The Last Days of Dispensationalism—A Great Read

Late last year I read Alistair Donaldson’s book, The Last Days of Dispensationalism: A Scholarly Critique of Popular Misconceptions. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011). Now I promised Alistair I would blog on it, and so here we go.
For those who don’t know, Alistair is a lecturer teaching Biblical Studies at Laidlaw College’s Christchurch branch—and a really good bloke! The book is based on his Masters research. It is a nice easy read, a great achievement for any scholar.

In the book Alistair goes to town critiquing the theological construct of  commonly called Classical Dispensationalism. He avoids more recent developments such as Progressive Dispensationalism, which I reckon he should have interacted with—but hey, there is a limit on what a man can do. He has assured me he will write on this in the future, which would be good, because many Progressive Dispensationalists agree with some aspects of his critique.

He looks closely at the Dispensational hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and in my view, rightly questions its focus on literal interpretation especially noting its inconsistent application. He states that it is, “profoundly problematic as a basis from which to construct a biblically sound eschatological understanding” (p.30)—I agree.

He then turns his attention to the question of “who is Israel?” critiquing the Dispensational perspective on Israel as “always and without exception a reference to the literal physical nation of Jewish people” (p.37) and the absolute distinction between Israel and church. He gives an alternative picture of the nature of Israel and its relationship with the church arguing that “Jesus is true Israel, Israel-in-person” and “the church, by being “in Christ” who is Israel-in-person, is incorporated into and assumes the identity and mission of true Israel” (p.68). He rejects Zionism and sees little relationship between the modern state of Israel and “‘end time’ speculations.”

A chapter discussing the Kingdom of God follows, with Alistari arguing persuasively against the distinction between Kingdom of God (the present church age) and Kingdom of Heaven (postponed future millenial kingdom) in Dispensational thought.

The rapture and tribulation are then discussed, with Alistair rejecting the notion of a pretribulation rapture and the establishment of a millenial kingdom. He, in my view rightly, argues that the rapture is “imposed on Scripture as a consequence of prior assumptions within a system of thought that is itself already an imposition on the text of Scripture” (p.125). He is particularly concerned with the notion of a “soon-to-be-destroyed earth” which “tragically and utterly runs counter (sic) to the heart of God and love for his creation” (p.127).

The Millennium as a literal or literal-figurative notion is critiqued from the perspective that pre-millennialism fails to account for genre, is inconsistent with the two-age structure in Scripture, and over-literalizes the text of Rev 20:1–6. He concludes that a Millennium post-Christ’s return is “questionable,” “dependent on literalism,” “disregards the narrative of Scripture,” and is “biblically inadequate” (pp.146–47).

The final chapter concludes the discussion rejecting the historical and eschatological perspective of Classical Dispensationalism and offering an alternative—an inaugurated eschatology and climaxing in a restored earth. He writes:

[m]y earnest desire is to promote an understanding of an all-creation inclusive eschatological redemption that is already experienced in Christ and the gift of the Spirit but not yet fully realized. It is also to encourage a manner of life that seeks to actively participate in the outworking of God’s all-creation inclusive redemptive love for his creation, the creation that he called “very good”—including all humanity irrespective of race.”

Overall, I think he has met his goal. I consider it is a fine book—persuasive, considered, consistent, and well-argued. It is a must-read for all Christians interested in God’s purposes on earth. I think he has exposed the serious flaws in the Classical Dispensational hermeneutic, the notion of a secret rapture, and the idea of a pre– or mid–tribulation departure of the saints. His presentation on the Kingdom of God is excellent, and I will be recommending this to my New Testament Introduction students.

My only significant questions are these. First, can we be certain that the return of Christ will be the absolute end of the age as postmillenialists and other amillenialists argue? The people of Israel at the time of Christ had false expectations of Messiah at Jesus’ first coming, failing to understand a crucified Messiah. We too, need to take care not to be too dogmatic about what will happen second time around. For example, could it be that Christ’s return is followed by a period of history (which the millennium may indicate) in which living humanity have opportunity to yield to his lordship? Could this be a period of restoration? That is, could it be that Jesus may return in a manner different to many expectations? The truth is, I am not sure—can we be?

Secondly, while I completely agree that salvation is in Christ alone, and the Christian church “in Christ” is the continuation and extension of true Israel by faith (including believing Jews), I am not completely sure that we can say with utter certainty that the restoration of the land of the Jewish people to the Jews in 1948/67 is not without some eschatological significance. Could it be that it is significant in some way and that the culmination of history will center on Jerusalem?  It seems to me that the OTprophesies and Olivet Discourse (Mark 13 and pars) can be read in different ways and there may be a tie in between the modern state of Israel and the culmination of the world. For example, I won't be surprised if the world climaxes with a conflict centred on Jerusalem and Jesus returns to this city; he has to return somewhere, and Acts 1:11 suggests this. Iwonder if there is a bit more mystery about this whole thing than Alistair suggests. As such, I prefer to take a less absolute perspective. I suppose I am an agmillennialist, agnostic about the details. That's something like a pan-millennialist, it will all pan out in the end (not my idea that one).

