Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism

Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism

Larsen, Emeritus David L

Ronald M. Henzel. Darby, Dualism, and the Decline of Dispensationalism. Tucson: Fenestra, 2003. xiv + 224 pp. $18.95.

Since Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was at one time dispensational (with a current or two of the ultra-dispensational), this revised master’s thesis at Wheaton does have historical interest. The scholarly contraction of dispensationalism at Trinity seen more broadly in evangelicalism along with the rise of progressive dispensationalism are evidence of what the author calls the death of traditional dispensationalism. Assuming the prophetic mantle himself, he predicts that “barring any surprising new theological development-or the actual occurrence of the pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church-it appears that nothing can stop this decline.” He proposes that we join Richard Mouw of Fuller in giving “older dispensationalism a proper farewell.” It is possible that this is a premature obituary.

Coming out of the Plymouth Brethren himself, the author speaks respectfully of the early and current proponents of dispensationalism and happily avoids most of the kind of ad hominem argumentation often found in discussions of John Nelson Darby. His basic thesis is that it is not Darby’s literalistic hermeneutic that is the problem for dispensationalism but rather Darby’s dualism. The dualism to which he refers is that which makes Israel the earthly people of God and the church the heavenly people of God. He sees the “any-moment” Rapture of the church as only a coordinate of the dispensational position and not the key issue. But does not the dualism of which he speaks rise out of the hermeneutical stance?

The author allows a strong proponent of dispensationalism, Charles Ryrie, to define it not as seven periods of revelation and testing (as per Scofield) but as “the distinction between Israel and the Church.” All of us after all do see some different epochs in salvation history (since we do not offer animal sacrifice), and many have periodized history such as Augustine and Joachim of Fiore. Augustine used a seven age schema corresponding to the days of creation. Covenantal theologians posit a number of ages including what would seem to be an extra-biblical “Covenant of Works.” Henzel questions using “seeking the glory of God” as a unifying theme rather than salvation or grace and attributes this to the dispensational insistence on an absolute law/grace antinomy. The law/grace antithesis would seem to some of us to be quite Pauline and quite in harmony with the Reformation emphasis on sola gratia in face of persistent Pelagian tendencies which must still be confronted. The discontinuity between Israel and the church certainly exists and from the dispensational perspective is radical but hardly complete (to use the term Henzel chooses to describe it) since both the OT and the NT people of God share something of Abraham in our origins (cf. Gal 3:7; Rom 11:17) and a common way of salvation as the gift of God.

The dispensational constellation of ideas, as Henzel terms them, is suspect because of their novelty and their “recency and devisiveness” (p. 35). The progress of doctrine is a fact in church history. Covenantal theology is also “new” and aspects of ecclesiology and eschatology have awaited the last several centuries for finer definition and clarity. Citing Darby, “the man himself,” as problematic is this book’s major foray into argumentum ad hominem. That he was a brilliant linguist and peripatetic Bible teacher on many continents is undeniable. That he could be waspish and that the Brethren movement has been fissiparous amounts to “the fallacy of geneticism,” but does all of that really matter? If systems rose and fell on the disposition of their founders, who could stand? The fact that Darby was “unsystematic” as a thinker (p. 24) puts him in good company with Luther. The line of descent in the history of ideas is basically irrelevant-who, what, or when. Most of the old Puritans and almost all of the early Pietists held that God had a very special purpose for ethnic Israel in the wrap-up of human history. The idea of significant discontinuity did not originate with Darby. But let’s get at what Darby and dispensationalists have taught and do now teach. That’s where our discussion needs to be, although in passing I must say that the evidence furnished for G. Campbell Morgan abandoning his earlier dispensational proclivities (Clarence Bass citing an alleged conversation Morgan had with Rev. Paul Jackson) is a little on the weak order (p. 35).

Much more helpful is the author’s citation of F. F. Bruce on the very intimate relationship between dispensational ecclesiology and eschatology (p. 47). Happily Henzel does not bog down on how Darby supposedly obtained his Rapture teaching from Edward Irving (which would certainly be the kiss of death) or the Jesuit Lacunza (translated by Irving from Spanish). Both Irving and Lacunza were premillennial but historicists. He well stands with Sandeen and Timothy Webber is rejecting all of this.

