Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Primer and Comparison on Classic Dispenationalism and Amillennialism

This post is my inaugural one that will be dealing with a comparison between Dispensational Premillennialism and Amillennialism. This post represents one of many posts that I will be doing in a loose-leaf series kind of way (in another words, sporadic) on a concern that largely is an un-concern for many of the types of folk I generally engage with in Christian academia. In other words, this issue has really become more of an idiosyncratic one that a certain subset of American Evangelicals (usually) emphasize in their biblical interpretive strategies. So consider me an idiosyncratic American Evangelical when it comes to this, especially when I do posts on the finer nuances of the respective systems of interpretation (for that is what these are). My hope though, in the process of doing posts on this topic, is that I can somewhat de-idiosyncratize this issue by framing it in such a way that my personal and rather amorphous 'Christ-conditioned' biblical hermeneutic will bubble over; such that what is at the heart of this 'idiosyncratic issue' (e.g. biblical interpretation/hermeneutics) will become significant relative to framing the finer points of discerning a difference between the philosophy of interpretation that either leads to adopting a system that is Dispensational, or not.

A Classic Dispensational Chart (click on for larger view)
With that ground cleared lets get into it. As a caveat, I have been in some recent correspondence with a brother from my church; and he is interested (and curious) about the differences between classic Dispensationalism (which is what our church denomination teaches from, in general, i.e. Calvary Chapels) and Amillennialism---and then of course the finer nuances that characterize such systems of interpretation, such as: views on the so called 'Tribulation' period (for Dispensational Premillennialists those range from Pre-Tribulational, Mid, and Post and then there is Pre-Wrath for good measure); concerns about the Kingdom 'Now & Not-Yet'; etc. So understand that as I write posts (this one included), I will have my friend in mind (who hasn't had really any exposure to any of these, except for the subconscious teaching that he has received on it, which is informed by a Dispensational lens). And I am sure that as I have him in mind, that his questions and curiosities are representative of a whole host of you readers 'out there'.

Now let's get into it. For this first post, let me just highlight (off the top) some general differences between Premil classic Dispensationalism (CD), and Amillennialism (A):

