First published on Christian Converser
The most important aspect of this discussion is to realise that US dispensationalist theology that points to present and future theocracy, as seen now in the country’s strong support for the present day State of Israel and its expectations of millenial rule as claimed by dispensationalists from the Book of Revelation, is inherently flawed, and dangerously so in the current level of conflict in Palestine. Hence, consumers of US based Christian media networks such as TBN are currently being bombarded with advertising declaring “Israel is under attack” without even a pretence of recognition of the difficulties that Palestinians face on a daily basis. So one aspect of dispensationalism is that it promotes unscriptural expectations of the Jewish state (the Book of Revelation refers to events that occurred around the time it was written) but also that it promotes theocracy which is not the way that the Kingdom of God is fostered and grown in the world.
In many previous posts we’ve referred to the particularly US preference for dispensationalism. Why is there such a liking for this form of theology in America? Americans have always seen themselves culturally as superior and born to rule the world. The themes in dispensationalism play perfectly into the political cultural narrative of the US. Particular aspects include the restoration of a Jewish theocracy in Israel and a Christian theocracy led by America. This is one specific aspect of why Christian nationalism has a strong following in the evangelical community in the US. Donald Trump was the US president who did more than any of his predecessors to further the objectives of Christian nationalists, including in the Middle East where he shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem (an initiative strongly resisted by his predecessors for more than 20 years, since the law mandating the relocation passed Congress in 1995), proposed a new peace plan for Palestine, and oversaw the Abraham Accords peace process between Israel and various Middle Eastern nations. Whilst evangelicals may decry the actions of President Biden in rolling back many of Trump’s initiatives, Trump was a querulous outlier in world diplomacy and Christian nationalism and his successor is more in line with the long held neutrality traditions in Palestine/Israel followed by the US government over the past seven decades.
It is material here to re-examine the main branches of Christian eschatological thought. Two branches, futurism and historicism, are explicity expressed in dispensationalist theories. Other branches include preterism and idealism. The Wikipedia article on Christian eschatology has a useful table that lists the different ways that various passages in Revelation are interpreted in each branch. It would be correct to say that most of the field of eschatology is publicly dominated by historicism/futurism (dispensationalism), as many churches do not teach on the subject of eschatology at all, preferring to avoid the contentious and controversial nature of the theology surrounding this subject. Within the main strands of eschatology mentioned above are variations, including “inaugurated eschatology”, a theological viewpoint popularised by George Eldon Ladd (former professor of Fuller Theological Seminary). Inaugurated eschatology is more fully expressed in “Kingdom theology”, which itself has been officially adopted by the Vineyard Churches, particularly in relation to the “signs and wonders” teachings. We will probably dig into inaugurated eschatology more in the future.
If as it appears very clear throughout this series of articles, that the Kingdom of God is most usefully grown by believers living within secular states and least usefully by theocracies and Christian nationalists, then it naturally follows that the preterist view of eschatology is the most accurate one in respect of how the Kingdom of Christian believers has been developed since the Gospel era. In other words, Revelation referred primarily to the events that were taking place at the time that the book was actually being written in the first century AD. The alternative is to believe that all Church history and 18 1/2 centuries of theological understanding of the Scripture was suddenly overturned by revelations to an unqualified Brethren leader (Darby) who founded the heretical Exclusive Brethen sect. Dispensationalism also draws on previous prophecies such as those in the Book of Daniel and some of Jesus’ statements reported in the various Gospels but relies heavily on a literal and chronological of Revelation that is at odds with the generally recognised scholarly theological methods of interpretation of scripture. Applying the key principals of Preterism to the events taking place in the first century leads us to the understanding that the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70AD was for all time as there was no longer any need for it and there has never been an intention to restore the state of Israel as a modern day theocratic equivalent of its predecessors. Likewise the territorial designations given in Old Testament times were extinguished in that era. Hence the current state of Israel which enjoys unqualified backing from the US Government and many evangelical Christians in the US owes more to a querelous understanding of theology there than to the declared intention of God, notwithstanding the merits of the post-WW2 intention of creating a Jewish homeland in Israel. The US maintains support for Israel as an important geopolitical bridgehead in the Middle East due to the massive reliance of the nation on oil resources and the consequent ability of America to maintain its dominant international standing.
If we accept that the preterist view of eschatology is valid, then what are other relevant theologies to be further considered? Dual covenant theology is one which asserts that the Old Covenant remains valid alongside the New Covenant, and therefore in certain respects would appear to be compatible with general dispensationalist beliefs. However, it has been firmly repudiated by such prominent Christian Nationalists as Jerry Falwell Snr and John Hagee. Given the dualistic nature of dispensationalism as a whole, there is therefore the question of whether such people are aware of the full dispensationalist teachings, or whether it is possible to find another variation of these. Another viewpoint is supersessionism (also called replacement theology), which holds that the New Covenant completely replaced the Old Covenant. Covenantalism is another theology which addresses some of this area, mainly through positing a series of implied covenants throughout church history, rather than dual (old/new) covenants. It is the major alternative to dispensationalism in the Church as a whole, and these two theologies are notable for the use of similar concepts with different language (covenants vs dispensations).
As is usual in Christian theology, reflecting the diverse nature of the Church as a whole, there are no theological absolutes that create unqualified certainty as to which type of theology is completely correct. The main concern of this post has been to question the basis for the prominence of dispensationalism in public expressions of theological viewpoints given the existence of differing theologies and the much smaller level of support for dispensationalism outside of the United States of America. The blog as a whole is intended to encourage debate and discussion about theology by informing as much as possible about the range of theological viewpoints that exist worldwide and throughout Church history. The overall premise for this series of articles has been to suggest that the American tendency for its evangelical churches to assert a kind of moral supremacy over the whole world through promoting theocratical viewpoints via their support of modern day Israel and via Christian nationalism their proposal for America to become a Christian nation, is counterproductive and harmful to the growth of the Church as a whole. This is generally seen to be the case with the continual decline in church attendance in the US in recent decades, and with the drop in support for conservative evangelical denominations that support theocratic views such as the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Church in America whilst appearing to be less theologically diverse than in other nations or continents, does have within it groups that recognise the harms of American expressions of church supremacy; this recent article by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the US, makes references of this type with its headings: “American Christians must humbly look to global church for solutions to decline. The Christian church in North America is starting to erode. Thankfully, however, the center of the church is not in North America.” The author notes the challenges of maintaining an independent witness when there is too much focus on achieving political objectives and outcomes, and suggests that American churches need to learn this from their overseas counterparts. Presently the relatively few prominent US church leaders such as Billy Graham who have eschewed the lure of political prominence and power are outnumbered by the large group of evangelical Republicans including Trump’s advisory committee, but for the long term good of the US church these voices will have to fade into the background, and the ongoing divisions and splits in the Southern Baptist Convention promises to achieve just that. Ultimately the whole Church of Jesus Christ worldwide needs to become more homogenous and truly set itself apart as different from the secular world, challenging all forms of wordly structures including political parties and governments. When this happens we will see less of the harmful divisive theologies dividing the Church and its resources and diverting away from the core Gospel message.