Progressive Dispensationalism - Some Observations
1. Its Leaders
1) Craig Blaising, a former Dallas Seminary Professor who is now teaching at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas; 2) Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Seminary; 3) Robert Saucy, who taught at Talbot School of Theology (Talbot Seminary). Due to the pioneering work of these and other men, many have entered the progressive fold.
2. Its Books
1) Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church by Blaising and Bock (1992); 2) The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism by Saucy (1993); 3) Progressive Dispensationalism by Blaising and Bock (1993). A wealth of literature, books and articles, for and against Progressive Dispensationalism has been published in the years following.
3. Its Beginnings
[In this paper we shall sometimes refer to Progressive Dispensationalism as PD.]
In 1985 a group met together and launched the Dispensational Study Group. "What has emerged is unprecedented discussion between covenant theologians, historical premillennialists, charismatics, and the dispensationalists who invited them to the table" (Darrell Bock, Christianity Today, Sept. 12, 1994, p. 26). Notice that it was the "dispensationalists" who initiated this dialogue. "We met because some (but not all of us) believed that there are biblical problems with aspects of the older dispensational position. We engaged in the discussion with all these groups as well as ourselves to sift through the evidence. Traditionalists were on the program with us in virtually every year early on" (Bock).1 "PD wants to find common ground with nondispensationalism" (Christianity Today, 9/12/94, p. 28). "The newer dispensationalism wants to bring itself in line with mainstream evangelicalism" (Christianity Today, 9/12/94, p. 28). "PD is made up of evangelicals who are dissatisfied with the dispensationalism of their forefathers and who have met together to change it" (Thomas Ice, A Critical Examination of "Progressive Dispensationalism," Part 1, p. 5).
"The purpose of the study group (which first met in 1986) appears to be to clarify dispensational issues in order to bridge the gap between dispensationalism and covenant theology....it is a sad commentary on the present situation that whereas premillennialism (out of which dispensationalism gradually emerged) arose in America primarily through early Bible conferences held in opposition to the postmillennialism and liberalism of the day, progressive dispensationalism, in following the ecumenical spirit of the times, is seeking common ground with amillennialism" (Manfred Kober, "The Problematic Development of Progressive Dispensationalism", Faith Pulpit, March 1997). In the days of the early Bible conferences, Bible believing men of different persuasions met together in opposition to religious modernism (liberalism) and in defense of the great fundamentals of the faith and with a renewed interest in prophecy in general and the imminent return of Christ in particular. Today Progressive Dispensationalists are meeting with and dialoguing with men of different theological persuasions because of a common opposition to certain traditional teachings of Bible believing dispensationalists and because of some commonly shared, non-dispensational views on the nature of the church and the nature of the kingdom.
4. Its Name— "Progressive Dispensationalism"
What do they mean by the term "PROGRESSIVE"? Bock explains: "The term means that each dispensation is an advance in the program of God and builds in a distinct way on previous dispensations. Thus the progress is NOT a description of how we view ourselves versus other dispensational views" (Bock).2 According to Blaising, the name "progressive dispensationalism" is linked to the progressive relationship of the successive dispensations to one another.
5. Development or Departure?
Is this movement a healthy and helpful development of dispensationalism? Is it a healthy development to take a giant step back in the direction of covenant theology? When does "development" become "departure"? Are the progressives developing dispensationalism or are they departing from dispensationalism? "If one uses an older form of dispensationalism as a standard, then there would be a reasonable basis to question whether or not PD is really a modified form of dispensationalism or whether or not it is closer to a modified form of Covenant Theology, thus not really dispensationalism at all. One current professor at Dallas Seminary who is strongly opposed to this new formulation of dispensationalism has described the issue to me as follows: One has to decide whether or not PD is merely rearranging the furniture in the room (i.e., development of dispensationalism) or whether or not they are removing key pieces of furniture (i.e., abandonment of dispensationalism)" (Thomas Ice, A Critical Examination of Progressive Dispensationalism—Part 1, page 3). The advocates of PD commonly point out that dispensationalism has been modified and developed over the years.3 The implication is that PD is merely a further modification and development of the system, when in actuality it is a radical departure from dispensationalism.
Keith Mathison, a postmillennialist and an outspoken critic and opponent of dispensationalism makes the following accurate observations:
Progressive dispensationalists have moved closer to Reformed theology on a number of doctrines. They now acknowledge that the kingdom has been inaugurated and that there is a present as well as a future aspect of the kingdom. They have also recognized the two-peoples-of-God theory to be unbiblical, which, ironically, brings us to the negative side of progressive dispensationalism.
If the defining doctrine of dispensationalism is the two-peoples-of-God theory, then to reject that theory is to reject dispensationalism itself. "Progressive dispensationalism" is therefore both an encouraging trend and a misleading or confusing title.
In view of genuinely positive developments, how problematic is the name "progressive dispensationalism"? Perhaps an illustration will clarify my concern. Suppose I announced that I am a "progressive Baptist." When asked what that means, I explain that I have rejected believer's baptism by immersion only. I now believe that infant baptism is biblical and that the mode of baptism should be sprinkling or pouring. But I claim to be a progressive Baptist. What would a good Baptist tell me? He would remind me that believer's baptism by immersion only is the essence of what it means to be a Baptist.
Similarly, suppose I have become convinced that Jesus will return after the millennium. Would I be honest to describe myself as a "progressive premillennialist." No. Or what if I have abandoned belief in God? Would I be a progressive theist?
The church suffers too much damage when people do not identify what they really believe. For the sake of accuracy, honesty, and understanding, "progressive dispensationalists" should no longer claim to be dispensational. Traditional dispensationalists would likely concur. Do most dispensational laymen realize that the "dispensationalism" now taught in their seminaries is not the dispensationalism they know? As much as I prefer to see Reformed theology taught in these seminaries, if someone is going to teach nondispensationalism in a dispensational seminary, students and donors should at least be aware of the fact. [Keith Mathison, Dispensationalism--Rightly Dividing the People of God?, pages 135-137.]
