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.