I have been asked from time to time, about dispensationalism. It makes me wonder. Why is it so important to people either way–pro or con? To me it never was a major thing. Is there a future for ethnic Israel? What does it matter to me now either way? Won’t I be embarrassed to find out I have been wrong? But who will lack that kind of embarrassment, and why should one really follow the philosophy of making decisions predicated on the avoidance of future embarrassments of which one can’t have complete certainty in avoiding? I’m not going to waste my life on that tactic. But the whole interpretation of Scripture hangs on it! Well, if it does, then that explains why I’m not a dispensationalist, because I don’t think even as a hermeneutical issue it works out to that much, though I have known those who think so.
I was happy to operate as a dispensationalist within those circles while there; I didn’t leave because I thought it was dissatisfactory. I went along, and when otherwise I was happy to see if I could operate otherwise because I don’t believe the main point of Scripture ever was to give us a map of the end times, or even to tell us about Israel itself. To me it was St. Augustine of old who put his finger on the hermeneutical key to Scripture: Scripture exists to reveal God to me and to show me what he requires of me. Every part of Scripture has this in view, and anything beside this is of lesser importance. Does it show us something about Egyptian culture and learning? It does, but that is not what it exists to do. The details of Israel’s history are incidental as well, in that light. The literal interpretation is only the beginning of getting where you need to go. We can study Scripture to learn about first century Corinth, but believers can learn greater things.
That is why eventually I stopped believing the Bible gives us a map of the end times. They do not matter beside the four last things. Even if the end times should be mapped out in Scripture, a map of the end times is not the point: the point is that we should understand who God is and live accordingly. If there is no spiritual profit from the text to me, not indirectly as a derivative long after the main point, as a kind of by-product, then the interpretation has gone wrong. I believe that, and I really doubt that most Christians disagree about it. You can still get the hard-core dispensationalist, I suppose, who denies it (when they will ask if Christ is really in all of Scripture, for example), but they practice no winsome or reasonable dispensationalism–just one reduced by a madness of consistency driven by the meagerest level of information obtainable.
Not that I haven’t been exposed to the hard core. I have had a teacher tell me that because the author of Hebrews was “under inspiration” he did things with Scripture we cannot emulate. To me this is ridiculous. Silly idea of inspiration, ignorance of interpretation, fabulous notion of how the writers of Scripture (teachers in the early church) operated, ridiculous. I lump that in with the hard core because it seems a defense at all costs. One of the hermeneutical arguments advanced by some dispensationalists of more advanced hermeneutic than that above is that the meaning of the OT cannot be governed by the NT but remains stable so that the NT is interpreted in light of the Old. Now I don’t think reasonable dispensationalists will say the behavior of the writers of the NT is unusual because they’re “under inspiration” but the spiritualization (yes, spiritual meanings are primarily what I seek from the Word of God, they are not secondary) of the OT the NT authors do will be explained with elaborate explanations. And everybody has elaborate explanations, but the hard core of dispensationalism with two New Covenants and all that, never attracted me.
I believe the OT gestures in terms of a people and a land and a place at spiritual realities which are the real objects promised. I believe this because I’m a metaphysical realist, I believe it because I have learned to read poetry (I don’t say it to irritate, but when I’m asked by people in the circles I’m in what helped me switch I always say that learning to read poetry did), I believe that because it is to me the only obvious argument from wonder–that God intends more wonderfully than can be expressed, that all expression underreports the glory of the promise and cannot be taken literally, even the expression of great poets which is the only just way to report. The people of God are those who in all ages are joined to Christ, and there is nothing higher or greater or intended beyond that because it is a great, magnificent thing not to be degraded and chopped and dispersed (you will see that if the problem is with me, it is that I can’t imagine how it can be, there is no suggestion of a viable imagination available to me, and I lack all desire for one; nor am I a proselytizer: if you can’t see what I see and see it with what you do, splendid–I think something fundamentally different from me and my age is that I’m not a proselytizer–for example, I’m for my age an evangelism heretic believing there is no personal responsibility, rather a corporate one). Jerusalem gestures at that, a city, a true community beyond all physical possibility. It is a spiritual entity and whether or not it has a precise location in the world of objects to me is irrelevant. It will BE: already existing and yet hoped for in utter splendor, not concrete actuality.
It may be no more than an aesthetic argument, but to me those are the best. I have long deplored explanations which begin with: this just means or this is simply saying. What an ugly approach! I have to wonder about inspiration if it means this is just an accurate report, rather than this is a wondrous and wondrously true. I don’t want a plodding religion, so I’m not going to believe in that, and I think dispensationalism was easy for me to leave because I never was able to see it as wondrous: from the plodding to the sensationalized, no real wonder. Sensationalism is lethal to it because sensationalism is not something really interesting, but an artificial addendum. And plodding to me is lethal because what is divine about the plodding and the pedestrian? When our Lord walked among us, he went on water! If it doesn’t really mean anything that could possibly make a human heart rejoice to have to do with God, if I can’t see that, what good does it do me?
Tozer was a dispensationalist, I know, and I learned from him. You know what I learned from him? He wouldn’t get into the map of the end times, but preached what was not plodding and was full of wonder. What I found him doing as he preached through Revelation was ignoring dispensational concerns, making offhand remarks about not giving people answers to questions about who the two witnesses were, saying he hoped we didn’t have to go through the tribulation but was afraid we would as an aside, no more (thereby showing he was a mid-tribulational pre-millennialist, but the only way I found that out was an aside) and relegating the map of the end times to relative unimportance, speaking of spiritual realities: who God is and how we are to walk with him in the present. True nourishment, true gratitude for what I heard, true insight received, true satisfaction.
Let a dispensationalist arise who does not plod and does not sensationalize, who can demonstrate the importance not of literal interpretation, which is a base for all responsible interpretation as can be seen by the interchangeable use of books on hermeneutics and commentaries, and really depends on what you make of it to achieve more, but of a dispensational scheme not monotonously predictable (as if God’s predictions could be predictable, and yet that is what they’re reduced to) and the stifling of any heart-drawing wonder, and I would glance over with interest.
What is interesting? We live in a world stripped of the consciousness of what is interesting. That you scientists and objective blokes and dull-witted unsighted teachers, meager purveyors of that which is slight and no more. Bach knew what was interesting, poetry seeks to see it and is not dull to it, Scripture is interesting because it goes to ultimates, it speaks of God who is the heart of all interesting things, by whom all things that are interesting are made interesting, author of the wonder of being, who manifests his own awe-inspiring mystery in revealing himself at the depths of all creation. What is interesting is what is seen beyond the objects of sensual perception, beyond the facts, the literal facts. And for me dispensationalism was disposable because it failed to suggest anything beyond. Gates of literal pearls? How common. Just exaggerated, grotesque jewels like so much bling. You can cry out loud all day about the what Scripture literally says, but I walk away when they told me what it means because I cannot conceive it means merely what it literally says. It speaks of liminal space and an ENTRANCE–but that is all spiritual.
Still, it does not have to be that way. I could listen to the expositions I heard and walk away thinking otherwise, and all responsible hearers do so in any circles. However, I think for those to whom it doesn’t, there is no real difference; that for those dispensationalists dispensationalism doesn’t really matter. They only look through it to the glory, and the glory is all. If literal hermeneutics means don’t look beyond, then I am out. And if it doesn’t, how much important dispensationalism is really left? I’m not myself seeing a whole lot. So there you have it.