6. Its Method—Dialogue
Progressive Dispensationalism came into existence as a result of DIALOGUE between dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists. "This book has three purposes (the second of which is) to foster genuine dialogue with non dispensational thinkers" (Blaising and Bock, from the back cover of Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church). "The desire for cordial relations with theologians of other systems appears to be a primary motivation behind the emergence of PD" (Robert Thomas, "A Critique of Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutics," When the Trumpet Sounds, p. 415).
"Dialogue is what dispensationalism needs" (Darrell Bock, Bib. Sac. Jan-March 1995, p.101). "I would suggest dialogue" (Burns, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 229). "I reiterate my call for more dialogue and discussion" (Kenneth Barker, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 304). "Future publications need to carry the dialogue forward" (Blaising and Bock, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 384). "We must continue to talk to one another, both inside and across subtraditions" (Ibid., p.394). "I have been heartened by what Radmacher calls the growing rapprochement that has been taking place between covenant and dispensational theologians’....certainly dialogue must continue between the two theological camps" (Barker, JETS, March 1982, p. 3).
"The Niagara Bible Conference used as its standard for resolving differences an appeal to the Bible, while PD seems to place great weight upon theological dialogue between opposing theological systems" (Thomas Ice, A Critical Examination of Progressive Dispensationalism, Part 1, p. 5).
Bock describes the dialogue in this way, "What we have done is to lay a Biblically grounded study before the body and have invited discussion and feedback. In fact, it is an attempt to engage in theological discourse where views are interacted with, challenged, and reflected upon. Every PD piece I know of has criticized covenental thinking at key points. The affirmation of dialogue you cite from Burns and myself is because we believe it is better to talk directly with those we disagree with than about them. We interact with both our tradition and covenentalists. What we are doing is discussing the Bible and interacting sometimes favorably, sometimes challenging the covenental view" (Bock).
Just as dialogue with non-fundamentalists was a key characteristic of the neo-evangelical movement, so also dialogue with non-dispensationalists is a key characteristic of the progressive or neo-dispensational movement. The greatest need of the church today is to listen to God in His Word and to eagerly receive Biblical truth into our hearts, not to dialogue with representatives from various theological positions.
7. Its Friends
In the Progressive Dispensationalism movement it is the old dispensationalists who are under attack and it is the covenant theologians who are often applauded. If the old dispensationalists are not attacked, then they are ignored: "Saucy’s section on the kingdom of God goes out of its way to avoid quoting the dispensationalist ‘old guard’ while quoting at length from standard NT scholars. In 96 exhaustive footnotes, dispensational heavyweights such as Chafer and Walvoord do not appear once, whereas Ridderbos, Ladd, Perrin, Cranfield, Barrett, and even O.T.Allis are extensively, and favorably, quoted" (Christianity Today, 9/12/94, page 28). "Significantly, these younger dispensationalists cite older dispensationalists mostly to distance themselves from them" (Bruce Waltke, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 350). The book, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church by Blaising and Bock is composed of essays written by 10 progressive dispensationalists and then it includes responses from three men: Kaiser, VanGemeren and Waltke. These evangelical scholars were invited "in the interest of promoting dialogue" (p. 34). It is interesting that the men invited to respond are all non-dispensationalists. It is as if they are reaching out to the Covenant men and saying, "What do you think of our new approach? We are certainly coming your way, aren’t we?"
Bock disagrees with this analysis: "You are right to note how we engaged with non-dispensationalists in the first book. This was because we had plenty of interaction within our tradition both at the ETS group and in our teaching environment at Dallas and the other schools. Are these our ‘real’ friends in the sense you imply? The concluding essay of the first book should be your clue as we critique the responses, especially those of Van Gemeren and Waltke, the covenentalists in that section. If we really just wanted peace, we should have just thanked them and agreed with them. But where is there any hint of our disagreement with covenentalists in your discussions on dialogue? Does this really represent the discussion fairly?" (Bock).
In essence Bock is saying that the Progressive men have strong disagreements with dispensationalists and they also have strong disagreements with covenant men. It is indeed a position midway between the two. Dispensationalists are wrong to place PD in the covenant camp, although it may seem that they are headed in that direction.
8. Its Theological Position
It is a middle position between dispensationalism and covenant theology. One of the progressive dispensationalists wrote: "In our opinion there is a mediating position between non-dispensationalism and traditional dispensationalism that provides a better understanding of Scripture."
Bock stresses that Progressives have moved toward covenant theology in their affirmation of an "already dimension to kingdom hope," but Bock believes Progressives have strongly adhered to dispensationalism in certain vital areas: "Virtually every piece I have written has affirmed my commitment to a future for national Israel in a millennium (this includes a belief in sacrifices, a future temple, and pre-tribulationism). I have affirmed all of these points in public when I have spoken about dispensationalism at Reformed in Orlando, Westminster East and West, and when I speak at Calvin Seminary . . .we do not hold to the church replacing Israel in God’s plan, a key point of covenentalism" (Bock). Bock considers himself and other progressives as dispensational and not covenental because "we do not replace Israel with the church" (Bock).
Bock admits that Progressive Dispensationalism is a position midway between dispensationalism and covenant theology but he believes that it leans more towards dispensationalism: "You are right to suggest that PD falls between older dispensationalism and covenental theology. However, it falls decidedly on the dispensational side of that spectrum as its teaching about a future for national Israel shows. Why did you not cite the remarks of Al Mawhinney, a covenental theologian, who is cited on the back of the PROGRESSIVE DISPENSATIONALISM volume that what is found in the book is NOT covenant theology? Even he as a covenant theologian recognizes it as dispensational" (Bock).
Bruce Waltke, in evaluating David Turner’s essay, says that his "position (on Revelation 21-22) is closer to covenant theology than to dispensationalism" (Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 178).
