Dispensationalism’s Core Distinction
Dispensationalism’s core claim is that Israel and the Church must be carefully distinguished. In essence, it claims that God has two peoples with parallel but separate destinies. It is this distinction that drives Dispensationalism’s eschatological distinctives, viz. pretribulational premillennialism. Therefore, if it can be shown that Israel and the Church are not separate peoples of God, but together form the one people of God and are heirs according to the promises of God, then the impetus for dividing Christ’s coming into two parts falls away. What I am saying is this: a seven year period intervening between the rapture and the visible coming of Christ meets a theological necessity that only arises because of Dispensationalism’s commitment to see the Church and Israel as very distinct entities. That theological necessity centers around the land promises of the Abrahamic covenant. In Gen. 12:7 and 17:8 God promises to give to Abraham and to his seed the land of Canaan as an everlasting inheritance. Since God’s promises will most certainly be fulfilled (a point with which we agree), and since the Church cannot be heir of those promises (a point that flows out of Dispensationalism’s core claim, and a point with which we disagree) Dispensationalism is forced to find an opportunity for the fulfillment of the land promises in the future. By rapturing the church prior to the tribulation, the Dispensationalist provides himself with a new box into which he can fit difficult texts. One must admire the theological ingenuity of the system, but ultimately, the entire house of cards rests on the precarious position that the Church is a parenthesis in the history of redemption, in no way fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant. As we shall see, this position cannot stand up to biblical scrutiny.
Israel and the Church
But who is Israel? According to Romans 2:28-29, “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” Dispensationalism is vehement that there is a future for national Israel in God’s plan of redemption. So, before examining whether or not the Gentile Church has a part within this people of God, we ought to consider who the recipient of the promises was (singular used intentionally).
What does physical descent from Abraham secure in terms of the promises? Nothing. One need only think of Ishmael or of Esau to see that not every descendent of Abraham (even through Isaac) was included in the promises. Then, should we consider John 8:39-47, we would begin to see more clearly that the Bible reckons descent and inheritance spiritually, rather than as a mere matter of genetics. If any doubt remains on this point, Paul removes it in Rom. 9:6-8. That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” The significance of recognizing that it is Spiritual Israel, and not merely natural or national Israel that is heir to the promises becomes clear as we look at Galatians 3. In vv. 6-9, Paul says, Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal 3:6–9 ESV) So Gentiles who have received Christ are blessed with Abraham. Gentiles who have their hope in Christ are in fact sons of Abraham. That is, we are Jews. And if we are children of Abraham, then we have as much share in the inheritance promised to Abraham as does any Jew. “If the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.” (v. 18). “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (v. 22). By seeing the church as a parenthetical plan ‘B’, Dispensationalism fails to see that true Israel is faith-Israel, which is, in fact, the church.
Now I need to nuance a bit my claim that we have as much right to the inheritance as does the Jew. We have no right to that inheritance outside of Christ. It is only by virtue of our union with Christ that we have a right to the inheritance. But neither has the natural Jew any right to the inheritance outside of Christ. “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” (v. 16) In fact, Jesus, as the only true Jew, is the sole heir of the Abrahamic covenant. I think this is why Paul says in Gal 2:15-16 “even we” (natural Jews, and not Gentiles) seek justification through faith in Christ. What I mean is this: a Jew must confess that he is not heir by virtue of his genealogy, inasmuch as he is not really a (faithful) Jew, in order to receive his inheritance on the basis of his union with Christ.
So who is the Jew? We are. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:26–29 ESV) “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph 2:11–22 ESV) This fact, that the Gentiles are included in the promises to Abraham by virtue of union with Christ, is the content of the “mystery” so often mentioned by Paul. “By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power.” (Eph. 3:4-7)
Though I cannot imagine how there could remain any doubt that we are heirs with Israel of the promises to Abraham, if doubt remains, we might also mention Rom. 8:16-17: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” Or Phil. 3:3 “[W]e are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” In the end, Dispensationalism stands or falls with the church/Israel distinction. And, given the biblical evidence for the identity of the church as true Israel (in Christ), Dispensationalism falls.
What about the Land Promises?
Now if the Church is Israel, the people of God, then the need for a period of time when God works with Israel again disappears. Wait, Dispensationalism argues, what about the land promises? This is precisely what is in view in the evidence offered above. These land promises are specifically mentioned in Rom. 4.13-16. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” There is always expansion of the promises in their fulfillment. This promise is no different. Even if we focus on the physical, surely Dispensationalism must agree that Canaan is included in “the world”. And it is clear that it is those who are of faith that are heirs. However one views the land promises, it is difficult to limit the scope of 2 Cor. 1:20. “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” So I am unable to agree that there remain unfulfilled promises of God. We may await a fuller experience of some that have been fulfilled. But all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ in Christ.
