In recent years there has been a rise in what has become known as
Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) (Other labels for PD include "revised,"
"reconstructed," or "new" dispensationalism.).
Adherents to PD see themselves as being in the line of normative or
traditional dispensationalism, but at the same time, have made several
changes and/or modifications to the traditional dispensational system.
Thus, PD adherents view themselves as furthering the continual development
of dispensational theology. It is also true that progressive
dispensationalists seek a mediating position between traditional
dispensationalism and nondispensational systems.
The meaning of progressive
According to Charles Ryrie, the adjective 'progressive' refers to a
central tenet that the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants are being
progressively fulfilled today (as well as having fulfillments in the
millennial kingdom). According to Craig Blaising, The name progressive
dispensationalism is linked to the progressive relationship of the
successive dispensations to one another.
Origin of PD
The public debut of PD was made on November 20, 1986, in the
Dispensational Study Group in connection with the annual meeting of the
Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. . . . Actually,
the label 'progressive dispensationalism' was introduced at the 1991
meeting, since 'significant revisions' in dispensationalism had taken
place by that time. Some view Kenneth Barker's presidential address at
the 33rd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on
December 29, 1981 as the precursor to some of the views of PD.
His address was called, False Dichotomies Between the Testaments.
Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, Robert Saucy, Kenneth Barker, David Turner,
John Martin. NOTE: It should not be thought that all who have associated
themselves with PD in some way are agreed on all issues. Blaising and
Bock have been the most prolific in promoting PD so it is their views
that will mostly be examined.
Beliefs of PD
Jesus' is currently reigning from David's throne in heaven
According to traditional dispensationalism, Jesus is currently exalted
at the right hand of the Father, but He is not sitting on David's throne
nor has His messianic kingdom reign begun yet. Progressive
dispensationalism, however, teaches that the Lord Jesus is now reigning
as David's king in heaven at the right hand of the Father in an
'already' fulfillment aspect of the Davidic kingdom and that He will
also reign on earth in the Millennium in the 'not yet' aspect.
Thus, according to PD, the Davidic throne and the heavenly throne of
Jesus at the right hand of the Father are one and the same. The use of
Psalm 110 and 132 in Acts 2 are used to support this claim that Jesus
is currently reigning as Davidic King. HOWEVER, This view is suspect
for a number of reasons:
- Distinction in thrones. In Revelation 3:21, Jesus makes a distinction
between His throne (the Davidic throne) and the Father's throne
(of which He is on now in heaven). 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 (12:2).
- Matthew 25:31 places Christ's seating on David's throne at the time
of the second coming: "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory,
and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne."
- Acts 2 shows identity not function. In Acts 2, Peter argues that
Jesus' resurrection is proof that Jesus is the King. He does not state
that Jesus is currently reigning as King. Acts 2, then, shows Jesus'
identity as King not a present function of His reigning
as king. (It should be noted that David was anointed king before His
actual reign began.) In fact, nowhere in the NT is Jesus said to be
currently reigning as messianic king. His reign is associated with
His second coming and Kingdom (see Matt. 25:31; Rev. 11:15; 20:6).
- NOTE: PD proponents Blaising and Bock differ somewhat from Saucy
on this issue. Blaising and Bock equate the "right hand of God"
with "David's throne" and see a current reign of Jesus
as Davidic King. Saucy also equates the right hand of God with the
throne of David but does not see Christ ruling from this throne.
According to Saucy, being at the right hand of God, i.e. David's
throne affirms the present exaltation of Jesus but not a present
function of ruling
- Evaluation: There is not enough biblical evidence to show that
David's throne is the same as the right hand of God in heaven. It is
best to understand David's throne as an earthly throne that Christ
will assume at His second coming.
The "already" aspect of the Kingdom arrived (and stayed)
with the first coming of Christ
Thus, when Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is near this meant the
kingdom had actually arrived. HOWEVER:
- The kingdom was near in proximity not arrival Saucy, again
disagreeing with Blaising and Bock, shows the improbability of this
view: "Jesus said this kingdom was 'at hand.' Though some scholars
have said the term eingiken [near] means that the kingdom
had actually arrived, most see it as indicating only that the kingdom
had drawn near or was imminent. Kummel says the term denotes 'an event
which is near, but has not yet taken place.' According to Hill, 'to
declare that the kingdom is at hand means that the decisive establishment
or manifestation of the divine sovereignty has drawn so near to men
that they are now confronted with the possibility and ineluctable
necessity of repentance and conversion.' Thus in Jesus' preaching the
kingdom had drawn near, but its actual arrival had not yet occurred.
