RPM, Volume 17, Number 39, September 20 to September 26, 2015

My Shift to Covenant Theology and Amillennialism

By David L. White

ACE's Modern Reformation Magazine, which is devoted to eschatology.

Since I anticipate questions on this from friends who have known me in the past, I thought I would write up some brief (and somewhat rambling and overlapping) comments that will primarily describe the process by which my thinking shifted, and very briefly (and only partially) defend what I consider to be the biblical teaching. As you will soon notice, this is not a detailed exegetical and theological treatment of the issues I address. Rather, it is more along the lines of a personal recollection and reflection.

To help make up for the deficiencies of my treatment here, I have included a short list of books and articles at the end of this paper that I either refer to in the text or that I recommend for further reading.


As many readers of this paper will know, both the college and seminary I attended were dispensational schools of the Charles Ryrie variety (i.e., revised dispensationalism in the traditional-revised-progressive continuum identified by Blaising and Bock). Therefore I was taught that by maintaining a strict distinction between Israel and the Church one would reject covenant theology and embrace dispensationalism and its premillennial/pretribulational eschatology.

At the time, it seemed to make sense and so I readily embraced what they taught me. If this is what the Bible (literally interpreted) means then of course this is what is true.

The shift in my position came about slowly over a period of several years. It had its roots, however, in the first semester of my first year in college. We were required to read some material from Berkhof's Systematic Theology on soteriology. In doing so I was immediately confronted with some concepts I had never heard of before; the "covenant of works" and the "covenant of grace." What Berkhof said about these covenants appeared biblical and did not seem contradictory to dispensational theology, even though further reading for other classes gave the appearance that covenant theology is a theological imposition on the Bible, rather than being a biblical concept.

Later in my college years, in a class on eschatology, The Meaning of The Millennium edited by Clouse was required reading. Although I didn't follow through with it at the time, I must admit that this book created a bit of doubt about the dispensational position. Ladd's and Hoekema's approach to the issues involved seemed more exegetically compelling than either Hoyt's presentation or other material I had read from a dispensational perspective. Rereading the book a few years later, I found Hoekema's brief explanation of the book of Revelation to be quite helpful in sorting things out.

Things developed further while in seminary. There, in my OT courses (I was an OT major) I learned a more covenantal approach to the Mosaic Law. Viewed from the OT itself, the Mosaic Law took on contours that were clearly out of sync with descriptions given by systematic theologians and NT scholars committed to dispensationalism. Seeing this discrepancy, I began seriously to question their conclusions in other areas as well. (My intention here is not to focus on the Law/Grace issue, I mention it solely to illustrate my growing distrust of dispensational exegesis. Suffice it to say that I hold to the Puritan position on the Law.)


As I just mentioned parenthetically, it was during my seminary years that I was developing a growing lack of confidence in dispensational exegesis and logic.

On the logic front, there is within dispensationalism a strong tendency (which I believe is endemic to the system) to make distinctions where there are no differences. Probably the most obvious of these is the distinction made by some traditional dispensationalists between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. To their credit, none of my teachers made this obvious blunder.

One such distinction that I know that my teachers were taught, but--as far as I know--they did not hold to themselves, was the notion that there are two new covenants; one for Israel, the other for the church (although my teachers did not hold this view, their teachers--Ryrie and Walvoord--do). For dispensationalism to stand, it seems to me that one must make such a distinction. After all, in the OT the new covenant is made with the tribes of Israel and Judah (i.e. the whole nation of Israel, both northern and southern kingdoms, Jer.31:31ff); in the NT, Paul is a minister of a new covenant (2Cor.3:6), the cup in the Lord's Supper represents the new covenant (1Cor.11:25), and the author of Hebrews applies Jeremiah's new covenant passage to Jesus' present ministry for the church (Heb.8). If this represents one new covenant (which I maintain it does), dispensationalism topples since there is no distinction between Israel and the Church (more on this below). It seems to me that to suggest that there are two new covenants for two peoples of God is questionable exegesis that is theologically motivated and results in a basic logical fallacy. To see this in action see Pentecost's discussion of "The relation of the church to the new covenant" on pp.121-127 of Things To Come where he bases his exegesis on the unproven assumption that there is a distinction between Israel and the Church. With this assumption he explains away evidence that would prove otherwise.

This tendency of dispensationalism to make distinctions where there are no differences works itself out in many other areas as well. Some that readily come to mind are the distinction between Israel and the Church; that between the rapture and the second coming (or, worded differently, Christ coming for His church and coming with His church); the distinction between grace and law (there is a valid distinction, but not in terms of ethics), that between the bema (an awards ceremony) and the great white throne judgment (a judicial judgment), multiple resurrections, and so on.

Now to illustrate why my confidence in dispensational exegesis eroded, I will turn first of all to some things that dispensationalists commonly teach about the judgment seat of Christ (bema).


One of the exegetical concerns I had in my seminary days had to do with dispensational treatment of the bema in Ro.14:10 and 2Cor.5:10. Dwight Pentecost is typical when, after quoting a few scholars (and not surveying biblical usage--his usual method), he draws this conclusion about the bema, "Thus, associated with this word are the ideas of prominence, dignity, authority, honor, and reward rather than the idea of justice and judgment" (p.220).

