Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jesus Hermeneutic: Dispensensical?

As I expressed in my last article, many of the objections to a Jesus Hermeneutic come in the way of questions. Ironically, one of the most foundational questions that gets asked is one I originally neglected. While this was not intentional, I do believe it was beneficial, for it allowed Darby to bring it out in the comments:

WARNING: The road you're going down, if traveled consistently, might lead you to some traditionally non-dispensational destinations. Oops! Did I say that out loud?
Now Darby is a good brother (and I feel I know him well enough to draw out his comment here on the site without his concern), and he has a peripheral perspective of the Fellowship our church is in. (Though never a member of a GBC, he did look at planting a church in the FGBC at one point.) His observance brings out two thoughts:

Biblically speaking, is it bad to not be dispensational?

Brought out by other comments made is also the issue, "What in the world is dispensationalism?" Boys and girls, that is the one hundred dollar question. I'd describe it this way:

If you emphasize the distinction between Israel and the Church more than I do, then you are dispensational. If you emphasize the distinction between Israel and the Church less than I do, then I am dispensational.

I am not saying I am actually the litmus, I am saying I perceive myself as the litmus...and you perceive yourself as that as well. To put it at it's most basic level, the discussion of dispensationalism hinges completely on the level of distinction you make between Israel and the Church. And everyone makes a distinction (yes, even lawyers who live in Stillwater).

Even if we say something is the same, we acknowledge (to a degree) that it isn't. The process of comparison/contrast must require at least two entities. Allow me to illustrate.

I don't know why, but some time ago, I discovered it brought me great joy to tease/harass our music pastor's wife with a packaged form of joke. For instance, she will come over and notice a shirt on our youngest son (who is closest in age to hers). She will then announce to me and Charity, "Oh, my son has that same shirt." I will retort with something to the effect of, "It can't be the same shirt or you are accusing me of being a thief." (I readily admit that no one reading this will laugh and few in the room ever find this humorous. I would simply remind you that I am a pastor and we are not expected to be funny. I laugh at my own jokes. No one else does. I'm cool with that.) You see, the point is, it can't be the exact same shirt or my kid is wearing their shirt...or we've discovered some weird garment communism sort of thing. By acknowledging that they have the same shirt, they are actually saying they have a completely different shirt than ours that is identical to ours.

When we speak of Israel and the Church, even the person who wants to proclaim they are 100% identical is claiming they are not the same thing. They have to, there is no way around it with the statement. The only way to avoid it would be to say one or the other just flat out does not exist. (And this cannot be done while being Biblical.) All that to say, dispensationalism is not an argument about Israel and the Church being separate entities, it is an issue of degree that is up for debate. I think the Spirit of God prophesied through Caiaphas to say it best:
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish." Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.--John 11:49-52
There is a nation. There is also one children of God who are scattered abroad. You must acknowledge there are both. The degree of unity/disunity they have is then up for debate. And since that becomes a graduated scale, the determination of who is dispensational is also graduated. Personally, I do not consider myself dispensational. However, you may read (or talk to me) and determine that you think I am. It's a system, not a doctrine, therefore I do believe the label is expendable.

This is not some post-modern gobbley-gook that wants to label everything with labels as bad. The term can be useful in places, but the definition just seems to vary with every person. Furthermore, it is a system that is used to describe doctrines that are held to. Any system is more like a dot to dot picture. When we begin to connect the dots, sometimes we're filling in spaces where the Scripture doesn't speak. We must be willing to see that those spaces do not bring the same authority. (Anyone who has drawn out a dot to dot picture with your child can see that the picture often looks best when straight lines are not always employed between the dots. We know where the dots are, and there is a reasonable room for curvature between dots to better illustrate the picture. This does not mean the person can willy-nilly go wherever they want between the dots and maintain the integrity of the picture, but it does mean their is some subjectivity as to how we get from dot to dot.) Unfortunately, systems often make the lines between the dots objective. To adhere to a system requires unity in areas where Scripture does not speak. Often, this creates tension because the line drawn ceases to line up well with the dot intended as it's end. For this reason, I am very willing to throw away the system adherence (dispensationalism) for a greater focus on a doctrinal perspective (premillennialism, for example).

Which brings me to point two:

Darby could be right. This may actually get me in trouble with my Fellowship

I hope this is not the case, but their certainly seems to be a perception that denying dispensationalism is a Fellowship denying offense. To be fair, no one within the Fellowship has threatened to remove my credentials when I state I do not own a dispensationalist membership card (though I have seen some show heightened skepticism about my doctrine upon this realization). However, many from outside the Fellowship have the perspective that to deny dispensationalism is to deny our Statement of Faith.

