Yesterday we saw that the essence of dispensationalism can be broken down into three points:
- First and most importantly, the essence of dispensationalism is the distinction between Israel and the church.
- This distinction is the result of consistently literal interpretation.
- The distinction reflects the understanding that God’s primary purpose is to Glorify Himself.
The three points above are gleaned from Ryrie’s definition of dispensationalism (see yesterday’s post). Upon closer examination, however:
The third point is by no means unique to dispensationalism. For centuries prior to the existence of dispensationalism, Reformed theology has recognized that the chief purpose of creation is to glorify God. For example, the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism is:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
In the past, some dispensationalists have slandered reformed theology by incorrectly characterizing it as being concerned primarily with man’s salvation, while reserving for dispensationalism the distinction of standing alone in its promoting God's Glory as our raison d'être. The facts get in the way of such a claim.
As to the second point, it is true that dispensationalism takes an over-all literalistic approach. But it is not certain its takes a consistently literalistic approach. I am not talking about obvious metaphors—when Christ says He is the vine (John 15:1) it does not mean that to remain faithful to their claim of literality dispensationalists must teach that you can pick grapes from Him—no in a more meaningful way they sometimes are forced to sacrifice their pride and joy. For example, John Walvoord writes (as quoted by Mathison):
when an Old Testament prophecy refers to Israel, it must mean the literal nation of Israel; but when the same Old Testament prophecy refers to other nations, such as Assyria or Philistia, it only refers to the land once inhabited by these nations. Whoever may be inhabiting these lands may fulfill these prophecies—John F. Walvoord, The Nations in Prophecy, Zondervan, 1967, 163.
Another example is from the Olivet Discourse, where in the midst of describing the tribulation, Christ announces:
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt. 24:34).
Since, according to dispensationalism the tribulation has not yet occurred, they must renounce the literal meaning of generation. This also points out a particular problem with the dispensationalist literality: it appears to be more willing to sacrifice itself on simple passages (such as Math. 24:34) rather than on complex apocalyptic text, when the reverse strategy would seem the safer.
So when all is said and done, the main feature that defines dispensationalism is not the notion of dispensations or that the purpose of creation is God's glory. These features are found in Covenant Theology as well. Nor is it (primarily) their literal hermeneutic, which is impossible to impose across the board.
Dispensationalism's sine qua non is its radical distinction between Israel and the church, which leads to very unique view of the New Testament church. This is what we will focus on next.