The Regressive Progressive





I believe it is important for us to understand a new teaching which is becoming very popular in dispensational circles. It is important because it could totally change the way "right division" will be taught. We need to be on guard to what the professing church is teaching, especially when it is an attack against basic dispensational teaching.

Dispensational Theology has had a recent occurrence, known as "Progressive Dispensationalism." This term was coined by two professors at Dallas Theological Seminary, Carl Blaising and Darrell Bock (see the book Progressive Dispensationalism by the named afore men), in an endeavour to explain what they perceive as the progressive role of dispensations in exhibiting the purpose of God. Robert Saucy (The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism) from Trinity Divinity School in Chicago has also put forth many of the same thoughts with a few subtle differences.

Progressive Dispensationalism is a genuine answer by several "mainline" (Acts 2) dispensational pundits to criticisms raised by non-dispensational systems (specifically covenant theology) concerning contradictions that arise from starting the Church (the Body of Christ) at Pentecost. Progressive Dispensationalism teaches there are four dispensations in Biblical history: Patriarchal (from Adam to Sinai), Mosaical (from Moses to Messiah's ascension), Ecclesial (from the ascension to Messiah's return), and Zionic (part 1 is millennial, part 2 is eternal). Progressives set forth a unique and unorthodox method of interpreting the Bible. They reject the use of the historical-grammatic method - a literal form of Bible interpretation. They put forth what they call a complementary hermeneutic method. They suggest the New Testament makes complementary changes to the Old Testament promises. This method of exposition appears to be a merging together of the literal method (dispensational) and the spiritualizing method (Covenant Theology). The application of this type of exposition has led to a de-emphasis on the differences between Israel and the Body of Christ and other essential features of Dispensationalism.

In 1981, Dr. Kenneth Barker (editor of the NIV Old Testament Study Bible), gave his annual presidential address at the Evangelical Theological Society, entitled, "False Dichotomies Between the Testaments,"

which seemed to contain precursory ideas of progressive dispensational thought. The actual beginning of Progressive Dispensationalism appears to have taken place in a series of articles presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society by Robert Saucy (Trinity Divinity School) in December 1983. It then became clearly defined on November 20,1986, in the Dispensational Study Group in connection with the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. Since then it has become clearly defined through several publications by Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary (Progressive Dispensationalism and Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church). Since its beginning, some observers have issued warnings concerning it. Consider the following statement by Thomas Ice:

"No one can doubt that some are proposing radical changes within the dispensational camp. The question that arises relates to the nature and virtue of the change... I believe that these men are in the process of destroying dispensationalism." (Biblical Perspectives, Nov./Dec.1992)

Candid statements by the ex-president of Dallas Theological Seminary, Chuck Swindoll, have cast light on the accuracy of this suspicion. In an interview with Christianity Today, when asked about Traditional Dispensationalism at Dallas Theological Seminary, Swindoll replied, "I think that dispensations is a scare word. I'm not sure we're going to make dispensationalism a part of our marquee as we talk about our school." When asked whether the term dispensationalism would disappear, he replied, "It may and perhaps it should." (Christianity Today, Oct.25,1993)

What is Progressive Dispensationalism? Progressive Dispensationalism is a movement seeking to accentuate a greater continuity within God's redemptive (soteriological) program. Probably the most noticeable example of this is the contention that the current Church dispensation is an inaugural fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies of the Messianic Kingdom. This is postulated because Progressive Dispensationalism feels God's promise of world-wide redemption was given in the Covenants of promise (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) which have final and complete fulfilment in the Millennial Kingdom. The last two covenants are interrelated and dependent upon each other, having started on the Day of Pentecost (which is the birth of the Church); thus the Church Age, starting on the Day of Pentecost, is simply a progressive part of the prophetic (salvation/kingdom) plan of God.

"... a greater continuity with God's program of historical salvation. Instead of a strict parenthesis that has no relation with the messianic kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament, many dispensationalists now acknowledge the present age of the church as the first-stage partial fulfilment of these prophecies." (Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, pg.9.)

In Progressive Dispensationalism, the Church is a mystery, not because it was unknown, but because it was not understood.


What does Progressive Dispensationalism Teach?


1. Progressive Dispensationalism acquiesces that salvation of man is the harmonizing theme of biblical history. God has charted one divine plan of redemption for all mankind from Adam until his last human descendent. God's intentions and workings in the diverse dispensations are to illustrate His plan. Progressive Dispensationalism converges upon salvation and downgrades the blessings that result from obeying God and corresponding to His dispensational instructions after receiving salvation.