Dispensationalism is keen to point to itself as the defender of conservative theology, and not without reason. It is true that some of the founders of Dispensationalism did, in fact, bear the torch of orthodoxy during a period when the mainline churches were becoming progressively liberal. They were not alone in this, however. There were many others, outside of Dispensationalist circles, such as J. Greshem Machen and Cornelius Van Til, to name only a couple, who held firmly to the inspiration, authority and inerrancy of the text. And these did not have to create a completely new way of interpreting the text of the Bible to do so. Make no mistake, Dispensationalism is new. It was invented less than two hundred years ago. While Dispensationalists should be commended for their commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, it is not logical to argue that because Dispensationalists, unlike others, have not gone liberal, all of the eschatological conclusions of Dispensationalism should therefore be adopted by any who want to remain faithful to the text. Incidentally, Dispensationlists who employ such illogical arguments ought to deal with the fact that the non-lordship heresy arose within Dispensationalism’s own circles. Dispensational theology was invented in the midst of the liberal slide, and it happened to be invented by some of those opposed to that slide. But others who opposed the shift toward liberalism did not invent a new way of understanding biblical history to do it. Dispensationalism is a recent and unnecessary innovation that introduces confusion into the history of redemption.
Dispensationalism also adamantly claims to interpret the text of scripture “literally”. In doing so, they claim to seek the “plain sense” of the text. It is not so much that there are no figures of speech in the text, they will maintain, only that the grammar and words should be taken as they would be in normal communication. We are not to look for codes or allegories. But again, this approach is not exclusive to Dispensationalism. In my arguments against cutting the Church out of the Abrahamic promises, I have pretty much allowed the text to speak for itself. To make these texts say anything different would require seeing subtle distinctions – perhaps as subtle as Dispensationalism’s distinguishing two second comings of Christ (i.e., so subtle that there is absolutely no linguistic or textual basis for the distinction—it arises from theological necessity, not exegesis). Lately, many dispensationalists have begun to recognize that language is more than words and syntax, that context, genre and canon play a role in interpretation. These are to be commended. Such an enlightened Dispensationalist might consider being more charitable to those who see the 1000 years of Revelation 20 as a figure of speech for a long period of time. After all, it appears in a book that clearly attaches symbolic significance to numbers, and uses symbolic imagery extensively. Nobody expects to see a literal whore riding a literal dragon! The genre of apocalyptic literature is not exclusive to the Bible. And as it was written to a particular people at a particular time, using conventions of a particular, not-exclusively-scriptural genre. We should be careful about how adamantly we insist that a particular number must be read according to what is most natural to us. What I am saying is that the Dispensationalist is dangerously close to a Reader Response hermeneutic.
So it is …(sad? frustrating? humorous?) … when Dispensationalism writes the amillennial position off as “spiritualizing” Rev. 20:1-6. We are doing no such thing. We are taking “thousand years” as it is intended everywhere else it appears in Scripture. A thousand years usually refers to an extremely long time, a time so long that it is beyond any human reckoning (even that of Methuselah). The reader can quickly verify this fact by looking at Psa. 90:4; Eccl. 6:6; 2 and Pet. 3:8. He might also consider Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10; 7:9; and 1 Chr. 16:15 where thousand modifies generations, but the meaning is indefiniteness, perpetuity, or Ps. 50:10 where surely we are not intended to limit God’s ownership by a “literal” interpretation of the number! Or should we be willing, on the basis of Ps. 84:10 to refuse one day in God’s courts if we can get 1000 + 1 days elsewhere?! Are we supposed to reckon God’s experience of time as 365,000 times slower than our own, on the basis of Ps. 90:4?! The whole point is that God is outside of time. Our creaturely finite minds can only approach this notion by way of such an analogy.
I have biblical reasons for not taking 1000 literally in Revelation 20, but how does the Dispensationalist refuse to understand “last” in 1 Cor. 15:51 as literally the last?!: And why does he ignore the temporal markers in Matt 24:29-31? Clearly, the trumpet and the rapture take place after the tribulation. But this is the Dispensationalist’s forte: seeing a difference where none exists, as between saints and saints, or between trumpet and trumpet, or between day and day.
Why is it that Dispensationalists are fanatically interested in eschatology, when none of their eschatology is relevant to the Church? Dispensationalists churches tend to offer an inordinate number of studies on Daniel or Revelation, even though they believe these books to describe events that take place after the Church is raptured. Why? Why are Dispensationalists are so ‘Tribulation’-focussed, given that they think the Church is spared the Tribulation. As for me, I believe that anyone who seeks to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Tribulation is where the church lives. The book of Revelation is very meaningful to me, because it tells me that Christ will have the victory, that my sufferings have a role to play in the unfolding drama, but that I am on the right side. How is the Dispensationalist edified by these books?
For more discussions of the topic, consider the resources on this page.