Category Archives: American Evangelicalism
I have just recently watched a couple of videos/interviews done by Pastor Jack Hibbs with Paul Wilkinson (here and here). Paul Wilkinson has his PhD from the University of Manchester in the UK; in fact he is an Associate Pastor of a church in the UK, where Christian Zionism is a central part of the teaching, apparently. His PhD, based upon what he has communicated in his interviews, is on what he calls Christian Palestinianism. What he is referring to is the impact that he believes, what he calls, ‘replacement theology,’ has had upon many Western evangelical and Reformed churches. The result being, for Wilkinson’s view, these churches have placed the Palestinians into the historic role of the Jews—the oppressed and victimized—and the Jews into the place of the victimizer. His main focus is on the mainline denominations involved in the divestment movement, a move to not have any dealings with any Israeli businesses, with the hope of engaging in a type of economic terrorism on what these churches consider Israel to be; an apartheid state.
But the primary premise of Wilkinson’s critique is a theological hermeneutical one. He lays all of the blame for this at the feet of the Covenantal amillennial approach. He asserts that this interpretive lens requires that the adherents of this view believe that the church has replaced Israel; as such, and if this is so, he maintains that as a result of this belief it makes it easy to continue to elevate Israel as the enemy of Christ, and all those who fit into the oppressed category in the world. One might discern that Wilkinson sees replacement theology as a framework wherein ‘Israel’ becomes a symbol for what it means to be oppressed rather than an actual people who have been and are being oppressed and persecuted by the world.
I agree with Wilkinson, that any move to see Israel as an apartheid state, and consequently attempt to ‘divest’ from any engagement with the nation of Israel as a result of this is folly. What I don’t agree with Wilkinson on is that so called ‘replacement theology’ is the necessary culprit. In fact I would contend that most mainline churches don’t elevate scripture to this sort of authoritative level when it comes to constructing their ethical framework. In other words, so called ‘replacement theology’ is not even on the radar of most mainline thinkers; they have other theopolitical theories afloat in their universe, something more along the lines of a neo-Marxism or Democratic Socialism.
And the churches who are amillennial in approach (which Wilkinson maintains are churches that promote replacement theology) are typically quite evangelical and theologically conservative in every way. It’s just that they have found a hermeneutical framework—usually covenantal—that leads them to the eschatological belief that the church historical has held for millennia. This in itself does not speak to the veracity of the amillennial interpretive lens, but it does, at minimum suggest, or it should, that there is a greater more careful sobriety to this teaching than Wilkinson wants it to have. He can’t lay all the evils of the nations towards Israel at the feet of the amillennial interpretation; as if it is the church and Christendom against the nation of Israel. Indeed, historically, many, if not most amillennialists have not held to what Wilkinson et al. claim. Amillennialists are not ‘replacement theologians,’ this is a pejorative caricature, and sweeping generalization that does not withstand historical nor theological scrutiny.
Personally, I have moved back and forth between the amillennial and historic premillennial position over the last nine years (prior to that I was a card holding dispensationalist, of one stripe or another). At the moment I think the amil position makes the most sense. But I have never held to a ‘replacement theology’ in the midst of these views, nor is it incumbent upon me to do so. I do see Jesus as the reality of Israel, and all of scripture about Jesus, not Israel per se. But this is not so radical, at least not any more radical than what Jesus believed,
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, – John 5:39
Jesus maintained that the Hebrew Bible (indeed the only scriptures Israel had at that point) wasn’t intended to terminate in the nation of Israel, but instead it was intended to point to God’s terminus and telos for all of creation in his dearly beloved Son. This is why I see Jesus as ‘Israel,’ indeed a national Jew, but the One for the many in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. He went to the Jews first, and then the Gentiles; as did the Apostle Paul. The basis of the New Covenant, and what we have as the Apostolic Depositum in the New Testament writings, is indeed a very Jewish ground; a ground not superseded by the church, but a ground nonetheless that was and is and always will be about Jesus, the man from Nazareth. Within this reality, the reality of expansion, the Jew and the Gentile have become one new human (Eph. 2:1-12) in the new creation of God in Christ. Within this reality the promises made to the fathers (Rom. 11:29) indeed are irrevocable, and so it will be. But this does not mean that there are two distinct people of God, as Wilkinson’s view maintains (classic Dispensationalism); at least not according to the Apostle Paul, and the implications of the Abrahamic Covenant itself. What it does entail is that, again, Israel’s purpose was always one; to mediate God’s salvation to the nations. As such, there are certain promises made to the nation of Israel that indeed have been and will be fulfilled; it’s just that those promises are no longer seen as exclusive to the nation of Israel, but instead as exclusive to the Son of Israel, Jesus Christ. As such, all those who are participants in his life, the Jew from Nazareth, will also be partakers, along with the ‘fathers’, of the promises made originally to Abraham. I think though that it’s important to note: in Romans 4, the Apostle Paul made it very clear, as part of his argument, that the promises made to Abraham were prior to the circumcision; in other words, the promises themselves were not exclusive to the nation of Israel, but instead to the ‘seed’ (Gen. 3:15; 49:10) that the nation of Israel would mediate to and for the nations.