The biblical usage of the word bema will not support this conclusion. Here are all the references:

Mt.27:19, Pilate is sitting on the bema when he offers the Jews an alternative, should he release Barabbas or Jesus; they chose Barabbas and so Pilate releases him and has Jesus flogged and turns Him over for crucifixion.

Jo.19:13 is the parallel account to the above. Notice in both of these cases that it is while seated on the bema that Pilate renders a judicial verdict that he intends to be anything but an awards ceremony.

Ac.7:5 conveys none of the ideas Pentecost claims to be associated with this word. It speaks of a plot of ground.

Ac.12:21 speaks of Herod on his bema delivering a public address at a time when the people of Tyre and Sidon were hoping to have an audience with him. There are no rewards in view, rather the people were hoping that they would publicly make their peace with him and presumably not have their food supply cut off.

Ac.18:12, 16, 17 is rather interesting in that this account occurs in Corinth (cf. 2Cor.5:10). Note that the Jews dragged Paul before the bema hoping that Gallio would render a judgment against Paul. Again, rewards are not in view; a legal decision is.

Ac.25:6,10,17, here again the bema occurs in a context of a trial--a place where a legal judgment is to be pronounced; it is not an awards ceremony.

Ro.14:10 speaks of us all standing before God's bema. This is in a context where Paul is telling his readers not to condemn the practices of others in areas that are indifferent. Again the context is not one of giving awards, but of condemning conduct.

2Cor.5:10 says "For we must all appear before the bema of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." The most natural reading of this term in its context is that it is not only awards that are in view. That which is "due" may be either positive or negative, i.e., rewards or punishment.

The scholars Pentecost cites refer to non-biblical usage that refer to a place for rendering discipline, for addressing the troops, and for the giving of awards. All of this gives us part of the semantic range of the word bema. What Pentecost should have done was to trace this semantic range in detail (biblical and extra-biblical usage) and then ask, which of these meanings does Paul have in mind when he uses the term to refer to an eschatological bema? That is determined by the contexts in which Paul uses the terms and as I've noted above, in neither place (Ro.14:10; 2Cor.5:10) is an awards ceremony exclusively in view. This type of sloppy exegesis on the part of Pentecost and other dispensationalists caused me grave concern and contributed to the erosion of my confidence in their system.

Things have not improved in more recent expositions. Recently (1995), Paul Benware points out that a bema "was a seat or raised platform where a judge sat as he made his decision regarding a case." After giving a few Scripture references for this he goes on to say, "This word was also used in connection with the platform on which the umpire or referee sat during the Olympic games or the Isthmian games at Corinth. This was the place where the winners of the various events received their rewards." So far so good, but now notice how he makes the leap to what Paul's meaning is without giving any contextual support for his assertion, "The apostle Paul seems to have this idea of reward in mind as he speaks of the 'judgment seat of Christ.' This, then, is actually a place of rewarding, not punishing" (Benware, p.273). Benware's statement is a bare assertion; it is not exegesis.

For this point to be valid, Benware would need to demonstrate his conclusions by sound exegesis. He offers none, neither did Pentecost, and neither have any other dispensationalists I have read (I think particularly of John Walvoord who in the place of exegesis offers only dogmatism).

This point on the bema, in and of itself, may seem to be a small matter (although this view of the bema is crucial in order to distinguish it from the Great White Throne of Rev.20--a distinction without a difference) but I cite this because the so-called exegesis employed is typical of dispensationalism. If this is what the leading theologians of dispensationalism have to offer, then dispensationalism is on shaky ground indeed.


I recall John Walvoord's demands for a scriptural statement that the church will go through the tribulation. He feels the lack of such a statement is a serious weakness to any position other than the pre-mil/pre-trib. position. In reading Walvoord it appears that he is looking for the exact words "the church will be present during the tribulation" or some nearly equivalent expression. While the Bible doesn't say it in those exact words, it does give a chronology of events that demonstrates that the Church is present during events identified by dispensationalists as occurring during the tribulation period.

The passage I have in mind is 2Thess.2:1-12. There are some key points to notice in this passage. Paul begins by announcing his topic, "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him..." (v.1). Having announced his topic he goes on to say he does not want his readers to be alarmed that the "day of the Lord has already come" (v.2). We have to ask, what does Paul mean when refers to "the day of the Lord?" We must answer that "the day of the Lord"--as Paul is using the expression in this context--refers to "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him" already referred to in the previous verse. In other words, in verse 1 Paul refers to the second coming of Christ by viewing it from two vantage points, that of Christ coming and that of the church being gathered to Him. In v.2 Paul lumps this all together in the phrase "the day of the Lord."

Paul does a similar thing in 1 Thessalonians. Note 1Thess.4:16-17 and 5:2. These verses are in a context (1Thes.4:13-5:11) which deals with the second coming of Christ. Note that in 4:16-17 Paul uses the same twin vantage points that I pointed out in 2Thess.1: the Lord coming (v.16) and the church meeting Him (v.17). He moves into chapter 5 with no change in subject matter and lumps it all together with the term "the day of the Lord" (5:2).

