Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views

By Herbert W. Bateman IV, ed.
Grand Rapids : Kregel (1999). 345 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 115-117

A number of factors contribute to make Bateman’s work quite interesting. Two are that Charles R. Swindoll, the President of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote the Foreword of the book and that all four contributors are present or former members of the Dallas Sem inary faculty: D arrell L. Bock, J. Lanier Burns, Elliott E. Johnson, and Stanley D. Toussaint. Bock and Burns represent the progressive dispensational position, and Johnson and Toussaint the dispensational (called “traditional dispensational” by Bateman and others throughout the book). The airing out of this difference of opinion represents a sort of public description of a division regarding dispensationalism that has existed among the Dallas faculty for at least the last decade and a half. The General Editor, Herbert W . Bateman IV, is currently associate professor of New Testament Studies at Grace Theological Seminary and a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary.

Johnson contributed essays on “A Traditional Dispensational Hermeneutic” and “Covenants in Traditional Dispensationalism,” and responded to Bock’s essays on “Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism” and “Covenants in Progressive Dispensationalism .” Bock also has responses to Johnson’s two essays. Toussaint’s essay is “Israel and the Church of a Traditional Dispensationalist,” and the one by Burns is “Israel and the Church of a Progressive Dispensationalist.” Toussaint and Burns also wrote responses to each other’s essay.

In Chapter 1, Bateman introduces the dialogue with his summary of “Dispensationalism Yesterday and Today.” His progressive dispensational bias is evident when he refers to “changes” rather than “refinements” in dispensationalism through the years (23). Rather than referring to “changes,” dispensationalists would refer to “refinements” stemming from a closer application of grammatical-historical principles of interpretation during dispensationalism’s years of development. The editor also emphasizes the rejection of Ryrie’s sine qua non of dispensationalism, particularly Ryrie’s principle of literal interpretation (35-42), as a defining feature of dispensationalism.

In their dialogue about hermeneutics, Johnson and Bock agree in regard to the correctness in using grammatical-historical principles, but they disagree about what those principles are. This reviewer would suggest that progressives have changed “the rules of the game,” as Bock aknowledges in an earlier writing:

Evangelical grammatical-historical interpretation was . . . broadening in the midtwentieth century to include the field of biblical theology. Grammatical analysis expanded to include developments in literary study. . . . Historical interpretation came to include a reference to the historical and cultural context of individual literary pieces for their overall interpretation. And by the late 1980s, evangelicals became more aware of the problem of the interpreter’s historical context and traditional preunderstanding of the text being interpreted. These developments . . . were not considered by earlier interpreters, including classical and many revised dispensationalists . . . [and] have led to what is now called “progressive dispensationalism” (Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism [Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1993] 35-36).

Progressives are not operating according to traditional principles of a grammatical-historical approach, but are utilizing different rules without changing the name of the approach. That change allows Bock to follow his “complementary approach” as contrasted with what he calls a “principial-traditional” approach whereby “the rules of the game are determined principally before one reads the text” (86). Johnson responds by asking, “Does one [approach] rely on principles while the other avoids principles?” (101). Then he notes, “The actual difference is in the rules we follow and how those rules are used” (102). Progressives want to put aside traditional rules and substitute others based on a theological assumption that the N T uses the O T in a certain way rather than allowing the grammatical-historical meaning to stand in each testament.

In connection with the NT use of the OT, Bock has appended a 2-page note to his essay (106-8) responding to this reviewer’s article “The Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism” (The Master’s Seminary Journal 6 [1995]:79-95). In the note he disputes my application of sensus plenior (i.e., “fuller meaning”) to describe his use of NT senses to add meanings to the OT and says that I follow the same practice in a later writing of my own. After citing a paragraph from my article, “The Mission of Israel and of the Messiah in the Plan of God” (in Israel: The Land and the People, ed. H. Wayne House [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998] 261-80, esp. 272), he asks a series of unanswered questions and concludes that I advocate the same complementary approach as the progressives do. What he chooses to ignore is the next paragraph of my article where I flatly deny that Acts 13:47 is a fulfillment of Isa 42:6 as progressives would say that it is. I would call Paul’s use of Isa 42:6 in that Acts passage an inspired “sensus plenior application” of the Isaiah passage to a new situation, not an interpretation of that passage. The single grammaticalhistorical meaning of the Isaiah passage remains unchanged from w hat it was when Isaiah originally penned it. Complementary hermeneutics would assign at least a double meaning to such an OT passage, a policy that conspicuously violates traditional grammatical-historical principles.

In his discussion of Israel’s covenants, Johnson summarizes, “Nor does God expand those who share in fulfillment of Israel’s role temporarily when Israel rejects Him” (155, italics in the original), by which he rejects the tenet of progressive dispensationalism. He then adds, “All covenant agreements with Israel will be inaugurated in fulfillment when Israel receives the One whom they crucified . . . when He returns (Zech. 12:10)” (155). Bock disagrees with that position, stating that God does expand those who will share the fulfillment (163). In his essay on the covenants, Bock argues that all the covenants of promise—the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New, especially the Davidic—are initially realized in the church (171). Johnson responds that the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants went into eclipse during the times of the Gentiles and that the church is merely the beneficiary of some of the provisions of the New Covenant without becoming a covenant partner (206).

In his discussion of the kingdom, Toussaint opts for a view that the kingdom is entirely future, a view that is not normative for dispensationalism (231). That obviously negates the “already/not yet” approach to the kingdom that progressive dispensationalism endorses. In his essay, Burns chooses to discuss Romans 9–11 to demonstrate degrees of OT content in the church (273). To justify this conclusion, he gives the “root” of 11:17-18 the unusual identification of God’s loyal love to His covenantal stipulations and promises rather than the usual interpretation that says the root is the patriarchs of Israel (277).

To add to the value of the book, the editor has included a selective bibliography for further study of contemporary dispensationalism, but the bibliography fails to include all the works cited in the book’s chapters. Three Central Issues will be a vital addition to the libraries of those who have been puzzled or disturbed by the division among dispensationalists since the emergence of progressive dispensationalism in the late 1980s.