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Dispensationalist says Pendulum Has Swung against Dispensationalism

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The following is from Michael Vlach’s article “My Thoughts on the Dispensational Study Group at ETS.” (ETS is the Evangelical Theological Society that meets yearly.)

"The panel discussion was interesting. [Bruce Compton, of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary] believes there is a pendulum swing against Dispensationalism today, but he is hopeful the pendulum will swing back toward Dispensationalism.

"In what I thought was the most significant part of the night, the panel and some in the crowd expressed hope that further discussions between Progressive dispensationalists and Traditional dispensationalists should continue, but the time has come for dispensationalists to offer a more unified defense of Dispensationalism. More emphasis should be given to dispensational commentaries and works on hermeneutics. I agree with this. [Craig] Blaising [of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary] singled out the subject of Supersessionism (Replacement Theology) as being a major issue that dispensationalists should respond to. No argument from me on that one (smile)."

There are a few things of interest in these comments. First, the most obvious one is that “there is a pendulum swing against Dispensationalism today.” I whole heartedly agree. While Compton “is hopeful the pendulum will swing back toward Dispensationalism,” it’s hopefulness without a foundation.

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Second, Vlach does understand that the battle is not between Progressive dispensationalists and Traditional dispensationalists. Only seminarians are interested in the differences. Progressive dispensational books don’t sell. If a prophecy book doesn’t identify who the antichrist might be and what signs are on the horizon leading up to an any-moment rapture, it won’t sell. Only people who have found serious flaws in traditional dispensationalism and don’t want to lose their jobs as pastors and teachers will embrace the Progressive variety. They can still claim to be dispensationalists and draw a salary.

Third, Vlach and his fellow Progressive dispensationalists need to realize that their intramural fight is not where the action is. People are abandoning all forms of dispensationalism for preterism because preterists make a more compelling biblical argument. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. Rarely do big-name dispensationalists renounce the system (they have too much to lose), but there are thousands of rank-and-file dispensationalists who have left. All this has been done without a major publisher getting behind preterist books.

Thomas Nelson published two that I know of. My book End Times Fiction (now published as Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction) , a comprehensive critique of the Left Behind series, was published in 2001. It was a poorly titled small paperback that diminished its impact. I suspect that some of the people on the editorial committee wanted to go low profile with its publication. While I was glad to write it, I noted to the person who commissioned me to write it that it would be a hard commercial sell since Christian booksellers would only make about $5.00 while they were making thousands of dollars selling the 16-volume Left Behind series, a children's version, graphic novels, and related nicknacks.

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Hank Hanegraaff flirted with preterism for a time, and TN published his Apocalypse Code in 2007. When TN was approached about publishing additional books on preterism, the higher ups declined. I was told that there was no money in it. Hanegraaff's name and "Bible Answer Man" ministry sold the Apocalypse Code. Hanegraaff was not popular with a number of popular dispensationalist authors who sell a lot of books. Tim LaHaye was upset with Tyndale, the publisher of Left Behind, for publishing Hanegraaff's fictional preterist series. This is all to say that preterism is mounting a formidable challenge to dispensationalism without the backing of mainstream publishing houses that crank out end-time books by the gross.

Fourth, while not mentioned in Vlach’s article, when dispensationalists no longer publicly defend their system against non-dispensationalists like preterists, it’s the end of the road. Vlach can pretend that the debate is between Traditionalist and Progressive dispensationalists, but he’s only fooling himself. Neither group deals with the questions that a preterist would ask.

Fifth, Vlach’s comment that “more emphasis should be given to dispensational commentaries and works on hermeneutics” is spot on. The books and commentaries that are being published today are written by amateurs who repeat worn out arguments that could never stand up to scrutiny by a preterist. Does anyone believe that dispensational Traditionalists and Progressives discuss the time texts, why the New Testament doesn’t say anything about a rebuilt temple, how to account for non-existent gaps in a passage like Daniel 9:24–27, the fact that there is not a single passage that says anything about a pre-tribulational rapture, and so much more?