So far, my point in this section is to say that Paul refers to the second coming in 2Thess.2:1-2 as a single event; in verse one he expresses it one way, in verse two he expresses it another way. Consistent with his usage in 1Thess. he is simply varying his terminology to speak of the second coming of Christ.

Now notice Paul's approach in the following verses (2Thess.2:3-12). He gives his readers a chronology of events that will precede the "coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" / "our being gathered to him" = "the day of the Lord." Note that the events he describes are things which dispensationalism typically sees as occurring during the tribulation period. Here then we have a chronology of events that places the "coming of our Lord" and "our being gathered to him" after the tribulation; in other words, Paul gives us what Walvoord dogmatically asserts does not exist.

It is interesting to note Pentecost's exegetical methodology on this passage. He cites v.1 simply to show that the term Parousia is used to refer to Christ's second coming (pp.156,157) and he discusses v.2 on pp.230, 232 under the topic "The Day of the Lord." What is interesting to note is that rather than define the phrase "the day of the Lord" contextually in the various passages in which it is used, Pentecost lumps them all together (in fact he offers no detailed exegesis whatsoever) and defines it as "that extended period of time beginning with God's dealing with Israel after the rapture at the beginning of the tribulation period..." (pp.230-231). Note this, there is no exposition of the contextual meaning of this term anywhere in his discussion. In fact, Pentecost gives no detailed exegesis of 2 Thess.2:1-12 anywhere in his entire 583 page tome!

As I read this passage and the treatment it has received at the hands of dispensationalist expositors I could see that the only way one sees a two-fold coming of Christ in this passage is to bring it to the passage with you, it simply is not there when one examines Paul's flow of thought in context.

As a footnote to the preceding, I must say a word about two other exegetical details in 2 Thess. Verse 3 refers to "the rebellion." Some dispensational expositors use an etymological argument to say this refers to the rapture of the church (for example Ray Stedman, Adventure Through The Bible). This is simply a linguistic fallacy; word usage and context will not support this idea.

A second point to note has to do with the restrainer of vv.5-7. Among dispensationalists it is almost axiomatic that this is a reference to the Holy Spirit who restrains sin. It is claimed by dispensationalists that He is removed with the church at the rapture. I won't go into details except to say that the identity of this restrainer is very far from certain. That the restrainer is the Holy Spirit is one of the least likely options (see standard commentaries [Morris, Bruce, Wanamaker] for details). Even if the restrainer were the Holy Spirit, it is quite a leap (at least!) to say that the removal of the restrainer refers to the removal of the Holy Spirit in the rapture of the church. The text says nothing about the removal of anything or anybody from the earth.

So what we have in 2 Thess.2:1-12 is a chronology that supports a non-dispensational understanding of eschatology. Dispensational expositions of this passage show us textbook examples of eisegesis, and linguistic and logical fallacies. As I began to recognize sloppy work like this, I began to have grave concerns that left me with distrust in the system that is based on such faulty exegesis.


To wrap up this autobiographical section let me now refer to the influence that Reformed theology in general and specific books in particular have had on my thinking.

Throughout the years I have read many Reformed authors. They have of course exerted a great deal of influence on my thinking in general. Since these writers are covenantal and generally amillennial, they exerted some influence on me in these areas as well.

To get more specific, I want to mention several books that have influenced my thinking on the specific issues I'm addressing in this paper. Though I won't go into detail on their contents, I thought I would mention just a few here that I found significant.

Late in my seminary years I read two books that pushed me right out of the dispensational camp. The first was Ladd's The Presence Of The Future. From it I learned much about the present rule of Christ. As I recall, Ladd also does a good job of exposing the fallacy of distinguishing between the rapture and the second coming.

The second book was Gundry's The Church And The Tribulation. Gundry's concern was to show that the church will go through the tribulation. He offered much helpful exegesis of relevant texts that I found quite convincing. A sub-point of his was that one could hold this position and still be a dispensationalist. But, by the time I was reading him I didn't care, because by then I was no longer in the dispensational camp.

It wasn't until several years later that I read a few other books that fully settled things for me. David Holwerda's book Jesus And Israel: One Covenant Or Two was helpful in dealing with some issues of promise and fulfillment. I particularly found his discussion of Jesus and the temple to be a convincing alternative to the standard dispensational approach.

Immediately after reading Holwerda, I read Ladd's Crucial Questions About The Kingdom Of God. Though there seemed to be nothing here that I hadn't already read in The Presence Of The Future, I found the reminders helpful.

Probably one of the most significant books I read in this connection was The Christ Of The Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson. Simply put, this book explained all of Scripture in a way that dispensationalism never did. I have never read the Bible in the same way after I read this book. It was such a paradigm shift for me that I felt like I began to understand Scripture as a whole for the first time.

One final book to mention is William Hendriksen's More Than Conquerors. This brief commentary on Revelation actually makes sense. It gives a more detailed treatment to the progressive-parallelism view that Hoekema refers to in his article in Clouse's book. This is the key to the book and it provides the context for understanding the locus classicus on the millennium, Rev.20. Note that I'm not suggesting that Hendriksen's is the last word on this book (see for example the article by White listed below), but his overall approach--recapitulation--is sound.


