Dispensationalism is renown for its masterful defense of its sincerely-held theological convictions. In the past, its loyal detractors and critics usually lay outside its theological camp. Now, however, one of the strongest and most concerted challenges to traditional dispensationalism has come from within. An increasing number of former traditional dispensationalists are now proposing substantial changes, this new view being called “Progressive Dispenationalism”. Progressive dispensationalism began on November 20, 1986 in the Dispensational Study Group in connection with the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. Since that time, this revisionist view of dispensationalism has made a profound impact upon leading dispensational theological seminaries and Bible colleges.
What is Progressive Dispensationalism?
This new form of dispensationalism purports to be “a return to the roots of American dispensationalism” (Bock, Christianity Today, Sept. 12, 1994, p. 27). However, is this worthy goal truly the motivation of Progressive Dispensationalism? How is this view different than traditional dispensationalism? What has Progressive Dispensationalism sought to accomplish? It appears, based on the writings of its own proponents, that Progressive Dispensationalism has sought to gently push into the background those features of traditional dispensationalism that are most disagreeable to current Amillennial scholars. In the process, these new dispensationalists have incorporated elements from Amillennialism and historic pre-millennialism (ie., George Elton Ladd, modernist C. H. Dodd), while de-emphasizing distinctive features of traditional dispensationalism, such as the rapture of the church, the literal millennial reign of Jesus Christ, and marked distinctions between Israel and the church. This view has been, at times, so stridently promoted that, in some cases, churches have been split over this issue. At the forefront of this movement are leaders such as Darrell L. Bock, of Dallas Theological Seminary, Craig A. Blaising, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Robert Saucy, of Talbot Theological Seminary, CA. These men have authored books which have been used by their readers to further this ongoing doctrinal debate. These books include The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism by Robert Saucy, Progressive Dispensationalism by Bock and Blaising, and Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, edited by Bock and Blaising.
Is Progressive Dispensationalism Rightly Named?
Can one be rightly called a dispensationalist who denies the foundational tenets of dispensationalism? For the sake of argument, suppose one states that he is a “progressive Baptist”. You ask him what that means and he replies that he believes that infant baptism is biblical and the mode of baptism should be sprinkling. Can a Baptist who denies believer’s baptism be rightly called a Baptist. Likewise, can a progressive dispensationalist who rejects the tenets of dispensationalism be properly called a “dispensationalist”. The answer is obvious. It is of interest in this regard, to know what Amillenialists are saying about the title “Progressive dispensationalism”. Amillenial author Keith Mathison writes, “The church suffers too much damage when people do not idenify what they really believe. For the sake of accuracy, honesty, and understanding, ‘progressive dispensationalists’ should no longer claim to be dispensational….It is not enough to redefine the essential doctrines out of a system and call the resulting opposite teaching ‘progressive’. Progressive dispensationalism is not Dispensationalism….My hope and prayer is that they continue their journey toward Reformed theology. Since they have come a long way already, it only makes sense to discard the misleading title “progressive dispensationalism”. (Keith Mathison, Dispensationalism, Phillipsburg,
NJ : P & R Publishing, 1995, p. 137)
Progressive Dispensational Departure
What are the tenets of Progressive Dispensationalism? At the outset, it must be mentioned that Progressives set forth a unique and, some would say, unorthodox method of interpreting the Bible. Progressive Dispensationalist Craig Blaising rejects Charles C. Ryrie’s insistence that an essential element of dispensationalism is the use of a literal, plain, normal, and consistent method of Bible interpretation. Blaising and Bock have put forth what they call a “complementary hermeneutic”. They suggest that the New Testament makes complementary changes to Old Testament promises without setting aside those original promises. This method of interpretation appears to be a merging together of the literal method (dispensational) and the allegorical/spiritualizing method (Covenant Theology). The application of this type of interpretation has led to a de-emphasis on the rapture of the church, an essential feature of dispensationalism. In the book Progressive Dispensationalism, by Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising, the Rapture is considered only briefly, and it is not mentioned when it would be natural to do so. Some observers believe that this method of interpretation lies at the heart of the subtle disappearance of Darby/Scofield dispensationalism. Respected dispensationalist Thomas Ice warns, “No one can doubt that some are proposing radical changes within the dispensational camp. The question that arises relates to the nature and virtue of the change… I believe that these men are in the process of destroying dispensationalism” (Biblical Perspectives, Nov./Dec. 1992). To some, this charge against Progressive Dispensationalism has appeared to be too harsh. However, candid statements by the new president of Dallas Theological Seminary, Chuck Swindoll, have cast light on the accuracy of this suspicion. In an interview with Christianity Today, when Chuck Swindoll was asked about traditional dispensationalism at Dallas Theological Seminary, he replied, “I think that dispensations is a scare word. I’m not sure we’re going to make dispensationalism a part of our marquee as we talk about our school.” When asked whether the term dispensationalism would disappear, Swindoll replied, “It may and perhaps it should” (Christianity Today, Oct. 25, 1993).