I think Paul Wilkinson, Jack Hibbs, and all the others who claim that ‘replacement theology’ is the vice they maintain that it is, should reconsider. For one thing replacement theology is almost a straw man these days; for another it involves a serious sweeping generalization that does not withstand critical scrutiny. Unfortunately it is these types of representations that continue to be made in large swaths of American evangelicalism (and British, to a lesser degree). I do agree that we ought to be more sensitive to the Jewish background and reality of the Christian faith, but we ought to allow that to be tempered by the fact that the ‘flesh’ itself is not the end, instead the God-man, Jesus Christ is. We cannot think of Jesus as non-Jewish, but in that, we ought also not think that his Jewishness is the terminus of God’s program; instead what is the terminus is the salvation that God has brought, in his Son, to all the nations.
Addendum: I will write a follow up post to this one where I make a distinction that Wilkinson, Hibbs, et al. do not make. Indeed, Wilkinson engages not only in the fallacy known as ‘sweeping generalization,’ but he also engages in the fallacy known as ‘reductionism’ and ‘caricature.’ He equivocates on the term ‘replacement theology’ and presumes, by assertion, that replacement theology and amillennialism are the same things; but they are aren’t. More importantly, and this is the distinction I’ll make in a later forthcoming post, Wilkinson fails to identify that most amillennialists, at least contemporary ones, are not supersessionists, and thus definitionally cannot be ‘replacement theologians’ who claim that the church has replaced or superseded the nation of Israel in God’s economy; this is utter rubbish and non-sense.
Here is something I wrote a few years ago, picked up by monergism.com:
The Amillennialist affirms that the people of Israel have not been cast off or replaced, but rather, that the Gentiles have now been included among the Jews in God’s Covenantal promises. In other words, not replacement but expansion. God’s redemptive plan, as first promised to Abraham, was that “all nations” would be blessed through him. Israel is, and always has been, saved the same as any other nation: by the promises to the seed, Christ. Amillennialists, do not believe in a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth after His second coming. Rather, they affirm that when Christ returns, the resurrection of both the righteous and wicked will take place simultaneously (see John 5), followed by judgment and and the eternal state where heaven and earth merge and Christ reigns forever.
Strong points of Amillennialism
* It is highly Christocentric: it makes Christ the center of all the biblical covenants (even the “Land” covenant or Siniatic)
* It notes the universal scope of the Abrahamic Covenant (as key) to interpreting the rest of the biblical covenants
* It sees salvation history oriented to a person (Christ), instead of a people (the nation of Israel)
* It emphasizes continuity between the “people of God” (Israel and the Church are one in Christ Eph. 2:11ff)
* It provides an ethic that is rooted in creation, and “re-creation” (continuity between God’s redemptive work now, carried over into the eternal state then)
* It emphasizes a trinitarian view of God as it elevates the “person”, Christ Jesus, the second person of the trinity as the point and mediator of all history
* It flows from a hermeneutic that takes seriously the literary character of the Scriptures (esp. the book of Revelation)
Many classic Dispensationalists say that amillennialists hold to what they call “replacement theology;” meaning that, as they say, amillers believe that the Church has replaced the promises made to Israel. In fact most amillers do not believe this. The ultimate reality is that Jesus fulfilled, as the Jew, “The Seed” the promises made to Abraham and Israel. So He is Israel, but of course not without the Nation. Dispies miss this all too frequently. Dispies, in many ways, function like the Jewish zealots of old did; they are looking for a political kingdom set up on earth, and a political Messiah. God’s intention has never been to be political.
