Supersessionism Rising: Dispensationalism…? Part 2

This is Part 2 an article which appeared in the September / October 2011 edition of Voice magazine and is reproduced with the permission of its author, Dr. Kevin Zuber.

Dr. Zuber is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute and a teaching elder / pastor at Grace Bible Church Northwest.

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Preface (by Dave James)

There were several catalysts in the process that ultimately led to the formation of The Alliance for Biblical Integrity. One of the first was a very late-night conversation with Dr. Jimmy DeYoung in 2007 (which I’ll get back to in a moment).

It was after midnight and we were returning to Hungary after speaking at the first prophecy conference ever held in Serbia (to the best of our knowledge). We were still rejoicing in the fact that the Lord had allowed us to be a part of something that had far exceeded everyone’s expectations. The organizers of the conference (one a Serbian Baptist pastor and the other an elder in a Brethren Church) had set up the locations for the meetings based on their hope that we might have as many as 100 people or so attend the conference. After the meeting on Saturday, a last-minute change of venue for the Sunday meetings was necessitated by the fact that around 500 had come out to hear the messages. By the last meeting on Sunday, it was estimated that close to 800 were in attendance that evening – approximately 10% of the evangelical population of the entire country of Serbia!

Back to the conversation: The question we were asking ourselves was, “Where is the next generation of prophecy speakers going to come from? Who is teaching and training them.” This also led to the observation that dispensationalism, in general, seems to be in rapid decline after over 50 years of being the most widely-held view within conservative evangelicalism.

In this article, Kevin Zuber deals with this specific issue and some of the significant implications flowing out of this shift away from Pre-Trib Pre-Mil Dispensationalism and toward Covenant Theology and its attendant “supersessionism.” As Dr. Zuber explains in the article:

[supersessionism is] the theology that denies that God has a future program for the nation of Israel and denies that the promises God has made to the ethnic descendants of Abraham—the Jewish people—will be kept fully and literally.

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Article by Kevin Zuber

Dr. Kevin Zuber

Part 1 concluded with the observation that many young evangelicals in colleges and universities have decided eschatology is not very important and that many lay people share that opinion.

Scholarly embarrassment?

Furthermore, and perhaps this is in part the cause of the point just made, it is my impression that Christian scholars, even the biblical scholars and evangelical theologians, are not all that interested in pursuing issues related to eschatology or even in advocating a particular position on eschatology. This is becoming more pervasive among premillennial dispensationalists. This may be (and I think it is) caused by the embarrassment that many of them feel when rubbing elbows with the wider scholarly evangelical community. It is something of a long-standing fact of scholarly life (nearly a “tradition”) that when one enters the “serious academy,” matters of eschatology are relegated to relative insignificance.1

One could recount dozens of testimonies of scholars who grew up in or were saved in churches that regarded the New Scofield Reference Bible with the highest esteem, churches that held Prophecy Conferences regularly if not annually, churches whose libraries were well stocked with the books of Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost, McClain, Feinberg and the other luminaries of classic dispensationalism. But when those young scholars went off to graduate school or seminary (even evangelical seminaries) they were disabused of those resources and enlightened to the profundities of Ladd, Dodd, Bruce, Barr, and Barth (!)…and these days James Dunn and N. T. Wright among others.

As an illustration I would offer the example of the book 20th Century Theology by Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen.2 In many ways this is a fine piece of historical theology. And while no survey can cover everything, yet in that book none of the “old Dallas Seminary” authors are even mentioned and the subject of eschatology appears in only one index reference and that’s under the theology of Rudolph Bultmann! The message is clear: “scholarly theology” is simply not interested in the timing of the Rapture or the future of ethnic Israel.3

Resurgence of reformed theology

Also, there has recently been a resurgence of Reformed theology among a broader range of evangelicals. The rise of Reformed theology (Westminster Confession of Faith type of Reformed), especially among the so-called “young restless and reformed”4 has generally and in some cases specifically had a deleterious effect on the study of eschatology. And more to the point, it has contributed to a movement away from premillennial dispensationalism toward a murky amillennial covenantalism.5 Popular preachers in that mode like John Piper6 (not so young but very popular with the young, restless and reformed men), Mark Driscoll,7 Kevin DeYoung8 and others as well as Reformed bloggers like Tim Challies9 have been on record as discounting prophetic themes while pushing a Westminster Confession of Faith/Reformed point of view that is inherently supersessionist. My point is that many of our young people, influenced by the popularity of the preachers and bloggers noted above, are becoming supersessionist almost without thinking. And this is happening even if they will somewhere in their theology affirm a form of premillennialism.

