Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dispensationalism: 150 More Years to Get It Right?

As I was reading Andy Naselli's interview of Rolland McCune on his newly-released Systematic Theology volume, a couple things sent my mind in motion. But one of those simply floored me.

Naselli's twelfth question was a provocative one: "What issues have been lingering difficulties in your theological reflection?" It strikes me as the kind of question many theologians would have dodged—it's not especially fashionable for a professional theologian to admit he doesn't have everything figured out.

But McCune doesn't dodge or even unload a squid-like ink blob of obfuscation. Though I'd need some more explanation to grasp his broader point, the implications of his closing comments should be inescapable. Here's what he said:
When I was in seminary in the later 1950s, Dr. John C. Whitcomb opined in class that dispensationalism could take possibly two hundred years to be fully integrated into ST. Dr. Ryrie was reported to have said he thought dispensationalism was about thirty percent developed back then.
I've lived the vast majority of my life in unabashedly Dispensational contexts, and that Dispensationalism has been pretty dogmatic—the kind that sees Covenant Theology as serious error. In many cases, it's seen as the kind of error from which one needs to separate. Some might think of Covenant Theology as "uniquely precarious." Exposure to that sort of dogmatism seems to be the experience of quite a few people my age.

No doubt there are Dispensationalists who don't demonstrate that level of separatist dogmatism. No doubt many CT'ers are similarly dogmatic and condescending to Dispensationalists. And which system is right isn't really the issue here.

So what is the issue? Well, it simply seems to me as though advocates of a system that needs a bit more time to ripen—according to some of its most ardent advocates—might want to demonstrate some reserve when they critique other systems. I'm not suggesting that energetic debate is unfruitful. I've benefited immensely on a personal level from evaluating the clash between the best presentations of mutually exclusive views. And I'm certain that critical interaction has helped both camps move towards better articulations of their views. But I am wondering if a bit more charity and humility, coupled with less rhetoric and fewer straw men, might not serve the cause of the gospel well.


Tammie said...


Anonymous said...

a call for humility from ben wright?


James Kime said...

I find this statement amazing from someone who would outright reject progressive dispensationalism. While I disagree with the kind of dispensationalism McCune puts forth, a notion that it is so far away from a truly right view is not a sliperry slope, it is a leap off the edge of a canyon. I wonder what other doctrinal positions in his ST are also so far off base. Why even right a ST if you don't really think it is right?

Be careful on your call for humility. That is exactly what the emergent church wants us to do with all doctrines. Believe it yes, just don't believe it too strongly. And if you do believe it strongly, don't debate it as though you can't be wrong.

Ben, correct me if I misunderstand his point.

greglong said...

Maybe I'm missing something here, but in the quote you posted, he didn't say it would take 150 more years to "get it [dispensationalism] right", but rather to "fully integrate it into ST." In other words, to more fully develop it and flesh it out.

Did Covenant Theology spring forth fully developed in the 16th century?

James Kime said...

I would like to know what that is that still needs to be fleshed out in his mind though. How is that any different that somethings just not being right?

Ben, I know of a few strawmen on both sides, but were there some you specifically had in mind?

Greg said...

a personal attack from from "Anonymous"?


Sign your name, little man. Only takes a second.

Ben said...


I don't think the quotes McCune cites are saying dispensationalism gets it wrong, per se, but rather that there are a lot of loose ends to tie together and some adjustments may need to be made. I don't have the context, to be sure, but if Dispensationalism was only 30% developed in the 50s, I'm doubtful that there's been enough movement in the traditional D camp since that point to fill in the gap.

On humility, your point is well taken, but there have been some good conversations about "humble orthodoxy," initiated largely by Josh Harris. My meaning of humility is that if we're working with issues that we know aren't clear in Scripture or that aren't fully matured in our own minds, we need to demonstrate charity to those who disagree. There's a huge difference between that approach and McLaren. But that's a longer conversation.

Ben said...

Greg Long,

The issue is that Dispensationalism IS a system of theology. If a system—in this case an over-arching metanarrative that shapes our interpretation of Scripture—isn't fully integrated into the field of systematic theology, that points to the fact that not everything is quite right just yet. The system is immature.

On CT history, I honestly don't have the data in my head to even begin to answer your question, but I'm assuming it's rhetorical. Nevertheless, the point isn't to argue for the relative correctness of one view versus the other.

Ben said...


On strawmen . . . I didn't have any in mind as I wrote. Some that come to mind are the CT suggestion that D's preach different gospels and the D suggestion that CT constitutes replacement theology. Some on both sides have been guilty of those charges. Not all, by a long shot.

James Kime said...

I honestly find strawmen fun though. It distracts from the real issues, and I love watching a fire blaze. Now, where did I put those matches...

Coach C said...

I am really glad to hear McCune leave the door open even a little bit. I consider myself a fairly committed dispensationalist, although I have some issues regarding the presence of the Holy Spirit in the OT, the efficacy of sacrifices in the OT, and NT use of the OT, among other things.

In fact, I had the occasion to ask Dr. McCune about some of those issues several years agon and his answer was rigidly dispensational and frankly unsatisfying. I came away from the class with the idea that there were some hole in my dispensational ST, but Dr. McCune was not going to be any help.

I happily rescind that belief.

Luke Harding said...

Wow, I am very thankful I stumbled across this post. It was extremely helfpful to me, especially as I find myself coming out of similiar dogmatism on the subject of Dispensationalism.