If it is a middle position, then who is moving? Are the covenant theologians moving toward dispensationalism or are the dispensational theologians moving toward covenant theology? The movement is clearly on the part of the dispensationalists. It is not the covenant theologians writing books on Progressive Dispensationalism, but it is Dallas Seminary and Talbot Seminary men writing such books. It is the dispensationalists who are moving in the covenant direction. The covenant men are pleased by the movement that they see but they themselves are not moving! "Covenant theologians have openly expressed pleasure that progressives have moved away from normative dispensationalism, though covenant theologians clearly have not moved from the tenets of their position" (Dispensationalism by Ryrie, p. 162). Even a progressive dispensationalist admits the same: "There does not seem to be much movement from the covenant side" (Larry Pettegrew, The New Covenant Ministry of the Holy Spirit, A Study in Continuity and Discontinuity, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993, 25). Poythress believes that PD in the long run "will most likely lead to covenental premillennialism after the pattern of George Ladd" (Poythress, "Postscript to the Second Edition," in Understanding Dispensationalism, p. 137).
Bock believes that there are indications of some movement from the covenant side: "The question of who is moving is an interesting one. Are you aware that many covenental theologians are discussing a future for Israel and a hope for the earth in ways that only a few of them would even raised in the past? Some of our insistence (both traditional and PD) that Israel is a serious category from the OT is causing them to reflect on Scripture. This is a positive development. The discussion is not as one way as you imply. The Ryrie and Pettigrew citations are not the full story. You are right that some covenental theologians do condescendingly suggest we are coming towards them, but only if they read us selectively and miss the thrust of what we affirm about God and the hope of Israel" (Bock).
There can be no question that there are those in the Covenant/Reformed camp who are delighted in the direction that PD is headed in. Richard J. Mouw writes the following: "Dispensationalism is changing. I have read the ‘progressive dispensationalists,’ and as a Reformed thinker, I can only applaud their reformulation of dispensationalist thought. When the newer dispensationalists reject a uniquely dispensational hermeneutic, when they affirm the organic continuities between Israel and the church, when they reduce the number of ‘kingdoms’ referred to in the Bible, I can only say amen" (Christianity Today, March 6, 1995, p. 34).
H. Wayne House, was a professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. He shared the following sad story of doctrinal departure:
One of my best students, and a research assistant to me at DTS, had told me in the mid-1990's that he had accepted progressive dispensationalism. My next meeting with him at the Dallas Seminary bookstore just two years ago I discovered that he had embraced amillennialism and covenant theology. When I asked him about this he commented to me that it was an easy move to make from progressive dispensationalism to amillennialism. [H. Wayne House, "Dangers of Progressive Dispensationalism to Pre-Millennial Theology," Pre-Trib. CD 2003, page 3].
9. Its Relationship to Covenant Premillennialism
"The newer dispensationalism looks so much like nondispensational premillennialism that one struggles to see any real difference" (Walter Elwell, Christianity Today, 9/12/94, p. 28). "Will progressive dispensationalism simply turn into historic premillennialism?" (Ibid.) When Bock was asked if George Ladd (a covenant or historic premillennialist) would disagree with his views, he replied, "I think the fundamental thrust of the structure he would not disagree with" (Ryrie, page 166). "I don’t think that they [the progressives] will find it possible in the long run to create a safe haven theologically between classic dispensationalism and covenental premillennialism. The forces that their own observations have set in motion will most likely lead to covenental premillennialism after the pattern of George Ladd" (Vein Poythress as cited by Ryrie, p. 178).
The already/not yet understanding of the kingdom was George Ladd’s position (he was a historic premillennialist and was posttribulational). The progressive teaching that Christ is now ruling on the throne of David was also George Ladd’s position. "Bock admits the closeness of his views regarding a present kingdom to those of George Ladd’s historic premillennialism—a system adverse to dispensationalism" (Robert Thomas, "A Critique of Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutics," When the Trumpet Sounds, p. 415).
In defense of his own statement, Bock clarifies the fact that his position is very similar to Ladd’s but not identical: "The basic structure I affirmed with Ladd was the recognition of a kingdom that is ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ (just like our salvation is). By the way, this view emerged long before Ladd. It is not his. It has been a position many have defended in this century in NT studies before there was the covenental premillennialism of Ladd. However, my ‘already’ is not Ladd’s for the church does not stand permanently in Israel’s stead for me as it does for him. This is a significant difference. Thomas’ quote conveniently ignores the differences between Ladd and myself and simply equates us—or all but does" (Bock).
Ryrie has offered this summary: "The major similarities, if not sameness, between Ladd and progressives are these: (1) the focus on the kingdom of God as an overall, all encompassing theme; (2) the already/not yet, progressively realized nature of the kingdom; (3) the present position of Christ reigning in heaven as the Messianic/Davidic king" (p. 166).
10. Its Ecclesiology (doctrine of the church)
"Israel and the church are one people of God" (Disp., Israel & the Church, p.93, 96 ,97 and see page 119). David Turner goes further than some progressives in calling the church the "new Israel" (David Turner, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 288). "The old sharp distinction between Israel and the church begins to become somewhat blurred" (Kenneth Barker, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 302). Progressive dispensationalists "no longer accept the notion of two distinct peoples of God" (Blaising and Bock, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 392). "In the new dispensationalism the church is reduced to the present phase of the Davidic kingdom. New dispensationalists do not like the concept of the church as a parenthesis....the church is 'a functional outpost of God’s kingdom’ [Barth quoted favorably by Saucy] and a ‘sneak preview’ [Bock] of the kingdom" (Ryrie, Issues in Dz.spensationalism, p. 22.).
Blaising says that Progressive Dispensationalists see tribulation saints "as part of the body of Christ, thus a part of the church as it is defined in the New Testament" (Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell Bock [Zondervan, 1999], page 210. See more on this in the discussion under Eschatology.
