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A Refined Version of the Sine Qua Non (Part 4 of 4—Theology: Method and the Essence of Dispensationalism)

by Dr. Stallard

At this point it is possible to formulate with more precision the essence of dispensationalism in light of the foregoing remarks. First, it may be helpful to summarize the three marks of dispensationalism given by Ryrie:[52. Ibid., 43-47.]

  1. A distinction between Israel and the Church
  2. A consistent literal interpretation of all of the Scriptures
  3. A doxological purpose of Biblical history

The last point has been one of recent pondering on the part of this writer. While it does not seem to get much credence from either side in the debate, two recent factors have helped me to reconsider its validity. However, for the purposes of this paper I will not address this point here.[53. Two recent factors have led to my reexamination of this question: (1) teaching a recent class on Christology/Soteriology forced me to readdress Reformed approaches and emphases, including the strong focus on individual redemption found in that school of thought; and (2) recent discussions with Tommy Ice (who can be very convincing at 2 AM at a Pre-Trib conference!) has kept me from ignoring this issue.]

In relation to the remaining two points, I offer for consideration the following statements:

  1. The preservation of the literal interpretation of the Old Testament at all points of theologizing in the light of progressive revelation.
  2. The distinction between Israel and the Church.

Concerning # 1, the points of theologizing are (a) Old Testament Biblical theology in which the priority of the Old Testament text is acknowledged, (b) the development of New Testament Biblical theology for which accurate Old Testament Biblical theology is a background input, and (c) formulation of Systematic Theology in which the literal interpretation of the Old Testament is not abandoned at the point of harmonization with the New Testament and other sources of theology. The proper sequence of theological method based upon a correct understanding of the progress of revelation prohibits the reading of the New Testament into the Old, although expansion and enhancements are allowed. This is not literal interpretation of the Bible in general, but the guaranteeing of literal interpretation or the Old Testament through the use of a correct theological method. Thus, literal interpretation tied to correct theological method is a distinctive of dispensationalism.

Concerning the second point, involving a distinction between Israel and the church, Ryrie’s idea should be left intact. This truth is the most basic ramification of the first point above.[54. I will not go into the issue here of whether the distinction is absolute or relative. My main concern is the overall theological approach.] For example, nondispensationalism, with its starting place of the New Testament, views the Old Testament promises to Israel through the grid of New Testament truth, i.e., the church. It is much easier then for the politico-ethnic nature of the promises to Israel in the Old Testament to be obscured or dropped altogether. On the other hand, dispensationalism with its starting place in the Old Testament will later be able to integrate New Testament truth with less corruption of the national promises to Israel. Improved exegesis may account for the growing rapproachment that Radmacher sees between the two camps.[55. Radmacher, 163.] Each side is recognizing both points of continuity and discontinuity concerning Israel and the church.[56. See Kenneth L. Barker, “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25 (March 1982): 3–16.] However, the starting place of dispensationalism in the Old Testament seems to assure an “Israeli” flavor to the developed system.

Concluding Remarks

The need for refinement of Ryrie’s well constructed distinctives for dispensationalism should not be surprising in light of the need for doctrinal development.[57. See Blaising’s article, note 1.] That dispensationalism and covenantalism have moved closer together is clear. What does the future hold? Is it possible to find common ground in eschatological territory where no basic distinctions can be seen?

If the thesis of this paper is correct, the answer to that question is “no.” The differences are basic at the level of theological method as it relates to the literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The two positions will not continue to move toward a merger because there is disagreement at the starting point of theology (Old versus New Testaments). Continued refinement of exegesis might still cause some motion toward the middle. This could be due to the fact that there is more common ground between the Testaments than the old schools realized. However, just like the graph of a hyperbola grows ever closer to its axis, it never does reach out and touch it. Hence, the final common ground of eschatology in evangelicalism may turn out to be a spirit of love in the heart when there is no agreement of mind. The only alternative is for one side to abandon the basic sequence to its theological method. At stake is the literal interpretation of the Old Testament.

I really appreciate Dr. Stallard being willing to let us post his paper. What questions do you have after finishing it?

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