The Great Tribulation in Progressive Dispensationalism by Ken Gentry
ONCE UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY, WHILE I PONDERED WEAK AND WEARY
As I write this newsletter (on June 10th) I am engaged in several other writing projects (too many, in fact!). I am currently putting the finishing touches on my response chapter in a debate book with Thomas Ice (Tommy is an old school dispensationalist who believes: “If it was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for me!”). The book will be published by Kregal later this year and is titled: “The Great Tribulation: Past or Future.” As I read Ice’s initial chapter in the book I was astonished with a particular direction he took in his presentation. This direction was not only surprising in the context of our particular debate, but also was the spark that ignited this current new “Dispensationalism in Transition” series. Let me explain.
Ice has published much in the way of response to the new and improved dispensationalism, both in his (now defunct) newsletter and in the DTS journal “Bibliotheca Sacra,” as well as in various books and booklets. Ice’s concern with progressive dispensationalism appears to be nothing short of abject consternation leading to outright dismay which results in hair-raising alarm. He is having one serious knee-jerk fit — almost to the point of weeping and gnashing his teeth in public!. In fact, I fear he may collapse into total depression over the whole matter. Is there a doctor in the house!? But, I digress.
Ice wrote the chapter on the problem of progressive dispensational hermeneutics in Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, eds., “Issues in Dispensationalism” (Chicago: Moody, 1994). In that chapter he “defended” the notion of a “consistently literal or plain interpretation” of Scripture (p. 29). This book is largely a response to the growing menace of progressive dispensationalism (as is Ryrie’s recent revision of “Dispensationalism Today”).
A BRIEF ASIDE (OR INTERCALATION ALA RYRIE!)
Before I can even get to my main point regarding progressive dispensationalism, though, I must note an irony within revised dispensationalism. Another contributor to Willis and Master’s book (which bewails progressive dispensationalism) is Charles Dyer, a member of Ice’s “Pre-Trib Study Group.” Dyer’s interpretation of Jeremiah in Dallas Seminary’s “Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament” does exactly what Ice fears most: he interprets apocalyptic universe-collapse language as referring to the historical fall of Jerusalem in the Old Testament! Let us consider this remarkable state-of-affairs just for a moment.
Jeremiah 4:24-28 reads: “I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the LORD, before His fierce anger. For thus says the LORD, ‘The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above be dark, because I have spoken, I have purposed, and I will not change My mind, nor will I turn from it.’”
To read this through revised dispensationalist lenses you would surmise that this was a Second Advent-related phenomenon of cosmic proportions. But how does revised dispensationalist Dyer interpret this passage? In BKC:OT (p. 1136) he comments: “Jeremiah pictured God’s coming judgment as a cosmic catastrophe — an undoing of Creation. Using imagery from the Creation account (Gen. 1) Jeremiah indicated that no aspect of life would remain untouched. God would make Judah ‘formless and empty’ (tohu wabohu), a phrase used to describe the chaos that preceded God’s works in Creation (cf. Gen. 1:2).” Imagery? Jeremiah plainly (!) informs us that “ALL the hills moved”; there was “NO man”; “ALL the birds of the heavens had fled.” Was not the entire earth “formless and empty” in a dramatically different way at creation than at Jerusalem’s destruction? How can the same language apply to both the original creative formlessness and the military conquest of Israel? What becomes of the plain and simple hermeneutic in all of this?
But let us return to our original line of thought:
LEST WE FORGET
The menacing nature of the new dispensationalism is evident in another debate book project which I am also currently finishing: Darrell L. Bock, ed., “Three Views of the End of History” (Zondervan). In that work progressive dispensationalist scholar Craig Blaising records the following observation, which must be terrifying to Ice, Ryrie, Walvoord, and others.
Craig Blaising writes (emphasis mine):
“Although dispensational apocalypticism [read: old-line dispensationalism] has received much attention in the media and in studies of popular religion, where it continues to thrive, IT HAS BECOME PERIPHERAL TO THE POINT OF ABSENCE IN DISPENSATIONAL BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP. This is because of popular apocalypticism’s loose relationship to the literary and historical study of Scripture and because of ongoing evangelical SCHOLARLY WORK ON THE INTERPRETATION OF BIBLICAL APOCALYPTIC. Furthermore, popular apocalypticism’s penchant for relating future events in Scripture to headline news and even making predictions about how, when, and where future events will be fulfilled, including the date of Christ’s return, has discredited it in the minds of many.”