Taking a page from contemporary psycho-biographers, Henzel sees Darby’s cosmological dualism in close relationship to his mystical and ascetic “epiphany” in 1827 after a near fatal accident (p. 72). But indeed is there not some contrast between Israel in the OT with their land-promise, an earthly theocracy, promises of prosperity in the land if they are obedient, and the church “which is Christ’s body” whose citizenship is in heaven and who are seated in union with Christ in “heavenly places”? Perhaps we could be spared some current health and wealth ideas were we to understand the contrast between the two peoples of God. We are pilgrims here without a permanent place in this world. The any-moment Rapture teaching of Darby obviously follows hard on this reality.

Recognizing that hermeneutics is not an exact science, Henzel is right that dispensationalists list heavily toward the literal meaning of a text (as often advocated – the plain, simple, natural meaning of a text, literal where possible). This tendency is seen in dispensational approaches to Genesis and the creation narratives and, of course, eschatology. Again, a more literal approach seems to prevail.

Why should a fairly consistent historical/grammatical approach to the texts bearing on Israel be so outlandish? Is the author’s intention an irrelevancy here? Might not “the land as an everlasting possession” (not hard for Abraham to understand) really be the land? What in the NT reverses that (when land there is still “the land”; cf. Eph 6:3)? Why do many see the judgments on Israel as literal but then on principle spiritualize the promises (with such chapter headings as “God Promises Prosperity to His Church”) and give these to the church? I do not see any of the fifty-four references to Israel in the NT as necessarily something other than geopolitical Israel. A modern kind of Marcionism seems unwilling to take the OT representations very seriously.

Multiple fulfillments of OT prophecies never contain less than could be reasonably understood by those in the day the prophecy was given; however, there is almost always more than was first seen with a widening and broadening of the benefits. The powers of the age to come broke through on Pentecost but there will be further multiple fulfillments. Dispensationalists historically may have been fractured on the New Covenant promise of Jeremiah 31 and certainly it was enlarged to include the Gentiles since “the blood of the everlasting covenant” is the common soteriological blessing of all who are saved. Calvary is not only for Jew or for Gentile. It is for all. There is still so much that is ethnic Israel’s in the NT-the feast in the Kingdom of God will include the patriarchs and multitudes from the Gentile world (Luke 13:29) as well as the apostles “sitting on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30). Can we not accept “a covenant forever with Israel” (Ps 105:8) without any diminution whatever of that which is in prospect for the church? The so-called “key” passages which show so clearly the abrogation of the promises to Israel are all highly controversial with both Israel/church implications (cf. Acts 15:16-18). Contrary to Henzel most dispensationalists are not about to abandon the eternal duality with reference to a new heaven and a new earth (p. 154). He concedes that Charles Feinberg and John Walvoord did not and many others indeed.

Dispensationalism as a system has had some rude shocks, but all systems have their problems. Many seem to be bailing out of amillennialism right now into preterism (reconstructionism) or the new post-millennialism. For some reason post-tribulational premillennialism has gone over very well in the evangelical classroom but has set no fires in local churches. I do not know of any prophecy conferences sponsored under these auspices. Marvin Rosenthal’s pre-wrath Rapture hasn’t fulfilled promise either. Traditional dispensationalism is still entrenched in many schools and leads the charge at the grassroots for several reasons: (1) dispensational eschatology speaks up in a time when 62 percent of the American people say they believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ but hear little about the end-time in their churches and know little about it; (2) dispensationalism’s identification with the modern state of Israel keeps the pot boiling at a time when the Middle East is a cauldron as always; (3) the incredible success of the “Left Behind” series has made a very deep mark in the lives of many. These books always make the way of salvation plain and like Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth they pack a wallop.

The author has pronounced traditional dispensationalism dead. Students going out to serve in churches or faculty going out to speak in churches should take another look. There are many traditional dispensationalists in the churches and many of them are very devout students of Scripture. They would be surprised to learn they are moribund. They continue to win folk to Christ, serve throughout the churches, and “love his appearing.” Henzel indulges in some wishful thinking but it is apparent he is a long way from reality.

Prof. Emeritus David L. Larsen

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Copyright Trinity International University Fall 2003

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