The disciples could still be taught to pray for its coming (Matt. 6:10)".
- Kingdom is future. If the kingdom arrived with Jesus' first coming
why did the apostles see the kingdom as future in Acts 1:3-7?
- The "already/not yet" unproven: PD sees the kingdom as
already here but also awaiting a future fulfillment as well. This
already/not yet construct, popularized by C.H. Dodd in 1926, though,
is highly suspect. This is evident by the confusion shown by those
who accept it. Amillennialists, Covenant premillennialists and PD's
all accept the idea but disagree on the outworking of what is already
and what is not yet.
The church is not a distinct anthropological group:
As Blaising states, "One of the most striking differences between
progressive and earlier dispensationalists, is that progressives do
not view the church as an anthropological category in the same class
as terms like Israel, Gentile Nations, Jews, and Gentile people. . . .The
church is precisely redeemed humanity itself (both Jews and Gentiles)
as it exists in this dispensation prior to the coming of Christ"
HOWEVER: It is hard to discern what Blaising means by this but this
view seems to blur the distinctions between Israel and the church.
One PD advocate, John Turner, for example, refers to the church as the
"new Israel". ALSO: Paul does treat the church as an
anthropological entity distinct from Israel and the Gentiles when he
writes, "Give no offense either to Jews, or to Greeks or to the
church of God" (1 Cor. 10:32). If the church is kept distinct
from Israel (even believing Israel) how can the church not be a distinct
NOTE: This appears to be another area where Saucy disagrees with Blaising
and Bock. Saucy argues strongly for a clear distinction between Israel
and the church. As he states, "The biblical teaching about the roles
of Israel and the church in history reveals that although they have much
in common, they remain distinctively different". Saucy, however,
does use confusing "one people of God" terminology.
By this he means that Israel and the church are saved in the same way,
which is correct. But if Israel and the church are "distinctively
different," why refer to them as "one people of God"?
The one people of God concept can easily be interpreted in the covenant
theology sense of no essential distinction between Israel and the church.
The mysteries of the NT have been revealed in some manner in the OT
Saucy writes, "Contrary to the former [traditional dispensationalists],
the contents of both mysteries-i.e., the equal participation of Jew and
Gentile in the body of Christ (Eph 3) and his indwelling in his people
(Col 1)-are best understood as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies".
While traditional dispensationalists have taken the NT mysteries to be
truths now being revealed that were absolutely not found in the OT,
PD's take the mysteries of Eph. 3 and Col. 1 to be truths that were
partially hidden in the OT that are now being fully revealed in the NT.
The big difference is that PD's see the NT mysteries as being found in
some manner in the OT. HOWEVER: though it is true that the ideas of
Gentile salvation and Gentile participation in the covenants were found
in the OT, the body concept including Jew and Gentiles and the "Christ
in you" concept were not found in the OT.
The biblical covenants have been inaugurated and today we are
experiencing a "partial" fulfillment of their promises
PD's see a partial fulfillment of the spiritual promises of the covenants
(Abrahamic, Davidic and New) but see a future fulfillment of the
physical promises in the millennium. ON THE OTHER HAND: Traditional
dispensationalists do not see the Davidic covenant as being partially
fulfilled in any sense in this age. They are also reluctant to say that
the New covenant is fulfilled in any way in this age, though they do
believe that some spiritual benefits of the New covenant are being
applied to the church. As Homer Kent states, "There is one new
covenant to be fulfilled eschatologically with Israel, but participated
in soteriologically by the church today. This view recognizes that
Christ's death provided the basis for instituting the new covenant,
and also accepts the unconditional character of Jeremiah's prophecy
which leaves no room for Israel's forfeiture. At the same time it
also notes that the New Testament passages definitely relate New Testament
Christians to this covenant".
Dispensations as successive arrangements
Progressive dispensationalists understand the dispensations not simply
as different arrangements between God and humankind, but as
successive arrangements in the progressive revelation and accomplishment
of redemption. These dispensations "point to a future culmination
in which God will both politically administer Israel and Gentile nations
and indwell all of them equally (without ethnic distinctions) by the
Holistic redemption in progressive revelation
God's divine plan is holistic encompassing all peoples and every area of
life: personal, cultural, societal and political.
