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Drifting from Dispensationalism: Addressing the Factors

by Brian Weed

Drifting from Dispensationalism: Addressing the Factors

So far in this series I’ve attempted to summarize and describe the current eschatological mood among younger evangelicals in general, and within the fellowship of Calvary Chapel in particular. In the previous post I noted three factors which have impacted the way many of us have formed our eschatology—the rise of New Calvinism, the Biblical Theology movement, and the influence of N.T. Wright. Of course, all three are worthy of book-length treatment, which cannot be provided here. What I hope to do today is offer beginning responses to each one, and encapsulate the kind of observations I find helpful in pursuing a robust and practical end-times expectation.

So let’s get started:

1. New Calvinism isn’t essentially about eschatology at all.

Yes, the New Calvinists write well, and very, very much. Yes, their scholarship in many areas is probably the finest in the evangelical world right now. And yes, they’ve been very convincing to many in regards to their presentation of reformed theology. But we should recognize that these things don’t actually speak to any eschatological issues at all. If it’s the Calvinist part of New Calvinism that draws someone, let’s admit that there’s no eschatology inherent in Calvinism. Certainly amillennialism isn’t an essential part of Reformed soteriology (just ask, say, John MacArthur). And in terms of publishing and scholarship, strength in one area (or even many) does not guarantee accuracy in any given area. All things must be tested, as the Bereans still teach us.

In my experience, the main eschatological arguments currently marshaled by those in the New Calvinism movement center on two issues. First, there is the study of the way the New Testament quotes the Old. What was the Apostles’ hermeneutic (method of interpretation) when they quoted and applied the Old Testament? It is commonly asserted that we can clearly see a method of quotation that points to an eschatological orientation other than dispensationalism. And yet, is it that simple? I don’t think so. On a case by case basis, I find that the eschatological conclusions drawn by the New Calvinists from a given passage often rely as much on prior theological convictions as on anything actually in the text. For instance, see the otherwise genuinely helpful volume Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by D.A. Carson and G.K. Beale. In the passages I’ve perused where the contributors discuss eschatology, I’ve found that the eschatological conclusions often seem hastily reached by assuming the very question involved, and other legitimate eschatological possibilities are not even considered. I apologize for attempting to respond to a large tome in a few sentences, but I’d invite anyone to page through the book see if they don’t reach similar conclusions.

The other major factor impacting eschatological views for the New Calvinists is wrapped up in the literary genre of the book of Revelation. Much is made today of the identification of Revelation as Apocalyptic literature—a kind of writing that flourished in Jewish and Christian circles in the few centuries before and after Christ. We do find texts other than Revelation which sound like Apocalyptic in the scriptures (portions of Daniel, Ezekiel and other Prophetic books, and certain teachings of Jesus) but the majority of what we call Apocalyptic is found outside of Scripture. What this means is that many evangelicals today use a category which is essentially extra-biblical to determine an interpretive framework for Revelation. Of course, we all use some of these techniques for other portions of scripture (for instance, using interpretive strategies for poetry for the poetic portions of scripture). But are we on solid ground to do the same for Revelation? The most direct response to this I’ve read is by Robert Thomas in his commentary on Revelation. Thomas’ basic premise is that we already have a strong contender for identifying Revelation’s genre within the canon of scripture—the genre of Prophecy. Revelation calls itself a prophecy, and it clearly sounds like and draws on the other prophetic books in the canon of scripture. We can watch prophecy fulfilled, interpreted and applied within the scriptures themselves, which seems to beg the question—couldn’t we safely use the interpretive tools for Prophecy which we find within the bible to interpret Revelation, rather than using a category which may or may not have actually guided the writers’ of scripture?

There’s another issue I haven’t yet heard addressed by those who place Revelation into an Apocalyptic framework. As the author, the apostle John clearly claims to have seen and recorded certain visions. Through the book he reports that he was simply watching, listening and writing. Which means that, on the face of it, Revelation sounds the way it does because it was John’s direct way of reporting what he saw and heard. If we are then to understand that he took his manuscript and recrafted it so that his readers would interpret it according to the conventions of Apocalyptic, what do we make of his original visions? I have wished for a seat on a plane next to Dr. Carson. I want to ask him—did John actually see his visions or not? If he did, was God guiding him in how he reported them? Wouldn’t that be determinative for how they were recorded, rather than John’s desire to write within a certain genre?

