FACT SHEET : “Progressive Dispensationalism”
by David Dunlap
Definition: Progressive Dispensationalism teaches that there are four dispensations in Biblical history (Patriarchal, Mosaical, Ecclesial, and Zionic) in place of seven in traditional dispensationalism. Progressives set forth a unique and unorthodox method of interpreting the Bible. Progressive Dispensationalists reject the use of the historical-grammatic method— a literal form of Bible interpretation. They put forth what they call a “complementary hermeneutic”. They suggest that the New Testament makes complementary changes to Old Testament promises, without setting aside those original promises. This method of interpretation appears to be a merging together of the literal method (dispensational) and the spiritualizing method (Covenant Theology). The application of this type of interpretation has led to a de-emphasis on the rapture and the differences between Israel and the church and other essential features of Dispensationalism.
Proponent: Professor Darrell L. Bock (Progressive Dispensationalism), of Dallas Theological Seminary; Craig A. Blaising (Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church), of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Robert Saucy (The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism), of Talbot Theological Seminary, CA. Many professors in the Theology Department at Dallas Seminary, TX .
History: Progressive Dispensationalism began on November 20, 1986 in the Dispensational Study Group, in connection with the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, GA. Since its beginning, some observers have issued warnings concerning it. Respected Dispensationalist Thomas Ice warns, “No one can doubt that some are proposing radical changes within the dispensational camp. The question that arises relates to the nature and virtue of the change...I believe that these men are in the process of destroying dispensationalism”(Biblical Perspectives, Nov./Dec. 1992). Candid statements by the new president of Dallas Theological Seminary, Chuck Swindoll, have cast light on the accuracy of this suspicion. In an interview with Christianity Today, when asked about Traditional Dispensationalism at Dallas Theological Seminary, Swindoll replied, “I think that dispensations is a scare word. I’m not sure we’re going to make dispensationalism a part of our marquee as we talk about our school.” When asked whether the term dispensationalism would disappear, he replied, “It may and perhaps it should”(Christianity Today, Oct. 25, 1993).
Heaven is a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7:14. However, Progressives have further muddied the waters by teaching that Christ’s millennial rule is present and is yet future at the same time. They use Acts 2:29-33, which speaks of the two thrones of Christ ; the throne of Heaven and the throne of David, an earthly throne. Progressives, have taught that these two thrones reflect two aspects of the millennial rule of Christ. They do not acknowledge careful distinctions between these two thrones of God.
Support Against: Scripture teaches clearly of a throne of God in Heaven. “The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven”(Ps. 11:4). In contrast to this, the throne of David, Scripture teaches, is future, earthly, and literal. The careful distinction between these thrones is made in Rev. 3:21, “He who overcomes, I will(future) grant to sit down with Me on My throne(earthly), as I overcame and sat down (present) with My Father on His throne(heavenly).” Blurring these distinctions will lead to confusion concerning promises made to Israel and promises made to the Church. This confusion will greatly determine our convictions on the Lord’s return, the tribulation period, and the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law. Although Progressive Dispensationalists have ardently set forth this paradoxical “already but not yet” view, many do not see it clearly supported by Scripture. This has led the former president of Dallas Theological Seminary, John Walvoord, to write, “Progressive Dispensationalism, as it is called, is built upon a foundation of sand and is lacking specific proof” (Issues in Dispensationalism, edited by Willis and Masters, p. 90).
Many have noticed that this view moves Progressive Dispensationalism closer to Covenant Theology than to Dispensationalism (B. Waltke, Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church, p. 348). This view forces its proponents to de-emphasize many fundamental features of Dispensationalism, including the pre-tribulational rapture of the church. What does this all mean for the future? Will other leading features of Dispensationalism fall, in favor of current theological trends? Will Progressive Dispensationalism progress even further towards classical Covenant Theology? All of this has led Dr. Walter A. Elwell, of Trinity Theological Seminary, in a book review of Progressive Dispensationalism, to surmise, “The newer dispensationalism looks so much like non-dispensational pre-millennialism that one struggles to see any real difference”(C. T., 9/12, 1994, p. 28).
May we labor to rightly divide the Word of Truth, especially as we see Progressive Dispensationalism spreading from the seminary classroom to the Christian bookstore, and then down to the local church, moving ever closer toward Covenant Theology.
postcript added by WBC: One proponent of PD says that the heavenly, spiritual, and individualistic nature of the church in classical dispensationalism underscored the well-known view that the church is a parenthesis in the history of redemption. In this tradition, there was little emphasis on social or political activity for the church. We believe here is exposed one underlying premise, or better stated, an underlying motive for the press of PD's acceptance. The influence and desire for a social aspect to the gospel. It is our view that PD is in some form therefore motivated by the social gospel ideology that has ever been the bane of sound biblical teaching.