Progressive Dispensationalism in Comparison to Normative Dispensationalism

Introduction

When discussing Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) it is important to first establish its origin and a working definition so as to distinguish it from other theological systems. PD began its public life at the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Atlanta Georgia in 1986. It’s main formulators were Darrel L. Bock and Craig A. Blaising, out of Dallas Theological Seminary, and Robert L. Saucy out of Talbot Theological Seminary. [1] These men put forward a critique and adjustment of Normative Dispensationalism (ND) that was different enough to merit defining an entirely new system.

As for the issue of definitions, it should be made clear that PD is considered a revision or exposition on classic dispensationalism. Many progressives would not even like the distinction between PD and ND as they consider themselves merely dispensationalists. The category is wide and varied and so they see no need for the change in class, but the founders of PD make it quite clear that their views are rather radical revisions on ND and so necessitate a new system. Blaising says as much when he describes the extent of the doctrines that the book Progressive Dispensationalism will address and alter based on their understandings of them. He says, “This change affects the way dispensationalists understand key biblical themes such as the kingdom of God, the church in God’s redemptive program, the interrelationship of the biblical covenants, the historical and prophetic fulfillment of those covenants, and the role of Christ in that fulfillment.”[2]

These Doctrines are central to a clear understanding of dispensationalism and so a revision of this magnitude rightly deserves a new system of interpretation. Progressive Dispensationalists and Normative ones cannot claim that they believe the same thing. The changes listed by Blaising make that clear.

What then is the definition of PD? Unfortunately, a concise definition cannot be given. It is easier and more succinct to detail the differences between PD and ND, because PD claims to be a modification of ND and so borrows some of its definition from the get-go. However, in order to do so, a concise definition of Normative dispensationalism must be given, and as Ryrie , “To say that there is a great lack of clear thinking on this matter of definition is an understatement.”

The easiest way to concisely define ND is to relate the sine qua non, which means in Latin, “Without which is not,” meaning that without these three tenets, Dispensationalism is not Dispensationalism. The Thee tenets are, (1) The consistent application of a literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic, (2) which reveals the fact that the Church is distinct from Israel, (3) and that the overall purpose of God in the world is to glorify Himself. If a system of theology does not hold true to these three points, then it cannot be termed “Dispensationalism.”

Now, back to the question of defining PD in light of this definition of ND. The overriding and problematic differences between the two can be summarized as follows: (1) PD advocates for a Christological purpose of God, creation, and history where ND advocates a Doxological one (2) PD advocates for inauguration of the Davidic Kingdom (and thus “partial fulfillment”[3] of the Davidic Covenant) right now in heaven where ND recognizes the Davidic Kingdom as fully in the future, being inaugurated in the millennium (3) PD advocates for a softer distinction between the church and Israel where ND draws a hard line stating that there are two distinct groups within the one people of God, and there are two distinct plans for each group.

There are, of course, more minor points that the two parties disagree on, but these three seem to be the main points of contention. The reason that these three have been chosen to distinguish PD from ND instead of the actual number of dispensations chosen by each group- four vs. seven- or the question of what dispensations are present in the book of revelation, is because these three issues deal most closely with the redefinition of the sine qua non. In essence, these three points change what the core tenets of dispensationalism uphold, not the effects or results of holding those tenets. The object of this paper will be to explain the two different views on these three points and, in the process, to make a case for Normative Dispensationalism as the more reliable system and method of interpretation.

Point One: Views on the Purposes of God

Whenever discussing the purpose of God it should be remembered that we are not God. We don’t know His purposes unless He tells them to us, and whatever He tells us, we have to take Him at His word. Since God can’t deceive because it is contrary to his nature, we can take Him at his word. We therefore need to determine if He has had a word on the topic of His purposes. Unfortunately, He doesn’t come right out and say, “This is why I created everything,” and so, some systematic theology must be done.

The clearest passages that give us an idea of why God bothered making the world at all can be found in Ephesians 1:6. Paul goes into an in depth description of what Christ has done for us, and how God predestined it to happen, all, “to the praise of the glory of his grace.” Later he repeats the phrase, “to the praise of his glory,” in 12 and 14.

This passage does not reveal a lot on first examination, but reveals quite a bit on a closer look. Before doing so, the different views should be addressed. It seems to many that the purpose of God is the redemption of humanity through His son, Jesus the Christ. This is the Christological position and is taken by Covenant Theologians, Reformed Theologians, and is the position of Progressive Dispensationalists. Normative Dispensationalists do not deny that God’s redemption of humanity is one of God’s purposes throughout history, but it is not his highest or main purpose. When trying to determine God’s overall purpose, the one that goes the highest up and the furthest back must be the most important and thus trump all others when discussing his overall or underlying purpose in history.

Turning back to the passage in Ephesians, Paul affirms that one of God’s actions was to adopt us as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself. But he goes on to give us the reason for this action. He says that this redemption was, “according to the kind intention of His will” and “to the praise of the glory of His grace.”

