Dispensationalism

still missing the point

I recently began reading a book by Alistair Donaldson on the problems with Dispensationalism (see pic). screen-shot-2017-01-12-at-11-20-40I’m about half-way through and it’s been a fair treatment of the subject so far; I’ll have to wait and see if these things hold true till the end. Two things have been encouraging about the book: (1) much of what Donaldson argues is in line with a number of conclusions that I’ve reached on my own on this topic; thus, it’s good to know that I’m in good company in my thinking. And (2) Donaldson clarifies a vital need when talking about Dispensationalism, and that is: most discussions tend to say, “Dispensationalism has come so far from its origins, and a number of scholars–even Dispensational ones–are showing how the classical form is no longer viable or even biblical. So there’s no real need to debate or look at the older forms of Dispensationalism.”

But the problem is, as Donaldson points out, that recognition is almost exclusively a scholarly perspective. In other words: scholars are the ones who have accepted the advances made; the classical (and even modified) form of Dispensationalism still exists and is taught in many churches, and thus still finds is way into popular Christianity. Therefore, while we are safe to exclude treatments of the older version when talking about it at the scholarly level, there is still a need to include them at the popular level. Here is a case in point:

Over at Beliefnet.com (a site that I only know about in a passing way, which is to say: I try to avoid it as much as possible), Lesli White composed an article entitled, “5 Important Facts About Jesus’ Second Coming”. Sounds intriguing, to be sure. The tagline is (an attempt to be) equally captivating: “While we don’t know every detail, The Word promises these five things will happen when Jesus returns again.” Sounds promising. Except for one thing. Some of what she lists is not what “The Word promises…will happen when Jesus returns again”, rather it’s what Dispensationalism (because of its idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic) promises will happen. To be sure, the general points in her list do parallel the teaching of the NT–e.g., Jesus’ coming from heaven, our complete ignorance about the timing, the return will be obvious, and the second will be different from the first. But the parallels stop there. On the surface. Once we start to dig into the specifics of her individual points, we encounter not only a Dispensationally marinated theology but also some basic problems/flaws/inconsistencies.

For example: White’s second point proceeds–without justification, mind you (but that’s the old Dispy’s MO)–with the assumption that “While the two are often confused, the second coming is not the rapture”, and then goes on to explain why the two are meant to be kept separate. Hence, White is advocating a two-stage Second Coming of Christ–one where he sort of comes back, but not really; and a second (/third), where he means it this time. Not only that, but White proceeds on the (equally unproven) assumption that “the church” is a completely separate entity in God’s salvation plan–and by that it is meant, “the church” is neither the Jews nor the Gentiles (i.e., the unbelieving world). By implication from the rest of what she says in this point, this means: at the so-called “rapture”, the church alone is rescued while everyone else is screwed and has to endure 7 years of “wrath” and “great tribulation.” Sorry, but neither of these two teachings is not found in the NT; they are especially not found in (or even supported by) texts like 1 Thess 4.13-18 or (I’m assuming she meant to write) 1 Cor 15.50-54. These ideas, however, are two of the essential pillars for Dispensationalism, so one can easily find them there. And only there.

White’s third point also has some concerns. Two are worth mentioning. First, she is very cautious in how she chooses to word her claims. When talking about the unexpectedness of the event, White focuses her attention on “the return” of Christ. While (seemingly) benign to most everyone else in the church, this phrasing is necessary for the Dispensationalist system of interpretation, which in turn formulates the Dispensationalist’s theology. By focusing on “the return” as an unknown event, White is emphasizing the so-called “rapture” and not Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming. Thus, for the Dispy, at the word level: “return” = “rapture”. And she has to follow this notion, partly because, of the two events (wrongly) assumed to be a part of Christ’s two-stage coming, the so-called “rapture” is the only one that is described as unknown, unannounced, without warning, blah, blah, blah. And the other part is because, if this event (supposedly) precedes Jesus’ (final-and-I-really-mean-it-this-time) Second Coming, all one needs is simple math to work out when the Second Coming will take place–i.e., 7 years after the so-called rapture–thus making it a known event. That’s the first cocnern in her point. The second one is easier stated: the passage she ropes in to support her case (Matt 24.36) not only says nothing about a so-called rapture–either before it or after it–but also is, as Dispys typically argue, focused on the Second Coming.