It seems to me that what we call the Apocalyptic genre might not be much more than non-canonical writers attempting to sound like the more fantastic portions of biblical prophetic writings. The fact is that the bulk (if not all) of the apocalypses we have surviving have been dated after the time of Christ. Doesn’t this point to the strong possibility they were all just non-inspired imitations of the real thing (that is, the prophetic, visionary writings)? It’s not as though we can say that Ezekiel, for instance, was following Apocalyptic genre conventions when he wrote—we can’t be sure anything of the sort existed outside of Scripture. But John, when he began to receive and record his vision, did sound like Ezekiel and Daniel. We have a simple explanation for all this. The same God was showing him the same kind of visions the older writers had seen, and the same Spirit was inspiring his recording of the visions. By his own testimony he was operating in the prophetic tradition (as the opening of his letter states, see 1:3). If these observations are accurate, it would mean that we cannot use the extra-biblical category of Apocalyptic to control our reading of Revelation, but must instead use the intra-canonical framework and patterns of fulfillment we see within and between the testaments. And this is precisely the way Revelation has been read by those coming to more dispensational types of eschatologies.

2. Biblical Theology doesn’t necessarily point in one eschatological direction or the other.

When it comes to Biblical Theology, we can all acknowledge the strength in any approach that teaches the full sweep of revelation (“the full counsel of God”). The main issue for eschatology, however, is to see that, just like Reformed theology per se doesn’t necessarily point in any particular eschatological direction, neither does a “biblical-theological” approach to the bible. It is simply not true that just by following the bible’s story line, you will see that the Rapture is nonsense, or that Jesus (and by extension, his body the church) is the True Israel, or that the Millennium is symbolic. This is because Eschatology is essentially a systematic discipline. In other words—we must do our biblical theology, but at the end of the day we have to put a bunch of disparate pieces together to form a coherent view of how the end of history will roll out. The strength of starting with a “through the whole bible” method is that we have a concrete way to check our eschatological answers. Do your conclusions do justice to the whole sweep of God’s story? Do they sit as well with the Jeremiah as they do with the Olivet discourse? Do they account for the promise to Abraham and the explanations of Paul? Do they all tie together, through Jesus, in John’s Revelation? Those are the questions that must be answered, and merely asserting that Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies in his first coming while you move through the bible simply isn’t adequate.

We must face the hard work of determining what exactly Jesus accomplished in his first coming, and what he left yet to be accomplished. Here we must use the apostolic writings (in particular) as our guide. When I felt overwhelmed by questions about the end times I couldn’t seem to answer, I did exactly this. I took several months to read the whole bible, with only one objective: get my eschatology straight. By the time I had reached Jeremiah 33:24-25 ("Have you not considered what these people have spoken, saying, ‘The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also cast them off’? Thus they have despised My people, as if they should no more be a nation before them. Thus says the LORD: ‘If My covenant is not with day and night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth, then I will cast away the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, so that I will not take any of his descendants to be rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will cause their captives to return, and will have mercy on them.’”), it was becoming clear to me that I needed to take Israel’s distinctive part in the plan of God seriously. And when I saw the apostles asking Jesus when he’d restore the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6—after they had spent years with him, been taught for 40 days about the kingdom, and had their understanding opened to comprehend the scriptures—I felt I was hearing a compelling case. Instead of finding I needed to abandon what I had been taught from my youth I came away more convinced than ever about some of the core convictions I held in that area. I saw that the Apostles finished their earthly time with Christ still waiting for the final fulfillment of all the prophetic promises. Most of all, through the New testament I heard a strong, clear call to be watchful and waiting for the return of Christ, which could break into world history at any moment. A thoroughly worked out Biblical Theology drove me to expect the Rapture and the Millennium, not to discard them from my thinking.