These two phrases make it clear that the overriding purpose, the motivation or intent behind the action, was His own glory. It was because of His glory and will that we were saved by Christ. There is a cause and effect relationship between His glory and our redemption: the glory is the cause, and our redemption is the effect.

This cause and effect relationship is further reinforced in verses 11 and 12. Paul says that we were, “predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” Notice that our hope in Christ is an end and, “the praise of His glory,” and, “counsel of His will,” are the means, or the cause, or the motivation, or the purpose. This clearly places God’s glory and will above humanities redemption through Christ, making His glory the overriding purpose.

How then does PD reach the conclusion of a Christological purpose? It is done by saying that, “the Kingdom of God is the unifying theme in biblical history.” [4]

Ryrie does a fine job of assimilating many different progressive sources to show that a Christological purpose emerges from this principle. The following will be a brief summary of that treatment.

In short, PD’s advocacy for the kingdom of God as the unifying theme of history leads to a Christological purpose, because the phrase is so loosely defined in its usage. Progressives talk of a single unified kingdom throughout the entire history of the Bible with no respect to different kingdoms or reigns through history, such as the Davidic kingdom, the Solomonic kingdom, the reigns of the judges or of Moses or Joshua, the millennial kingdom, the church and the messianic reign. These terms are all lumped together and the lines between all kingdoms are blurred by the phrase “the kingdom of God.” These lines are more specifically blurred by asserting that Christ is currently ruling from heaven on David’s throne (more on this later). Once this is established a Christological purpose must emerge as the only way to justify uniting the Messianic, and eschatological kingdoms.[5]

Also, when discussing God’s purpose, particularly His purpose in creation, it is more logical to assume that His purpose started to be, and continued to be, fulfilled at the beginning of creation. This poses a problem for PD. If God’s purpose in creation was to redeem man from his fallen state, then God had no purpose during the six days of creation because man was not in a fallen state and did not need redeeming.

Conversely, God was being glorified through creation from day one (literally). If His purpose was to redeem mankind then He had no reason to create in the first place, but if His purpose was to glorify Himself through creation, He had every reason to create. So, according to PD He had no purpose for the first seven days of the world, but according to ND He was never purposeless.

Point TWO: Fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant

The fulfillment of the Davidic covenant is probably the most controversial point between ND and PD, followed closely by the distinction between Israel and the Church. Why then was the doxological purpose of God placed first in this paper? Quite frankly, it was because most Dispensationalists are worried about the wrong thing. To be sure, this and the following point are of great importance, but the glory of God is the ultimate trump card in all arguments and His holiness and glory should be defended and established first and foremost in any debate. If the glory of God is in question, then that question needs to be answered before moving on. That is why these three points come in a different order than they would if it they were following the sine qua non point by point.

In short, the Davidic covenant is the covenant God made with David that a king would be placed on David’s throne to rule over Israel and the nations. It is found in pieces all over the bible including 2 Samuel 7, 1 Chronicles 17, Psalms 89, 110, and 132.[6] The first question in this debate is, “Who will be this King?” the answer to which all reasonable theologians can agree is, “Jesus.” “When will this King take this throne and rule?” and, “What is necessarily meant by the word ‘throne?’ Is it a rulership? A metaphor for kingdom? A literal be-gemmed chair?” are the questions that get the brunt of the debate.

The Davidic Covenant, according to PD, needs to be interpreted as both having begun to be fulfilled spiritually now in heaven and will also be fully fulfilled literally in the future. They take the word “throne” to be merely a phrase for “rulership” or “kingship” not as a literally seat on which a king sits.[7]

Oddly enough, this question of a literal throne is the main point of contention and cause for disagreement over the fulfillment of this covenant. Normative Dispensationalists constantly repeat that Jesus can’t be ruling on David’s throne in heaven. They say, “The scripture clearly says that he is seated on the right hand of the throne of God. How can he be sitting on both God’s throne and David’s throne at the same time?” I agree with this assertion that the throne of the Davidic kingdom should be taken literally.

This is the very first point of the dispensationalism sine qua non: A consistent application of a plain normal literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic. The fact that PD so casually asserts that the throne of David is a kingship betrays the fact that they are no longer holding to the first tenet of dispensationalism and so are no longer dispensationalists.

Blaising very neatly sweeps this issue under the rug by saying the Lord’s promise “to establish the kingdom of David’s descendants [is] repeated four times in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17, alternating the terms kingdom and throne for literary emphasis.”[8] He goes on to introduce the word rulership and discuss it for three more sentences before heading off toward a discussion of the spiritual inauguration of the covenant right now in heaven, repeating the use of the specific word “raise up” in the covenant and drawing parallels between that phrase and Jesus’ ascension.[9]

The three little words, “for literary emphasis,” are the ones that should be truly alarming to the Dispensationalist. If you truly believe in the verbal plenary inspiration of the scripture, then a distinction between the words kingdom and throne cannot be swept aside so easily. Not only that, but Blaising goes on to reinforce the importance of the specific word, “raise-up” and to use that specific wording to prove a doctrinal point.