And that brings me to the final¹ concern in White’s case. In her fourth point, White is correct in describing the return of Christ as “visible and audible”. This is a breath of fresh air from the otherwise dank claims of older Dispensationalism which tends to advocate a “secret rapture” (cf. this). But the relief stops there, for White immediately launches into a treatment that leaves one rather puzzled. I say that because, in speaking of Christ’s “return” we are left with the impression that White is still referring to the so-called “rapture”–an impression that is encouraged by references to texts like 1 Thess 4.16, a passage that some have rightly defined as “one of the noisiest” in the NT.² But right alongside this are references that Dispys typically use to speak about not the so-called “rapture” but Christ’s final Coming–i.e., Matt 24.26-27, 31, and (from the previous point) 36. This would suggest, at the very least, that White–in her exuberance to make a point–accidentally conflated the two ideas into one. Or it would at least suggest that the (wrongly) assumed two-stage Coming of Christ is not as important or necessary or clear-cut as White so adamantly claimed in an earlier point. Or, at best, it would begin to expose the fact that Dispys have no biblical case for a two-stage Coming of Christ, but that they have to make such a case in order to sustain an idiosyncratic and flawed hermeneutic–one that created a rather idiosyncratic and flawed theological perspective³–and in making such a case, they simply get things wrong. And they get things wrong, because they’re missing the point: the final Coming of Christ is not about the rapture. Not even close. It’s about so much more.

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¹ Well, the “final” one to be noted here.
² S. Wohlberg, End Time Delusions (2004), 22.
³ My problem with Dispensationalism, especially the Classical and Modified/Revised forms of it, is twofold: it surreptitiously (1) questions the  NT writers as inspired advocates of God’s truth, and ultimately (2) downplays the full scope of Christ’s salvific, redemptive, atoning, and fulfilling work.

review of Mark A. Howell’s commentary

Well, it’s been over a year (I think) since I agreed to perform a review of a commentary in a new(ish) series. The commentary is from Mark A. Howell* entitled, Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and the series is called: Christ-Centered Exposition (NT), from B&H Publishing. The really, really long review is available here (…it’s 35 pages). The reason for the length? The honest answer is: the commentary is saturated with problems–e.g., typographical, logical, exegetical, theological, etc–and it took some time to work through them. (In fact, I had to make a decision to stop writing the review). And by “work through them” I mean, point them out and explain why they are problematic. If you want the short version about the commentary: it’s not one that I would recommend. If you want to know why I say that, you’ll have to read the review.

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* Right before posting this, I discovered an error in the review: Howell is no longer the Pastor at First Baptist (Daytona, FL); in July of this year, he became the Pastor at Hunters Glen Baptist (Plano, TX). However, I have decided to keep the details as I have them in the review, primarily because they reflect things as they were at the time of writing it.

really struggling to see a difference

A friend posted this link, which describes–albeit in brief form–the eschatological views of “Jehovah’s” Witnesses. Apart from item #4, I am at a loss for how these view differ from those found within Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism.

birds of a feather

At present I am reading through a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (by Mark Howell), sent to me by B&H Publishing for review.¹ In many respects, it’s clearly written, contains minimal footnotes so as not to distract the reader, and it’s not over-burdened with protracted exegetical discussions, thus making it a useful commentary for the majority of pastors and interested church members. However, it must be said, the treatments on the eschatological portions of the two letters quickly reveal that this commentary’s usefulness and appeal will be rather limited. By that I mean: if you’re a Dispensationalist (particularly of the non-Progressive type), then you’ll enjoy this commentary–especially the bits on 1Thess 4.13–5.11 and 2Thess 2.1-12. If, however, you’re outside the Dispy camp (and outside of the US, for that matter), then you’ll either be confused, frustrated, or completely unconvinced. As I’ve read through Howell’s treatment, these outcomes have been my experience. Here’s one example as to why.