3. N.T. Wright is not an authority on eschatology.

N.T. Wright is almost universally respected as a foremost scholar on the historicity of the resurrection. He has evidently done brilliant work in this area. He is less well accepted a scholar of Pauline theology. He has written huge books in the field, and his views have received push back from many other scholars. But I am aware of no one among his academic peers who regards him as particularly knowledgeable in matters of eschatology. A survey of his work in the subject reveals why. Much of his thinking on the topic is contained in his book Surprised by Hope. The basic argument of the book can be summed up in a sentence: Christians erroneously think they are going to go to heaven when they die and spend forever there with God, but the bible teaches a physical new heavens and new earth in which we will live with new bodies. Now, it should be obvious that this is nothing more than the main-stream view among evangelicals, as well as what Calvary pastors have taught every time they’ve come to the end of Revelation. Wright, however, offers it as a fresh, groundbreaking approach, and proceeds to use this insight to vigorously deride views like the expectation of an imminent rapture.

But of course, the understanding of the physicality of the eternal state doesn’t necessarily have any bearing at all on the timing of eschatological events like the Rapture. It takes more to build a biblical case than to label a group of people “escapists” and then to point out that we’re waiting for a renewed earth. Again, the exegetical homework must be done—the hard work of interpreting text after text in light of the whole sweep of revelation.

In fact, Craig Blaising has shown that since the apostles taught that we should expect a physical fulfillment of prophecies like Revelation 21 and Romans 8 (as Wright also shows), we have every reason to go back and examine all the prophecies in scripture to look for similar physical (might we even say “literal”) fulfillments of all that has been written. In his contribution to the book Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, Blaising details how most eschatological views (especially concerning the teaching about the Millennium) can be categorized by two models: Spiritual Vision or New Creation. The Spiritual Vision models emphasize that the eternal state will basically be spiritual in terms of a non-physical “vision of God” type of blissful existence. The New Creation models, like the one Wright champions, expect an eternal physical existence within a perfected, cleansed creation, which is essentially continuous with our present existence. Blaising’s helpful insight is that the very view which Wright puts forward leads us to interpret scripture in such a way that we would most naturally arrive at the eschatological views which Wright himself argues against. In other words, waiting for the new earth is right in line with waiting for the Rapture.

Of course, other things Wright mentions might also weigh heavily on the minds of younger evangelicals. For instance, he links expectation of the Rapture with mistreatment of the environment. Many others have said this same thing. There is a quick reply to this, and it’s to note that there is no need to correlate the two at all. In fact, the best way to ensure creation care is not to root our stewardship of the earth in our eschatology at all, but in our doctrine of creation. We are to care for the earth because it is God’s gift to us and we’re made in his image to cultivate it.

So how could we bring this to helpful end? If my observations are accurate, it means that:

• The soteriological questions relating to Reformed theology do not bear on eschatology.
• Patterns of Old Testament quotation and application in the New must be examined on a case by case basis.
• The genre of Revelation cannot be a deciding factor in these discussions, because no decisive case can be made that it should not be read as we read the other prophetic writings.
• The consistent application of the principles of Biblical theology can naturally lead to the recognition that the promise of Christ’s coming and new creation will be physically fulfilled. And this opens up the possibility that all the promises that point to the physical fulfillment of a restored kingdom centered in geo-ethnic Israel will also be fulfilled.

In other words, the whole sweep of the story of redemption, including the hope of the new earth, does not dismantle Calvary’s eschatology. It may actually point directly to it.

Finally, as Andy Deane recently noted on this site, we should also acknowledge that these questions are down-stream from the essentials of the Gospel. Good brothers and sisters, who will all roam the New Earth together, disagree on these things. We need our love to be strong as we work on these things together.

However, to the extent that they affect our understanding of the times we live in, and the sense of urgency and expectation that is incumbent upon us, eschatological issues are worth discussing and collaborating on for greater clarity. The more clearly we see the picture we’ve been given, the more faithfully we can obey the words of our Lord: “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”

Brian Weed

​Brian Weed is a pastor at Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia located in Philadelphia, PA.