Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition

By Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1992). 402 Pages.

Reviewed by Ken Sarles
4.1 (Spring 1993) : 97-100

As the title of this volume suggests, the search is on for a new definition of dispensationalism. Edited by two Dallas Seminary professors, this work represents the collective effort of a group of mostly younger, dispensational scholars. Recognizing the vast changes that have occurred in dispensational thought since the formative era of Darby and Scofield, baby-boomer dispensationalists are now testing the waters to discover a redefinition of the movement. The results are both provocative and troublesome, depending on the dispensational orientation of the reader.

The book is in four parts: (1) an introduction, an analysis of the historical emergence and creedal development of dispensationalism; (2) a section on Biblical Studies, a wide-ranging series of articles dealing primarily with dispensational implications of selected NT passages designed to showcase the latest in dispensational scholarship; (3) responses by three leading non-dispensationalists to the articles in section two; (4) the editors' assessment of the direction of dispensationalism based on conclusions drawn from the articles and responses.

To understand the volume's importance and value, one must discern its positive and negative features. Positively, Robert Saucy's article on the church as the mystery of God is very helpful. As Saucy points out, the mystery's "present manifestation is an eschatological fulfillment of the promised salvation," though not yet complete because of OT prophecy still awaiting fulfillment. In other words, the union of Jew and Gentile in one body was an OT mystery not only ecclesiologically, but also soteriologically and eschatologically.

W. Edward Glenny's article on Israelite imagery in 1 Peter 2 is also insightful. According to Glenny, Peter does not use Israelite characterization to define the church as a new Israel, but rather uses the historical situation of the OT people of God as a pattern for the New Testament people of God, creating a measure of continuity between the two peoples.

The article by Lanier Burns on the future of ethnic Israel in Romans 11 is a masterpiece of exegetical research. In addition to its other merits, it demonstrates the advances made in dispensational scholarship in recent years, a purpose quite in accord with the intent of the editors.

The editors, representing a new breed of dispensationalists, are to be congratulated for their courage in including critical responses to their position. Perhaps Bruce Waltke gives the most perceptive critique: "These younger dispensationalists cite older dispensationalists mostly to distance themselves from them. In truth, however, they are desperately trying to retain their heritage" (350). Though this may augur well for the future of dispensational scholarship, according to Waltke it does not hold promise for the future of dispensationalism as a belief system.

When attention shifts from the contributions of individual dispensational thinkers to the contribution made to dispensational thought, the negative features of the volume become apparent. The introductory article by Craig Blaising is perhaps the most disconcerting because of implications it raises. Having observed that all theological thought is historically conditioned (22, n. 28), Blaising fails to address the more profound question of whether all theological thought, including that of the biblical writers themselves, is thereby historically determined. This reviewer fears that the implied answer to the question may be affirmative, based on Blaising's elaboration:

Appreciation has grown for the historicity of both subject and object in the act of interpretation. This includes respect for the problem of historical distance resulting in horizontal differences between text and interpreter, the role of the interpreter's preunderstanding, and methodological applications of the hermeneutical spiral. Likewise, the role of community in interpretation is increasingly recognized. This leads to an awareness of the influence of tradition upon the interpreter's preunderstanding as well as the broader dialogic context of interpretive questions and possible answers (30).

As important as the historicity of a text is to proper interpretation, the great danger is that transcendent truth will be lost in the midst of historically-conditioned, horizontally-spiraling, dialogical hermeneutics. In this reviewer's opinion, this approach could well spell the end, not only for dispensationalism, but for all objective and axiomatic theological content, if carried to its ultimate conclusion.

The negative features of the volume are not only hermeneutical and theological, but also attitudinal. The best illustration of younger dispensational "children" rising up against the "fathers" of scholastic dispensationalism is found in John A. Martin's article on the Sermon on the Mount. In arguing for the continual evolution of dispensational interpretation, Martin reflects his consciousness of the "generation gap" when stating that "younger scholars have been reluctant to produce material that would be perceived as `going against' the older established works" (249, n. 2.). If the interpretive system is evolving away from that of past dispensationalists, at what point does dispensationalism become a new species? The peril is that so-called "developing dispensationalism" may in reality be none other than "disappearing dispensationalism."

An aversion to older dispensational thinkers can be detected in certain pejorative comments Martin makes regarding Chafer's distorted views based on "a slavish adherence to traditional interpretation" (250, n. 10) and Pentecost's "somewhat confusing and disjointed" interpretation (251). Such disparaging terminology, even if accurate, does not advance the discussion. Even more disturbing, however, is the author's citation as corroborative evidence of private conversations with some older dispensationalists whom he evaluates (251, n. 13; 253, n. 18). Such personal data is unsupportable by documentation and independently unverifiable, so it has no place in a scholarly publication.

The concluding assessment by the editors is perplexing. Though laudable for its irenic tone and conciliatory spirit, it reflects more difficulties than it resolves. The editors reject what they call "essentialist dispensationalism," an approach which seeks to identify the sine qua non of dispensational thought. Instead, they advocate a postessentialist form of dispensationalism, which in reality is a "non sine qua non" system. If they are advocating a form of dispensationalism that has moved beyond the concept of essence, "vacuous dispensationalism" is a more accurate label for their system.

Quite frankly, the hermeneutic employed by the editors of this volume places them outside this reviewer's historic form of dispensationalism, no matter how broadly it is defined. As they have expressed it,

Dispensational theology should be a dialogic phenomena [sic] inclusive to the extent of all who are in Christ. It is aided by an inclusive hermeneutic that is reflected upon for improvement in its deployment. It is in fact a hermeneutic that is aware of the communal and dialogic nature of understanding (384).

In this interpretive method, the transcendent pole of the hermeneutical axis has been lost. If listening is the key, as the editors suggest, then the larger question is to whom should dispensationalists be listening? In the new hermeneutic, men are listening to one another and to the larger community, but are they listening to the divine voice of the text?

The last page of the work contains an ecumenical appeal to appreciate a diversity of opinion in the midst of a greater corporate unity, so that Christians can understand one another's emphases and thereby learn from each another. However, the emphasis on unity in diversity is itself an influence from a larger pluralistic culture, and therefore appears to represent a hermeneutical preunderstanding that must be challenged.