Denial of the parenthetical nature of the church:
"The older idea that the church was a parenthetical break between God’s Jewish work in the Old Testament and God’s Jewish work in the future is being replaced" (Christianity Today, 9/12/94, p. 28). Waltke: "[PD] denies that the church is a parenthesis within God’s program for Israel." Saucy: "The present age is not a historical parenthesis unrelated to the history that precedes and follows it." "The church is seen less and less as a parenthesis in the divine program. Instead it is seen as vitally linked to and comprehended in the plan of God revealed in the Old Testament" (Blaising, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 225 footnote). Many scholars now recognize "a present form of messianic kingdom that removes the parenthetical idea" (Burns, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 225). "[PD] denies that the church is a parenthesis within God’s program for Israel" (Waltke, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 347). "The present age is not a historical parenthesis unrelated to the history that precedes and follows it; rather, it is an integrated phase in the development of the mediatorial kingdom" (Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 28). "You are correct to argue that we do not teach a parenthesis" (Bock).
Denial of the church as a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament:
"Their mystery concept of the church is not that it was unrevealed in the Old Testament but that it was unrealized. As a corollary, God has no separate program for the church. The church is simply a sub-category of the Kingdom. It is called a ‘sneak preview’ of the Kingdom. The church is the Kingdom today. In fact, David Turner calls the church ‘the new Israel’" (Manfred Kober, The Problematic Development of Progressive Dispensationalism, Faith Pulpit, April 1997). Progressives believe that "the concept of the church as completely distinct from Israel and as a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament needs revising" (Ryrie, p. 164). "We hold to a different understanding of the term mystery—not always ‘new’ revelation" (Bock).
11. Its Teaching on the Kingdom
Bock teaches that the kingdom was not postponed, but that it came in two phases (Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 60). He teaches that when the kingdom was announced as "at hand" this meant that the kingdom had arrived (Ibid., p.40).4
Progressive Dispensationalists teach that Christ is already reigning on the throne of David in heaven, and that He assumed this throne at the time of the ascension.5 This view is in agreement with the teaching of George Ladd who wrote in 1974, "The exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God means nothing less than His enthronement as messianic King" (Ryrie, p. 167). According to PD, the Davidic throne and the heavenly throne of our risen Lord at the right hand of the Father are one and the same. We have answered this by examining all relevant Scriptures in our paper entitled, Progressive Dispensationalism - When and Where Does Christ Sit Upon the Throne of David? (Middletown Bible Church publication). For another detailed treatment of the question see three articles by Mal Couch in The Conservative Theological Journal, March, June and September 1998. This is a three part series entitled, "Is Christ Now on the Throne of David?"
"In Revelation 3:21, Jesus makes a distinction between His throne (the future Davidic throne) and the Father’s throne (where He now sits). Thus, the throne Jesus is currently on (the throne of deity) is different than the one He will assume when the millennium starts (Davidic throne). The writer of Hebrews also indicates that Jesus ‘sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ not the throne of David" (A Critique of PD, by Mike Vlach).
Robert Lightner has made the interesting observation that the book of Hebrews has more to say about Christ’s present session (His present ministry in heaven) than any other New Testament book, and although much is said about Christ being our Great High Priest and our Intercessor, yet nothing is said about Christ being presently seated on the throne of David. This omission is significant.
As already mentioned, PD teaches that the kingdom is ALREADY here in one sense, but that it is NOT YET here in another sense. This "already/not yet" dialectic (double talk?) is similar to what George E. Ladd and others have taught.
John the Baptist, Christ, the twelve, the seventy, all preached the same message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2; 4:23; 10:7; Luke 10:9). "Normative dispensationalism has always understood such verses to refer to the offer of the Davidic, literal, earthly, Kingdom. The progressive view is that this was not an offer of the Davidic kingdom at all. This was simply an offer of salvation. I can understand that. In fact, they would cut their own theological throat if they said it was a genuine offer of the Davidic kingdom. What kind of God would put a contingency for the kingdom’s establishment, and then, when this contingency to repent was not met, establish the kingdom, in part, anyway? They didn’t repent, and the kingdom didn’t come at all in any sense, at His death, or His resurrection or His ascension, and it’s not operative now either" (Dr. Robert Lightner, "Progressive Dispensationalism," The Conservative Theological Journal, p. 58).
Dr. Robert Lightner, in this same article, finds it very unscholarly that in all the PD literature which he has examined he has not found any references to George Peters’ Theocratic Kingdom. Peters, though not a dispensationalist, was clearly the foremost authority on the kingdom, but progressives seem to ignore him. Peters wrote three massive volumes (fine print) in which he defended the contingent offer of the Davidic kingdom at Christ’s first advent, but for some reason progressives do not see a need to answer his arguments. It would be like someone arguing against Bible creationism and totally ignoring the writings of Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, two widely recognized pioneers in the field.
Progressive dispensationalists have removed certain millennial distinctions: "All of the redeemed in the millennium—the redeemed from all ages—become members of the ultimate body, the church. This view is in keeping with their belief in ‘holistic redemption’ and a single ‘people of God"’ (Roy Beacham, Progressive Dispensationalism—An Overview and Personal Analysis, p. 13). "What we argue is that members of the church and of Israel will one day share membership in the kingdom and be one through the work of Jesus (John 10:15-17; Eph 2:11-22)...the kingdom is bigger than either the church or Israel...it will one day span the whole of creation (part of what we mean by holistic)" (Bock). For a full discussion of this, see Bock/Blaising, Progressive Dispensationalism, pages 49-50.
12. Its Eschatology (doctrine of last things, prophecy)
"Progressive dispensationalists are more circumspect about identifying certain details in the prophetic calendar than some of their predecessors were. Looking for the ‘blessed hope’ of Christ’s return is still a motivating feature for the believer’s walk with God, but some would be less confident about the ability to lay out a detailed scenario for its contemporary fulfillment" (Bock, Christianity Today, 9/12/94, page 29). Also Progressives consider the book of Revelation to be a book that is "difficult" to interpret (Ryrie, page 177). Bock counters: "Our point about the difficulty of interpreting Revelation simply argues that the book has been debated in church history and that certain aspects of the book are debatable" (Bock).