  • CD "supposedly" follows a literal method of biblical interpretation. Meaning that they take the plain sense meaning of words in their 'plain sense' until taking them in their plain sense becomes non-sensical. 
  1. A is usually purported to follow a allegorical or symbolic ('type/anti-type') method of biblical interpretation. Which for some of its history is true, but not all of its history. I will argue (suggestively on the blog) that A actually is follows a more consistently literal method of biblical interpretation than does CD.
  • CD believes, in general, that there is a hard distinction between Israel and the Church (in fact this is probably the sine qua non of what identifies someone as Dispensational, even Progressive Dispensationalists); such that ethnic Israel are God's so called 'earthly people' to whom all the promises were made (like the 'Land Covenant' etc.), and that prophetic history is oriented and directly and solely about the Nation of Israel. And CD sees the Church as God's Heavenly People who are only being included in his salvation as a parenthesis in his 'real' prophetic plan of salvation which is for the Nation of Israel (e.g. so if you were to think of God's plan for prophetic and salvation history in terms of a 'sentence', the Nation of Israel is the subject of the whole sentence, but because of their rejection of their Messiah [initially at his first coming], God interrupts his plan, his sentence, and inserts a parenthesis into his sentence (an after-thought, to be crude)---that parenthesis is the so called 'Church Age' and Dispensation of Grace. Once the full number of Gentiles (and some Jews) come into the fold, during this season, they will be snatched (raptured) out of the world, and God can return his focus back on his primary plan of salvation which only for the Nation of Israel). 
  1. A holds that the two peoples, Jew and Gentile, have been made one new man in Christ (Ephesians 2:11ff); and thus God does not have two peoples, but one, and that those peoples find their ground for their humanity in the vicarious humanity of Christ (note, my redressing of Amillennialism will be nuanced by my own appropriation of it---in general, by way of framework, I am consistently thinking from within the Amillennial purview, I will just shape and nuance things per my own theological thinking (Evangelical Calvinism). So prophetic and salvation history, for the A, is actually totally and completely about Jesus Christ. The implication of this being that prophetic and salvation history is all about ALL of Humanity, since Jesus is God for us!
  • CD believes that we God relates to humanity through 7 Dispensations (or economies). And that these relationships are cyclical, such that once a particular group finally biffs an economy up so bad (the arrangement God had set up with them, to relate to them---which is preceded by his judgment); then this screw up initiates another cycle. So, for example, we went from a time of Law to a time of Grace (between part of the OT and NT); since Israel messed it up so bad, this in turn initiated God's next Dispensation of Grace, wherein God now relates to humanity in the Church. But once the time of 'Apostasy' comes to fruition (referenced in the Epistles to Timothy), then this will initiate the turn to the Dispensation, again, preceded by judgment which is what the 'Great Tribulation' represents.
  1. A believes that God relates to humanity by overarching Covenants. This is a point where I will distinguish myself from the regular Amillennial approach, which is usually framed through Federal or Covenant Theology; the former being a special kind of Covenant theology. Classic Covenant Theology sees God relating to humanity through a Covenant of Works (which he initiated with Adam and Eve in the Garden), and Covenant of Grace. The former is one that is conditional and based upon obedience to God's Law; since Adam and Eve failed, this plunged humanity into an irreparable situation and a penalty was now required to be paid for the 'Law-breaking'. This is remedied by the Covenant of Grace, wherein Jesus comes for an elect group of people (that God arbitrarily had already elected in eternity past) for whom he pays their penalty (death---passively), and fulfills the conditions of the Law for them (actively). This is usually the hermeneutical schema used for framing A through (in the classic way). But for reasons that go beyond this post (and which I have already elaborated upon, substantially), I will not get further into critiquing this position. In Contrast:   I follow a Covenantal scheme as well. Yet, my scheme only has the Covenant of Grace, which its inner reality is God's life (its outer is exemplified in creation); such that God's life and choice for humanity (including the initial act of creation) is all based in his life of other-centeredness, which is definitive of his inner Trinitarian life of love (which I have already discussed at length at the blog here as well). This is the 'Covenantal' scheme that I think from, just to be clear. And this whole point to highlight, that A, in general, is much different in orientation to biblical interpretation than is CD. The primary thing of note here is that, I will argue, that CD's biblical interpretation is given shape by a Nation (Israel); while A is, in general, given biblical interpretive shape by a Person (Jesus Christ). I will get more into this later, as I relate this to my so called 'Christ-conditioned' hermeneutic, which I have posted a bit on already here at the blog. 
  • CD believes that the promised Davidic Kingdom (cf. II Sam. 7) will only 'LITERALLY' be fulfilled in the future earthly 1000 year reign of Christ. Which is one of the reasons CD must have a yet future fulfillment of the Davidic Kingdom; because they believe it is only applicable for the the Nation of Israel. So this also will tie into their need for a Pre-Tribulational view of the Tribulation options. Further, CD interprets Revelation 20 and the thousand years there as a literal-sequential time frame.
  1. A holds that the Davidic Kingdom has been inaugurated at the first coming of Jesus; through the shedding of his blood and the establishment of the New Covenant. They interpret the thousand years of Revelation 20 through an apocalyptic genre lens leading to the conclusion (given the numerous usages of the multiple of 10 in Revelation and gematria as a 1st century interpretive method) that this should be understood symbolically or  figuratively of the current period we inhabit between the first and second comings of Jesus. So A believes that there is a two-age model of the Kingdom, i.e. the "Now/Not-Yet" aspects. 
  • CD holds to a Pretribulational theory of the rapture. Meaning that they believe prior to the the last week of Daniel's so called '70 Weeks'---which is the 7 year period often referenced when thinking about the future tribulation period---the Church will be snatched out or raptured out of this world, this ending the Church Age, and initiating the time of "Jacob's Trouble" (Jer. 3), and/or "The Great Tribulation". CD needs this mechanism (Pre-Trib) in order to remove the Heavenly People from the earth, so that God can get back to dealing with his Earthly People, ethnic Israel. The Tribulation period, is primarily God's judgment on the Nation of Israel for their initial rejection of the Messiah; and yet, it will have universal ramifications causing God to judge the world, since they will rise up to try and destroy Israel and ultimately God (or "Armageddon"). They also argue that Christians are not appointed to God's wrath (cf. I Thess. 5:9), and since the Tribulation is representative of the "Lord's Day" and God's wrath, there is no reason for us (the Church) to be here. I will get into more of this later.
  1. A, in general, holds that 'The Great Tribulation' was historically in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD by Titus Vespasian of Rome. Yet, some also believe, that this is typological of an intensification of Tribulation that will encompass the whole globe up until the 'end'. This is how some As interpret the book of Revelation, through a progressive parallelism, such that each of the groupings of judgments (seals, trumpets etc.) are referencing the same thing; but at the same time they also represent an intensification of God's judgment and a Great Tribulation just prior to his coming. So, in general, As believe that we have been in Tribulation and will be, in intensifying ways, right up until the end (or beginning). I will be talking more about an interpretation of the book of Revelation, through Richard Bauckham later, which nuances this in a way that I really appreciate.
I think, as an opener, this will have to suffice. You can check out a comparison chart between Dispensationalism and Amillennialism (that I stole from Google images) below. I am not sure how 'ordered' my following posts on this will be---I might jump around on things---but I will be doing future posting on all of this. Primarily because I am buffeted with this stuff quite frequently in the circles which I inhabit, and so it prompts responses in me that I need to give voice somewhere. And since I don't have anywhere to teach real life people, I end up voicing my thoughts here ;-).

