Friday, July 11, 2008

Dispensational Men of Straw Demolished: 3

The question may be asked: "Why spend so long replying to a minor point in a post? Our answer is that the minor point opened up a Dispensationalist straw man that we are honour-bound to demolish, firstly to defend the great non-Dispensational theologians of the past and secondly to ensure that dispensationalists do not continue to repeat this false claim in future.

Not only is Mr. Phillips' argument that it is possible to claim that making the glory of God the centre of human history is a dispensationalist distinctive because non-dispensational writers appear at times in their writings to deny what they explicitly claim to believe elsewhere backed up by a non-sequitur, it is also an argument that could be used with devasting force against his own position. We could use Mr. Phillips’ reasoning to prove that C.I. Scofield did not believe that the centre of history was the glory of God. Let us quote the august editor:
“From beginning to end the Bible testifies to one redemption. From beginning to end the Bible has one great theme - the person and work of Christ.” (SRB 1917, introduction [not paginated])

Now we could say: “Look, Mr. Scofield says that the central theme of the Bible is the person and work of Christ. That work was the redemption of man, therefore, despite what Scofield may say elsewhere, he really believes that the centre of history is the redemption of man.” But that would be to miss the point and to misrepresent Scofield.

Or we could use the same argument to prove that the insistence on a single ‘literal’ or ‘normal’ hermeneutic without spiritualizing is not a dispensational distinctive because Dr. John MacArthur and CI Scofield are guilty of spiritualizing in Revelation 2 and 3 (3.10 in MacArthur’s case). Dr. John MacArthur, like all historic non-dispensational protestant theologians, holds these to be letters to seven literal historic Churches then existing in Asia Minor. But dispensational writers such as C.I. Scofield find a fourfold application to these letters: “1. Local, to the churches actually addressed; (2) admonitory, to all churches in all time as tests by which they may discern their true spiritual state in the sight of God; (3) Personal, in the exhortations to him “that hath an ear”, and in the promises “to him that overcometh; (4) prophetic, as disclosing seven phases of the spiritual history of the Church from, say, AD 96 to the end. It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the Church period there be no such fore view. These messages must contain that for view if it is in the book at all, for the church does not appear after 3.22.” (SRB p. 1331 Note 3)

This is certainly spiritualizing if there is such a thing, and even Dr. MacArthur does not escape its influence, for he says of Revelation 3.10, “this verse promises that the church will be delivered from the tribulation, thus supporting a pretribulation rapture.” (‘Because the Time is Near’, [Moody, 2007] P. 92). For Dr. MacArthur then to fault those with whom he disagrees for employing spiritualizing interpretation therefore reminds us of an old saying about pots and kettles. What Revelation 3.10 says is: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” It is directed to the Church at Philadelphia, which Dr. John MacArthur tells us, “The Christians in Philadelphia stood firm even after the region was overrun by the Muslims, until finally disappearing sometime during the fourteenth century.” (P. 89). Thus, even if we take the passage as applying to the Church at Philadelphia throughout its history, the stubborn fact remains that there is no church there, though there would have to be to support MacArthur’s interpretation unless he is in fact spiritualizing the passage, so that ‘Church at Philadelphia’ really means ‘faithful Christians alive at the time of the Great Tribulation’. Unless we come to this text with a pre-existing idea (like that to which Scofield confesses in the quotation above), we would suppose that the passage refers to a great empire-wide persecution in the first or second centuries. The phrase translated ‘the whole world’ is the same one found in Luke 2.1 and Acts 11.28, so unless you want to insist that Caesar Augustus wanted to tax the whole globe, and that the famine affected the whole globe, you have to admit that it means ‘the whole empire’ in those places, and therefore there is no reason to take it as meaning anything else here. The ’plain sense’ of Revelation 3.10 is that the church at Philadelphia would be kept from an imminent empire-wide persecution. This makes sense, so why must Scofield and MacArthur seek another sense? If you will pardon the pun, that does not make sense.

Mr. Andrew Fuller, in his commentary on Revelation, writes: “Some have considered these churches as prophetically representing the different states of the Church at large under the Gospel dispensation. There is no doubt that analogies may be found between them, but it appears to me that the hypothesis is unfounded… Instead of considering the epistles to the seven churches either as prophetic or as descriptive of the church at large as it then was, I should rather consider them as descriptive of the state of those seven churches as they then were.” (Works of Andrew Fuller [Sprinkle, 1988] Vol. 3 P. 210). The Puritan Matthew Poole agrees: “The epistles concerning matters of faith and manners are written plainly, not in mysterious expressions.” (Commentary on the Holy Bible [Banner of Truth, 1963] Vol. 3. P. 953). And Dr. Adam Clarke, the great Wesleyan commentator, is extremely strong in expressing his opinion of those who spiritualize the seven churches: “I do not perceive any metaphorical or allegorical meaning in the epistles to these churches. I consider the churches as real; and that their spiritual state is here really and literally pointed out; and that they have no reference to the state of the church of Christ in all ages, as has been imagined, and that the notion… is unfounded, absurd and dangerous; and such expositions should not be entertained by any who wish to arrive at a sober and rational knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.” (Commentary on the Holy Bible [Thomas Tegg, 1837] P.2028) All three of these commentators, following their insistence on a literal interpretation, take the view that we do, that the ‘hour of temptation’ was some empire-wide persecution in the immediate future when the Revelation was written. Let us repeat, ANY OTHER VIEW IS ILLEGITIMATE SPIRITUALIZATION. Now we would not be as pungent as Dr. Clarke, who effectively declares Scofield and MacArthur to be extravagant and irrational in their interpretations, but we agree with the good doctor’s point. In fact let us add that we find Dr. Clarke an excellent commentator except when he is blinded by his own Arminianism. He certainly has a horror of spiritualizing that would make Dr. MacArthur look like Origen’s second cousin!

How is the above quote from MacArthur on Revelation 3.10 the ‘plain sense’ or ‘literal meaning’ of the passage? Scofield admits that the reason he must find a prophecy of the ‘Church Age’ in these two chapters is that “these messages must contain that’. It is not exegetical, it is in fact the eisegetical imposition of an a priori upon the text. We are so bold in fact as to say that no-one can find a pre-tribulation Rapture in any of MacArthur’s proof texts given on page 92 of Because the Time is Near who does not come looking for evidence of one. But we have written at great length on that subject elsewhere and would refer readers interested in the deficiencies to that series of articles.

God willing, we will conclude next time.

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