Understanding Progressive Dispensationalism

Progressive dispensationalism tends to be understood by covenant theologians one way and by dispensational theologians another. Because progressive dispensationalists may agree with the covenant theologian in a few areas, the dispensationalist might view progressive dispensationalism as being on the “slippery slope” toward covenant theology. Covenant theologians may view such agreement as welcome change. Both covenant and dispensational theologians may view the movement negatively by understanding the system to be nothing more than an artificial system that is simply looking for the middle ground. The fact is that dispensational theology has been through many modifications. The progressive isn’t keeping points so as to find middle ground. Rather, further modifications or correctives (at least his mind) have been made. Whether or not these “correctives” take the form of “concession” is irrelevant. To hold theological views simply because of perception would be a theological system ruled by politics rather than biblical data. In this article I will investigate these modifications of the progressive dispensationalist.
Kenneth L. Barker is often credited as the scholar who set this modification of dispensationalism in motion. On December 29, 1981, Barker presented his presidential address at the 33rd meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. His lecture on the “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments” contained many of the core views of progressive dispensationalists today. The label “progressive dispensationalism” was introduced at the 1991 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The three men who have given a voice to this position are Darrell L. Bock, Craig A. Blaising, and Robert L. Saucy.
It is beyond the scope of this discussion to present this system in its entirety. So as to maintain consistent comparison with my previous articles on theological systems, this discussion will focus on testament priority and interpretive focus.
Testament Priority. Like traditional dispensationalism, progressives allow the Old Testament to stand on its own merits, but progressives are also willing to look to the New Testament for further insight as to how these Old Testament promises may already be unfolding presently. Darrell Bock explains this testament priority as “complementary.”
“When progressives speak of a complementary relationship between Old Testament and New Testament texts, they are claiming that a normal, contextually determined reading often brings concepts from the Hebrew Scripture together; so that both old and fresh associations are made…. What makes this hermeneutic dispensational is the insistence that exegetical meaning be retained as it appears in each testament in the currently read context…. On the other hand, New Testament texts that point to the current activity of God and even point to Old Testament promises to explain that activity are also best honored contextually when they are seen as relevant to the current activity of hope being described…. It argues that we should continue to read the Old Testament as still telling us something about Israel in God’s plan, while being sensitive to how the New Testament complements that hope by expressing fulfillment today in Christ” (Bock, “Hermeneutics of Progressive Dispensationalism,” 1999).
This complementary approach to the testaments creates an “already, not yet” hermeneutical model. Progressives reject the idea that this is double fulfillment or allegorical interpretation. Bock argues on the basis of other doctrines that fit an “already, not yet” paradigm:
“But we would argue that it is decidedly biblical. Salvation itself has an “already, not yet” quality to it in that we are justified now but await glorification. There is nothing inherently problematic, then, that eschatology will reflect a parallel kind of structure.”
It is the progressives’ aim to keep the tension of the New and Old Testament alive rather than ascribe an overall priority to one or the other.
Interpretive Focus. Differences exist between traditional and progressive dispensationalists in the area of interpretive focus as well. As mentioned earlier, dispensationalism holds to a multi-track approach to interpretive focus. The concern of progressives is that a multi-track approach presents problems when determining the nature of relationship among these multiple themes. As a response, progressives suggest that some themes can be understood only in light of broader themes. In this hierarchy of themes, progressives view the kingdom of God as that unifying theme of all Scripture. The unifying theme of the kingdom of God is broad enough to include not only the spiritual work of God in the world but also God’s political restoration of all things unto His Son, Jesus Christ.
Israel and the Church. The hermeneutical differences between the progressive and the traditional dispensationalist undoubtedly affect his understanding of the relationship between the church and Israel and between the church and the kingdom of God. The progressive does indeed maintain a distinction between Israel and the church, but at the same time recognizes some degree of association. The distinction remains when it comes to structures through which God works in each period. Temporally speaking, these structures belong to distinct periods in God’s plan. There is no distinction, however, when one is thinking of the theological-redemptive makeup of the people of God. Progressives, therefore, hold that there is but one people of God who have been located within different structures of God’s program. Robert Saucy summarizes the case:
“In the final sense it is perhaps best to say that “the people of God” are one people because all will be related to him through the same covenant salvation. But this fundamental unity in a relation to God through Christ does not remove Israel’s distinction as a special nation called of God for a unique ministry in the world as a nation among nations. Nor does it define the totality of the people of God as ‘Israel,’ requiring that the church is somehow a ‘new Israel’” (Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 190).