Here we see Blaising’s pointed dismissal of the old school dispensational eschatological system and its apocalyptic methodology. This dismissal is rooted not only in Scofieldianism’s daring newspaper exegesis (watch Jack Van Impe any night of the week for evidence [be careful not to mess up his hair though] or read Hal Lindsey’s latest book [be careful not to look for footnotes to scholarly works though]). But Blaising’s discounting of Scofieldianism is also rooted in progressive dispensationalism’s new hermeneutic direction as it engages in the “ongoing evangelical scholarly work on the interpretation of biblical apocalyptic.” This hermeneutic fact is the cause for the enormous alarm among revised dispensationalists. And rightly so.
In Ice’s chapter in Willis and Master, he opens with these two paragraphs (p. 29):
“‘Consistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures,’ declared Charles Ryrie in 1965. ‘And it is this very consistency — the strength of dispensational interpretation — that irks the nondispensationalist and becomes the object of his ridicule.’ ‘Consistently literal interpretation’ was listed by Ryrie as the second most important sine qua non of dispensationalism, which forms the foundation for the most important essential, ‘the distinctions between Israel and the Church.’ Earl Radmacher, in 1979, went so far as to say that literal interpretation ‘is the “bottom-line” of dispensationalism.’ While the ridicule of nondispensationalists has continued, there also appear to be signs of hermeneutical equivocations within the ranks of dispensationalism.”
“Within contemporary dispensationalism, some are moving away from the generally held hermeneutical statements of Ryrie and Radmacher. Craig Blaising concluded ‘the consistently literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of dispensationalism. Development is taking place on how to characterize a proper hermeneutic for dispensationalists.’ Blaising and his coauthor Darrell Bock assert that the grammatical-historical hermeneutic ‘is shared broadly in evangelicalism, so consequently present-day dispensationalists do not think of themselves as having an exclusive hermeneutic.’”
Here Ice specifically cites Blaising and Bock as witnesses to the alarming new direction in dispensationalism. Ice’s footnotes are full of references to Darrell Bock’s writings in this regard. Bock holds to an hermeneutic methodology absolutely rejected by Ice. Now why do I mention all of this? Because in our (Gentry and Ice’s) debate book on the great tribulation, Ice abundantly and enthusiastically employs Bock’s work on Luke 21! The irony in all of this is heightened in that immediately after his extensive use of Bock’s exegesis of Luke 21, Ice’s next section is titled: “Hermeneutics.” In that section Ice attacks Bock-like hermeneutics. Will wonders never cease? And this brings me to the spark igniting this new series.
WHY THIS SERIES?
Ice’s use of Bock’s Luke 21 exegesis required my consulting Bock on the matter. Ice is notorious for miscitation and elliptical distortion (see: Bahnsen and Gentry, “House Divided: The Break-up of Dispensational Theology, ICE, rev. 1997), so I had to check his primary source. Bock’s impressive (and massive: 2150 pages!) two volume commentary on Luke is published in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. This is an excellent specimen of the scholarly direction of progressive dispensationalism. To keep abreast of progressive dispensationalism’s latest directions in important areas, I highly recommend this (expensive!) work.
But again: WHY do I rehearse all of this?
Although Ice did in fact distort Bock’s analysis (see my response to Ice in the forthcoming Kregal book for evidence), he was not as far off as I would have expected. I was surprised with some of the arguments that Bock used in presenting his progressive dispensational analysis of the Olivet Discourse. These arguments (though departing at several important junctures from classic dispensationalism) tended to affirm a typical dispensational understanding of the futuricity of much of Christ’s prophecy in Luke 21, while distorting some of the clear time-frame language in the passage. Consequently, here in the Olivet Discourse material, progressive dispensationalism shows its true dispensational roots — roots generally well-hidden in much of their scholarly production. And since my newsletter is designed to analyze and critique progressive dispensationalism, I saw this as an excellent place to focus my concerns for awhile.
Thus, in the next few issues I will be responding to Bock’s exposition of Luke 21. This should be helpful for our on-going education in progressive dispensationalism, as well as providing an opportunity to analyze this fascinating prophetic material in the light of a more biblical eschatological methodology: an orthodox preterism.
Bock’s interpretation of Luke 21:5-38 (the crucial material) consumes over forty-five pages of material. Here we have an excellent opportunity to witness the pressures of the dispensational system (even the progressive dispensationalism system) exerted on scholarly exegesis. And though Bock’s commentary is in many (most?) respects a very helpful evangelical analysis of Luke, here we see the weight of dispensationalism burdening him.
Although I will actually begin our analysis in next month’s newsletter, here I will cite his two paragraph introductory summary of the material. In this summary we will see remarkable (and welcome) deviations from old-line dispensationalism. But at the same time we observe the clever maneuvers whereby Bock “saves” dispensational futurism.
On page 1650 Bock’s summary reads as follows:
“Luke records Jesus’ lengthy discourse on a pair of related events: the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the Lord’s return. Though made up of many parts, the discourse is a unit. This passage is Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse, though he makes no connection to the Mount of Olives in the setting. Luke focuses on the destruction of Jerusalem with more intensity than do the other Synoptics, and he also has a clearer chronological breakdown of events. He covers both events because for Jesus the destruction of Jerusalem is like the end-time.
