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The Significance of Proper Theological Method (Part 3 of 4—Theology: Method and the Essence of Dispensationalism)

By July 16, 2009June 21st, 2014No Comments

Title Page The New Testament, Commentary, Holy...

by Dr. Stallard

It has been shown that dispensationalists and nondispensationalists approach the harmonizing of the Old and New Testaments in different ways. That is, each has adopted a different methodology. The great departure of the two methods from each other is seen in the starting points used in each case. Which approach is right? This writer believes that the dispensational approach is superior because of its grounding in Biblical theology. Much of the arguing in the later forms of the debate may be traced to a misunderstanding of how Biblical theology and systematic theology are related in the proper development of a theological position.

Biblical theology is used here in its technical sense as “that branch of theological science which deals systematically with the historically conditioned progress of the self-­revelation of God as deposited in the Bible.” [44. Biblical Theology of the New Testament, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959), 12] One of the keys to understanding Biblical theology is to recognize that it is limited to the Bible as the only source of revelation to be systematized. [45. Ibid., 14] This is different than systematic theology, which requires the theologian to take into account general revelation, historical tradition, and other sources, to a greater degree. That is not to say that Biblical theology and systematic theology are not properly related. Ryrie makes the significant comment:

Strictly speaking Biblical Theology is foundational to Systematic Theology. . . . Logically and chronologically Biblical Theology should take precedence over Systematic Theology, for the order of study ought to be introduction, exegesis, historical backgrounds, Biblical Theology, and finally Systematic Theology. [46. Ibid., 17.]

Although nondispensationalists surely understand this point, the actual outline of how systematic theology is derived will show how the basic differences outlined in the last section can be seen in light of this relationship between Biblical and systematic theology.

Outlining the approach of dispensational theology first, one might list the following broad, theoretical points or steps in determining one’s dispensational systematic theology:


The recognition of one’s own preunderstanding


The formulation of a Biblical theology from the Old Testament based upon literal interpretation;(grammatical-historical method of interpretation) of the Old Testament text


The formulation of a Biblical theology from the New Testament based upon literal interpretation (the grammatical-historical method of interpretation) of the New Testament text, which method includes the backgrounds arrived at via number 2 above


The production of a systematic theology by harmonizing all inputs to theology,
including 2 and 3 above

It should be noted that these steps are not performed in linear fashion to a final conclusion. A theologian cycles through the list over and over, making adjustments based upon new inputs such as improved exegesis of certain passages. Nonetheless, the basic sequence appears to be a valid one if there is to be any order to theology at all.

The first step is a realization of one’s own presuppositions as he comes to the task of not just systematic theology but Biblical theology as well. That is why this step is number one. It would be virtually impossible to find the real essence of any system such as dispensationalism if this step is not admitted.[47. This step is a necessary precaution. Without this point, one would be hardpressed to move from the polemical mode to one of dialogue.]

The second step is what has been called the starting place of theology. With dispensationalism it is the literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The output from this step becomes one of the inputs to the third step of producing a Biblical theology of the New Testament. In both the second and third steps there is dedication to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This is not to claim that dispensationalists have been perfect in this matter. It is merely to state adherence to this approach as the accepted principle to follow. Finally, the point of culmination is the synthesis of the inputs of theology. It is important to note that the sequence indicates a dependence upon what has been determined before.

If that is the case, one does not have to look hard to find a major distinction between this dispensational approach and the nondispensational one as evidenced in Ladd, Poythress, et al. Notice the nondispensational sequence below:


The recognition of one’s own preunderstanding


The formulation of a Biblical theology of the New Testament based upon the

literal interpretation (grammatical-historical interpretation) of the New Testament



The formulation of a Biblical theology of the Old Testament based upon the New

Testament understanding of the Old Testament text


The production of a systematic theology by harmonizing all of the inputs above to

theology including the results of 2 and 3 above

The presentation above is certainly different from the dispensational outline. [48. At this point one might ask if there is only a difference when eschatology is in view. One would want to be careful not to produce a simplistic answer to that question. The history of the debate might suggest yes. But the intertwining nature of doctrine might suggest more caution.] The nondispensational approach has many places where it can suffer damage in developing its theological system. First, because priority of the New Testament with its Biblical theology ahead of the Old Testament’s Biblical theology, one might fall into the trap of minimizing Old Testament backgrounds to the New Testament text. This particular problem does not seem to be as major as the ones to follow.

