A Defense of Dispensationalism

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John MacArthur is preaching series on eschatology that is being broadcast on WLQV, a Detroit, Michigan, radio station this week. Some of this material was published in his 1999 book The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age. Using a debater’s trick, MacArthur begins his analysis of non-dispensational eschatology by attacking full-preterism. Full-preterists believe that all the New Testament prophetic passages were fulfilled in A.D. 70. Thus, there is no future bodily return of Christ. The resurrection is also given a non-traditional interpretation. Of course, I have no problem with someone debating the merits of full-preterism or partial preterism, the belief that a majority or even most of the prophetic passages in the New Testament refer to events that were fulfilled in events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem that took place in A.D. 70.

R. C. Sproul debates the merits of full preterism in his book The Last Days According to Jesus, as do a number of authors in When Shall These Things Be? I’ve had numerous discussions with full-preterist writers and have voiced my dissatisfaction with a number of their interpretations. While MacArthur admits that partial preterism is not heresy, he goes on to write that “it is clear that the hermeneutical approach taken by [partial] preterists is what laid the foundation for the hyper-preterist error.”[1] The old slippery-slope argument.

The same argument could be used against a dispensationalist like MacArthur. It would go like this: “It is clear that the hermeneutical approach taken by dispensationalists is what laid the foundation for the hyper-dispensational error.” Hyper or ultra-dispensationalism is so classified based on when the church age begins, either Acts 2, Acts 9, Acts 13, or Acts 28. Traditional dispensationalists don’t like being included with hyper-dispensationalists. Dispensational writer Charles F. Baker explains these dispensational divisions:

Since there is little practical difference between the Acts 9 and the Acts 13 views, these positions are usually considered in general as one. Those who hold the Acts 2 position like to refer to those who hold the Acts 13 or Acts 28 views as extreme or ultra-dispensationalists. Ryrie, who holds the Acts 2 position, refers to those of the Acts 13 persuasion as Moderate Ultradispensationalists, and those who hold the Acts 28 position as Extreme Ultra-dispensationalists, although he admits that his own view is considered to be ultradispensational by antidispensationalists.[2]

Preterists could make all dispensationalists look bad by pointing out that there are hyper-dispensationalists out there, and since they are heretical, their closest relatives—Acts 2 dispensationalists—are equally suspicious. One leads inevitably to the other. Furthermore, following MacArthur’s logic, dispensationalists could be turned into heretics by observing that Jehovah’s Witnesses and dispensationalists are premillennial. Premillennialism, therefore, leads to cultism.

Dispensationalism and premillennialism should be judged on their own merits. This does not mean that a case cannot be made for a logical relationship between dispensationalism and hyper-dispensationalism, but each position should first stand on its own.

The same “hyper” argument can be applied to Calvinism. Seeing that MacArthur is a Calvinist, I can just hear some of his Arminian friends saying, “It is clear that the hermeneutical approach taken by Calvinists like John MacArthur is what laid the foundation for the hyper-Calvinism error.” Amillennialist David Engelsma, also a preterist critic, follows a similar slippery slope argument. Engelsma writes that partial “preterism will become consistent preterism.”[3] This is curious coming from Engelsma since he defends Calvinism against those who maintain that Calvinism inevitably leads to hyper-Calvinism or that Calvinism is in fact hyper-Calvinism. He writes in Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel,

In most cases the charge “hyper-Calvinist” is nothing but a deceptive attack upon Calvinism itself. Someone who hates Calvinism, or the uncompromising, consistent defense of Calvinism; yet he hesitates to attack Calvinism openly and forthrightly, and therefore he disguises his attack as an attack on “hyper-Calvinism” and “hyper-Calvinists.”[4]

This is exactly what Engelsma does in his attack on preterism. Instead of dealing with the detailed arguments of preterists, he immediately attacks hyper-preterism as if partial and hyper-preterism are synonymous. Let’s modify the hyper-Calvinist paragraph above by substituting hyper-preterist for hyper-Calvinist.

In most cases the charge “hyper-preterist” is nothing but a deceptive attack upon preterism itself. Someone who hates preterism, or the uncompromising, consistent defense of preterism; yet he hesitates to attack preterism openly and forthrightly, and therefore he disguises his attack as an attack on “hyper-preterism” and “hyper-preterists.”

Engelsma and MacArthur know that they cannot deal with partial preterism on its own terms because it would show how each of their prophetic systems cannot stand biblical analysis. So they attack an extreme form of the position, hoping no one will notice. This tactic is often successful because most people are ignorant of the facts.