PD's, for the most part, accept the pre-tribulational view of the
Rapture though most of their writings ignore the issue altogether.
Hermeneutics of PD
The foundational difference between PD and traditional dispensationalism
is hermeneutical. With PD's desire for cordial relations has come a
hermeneutical shift away from literal interpretation, also called the
grammatical-historical method, which has been one of the ongoing hallmarks
Elements of PD hermeneutics
Meaning of texts can change
Blaising and Bock believe the meaning of
biblical texts can change. "Meaning of events in texts has a
dynamic, not a static, quality." "Once a text is produced,
commentary on it can follow in subsequent texts. Connection to the
original passage exists, but not in a way that is limited to the
understanding of the original human author." "Does the
expansion of meaning entail a change of meaning? . . .The answer
is both yes and no. On the one hand, to add to the revelation of a
promise is to introduce 'change' to it through addition."
Preunderstanding as part of the interpretive process
The PD emphasis on "preunderstanding" as part of the
interpretive process is confusing. If all they mean by it is that
the interpreter should be aware of one's predetermined ideas so that
he can suppress them and come up with the intended meaning of the text,
it is a good thing. They do not say this, though. The implication of
their writings is that we all have presuppositions and preunderstandings
that influence our understanding of Scripture but they say nothing on
how to deal with these. What are they getting at? Does this mean all
our interpretations are the product of our preunderstandings? Is it
not possible with the help of the Holy Spirit to lay aside our biases
and come up with the intended meaning of the text? This is one area
where PD advocates are too vague. What they say, in and of itself is
not wrong, but it could lead to faulty conclusions.
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.
For example, with PD, the Davidic throne is both earthly (as revealed
in the OT) and heavenly (as supposedly revealed in the NT).
Evaluation of PD hermeneutics
Part of the confusion over PD is that its adherents claim to hold to
the grammatical-historical method of interpretation but by it they
mean something different. Historically, the grammatical-historical method
meant that biblical texts had only one meaning that could not change.
This meaning was what the biblical author intended. This meaning could
be found as the believer put aside his biases, with the help of the
Holy Spirit, and sought the author's meaning by looking at the grammar
of the text and taking into account the historical situation facing
the biblical author. PD advocates, though, say the meaning of texts
can change and we cannot be sure of our findings because of our
"preunderstandings." This approach places PD outside
the realm of dispensationalism.
The future of PD
Drift toward Covenant Theology
The hermeneutical doors that PD has opened make very possible the
eventual shift to covenant theology. As a covenant theologian, Vern
Poythress is appreciative of the moves PD's have been making. But
he also says, "However, their position is inherently unstable.
I do not think that they will find it possible in the long run to
create a safe haven theologically between classical dispensationalism
and covenantal premillennialism. The forces that their own observations
have set in motion will most likely lead to covenantal premillennialism
after the pattern of George Ladd." Walter A. Elwell: "the
newer dispensationalism looks so much like nondispensationalist
premillennialism that one struggles to see any real difference"
Commenting on the one people of God concept of PD, Bruce Waltke states,
"That position is closer to covenant theology than to
Further revisions and changes
"One expects that there will be further revisions and changes in
progressive dispensationalism as time passes. Where it will all lead
and whether or not it will be understood and received by those who
have embraced normative dispensationalism, no one knows. But already
progressive dispensationalism certainly appears to be more than a
development with normative dispensational teaching. Some so-called
developments are too radical not to be called changes" (Ryrie).
C Ryrie, Dispensationalism; C Blaising and D Bock, Progressive
Dispensationalism (1993); R L Saucy, The Case for Progressive
Dispensationalism (1993); Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church
(1992) edited by C Blaising and D Bock; R L Saucy, The Presence of
the Kingdom in the Life of the Church; V Poythress, Understanding
Dispensationalists; H Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews;
W A Elwell, "Dispensationalists of the Third Kind," Christianity Today,
9/12, 1994, p. 28; R L Thomas, "A Critique of Progressive Dispensational
Hermeneutics," When the Trumpet Sounds, p. 415; E. Johnson, "Prophetic
Fulfillment: The Already and Not Yet," Issues in Dispensationalism;
C Ryrie, "Update on Dispensationalism," Issues in Dispensationalism;
D Bock, "The Reign of the Lord Christ," DIC, pp. 37-67; B Waltke,
DIC, p. 348.
The individual articles presented here were generally first published
in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed
on the Internet in December 1997.
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