Theological labels can be very helpful, and yet also very frustrating. Helpful in how they so quickly communicate where you stand on a given theological issue, and yet frustrating in how often they don’t do so very accurately. Misrepresentations abound, and when you say that you are a such-and-such, that label may communicate all kinds of baggage you don’t intend. For this reason, when someone would ask me if I were a Calvinist, I used to respond, “Yes, but I reserve the right to explain what I mean by that!” (By the way, to find out whether you are a true Calvinist, read this.)
This brings me to the label “dispensationalist.” As you can tell from the opening paragraphs of an essay I wrote several years ago, I’m never sure exactly how to categorize myself. Yes, broadly speaking, I do fall into the dispensational camp, and yet based on the way that many covenantalists characterize dispensationalism, I often find myself wondering how helpful that label really is, at least for me.
The other night I was rereading parts of Kim Riddlebarger’s book, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, which is widely regarded as the definitive treatment of the millennial debate from an amillennial perspective. On page 24, Riddlebarger begins his explanation of dispensationalism, writing this in his second paragraph:
Dispensationalists argue for literal interpretation of all prophetic portions of Scripture. This means that all of the covenantal promises made to David and Abraham in the Old Testament are to be fulfilled literally in a future millennial age. Israel will regain the land promised by God, a prophecy which dispensationalists believe was fulfilled when the modern nation of Israel was born in 1948.
Let’s go down Riddlebarger’s checklist of dispensational distinctives: Literal interpretation of prophecy? Yep. Covenant promises fulfilled in a future millennial kingdom? Absolutely. Land promise to Abraham fulfilled in 1948? Whaaaaaaaat???
Now in one sense, I can certainly understand why Dr. Riddlebarger would write this, because some dispensationalists do indeed believe it, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. But why tuck it in there among some of the major distinctives of dispensationalism as if it were also part of the system itself? I find this very unhelpful in furthering the discussion. Incidentally, Riddlebarger could have avoided this misrepresentation by simply adding the word “some,” as in: “Israel will regain the land promised by God, a prophecy which some dispensationalists believe was fulfilled when the modern nation of Israel was born in 1948.” This would allow poor souls like me to say that yes, I am dispensationalist, but no, I do not believe that Ezekiel 36 was fulfilled 60 years ago.
Part of the frustration in reading this description of dispensationalism is that the second and third sentences in the excerpt from Riddlebarger contradict each other. Riddlebarger says that dispensationalists believe that all of the promises made to Abraham will be fulfilled in a future millennial age, and yet in the very next sentence he says that dispensationalists believe that one of the main promises that God made to Abraham was fulfilled in 1948. See the problem here? And don’t even get me started on the exegetical difficulties with the fulfillment-in-1948 view!
Anyway, perhaps Riddlebarger would respond by saying that he is just reporting the facts of what dispensationalists believe, and if those facts are inconsistent, then your problem is with the dispies and not with him. And while that is certainly true for any dispensationalists who do affirm these two contradictory views (and again, I am told they are out there), why not work a little harder to set forth accurately the core elements of your opponents’ position? Why take an inconsistent and unnecessary application of dispensationalism—an application which is rejected by many (most?) dispensationalists—and make it sound like one of the essentials of dispensationalism itself?
In fairness to Riddlebarger, I do think he did a fairly good job overall of avoiding the kind of straw man arguments that are so characteristic of many covenantalists who critique dispensationalism. In other words, the misrepresentation on page 24 is the exception and not the rule in Riddlebarger’s book (although I have found other, more significant ones), and I am sure that he was not intentionally misrepresenting dispensationalism. In fact, if he ever revises the book, perhaps he will add the word “some” to that sentence in the interest of being fair.
All of this brings me to my main point, which isn’t about Riddlebarger’s book at all. My main point is this: Regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity and discontinuity—and regardless of whether you consider yourself a dispensationalist, a covenantalist, or something in between—I have a recommendation. If you want to understand the core essentials of dispensationalism, read John Feinberg’s “Systems of Discontinuity,” which is chapter 3 in the book Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. (For a brief discussion of Feinberg’s chapter, see “Core Characteristics of Dispensationalism” by Dr. Michael J. Vlach, but don’t let it be a substitute for reading Feinberg himself.)
I have found Feinberg to be unsurpassed in terms of being a clear and concise treatment of a difficult issue, and one that frames up the discussion in a way that is fair to both sides. If you are studying dispensationalism for the first time—or revisiting it after studying it many years ago—this chapter will help you understand what it really means to be a dispensationalist. Which is a helpful and much-needed step in the process of clarifying the core essentials of dispensationalism and rediscovering the theology behind the label.