In his discussion on 1Thess 4.13-18, Howell adheres to the usual Dispy line concerning the so-called rapture of the church (see 116-24). Specifically, he follows the rapture view as espoused by Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism, which is: Christ returns–but never touches down on the earth (so it’s not the real second coming; that happens later)–raptures the church (i.e. true believers), they all head off to heaven for seven years while all hell breaks loose upon the world and the unlucky sods left behind. However, in his discussion on 2Thess 1.6-12 and 2.1-12, Howell appears to depart from the usual Dispy line when he speaks about those who will both experience/witness the revelation of the “man of lawlessness” and be present at the final (real) coming of Christ (see 198-206 and 216-32). Howell says it will be the church, the believers, the faithful, etc. In some cases, Howell makes certain we see that Paul is saying these things directly and specifically to the Thessalonian believers–i.e. the church. You know, the audience who was earlier promised a rapture at Christ’s (not-really-the-)second coming.

This is odd partly because most Dispys see the description of 2Thess 2.1-12 as that which occurs at the end of the tribulation period (i.e. seven years post-rapture) and thus involving only those not raptured (i.e. not the church), but also because Howell has already said the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation–à la 1Thess 4.13-18. But he’s also suggesting the church will be present on earth post-tribulation. How are we to account for this? Moreover, it should be noted, Howell does revert back to the usual Dispy line by seeing the “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7 as the Holy Spirit (see 228-29), which is occasionally taken as justification for situating the rapture of 1Thess 4.13-18 in 2Thess 2. I’m thinking of David Dean’s argument in particular, who makes a similar claim.² The (apparent) problem remains, however: how can there be believers, faithful followers of Jesus, or a “church” post-rapture when the Holy Spirit is out of the way³–since, theologically speaking, the Spirit is means by which one is sanctified before God–and the (true) church is already in heaven waiting for the seven years of hell-on-earth to end?

Howell appears to account for this by dropping in the random claim: “Since the Holy Spirit is God, His removal from the scene does not indicate His complete absence. Rather, it points to a deliberate lessening of His suppression of evil” (229). From this, I get the impression that Howell is (implicitly) following a line of reasoning similar to what Gleason Archer uses for his “mid-tribulation rapture” reading (as found in Gundry, ed., Three Views on the Rapture [1996], 115-45). Specifically, Archer declares:

It is argued by most advocates of the pre-seventieth-week Rapture theory that the reference in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 to the restraining power of the Holy Spirit as being removed from the world empire of the Beast points to a total removal of the church as well. That is to say, the Holy Spirit resides within the church as the spiritual temple of the Lord (1 Peter 2:5), a status that pertains to each individual believer as well (1 Cor 6:19). If therefore the Holy Spirit is removed from the earthly scene, it necessarily follows that the church will be removed likewise. But a more careful examination of the text and of related passages make it clear that this was not the meaning intended by the biblical author. In the first place, 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 does not say that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world scene during the seventieth week. What it does say is that His restraining influence will be removed.

–Archer, 126-27

Archer makes sure that this distinction (i.e. removal of restraint and not presence) explains how those “left behind” are able to accept the gospel during the tribulation period (see 127). And it might be this distinction that allows Howell to speak of faithful believers on earth post-rapture but pre-Millennial reign (i.e. the real second coming of Christ). While there are a multitude of issues with Archer’s argument and the possibility of Howell following/relying on it, let me point out the most problematic.

  1. The arguments of Howell and Archer are predicated on the assumption (one that is never proven) that “restrain” is the appropriate translation of the Greek; the failure to acknowledge–let alone interact with–the more likely translation, “prevail” is unfortunate and unfair. (See here for a brief treatment on this issue).
  2. Contrary to both Howell and Archer, it is never (nor can it be) proven that the Holy Spirit is the (so-called) “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7; the claim that it is is nothing but conjecture.
  3. On a careful examination of the text, one thing is abundantly clear: Paul, in 2Thess 2.6-7, never names the Holy Spirit and never says anything about a “restraining influence” (contra Archer)–that is purely an interpretative translational gloss that borders on eisegesis. All Paul says is: καὶ νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ. τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας· μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται (emphasis added). Even if we accept “restrainer” as the subject, the focus of the final clause is on the removal of him as an entity (or person) and not some abstraction associated with them.
  4. But most glaring, and this applies to both Archer and Howell: from a careful examination of the claims made, it becomes quite clear that the arguments presented are not given in service (let alone obedience) to the text; they are expressions of advocacy for a particular (and rather idiosyncratic) theological position. In other words: they are letting (or allowing) their theology to influence–if not determine–their exegesis. And that’s never a good thing.