Comparsion Between Premil and Amil


  1. Bobby,

    Do you see a distinction between historic chiliasm (as in anti-Nicene) and historic dispensationalism? Is it possible to be a chiliast without necessarily being dispensational? I have some ideas about this, but will wade carefully in these waters…

    Good topic. Too bad you gave in to the dark side though! ;-)

  2. Daniel,

    Yes, most definitely, there is a difference between historic premil and dispy premil. The former actually interprets scripture very much so like an amil, except for of course the 1000 years in Revelation 20. While the dispy premil functions as I have sketched in this post. That said, a Progrssive dispy, which is what I affirmed for years is very similar to an historic premil; but they still press the distinction between Israel and the Church more than the historic premil. But unlike the classic dispy the progressive dispy makes the distinction between Israel and Church through functional terms; so that the distinction is'nt an ontological one like with the classic dispy, but simply a role distinction relative to their respective place in God's unfolding salvation history. I have a book,the standard one, on Progressive Dispy, by Blaising and Bock, if you are ever interested in reading it. There is also anoteapher book you should read called " A Case for Historic Premillennialism" edited by Craig Blomberg and someone else (you can actually listen to this whole book being presented by going to Denver Seminaries website--I'll find the link for you). What I'd really like you to read is Richard Bauckham's "The Theology of the Book of Revelation". I'd like to see you wrestle through that and see what you think after that. Daniel, I was as zealous of an advocate of Dispensational Theology than anyone you probably have ever met, and this in the relative recent past; I would have made you proud ;). I mean my education at Multnomah is steeped in Dispensational Theology! And from the best minds on this that you can come by; but it didn't hold. Even one of my former profs from seminary has said that he has repented of his advocacy of dipyism (although I think he is still premil). Anyway, I am only saying all this to say that I have been there and done that, and I can't imagine anything vhanging my mind at this point. If I ever did convert back it would be to historic premil, not dispy.

    As far as anti-Nicene premillers, like Irenaeus, I dont think there is anything that really proximates exactly the kind of premill the held. Todays historic premil is the closest, but given the advances of modern intrpretation, I just dont see anything like the Patristic premil stuff around today (only in principle). That book I mentioned on hoistoric premil gets into this, which is why you should read it.

    The only reason my position looks like the dark side to you is because my position is so much of the light (and thus bright), that it has blinded you ;-). I will pray that the Lord will give you eyes to see ;-) haha.

  3. Lol! Thanks for the gracious response Bobby. That conference from Denver Seminary looks pretty interesting; looking forward to listening to it!

    Now, the books...well, that's going to require an adjustment in my budget! By the way, I've heard good things about Bauckham's commentary on Revelation. The only problem is that people who read it end up Amil. That's dangerous! ;-)

    I appreciate your posts. Looking forward to the next one!

    1. Hey Daniel,

      Actually, I have been in correspondence with someone else from the church who is interested in this stuff. So I didn't have you in mind, primarily, but I knew you would be reading too :-).

      I ended up Amil before Bauckham's book---it took me years and years, really---but his book made it easier for me to finally admit what had been true for awhile ;-).

      I just finished the next one. I can tell you who I have been corresponding with by text or email, if you're curious :-).


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