"Both [Progressive] books recognize that the pre-tribulation rapture of the church is distinctive of dispensationalism but neither makes an issue of it. In fact, Blaising and Bock do not even mention it when it would seem natural to do so, and at one point only say the Rapture ‘would appear to be pretribulational’ "(Christianity Today, 9/12/94, p.28). Bock, in correspondence with me is more dogmatic: "We DO NOT express uncertainty about the order of prophetic events. Both Blaising and I have taught and defended premillennialism and pretribulationism in our classes for years" (Bock).
Saucy states in the preface of his book, "The question of the time of the rapture has not been included in the work. While most dispensationalists probably hold to a pretribulation rapture of the church as being in certain respects more harmonious with dispensationalism in general, many would not desire to make this a determining touchstone of dispensationalism today. For these the broad dispensational interpretation of history does not ultimately stand or fall on the time of the rapture."
PD’s wrong view of the church will probably, in time, lead to a wrong understanding of prophecy, in particular with respect to the timing of the rapture. If it’s not a problem to mix the church with Israel’s kingdom, then why would it be a problem to mix the church with the Israel’s tribulation?
In fact, they may have already done this. Craig Blaising writes: "Progressive dispensationalists see these ‘saints’ [tribulation saints] as part of the body of Christ, thus a part of the church as it is defined in the New Testament. However, they also affirm a pretribulational rapture on the basis of 1 Thessalonians 4-5" (Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell Bock [Zondervan, 1999], page 210). On the one hand he says that the rapture is pretribulational but on the other hand he says that tribulation saints are part of the church. Progressive dispensationalists can thus apparently hold to two amazing tenets: 1) The church will be raptured before the tribulation; 2) The church will go through the tribulation. Thus while the marriage supper of the Lamb is taking place in heaven, part of His bride will still be on earth!
John Brumett wrote an article entitled "Does Progressive Dispensationalism Teach a Posttribulational Rapture? Part 1" (The Conservative Theological Journal, June 1998). In this article he analyzes PD’s teaching concerning the nature of the church and argues that such an understanding of the nature of the church should logically lead to a Posttribulational rapture. In a follow-up article ("Part 2," The C.T.J., September 1998) Brumett shows many similarities between the teaching of Robert Gundry (a posttribulational writer) and PD. He then argues that if PD is to be consistent with its own doctrine, then they should be posttribulational as Gundry was.
Progressives ignore "the great prophecy of the seventy weeks in Daniel 9:24-27. Nowhere in the progressives’ writings to date have I found any discussion of the passage" (Ryrie, p. 176).6 One reason for this is that the Progressives are opposed to the idea of a "parenthesis" and a literal understanding of Daniel 9:24-27 forces a person to see a gap or parenthesis between the sixty-ninth week and the seventieth week.
13. Its Hermeneutic (Method of Interpreting the Bible)
Progressive Dispensationalism denies that consistent literal interpretation is a defining essential of dispensationalism. Blaising maintains "that consistent literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of dispensationalism" (Bibliotheca Sacra 145, No. 579, July—September, 1988, p. 272). Robert Thomas, in his study, A Critique of Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutics, deplores the departure of progressive dispensationalism from traditional historical-grammatical interpretation. He observes that progressive dispensationalism practices "a selective use of passages seemingly in support of their system—avoiding others that do not." He cites ample illustrations of this method and concludes that "thorough-going grammatical-historical interpretation does not condone this kind of superficial treatment of text, particularly when they are critical to support a doctrine being propounded" (Ice and Demy, eds., When the Trumpet Sounds, 423-424)7 The hermeneutic of Progressive Dispensationalism is called "complementary hermeneutics" and it allows the New Testament to introduce changes and additions to Old Testament revelation (Ryrie, p. 164). For example, the Old Testament revelation includes the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7). According to the OT, this covenant was made with Israel and it involved an earthly throne of David. PD agrees that the covenant was made with Israel and will someday involve an earthly throne, but they believe that the NT has introduced changes and additions so that they are able to say that the church is now included in the original promise (an addition) and the throne of David is now in heaven (a change in location).
Blaising and Bock explain the complementary hermeneutic: "According to this approach, the New Testament does introduce change and advance; it does not merely repeat Old Testament revelation. In making complementary additions, however, it does not jettison old promises. The enhancement is not at the expense of the original promise" (Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, pages 392-393).
"If one endorses recent trends in evangelical hermeneutics, that person may easily fit into the PD camp, or perhaps even into a theological system that is decidedly non dispensational. On the other hand, a choice of grammatical-historical interpretation must lead to dispensational conclusions" (Robert Thomas, "A Critique of Progressive Dispensational Hermeneutics," When the Trumpet Sounds, p. 425).
For a very helpful discussion of PD’s "complementary hermeneutics" and the problems with this method of interpretation see "Progressive Dispensationalism," by Dr. Robert Lightner, The Conservative Theology Journal, pages 46-64.
14. Its Great Commission
Progressive Dispensationalists "give more attention to social action than they feel normative dispensationalists did or do....promoting kingdom righteousness in the present time is not the mandate of the church, though progressives and others make it so" (Ryrie, p. 176). "The church, according to progressive dispensationalists....is responsible for multi cultural ministries that include the proclamation of the plan of salvation through Christ as well as social mediation of peace, righteousness, and justice" (J.Lanier Burns, a pro-progressive writer, Bib. Sac. Jan-March 1995, p. 102). "Dispensationalists have written very little in proposing a theology of social ministry" (Craig Blaising, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 14). Bock defends his position in these words: "All of us preach that Jesus Christ alone saves from sin. To suggest otherwise is not right. What we are arguing is that Jesus did teach about his gospel being especially suited for the poor and fringe (Luke 4:16-18; 6:20-23; 7:22-23; 14:1-14). When we do ‘medical missions’ as a part of our outreach, we are recognizing this principle. All we were saying is that we need to give more thought to these dimensions of the church’s call and task as we engage in reaching out to the lost" (Bock).