These questions aside, I want to congratulate my colleague for a great work. I hope people don't take it as an opportunity to beat him up with horrible reviews, we are allowed diverse views as Christians!We also can't afford to be distracted by hammering each other on details, there is a world of work to do. I hope then that they receive it in the spirit with which it has been written, show respect, take it as an opportunity to dig deeper into the Scriptures, and above all, work with all their being for the God’s mission to restore his world.  


Anonymous said…
"that salvation is in Christ alone, and the Christian church"

Mark how do you think this should/can be 'defined'. I tend to think that Christ redeeemed all on the cross even those who had, have, and never will hear his name . . . this I believe is the only way I can comprehend the love of God.
Mark Keown said…
I reconcile it with love. God loves us desiring us for all eternity. Yet, his love causes him to allow us to reciprocate. If we do not, love means he will not impose himself on us against his desires. Love allows freedom or it is not love. After the conclusion of our lives, this freedom is no longer possible, for we meet him and then we are granted the object of our desire--an eternity without God. What that looks like I am not sure, I suspect it is non-existence. The future is a world of unbounded love, freely given, freely received. An alternative view is that of Rob Bell who thinks that the opportunity to respond goes on post-death. So, yes, love answers the question. God says yes to whatever we say, yes or no. If we say yes, he with great joy receives us. If we say no, he in great grief allows us to live out that consequence. That is my answer, not sure how good it is. But yes, Christ's death potentially redeemed all, but it must be willingly received. The story of Abraham esp in Rom 4 suggests explicitly hearing the name of Christ is not the key issue, it is faith in God that saves for those who have not heard the story of Christ. So, there is a sense in which there is hope for all humanity whether they have heard the gospel or not.
Anonymous said…
'Hope' & 'Love' I think we would agree sums it all up! In Christ all things are possible, through Christ all things are made new . . . . I think to often it is laid on Christ that He says my way or the highway when really he says here is the road and I would love to walk it with you but if not, then you will know where to find me.

I know what you meant with your comment 'in Christ alone' but then you say it with hope and love, but it seems to me to many use it as a threat. Sad.

Nice blog mate.
Mark Keown said…
Yes, it is about love, but there is a warning in the gospel too. It is about emphasis surely. We accentuate the story of God's love and desire for us, that only in him is life, and the warning of the gospel is framed as it should be. I would not want to remove the warning that the only alternative is an eternity without God--who would want that? I want an eternity with God.
Anonymous said…
I love language . . . you see a warning and I see a plea. The Gospel is the plea of God for us to return to him and in him to who we were created to be.

Love ya mate
Mark Keown said…
Yes, a plea, but why not a warning? A good parent loving warns a child of the consequences of their action? They then act to follow up on that warning when the child stubbornly rejects the plea/warning? Indeed love demands it--for us, for his world, for his people.
Anonymous said…
Indeed I cannot disagree with what you say, words can mean so many things depending on the context and the medium of expression. I wonder how many would be drawn to explore the message of Christ if we shared it with the tears of a plea to come see, rather than the warning of what might happen if they don't. I do not know if all who hear the gospel are not saved or are not given a chance to re think at some stage as your post discusses, but I am certain of the plea of God born from his love.
Right now I lean towards a plea over a warning, all just words though, and again I say you are right in what you assert. My heart is just elsewhere.
Mark Keown said…
I like the idea of a "plea." Nice.
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Bill Fitzgerrel said…
I am about finished with Donaldson's book. I agree that it is well-written and that it addresses the most important issues. I come from a dispensationalist background and have come to reject most of their theories. However, I remain a "futurist" in my interpretation of many of the key passages. One can take a futurist approach without buying into Disp. A few of my objections to the work in view are the following. I think that he should have taken a more careful look at Romans 9-11. Paul indicates that, in fact, there is a future for "Israel after the flesh." The parent olive tree has had the wild branches (Gentiles) grafted in, but the domestic branches can also be grafted back in. He refers to the "rapture" as though it can only be a transport of the church into heaven. I agree with his understanding that I Thessalonians 4 describes a meeting and escorting of the Lord to earth. If one looks at I Corinthians 15, Paul there describes the rapture in terms of the change of the living saints without the describing the concomitant events described in I Thessalonians. In both cases, I call this the "rapture"--the transformation of the living saints at Christ's return so that they obtain resurrection bodies. As for the Tribulation, it can be argued that Matthew 24, II Thessalonians 2, and Revelation all describe a series of events leading up to the second coming that include the rise of the Antichrist/Beast. I do not have space to develop that.

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