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¹ I’ll post the review on this blog, once I finish–hopefully in the next few weeks.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168.670 (2011): 196-216.
³ This is all the more problematic when we take into consideration the notion of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, where the possibility of receiving forgiveness (e.g. salvation) has a definitive end-point–either the person’s life or the end of the age.

a confused Walvoord?

As expected, in his little commentary on 1-2Thessalonians, John Walvoord expends considerable time (comparatively speaking) unfolding a rather minor detail in 1Thess 4–a detail that even Paul himself tucks away in the paraenesis. As expected, though not explicitly stated, the reasons for committing such time are a loyalty to and a defense of the Dispensational system of interpretation. As expected, in unfolding the details of the passage a number of questionable hermeneutical moves are made (e.g. reading the passage through the lens of [at least] two unsupported/unproven presuppositions), yet such moves are necessary in order to sustain the system. And as expected, the end result of Walvoord’s efforts is something that would cause people like Darby, Scofield, and Chafer to stand up a cheer.

But what was totally unexpected (at least for me) was a comment made in a paragraph that was doing the expected:

The Thessalonian passage [i.e. 4.13-18] continues with another tremendous revelation. “The dead in Christ shall first first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [i.e. the raised dead] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” This Scripture does not reveal where we are to go with the Lord, but, as has been already indicated, John 14 tells us plainly that when Christ comes for us He will take us to the Father’s house in heaven. When we meet the Lord in the air, we shall assemble in the atmospheric heaven and from there go to the third heaven, which is the immediate presence of the Father. This is indicated in the last part of the preceding chapter where Paul speaks of our being in the presence of God Father, unblamable in holiness.”

–J. Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles (1967), 44-45–emphasis added

For a text that doesn’t specifically reveal anything about the destination of where resurrected and “raptured” saints go, Walvoord seems fairly confident (if not definitive) about the text’s intended reference. But that aside (and the logical and theological flaws within his argument), Walvoord’s assertion that the saints go with Christ “to the third heaven” and that this place “is the immediate presence of the Father” was a bit out of the blue and admittedly strange.

Is Walvoord thinking in terms of some ancient views, where the “third heaven” is the highest level in a layered created universe and thus the place of the God and the angelic hosts–separated and undefiled? If so, all I can say is: Seriously? You’re going to advocate a cosmology that, when applied to the biblical text today, winds up sounding like a revived Gnosticism? Or is Walvoord thinking in terms of Second-Temple (and later) Jewish notions of heaven as tiered? If so, it worth mentioning that three is only one of several supposed layers. Moreover, while three is fairly common (cf. T.Levi 2.7-10), so is seven (cf. Apoc.Abr. 19.1-9; T.Levi 3.1-4). And there are certainly other suggested options beyond three and seven. In fact, they number as many as 365. So, Walvoord, which cosmology are you following and why? Are you using “three” because it’s the most convenient for your argument, or because Paul uses it?

Thus: is Walvoord thinking of the only time Paul uses the phrase, “the third heaven” (2Cor 12.2), which he then relabels as “Paradise” (2Cor 12.4),¹ which can then be linked with Jesus’ promise to where the thief on the cross will be after death (cf. Lk 23.39-43)–since both texts use the same term? Thus, “Paradise” is “the third heaven”, or at least a part of it, which is attested in other Jewish sources (cf. Adam and Eve, 40.1; 2En 8.1-6). This would seem to make the best sense, at least for Walvoord’s argument, for the promise given by Jesus to the thief reflects the promised hope articulated in Walvoord’s description–i.e. the third heaven as “the immediate presence of the Father.”² If this is the view Walvoord has in mind, we have a few problems:

