Friday, September 21, 2007

Classic Dispensationalism and Modernism

Marsden's book, Fundamentalism and American Culture, made an interesting point about dispensationalism, which was the standard theology of most strands of Fundamentalism. In my post below, I argued that Fundamentalism, like liberalism, was based on modernist presuppositions. In this post, I'll summarize Marsden's argument that dispensationalism's hermeneutic is based on modernism as well.

Classic Dispensationalism itself claims to have a "literal" hermeneutic, but that doesn't simply mean the Bible should be treated as "literature" composed of a number of literary genres; rather, it means that the Bible should be interpreted to be "scientifically" precise in all its statements and details. Dispensationalists are known for their scientific interpretation of passages in every literary genre and for their meticulous classification and division of texts into various categories based on that interpretation.

Interestingly, dispensationalism's "scientific" hermeneutic led to its insistence on a radical discontinuity between the Old and the New Testaments. Dispensationalism interprets prophecy the way a scientist interprets data; therefore, dispensationalists admit only one kind of prophetic fulfillment - precisely the one meaning that the human author had in mind when he wrote it in history. The scientific hermeneutic cannot allow for OT promises to be fulfilled in the church because those promises were made to the geo-political nation of ethnic Israel.

The great problem with the dispensationalist's hermeneutic is that it is based on rationalist, modernist, scientific assumptions about interpretation and language and it fails to recognize the various biblical genres, especially the unique biblical genre of prophecy. Moreover, it refuses to accept as paradigmatic and normative the NT's own hermeneutic of the OT. To sum up, the problem with dispensationalism is that its hermeneutic is derived from modernist presuppositions rather than from the Bible itself.


  1. Tom,

    Genesis 15:18-21 says, "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt [the Nile] to the great river, the Euphrates--the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites.'"

    I don’t mean to be cheeky but… Is the dispensationalist employing a "modernist" hermeneutic when he says that God covenanted to give a specific track of land to the descendants of Abram or is he stating the obvious meaning of God's promise to Abram? Is he using a "scientific" hermeneutic or is he simply saying what any normal person (including Abram) would understand the promise to mean? If the amillennialist is correct and God's covenant to give the land between the Nile and the Euphrates to Abram's descendants actually means that he will give spiritual blessings to the church, why should we bother to quibble about the authority of Scripture? It seems to me that the amillennial interpretation of Gen 15 ultimately undermines any basis for meaningful discussion about inerrancy because it requires us to believe that God can say one thing and mean something completely different. If this is the case, whether or not the text is inerrant doesn’t matter very much because we can’t possibly know if God means what his word says or if he means something very different and quite unrelated to the words he has actually spoken. In other words, if God doesn’t keep his promises in any normal sense of the word reliance upon all of his promises is undercut.

    Is the dispensationalist arguing “based on rationalist, modernist, scientific assumptions about interpretation and language” or is he simply using common sense while the amillennialist is arguing that the actual words God spoke to Abraham don’t really matter because God sometimes says one thing when he means something different? I don’t see how the amillennialist can avoid the following reasoning: God said he would give the land between the Nile and the Euphrates to Abram’s descendants, but he will never actually do so. Therefore…


  2. Hi John, thanks for your comment. I'll be happy to reply, but I need more information about who you are first, if you don't mind. I know several Johns. Are you one of them?

  3. John emailed me with his full identity; so, I shall go ahead and answer his question. :-)

    Israel has already occupied all of the land God promised to them in Genesis 15:18. 1 Kings 4:21 says that Solomon ruled over all of the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the boarder of Egypt. Egypt's boarder was a river, the W. el-Arish river I think, which would have been known as "the river of Egypt." Genesis 15 never promises that Israel will occupy the land from the Nile to the Euphrates, only from the river of Egypt (which could just be the boarder of Egypt) to the Euphrates. The Nile is not in the text. Inerrancy doesn't seem to be threatened by this interpretation in the least.

    But, my complaint against dispensationalism is that it seems to fail to acknowledge that the NT handling of OT passages is the right way to interpret the OT. NT usage of the OT is not exceptional; it's normative. The Bible teaches us how to interpret the Bible. Specifically, the NT teaches us how to interpret the OT (fully) in light of the coming of Christ.

    Galatians 3:7 says, "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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.' So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith."

    My complaint with dispensationalism is that it fails to interpret the meaning of the term "Israel" and "descendant of Israel" the way the NT does.

    According to Paul, we are Jews. You, John, and I, are Israelites, according to the NT. Paul wrote, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." What promise? We are heirs of the promise of the land. We inherit all the promises God made to Israel Why? We are Jews. We are the "Israel of God." The Lord delivered *us* out of the land of Egypt. He gave *us* manna in the wilderness. All the heritage of Israel is ours because we are Israelites, grafted into them, just as unbelieving descendants of Abraham were cut off (Romans 11) and made lo-ami (not my people). Unbelieving Israelites are not Israelites at all. They have been cut off from the olive tree, just as we have been grafted in. "They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom 9:6). Believers are actual Israelites.

    "We [you and I] are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh" (Phil 3:3). Paul says so. ;) The OT promises are for us who believe not for those who fail to believe.


  4. Hi Tom,

    I don't know much about middle east geography, but I'll "Amen!" your NT interprets the OT hermeneutic. Yes, the Church is the new, spiritual Israel that fulfills the OT promises to Abraham.

    Can I add one thing for John? Rom. 11 prophesies that God will restore many Jews to Himself someday. And so, these believing, ethnic Jews (no longer a chosen nation) along with us believing Gentiles will fulfill the OT promise in the Church.

  5. Let us also not forget that Romans is quite explicit that the way Abraham himself understood the promise of land was that the world itself would be the inheritance of his children.

    If the dispensationalist is correct, he must say that the land is for the Jews alone and the world for all believers - but that's not how Romans understands the promise.

    Also, notice the arbitrary way in which dispensationalism gives the land to the Jews by genetics on the one hand and ignores what the Law says about national apostasy. Let's grant for sake of argument the land does belong to ethnic Jews. Why should they be encouraged to inhabit it today when they, as a whole, are in a state of general apostasy according to the Law itself. In the event of general apostasy, the Law says that the Jews should be expelled from the land, not inhabit it. So, at the price of "honoring" Genesis 15, the dispensationalist dishonors what the Law and the Prophets say about the penalty for general apostasy. Not only that, the dispensationalist seems bound to acknowledge that a great Holocaust of Jews is coming in that land, not after the mass of Israel comes to Christ, but generally they seem to think that it is coming beforehand, so we wind up with a support of ethnic Israel that will lead logically to a wholesale slaughter of them. How is this not, in reality, cursing, not blessing Israel? Given dispensationalism's reading of the penalites for cursing Israel, how can they avoid the idea that the Christians who do this aren't cursing Jews?

    All of these problems are obviated with covenantalism. To curse the "Jew" is to curse the person in the covenant - the community to which s/he belongs as well; and God's judgment will always befall those who curse the covenant community. In fact, the treatment of the covenant people it is a measure of the "spiritual temperature" of a people group/nation throughout Scripture and, presumably, throughout history. Want to see a nation judged? Observe the level @ which they chose to express hatred toward the covenant community, in the Old Covenant that was the Jew, in the New it is the Church.