A second problem is that at point number 3, the grammatical-historical interpretation of the Old Testament is subordinated to the conclusions of New Testament Biblical theology. In essence, this is the abandonment of the literal interpretation of the Old Testament (at least in eschatology) and is the basis of the classical debate about “literal” versus “allegorical” interpretation. Too much room is given for “undoing” or “replacing” the results that would have been obtained in performing a true Biblical theology of the Old Testament. Because the dispensational approach at the point of bringing in the New Testament has the Old Testament Biblical theology in hand, the approach becomes one of “enhancing” or “expanding.”

However, on the other hand, the Old Testament is almost an afterthought to the nondispensationalist who uses the New Testament like the presidential power of veto over exegetical results in the Old Testament text. When the nondispensationalist comes to the Old Testament text with the New Testament in hand, the truth he finds appears to be a “scaling down” of what he already has. Consequently, there is a tendency to leave off grammatical-historical interpretation in order to make the Old Testament text sit at the “same level” of his New Testament truth—in stark contrast to the dispensational model, which sees the priority of the Old Testament text in the formulation of Old Testament Biblical theology.

The third place where error is easy to make is at point  4. When doing systematic theology, the theologian cannot rise above his sources. But as a result of # 3, there is actually no true Old Testament Biblical theology that can serve as input to the systematic level. As a result, the problem at # 3 filters down to the next level at # 4. Such is the nature of sequence. According to Wolfe’s analogy of a worldview (theology) as a web that has been spun, the outer strands of the web make perfect sense only if the inner strands of the web are correct. [49. See David Wolfe, The Justification of Belief (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982).] Thus, we are back to the significant change that takes place when one opts for a different starting place for theology, i.e., Old Testament or New Testament.

One must ask why the dispensational sequence is best. The reason lies in the nature of the progress of revelation. By its very nature, revelation builds upon previous revelation. A nondispensationalist knows clearly that the New Testament revelation of Jesus Christ relies heavily on the revelation of Israel given in the Old Testament. Should it be surprising that theological formulations also recognize the same sequence? The theological superstructure should resemble in some form the revelational foundation from which it has been derived. Nondispensationalists will not readily accept this, however:

Premillennialism’s (especially dispensationalism’s) tendency to give the millennium a Jewish flavor has been criticized for centuries, two early critics being Caius of Rome (ca. 200) and Origen. The premillennialist must be on guard lest literal Israel retain such a significant place in God’s plan and program that it virtually displaces the church as the primary object of God’s working. He must also beware of interpreting the New Testament with the Old, thereby nullifying progressive revelation. [50. Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology,(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977): 106. It may be significant that Erickson places little emphasis upon progressive revelation in his Christian Theology, 3 Vols., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.]

What Erickson has done in the above quote is to warn correctly of the other extreme. In developing a New Testament Biblical theology, the New Testament text must have center place. The Old Testament provides one source of background material. The grammatical­-historical method of interpretation must remain intact as one views the New Testament. However, that is not to say that dispensationalism has fallen into that particular trap as Erickson may be saying. As Ryrie points out, “The true concept of progressive revelation is like a building—and certainly the superstructure does not replace the foundation.” [51. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 95.] The dispensational sequence is true to this historical perspective in which written revelation has been given. The nondispensational sequence is not. But the sequence is a matter of theological method. Thus, the essence of dispensationalism, that which distinguishes it from nondispensational systems, is bound up in its theological method. Such a conclusion is not surprising since Ladd’s earlier statement gave hints in such a direction.

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