Progressive Dispensationalism

General Information

Introduction

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.

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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.

PD proponents

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:

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 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 anthropological group?

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 Holy Spirit".

Holistic redemption in progressive revelation

God's divine plan is holistic encompassing all peoples and every area of life: personal, cultural, societal and political.

Pre-tribulation rapture

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 of dispensationalism.

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 dispensationalism".

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).

M Vlach
Bibliography
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.


Also, see:
Dispensation, Dispensationalism
Ultradispensationalism
Covenant

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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