Monday, December 31, 2007

Dispensationalism: Part 1. The Last Days

Previous posts in this series: Dispensationalism: It's newer than Darwinism.


As we start our look into dispensationalism, a reasonable question is: is it fair to attack classical dispensationalism and opposed to newer, so-called progressive dispensationalism? The answer, I think, is yes, for the following reasons:

  1. As pointed out, Dispensationalism is not all that old—less than two hundred years—with the American variety only a bit more than one hundred years old. In criticizing classic dispensationalism, one is not critiquing a dinosaur.
  2. Along the same lines, progressive dispensationalism has not made it into the pews. Yes it is true that some dispensational academics have "softened" some of the more outrageous positions of classic dispensationalism. And yes, some of Scofield's sillier commentary has been vetted for the New Scofield Bible (1967.) But it is still true that the brand of dispensationalism one still hears from the "man in the street" is the classic variety, further popularized by the success of the Left Behind series.
  3. Regardless, the newer progressive dispensationalism is an adaptation of the classic. It may be slightly less radical, but it is itself susceptible to criticism of its precursor. If classic dispensationalism is "almost" right, then progressive dispensationalism can withstand assaults on its precursor. If, however, classic dispensationalism is grossly wrong, then progressive dispensationalism is a house built on shifting sand.

Before we really get into it, let's start with an interesting observation:

  • Dispensationalists think the end is near, but that we are not in the last days.
  • Non-dispensationalists believe we are in the last days, but generally have no opinion on whether the end is near (amillennialists) or whether it is probably way-off (postmillennialists.)

To see how this apparent contradiction is resolved, we must take our first peek at one of the details of dispensationalism. That detail is the fact that there are said to be seven dispensations, and we are in the sixth, not the seventh and last. The sixth dispensation is the dispensation of grace, the seventh is the future earthly kingdom of Christ, the famous millennium. About these we shall have much to say. For now we simply say that the dispensationalists teach "the end is near," meaning that Christ's return is imminent (a pillar of dispensationalism) and, after a seven year tribulation, we'll transition into the "last days" of the millennial kingdom. This is an important point, of which we'll provide more support later: "the last days" refereed to by the prophets are not (according to dispensationalists) now, because the present age, call it the church age, was, by dispensationalism's reckoning, unforeseen by the prophets. Thus, as I said, dispensationalists say then end is near (rapture in your lifetime) but we are not in the last days.

In non-dispensationalist theology, which from now own I will refer to simply if not totally accurately as reformed theology, says we are presently in the last days, and generally says nothing about the timing of the second advent.

Let us look at the concrete disagreement—whether we are in "the last days." Here we turn to scripture. In particular, to Pentecost, when Peter preached:

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: "'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. (Acts 2:16-17)

Here Peter clearly aserts that (1) we are in the last days, and (2) these are the very same "last days"—not as unforeseen by the prophet Joel, but as prophesied by Joel.

There are more, including from the writer of Hebrews:

 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you. (1 Peter 1:10)

To fully appreciate that we are in the last times (but that the end of time is unpredictable and may be many millennia in the future) will have to be postponed until we look into what is meant, precisely, by the kingdom in the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of God.

We must remember that the fact that we are in the last days does not mean that the end of history is near. No, it means that like the bible itself being split into two great testaments, redemptive history is split into the first days (or past days) and the last days, and the last days refer to that time after salvation was accomplished on the cross and the spirit was poured out to the church.

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