Ben Witherington on Dispensationalist Deviations

Having critiqued the Calvinists in “The Problem with Evangelical Theology”, Ben Witherington III moves on to another popular Evangelical stream, Dispensationalism. This extract represents what he sees as the most problematic features of Dispensationalist Theology, which I have further highlighted in some areas for emphasis:

What may we learn from this lengthy discussion of Romans 9–11? First, election does not work as Calvin thought it did. Second, Paul consistently affirms that there is only one people of God at any one juncture in human history. It would be a very odd thing to argue that God was busily fulfilling promises and prophecies to non-Christian Israel in the present when he had in fact broken them off from the people of God temporarily during this same period of time! The fulfilling of promises to Israel in this text is said to happen when Christ comes back, and Israel is grafted back into the people of God. The two-track system of Dispensationalism, with some promises being fulfilled in Israel and some in the church, simply will not work in the Pauline scheme of things, when one examines the details of Romans 9–11. Paul also in this section of Romans stresses that in the end all are saved on the same basis, by the grace and mercy of God, and through faith, not by some predetermination from before the beginning of time. Paul’s conception of the people of God is Jew and Gentile united in Christ as Galatians 3:28 says, and the old categories no longer count in the body of Christ. We have learned something else in this chapter as well: Paul was not an early example of a Dispensationalist in the mold of Darby or Scofield. He believed, for example, that the teaching Jesus gave to his original disciples was applicable to his own converts. Thus he draws not only on Matthew 24 but also the Sermon on the Mount at various points to teach his converts how to live the Christian life. He also believed any number of OT prophecies had already come to pass in Christ, were coming to pass in the body of Christ, and would continue to come to pass precisely in that context.

There is in addition a hermeneutical issue that needs to be stressed. As we saw in our discussion of prophecy, including apocalyptic prophecy, this was not material meant only for late western Christians. It was intended to be revelation for the first-century Christians, and every generation thereafter. It had meaning for those first Christians, and both John of Patmos and Paul would be very surprised to hear many of the correlations that are being made today by Dispensationalists with what they said, not least because they were not making specific comments about figures in American history, or in twenty-first-century struggles.

John and Paul were talking about their own era leading up to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 and its aftermath, and they were talking in general terms about the consummation of human history which would indeed be brought about not by the plans and schemes of humans but by the one and only visible return of Christ who would judge the nations and silence the armies of the world with fire coming down from heaven (see Rev 20:8–9). There will be no final battle, only a conflagration. The armies are assembled only to be dismissed when they are “fired” from above.

But there is more. According to the book of Revelation only God is the proper executor of justice and final judgment on the world, not human beings. Revelation is about the most antimilitaristic book in the Bible as it never once encourages any humans, never mind Christians, to take up arms. Rather it encourages them to pray and be spiritually prepared to suffer for their faith. A theology of suffering and becoming victors through martyrdom, not through killing, is enunciated in this work. The author would find shameful the way this book has been used in the Left Behind series and by many of the televangelists.

And there is yet more. Both Paul and John in the book of Revelation call believers to live their lives and make their major decisions on the basis of faith, not fear. The called-for response to persecutors and tormentors is not to respond in kind at all, but rather to be examples of suffering love just as Jesus was when he died on the cross. It calls for trust that history is in Jesus’ hands, and vengeance or, better said, justice is his, not ours. Paul’s and John’s words were meant as words of comfort for a persecuted minority, which was even enduring martyrdom in some cases, not words encouraging triumphalism by those with nuclear weapons.

As C. Hill stresses in his critique of Dispensationalism and especially the theology of the rapture:

“Ideas have consequences. . . . At worst, such a belief is a form of escapism. The hope of impending departure can lead believers to abandon interest in the world and its problems. The expectation of deteroriating conditions prior to the soon-approaching rapture is morally corrosive, encouraging pessimism, fatalism, and the forsaking of political responsibility. Disengagement from the problems of the world is ethically indefensible, but it is all too common among today’s prophecy elite. Their books tell us that nuclear war is inevitable, that the pursuit of peace is pointless, that the planet’s environmental woes are unstoppable, and so on.94”

In fact we even have Dispensationalists opposing the Middle East peace efforts and the like because it impedes the progress of the prophecy timetables, and the desire is for an acceleration of ruin so that the rapture will hurry up and arrive. There is nothing in this outlook compatible with Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers! But alas, this characteristic pessimism and fatalism and escapism is an endemic part of the Dispensational system, and has been since day one. It was Darby himself who wrote, “I believe from Scripture that ruin is without remedy,” and he goes on to stress that Christians should all expect nothing but “a progress of evil.”95 How very odd it is to read these words in the twenty-first century after so much remarkable progress in various positive ways in the world of medicine, technology, education, and other fields since 1750. Darby obviously was not only a prophet of doom; he was also a false prophet in various respects.

As we conclude this section of our discussion of the problems with Evangelical theology, one thing has come to light that we have not properly stressed thus far and wish to highlight now. It would appear that it is precisely in the ways that Dispensational and Calvinist interpretations deviate from various forms of early Christian interpretations of the NT (by early, I mean pre-Augustinian) that these systems go wrong. Put another way, it is in the distinctives of these systems that they deviate from the scriptural teaching on a variety of subjects. For example, Dispensationalists are right that Revelation 20 talks about a millennial reign of Christ on the earth. This is very much how Christian interpreters understood that text before the time of Augustine. Where they go wrong is in adding their distinctive and unbiblical idea about the rapture as a prelude to that reign. Similarly, it is not in their high Christology, or their Trinitarian emphasis, or in their belief in the atoning death of Jesus or in the fact that God is omnipotent that Calvinists go wrong. It is rather in the distinctive way the T.U.L.I.P. theological system (Total depravity, Unconditional Elect, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) causes them to interpret the death of Jesus or the sovereignty of God that causes divergences both from the historic way the relevant NT texts were understood by exegetes ranging from Ignatius of Antioch to Chrysostom, and from the most probable reading of a whole host of NT texts, especially Pauline and Johannine ones. The antidote to such misreadings is: (1) a better and more openminded reading of these texts without imposing later theological systems on the text, and (2) a reading with an open exploration as to what could have been meant by authors of a Jewish background, such as all NT writers were (with the possible exception of Luke), who brought Jewish ideas of election and apostasy and the coming of the Messiah into their Christian ways of thinking. Notice the discussion above about early Jewish ideas about apostasy and election.96 There is much more to be said along these lines, but now we must turn to yet another popular Evangelical school of thought that has its own distinctive way of looking at the NT in light of concepts of prevenient grace, perfection or entire sanctification, and even eradication of the sin nature. I am referring to Arminianism, more commonly called Wesleyanism, to which we now devote our attention.

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