Fred Moritz, Executive Director of Baptist World Mission, has responded to the Progressive Dispensationalist’s idea of "social redemption": "God’s plan for the church today has nothing to do with ‘social redemption.’ God’s plan today is to save men from their sin and to gather out of the Gentiles a people for His name (Acts 15:14). It is a program of evangelism" (Fred Moritz, Progressive Dispensationalism—An Evaluation, p. 5).
15. Its Schools
Some of the schools where Progressive Dispensationalism has a strong influence are Dallas Seminary, Talbot School of Theology, Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary and perhaps Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Grace Theological Seminary.
There are some schools (fundamental universities, fundamental seminaries) which take a very firm stand on many of the issues of the day, but historically they have not taken a strong stand on dispensationalism. The President of one nationally known fundamentalist institution, Bob Jones University, in an official questionnaire that was sent to the school by the IFCA in 1986, responded that the school takes no official position with respect to dispensationalism and that the school takes no official position with respect to covenant theology. Someone has said that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. It is schools such as these that may be receptive to Progressive Dispensationalism. After all, if they take no official position with respect to dispensationalism and if they take no official position with respect to covenant theology, then why not adopt a position that is midway between the two?8
16. Its Incompatibility With A Time-Honored Doctrinal Statement
Progressive Dispensationalism is adhered to and propagated by certain men at Dallas Seminary, especially by men in the theology department. Is this new position in harmony with the time honored doctrinal statement of Dallas Theological Seminary? What would Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Seminary, have thought of this new kind of dispensationalism? Concerning dispensationalism, here is what the statement says: We believe that three of these dispensations or rules of life are the subject of extended revelation in the Scriptures, viz., the dispensation of the Mosaic law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom. We believe that these are distinct and are not to be intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive." "We believe that all who are united to the risen and ascended Son of God are members of the Church which is the Body and Bride of Christ, which began at Pentecost and is completely distinct from Israel."
The current leadership of Dallas sees this new brand of dispensationalism (PD) as being compatible with the doctrinal statement: "Dallas has made it clear officially that both types of dispensationalism fall within its doctrinal statement. This is because PD has a clear distinction between Israel and the church as structurally distinct components in the plan of God" (Bock). Bock further explains why he believes PD is in harmony with the doctrinal statement:
I affirm that structurally the church is completely distinct from Israel. The church is not Israel, Israel is not the church and neither of them separately make up the kingdom, for the kingdom encompasses eventually the whole host of the redeemed. Thus I do not mingle the dispensations (or the structures that mark out these periods, which is how I prefer to think of them). The view I gave of the church as ‘new Israel’ does not contradict this affirmation of a structural distinction between Israel and the church. To affirm a distinction, however, does not prevent us from sharing in the benefits that Jesus provides. There is an equality Jesus brings to those he saves even as he works across time through different structures in distinct dispensations. When the Seminary looked at this issue in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was concluded that we fit within the parameters of this statement. Even someone like Dr. Walvoord, who certainly knows dispensationalism and its history, though not agreeing with PD, acknowledges that it is dispensational. Anyone who told you that we are in conflict with the statement is misrepresenting the position of the seminary. They may be quoting to you their personal view, but it is not and never has been the school’s view, nor of its faculty as a whole. The suggestion that we sign the statement knowing we contradict it implies a lack of integrity for a statement I take very seriously and affirm annually with my signature on a contract (Bock).
One believer wrote to Dallas asking about PD and he received a response from Les Fleetwood, writing on behalf of the president, Dr. Swindoll: "The administration of DTS sees no conflict here with the doctrinal position of the school...Dr. Bock’s theological opinion is not in great conflict with our tradition" (This correspondence was published in the Levitt Letter, June 2000, page 3).
Dr. Swindoll, president of Dallas Seminary, wrote a letter to Zola Levitt and Dr. Thomas McCall that was published in the September 2000 issue of the Levitt Letter. Swindoll made the following comments: "Your assistant, Dr. McCall, needs to know that all of us on the seminary faculty sign our doctrinal statement annually . . .He also needs to be aware that even though a few faculty members may teach progressive dispensationalism, that position does not represent a drift in our commitment to premillennialism, nor does it mean that at Dallas Seminary ‘prophecy is neglected.’" (p.3). It is clear that Dr. Swindoll has no problem with Progressive Dispensationalists teaching at Dallas and believes it is compatible with the doctrinal statement. Also Dr. Swindoll sidesteps the real issue. The problem is not that Dallas has drifted in their commitment to premillennialism, but that this school has drifted in their commitment to dispensationalism (maintaining clear distinctions between Israel and the church, etc.)
If you take the DTS doctrinal statement at face value and compare it with the teachings of PD, then there appears to be a significant conflict. PD teaches that during this church age Christ has been seated on the throne of David. If this is true, then there is a sense in which the Davidic kingdom is operational today during this present age. "[PD] teaches that Christ is already reigning in heaven on the throne of David, thus merging the Church with a present phase of the already, inaugurated Davidic Covenant and Kingdom" (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 164). Thus, according to this view, the church and the kingdom are not chronologically successive, but they are chronologically simultaneous. This is not what the DTS doctrinal statement says.
The DTS doctrinal statement clearly states that the three major dispensations are law, grace and kingdom and that these three are "distinct and are not to be intermingled or confused" and that they are "chronologically successive." This means that law is followed by grace and grace is followed by kingdom. Contrary to this, PD teaches that law is followed by grace/kingdom and that grace/kingdom is followed by the millennial kingdom. The "already" kingdom is followed by the "not yet" kingdom (Christ sitting on David’s throne in heaven is followed by Christ sitting on the David’s throne on earth). Thus PD intermingles the kingdom with the present age of grace (church age) and it also teaches that the kingdom is not chronologically successive to the present age, but that it is simultaneous with it, to be followed by a future stage of the kingdom.