Having traced my shift in a somewhat autobiographical way, I now want to discuss Charles Ryrie's 3 sine qua non of dispensationalism. This will give me the opportunity to demonstrate some other problems I came to have with this system. Ryrie's three sine qua non are:

1. A distinction between Israel and the church.

2. A consistent application of literal hermeneutics.

3. The glory of God being God's underlying purpose in the world.


I will take each of these in turn. First, on the distinction between Israel and the church, Ryrie says, "This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist. . . The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will" (p.39). He also calls this distinction (and rightly so) "the essence of dispensationalism" (p.41).

As I see it, this distinction does not hold up. In what follows I simply call attention to several passages that destroy this fundamental distinction of dispensationalism:

--Eph.2:11-3:6 Whenever I read the book of Ephesians I have a sort of mantra that runs through my mind. It goes like this, "If Ephesians 1:1-2:10 is true, Arminianism is false; if Ephesisans 2:11-3:6 is true, dispensationalism is false." I'll not get into the debate with Arminianism right now, but I will briefly consider what this passage has to say about the distinction that, according to Ryrie, exists between Israel and the Church.

Simply put, if Paul is saying anything, he is saying that no such distinction exists. On the contrary, he affirms their unity. Those who were formerly excluded from citizenship in Israel, etc. (2:11-12) are now "brought near" (2:13) by the blood of Christ who made of the two (Jew and Gentile) "one new man" (2:15). As a result of Christ's work we are "fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (2:19). Paul goes on to discuss his insight into the mystery of Christ, which is "that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (3:6). Contrast Paul's statements with this one by John Walvoord, "The Church composed of Jew and Gentile is considered a separate program of God which does not advance nor fulfill any of the promises given to Israel" (Walvoord, p.523).

Paul almost couldn't be any clearer, there is no distinction between Israel and the church; they are the one people of God who share in the promise of God (3:6) which is administered through the covenants (2:12) [for an exposition of the promise and the covenants see O.P. Robertson].

--Ro.9:6-18: I said I wouldn't get into the debate with Arminianism although this passage relates to both dispensationalism and Arminianism. Suffice it to say that this passage teaches that membership in the true Israel is not a matter of physical descent, but one of God's election. Paul develops this further within this same chapter and points out that this includes the Gentiles (vv.24-26). In other words, Israel (the people of God) consists of elect Jews and elect Gentiles. Once again we see that there is no distinction between Israel and the church.

--Ro.11:11-24 There is one olive tree composed of both Jews and Gentiles, i.e., there is one united people of God; not two.

--Jo.10:14-16 Jesus has sheep that come from two "pens" (Jews and Gentiles) and who together form one flock.

--Ga.3:15-29 Gentile believers are children of promise, the seed of Abraham, and spiritually speaking there is no distinction between them (vv.26-29, verse 28 is often cited in the feminist debate; but it's primary teaching does not relate to that issue, rather, it affirms the spiritual unity of the people of God).

--Ga.6:16 The phrase "the Israel of God," contextually seems best understood to refer to believers in general. In more technical language, this expression is epexegetical to the expression "those who will walk by this rule." This understanding is consistent with Paul's discussion in chapter 3 of all believers being the seed of Abraham and with his discussion in Ro.9 that being part of Israel is not a matter of physical descent but of God's election.

Although I originally planned to say much more on this point, what I have said should be enough to indicate why I came to dispute Ryrie's contention that Israel and the church are distinct peoples of God. As I see it, Scripture simply does not support such a notion; it affirms the opposite.

Before moving on let me add as a sort of an all too brief footnote that even though I see Scripture affirming a continuity between the Old Testament church and the New Testament church, I also see a development, hence the distinction between OT and NT. Even Louis Berkhof speaks of the old dispensation and the new dispensation. So to say that there is one people of God is not to say that salvation history has not progressed.


I'll now move on to Ryrie's second sine qua non: a consistent application of literal hermeneutics. He puts it this way, "Consistently literal, or plain, interpretation indicates a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture....To be sure, literal/historical/grammatical interpretation is not the sole possession or practice of dispensationalists, but the consistent use of it in all areas of biblical interpretation is" (Ryrie, p.40). Elsewhere he reiterates this claim, "What, then, is the difference between the dispensationalist's use of this hermeneutical principle and the nondispensationalist's? The difference lies in the dispensationalist's claim to use the normal principle of interpretation consistently in all his study of the Bible" (Ryrie, p.82, italics are Ryrie's). It is my intention in this section briefly to challenge this assertion.

The first thing I would like to point out is that it isn't true. Dispensationalists have not consistently applied this principle; their application has been selective. I won't labor this point except to make three brief comments. First I would direct you to Hoekema's discussion of Hoyt's inconsistencies in Clouse, pp.105-107.

Secondly, I recall a particular dispensational interpretation of Rev.4:1. In this passage a voice speaks to John and says, "Come up here..." The author I was reading saw this as representative of the rapture of the church; hardly a literal or normal interpretation! (Incidentally, Walvoord--to his credit--rejects this interpretation.)