  1. Descriptions about “the third heaven” are somewhat varied with respect to its nature. Sometimes it is the place of God’s throne room; sometimes it is the Garden of Eden redux, where the righteous saints reside; sometimes it is a type of angelic barracks, where warriors angels wait to do battle at the final judgment; sometimes it is the abode of an evil dragon, who brings havoc upon the earth and feasts on wicked people; and sometimes it is the location of Hell.
  2. While “Paradise” is sometimes synonymous with “the third heaven”–as the very presence of God–sometimes it’s not. In fact, as Margaret Thrall points out, 2Enoch indicates a distinction between “Paradise” and God’s primary abode–i.e. 2En 8.3 shows God walking in “Paradise” (=the Garden redux), but 2En 20-22 show God’s primary abode as in the seventh heaven (cf. Thrall, 2 Corinthians, 2.789). Thus, on this reading, “Paradise”/”the third heaven” is not the immediate presence of the Father; it is only the place he frequents from time to time.
  3. Moreover, “Paradise” is not only portrayed as a heavenly locale (T.Abr. 20.14; 3Bar 4.6) but also described as on earth in the eschaton. This would seem to create problems for Walvoord’s view and his specific claim that once “raptured” off this earth and whisked away to heaven (thank you very much, neo-Gnosticism), that heavenly abode in Paradise/third heaven is where we/believers “shall…ever be with the Lord.” Unless, of course, he means to say: eternal existence in the presence of the Father is unhindered, even when Paradise is brought to earth. If that was his point, he should have made it more clear.
  4. The idea of the (now) heavenly Paradise being populated by the righteous dead (cf. 3Bar 10.5; 2Esd 3.5-11; 2En 9.1; T.Levi 18.10-11) would also seem to create problems for Walvoord–especially his Dispenationalism. According to these (extra-biblical) sources, the righteous dead are essentially Jewish; but according to Dispensationalism, the (secret) rapture and (partial) resurrection only includes saints of the church–i.e. Christians (=non-Jewish folk). Thus, in the Dispensational system, Paradise is populated by Christians while the earth (for seven years) is populated by pagans and Jews–both of whom are about to receive an intense divine butt-kicking.
  5. On a slightly different note, but equally problematic, there is the decision to use extra-biblical Jewish sources to substantiate an idea that is otherwise ambiguous in what Walvoord would certainly see as the only and truly inspired revelation of God–i.e. the (Protestant) canonical Bible. I say “ambiguous” because “Paradise” is only mentioned three times in the entire NT (i.e. Lk 23.43; 2Cor 12.4; Rev 2.7), and not one of these references–let alone all three of them together–is able to offer the picture Walvoord desires.

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¹ Or should we follow Ambrosiaster, who saw the two references in 2Cor 12 as two separate “raptures” and thus two different places?
² I’ll overlook (=ignore) the rather odd Trinitarian view that results from joining these two promises. Prima facie, it looks like Modalism.

relying on a bad/faulty premise

If you want to have a go at Dispensationalism, then you need to be prepared to account for a number of eschatological topics and their (assumed necessary) relationship with each other. (You also need to be ready to deal with questions of interpretative approach, but that’s a different ballgame). For example, if you start an eschatological discussion with a Dispy, you are bound to be asked about (at the very least): Daniel’s 70 weeks, the focus of Matthew 24-25, the (so-called) “rapture”, the (so-called) “millennium”, the (so-called) “great tribulation” and when it occurs, the “great white throne of judgment”, the (supposed) battle of Armageddon… you get the idea.

In some ways, it can be overwhelming and even exhausting to get through this type of discussion simply because of the tangled web of ideas and theology that Dispensationalism has weaved. Thus, instead of going at the thing whole-hog and dismantling Dispensationalism in toto (quite frankly: you’d have an easier time convincing a Jehovah’s Witness that “Jehovah” is not even a word), it’s better to examine the individual parts and discern their respective validity. The one I want to focus on in this post is the so-called, “Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6. Here is a more or less standard (Dispensational) approach to this issue:

Our identification of the Restrainer must ultimately be determined by the question, What person is able to hold back the efforts of Satan?  To effectively counteract and restrain the personal activities of Satan demands a person, and one that is more than human.  Only a supernatural person can truly frustrate the supernatural workings of Satan.  This would at once rule out human agencies as well as all evil supernatural agents.

–D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles: A Commentary (1971), 313

The stuff that follows Hiebert’s question is understandable and, in the main, a reasonable conclusion. And a number of scholars (mostly Dispensational) contend that only the work/power/person of the Holy Spirit fits the needed criteria to restrain Satan.[1] However, there are serious theological problems with seeing the (so-called) “restrainer” as the Holy Spirit, but I will have to side-step that conversation for now. I will simply echo John Chrysostom who said: “if [Paul] meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly” (NPNF 1.13: 388).[2]

My issue is that there is a more fundamental problem with Hiebert’s argument. Despite the understandableness and even the reasonableness of Hiebert’s observations, all of it ultimately relies on a bad or faulty premise–namely: 2Thess 2.6 is in fact talking about “the Restrainer”, and this (supernatural) person can be identified. To put it more bluntly: the legitimacy of his question and the proposed conclusion are dependent upon the validity of the presupposition that drives his question and conclusion. Without the presupposition, his argument falls flat at best or becomes meaningless at worst.