2. A new complementary hermeneutic must be utilized. The New Testament makes complementary changes to Old Testament promises, without setting aside those earliest promises. Hence, there is a merger between Dispensational Theology with Covenant Theology. This understanding leads to a de-emphasis on the distinctions between Israel, and the Body of Christ, because God has only ever dealt with one people (Israel - according to this view). Hence, the Church of this Dispensation is an amplification of Israel in the spiritual realm.


3. The Abrahamic Covenant via its promise of redemption - "... and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed...," is being progressively fulfilled in the subsequent dispensations (through the Mosaic Covenant in the Mosaic dispensation and through the New Covenant and the Davidic Covenant in the Church and Millennial dispensations). The Dispensation of Grace (the Body of Christ) is not believed an interruption in God's prophetic program nor a break in the progressive fulfilment of the covenants, but a very important step in that fulfilment, hence it is part of prophecy!


4. The New Covenant has already been initiated with its spiritual blessings, but its political and physical blessings are not fully realized until the Millennium. Dispensations need to be comprehended as successive preparations in the progressive relation of God's accomplishment of redemption. All covenants after the Abrahamic Covenant further expand its promises (in particular, the blessing of redemption to all mankind). The New Covenant is dependent upon concurrent fulfilment of the Davidic and New Covenant - the Davidic king is to mediate the New Covenant blessings. Hence, the various dispensations are not varying arrangements between man and God, but simply a progression of the arrangements that came before.


5. The Body of Christ commences the Davidic reign of Jesus Christ. Jesus has already assumed the Davidic throne with His ascension, thus beginning the fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant. There is some disagreement among Progressive Dispensationalists as to whether Jesus is actively reigning today (Bock and Blaising), or merely residing at the right hand of the Father, waiting to actually reign on earth as the promised Davidic Messiah/King during the Millennium (Saucy).


6. The Church (Body of Christ) is distinct only in this age. The concept of the Church as completely distinct from Israel and as a mystery in the Old Testament needs revamping, making the idea of two designs and two peoples of God invalid. There is not agreement among Progressive Dispensationalists as to whether the Church is a part (first stage) of the Kingdom or whether Israel has become the Church which will once again at the end of the Church Age revert to the Kingdom at the Millennium. Progressive Dispensationalists see only one eternal people of God (Israel).


The major ideas behind Progressive Dispensationalism are in the above list. As you can see, these views are radically different from any dispensational approach to Scripture. In fact, we could state that Progressive Dispensationalism is really a new blueprint to Covenant Theology, as it is much closer to that way of thinking.


Is the Body of Christ Part of the Kingdom?


The Church is a "sneak preview" of the kingdom and called a "functional outpost of God's kingdom" (Bock/Blaising, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, pgs. 53 and 155).

The Church is "a present revelation of the [Messianic] Kingdom" (Bock/Blaising, Progressive Dispensationalism, pg.257).

It is very clear that Progressive Dispensationalism teaches that the Church is part of the Kingdom. The answer to this is simple, and it is centred in the revelation given to the Apostle to the Body of Christ - Paul. The Church is indeed separate and distinct from Israel. Paul is very clear about this in all his epistles, that the hope of the Church, the Body of Christ, is the return of Christ for His Body, not His setting up the Kingdom. The Body of Christ will maintain its distinguishing identity in heaven, in the Millennium, and in the Eternal State. This specific identification does not take away from our identification as members of the household of God as are all the righteous of any dispensation. Three main reasons support the distinctiveness of the Church:


1. The Church is a mystery.

Ephes. 3:3-6

How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, [4] Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) [5] Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; [6] That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:

Col. 1:26-27

Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: [27] To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:

Hence, the mystery could not have been prognosticated, or part of the Old Testament. Nothing indicates that it was part of Israel prior, or will be part of something future other than itself - the Body of Christ. The above verses show very clearly that it was not part of what had preceded it. It is very clear that Israel and the Church are not the same. The Body of Christ does not derive from Israel, but instead is something totally new, never before seen (a mystery).


2. The "Body" metaphor represents a unique and abiding relationship between Christ and His Church and between members of the Church.

1 Cor. 12:12-15

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. [13] For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. [14] For the body is not one member, but many.

Only Paul talks of individuals being placed into a Body. All others will speak of being joined to a national entity known as Israel. A body is not a nation, it is a living organism. The two are not the same, nor can they be understood as being the same.


3. Romans 16:25-26:

Romans 16:25-26

Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, [26] But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:

This passage is sometimes used to support that Paul's gospel was part of the prophetic program of God. However, Romans 16:25-26 does not mean that the Gospel of the Grace of God was revealed in Old Testament times by Old Testament prophecies. A literal rendering of verse 26 is "the prophetic Scriptures" which refer to the revelation given to Paul and the inspiration of those words which became Scripture.

1 Cor. 14:37

If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.