Thirdly, I would like to quote from Blaising and Bock. In their book Progressive Dispensationalism, Blaising says, "When we read Ryrie's claim that consistently 'clear, plain, normal' hermeneutics is the essence of dispensationalism, we have to interpret the remark historically. It may have been true as an ideal or goal for revised dispensationalism, but the statement is not true as a comprehensive principle inclusive of classical dispensationalism... The remark is not true of revised dispensationalism's actual practice...although it did function as a stated goal" (pp.36-37).

This book has much to say about the development of dispensationalism's hermeneutic from the "classical" approach up to the current "progressive" approach. A key point that one ought not to miss is that it has never truly been consistently literal.

Having suggested that dispensationalists are selective in applying their alleged interpretive method, I'll now move to a problem I see in Ryrie's argumentation for this method. He says, "A...reason why dispensationalists believe in the literal principle is a biblical one: the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ--His birth, His rearing, His ministry, His death, His resurrection--were all fulfilled literally. This argues strongly for the literal method" (Ryrie, p.81). It is my contention that this line of reasoning assumes the very point to be proven and is false.

The point at issue here is whether or not some OT prophecies are fulfilled in non-literal ways in the NT. Ryrie and other dispensationalists--seeing that some prophecies are fulfilled literally--automatically assume that the prophecies that have not been literally fulfilled refer to the second coming. But, Ryrie must prove that only the literally fulfilled prophecies--and no others--refer to Christ's first coming. Rather than offer this proof, Ryrie simply assumes this point and argues from it.

To see that Ryrie's assertion is false all we need to do is to consider some passages that demonstrate that the NT does not always interpret OT prophecy in a literal way. The first that comes to mind is Hosea11:1 "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." This oracle goes on to describe God's love for Israel, their apostasy, and God's continuing love for them. Applying a strictly literal method of interpretation to this passage would lead one to conclude that there is no reference here to any event in Christ's life, rather it is simply referring to Israel's exodus from Egypt. Yet, Matt.2:15 applies this verse to Joseph's, Mary's and Christ's flight to Egypt. So here we have a prophetic section of the OT that an apostle applies to the life of Christ in a non-literal fashion, contrary to Ryrie's assertion.

Another such passage immediately confronts us in Matt.2:17-18 which sees Herod's murder of infant boys as a fulfillment of Jer.31:15. The Jeremiah passage--set within a context of messianic deliverance--is a picture of Rachel weeping for the Israelites who have gone into exile. Again, we have something less than a strictly literal fulfillment in view here.

No doubt much can be said about these two passages (and in fact has been; see the standard commentaries such as Gundry, Carson, Hagner) to reconcile the interpretive difficulties many have here. But the point stands that the OT prefigures events in Christ's life in non-literal ways. So Ryrie's contention that "the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ--His birth, His rearing, His ministry, His death, His resurrection--were all fulfilled literally" simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

I will finish off this all too brief section with yet another citation from Matthew; Matt.1:22-23 which cites Is.7:14 as being fulfilled in the virgin birth of Christ and His designation as Immanuel. This passage has stirred up much controversy for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons has to do with Matthew's use of the very specific Greek word Parthenos (virgin) found in the LXX which translates the more general Hebrew term `almah (maiden). I'll not enter into that part of the debate here. Rather I want to call attention to the contextual literal fulfillment of Is.7:14 within Isaiah itself.

The passage has to do with a sign God would give to Ahaz in connection with an attack against Jerusalem by a coalition of Syro-Ephraimite forces. The sign was to indicate that this coalition would not succeed (7:7-10). Ahaz refuses (v.12). Isaiah says God will give the sign anyways (Is.7:14-17), "The virgin ["maiden" in Hebrew] will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah--he will bring the king of Assyria."

The oracle continues with a further description of God calling Assyria and events to follow. Now notice Is.8:2-4, "Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me. 'Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Before the boy knows how to say 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.'"

It is interesting to stop here and notice that already we have the prophecy literally fulfilled within Isaiah itself. The maiden (Isaiah's wife) has conceived and given birth to a son and before this son will become very old, Damascus and Samaria will be defeated by Assyria. In other words, the son born to Isaiah and his wife is the literal fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy of 7:14.

There are further clues that this is so. Immediately after the passage I just cited, Isaiah describes Assyria's coming dominance (8:5-10). In two places he relates this to the Immanuel prophecy of 7:14 by using the term "Immanuel" (8:8 & 8:10, [note that both the NIV and the NASB transliterate it as "Immanuel" in v.8 and translate it as "God is with us" in v.10, the expression is "Immanuel" in both places in Hebrew]). Also note 8:18 where Isaiah refers to himself and his sons as signs and symbols in Israel, etc.; remember what started this, God offering a sign to Ahaz.

Now my point in all this is to point out that the literal fulfillment of this Immanuel prophecy took place in Isaiah's own day with his own son. As we all know, in chapter 9 Isaiah goes on to prophesy the birth of another child. This son will reign on David's throne (9:7) and will have various titles of deity (9:6). As I see it, the Immanuel prophecy refers to Isaiah's own son in its literal sense and in a non-literal sense to this later son described in chapter 9 (note that this theme continues in chapter 11 as well). Matthew, it seems to me, understood this and applies this passage (7:14) to Christ, even though it is not a strictly literal fulfillment. Again Ryrie's position crumbles under the weight of contrary evidence and we haven't even gotten past the second chapter of Matthew!