I shared breakfast with a wonderful pastor from the Dayton area one day. I had attended a seminar with him and was blessed to hear him employing what I have been calling a "Jesus Hermeneutic." As we both exalted in Christ as to the beauty of seeing our Savior on every page of the book, I looked to him and asked, "Why wouldn't every pastor delight in seeing this?" His smile faded. He rather soberly informed me that while he was thrilled to hear my love for Christ on every page, he felt I needed to know that it will probably cost me my ordination at some point. His point was that dispensationalism does not jive with this hermeneutic and his impression was that one must be dispensational to remain Grace Brethren.

A more telling illustration comes from my first time at T4G. The first year of the conference, the room was insanely packed. Though they would take a break between sessions, the chairs were so tight that there really wasn't anywhere to go. I stood up and attempted to stretch and then sought to meet some of the fellow men around me. One guy turned around and saw my name tag:

Danny Wright
Teaching Pastor
Greenville Grace Brethren Church

His first words, "Oh, you're Grace Brethren. Well, I'm not a dispensationalist."

There are more than a few "oddities" of our Fellowship that I believe are actually displays of Biblically fidelity. We wash feet at communion, which most churches do not. We trine immerse, again which most do not. However, he did not choose to illustrate either of those differences. He instead chose to address a system label which is not found anywhere in our Statement of Faith. Why would that be?

Perhaps it is unfair. Perhaps within the Fellowship there is not a great deal of concern as to who are dispensational and who are not. But it certainly seems that those on the outside believe we are clutching to dispensationalism and would refuse to let go.

It grieves my heart if there are those who will not employ a "Jesus Hermeneutic" (which is clearly articulated in Scripture) because they refuse to let go of a system (which is a secondary explanation of how some men understand Scripture.)

Perhaps I am dispensational. If someone were to sit down and listen to my eschatology and show me how that can be objectively labeled as dispensational, fine.

But I will refuse to abandon a God given hermeneutic to maintain a man created title.

I pray that you feel the same.


Brad said...

I can't resist commenting on the irony of a guy named Darby gainsaying dispensationalism. Delightful

Nor can I help but notice that though you keep referring to your premillenialism, you have yet to say anything about pretribulationalism, a point the FGBC also has in its statement of faith.

JanAl said...

Great explanation!

Darby Livingston said...


That's funny - the Darby thing. And what are you trying to do, get Danny to recant everything he believes in one post? :)


I agree with your assessment, in that the whole technical system of disp. is really just a way of saying Israel and the church are totally distinct. On the other side, covenant theology sees the church as a continuation of Israel. I think some form of "new covenant theology" is the right way. Christ is, and has always been, the real Israel of God. I also agree that if Scripture is clear on any point, it is the centrality of Christ on every page of Scripture. It's always safest to go that route wherever it leads. Great post.

Brad said...

No, Darby. I guess I'd settle for two or three. ;)

danny2 said...

While I love the emphasis that Israel's role was to point to Christ, I have a hard time calling Him the "real Israel of God."

I understand what you mean, but in the same way, I prefer to call Christ the perfect Adam, not the real Adam. Adam really does exist. Adam was a type of Christ.

Israel really did exist and there is a real nation with a real plan from God. The nation has as it's highest purpose to point people to Jesus Christ, but I'd prefer to call Him the Perfect Israel.

And just like the Original Adam exists today, I believe the Original Israel exists and has a purpose today as well.

Darby Livingston said...

See, Danny, there's still hope for you. They might even let you teach theology at Dallas. :)

danny2 said...

we would need to question the credentials of any academic institution that let me teach there!

Darby Livingston said...


A thought from the front lines of Isaiah to address your concerns with calling Jesus the "real Israel."

In Isaiah 48:1 we read, "Here this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel..." obviously referring to the people of the nation that descended from Jacob.

And then in 49:3 we read, "And he said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified,'" concerning the servant of the Lord to come.

Then in verse 5 we read, "And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered in him..."

So we have those who are called Israel being gathered into Israel. This fits well with Paul's views of "seed" being Christ, not physical descendants. The nation was a shadow of Israel - called Israel, but not the real one. If that's what you mean by "perfect Israel" than we agree, and it's just a matter of word use.

Darby Livingston said...

Actually, my helper pointed out that when I say "real" I really mean "true." So for instance, I could say the Buckeyes are a "real" football team. I don't mean there aren't other real teams in existence. I mean the Buckeyes embody what a true football team is supposed to be.

Shane said...

I for one am as flabbergasted as you that the two most distinctive things about grace brethren weren't what that guy pointed to.

Then again, maybe it was just a point at which he knew he might have had something in common with you. The baptism and communion elements were too obvious for him.