MacArthur's Millennial Manifesto - Rejoinder #2
Sam is a Dispensational Man
Continuing with some rejoinders to Sam Waldron's book, MacArthur's Millennial Manifesto - A Friendly Response.
Sam harangues John's dispensationalism through out his book. He even infers in the concluding chapters that John's adherence to dispensational theology brings him precariously close to the line separating heresy from orthodoxy. Sam devotes a five page chapter chiding John's description of himself as a "leaky" dispensationalist (19-23). The language is such that I get the impression Sam is annoyed he can't place John into his pre-fabricated box which reads on the side, "What dispensationalists believe." He even suggests John was being dishonest with his audience by separating his premillennial views from classical dispensationalism.
Anyone who is the least bit familiar with John's teaching ministry over the last 30 plus years knows he is one to shun theological labels. For instance he would affirm all 5 points of Calvinism. And I imagine if he were pressed, John would consider himself Calvinistic. However, he would still not embrace the label "Calvinist" to describe his views. The primary reason John has an aversion to labels is because theological labels can be confusing. They can imply more than what the person may affirm, or perhaps not enough. John's concern is to allow biblical terminology to define his convictions, not just a nondescript theological label. Where a theological label is biblical, John would affirm it. However, if that same theological label also encompasses ideas that fall outside of a biblical description, then those ideas must be rejected. This is certainly true for John's views of dispensationalism and hence the reason he often jokingly considers himself to be a "leaky" dispensationalist.
In his book, Sam cites some of John's concerns regarding dispensationalism he mentioned in his Shepherd's Conference message. They are legitimate concerns. Things like sensationalistic novelizations of the book of Revelation which read like science fiction, the idea God had a plan "A" with Jesus being the Messiah but His rejection by the Jews made God move to a plan "B" with the gentile church, the whole "carnal" Christian doctrine, and of course the antinomianism resulting in a "no-lordship" view of salvation." These areas of classic dispensationalism are certainly worth criticizing, and I would even say, reforming.
By the way, I find it a bit inconsistent those Reformed critics of dispensationalism who speak of how Christians should "always be reforming," implying there is always room for Christian Churches to grow in their knowledge of God's Word with the submission to biblical doctrine properly understood. But if dispensationalists advocate reform in their own system, like for example progressive dispensationalists, that is some how a bad thing that reveals confusion on the part of the dispensationalists. I digress...
Any how, is John presenting a dishonest perspective to his audience when he calls himself a "leaky" dispensationalism and distinguishes his premillennial perspective from these troubling doctrines found in classic dispensationalism as Sam implies?
Perhaps it would be helpful to consider a definition for dispensationalism and what better author could we find to start us off than Charles Ryrie who wrote a book called, of all things, Dispensationalism:
A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purposes... The phrase "the outworking of God's purposes" in the definition reminds us that the view point in distinguishing the dispensation is God's, not man's. The dispensations are economies instituted and brought to their purposeful conclusion by God. (28-29).Dispensational author, Renald Showers, has an even more concise description in his book, There Really is a Difference: A Comparison of Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theololgy:
A particular way of God administering His rule over the world as he progressively works out his purpose for world history... the different dispensations are different ways of God administering His rule over the world. (30)Thus, we see that a dispensation is an economy or way in which God works out His sovereign administration or rule over the world. I probably would add a more precise remark that it is specifically His sovereign rule over His redeemed people, or maybe God's sovereign rule over the world with His redeemed people as the focus.
How then can Sam object to such a basic definition? Surely he believes God works out His purposes in different ways as He reveals those purposes over time? In fact, I will be so bold as to say that Sam does adhere to dispensationalism in this simplistic form. The plainest example is the dispensations of the Old Testament and the New Testament. God obviously administered His sovereign rule differently in the OT than He does now after the NT. The OT had God revealing Himself specifically to a theocratic nation named Israel. The NT has God revealing Christ to the entire world that includes gentiles along with the Jews. Moreover, Sam is a Reformed Baptist. He understands the sign of the New Covenant to be a confessional believer immersed in water, rather than an infant being circumcised, or sprinkled if you are a Presbyterian. These examples are clearly differing ways God has worked out His purposes over time.
But, I am sure there are readers saying out loud as they read this that dispensationalism entails much more as a system than this simplistic definition. Keith Mathison states as such in his book when he writes, Dispensationalism must be defined in terms of its unique essence, namely that which distinguishes it from other systems of theology (Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God?, pgs. 3-4). I certainly agree, but I believe that Sam overstates these distinctions as he comments on his objections to John's premillennial message. He wants to paint John as being dishonest when he calls himself a "leaky" dispensationalist, when in reality John is merely defining his position along those lines he believes are biblical, but happen to be definitive of dispensational thought.
John provides an extended definition of his dispensationalism in the 2nd appendix of his book Faith Works (219-233), as he interacts with many dispensational writers who deny lordship salvation. He writes,
Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation that sees a distinction between God's program for Israel and his dealings with the Church. It's really as simple as that. (FW, 219)The "unique essence" that John points to that makes him "dispensational" is God's program for Israel and his dealings with the Church. It is that distinction which makes him a "leaky" dispensationalist. For Sam, or anyone for that matter, who thinks such a distinction makes John dishonest or brings his position to the point of bursting the boundaries of orthodoxy, is merely exaggerating his disagreement with him.
For Sam, and the many folks who object to John's definition, their objection centers around how John and dispensationalists in general make a distinction between Israel and the Christian Church. I will be exploring those objections in the future, but suffice it to say, non-dispensationalists see such a distinction between Israel and the Church as separating God's redeemed people.
But honestly, is John's distinction between Israel and the Church so novel a doctrine that it falls outside the pale of orthodoxy? All biblical doctrine will have those advocates who adhere to an imbalance of that doctrine. Advocates for padeo-communion is a good example within non-dispensationalist camps, as is preteristic ideology. Just because there are dispensationalists who have an imbalanced perspective between Israel and the Church that they do promote two different ways of salvation for OT Jews and NT Christians does not make John's position biblically unwarranted. In my opinion, Sam is being a bit dishonest himself by categorizing John's dispensational distinctive with those who may error. His position needs to be dealt with as John has defined it, not as it is perceived by a non-dispensational critic.
Now, Sam does deal with the Israel/Church distinctive in his book, so it will be that subject I hope to take up next.