Every theological group has its “ultras.” Paul addresses this when he asks, “Should we remain in sin, in order that grace might increase?” (Rom. 6:1) and “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (6:15). There were some who claimed that salvation by grace through faith was a license for lawlessness. “May it never be!” Is salvation by grace through faith heretical because some people misapply its tenets? May it never be. Calvinism, dispensationalism, premillennialism, and preterism should be studied and evaluated on their own merits, not in terms of how far some have taken a position. How would MacArthur respond to someone who criticized his ministry name “Grace to You” as a license to sin?

The Second Coming reads as if it was written in a hurry. For example, in one place MacArthur writes that preterists “ultimately depart from and nullify the strict literal sense of Matthew 24:34,” while on the previous page he chides preterists for insisting that Matthew 24:34 should be interpreted with “wooden literalness.”[5] So which is it? Not being literal enough or being too literal? MacArthur should have studied how “this generation” is used elsewhere in the New Testament. He didn’t. Others have. In the gospels, “this generation” always refers—without exception—to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking.[6] Since the meaning of “this generation” is crucial for establishing the proper time setting for the Olivet Discourse, MacArthur should have spent considerable time justifying his interpretation. He calls the preterist interpretation of “this generation” a “misunderstanding”[7] without ever dealing with the extensive arguments preterists use to defend their position. Preterists are not the only ones who have this “misunderstanding.” Here are three non-preterist examples:

• “[T]he obvious meaning of the words ‘this generation’ is the people contemporary with Jesus. Nothing can be gained by trying to take the word in any sense other than its normal one: in Mark (elsewhere in 8:12, 9:19) the word always has this meaning.”[8]

• “[This generation] can only with the greatest difficulty be made to mean anything other than the generation living when Jesus spoke.”[9]

• “The significance of the temporal reference has been debated, but in Mark ‘this generation’ clearly designates the contemporaries of Jesus (see on Chs. 8:12, 38; 9:19) and there is no consideration from the context which lends support to any other proposal. Jesus solemnly affirms that the generation contemporary with his disciples will witness the fulfillment of his prophetic word, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the dismantling of the Temple.”[10]

Why doesn’t MacArthur attempt to refute these scholars? Do they misunderstand the clear teaching of Scripture?

MacArthur states that interpreting “this generation” in a “wooden literalness” fashion would mean that “the rest of the Olivet Discourse must be spiritualized or otherwise interpreted figuratively in order to explain how Christ’s prophecies could all have been fulfilled by A.D. 70 without His returning bodily to earth.”[11] Do preterists spiritualize the events described by Jesus in Matthew 24? Not at all! They compare Scripture with Scripture. Preterists let the Bible interpret the Bible. There were literal earthquakes (Matt. 27:54; 28:2; Acts 16:26) and literal famines (Acts 11:28; cf. Rom. 8:35), just as Jesus predicted there would be (Matt. 24:7) before that first-century generation passed away (24:33–34). Paul tells us that the “gospel” literally had been preached “to all the nations” throughout the “world” of his day (Rom. 1.8; 16:25–26; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:10), just like Jesus predicted (Matt. 24:14). This says nothing of the promise by Jesus that the literal temple would be destroyed before the last apostle died (Matt. 16:27–28) and that first-century generation passed away (24:34).

Last Days Madness answers every argument raised by MacArthur, arguments which he studiously avoids addressing in this poorly argued book. Some might claim that MacArthur is unaware of preterist works. This debate has been around for centuries, and there are dozens of commentaries that take a first-century, past-fulfillment (preterist) interpretation of Matthew 24. Anyone writing on this topic should be aware of the current literature. And since he quotes from an internet article written by me, he knows what’s going on. MacArthur doesn’t even interact with R. C. Sproul’s The Last Days According to Jesus. The Second Coming is just one more example that dispensationalism cannot be defended when principles of sound scholarship are followed and applied. 

Endnotes:

[1] John F. MacArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 223.
[2] Charles F. Baker, A Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Grace Bible College Publications, 1972), 6.
[3] David J. Engelsma, “The Preterism of Christian Reconstruction (2),” The Standard Bearer (July 1999), 389.
[4] David Engelsma,  Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980), 5.
[5] MacArthur, The Second Coming, 81, 80.
[6] Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, 4th ed. (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1999), 55–60, 183–188.
[7] MacArthur, The Second Coming, 219.
[8] Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook of the Gospel of Mark (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961), 419.
[9] D.A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 8:507.
[10] William L. Lane, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 480.
[11] MacArthur, The Second Coming, 80.

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