The other day I encountered a gent who claimed, baldly and without qualification, that his preferred theological system is true. My initial response was that he might as well claim his theological system is purple. In other word, it’s a category error; theological systems can’t be true, any more than Calvinism can be mauve.
Upon reflection, that’s not quite fair; it is possible in principle for a comprehensive theological system to contain only true propositions, rightly arranged with respect to one another. But if such a system exists, it exists only in the mind of God Himself; certainly it was never inscripturated, and what human being could claim to have discovered it for himself?
So as a practical matter, no theological system is true. All of them are wrong in various places, and so all of them are at best approximations of the truth. In the same way that all the analogies for the Trinity turn into heresy, if pressed far enough, all theological systems eventually diverge from spiritual reality. As the system develops, various speculations and distortions creep in, and those inevitable distortions take on a life of their own.
I suggest that throughout Church history, the actual function of a theological system is to be a delivery vehicle for a few key truths. That’s the actual, lasting impact. Of necessity, the system will do a lot of speculating beyond that basic payload. If the people teaching the system are actually living the truths they preach, the thing will take longer to go to seed, but at some point, the system will outlive its usefulness. At that point, it’s time to collect the basic payload of the system–the core truths that the rest of the system was really just a delivery vehicle for–and run.
So it is that there are a lot of folks who believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but aren’t Reformed; who believe in the possibility of real relationship with God, but aren’t Palamite; who believe in the value of an all-embracing Christian worldview, but aren’t Reconstructionist. This dynamic isn’t actually all that uncommon.
And so I want to make a proposal about dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism was an important development in the history of doctrine that reminded the Church of some crucial things it had forgotten (e.g. the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of prophecy, the distinction between Israel and the Church). That said, like all theological systems, it has a shelf life. Outside the Bible Church/DTS tradition, it’s already dead; within that tradition, the term is so broad that it’s virtually meaningless without attaching additional adjectives (progressive, classical, Pauline, etc.) That is a sign that we’ve entered the post-paradigm period for sure.
So it’s time to disentangle the payload from the delivery vehicle. Not everyone who believes in the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of biblical prophecy, or a distinction between Israel and the Church is a dispensationalist.
They don’t have to be.