Q. I appreciated very much your posts on the views of the millennium and I had a sort of follow up question (or questions) for the last post in that series. In regards to dispensationalism, I was wondering if you could go into a few more specifics in terms of what evidences you think most discredit that understanding of the Bible (whether historical, theological, or etc). I know that dispensationalists like to say that although Darby in many senses systematized the view, many rudimentary elements of it have been around since the early church fathers. I think you would probably agree that God has dealt with humanity in different ways in different times, so which elements of dispensationalism do you most find fault with? Perhaps you could touch on your understanding of Daniel’s seventy weeks, the “great” tribulation, and the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament. Thank you so much for your thoughts on these matters!
You’re absolutely right that the general idea of “dispensationalism”—that God has dealt with humanity in different ways at different times—has a venerable pedigree within historic Christian theology. (In fact, I had occasion to assert that general idea myself in my last post.) But Darby did not simply systematize this historic view. In his biblical interpretation he made a major departure from the main stream of previous Christian teaching, and it’s in regard to that departure that I would find much biblical evidence to discredit his understanding.
Darby’s new departure was to argue that the church was a “parenthesis” or temporary
measure within God’s overall plan of redemption. Darby believed that the Jews were the people of God on earth and that they were meant to embrace Jesus as their Messiah and king at his first coming. When they didn’t, God welcomed other nationalities into his people for a time, but God’s ultimate intention is to remove the church from the earth (in the “rapture”) and return to dealing with the Jews as his people. So all of the end-time prophecies in the Bible, in his view, had to do with a Jewish kingdom over which Jesus would rule as the Jewish Messiah. His interpretations of the specific passages you mention all depended on that understanding.
In this light, Darby argued that interpreting the Bible correctly was a matter of “rightly dividing the word of truth,” as Paul told Timothy to do in his second letter to him. By this Darby meant distinguishing or “dividing” those promises in the Bible that were made to the Jews and would still be fulfilled for them from those statements that applied to the church instead. However, it’s extremely doubtful that there really is a biblical mandate for us to do this, as most modern translations render this phrase (found in the King James Version) instead as “correctly handling the word of truth” (NIV), “rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV), “correctly explaining the word of truth” (NLT), or something similar.
As you requested, I’ll discuss several specific biblical prophecies in more detail in my next post. But let me finish here by directly addressing the idea that there are, in effect, two different peoples of God in the Bible, and that once God has finished with the church, He will return to dealing with the Jews as His people.
Stated briefly, I find it to be the consistent teaching of the New Testament, as it interprets the Old Testament in light of everything Jesus revealed and entrusted to His apostles, that all of the promises made to the Jews are to be fulfilled to the church, as a multinational community of Jesus’ followers that includes all the Jews who accept Jesus as their spiritual (not national) Messiah. Consider the following statements, for example (in their fuller contexts; I’ve provided links to them on BibleGateway, where you can hit the “expand” button to see the context):
In Galatians: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”
In Philippians: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh”
In Romans: “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.”
In Matthew: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
This is only a very small sampling of what I consider to be the consistent understanding of Jesus and the apostles expressed in the New Testament: that God planned all along to make His earthly people a multinational community into which those “from every nation, tribe, people and language” are welcomed as the good news about Jesus is preached “to the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”