Spiritual vision eschatology

Next is the pervasiveness of what Blaising himself calls a spiritual-vision eschatology. This he defines as a “traditional eschatology which sees eternal life as a timeless, changeless, spiritual existence consisting primarily in the human soul’s full knowledge of God…. This is the sum total of what eternal life is, and it defines what is meant by heaven.”10 In short, the sum total of the eschatology of many Christians is this simple phrase: “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” For many Christians (and many of them in our own churches) this simple formula entails all that one needs to know about eschatology. And this fits well with the vision of supersessionism.

According to this view, everything in this life is “a symbol of spiritual realities” so “Israel can only be a symbol of a spiritual people to come.”11 In this view, one can easily turn the Old Testament land promises to Abraham and his seed into “spiritual promises.” They fit into a spiritual-vision eschatology. But viewing the land promises as promises that are to be literally fulfilled seem less than credible (or even pertinent) to a simple eschatology defined as “going to be with the Lord” at one’s death and nothing more. The very earthly (to be fulfilled literally “on the very ground”) and temporal (in time and space) eschatology of dispensational premillennialism seems less credible to many believers than the vision of this pervasive “spiritual-vision” eschatology. The latter is simple and satisfying, the former (dispensational eschatology) seems complicated. And in the end, they ask “who’s going to care about the Antichrist when they are with Jesus?”

The lack in our pulpits

Finally, it seems to me that behind much of the uncertainty of dispensationalism in the pew and the classroom stems from the fact that doctrine in general and eschatology in particular is not being taught in the churches or preached from the pulpits. I realize this may seem a wild generalization. But the penchant for relevance in preaching and the cry for practical instruction in the church has pushed doctrinal study to the periphery in many churches. I see it in the incoming students even in Bible college. Doctrine is often viewed as dry and unrelated to life; and that seems especial ly so when the doctrine concerns matters like the tribulation and the millennial kingdom. Besides, these matters are controversial and seem to generate more heat than light and the post-modern student looking for cultural and practical relevance and the entrepreneurial pastor seeking to grow his church soon learn to avoid such matters.12

Implications of all this

All in all, I may be wrong on this and I deeply hope I am. But I’m afraid that premillennial dispensationalism is on the wane, and not because there are better arguments for other millennial views, or for supersessionism. I think this is because the scholars have decided there have been enough arguments over eschatology and that one’s view of the millennium is, well, inconsequential and that to advocate a particular view is in poor scholarly taste. And students are looking for cultural acceptance more than theological precision because they think this is a better way to reach the world with the gospel. The effect of such trends, I fear, is simply to cede ground to views that are by default supersessionist.

Why does this matter? For one consequential matter is Jewish evangelism. It is much more likely for those who believe Scripture teaches a future for nation al Israel will be involved in ministries devoted to Jewish evangelism. It should be a concern for all of us who understand the Scriptural priority of Jewish evangelism to see that the theological tradition that has nurtured much of the impetuous for Jewish evangelism is healthy. One author made the telling observation that there are few staunchly Reformed organizations devoted to reaching the Jewish people.

But even more widely, we should be concerned because the truth we affirm from the Scriptures is in danger of being lost not in the rigors of theological debate and a progressively clearer understanding of the program and plan of God revealed in His Word. It is in danger of being marginalized by those who dismiss it while at the same time it wanes from lack of affirmation, advocacy and teaching by those who formally affirm it. It is one thing for our churches and students to be drawn away by advocates of other eschatological viewpoints. But it is another thing to allow them to drift away by our relative neglect. At the present time both developments are taking place.

Conclusion

Perhaps the optimists are right and supersessionism will not overtake the more Scriptural view that God indeed has a future for ethnic, national Israel. But even if they are right, it is appropriate for us to consider the challenges I have mentioned carefully and to address them boldly and confidently.

How then must we respond? The prescription is, I think very simple to state but will take some determined effort if there is to be a reversal of these trends.

Those who are undecided and on the fence regarding eschatological matters need to get off the fence! Study and show yourself approved! I’m confident that a serious of study of eschatology, looking at both sides and reading both covenant theologians and dispensational authors (such as those books mentioned above) will lead you to a firm conviction of dispensational eschatology.

Also, we educators need to teach this to our students and we pastors need to preach this to our flocks. The trends noted have not risen over night and will not be easily reversed—but they are reversible. If IFCA International does not stand for dispensational theology, who will?

Notes

1 See for instance (and this is only one) the testimony of Richard S. Hess, in his chapter, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium,” in Blomberg and Chung, eds., A Case For Historic Premillennialism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), pp. 23-24. Hess writes, “Several experiences in my life moved me away from this fascination with, and focus on, the details of Christ’s return.” “The ensuing years occupied me with the study of the Hebrew Bible in its original context and kept me safely away from the prophecy wars in evangelicalism.” The message is clear: serious scholars are not interested in the details of prophecy—they have “matured” beyond such a “fascination.”

