The Beginnings of the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics
I do not remember the exact time when I first thought about the need to have a forum for traditional dispensationalists to talk to each other about serious hermeneutical and theological issues raised in the contemporary situation. However, the thought crystallized for me after the 2007 Dispensational Study Group meeting at the Evangelical Theological Society (perhaps in light of this year’s theme involving the Holy Spirit, I can at least cautiously say that the Spirit led me?). At ETS that year I had a friendly discussion with Brent Sandy about his updated thoughts on his book Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, a book that, in my judgment, radically removed literal hermeneutics as a major stabilizing force in interpretation, especially of the Old Testament prophets. I came away from that exchange with two major thoughts. First, traditional dispensationalists have not spent much time talking to each other about hermeneutics and theological method. Most of the time when I am at professional conferences I am discussing such matters in an irenic way with those of a different persuasion or approach. Thus, only in the classes I teach, most notably at the Ph.D. level, was I conversing with other traditionalists about these important methodological themes. Second, I became convinced that traditional dispensationalists have not been interested in interacting with issues of interpretation to the degree that is necessary in the current evangelical climate. To my knowledge no major works had been written, for example, opposed to books like Plowshares and Pruning Hooks. The deeper issues involved were largely being ignored by those in our camp, at least in terms of public response.
As a result of these concerns, I approached the administration of Baptist Bible College & Seminary with the idea of a two-day council on our campus where we would invite faculty members from around the country who were traditional dispensationalists. Initially, I asked for funding for room and board for those who came so that the idea would get off the ground. To their credit the leaders of BBC&S agreed to the importance of supporting this effort. Although funding for room and board is no longer a reality, such support in the beginning aided the start up so that various scholars and their schools would not be burdened in a way that would prevent them from coming. The administration of the school is to be applauded for its stand on the importance of advancing the cause of traditional dispensationalism. This is only important because (as we believe) traditional dispensationalism reflects the literal truth of the inerrant Word of God.
Moreover, the need for such discussion among traditionalists is highlighted by the fact that dispensationalism seems to be greatly maligned at the present hour. Whether from the good men involved in the Reformed resurgence, the disturbing writing of some in the Emerging Church, unorthodox open theists, or preterists there seems to be more than a negative glance at dispensationalism. It sometimes takes on an aura of strangeness. For example, as I have noted elsewhere, during the George W. Bush administration, we were accused of being in decline as a movement while also controlling the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East. Both cannot be true at the same time.
One reason that predictions of our demise are premature is that dispensationalism is a movement in the churches as much as a movement in the Academy. This was true in Darby’s day. It was also true in the days of the Niagara Bible Conferences in America in the late 1800s. It was certainly true when Scofield gave us his study Bible in the early 1900s. It remains so today. Examples of this ongoing nature of dispensationalism’s influence can be found easily. The establishment of the Pre-Trib Study Group to defend and focus on the pre-trib rapture and other related issues of eschatology led to a combination of scholars from the schools, parachurch ministry leaders, and local church pastors who have aggressively studied the Bible’s prophecies together, all from a dispensational viewpoint. The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has certainly bypassed the Academy. One may not appreciate the use of the genre of fiction to advance the cause. However, one cannot dismiss the fact the series has strengthened dispensationalism to some degree in the churches.
Hence, it is in a context of hostility to the dispensational position and the lack of vigorous discussion among dispensationalists that the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics was born. Its goal is not to recapture some glorified past but to pave the way forward in advancing the cause of inductive Bible study and proper theological method. In the process, clarification of dispensational positions will emerge as well as reasons for why we disagree among ourselves on specific issues. At the center of the effort is a continuing commitment to the concept of literal hermeneutics (properly understood). Along the way, the fashionable teachings of our times can be evaluated with true biblical centrality. Just as a strong premillennialism emerged during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy a century ago, we need to assure similar results in present struggles in Christendom over postmodernism.
