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DISPENSATIONALISM
BEN WITHERINGTON
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DISPENSATIONALISM
• Margaret MacDonald---1830, a teenage
visionary in Glasgow, Scotland
• John Nelson Darby– founder of the
Plymouth Brethren and Evangelist in the
U.K. and the U.S.
• The spreading of the message before and
during the American Civil War
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• Christ will return twice, once invisibly,
once visibly
• The former of the two returns will coincide
with a ‘rapture’ of the church into heaven
for seven years
• The latter is the ‘glorious appearing’
mentioned Titus 2.13 when the new
Jerusalem will be established on earth
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• The harmonic convergence of the
message of Darby in 1859-77 and the
desire for escape from the horrors of the
Civil War
• To his credit, Darby abstained from trying
to predict the timing of the rapture or the
‘Glorious Appearing’
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• Dwight L. Moody--- his indebtedness to
Darby
• Moody, and eventually the Moody Bible
Institute, did the most to spread the
message of Dispensationalism in the last
few decades of the 19th and the beginning
of the 20th century
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• Cyrus Scofield– entrepreneur, perpetrator
of fraud, a man who abandoned his family
• See J.M. Canfield, The Incredible Scofield
and his Book
• The Scofield Reference Bible, published in
1909 becomes a million seller
• W.E. Dubois also publishes a popular
account-- Jesus is Coming in 1878
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• The Dispensational schema was based on,
and arose out of a close reading of the
KJV, not the Greek or Hebrew texts of the
Bible
• The need for scholarly shoring up of the
system– Lewis Chafer founds the Dallas
Dispensational Training Center in 1924
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• Dallas Dispensational Institute evolves into
•
•
Dallas Theological Seminary
Producing a long string of scholars and
popularizers of the system--- e.g. John Walvoord
(President 1952-1986), Charles Ryrie, Hal
Lindsey, Timothy LaHaye to mention a few.
All of these persons, whether scholars or not,
have spread the hermeneutic of this system
through popular books, pamphlets etc.
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• CONCLUSION ABOUT THE HISTORY–
•
Dispensationalism is a theory of interpreting
Biblical prophecy which does not have deep
historical roots and is not well grounded in the
history of the interpretation of the Bible by the
church over many centuries.
In particular, no one was arguing for a rapture
doctrine before about 1830. This is severely
problematic, not least because while many early
Bible interpreters were pre-millenialists, they
were not advocating a rapture theology, or a two
track system of interpreting everything
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• One of the major difficulties with
Dispensationalism is its theories about
Biblical prophecy
• For example, it fails to realize that most
OT prophecy was either: 1) conditional in
character; 2) is already fulfilled, or 3) was
speaking about a situation in the life of
Israel long, long ago, not speaking about
the eschatological age
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• Even more problematic is its failure to recognize
•
that the writers of the NT are unanimous that all
the prophecies and promises of God are fulfilled
in Christ and in his people (Jew and Gentile
united in Christ), not in two different peoples of
God, and not through two different comings of
Jesus
In other words, a non-NT hermeneutic is being
applied to prophecy in the Dispensational
schema
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• Definitions--, a prophet was an oracle, a mouthpiece for
•
some divine being, and as such he or she did not speak
for himself but for another. A prophet might also be
many other things (teacher, priest, sage) but the role of
prophet could be distinguished from these other roles
and functions.
Prophecy, whether from Mari or Jerusalem or Delphi or
Rome was spoken in known languages, usually in poetic
form, and so was an intelligible, even if often puzzling,
kind of discourse. It might involve spontaneous
utterances or a reading of omens or signs of various
sorts but in any case it was not a matter of deciphering
ancient texts, which was the task of scribes and sages
and exegetes of various sorts. Consulting a prophet was
an attempt to obtain a late word from one or another
deity about some pressing or impending matter.
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• Principles of interpretation– most Biblical
•
•
prophecy is a late word from God for the present
or very near horizon of events
When some OT prophecy is viewed messianically
in the NT, it is very rarely viewed as speaking
about the remote or very distant future, and it is
always correlated with events which involve
Christ and/or the church, not world history in
general.
Instead it was believed by NT writers that the
eschatological age began in their own era, and
they never speak precisely about the timing of
the end of that era.
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• Finally, the imagaic, and metaphorical and
poetic nature of apocalyptic literature
needs to be kept in mind
• This sort of literature, even when it speaks
of the more distant horizon does so using
metaphorical and multivalent language,
though clearly enough it is referential as
well.
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• God only reveals enough about the future
to give us hope, not so much that we
don’t have to exercise faith, nor so much
that we should spend our time engaged in
theological weather forecasting.
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