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Sixth, Vlach’s final comment is telling. Where Traditionalists and Progressives agree is on “the subject of Supersessionism (Replacement Theology) as being a major issue that dispensationalists should respond to. No argument from me on that one (smile).”

Let’s be clear about something. It’s dispensationalists that maintain that during the parenthesis, that is, between the 69th and the yet future 70th week (7 years) of Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 9:24–27), God is not dealing with Israel. This is an important point that dispensationalists rarely bring up. Dispensationalists have always argued that we are not in prophetic time. Consider the following by dispensationalist author E. Schuyler English:

An intercalary period of history, after Christ’s death and resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, has intervened. This is the present age, the Church age.… During this time God has not been dealing with Israel nationally, for they have been blinded concerning God’s mercy in Christ.… However, God will again deal with Israel as a nation. This will be in Daniel’s seventieth week, a seven-year period yet to come. [1]

The supposed unfulfilled promises made to Israel will not be fulfilled until after the Church is “raptured.” Thomas Ice, a co-author with prophecy writers Tim LaHaye and Mark Hitchcock, states that the Church replaced Israel this side of the rapture: “We dispensationalists believe that the church has superseded Israel during the current church age, but God has a future time in which He will restore national Israel ‘as the institution for the administration of divine blessings to the world.’” ((Thomas Ice, “The Israel of God,” The Thomas Ice Collection: http://bit.ly/xys45K))

Non-dispensationalists like me would say that all the promises made to Israel have been fulfilled, and the redemption of Israel according to those promises made it possible for Gentiles to be grafted into an already existing Jewish assembly of believers that the Bible calls the ekklēsia, incorrectly translated as “church.”

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Soon after Jesus’ ascension, the gospel was preached to “Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). If this is not God dealing specifically and solely with Israel, then I don’t know what is. To say that the ekklēsia is a “mystery” unknown to the Old Testament prophets contradicts what Peter states in Acts 2:16: “this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel.” “This” is a reference to the events of Pentecost. If Joel predicted what was happening, and the dispensationalists claim that Pentecost is the beginning of the Ekklēsia Age, then the ekklēsia is not a mystery; it is the fulfillment of Bible prophecies made first and foremost to Israel. The ekklēsia is not something new. The ekklēsia — made up of Israelites — was in the “wilderness” (7:38).

Peter addresses the crowd at Pentecost as the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22). He expands his message to include “all the house of Israel” (2:36). The “brethren” — Israelite brethren — want to know what they, as Jews, must do to be saved. Peter tells them, “For the promise is for you and your children…” (2:39). There is nothing in this chapter of Acts that indicates that the promises first made to Israel were not being fulfilled right then and there. Peter continued to preach to his countrymen by informing them that “Jesus the Christ” was “appointed for you” (3:20). The “restoration of all things” (3:21) is the pre-ordained redemptive work of Jesus to fulfill what all the prophets had written.

Peter tells them that the prophets “announced these days” (3:24). “It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (3:25). There is no mention of a postponement of the promises during “an intercalary period of history.”

These Jewish believers, the recipients of the promises spoken by the prophets (3:24), made up ekklēsia (“assembly”) (5:11). The Gospel message, “the whole message of this Life,” was to be proclaimed “to the people in the temple” (5:20), that is, to Jews. We learn later that Gentiles became a part of this existing assembly (ekklēsia) of believers to take part in the promises first given to Israel (Acts 10:34–48). Notice the conclusion:

“And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also” (10:45).

“Also” implies the Holy Spirit was first poured out on the Jews. Paul makes the same point in Romans 11 when he writes that the Gentiles were grafted into an existing Israelite body of believers that Acts describes as “the assembly” (ekklēsia).

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Dispensationalists have a huge problem on their hands in that only a remnant of Israelites will be saved during a seven-year period called the Great Tribulation after two-thirds of them are slaughtered (Zech. 13:8). So God wants nearly 2000 years to fulfill His promises to His chosen people and then lets the antichrist have his way with 4 million of them.

There’s much more that can be said on this topic. I’ve outlined what the real issues are in my books Last Days Madness, Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future, and 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Revealed and Answered.

  1. E. Schuyler English, A Companion to the New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 135.[]

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