Maybe you have grown up in a Covenantal system, amillennial in orientation. Maybe your idea of Dispensationalism goes as far as what you’ve heard of Left Behind “eschatology,” or if you’re a little older; Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. Usually when Covenant theologians want to disparage Dispensationalism the first few words out of their mouth will have “Left Behind” or Hal Lindsey in them. But to me, if a theologian or biblical interpreter wants to “critically” engage something, he or she should go to the strongest point, the strongest voices available; it is here where a constructive criticism can take place (that’s part of the goal of this blog here, to provide the best of the dispensational voices for critical engagement). In that vein I thought it would be helpful, as we get started here, to take a look at the etymology of the word Dispensation; and further, to catch a glimpse at how this word works as definitive of the Dispensational system. To help us out, let me refer to one of those most prominent voices available, in the 20th century, in regards to articulating the tenets of Dispensational thought; here’s Charles Ryrie on the etymology of “Dispensation”:
The English word dispensation is an Anglicized form of the Latin dispensatio, which the Vulgate uses to translate the Greek word. The Latin verb is a compound, meaning “to weigh out or dispense.” Three principal ideas are connected to the meaning of the English word: (1) “The action of dealing out or distributing”; (2) “the action of adminstering, ordering, or managing: the system by which things are administered”; and (3) “the action of dispensing with some requirement.” In further defining the use of the word theologically, the same dictionary says that a dispensation is “a stage in a progressive revelation, expressly adapted to the needs of a particular nation or period of time. . . . Also, the age or period during which a system has prevailed. . . .”
The Greek word oikonomia comes from the verb that means to manage, regulate, administer, and plan. The word itself is a compound whose parts mean literally “to divide, apportion, administer or manage the affairs of an inhabited house.” In the papyri the officer (oikonomos) who administered a dispensation was referred to as a steward or manager of an estate, or as a treasurer. Thus the central idea in the word dispensation is that managing or administering the affairs of a household.
The Usage of the Word
The various forms of the word dispensation appear in the New Testament twenty times. The verb oikonomeo is used once in Luke 16:2, where it is translated “to be a steward.” The noun oikonomos appears ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) and is usually translated “steward” or “manager” (but “treasurer” in Rom. 16:23). The noun oikonomia is used nine times (Luke 16:2, 3, 4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4). In these instances it is translated variously (“stewardship,” “dispensation,” “administration,” “job,” “commission”). (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 25)
And for a concise and too simple of a definition of Dispensationalism as a system of thought here is Ryrie quoting from the Scofield Reference Study Bible:
A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture. (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 23)
This should provide a little more thickness of understanding for those who know nothing of dispensational theology. It has serious students who spent their whole lives in Evangelical seminaries in America (primarily) devleoping and articulating it for the masses. The basic idea of dispensationalism is that it is a “stewardship” and “testing” that God gives to man during a period of time in the progressive unfolding of salvation history; once man (like the Nation of Israel) fails at keeping the requirements of a specific dispensation, this triggers the start of a new dispensation provided by God for man to “steward.” This turns into 7 distinct cycles for the Classic and Revised Dispensationalist (and 4 cycles for the Progressive Dispensationalist — and for the PD there is actually a fluidity to the dispensations so that they build on each other like the Covenants in “Covenant Theology” — more on this later). We will, in the near future, outline the 7 dispensations that make-up Classic dispyism, and then also take a look at the 4 dispensations identified by Progressive Dispensationalists.
For most people, and American Evangelicals, who do not inhabit the environs of the bibliosphere; or who will never set foot in the hallowed halls of seminaries, like it or not, it is this kind of theology that still provides shape (interpretively) for most of them. Most Evangelicals don’t know a lick about N. T. Wright’s reification of Pauline Studies and New Testament Biblical Theology; they get dispensational premillennial pre-trib teaching Sunday in-Sunday out. In light of this I think it is important for theology and Bible students to still be sensitive to this reality (culturally), and understand the impact that this has had (and is having, less and less — simply because “self-help” sermons predominate Evangelical sermons nowadays more than back in the Ryrie days etc.). Again, that’s what is motivating me to write this blog in some ways. To try and be informative. To be critical of dispy, but also try to represent it fairly; especially for those who really know nothing of it. More to come . . .