

Margaret Macdonald's Rapture Chart !

"church" RAPTURE "church"
(present age) (tribulation)

In early 1830 Margaret was the very first one to see a pre-Antichrist (pretrib) rapture in the Bible - and John Walvoord and Hal Lindsey lend support for this claim!
Walvoord's "Rapture Question" (1979) says her view resembles the "partial-rapture view" and Lindsey's "The Rapture" (1983) admits that "she definitely teaches a partial rapture."
But there's more. Lindsey (p. 26) says that partial rapturists see only "spiritual" Christians in the rapture and "unspiritual" ones left behind to endure Antichrist's trial. And Walvoord (p. 97) calls partial rapturists "pretribulationists"!
Margaret's pretrib view was a partial rapture form of it since only those "filled with the Spirit" would be raptured before the revealing of the Antichrist. A few critics, who've been repeating more than researching, have noted "Church" in the tribulation section of her account. Since they haven't known that all partial rapturists see "Church" on earth after their pretrib rapture (see above chart), they've wrongly assumed that Margaret was a posttrib!
In Sep. 1830 Edward Irving's journal "The Morning Watch" (hereafter: TMW) was the first to publicly reflect her novel view when it saw spiritual "Philadelphia" raptured before "the great tribulation" and unspiritual "Laodicea" left on earth.
In Dec. 1830 John Darby (the so-called "father of dispensationalism" even though he wasn't first on any crucial aspect of it!) was still defending the historic posttrib rapture view in the "Christian Herald."
Pretrib didn't spring from a "church/Israel" dichotomy, as many have assumed, but sprang from a "church/church" one, as we've seen, and was based only on symbols!
But innate anti-Jewishness soon appeared. (As noted, TMW in Sep. 1830 saw only less worthy church members left behind.) In Sep. 1832 TMW said that less worthy church members and "Jews" would be left behind. But by Mar. 1833 TMW was sure that only "Jews" would face the Antichrist!
As late as 1837 the non-dichotomous Darby saw the church "going in with Him to the marriage, to wit, with Jerusalem and the Jews." And he didn't clearly teach pretrib until 1839. His basis then was the Rev. 12:5 "man child...caught up" symbol he'd "borrowed" (without giving credit) from Irving who had been the first to use it for the same purpose in 1831!
For related articles Google "X-Raying Margaret," "Edward Irving is Unnerving," "Pretrib Rapture's Missing Lines," "The Unoriginal John Darby," "Deceiving and Being Deceived" by D.M., "Pretrib Rapture Pride," "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" and "Scholars Weigh My Research." The most documented and accurate book on pretrib rapture history is "The Rapture Plot" (see Armageddon Books online) - a 300-pager that has hundreds of disarming facts (like the ones above) not found in any other source.