Dr. Robert Lightner taught theology for many years at Dallas. He believes that the teaching of PD is a serious violation of the DTS doctrinal statement: "The DTS’s doctrinal statement is crystal clear in stating that there are three absolutely indispensable critical dispensations: law, grace or Church, and Kingdom, and it says, the three must never be intermingled. They remain totally distinct. Do the progressives keep the Church and the Kingdom totally distinct? I should say not; they combine the two. That’s a flagrant violation of the DTS Doctrinal Statement" (Dr. Robert Lightner, "Progressive Dispensationalism," The Conservative Theological Journal, April 2000, p. 57).
It would be interesting if we could somehow ask the original framers of the doctrinal statement whether the new teachings of PD are compatible with the DTS statement.9
In the IFCA we had a situation similar to what is now taking place at Dallas Seminary, with respect to the doctrinal statement and how it is being interpreted. The IFCA has a very clear statement on the eternal Sonship of Christ: "We believe in one Triune God, eternally existing in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit....We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man, without ceasing to be God." And yet the IFCA leadership allowed a man to be a member of the IFCA who taught that Christ became the Son of God at the time of the incarnation. The IFCA also has a very clear statement on unlimited atonement: "We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for all mankind as a representative, vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice." And yet the IFCA allowed a man to be a member who taught that Christ died as a Substitute and paid sin’s penalty only for the elect. How did the IFCA justify allowing such clear contradictions? If Christ is the eternal Son of God than how could His Sonship have not begun until Bethlehem? If Christ died as a Substitute for all mankind then how could He have died as a Substitute only for the elect? The answer we received from the IFCA leadership was that we need to allow for "interpretive freedom" or "freedom of interpretation." They wanted to be able to freely interpret the doctrinal statement in such a way that both positions were allowed and tolerated.
Norman L. Geisler made the following keen observation: "This is precisely how denominations go liberal, namely, when their doctrinal statements are stretched beyond their original meaning to accommodate new doctrinal deviations. . .It is a sad day indeed when we allow the original meaning of our doctrines to be changed" (Open Letter entitled, Why I Left the Evangelical Free Church Ministerial).
Progressive Dispensational is is nothing new. It shares many similarities with non-dispensational premillennialism (also called covenant premillennialism or historic premillennialism). It’s a middle position between dispensationalism and covenant theology. It is a serious departure from dispensationalism, and since it denies many of the essential doctrines of dispensationalism, it is not worthy of the name. It teaches that the Davidic kingdom is operational today. It teaches that today Christ is ruling from David’s throne in heaven. It has blurred some of the sharp distinctions between Israel and the church. It has denied three essential elements of church truth:
It has denied the parenthetical nature of the church. Israel’s history from the rebuilding of Jerusalem to the second coming of Messiah is incorporated in the 70-week prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27. We know that Messiah was cut off after the 69th week, and we know from the book of Revelation and other Scripture passages that the 70th week is yet future and represents the final seven years before the Messiah returns to the earth. Between the 69th and 70"’ weeks is a "gap" of nearly 2000 years, during which time God has been building His church (Matthew 16:18) and "visiting the nations to take out of them a people for His Name" (Acts 15:14). For an interesting book dealing with the parenthetical nature of the church, see Harry Ironside, The Great Parenthesis.
It has denied the mysterious character of the church, teaching instead that the "mysteries" of the N.T. were revealed in the Old Testament period but not realized yet. But a careful study of Ephesians 3:4-5; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26 and Romans 16:26 indicates that a New Testament mystery is that which had been hidden, kept secret, and not made known to men in previous ages, but which has now been made manifest and revealed and made known to God’s saints in this present age by the N.T. apostles and prophets. See our study on The Mystery of Godliness (Middletown Bible Church publication). The Mystery of Godliness
It has denied that the church was established following the postponement of the kingdom. Dispensationalists have long taught that the offer of the kingdom to Israel was genuine, but it was also conditional and contingent on the nation’s repentance. Since the nation did not repent at the time of Christ’s first corning, the kingdom did not immediately appear but was postponed. See our publication, The Biblical Doctrine of Postponement. In the meantime God introduced a new program which is His church made up of both Jews and Gentiles united into one body. There is coming a day when the nation Israel will again be offered the kingdom (Matthew 24:14) and at this time the nation will repent and will trust their Messiah and the long-promised Davidic kingdom will be established. For an excellent study on these themes, see Alva McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom.
Dispensationalists, though varying on certain points of doctrine, have generally been unanimous on the three points given above. These are essential to dispensational truth and must not be surrendered or compromised.
Since PD has departed from such essential dispensational doctrines, they should not be labeled as dispensationalists. If we are to call this PD by the name dispensationalism, then I would suggest calling it "neo-dispensationalism" because it shares so many of the characteristics of the neo-evangelical movement, as illustrated below.
Similarities between Neo Evangelicalism
and Neo (Progressive) Dispensationalism
One of the key documents of the neo-evangelical movement was an article that appeared in Christian Life (March 1956) entitled, Is Evangelical Theology Changing? This article (referred to below as IETC) outlined eight characteristics of a new kind of evangelicalism which became known as new or neo-evangelicalism. Some of these characteristics will be quoted below to illustrate that some of the same trends which marked the beginning of neo-evangelicalism are taking place today within "neo-dispensationalism."
Both emphasize dialogue. New evangelicals engage in dialogue with neo-orthodox men or with others far removed from the Bible believing camp; neo-dispensationalists dialogue with covenant men and with others far removed from the dispensational camp. "A growing willingness of evangelical theologians to converse with liberal theologians....an evangelical can profitably engage in an exchange of ideas with men who are not evangelicals" (IETC). So also today, neo-dispensationalists believe they can profitably engage in an exchange of ideas with men who are not dispensational.
Both have questionable friends. Neo-evangelicals are highly critical of fundamentalists but reach out "in love" to those of questionable and divergent theological positions. Neo-dispensationalists are highly critical of dispensationalists but reach out to covenant theologians and other non-dispensationalists.