“The discourse starts with a prediction of the temple’s fall (21:5-6), which leads the disciples to ask about the events associated with it (21:7). Jesus replies in three initial steps, starting with a discussion of events that do not foreshadow the end (21:8-11). He then treats incidents that will precede these events (21:12-19). Next come events that parallel the end and reveal what it is like (21:20-24). There will be time for mission before the end, but this interim period will also involve intense persecution and will lead to Jerusalem’s fall to the nations. Only then does Jesus relate the cosmic signs that precede the Son of Man’s return, when he comes on the clouds in the splendor of deity (21:25-28). Jesus says that awareness of these signs will allow one to know when these key moments of divine history are near. He also says that the end will come quickly when it does comes [sic]. He concludes by assuring the disciples that the teaching is true (21:29-33). Thus, they are to watch and be ready. They are to live soberly and pray for strength to endure, so as to be able to stand before the Son of Man (21:34-36). After the discourse, Luke notes that the people listened to Jesus’ daily teaching at the temple (21:37-38).”
Already in this summary we witness deviation from the party line of older dispensationalism:
(1) Bock admits that Matthew (one of the “other Synoptics” to which he refers) deals with A.D. 70. Perhaps one of the most strained and embarrassing aspects of the older dispensational exegesis is the refusal to admit Matthew 24 speaks of A.D. 70. Bock is too good a scholar to let so obvious a distortion into his system. As another dispensationalist, David L. Turner, has admitted: “The manner in which dispensationalism has traditionally handled this section is thus weak on several fronts. . . . Contemporary dispensationalists should rethink this area of NT exegesis.” And: “It must be concluded that the futurist view, held by traditional dispensationalists, is unconvincing. It does not satisfactorily handle the contextual emphasis on the fall of Jerusalem.” (David L. Turner, “The Structure and Sequence of Matthew 24:1-41: Interaction with Evangelical Treatments,” Grace Theological Journal 10:1 [Spring, 1989] 7, 10). Bock’s exegesis is a welcome corrective to such an unsatisfactory analysis.
(2) Bock sees A.D. 70 and the Second Advent as “a pair of related events.” This opens the door to similar language applying to both eras. This, theoretically, allows Second Coming-like language being applied to A.D. 70. Some dispensationalists (and hyper-preterists, at the other extreme) overlook the philosophical principle: “Similarity does not entail identity.” That is, just because similar language is used of two events (A.D. 70 and Second Advent) does not imply the language is speaking of the same event: Biblical writers can refer to A.D. 70 in apocalyptic language that sounds like the Second Advent. Because “a” sounds like “b” does not mean “a” is “b.”
As we get into Bock’s material we will notice further differences with his mentors. But he also provides hints of some conclusions that I find objectionable in his analysis:
(1) He suggests that there are signs that “precede the Son of Man’s return.” The postmillennialist affirms what Jesus forthrightly declares: no one can know when he will return (Matt. 24:36). The Second Advent is sign less as far as prophecy is concerned. Even the postmillennial expectations regarding the fullness of the kingdom in history (which at this stage is unfulfilled prophecy) cannot function as a sign of the end: The conversion of the Jews (Rom. 11) and the fulfilling of the great commission (Matt. 28:19-20), though sure to occur in history, cannot be “signs”: (a) They both deal with masses of men, perhaps spread over large spans of time. The great commission surely has consumed much time already. (b) Even upon their fulfillment we need not expect the immediate end. When Christianity becomes the rule in history rather than the exception, we cannot know from that that Christ must return. A full-orbed Christian worldview expects the IMPLICATIONS of Christian dominance to work out in history, not just the NUMERICAL FACT of Christian victory.
(2) His reference to “cosmic signs that precede the Son of Man’s return” hints at the direction he will take in his exegesis. Despite the fact that his hermeneutics will allow apocalyptic imagery in past historical fulfillments, Bock will interpret the apocalyptic language found in the Olivet Discourse in a literalistic fashion rather than in an emblematic or hyperbolic-dramatic manner. And because of this oversight in Bock’s analysis, he will be moved to re-interpret the important time-frame indicator in Luke 21:32. One flaw leads to another.
As I engage Bock’s exegesis we will find ourselves on a different battlefield from our past debates with revised dispensationalists: Bock never quotes the New York Times or ABC News in his exegesis. We never have to drive down to the public library and see if a news reporter was quoted properly, or turn on the television to verify his analysis. Bock provides a much more reasonable exegesis. And in this lies the attraction of the new dispensationalism. But even here the system flaws, though better hidden, will become visible.