The attention to specific word usage in one case and the lack of attention to it in another is exactly the problem with the Progressive Dispensationalist’s approach to the Davidic covenant, and to dispensationalism as a whole. It forgets the key word in the first point of the sine qua non, “A consistent use of a literal hermeneutic.” Without consistency in one’s hermeneutic, who is to decide which words should be taken as “literary emphasis” and which words should be taken as the word of God?

Point Three: The Distinction Between the Church and Israel

The question of the distinction of the church and Israel is the least well defined of all the points. There are progressives who hold fast to the original distinction put forward in the second point of the sine qua non, and there are some who argue for an almost purely replacement theology as the covenantal theologians do.  Because of this, it is hard to say exactly what the Progressive Dispensationalists are trying to say when it comes to Israel and the church. This is precisely the problem that Normative Dispensationalists have. They say, “We can’t quite tell what point they’re trying to make. We seem to say the same thing about Israel and the Church, but they keep bringing it up as a real change in dispensationalism, so it makes us feel all the more uneasy.”

As far as the two leading books outlining PD go, Progressive Dispensationalism by Doctors Blaising and Bock and The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism by Dr. Saucy, the question is still unclear to the casual reader. Saucy in particular, gives a very sound biblical defense for the distinction of Israel and the Church. It is only as he continues with the statement, “Since this [new covenant] salvation was promised to both Israel and the nations, these realities that are new with the coming of Christ and the Spirit are not unique to the church. They belong to all God’s people and are, in fact, that which finally binds them together as the people of God.”[10] It is this sort of a statement that leads to errors such as the Christological purpose of history and tends to simply confuse the normative dispensationalists in the room.

There are two possibilities with a statement like this. Either (1) Saucy is trying to, in his own way, defend the one method of salvation applicable to all dispensations (by grace through faith), in which case there is no issue except a lack of clarity, or (2) Saucy is trying to give a foothold to those who wish to blur the lines between Israel and the Church and eventually lead to replacement theology, in which case there is a doctrinal error that needs correcting.

It is more hopeful and more likely to assume the first, but Saucy’s references to the New Covenant on the same page should give pause to those making the decision so quickly.

Bruce Ware echoes similar sentiments in the book Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. He says, “The discussion above lends support for the conclusion that Israel and the church are in one sense a united people of God (they participate in the same new covenant), while in another sense they remain separate in their identity and so comprise differing peoples of God.”[11] This causes more confusion because dispensationalists have already fought a battle with the phrase two people’s of God and clarified that there is one people with two distinct groups that have two distinct plans and purposes. Why then choose a phrase like “differing peoples” when arguing for a dispensationalist position, and then draw attention to the fact? Why not use the term distinct, which the dispensationalists have already agreed on and use in their sine qua non?

Also, this argument is dangerous because not all dispensationalists are in agreement about the extent and fulfillment of the New Covenant. Many would say that none of the promises apply to the church age, while some would say that it is partially inaugurated. It is this sort of exegesis that gives Normative Dispensationalists, an uneasy feeling about PD and the, “progress,” that it is making. The question of the New Covenant, however, is a subject for another paper at another time. In the meantime, it would seem as though Israel and the church have yet to be defined, and the search is still on.

Conclusion

After reviewing the facts it’s clear that ND and PD have some glaring differences. Though they may seem minor at first glace, with a little investigation, one can discover the chasms that exist between the two parties. PD’s take on the purpose of history and creation, the inauguration of the Davidic Covenant, and the every shrinking clarity between the church and Israel gives one pause to consider the words of Dr. Harry Ironside, when speaking on another proposed revision of dispensationalism. “Once men take up with this system there is no telling how far they will go and what their final position will be in regard to the great fundamental truths of Christianity. It is because of this that one needs to be on his guard, for it is as true of systems as it is of teachers, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’”[12]

Bibliography

Blasing, Craig A., and Darrel Bock. Progressive Dispensationalism. Wheaton IL: Victor Books, 1993.

Blaising, Craig A., ed.,  and Darrel L. Bock, ed. Dispensationalism, Israel and the church: The Search for Definition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Ironside, H. A. Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc.

Poythress. Vern S. Understanding Dispensationalists. 2nd ed. New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1994.

Ryrie, Charles. Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007.

Saucy, Robert. The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

[1]Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), 161.

[2] Craig Blaising, and Darrel Bock, Prgoressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton IL: Victor Books, 1993), 9.

[3] Blaising and Bock, 53.

[4] Ryrie, 193.

[5] Ryrie, 193-194.

[6] Blaising and Bock, 159.

[7] Ibid, 160.

[8] Ibid, 160.

[9] Ibid, 160-161.

[10] Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 208.

[11] Craig A. Blaising, and Darrel L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 96.

[12] H. A. Ironside, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, Inc.), 11.

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