I am working on a longer treatment of this discussion, so if you want the details: please be patient. Until then, I will summarize things by saying: 1) the identity of “the Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6 is not as clear-cut or obvious as Hiebert (and his fellow Dispys) believe, and 2) the rendering “the Restrainer” is not the only option for how one can translate the Greek verb, κατεχω (especially in the light of grammar and syntax). With regard to the first point, a number of suggestions have been made throughout the history of interpretation; the Holy Spirit is only one of those. In other words, we cannot (as Hiebert and his Dispy friends have done) conclusively assert unambiguously or unequivocally that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit in 2Thess 2.6.

With regard to the second point,[3] in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, κατεχω does mean “restrain” (or “hold back”), but only when it is accompanied by an object. At this point, Hiebert and his Dispy buddies seem to be vindicated because nearly every English translation of the passage mentions a “him” as the recipient (i.e. the object) of the Restrainer’s efforts. However, this vindication is valid only if we rely on English translations. Things change when we look to the original Greek text. In the Greek of 2Thess 2.6, there is no object associated with κατεχω. And in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, when this happens κατεχω means “prevail” (or “rule”). And just in case Hiebert et al think I’m being overly pedantic or liberally inventive, this intransitive use of κατεχω is not without support in Greek literature.[4]

Now, those holding to a “Restrainer” interpretation might come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, you’re forgetting one of the cardinal rules of interpretation, which is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In every other instance of κατεχω in the NT, it means ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back.’ Thus, when we use ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in 2Thess 2.6, we’re simply following Scriptural precedent.” To which I would respond: “Fine, but you not only become guilty of committing the ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ fallacy[5]; you also fail to recognize that the other instances where κατεχω appears in the NT, it has an object associated with it. Thus, the translation ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in those cases is appropriate. But 2Thess 2.6 is completely unlike those other instances for one simple reason: it has no object.”

I would think Paul, being a fairly educated man, would be aware of the transitive and intransitive uses in Greek and the differences in meaning they convey. Moreover, the intransitive use of κατεχω (and the switch from neuter in 2.6 to masculine in 2.7) does better justice to Paul’s argument in 2Thess 2.3-10. In other words: the “mystery of lawlessness” (neuter) is what now prevails, as  illustrated in 2.3-4, but which is currently unseen for what it truly is; and the “man of lawlessness” (masculine) is the one in charge of what prevails, and the one who will be revealed/exposed and defeated at the end, as noted in 2.8-10. This reading also prevents really wild and wicked views about the Holy Spirit and his role in salvation–views that I cannot, in good conscience (let alone academic integrity) support or even entertain.

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[1] See e.g. L.S. Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” (1936): 428; E.S. English, Re-Thinking the Rapture (1970), 70-71; R. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (1973), 125-28; J. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (1977), 115; R.L. Thomas, “1, 2 Thessalonians,” (1978), 325; M. Rosenthal, Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (1990), 257-61; C.E. Powell, “The Identity of the ‘Restrainer’,” (1997): 327. Cf. also C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians (2001), 114-16.
[2] R.L. Thomas tries to wiggle out of this by claiming (without any support whatsoever): “It appears that to katechon (“what is holding back”) was well known at Thessalonica as a title for the Holy Spirit on whom the readers had come to depend in their personal attempts to combat lawlessness” (“1, 2 Thessalonians” [1978], 325).
[3] Here I am relying on the arguments of C. Wannamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (1990), 250-54 and J. Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (1996), 258-62.
[4] See e.g. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 1.10, 3.89; Andocides, Speeches, 1.130; Aristotle, Politics, 1307b; idem, Meteorology, 345a; Lysias, Speeches, 3.42; Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 434; cf. Homeric Hymns, 2.126; Herodotus, Histories, 7.188; Polybius, Histories, 1.25.7; Plutarch, Lives: Theaseus, 21; Sophocles, Philoctetes, 221; Euripides, Heracleidae, 83; idem, Helen, 1206; idem, Cyclops: Odysseus, 223; Antiphon, Speeches, 5.21.
[5] See J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961).

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].

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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).