2 Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, 20th Century Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992)

3 Another indication of the lack of scholarly interest in these matters is the rather lack-luster attendance at the Dispensational Study Group at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This is purely anecdotal but it has appeared to me that while overall attendance at the ETS meeting has grown over the last few years, attendance at the meetings of the Dispensational Study Group has dwindled.

4 Cf. Colin Hansen, “Young, Restless and Reformed,” Christianity Today, September 22, 2006; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html; accessed march 22, 2011; see also Colin Hansen, “Reflections on Young Restless and Reformed,” Reformation 21, February 2009 http://www.reformation21.org/articles/reflections-on-young-restless-and-reformed.php accessed March 22, 2011.

5 A popular website resource for the “young, restless and reformed” is http://www.monergism.com/; this site is decidedly anti-dispensational and pro-covenant theology. However, it has many good and useful sources for other aspects of Bible and theological study.

6 See http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/articles/what-does-john-piper-believe-about-dispensationalism- covenant-theology-and-new-covenant-theology; this page indicates that Piper “is probably the furthest away from dispensationalism, although he does agree with dispensationalism that there will be a millennium.” I would conclude that Piper holds to a form of “historic premillenialism.”

7 http://www.marshillchurch.org/markdriscoll

8 http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/about/; DeYoung’s tag line is “DeYoung, Restless and Reformed.”

9 http://www.challies.com/; Challies clearly does not accept dispensationalism but periodically it comes up on his blog and he is a fair critic.

10 Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 119. 25.

11 Blaising, “The Future of Israel,” 119.

12 For more on this point see John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 3rd edition, 2010).

5 Comments
  1. While the following article emphasizes Christ as the central focus in Christian ethics and ecclesiology, I believe it offers some food for thought related to the decline of Dispensationalism. It seems to me that this shift among many believers is not due to less faithfulness in Bible study and teaching, but a clearer apprehension of Christ as the center and circumference of God’s purpose and preoccupation for the believer, both now and in the future.

    http://resources.grantedministries.org/article/this_is_my_beloved_son_hear_him_j_zens.pdf

    • I believe a proper understanding of God’s program as reflected in Dispensational theology does the very most to exalt Christ as the “center and circumference” of God’s program. It is all about Him.

  2. I think one factor is the proliferation of anti-dispensational books on the market (Rossing, Sizer, Burge, Chapman, Donaldson etc). The polemicists are winning the war because they are the squeaky wheels and not because their theology is more biblical.

    They inevitably begin by taking issue with the rapture doctrine and its origin and then mine-quote John Hagee as if he represents dispensationalism. But I think the real issue, and where they all end up going to, is Israel and the church.

    Well said, Dave James.

    • I agree completely. This is one of the reasons we established The Alliance for Biblical Integrity. The dispensational voices are either silent or largely non-existent. At least there seem to be few who are of any noted stature who don’t take positions and say things that cause them to not be taken as serious theologians.

      However, there are some things happening in some quarters that should begin to have some impact.

      Thanks for commenting.
      DAve

  3. Here is a note which I posted on Facebook a while back entitled “Keeping Eschatology in its Proper Place.”

    It seems to me that every time a sinner is snatched from the fires of hell, the power of Satan and the woes of death, Christ has achieved another great victory over His enemies and scoots them even further under His footstool. Is not such almighty grace powerful and triumphant enough to satisfy every saint that God’s kingdom is growing and Christ is reigning victoriously from God’s right hand?

    God vanquished multitudes of enemies in the past through miraculous events which overruled the natural realm. But to save even one sinner, He had to send His Son from glory to Golgotha to die a shameful death which, paradoxically, was also the most powerful display of His justice, wrath, mercy, love and grace the world has ever seen or will ever know. The natural eye looks at the cross as only a pathetic and miserable execution. The eye of faith sees the arm of the Lord being revealed in the salvation of the world (Isaiah 53:1; John 3:17).

    Every evangelical eschatological view advocates a glorious future when all we can see is renewed in total glory. Most see this occurring cataclysmically, and some see it growing progressively. I welcome it either way and am thankful for God’s grace however it continues to come to pass in my life and the future. (I haven’t been very good at predicting or understanding His providence in my own life thus far. I am even less certain about making forecasts regarding the age to come.)

    However the future unfolds, let us walk with the patriarchs toward the heavenly city not by sight but by faith (2 Cor. 5:7; 4:18 Rom 8:24; Heb. 11). Let us not talk as if future grace will improve upon the Cross. The Cross was the apex of all time. The redemption of mankind and the renewal of creation flows from Christ’s victory upon the Cross. May the Cross of Christ be our only boast now and forever (Gal. 6:14; Rev. 5:12).


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