Dispensational theology has never been static. Today there are at least three discernable perspectives within the realm of dispensationalism: traditional (Scofield, Chafer), moderate or revised (Ryrie, Walvoord, Pentecost) and progressive (Bock, Blaising). While the perspectives differ on a number of important and minor details they all cling to the remaining sine qua non of dispensationalism—a clear and definite distinction between Israel and the church.
This volume has been written by five Dallas Theological Seminary-related professors (four teach at DTS presently) for the purpose of discussing three key issues over which contemporary dispensationalists have some disagreement. The issues are hermeneutics, the biblical covenants, and the relationship between Israel and the church.
The outstanding matter in the section on hermeneutics, debated by Elliott Johnson (moderate) and Darrell Bock (progressive), is how the Old Testament is to be understood in light of the New Testament. Traditional and moderate dispensationalists believe that the Old Testament text has one meaning which could never be changed by the New Testament, although the New Testament could further explain its meaning. Progressives, leaning toward Reformed theology, accept that the New Testament can expand or alter the meaning of the Old Testament. The resultant consequence is that an Old Testament passage means one thing for now and something else in the future (p. 75). This is a denial of grammatical/historical hermeneutics. The Old Testament text has more than one meaning for the progressives (p.90). What progressives have done, Elliott argues, is confuse revelation and interpretation. Because the apostles used Old Testament texts in ways not originally meant does not mean the Old Testament texts have two meanings, but that the apostles were given additional revelation.
What effect this hermeneutical difference has is well illustrated in the second section on biblical covenants. Traditional (and modified) dispensationalists, while affirming that Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father, reject that He is now reigning from David’s throne. Progressives argue that the Old Testament texts teach that Christ will sit on David’s throne in the millennial kingdom, but that the New Testament has altered that meaning to allow for Christ to do so now. As a result progressives have embraced Ladd’s “already—not yet” understanding of the kingdom. We are in the kingdom now, but there remains a future kingdom on earth. The more traditional dispensationalists would say the “already—not yet” theory disregards the mystery and distinction of the church, as revealed in the epistles. This is one of the major differences between the two schools of thought.
This leads naturally to the third section dealing with Israel and the Church. The concern of more traditional dispensationalists is that progressives are so blurring the distinction between Israel and the church as to virtually eliminate that distinction. As a matter of fact, progressives view the church as the first stage of the millennial kingdom.
As can be discerned from this review, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism is a detailed and complicated book, but nevertheless a good effort in attempting to resolve, or at least understand, the differences that exist within dispensationalism. I would offer two criticisms of the book. The arguments presented by the authors are often too convoluted and esoteric to be understood even by the authors themselves. I found it amazing that these men, who teach at the same seminary and even co-teach classes on this subject, repeatedly claim that they are not being understood by their opponent. If this is true in-house, what can be expected in the wider neighborhood? Maybe it would be wise to reduce some of the discussion to simpler terms—and just say what they believe.
Secondly, when endnotes are being used as part of the argument, they should be inserted as footnotes. Constantly trying to flip back and forth between the main text and the notes is very difficult.