Monday, July 7, 2008

Is Dispensationalism more Theocentric than Covenant Theology? [updated]

Daniel Phillips has a post on his blog dealing with what he considers to be a fairly faulty (though good in parts) definition of dispensationalism. We took issue with one of his points:
Probably Ryrie's third distinctive is a better one: seeing the glory of God as the center of history, rather than man's redemption.

We take it that he refers to the following paragraph:
"The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of the dispensationalists' consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in dealing with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well."
(Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today [ Moody, 1965], P.44 , cited in Mathison, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? [Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995] P.5)

Note that for something to be a 'distinctive' of a theological system, it must be unique to that system. Thus a belief in the Trinity cannot be said to be a distinctive of Calvinism, since non-Calvinistic systems also hold to it. On the other hand we can say that reading all of Scripture in the light of Justification by Faith alone and a hard-and-fast Law-Gospel distinction is a distinctive of Lutheranism.

This paragraph defines what is meant by Mr. Phillips' phrase 'centre of history'. It means "God's basic purpose", His goal or, to use the old-fashioned word, His end. Note that Mr. Phillips also defines what he thinks Covenant Theologians think God's chief purpose is, "Man's redemption." It seems, then, that the accusation is that everyone other than the Dispensationalist is more or less anthropocentric, they view man's redemption as God's chief purpose. Now we are of the opinion that this is a fantastic claim. It is in effect saying that everybody until the early nineteenth century held a theology that was man-centred, and that the centre of Calvin's theology was man. Really? What did the Westminster Divines say? We pick the Westminster Confession because, as the basis for the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith and the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration, it is the most representative of the Reformed confessions, and its date means that it was drawn up at the height of the Puritan age. If any document can speak for the Calvinistic world, it is this one, the basis of the Scottish and American Presbyterian Churches.
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. (Chapter 3: of God's Eternal Decree, section 3)
"It pleased God the Father, son and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, widsom and goodness, in the beginning to create, or make of nothing, the world and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good" (Chapter 4. Of Creation, section 1.)
" God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (Chapter 5: of Providence, section 1)
Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. (Chapter 6: of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and the Punishment thereof)
And lest we forget:
"The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever." (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1)

Now, we may be incredibly dense, but it sounds to us as though the Westminster Divines intended to say that the "basic purpose" of all God's actions is His own glory, not just in His dealings with men, but in all things.
Or let us examine some of the more influential Reformed theologians:
"The final aim is the glory of God. Even the salvation of man is subordinate to this." (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology [Banner of Truth 1958) P. 115. Emphasis ours)

"It is explicitly taught that the glory of God, the manifestation of His perfections, is the last end of all His works... God, as infinitely wise and good, seeks the highest end; and as all creatures are as the dust of the balance compared to Him, it follows that His glory is an infinitely higher end than anything that concerns them exclusively." (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [Thomas Nelson, 1871] Vol. 1 P. 567, emphasis ours again)

Here are two great Reformed and non-Dispensational theologians from the last two centuries, two systematic theologies that are standards in the studies of Reformed theologians, and both say that God's chief end, his ultimate goal, is His own glory. Yet Mr. Phillips insists that only Dispensationalists teach that God's ultimate purpose is His own glory! We had thought that such a silly and counter-factual idea would be dismissed by Mr. Phillips, but no, he actually thinks that this is true! Keith Mathison has written:
"Until recently , dispensationalists maintained that they alone understood God's ultimate purpose to be His own glory. Other theological systems, especially Reformed theology, were accused of teaching that God's ultimate purpose is the redemption of man." (Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God?, P. 5)
On the strength of Mathison's declaration, we actually thought that this old canard had been given a decent funeral, and here we find it alive and kicking on the blog of such an intelligent man as Mr. Phillips!

We have given quotations from the Westminster Confession, Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof, not because we could not find the same sentiments expressed elsewhere but because these three sources may be regarded as representative. Although we have followed the Biblical requirement for two or three witnesses, we could easily give quotations from dozens of Reformed writers expressing the same sentiments. Can Mr. Phillips give two quotations from representative Reformed writers to substantiate the claim that teaching that all of God's dealings with man are for His own glory is a distinctive of Dispensationalism. We want two representative Reformed writers who expressly state that God's end in all His dealings with man goes no higher than the redemption of the elect. Not the agreement of other internet dispensationalists, but real quotations from our side. If the accusation is true, let it be sustantiated by two or three witnesses.

It will not do to provide quotations saying that the intent of the covenant of redemption is the redemption of the elect. That is the way we often speak, but recall that this is really a rather loose way of talking. What we mean is that the covenant of redemption glorifies God by redeeming the elect. The redemption of the elect is a proximate goal, not a final one. That's why it's called the covenant of redemption. No, what we ask for is two or three quotations that expressly state that there is no higher purpose than the redemption of the elect in God's dealings with men.

Note what we are NOT saying. We are not saying that Dispensationalism does not see God's end in all His works as his own glory, but just saying that it is not, properly speaking, a distinctive of Dispensationalism. Whilst it may distinguish Disepnsationalism from certain forms of Arminian theology, it does not distinguish it from historic Calvinism. Any attempts to say that it does betray a fundamental misunderstanding of historic Calvinism. Indeed, one of the consistent accusations against the historic Calvinist position is that it makes God's glory, not the salvation of men, His final end in His dealings with men. That's why Calvinists are always accused of being mean horrible people who say that God condemned people to hell to glorify Himself.

So we have really TWO distinctives in the Ryrie quote: 1. A distinction between Israel and the Church; 2. The use of a single 'consistently literal' or 'normal' hermeneutic for the whole Bible. According to Mr. Phillips, all attempts to add a distinctive involving different economies or dispensations (though you would think that would have to be in a list of distinctives) are doomed to failure, and we hope that we have blown the old canard about teaching that all God's actions are to His glory being a distinctive out of the water.

Mr. Phillips, we know that you dislike your theology being misrepresented. SO DO WE. It is time for this old canard to be given the decent burial that it deserves.

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