I said that was to be my last example (these examples are just way too easy to find), but the author of Hebrews also uses Is.8:18 in a non-literal way. Note Heb.2:13 where the author applies this verse, not to Isaiah and his literal children, but to Christ and His children, i.e. believers.

Ryrie's assertion that the literal fulfillment of OT prophecy in the NT indicates that all prophecy is to be interpreted literally simply does not stand up. It does not even begin to explain the evidence of the text; so we must abandon it along with the theological system that is built upon it.

It seems to me that rather than insist on a consistent application of a literal hermeneutic (something the dispensationalist himself does not do) we should enunciate some principles of interpretation that better reflect the evidence of the New Testament. As a preface let me say that I do affirm literal interpretation. In using this term I am contrasting the literal method with the allegorical method of the middle ages. But this method is not a consistently literal method as dispensationalism claims for itself.

I would like to propose three terms to describe this method. They are: contextual, theological, and dominical/apostolic.

Let's begin with the first, contextual hermeneutics. There is probably no principle of interpretation that interpreters violate more often than this one. Simply stated it runs like this, one must interpret any individual statement in any body of literature (not just the Bible) in light of its context. For an example of this see my brief discussion of the expression "the day of the Lord" in 2 Thess.2:2 above. My interpretation of that expression (in contrast to Pentecost's view) is a contextual interpretation.

The second principle I've stated above is "theological." What I mean by this is that we should interpret Scripture in light of the theology that we see the rest of Scripture teaching. This is similar to what I was taught in college and seminary as the principle of the analogy of Scripture, although I've nuanced it a bit.

Let me illustrate this principle this way: as a Calvinist--i.e., as one who is absolutely convinced that Scripture as a whole teaches unconditional election and particular redemption--I approach universalistic texts with the expectation that they are not absolutely universalistic. As I study these texts in context, I find that indeed such is the case. Note that it is my theology--what I see the rest of Scripture teaching--that sets up this expectation. Similarly, I am convinced that Scripture consistently teaches justification by faith. When I approach texts that speak in terms of works (not only in James, but even in Paul and the Gospels) I interpret them in light of my theology of justification.

Given the assumption that the Bible doesn't contradict itself, one must interpret any given part in light of the theology of the whole. And in fact this is what both dispensationalists and covenant theologians attempt to do. What this really is, is a broadening of the principle of interpreting in light of the context; in this principle the context is all of Scripture. For more on this point see Silva's article listed below.

My third principle is what I have labeled dominical/apostolic. By this I mean that Jesus Christ and the Apostles are to be our authorities in biblical interpretation. If they say something is fulfilled, then it is fulfilled even though it may not be strictly literal. When they give us an interpretation of something, we are duty bound to accept their interpretation.

For example, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Mal.3:1 and as the Elijah who was to come (Matt.11:10, 14; the latter an allusion to Mal.4:5; see also Matt.17:10-12 [I can't help pointing out that once again we have a less than strictly literal fulfillment of OT prophecy.]). It seems pretty straightforward, the OT predicts the coming of Elijah; Jesus says John the Baptist is the predicted Elijah. Or in the words of Luke, John came "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk.1:17). We are to accept our Lord's interpretation and not to expect another coming of literal Elijah.

To wrap up this section on hermeneutics I would like to delve into an issue that will help further to illustrate some of what I've been saying as well as relate it more specifically to prophecy.

The issue I have in mind is Ezekiel's temple that he describes in great detail in chapters 40ff. in his book. Ezekiel describes various courts, gates, and rooms and finally describes the glory of the Lord returning to this temple (43:1-5). It is in this temple that the Lord will dwell with Israel forever (43:7). Along with this temple is a renewal of the sacrificial system (44:10-31; 45:13-46:24). Ezekiel also describes a river flowing from this temple (47:1-12), and he concludes his book by describing the boundaries of the land and the gates of the city (chptrs.47 & 48).

Dispensationalists, using their literal hermeneutic and not finding this temple with these exact floor plans and details described anywhere else, expect this prophecy to be fulfilled literally during the millennium of Rev.20. This raises several problems. First, there isn't even a hint of any of this in Rev.20 itself. Second, the book of Hebrews (esp. chapters 8-10) teaches that the better and final sacrifice of Jesus Christ has fulfilled the OT sacrificial system. Thirdly I would ask, if we are to expect to see Ezekiel's temple literally fulfilled what about the altar and sacrifices in Egypt that Isaiah speaks of (Is.19:19-21 )? Shall we expect this too in the millennium?

I think not. Viewed theologically, we have to conclude that in light of the finality of Christ's death, there will be no renewed sacrificial system. Also, in terms of dominical/apostolic interpretation we should view Ezekiel's temple and its associated details as fulfilled in three stages: Jesus Christ, the church, and the eschatological temple of Rev.21 (which is "the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb" v.22).