Progressive Dispensationalism, the Reign of Christ, and Acts 2
Another area of serious concern is the change concerning the thousand-year millennial reign of Christ on earth. Traditional dispensationalists have always understood that the Davidic rule of Christ would be in earthly Jerusalem on a literal throne where His ancestor David once ruled. Progressives teach that the Lord already rules on the throne of David in heaven, a rule that began at His ascension. Traditional dispensationalists reject that Christ’s present rule in heaven is a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7:14. However, Progressives have further muddied the waters by teaching that Christ’s millennial rule is present and is yet future at the same time. Acts 2:29-33, is used as support for this postition. This passage speaks of the two thrones of Christ ; the throne of Heaven and the throne of David, an earthly throne. Progressives, have taught that these two thrones reflect two aspects of the millennial rule of Christ. They do not acknowledge careful distinctions between these two thrones of God. Scripture teaches clearly of a throne of God in Heaven. “The Lord is in His holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Ps. 11:4). In contrast to this, the throne of David, Scripture teaches, is future, earthly, and literal. The careful distinction between these thrones is made in Rev. 3:21, “He who overcomes, I will (future) grant to sit down with Me on My throne (earthly), as I overcame and sat down (present) with My Father on His throne(heavenly).” Blurring these distinctions will lead to confusion concerning promises made to Israel and promises made to the church. This confusion will greatly determine our convictions on the Lord’s return, the tribulation period, and the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law. The third major change proposed in Progressive Dispensationalism, which may prove to be the most serious, is the removal of significant distinctions between Israel and the Church. Traditional dispensationalists have taught that God has two programs of biblical history—one program for Israel and another distinct program for the church. In his book, “The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism”, Robert Saucy explains, “Contrary to traditional dispensationalism, it (Progressive Dispensationalism) does not entail separate programs for the church and Israel that are somehow ultimately unified only in the display of God’s glory or in eternity. ...The church today has its place and function in the same mediatorial messianic kingdom program that Israel was called to serve” (p. 28). Progressives see almost no difference between God’s unique plan for the church and His plan for Israel. This has led one Progressive Dispensationalist to call the church “the new Israel ” (Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, p. 288). Many non-dispensationalist observers have commented that this view moves Progressive Dispensationalism closer to Covenant Theology than to Dispensationalism (Bruce Waltke, Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church, p. 348). This view forces its proponents to de-emphasize many fundamental features of dispensationalism, including the pre-tribulational rapture of the church, an event uniquely involving the church on God’s prophetic timetable.
Progressive Dispensationalism and the Future
What does this all mean for the future? Will other leading features of dispensationalism fall in favor of current theological trends? Will Progressives marshall the strength to resist the criticism and even the praise of non-dispensationalists? Or will Progressive Dispensationalism progress even further towards classical Covenant Theology? Leading Progressive Dispensationalists have not been timid in expressing their respect for amillennialism. Progressive Darrell Bock concedes his fondness for amillennial distinctives when he writes, “Progressive Dispensationalism is less land-centered and less future-centered” (Christianity Today, September 12, 1994, p. 50). Observers can only hazard an educated guess as to the future of Progressive Dispensationalism. However, all of this has led Dr. Walter A. Elwell, of Trinity Theological Seminary, in a book review of Progressive Dispensationalism to surmise, “The newer dispensationalism looks so much like non-dispensational pre-millennialism that one struggles to see any real difference” (Christianity Today, Sept. 12, 1994, p. 28). If his evaluation is true, then the future bodes badly for traditional dispensationalism. In every generation, serious students of the Word of God must seek to effectively declare biblical truth. However, in doing so, they must not surrender important areas of Bible doctrine. May the exhortation of the apostle Paul to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15) challenge our hearts, especially as we see Progressive Dispensationalism spreading from the seminary classroom to the Christian bookstore and then down into the local church, moving ever closer toward Covenant Theology. May God grant us wisdom and discernment concerning this difficult and important issue.
W. Wesley, J. Master (ed.), Issues in Dispensationalism, (Chicago, IL:Moody, 1994)
Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today Revised, (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1997)
Mal Couch, Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1996)