Both emphasize unity at the expense of doctrine. "Progressive Dispensationalism’s unity is based upon an inclusive, ‘don’t-let-doctrinal-differences-stand-in-our-way’ kind of unity" (Thomas Ice, A Critical Examination of Progressive Dispensationalism, Part 1, p. 5). "This work indicates where many dispensationalists are today, while recognizing that it is part of a larger theological community that is the body of Christ. Our discussion should continue, but not at the expense of our unity" (Blaising and Bock, Disp., Israel & the Church, p. 394).
Both waver on certain prophetic issues. "A more tolerant attitude toward varying views on eschatology...some are saying that the Bible doesn’t teach that the church will escape the tribulation" (IETC). Some neo-dispensationalists are very reluctant to discuss matters such as the timing of the rapture and Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy. Since neo-dispensationalists share such close affinity with George Ladd on his kingdom views, is it possible that they will also, in time, adopt his post-tribulational views as well?
Both emphasize social action and include this as part of the church’s primary mission. "A more definite recognition of social responsibility...we must make evangelicalism more relevant to the political and sociological realities of our time" (IETC). Neo-dispensationalists, since they believe the church is phase one of the kingdom, believe that the church has a responsibility to society to make it more kingdom-like. Present society has a long way to go! (editor insert-this is the SOCIAL GOSPEL and how it makes inroads)
Both emphasize scholarship. "An increased emphasis on scholarship" (IETC). Of course we realize that there is nothing wrong with solid, Biblical scholarship that exalts Christ and honors His Word. Neo Dispensationalists, in their books, are enamored by covenant scholarship and by historic premillennial scholarship but they are highly critical of dispensational scholarship. See our previous discussion under "#7—Its Friends."
Both are very critical of dispensationalism. "A shift away from so-called extreme dispensationalism...The trend today is away from dispensationalism—away from the Scofield notes" (IETC). Neo-dispensationalists of today are continuing this trend.
Both are questioning basic issues pertaining to the Bible. "A re-opening of the subject of biblical inspiration....the whole subject of biblical inspiration needs reinvestigation" (IETC). Neo-evangelicals re-opened the subject of Biblical inerrancy whereas neo-dispensationalists have re-opened the subject of Biblical interpretation, especially regarding the validity of literal interpretation of Scriptures.
Both reflect a "theological mood." Charles Woodbridge once wrote: "The New Evangelicalism originated not as a carefully thought out system of theology but as a theological mood or attitude quite different from that of the stalwart ‘Old Evangelicals’ (The New Evangelicalism, p. 23). Could the same be said of neo-dispensationalism? Did it originate as a carefully thought out system of theology or as a theological mood or attitude quite different from that of the stalwart ‘Old Dispensationalism’?
Both result in compromise. "NEO-EVANGELICALISM is a compromise toward Liberalism. Its progenitors were Dr. Carl F.H.Henry, Dr. Edward J. Carnell, and Dr. Harold J. Ockenga. It was spawned in the barren milieu of Fuller Seminary. NEO-DISPENSATIONALISM is a compromise toward Covenantism. Its progenitors are Dr. Craig A. Blaising, Dr. Darrell Bock and in absentia, Dr. Robert Saucy. It was spawned in the Chaferless milieu of Dallas Theological Seminary" (Miles Stanford).
George Zeller, revised 9/00, 1/04
For Further Study
Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie (especially Chapter 9).
Progressive Dispensationalism—An Overview and Personal Analysis by Roy E. Beacham (Central Baptist Theological Seminary, July 31-August 2, 1997).
Issues in Dispensationalism, Wesley Willis and John Master, General Editors (Moody Press).
When the Trumpet Sounds, Tomas Ice and Timothy Demy, General Editors (Harvest House), especially Chapters 8 and 20).
Several articles in The Conservative Theological Journal (especially in the 1998-2000 issues).
1 If the source merely says (Bock) with nothing further added, this is taken from Darrell Bock's correspondence with George Zeller.
2. When evangelicals use "Progressive" to describe their movement, it is good to use extreme caution and discernment. One example is in the area of creationism. "Progressive creation" is a movement popularized by Dr. Hugh Ross. It is a very dangerous movement in the way it approaches the book of Genesis. For example, progressive creation teaches 1) the Big Bang occurred 16 billion years ago; 2) the days of creation were long periods; 3) Noah’s flood was a local event; 4) Man-like creatures that behaved much like us existed before Adam and Eve, etc. Sadly, many prominent evangelicals have embraced these false teachings.
3. One example would be Clarence Mason’s improvement on Scofield’s definition of a dispensation. This is found in Mason’s booklet Dispensationalism Made Simple. Scofield’s definition was good but Mason’s definition was even better. If Scofield had read Mason’s definition he probably would have thanked him for the improvement. He would not have opposed it. Mason built upon the foundation that Scofield laid and added to it. But what would Scofield think of the teachings of PD? Is it adding to the foundation or building on some other foundation?
4. Saucy, however, disagrees. He teaches that the expression "at hand" indicates that the kingdom had drawn near or was imminent. With this traditional dispensationalists would agree.
5. Saucy varies from this somewhat. Saucy, like Blaising and Bock, wrongly equates the right hand of God with the throne of David, but Saucy does not believe that Christ is now ruling from this throne.
6. Bock states that the Daniel 9 passage is discussed in some articles found in JETS 1998.
7. Bock disagrees strongly with the analysis of Thomas and has responded to this in the Bateman book.
8. I did receive a more recent letter from Bob Jones (4/12/2000) written by Thurman Wisdom, Dean of the School of Religion. He stated, "Though Bob Jones has taken no official position regarding covenant theology and dispensationalism, we would not have a Bible faculty member who did not hold to the pre-tribulation, pre-millennial position on eschatology. We prefer not to be identified with a specific interpretational label. However, since we expect our Bible faculty members to interpret the Bible literally, in general our interpretations would vary little from those of such dispensationalists as Charles Ryrie and John Walvoord."
9. We know that in the political realm, men are re-interpreting the Constitution of the U.S. in a way that was never intended by the founders of our country. James Madison would be shocked at how this key document is being misused and abused today by those who should know better. Sometimes this is done in the theological realm also.
used by permission from middletownbiblechurch.org