Jesus and John indicate that our Lord fulfills this temple and its sacrificial system. Jesus tabernacled among us (Jo.1:14); He is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jo.1:29). Jesus describes Himself as being the temple (Jo.2:18-22), the significance of which was obscure for the disciples until after the resurrection. "Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken" (Jo.2:22). In part, I think the Scripture they believed was the book of Ezekiel which described this coming temple. Additionally Jesus fulfills the river of life described by Ezekiel (and Zechariah); see Jo.7:37-39. (note, Holwerda has an excellent discussion of this whole issue on pp.74-79.)

In this connection again I must point out that Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as both priest and sacrificial victim. Also, Paul refers to Christ as "Christ our Passover Lamb" in 1Cor.5:7. The point seems clear; the NT presents Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the latter chapters of Ezekiel.

Not only does Christ fulfill Ezekiel's temple, so also does the church. It is well known that Paul describes the church as a temple (1Cor.3:16-17; 2Cor.6:14-7:1; Eph.2:19-22). This is due to our union with Christ; a point made particularly clear by Paul in the Ephesians passage.

Apostolic interpretation does not end with Paul, however. John again picks up this temple theme in the Apocalypse. There he describes an eschatological temple (Christ and God, Rev.21:22) and a river of life (Rev.22:1-2).

So rather than putting Ezekiel's temple and a renewed sacrificial system in a future millennium, it seems preferable to follow Jesus and the Apostles and to see it primarily fulfilled in Christ Himself and secondarily in the church. In other words, the NT (i.e. dominical/apostolic interpretation) gives us the fulfillment of this OT prophecy. To seek a different fulfillment with no scriptural warrant for doing so (as dispensationalism does) indicates that an a priori theory drives one's exegesis rather than an objective assessment of the Scriptures.

As a final note on this principle of literal interpretation, I would suggest that part of the difference in understanding some prophetic passages is not a matter of literal vs. non-literal, it is rather a matter of time.

For a general example there are numerous passages that speak of a future time of peace and blessing. Typically, dispensationalists expect this to happen during the millennium. But what if they are fulfilled in the new heaven and new earth (Rev.21:4, 24-27)? This is no less literal; it is simply a temporal difference. As Grier points out in his brief article, "The 'a-mil' takes many promises which the 'pre-mil' relates to the earthly millennium as more appropriately applied to the new earth" (p. 514).

The standard dispensational objection to the above would be to claim that this spiritualizes OT prophecy. This claim perhaps would be true only if one thinks of eternity as being spent in heaven. But the biblical picture of eternity is not one of saints dwelling in heaven. Rather it pictures the saints forever dwelling on the new earth with God who "will live with them. They will be His people, and God himself will be with them and be their God" (Rev.21:3). In light of this, to see some of the prophecies of a coming time of peace as having their fulfillment on the new earth is every bit as literal as any dispensationalist could want.

As a footnote, I must call attention to the covenantal language in the verse just quoted from Revelation (21:3), "they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." Compare this language to Gen.17:7-8; Ex.6:6-7; 19:4-5; Lev.11:45; De.4:20; De.29:13; Jer.31:33; Zech.2:10-12; 8:8; 2Cor.6:16; Heb.8:10; 1Pe.2:9-10. There are two things that I would like to highlight here. The first is the unity of the people of God. The second is that, contrary to the claims of dispensationalism, these promises--God's covenant--find their ultimate fulfillment, not in a future millennium, but in the new Jerusalem where God dwells in the midst of His one people.


Ryrie's third sine qua non is the idea that God's underlying purpose in the world is the glory of God (p.40). I'll not linger here simply because I agree.

I do think, however, that Ryrie misrepresents things when he says "The covenant theologian, in practice, believes this purpose to be salvation (although covenant theologians strongly emphasize the glory of God in their theology)" (p.40). While Ryrie is wrong about covenant theology's practice, he is right that covenant theologians emphasize God's glory. That is the whole point (in redemption and in condemnation; or to express this in terms of God's decree--both in election and in reprobation; and in everything else for that matter). The Westminster shorter catechism reflects this in its first question: "What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."

Having a central place for God's glory in one's theology is not unique to dispensationalism; in the words of one of my former theology teachers this is true for every evangelical theology. Or, to quote a progressive dispensationalist, "while non-dispensationalists do tend to put more emphasis on the unity in God's program, they clearly view the ultimate goal as the glorification of God, even as dispensationalists do" (Saucy, p.20).


I have directed my criticisms in this paper at revised dispensationalism (i.e. the dispensationalism of Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and Dwight Pentecost). This is the type of theology I was taught and it is still being promoted and taught by many Bible teachers in books, conferences, and sermons. Although it retains great popularity in non-academic contexts, this form of dispensationalism is waning in dispensational seminaries.

In recent years a number of books and articles have come out that promote "progressive dispensationalism." Although I've not read widely in these publications I thought I should at least mention this development within dispensationalism.

In the preface to his book, Saucy writes, "the changes in dispensationalism have been largely in the direction of a greater continuity within 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 fulfillment of these prophecies. Israel and the church are no longer viewed as representing two different purposes and plans of God, as some earlier dispensationalists taught; they are now seen as sharing in the same messianic kingdom of salvation history" (p.9).

