In honour of my birthday (today! don’t worry, I pre-scheduled this post) I’m kicking off my series on Premillennial views. For more, see the opening post: Premillennialism interviews.
Here is the first of a two-part interview with Dr. Paul Henebury, president of Telos Biblical Institute. Henebury also blogs regularly at Dr. Reluctant. Henebury has answered my questions with a lot of depth and clarity, so I decided to split this interview into two parts. Read Part two.
Interview with Paul Henebury on Dispensationalism (part 1)
First off, I would like to make it clear that I do not think eschatology should be a term reserved simply to describe the End Times. The fact of the matter is the End (eschaton) is wrapped up in the Beginning. Therefore my interest in eschatology is indivisible from my love of theology generally. But more of that further on.
My introduction to, and my interest in eschatology stems from just before I was saved. My manager at my place of work handed me a book about the prophecies pertaining to Christ in the Old Testament which I found fascinating. I had before read Nostrodamus’s quatrains, so I was quickly made aware of the big difference between the biblical prophecies and his vague prognostications.
Sometime after I became a Christian (in 1985) someone gave me the book The Meaning of the Millennium edited by Robert Clouse. I read the book, and even though I can’t say that I understood it all, I found myself perplexed by the three non-dispensational views. Not that the Dispensationalist, Herman Hoyt’s, presentation fully convinced me, but I felt it was the best rooted of the four in what God actually said. I guess my reading of the Bible up to that point (I read it avidly from day one), led me to expect the sort of picture set out by Hoyt.
Describe your journey to Dispensationalism, did you ever hold a different position?
Actually no. Such an admission might cause some folks to question whether I’m a theological ostrich; planting my head in the ground for fear of what’s out there. But I have read more non-dispensationalist authors than those with whom I agree on this issue. This is particularly the case in the last fifteen years or so. Before then I would have to say I was a rough-hewn dispensationalist before I knew what one was.
I made the rounds of Pentecost and Walvoord and Ryrie and McClain. I appreciate them all, but, as I say, I don’t like thinking about eschatology as something that comes after you’ve considered everything else. I think that’s wrong-headed. For me the eschatology of the Bible is twinned with the teleology of the Bible. Teleology refers to the purpose of Creation. Eschatology is the movement to the consummation of that purpose. Hence, for me they are two sides of the same coin.
You have been called “Dr. Reluctant” because you are both a “strong adherent and dismayed critic“ of Dispenationalism. Could you explain this a little?
It’s hard for me to explain it a little! Let me set out my “reluctance” and agreement using bullet points:
- Traditional Dispensationalists have spent the last generation or so gazing at their navels. They have not taken seriously the fact that all theological systems are mans attempts to describe God’s truth; and for that reason they must never be considered sacrosanct. Theological systems are attempts, more or less successful, to comprehend the entirety of God’s revelation. But they are not the same as that revelation. It is vital to say this, because there is always the danger that our systems will start dictating to the Bible what it can and can’t mean. When that happens, the Bible is no longer the ultimate authority.Sometimes I feel that Dispensationalists think they have no more work to do, other than to figure out where antichrist is to arise! They have not worked to “improve” (to use a good Puritan term) their system. That baffles me. I am also sometimes embarrassed by what Dispensationalists do. The ‘Left Behind’ band wagon leaves me cold. God’s Truth is never to be made into pulp fiction for pragmatic reasons.
- At the same time Dispensational scholars have produced some excellent works which make sense of a lot of Scripture without reliance upon “deeper” meanings. Although they have tragically limited their efforts to two main areas; those of the Last Things and the Church, their asking “what does the text say?” seems to me to be the primary question that continually needs to be asked.
- Finally, I firmly believe that defining oneself by such nebulous and erratic things as “dispensations” is the theological equivalent to shooting oneself in the foot. Not only is there no solid coherence between what one means by “dispensation” when speaking of “Conscience” and then of “Human Government” and then of “Promise” – three very different concepts – but you can’t do much with a dispensation once you’ve described it because, well, you’ve described it! I believe these “stewardships” are there, but you can’t produce anything constructive from them. You can’t build a Worldview out of them.
It is far better to go to the covenants God has revealed in the Bible and fasten the rest of biblical teaching onto them. That way one does not lose the gains of Dispensational Premillennialism, but a fully-fledged system of theology and biblical worldview can also be produced. That is one of the things I am trying to at Telos Theological Ministries.
Despite your concerns with Dispensationalism, why are you not a Progressive Dispensationalist?
Questions like this are hard to answer briefly, but I’ll try.
Although they strive for more continuity between the Testaments, which is commendable, the tool Progressive Dispensationalists use to fashion it (complementary hermeneutics), and the resulting edifice do not commend themselves to me. Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) is a different animal than traditional Dispensationalism.
To give three examples:
- The reign of the Davidic King Jesus today would be discontinuous with OT prophetic teaching, which puts Christ on the throne of Israel after His Second Coming. Now I realize that the OT combines the two comings of Christ (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; Mic. 5:2-4). But Jesus Himself showed that they should be separated (Isa. 61:1-2a with Lk. 4:17-21). Furthermore, the Parable of the Minas in Lk. 19:11-27 would lead us to expect the eschatological Davidic kingdom, not at the first advent, but after the Master returns. In point of fact, that was the very reason the parable was given (Lk. 19:11). Just like some OT prophecies, we see the squashing together of the first and second advents at the Lord’s Supper, but the kingdom relates to the second coming (e.g. .Lk. 22:18). The absence of any mention of Christ’s session as king in the strongly Eschatological Book of Hebrews (though He is High Priest), is inexplicable if He is reigning now. And a look at any newspaper lends little credence to a reign of Christ today.
- For me, the “complementary hermeneutics” of PD, which owes so much to George E. Ladd, is too theologically charged; too deductive. Minute exegesis can give way to theological concerns too easily. I really don’t like the present threefold descriptions of hermeneutics where the grammatical context is informed by the supposed context of the author’s larger purpose in the Book, which is in turn informed by the whole Bible as a “context.” This is open to manipulation. It permits the interpreter to override the original context whenever he likes. His “mastery” of the whole Bible permits it. I do not wish to denounce anyone who disagrees with me. I speak only for myself. But this approach seems quite question-begging, and it introduces the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture too early in the process. Each text must initially be left alone to say what it says before another text is forced on it as its escort. Non-dispensationalist approaches, including PD, do this. There is more to say but let me quickly move to a third reason I cannot embrace PD.
- Although I appreciate the work of Saucy, Blaising, Bock and others (I might give particular mention to Carl B. Hoch and his book All Things New), I simply cannot get on board with their notion of the one undifferentiated people of God in the New Creation. This appears to me to give the lie to the whole biblical motif of the covenant-making God, and I see no reason for it. The covenants are clear and they cannot be altered by us to conform to our chronological perspective. This problem extends to their understanding of the Church as a mystery, which for them, though scarcely comprehended by OT saints, was nonetheless a latent concept in the OT. For PDs, the Church was “a new thing” but not a new revelation. This appears to be an interpretation driven by a concern for continuity more than by Paul’s teaching (esp. Col. 1:26-27). As I see it, continuity is usually looked for in the wrong place, by Dispensationalists as well as PDs and other groups. I agree with PDs that there is one New Covenant and that it was made with the Church (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:25-26). But that is because Jesus Christ is the New Covenant (cf. Isa. 49:8), and everything that will enter the glorious kingdom must pass through Him. But what passes through the New Covenant in Christ does not cease to be what it was, it’s just brought to consummation.
Many thanks to Dr. Paul Henebury for his thorough answers. Expect the second part of his interview on Monday the 15th.