Hence, Paul's words which became Scripture are actually the Scriptures of the prophets. They were noted just as the above verse states. The prophet acknowledged what Paul said was Scripture, hence, the revelation was the Scriptures (identified) of the prophets. This passage explains the Divine inspiration of Paul's writings, not that they were part of prophecy. This principle is critical to understand. The mystery then was not part of prophecy, it was a secret. The prophets acknowledged what Paul communicated was part of Scripture, even though it was not part of prophecy!

Perhaps the most upsetting belief of Progressive Dispensationalism is the inseparable coupling of the New Covenant to the Davidic Covenant and their present culmination in the Dispensation of Grace. However, the New Covenant is not inseparably conditional upon the Davidic Covenant so that one cannot be fulfilled without the other being in some sense fulfilled. Therefore, Progressives teach that the Lord already rules on the throne of David in Heaven, a rule that began with His ascension. Dispensationalists reject that Christ's present rule in Heaven is a fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant of 2 Samuel 7:14. However, Progressives have further muddied the waters by teaching that Christ's Millennial rule is present and is yet future at the same time. They use Acts 2:29-33 which speaks of the two thrones of Christ: the throne of Heaven and the throne of David, an earthly throne. Progressives teach that these two thrones reflect two aspects of the millennial rule of Christ. They do not acknowledge careful distinctions between these two thrones of God. This view breaks down because of the following:


1. Scripture teaches clearly of a throne in Heaven.

Psalm 11:4

The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord's throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.

In contrast to this is the throne of David. The Scripture teaches that David's throne is future, earthly, and literal. The careful distinction between these two thrones is made in Revelation 3:21.

Rev. 3:21

To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne (a future, earthly throne), even as I also overcame, and am set down (present) with my Father in his throne (Heavenly).

Hence, the Davidic Covenant has not been instituted and the Lord Jesus Christ still awaits His Second Coming to be installed upon the throne of David.


a. The use of Psalm 110 and 132 in Acts 2 does not mean that David was the first king/priest in the line of Melchizedek. Psalm 132 pertains to David's throne and the Aaronic priests. Psalm 110 refers to the Lord God's throne and a Melchizedekian priesthood. However, the context of both Psalms leads us to see David's earthly throne as diverse from the Lord God's heavenly throne.


b. The coming of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost had nothing to do with the Davidic Covenant. What Christ did on the Day of Pentecost, and afterwards, was to send the Holy Ghost as a precursor of the redemptive promises of the New Covenant and then sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. There is nothing in any passage to suggest that the provisions of the Davidic Covenant are being fulfilled at this present time. David was appointed and anointed King long before his inauguration and enthronement.


c. To teach that "hopos" (that) in Acts 3:19-20 introduces a two part reign of Christ (that "times of refreshing" = Church Age, and "send Jesus Christ" = the literal Millennial Kingdom) is faulty exegesis. It is faulty because nothing grammatically separates these promises from each other. In fact, the passage indicates just the opposite.


2. The New Covenant was not inaugurated on the day of Pentecost.

Hebrews 8:13

In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

As late as Hebrews we see the New Covenant is still not in effect. The Mosaic is still God's basis of dealing with Israel. Hence, well after the day of Pentecost we see the New Covenant is still waiting to be ushered in.


3. The Covenants were never given to the Church, and the Church had no promises based on the Covenants.

Ephes. 2:11-13

Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; [12] That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:

Romans 9:4

Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises;

The Covenants of God were not given with Gentiles in view. Gentiles were strangers and not part of that program. Hence, to suggest that the Church is a partner in either the New Covenant or the Davidic Covenant is to ignore the exclusiveness of these covenants with Israel. The above verses, as well as over a dozen more, clearly show these covenants belong to Israel alone. The Church is not Israel (see page 5 and point 1) nor is Israel the Church, therefore these covenants do not belong to the Church. Hence, the Church is not the first stage of the Kingdom to which these covenants pertain!

It is clear that these views move Progressive Dispensationalism closer to Covenant Theology than to Dispensationalism. These beliefs force its proponents to de-emphasize many fundamental features of Dispensationalism, and confuses the believer with Israel, placing him under some aspect of the law. What does all this mean for the future? Will other leading features of Dispensationalism fall in favour of current theological trends? Will Progressive Dispensationalism regress even further towards classical Covenant Theology? All of this has led Dr. Walter A. Elwell of Trinity Theological Seminary, in a book review of Progressive Dispensationalism, to surmise, "The newer dispensationalism looks so much like non-dispensational pre-millennialism that one struggles to see any real difference" (Christianity Today, September 1994, pg.28).

We need to realize that those who hold this view are brothers who recognize the problems of Acts 2 Dispensationalism. Let us work towards having these dear brothers grasp the answers that "rightly dividing the word of truth" brings! Return Home