Later he says, "the historical plan of God, therefore, is one unified plan. Contrary to traditional dispensationalism, it does not entail separate programs for the church and Israel that are somehow ultimately unified only in the display of God's glory or in eternity. The present age is not a historical parenthesis unrelated to the history that precedes and follows it; rather, it is an integrated phase in the development of the mediatorial kingdom. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of the eschatological promises" (p.28).

As you might expect, I see these developments as being major steps in the right direction; I don't think they go far enough, however. Progressive dispensationalism still insists on some sort of a literal fulfillment of the OT promises to the nation of Israel. It still sees these promises coming to fruition during a future millennium; and so these theologians typically still hold to a pre-trib/pre-mill. eschatology.

In light of this, I have to say that progressive dispensationalism falls short of a correct understanding of biblical theology. As it stands, progressive dispensationalism is a diluted form of dispensationalism and looks a lot like nondispensational premillennialism (on this point see the quotations in Ryrie, p.178). In my judgment, progressive dispensationalists should abandon premillennialism altogether and become consistent covenant theologians. Of course, revised dispensationalists like Ryrie and Benware see the progressive school as a departure from "true" dispensationalism.


This is getting longer than I expected so I'll end by saying that by this process and for these reasons I jettisoned dispensationalism and opted for what I consider the biblical alternative, covenant theology and amillennialism.

It may come as a surprise that I've not said much about Rev.20 in this paper. Let me say a brief word here and then be done. Simply put, I think Rev.20 should be one of the last passages one should consider when studying eschatology. This is due to the basic hermeneutical principle that one should interpret obscure passages in light of clear ones. Applying that principle here causes me to start with the rest of Scripture which has lead me not to expect all that dispensationalism tells me will happen in a future millennium (this is an application of theological interpretation). Based upon my study of Scripture to this point, I do not expect a rebuilt temple following the floor plan of Ezekiel--Christ has already fulfilled it (according to my principle of dominical/apostolic interpretation). I certainly do not expect the reinstitution of the sacrificial system--the author of Hebrews seems rather emphatic on that point. I do not come to this passage in search of a time for God to fulfill His promises to Israel because all the elect are Israel and according to Paul they--both Jews and Gentiles--"are sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Eph.3:6). So the broad context of the rest of Scripture (theological interpretation) does not lead me to expect the eschatological scenario described by my dispensationalist friends.

More narrowly, reading the book in terms of recapitulation places the millennium of chapter 20 during the "church age." In other words, the reality that John describes here is not off in the future somewhere, but it is a present reality (this is contextual interpretation).

Coming now to Rev.20, I can make a few observations. First, it is significant to notice what is not present; there is no reference to a temple (there is a temple in Revelation; it's in 21:22), no reference to animal sacrifices, no reference to fulfilling land promises, no reference to a period of total peace and harmony (it is in chapters 21 & 22), no reference to a restored Israel, and no reference to the Davidic reign of Christ on the earth (but see 22:3). The only way one sees these things in Rev.20:1-6 is to put them there, i.e. it is to engage in eisegesis, not exegesis. But what I do notice, however, is that the thousand years involves the reign of Christ with martyred souls (v.4) which, leads me to conclude that this millennial reign occurs in heaven (the place where the martyred souls and the thrones are located elsewhere in the book of Revelation) while church history with its accompanying tribulation and spiritual warfare is developing on earth (again, an application of contextual interpretation).

While this falls far short of a full exegesis of Rev.20 and a host of other relevant passages, it should suffice to demonstrate why I see major problems with the dispensational approach and believe that the amillennial approach is more accurate.

Books, Articles, and Stuff

Benware, Paul N. Understanding End Times Prophecy.
Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology.
Blaising, Craig A. & Darrel L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism.
Clouse, Robert G (ed.), The Meaning of The Millennium.
Grier, W.J. "Christian Hope and the Millennium" in The New Life edited by Millard J. Erickson, pp.511-514.
Gundry, Robert The Church and The Tribulation.
Hendriksen, William, More Than Conquerors.
Hoekema, Anthony, The Bible And The Future.
Hoekema, Anthony, "Seventy Weeks" in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia ed. by Bromiley, vol. 4, pp.427-428.
Holwerda, David, Jesus And Israel: One Covenant Or Two?
Ladd, George E. Crucial Questions About The Kingdom Of God
. Ladd, George E. The Presence Of The Future.
Pentecost, J. Dwight, Things To Come.
Robertson, O. Palmer, The Christ Of The Covenants.
Ryrie, Charles, Dispensationalism Revised And Updated (formerly Dispensationalism Today).
Saucy, Robert L. The Case For Progressive Dispensationalism.
Silva, Moises, "The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics" in An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics by Walter C. Kaiser & Moises Silva, pp.251-269.
Stedman, Ray, Adventure Through The Bible.
Van Groningen, Gerard, From Creation To Consumation (so far only one volume of this projected 3 volume work has been completed).
Walvoord, John, "Dispensational Premillennialism" in The New Life edited by Millard J. Erickson, pp.519-524.
Warfield. B.B. "The Millennium and The Apocalypse " In Works (Baker reprint of Oxford edition) Vol. 2, pp. 643-664.
White, R. Fowler, "Reexamining the Evidence for Recapitulation in Rev 20:1-10" Westminster Theological Journal 51 (Fall 1989), pp.319-344.

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