Apr 9, 2010

Moderate and Progressive Dispensationalism

Tony GarlandBy Tony Garland

Q. Some have described themselves as 'moderate' dispensationalists rather than 'progressive' dispensationalist. What is the difference?

A. The terms "moderate dispensationalist" and "progressive dispensationalist" describe a range of positions in relation to one's views on dispensationalism.

These two positions can be envisioned as lying somewhere between hyper-dispensationalism, on the one hand, and covenant theology on the other. An oversimplified diagram could be drawn something like this:

hyper-dispensationalism > classic dispensationalism > moderate dispensationalism > progressive dispensationalism > covenant theology

The differences between these positions are largely determined by how the interpreter reads the Scriptures and especially how he views aspects of continuity and discontinuity found within the text. [1]

Every interpreter sees teachings in the text which are discontinuous - which change so significantly in regard to different eras or people groups that it is almost impossible to conclude they apply to all peoples at all times. An example of an obviously discontinuous element would be animal sacrifices - which are not incumbent upon Christian believers beyond the cross. Other teachings of Scripture are clearly continuous - applying to all peoples at all times. An example of an obviously continuous truth taught in Scripture would be prohibitions against murder (whether based in the Law of Moses or the Law of Christ) or that regenerating ministry of the Holy Spirit bringing men to faith throughout all ages and people groups.

Between those teachings that are clearly discontinuous and those which are clearly continuous lie many other teachings of Scripture where there are differences among interpreters as to how they are to be understood. Examples would include the distinction between the Israel and the Church and the relevance of the law in the age of the gospel. In more extreme forms (e.g., hyper-dispensationalism) some consider the gospels as instructions given to Jewish believers prior to the formation of the church and only apply teachings from the epistles, or only epistles written by Paul, to the Church.

Within dispensationalism itself, there is a range of opinions about what is discontinuous (can and should be understood as having changed or being addressed to a specific situation or people) and what is continuous (should not be separated or compartmentalized and applies more broadly).

The term "moderate dispensationalism" is often adopted by individuals who share the basic tenets of dispensationalism (e.g., see a distinction between the Church and Israel), but who are concerned that some dispensationalists may go too far in compartmentalizing the teachings of Scripture.

Dispensationalism is a fundamentally correct system of understanding God's program through the ages. Its chief element is a recognition that God's plan for Israel is not superseded by or swallowed up in his program for the church. Israel and the church are separate entities, and God will restore national Israel under the earthly rule of Jesus as Messiah. I accept and affirm that tenet, because it emerges from a consistently literal interpretation of Scripture (while still recognizing the presence of legitimate metaphor in the Bible). And in that regard, I consider myself a traditional premillennial dispensationalist. . . . There is a tendency, however, for dispensationalists to get carried away with compartmentalizing truth to the point that they make unbiblical differentiations. An almost obsessive desire to categorize and contrast related truths has carried various dispensationalist interpreters far beyond the legitimate distinction between Israel and the church. - John MacArthur [2]
Moderate dispensationalism, then, is the way some people who are dispensationalists prefer to describe themselves in order to distance themselves and differentiate their views from more extreme forms of dispensationalism. Exactly how "moderate" a moderate might be varies from person to person.

The phrase "progressive dispensationalism" refers to something quite different. This label has been adopted by some who see themselves as embracing teachings of dispensationalism, but have moved in the direction of covenant theology. They are less likely to see a clear separation between Israel and the Church as two peoples of God or in relation to Biblical revelation.

For example, classic dispensationalism understands the Bible to teach that the Church (the Body of Christ) was not revealed prior to the New Testament and that the present age presents an "intercalation" during which the focus has shifted from God's work through Israel to His work through the Church. As such, classic dispensationalists (of which I consider myself to be) understand that Jesus is not presently seated on His throne (the throne of David) and until he does, His kingdom is not realized (Luke 19:11; Mtt. 25:31-34; Rev. 3:21). In particular, classic dispensationalism does not equate the Church with the Kingdom.

Progressive dispensationalism, on the other hand, sees aspects of Christ's kingdom as being already realized. In particular, they would say that Christ is already on the throne of David (in heaven!) even though His kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness. This interpretive practice by progressives of seeing future aspects of prophecy already in progress has been described as "already, not yet."

Another difference between classic dispensationalism and progressive dispensationalism is in regard to how promises are to be interpreted (hermeneutics).

Classic dispensationalism holds that the meaning of promises in the Old Testament is governed by the normal rules of language as understood by the faithful among the original recipients. It is not considered permissible to change or "read back" into Old Testament promises revelation from the New Testament in such a way that it would change the meaning of the original promises.

Progressive dispensationalism utilizes what has been called a "complementary hermeneutic" whereby the original meaning can be modified by revelation given later. Progressives say their approach does not change the original meaning, only expanding upon it. Classical dispensationalists disagree because they see aspects of New Testament revelation being "poured back" into promises which originally had no such aspects in view.

The result of this complementary hermeneutic is that progressive dispensationalists have more in common with covenant theology than classic dispensationalists. In fact, some have seen progressive dispensationalism as a thinly-veiled attempt to move dispensationalism in the direction of covenantalism (which sees a single "people of God" and generally merges the various Old Testament covenants into a singular "covenant" which they deem "the Old Covenant"). Thus, classic dispensationalists have been wary of progressives because they seem to be moving away from the core of what makes dispensationalism what it is and toward rapprochement with covenantalism which minimizes or denies the continued relevance of God's calling and promises in relation to the nation of Israel.
I have come across several examples of why I believe that leaving traditional dispensationalism naturally, if not logically, leads to a rejection of pre-tribulational pre-millennialism, as will be seen from the arguments of some progressive dispensationalists, if not an embracing of covenant theology and amillennialism, that some have done. - H. Wayne House [3]
In summary, progressive dispensationalism is a movement away from classic dispensationalism towards covenantalism whereas moderate dispensationalism is closer to classic dispensationalism, but concerned to distance itself from either some aspects of classic dispensational or extremes such as as hyper-dispensationalism.

[1] A helpful book which discusses this aspect of Biblical interpretation is John S. Feinberg, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988).
[2] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), p. 31.
[3] H. Wayne House, Dangers of Progressive Dispensationalism to Pre-Millennial Theology: Reflections of a Pre-Progressive Dispensationalistc (2003).