The Council Meetings
At this point, it is helpful to talk about the process that the Council has followed. Some of those who were not here the first year may be surprised to know that we only allowed twenty minutes for presentations with about an hour or more of discussion. We have relented and now allow thirty minutes for presentations and about an hour of discussion! This is important. The purpose was to have a forum for us to talk to each other. I did not want a repeat of some of the workshops at ETS where the short times allow for little discussion. Other conferences give discussion times that are much longer but often speakers take up all the discussion time anyway. This is not allowed at the CDH. We are somewhat legalistic about the time of presentations. That puts more pressure on our speakers, but gives our dialogue more punch as we communicate in a lively but friendly environment. We must hammer things out personally and not just talk to each other in papers. This face time is important to us. That is why we do things this way. Most folks I have talked to have been approving of this arrangement.
In the second year, we also began to invite pastors to attend the council as observers. This is harmonious with the idea that dispensationalism is a movement among the churches. The input given by pastors from the front lines of ministry is invaluable as we try to sort through the various issues we face. This union of pastors and those who train others for ministry in our schools is an important combination for the discussion of our approach to theology. This importance is highlighted for the 2011 meeting with Thursday night given to a panel of pastors to discuss the importance of themes about the Holy Spirit in their church work.
The first council was held in 2008. There was no single theme. Six issues were discussed:
- Hyperbole and Poetry in Prophecy
- Extended Metaphors
- Implicitly Conditional Prophecy
- Speech Act Theory
- Use of the OT in the NT
- New Covenant in Dispensational Interpretation
While some might think that there is no rhyme or reason to such a list, the first four are related to the discussions in Brent Sandy’s book Plowshares and Pruning Hooks. All four involve discussions for which many dispensationalists wonder if literal interpretation of the prophets is being undermined, even if in some cases there are some positive features to discuss. The use of the OT in the NT continues to be one of the most important issues in evangelicalism, not just for dispensationalism. How integration is done across the testaments shows quickly where the pockets of differences exist between covenant theology, progressive dispensationalism, and traditional dispensationalism. The importance of such an issue cannot be overstated. However, one of my concerns was to ask whether traditionalists have said enough or if there are further issues we need to address. The final topic of dispensational understanding of the New Covenant addresses the issue where traditionalists may disagree with each other the most. The goal was to discover why we disagree among ourselves so much. All in all, this collection of six issues provided the basis of our first steps in launching our conversation.
What did we accomplish? By and large the most solid accomplishment was that we were actually talking to each other. The networking involved was important. Beyond that I think the issues that were presented (especially the first four) elevated issues to consideration that many of us had not really been thinking about in a concrete way. At this level I considered this a success to the point that it would be worth pursuing a second council the following year. However, in my judgment our overall exploration of the issues was below what we could have done. It could be that these issues were somewhat new to many of us. One specific issue will serve to illustrate my point. In the matter of speech act theory, we were almost unanimous in our negative assessment. Bob Thomas gave a useful presentation to initiate this discussion. I agree with Bob’s overall paper. I see little value in using the categories of speech act theory in labeling what is going on in various texts. When we made a public statement of our thoughts on speech act theory on our website, feedback came to us from one nondispensationalist that we did not understand speech act theory. Dave Fredrickson’s follow-up paper the next year was helpful in giving more perspective. In hindsight I think we were trusting Sandy’s use of the categories too much and should have done more homework in the theorists. In short, our work during the first council showed that we still had much to do and that our thinking through of some issues would take more time. Even if our conclusions are right, we must be as thorough as we can in our reasoning so that our responses will have the maximum credibility.
The Future of the CDH and Dispensationalism
In light of the fact that I am neither a prophet or the son of a prophet, any predictions that I make in this section should definitely be taken as implicitly conditional! I do not know what is to come although trends obviously track in certain directions.
First, although the council is dedicated to studying hermeneutics and theological method through various topics and case studies, we must never lose our desire to think about practical application. That is one of the advantages of having pastors as observers. The pastors need to hear what the teachers are saying in wrestling with what the Academy seems to be discussing. However, the council members need to hear what the pastors are saying as well. The pastor’s panel on Thursday night is an attempt to put this forward. If dispensationalism is truly a movement primarily in the churches which is not driven only by the Academy, then the need to do our work thinking about church application is imperative. The end product of our deliberation matters at the local church level. It is not something just for journals and books as we talk to ourselves, although such books and journals are also necessary.
