Not Literal Enough

I looked into Progressive Dispensationalism briefly 20+ years ago, didn’t find it remotely compelling, and haven’t felt a need to revisit it. I might be missing something, but life is short, and I kinda don’t think so. It seemed to me at the time that PD was something of a mediating position between Covenant Theology and classic dispensationalism, and I don’t think the weaknesses of dispensationalism lie in that direction. The problem is that dispensationalists don’t read literally enough.

That sounds weird, but it’s true. A dispensationalist sounds like a wooden literalist when he’s standing next to, say, Ken Gentry talking about Matthew 24, or Richard Gaffin talking up the Church as the new Israel. But stand that same dispensationalist next to Jim Reitman talking about Abraham’s children in Galatians, and see what happens. The problem with dispensationalists isn’t so much hermeneutics as a failure of nerve: they won’t apply their own hermeneutic consistently in places where the Scriptures don’t perfectly match the system.

At the end of the day, dispensationalism is a bit like Calvinism — a clever system that takes in some genuinely biblical insights and was God’s gift for a particular historical moment, but can’t be organically generated from the text, and has to flatly contradict Scripture occasionally in order to keep the system going. The biblical insights are well worth keeping, but why try to digest the whole carcass when we can loot the corpse and move on?

One of the major sticky points is the Kingdom of God. Classic dispensationalists tend to hold that there is no present reality to the Kingdom of God because the lion is not presently lying down with the lamb and Jesus is not sitting on David’s literal throne. Against that, I note that Jesus Himself said “if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” Has come. The lion wasn’t lying down with the lamb then either, but Jesus still said what He said.

The lion really will lay down with the lamb, and Jesus really will sit on David’s literal throne when the Kingdom has come in its fullness. By speaking of the Kingdom as a present reality in His own time, Jesus forces us to acknowledge that it’s possible for the Kingdom to be truly present without being fully present in its final consummation — and what good news that is! Jesus is King now. If He is ruling within the reach of my arm, then His Kingdom is here now.

So with (say) a guy like Grant Hawley (whose book I recommend reading, even though I heartily disagree in spots), I find I agree with him far more than not when it comes to particulars like our present relationship to the covenant with Noah, our relationship to the Law, the future of Israel, and so on. However, the bubbles-on-a-string dispensational charts don’t represent those truths well; they tend to emphasize the discontinuity at the expense of things that really do continue. Our discontinuous relationship with the Law is based on our continuous relationship with Abraham and the (Noahide) priesthood of Melchizedek expressed in our older Brother Jesus (as the book of Hebrews elegantly explains). It’s all One Story, and a lot of the power to read our present circumstances in biblical categories comes from being able to see it as all a single story with motifs and themes that repeat, but like themes in music or dance — never exactly the same. In biblical studies, typology is not first and foremost a feature of literary texts; it is a philosophy of history. Typology in the real world is a mark of authorship, and the world is being authored by the same God who wrote the biblical texts.

In the nature of the case, you can always claim that this instance of the motif is different from the others, because something about it always will be different. The head-crushing women of Judges, David taking on Goliath, and Jesus crushing the serpent’s head are all quite different in certain respects, but the differences are not the most important thing about them.


One Response to Not Literal Enough

  1. James S. Reitman says:


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