doubting Thomas

One of the (nerdy) joys I have is re-acquainting myself with my personal library–after being separated from it for just over 5 years. I find books that I’ve been wanting to read and now can (seeing that I have the time to do so), encounter others that I had forgotten about, and discover a few that now have accidental duplicates. On the most recent scan of the shelves, I came across, Four Views on the Book of Revelation (1998)–edited by Stanley Gundry and C. Marvin Pate. This one, oddly enough, falls into the first two categories: been wanting to read, and forgot I had it.

Because I had forgotten about it, I failed to remember that one of the four views explored was “A Classical Dispensationalist View” (pp. 177-230), advocated by Robert Thomas. And because I failed to remember this, I was visibly and audibly surprised when I saw it. So much so that my, “Are you kidding me?!” outburst (and nearly coming out of my chair) solicited funny looks from other Dunkin’ Donuts patrons. And a couple mothers drawing their children in closer.

I was surprised for two key reasons–one less substantial than the other: 1) that such a view would be included in a book on scholarly approaches to the book of Revelation, and 2) that there is an academic who is still willing to promote the view–especially in 1998! I was fairly confident that the Classical Dispensationalist view of anything (let alone Revelation) had been relegated to those very small pockets of Christendom still tied to John N. Darby and C.I. Scofield. And I could have sworn that it was no longer considered a viable, scholarly, academic position to hold. Apparently I was wrong.

There is not enough time or space in a simple blog post to address the details of Thomas’ argument. Thus, I will mention two of the leading issues of his claims (and his critique of the other views) that prompted further outbursts from me and other funny looks (and reactions) from DD patrons.

First, I had trouble with Thomas’ critique of the other views in the book (i.e. Preterist, Idealist, and Progressive Dispensationalist).  At times, he was a bit unfair in how he represented the other views (and their interpretative decisions). Moreover, he was rather curt and occasionally discourteous towards his “opponents”–simply because he thinks the other views are flawed at the hermeneutical level and thus open to ridicule. Specifically, Thomas dismisses the arguments of his “opponents” because they do not (in his view) adhere to a specific line of interpretation (i.e. the so-called, grammatical-historical [or: literal] approach)–a line that he sees as the only valid means for interpreting the book. Alternatively, he openly and passionately accepts (and thus promotes) the Dispensationalist reading because it does adhere to the G-H approach.

Thus, prima facie, Thomas’ critique is not: “the other views are wrong/false/invalid because they are not Dispensational”; instead, it’s: “the other views are wrong/false/invalid because of they do not follow the G-H interpretative approach; but because of it’s loyalty to G-H interpretation, Dispensationalism is the more appropriate reading of Revelation.” In effect, Thomas presents his case as though: 1) the G-H approach is open to all and is completely objective in its processes, 2) the other views have rejected this approach and have been forced to create wild and fanciful readings of the text–readings that are not reflective of either history or theology, but 3) only Dispensationalism has earnestly accepted the approach and consistently applied it to the biblical text, thus producing a uniform reading that is faithful and true to both history and theology. However, there is a serious problem with this presentation. I’ll come back to it in a moment.

Second, I could not get past the theological and cognitive dissonance of Thomas’ (counter)arguments. In particular, Thomas chastises one of his “opponents” for allowing his presuppositions and hermeneutical approach to dictate his interpretations. Specifically Thomas declares (p.187 n.19):

C. Marvin Pate opts for a twofold outline because of his preunderstanding of an “already/not yet” hermeneutical key, through which he interprets the book. This illustrates how one’s preunderstanding, if allowed in the hermeneutical process, influences the interpretation of Scripture.

Thomas utterly fails to recognize the essential necessity for Dispensationalism to operate in accordance with specific preunderstandings, without which the whole system would collapse. As Bruce Waltke has clearly demonstrated:¹

  • (Classical) Dispensationalism begins with a small handful of (unqualified/unsubstantiated) presuppositions,² and uses them as “rules” for interpretation
  • it then reads the whole of Scripture through the lens of these presuppositions/rules, and this holistic reading (conveniently) leads to the Dispensationalist system
  • it then allows this system to govern as the hermeneutical principle by which individual parts of Scripture are understood
  • and then finally it uses the conclusions about the parts to justify the holistic view of Scripture, which then legitimates both the Dispensationalist system/reading of Scripture and the presuppositions with which it began. (Still with me?)

In short: without this predetermined hermeneutical method being used in interpretation, Dispensationalism does not work. And by reading Thomas’ argument in the Four Views book, it does not take much effort to see his reliance on (and need for) this Dispensationalist approach. But the dissonance does not stop there, for Thomas even goes on to say (p.226):

[Pate] attempts to justify his “already-not yet”[³] hermeneutical key by recourse to Revelation 1:1, 3, 19, but he reads into those verses a meaning borrowed from Oscar Cullmann.

Here Thomas (conveniently) overlooks the fact that his views on the so-called rapture of the church, the supposed two comings of Christ, the seven-year (great) tribulation experienced by only those “left behind” (i.e. not raptured), the implied distinction between Israel and the Church–along with the respective fulfillments of prophecy–are not the inherent or natural readings of the text(s); they are presuppositions foisted onto the text and are nothing more than the creation of people such as John Darby, C.I. Scofield, Lewis Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, Hal Lindsey, etc. The double-standard should be obvious, but for whatever reason it’s not. And then he has the temerity (a fancy, academic word for: cojones) to claim (p.227):

The grammatical-historical way to approach the book is to put one’s predispositions aside and let the facts of history and principles of grammar within the book speak for themselves. Recent hermeneutical trends have pushed aside this time honored quest for objectivity, but they have done so through allowing intrusions by man-made and man-centered philosophical emphases. Inclusion of human preunderstanding has no place in biblical interpretation. . . . A [classical] dispensational view of Revelation strives for objectivity by putting aside all preunderstanding and bias, so that the text of the book may speak for itself. This is grammatical-historical interpretation historically construed.

In the words of Frank Barone: “Holy crap!” Classical Dispensationalism is just as guilty–if not more so–in all of these respects. It does not put aside predispositions and biases and read the text objectively, without the intruding man-made philosophical emphases; it completely uses them and absolutely needs them. Without them, (Classical) Dispensationalism falls to the ground. Moreover, (Classical) Dispensationalism is not so much concerned with hermeneutical loyalty–as Thomas presents it–as it is with theological sustainability. In other words, its loyal to a particular hermeneutical approach is not out academic honesty or because it is the only one available; it’s loyal to that approach only because it is the one that enables an existing theological system to be sustained. Why Thomas thinks otherwise or fails to admit this is beyond me.


[At the very least, this post will ensure that I would have serious difficulties being hired at Master’s Seminary].

¹ this reworks Waltke’s argument from a(n audio) lecture given at Westminster Theological Seminary.
² i.e. an exclusively literal approach to Scripture; a clear and definite distinction between Israel and the Church, each having its own salvific program as depicted in Scripture; a literal (physical) fulfillment of all prophecies made to Israel alone.
³ I’m not exactly sure why Thomas switches from “already/not yet” (on p.187) to “already-not yet” (here in p.226).

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