Theological systems come and go. Mostly, there are some central insights that don’t really fit into the milieu from which the new system arises, and then people try to push those insights out into the corners. The result is a new theological system. Often, that initial crucial insight is good — a breath of fresh air, a kiss on the lips, water in the desert. Usually, some of the derivative insights that arise in the early days of the system are also good.
But the system as a whole has some blind spots and a few problems. As time goes on, these get developed and magnified rather than reduced, and the whole thing gets stale.
Meanwhile, the Church at large is internalizing those crucial initial insights without necessarily converting to the system (“Well, I don’t agree with those guys on everything, but they’ve got a point about xyz”). Alternately, the Church converts to the system, internalizes its key aspects, and then de-converts without losing those crucial insights in the process. It’s important to realize that this dynamic wouldn’t happen without the formation of a system. The core insight is not usually obvious to people in the beginning. It conflicts with the existing system at a number of points. That insight has to be elaborated in some detail and its implications worked out before people are willing to accept it. System-building provides that work of elaboration.
However, there comes a point where the system has had the impact it’s going to have, the Body has absorbed its benefits, and it’s time to move on. The system has reached its expiration date; as a system of thought, it has outlived its usefulness. Its purpose, in the end, was to serve as a vehicle through which the Body could come to grips with a few crucial truths. That work done, the members of the Body now regard those truths as self-evident, and the delivery vehicle can fall to the wayside. There’s no need to keep the old wineskin after you’ve drunk the wine.
One of the signs that a system has reached its expiration date is that people will deny the system while holding to its key insights as self-evident. In extreme cases, people are totally unaware that the “self-evident biblical truths” they are affirming only came to be considered self-evident because the system they so despise made people aware of them. For example, missional types who regard the Trinity as the central biblical teaching for human relationships, but can’t say the word “Christendom” without sneering — they have somehow forgotten that Christendom furnished the historical conversation that resulted in the “self-evident” doctrine of the Trinity. The Calvary Chapel movement furnishes another useful contemporary example. Where else can you find pre-mil, pre-trib theology that holds to a firm distinction between the Church and Israel — and so abominates dispensationalism as a divisive and damaging doctrine that they actually ban discussion of dispensationalism in a home Bible study?
Ugly stuff happens along these fault lines. I know of a situation where a Calvary Chapel-connected school was offered three faculty members — a Bible/theology teacher, an OT/Hebrew teacher, and a NT/Greek teacher — all three capable, all three offering skills and teaching far beyond anything the school had in its existing program. The doctrinal statement wasn’t a problem. The financial arrangements weren’t a problem. Then somebody allowed as how all three teachers hailed from a dispensational background, and that was the end. Not “Uh, guys, listen, can we talk about that?” No deal, no discussion, nope, sorry, never gonna happen. The school spooked and ran, and never looked back. In fact someone tried to oust the president of the school simply because there’d even been a thought of working with dispensationalists.
Sad. The students could have developed whole skill sets that school couldn’t and can’t deliver, but the administration they were trusting to deliver a good education couldn’t see past a word.
On the other hand, did it serve anyone well for the three teachers to use that word? Was the term “dispensationalism” really necessary — or even helpful?
I’m not sure it is. Dispensationalism is so diluted and diverse now that it’s necessary to heap adjectives upon it in order to have any hope of describing an actual position — “progressive” and “classic” are the favorites, but they don’t help much. There’s substantial difference among “classic” dispensationalists — four dispensations, seven dispensations, etc. — and even more among the folks who take the “progressive” label.
When a student balks at learning a laundry list of theological terms, we tell him that it’s necessary in order to help the conversation along. Having labels for things helps us to understand each other so that we can have good discussions.
Certainly worked out that way, didn’t it?
So it is that people who try to have a dispensational take on everything are about as helpful as those who try to have a Reformed take on everything — both systems, in their respective times, were a kiss on the lips, manna from heaven, good and godly work highlighting key aspects of Christian truth that were in danger of being forgotten. Glory to God for them both.
Both systems, as systems, have now passed their expiration date. In the end, they were not timeless systems of thought, but simply delivery vehicles for a few key insights. The work is done; the Great Conversation has moved on. Not everyone has accepted those few key insights, but they have been rendered difficult to forget: a Roman Catholic divinity student might ignore Hus, but he’s going to have a hard time avoiding the Reformation. Moreover, a great many of the reforms called for by the Protestants (e.g., moral reform of the clergy) did take place in the Counter-Reformation, because the moral purity of the Protestant churches put the Roman church to shame. So the Reformation had its impact even on the Roman church which supposedly rejected it. Dispensationalism likewise: today you can hear people who were never dispensational talking about how a certain biblical event took place “at a different point in the story” than where we are today, and you have to take that into account. Hmmm….
Christ is building His Church, and He is using all these different movements and theologies to do it. The gates of Hades have not prevailed, and will not. And what Christ is building is His Church, not some sect or movement or particular theological system. Christ’s blessing rests on these subsets of the Church for a time, as a means to edifying the whole Church. Working in such a subset is good, honorable work, but it helps to keep in mind that you only see part of the picture.
Whatever strand of the Tradition you’re part of, whatever theological system you subscribe to, remember this lesson.
Cartoon used by gracious permission from Pastor Saji of St. Thomas the Doubter Church, Dallas, TX.
For a different take on the temporary nature of theological systems and creeds, see Jim Jordan’s Symbolism: A Manifesto (particularly the last 3 pages).