A corollary of this point should be considered. As a group we should support church planting. The formation of new churches that are dispensational is one way of spreading dispensational truth. In the fourth century, Jerome famously said that “the whole world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian.” Although I am not comparing our movement to a heretical group of folks, the sentiment is important. I want the people of the world to wake up one day and find that they are surrounded by dispensational churches. Long ago our seminary established a church-planting emphasis in our Master of Divinity program. We partner with local churches to train men in church planting by actually starting other churches. All of us as we represent the schools and churches should be leaders in advancing this cause. If we may learn from the history of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, the liberals (supposedly after their victory) were busy doing social action and reading books. In the meantime, fundamentalists planted churches and took a large part of the strategic battlefield.
Related to this is the need for existing dispensational churches to add evangelistic zeal to hermeneutical sharpness, historical awareness, and doctrinal integrity. Our council can play a positive role in all of these. It may be easier for us to think about the last three. However, our churches need also to be concerned about lost souls and not just the eschatology charts we produce. When I was a college student, I was searching for spiritual peace as I would have described it. If someone would have mentioned dispensationalism to me at that time, I would have thought he was talking about a disease. However, thanks to a local church that was doctrinally sound and aggressively evangelistic at the same time, I came to the Lord and advanced in my sanctification as a knowledgeable dispensationalist.
Second, I would like for us to be known for what we are for and not just what we are against. We are against replacement theology, covenant theology, amillennialism, postmillennialism, preterism, general unorthodoxy of any kind, and bad hermeneutics and weak theological method, to name a few. It is important that we speak against certain things. However, we need to learn to voice these in a positive way as well. We are for taking God’s Word at face value as He meant it when He gave it. We are also for the hermeneutical autonomy of the Old Testament, the national and political promises to the nation of Israel, the future hope we have when Jesus comes to make all things right (premillennialism), theology that is grounded in exegesis, the Church’s wonderful place in God’s economy, interpretation in light of progressive revelation, the central role that Jesus plays in all of redemptive history, etc. Of all of the things we are for, we probably have our worst reputation on grounding our views in exegesis. Nondispensationalists sometimes say we do not do this well. Often this is an unfair criticism. Nonetheless, there are times I hear dispensationalists argue from the vantage point of our “system.” While that has value in certain contexts, sometimes we leave the impression that such arguments are the only arguments we have or are the best arguments to use. We must remove this criticism by becoming excellent exegetes who know how to build systematic theology on the actual intended meaning of the text. We do this well in the Old Testament when promises to Israel are at stake. Let’s do this universally throughout the whole Bible and all of theology. We cannot let the covenant interpreters be the best exegetes.
Third, I want to emphasize the need to recognize the diversity among us. We are not clones of Darby, Scofield, Chafer, or even Ryrie – not that mimicking such great men would be a bad thing. As we approach our work in the future, we must continue to provide an atmosphere where we are all brothers in Christ and in dispensational truth who can discuss biblical passages and issues without fear of losing those friendships. Just because we may disagree in the minutiae it does not follow that we are radically different. We share a rather substantial continuity with each other in the area of hermeneutics and theological method. We possess a host of similar concerns. So in this balance between what our movement currently is and how we handle the details, we must forge ahead with an alliance of like minds but with respect for our differences without allowing such divergence to create disunity.
Our final general observation is that we need to move ahead with an awareness of our weaknesses. I have already mentioned the need for planting more dispensational churches, but that is something that is not strictly the purview of this group. I also mentioned earlier our reluctance to take up the battlefield of linguistics. However, our greatest weakness may be in the area of publications that advance the cause of dispensationalism. At one time in the twentieth-century, a lot of textbooks, even for nondispensational schools, were written by traditional dispensationalists. To what extent is this true today? Perhaps my own personal analysis is incomplete, but I sense that we have some catching up to do. I applaud what Regular Baptist Press is trying to do. There are other publishers I could name who join in the joy of writing and publishing. But overall, we are far behind where we need to be in my judgment. One of the purposes of this council is to provide a forum where we can generate publications that will show that traditional dispensationalism is alive and well on planet earth.
For each possible topic that we choose to examine, hermeneutics and theological method should be at the forefront. We must analyze our arguments and not just come to our conclusions. We must hone our skills at advancing the cause of grammatical-historical interpretation in such a way that we can tell people why it is necessary to do so. Remember, we may be the last evangelicals defending inductive Bible study.
 Michael Stallard, “Is Dispensationalism Hurting American Political Policies in the Middle East?” in Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond edited by Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 461-62.