In short, the progressive holds that there is one people of God manifested in two distinct institutions, Israel and the Church.
The Kingdom of God. The concept of the kingdom of God is a significant difference between traditional and progressive dispensationalists as well. The progressive dispensationalist views the kingdom of God as a unified concept. Bock and Blaising explain, “Instead of dividing up the different features of redemption into self-contained ‘kingdoms,’ progressive dispensationalists see one promised eschatological kingdom which has both spiritual and political dimensions.” The kingdom of God is the broad concept of God’s rule (both spiritual and political) and has been manifested through various means upon the earth. In past dispensations this rule of God has been seen in the kingly acts of God and more politically in the kingdom of Israel. With the arrival of the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the eschatological kingdom has been inaugurated. Christ inaugurated the spiritual dimension of the kingdom, which will have a fuller expression (namely political) in the millennial kingdom. Ultimately, the kingdom of God will find its fullest expression in the eternal kingdom. Consequently, the progressive views Christ’s offer of the kingdom to be in its full eschatological sense. The kingdom of Christ’s offer is not strictly spiritual (covenant amillennialism), nor is it strictly political (some forms of dispensationalism). Christ offered the eschatological kingdom, which includes both spiritual and political dimensions. This formulation is consistent with progressive dispensationalism’s complementary view of the testaments. Bock and Blaising argue for the present operation of the eschatological kingdom based on their complementary hermeneutic:
“That kingdom [eschatological] is always centered on Christ. The progressive revelation of one or another aspect of the eschatological kingdom (whether spiritual or political) prior to the eternal reign of Christ, follows the history of Jesus Christ and is dependent on Him as He acts according to the will of the Father. Whether or not certain features of the eschatological kingdom (whether spiritual or political) will be enacted or revealed prior to the full establishment of that kingdom is not to be determined by reasoning from full-orbed descriptions of Old Testament prophets alone. Rather, it is a matter of the Father’s will for this and any intervening dispensation, a matter which is discerned through New Testament revelation. The New Testament clarifies how the kingdom predicted by the Old Testament prophets is being revealed today, how it will in fact appear in a millennial form, and how these contribute to that everlasting kingdom in which all prophecies will be fulfilled” (Bock and Blaising, Progressive Dispensatinalism, 54).
To speak in terms of the “already, not yet” model, the progressive views the kingdom of God as already in operation, but not yet in its full expression.
Progressive dispensationalists differ from traditional dispensationalists as to the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God. Although progressive dispensationalists see the church as a portion of the kingdom of God and not as its equal, they are willing to identify the church as a present manifestation of the eschatological kingdom of God. This is a major modification to past dispensational formulations. Robert Saucy affirms this church/kingdom of God relationship:
“The establishment of the kingdom of God on earth is still future. The believer is related to this kingdom through faith in the King and is therefore an heir and already a citizen of the coming kingdom. The King has already bestowed some of the blessings of the kingdom on its citizens, so it is possible to speak of the presence of the kingdom now…. The kingdom promised in the Old Testament, with its central features in the Davidic covenant, thus finds its fulfillment according to the New Testament teaching both in the present church age and in the future” (Saucy, 190).
To summarize: Progressive dispensationalism is a modification of traditional dispensationalism that holds to a complementary concept of testament priority. This complementary view maintains the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy while at the same time allowing for the New Testament to explain how the prophecy could be unfolding even before its complete fulfillment. This model of prophecy has been termed “already, not yet.” Furthermore, progressives acknowledge the necessity of a multi-track approach to interpretive focus, but view these multiple track in terms of hierarchy. The theme of the kingdom of God occupies highest place in the hierarchy and consequently serves as progressive dispensationalism’s overall unifying theme.


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