Vol. 17 New Series October, 1955 No. 5

THE TRUTH ABOUT "DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH"

Reformers are seldom popular; because, for most of those who listen to them at all, either they go too far or they do not go far enough; and the middle way is never the popular way.

At this present time there is a widespread reaction against "Dispensational Truth"; and like all reactions it tends to go much too far in the opposite direction. Instead of casting away what is untrue and unsound in what they react against, people are inclined to cast away the whole lot: in fact, they indulge in the practise graphically described as "throwing out the baby with the bath water." One reason for this is that to sort out the true from the false in any system requires hard study and keen thought, and most of mankind are too lazy mentally for either. Furthermore, the most extreme exponents of "dispensationalism" have managed to build their systems up into highly complex structures, the understanding of which calls for a great deal of study; and it is impossible for anyone, however brilliant, to refute a case which he does not fully understand.

And there is another difficulty. Beyond any doubt whatever there is a considerable measure of truth in "Dispensational Truth." Its exponents naturally and rightly lean heavily on that truth; and equally naturally, but wrongly, tend to ignore the difficulties which tell against their system. On the other hand, the enemies or the disillusioned friends of such systems generally go right over to the opposite extreme and ignore what is true in them.

Two booklets now before me illustrate all this very clearly indeed. The first, "The Key of Knowledge" (The Berean Expositor, Vol. 38, No.3, May, 1955) has much to say which is good, though not novel. It points out the well-known fact that certain things which are true in one set of circumstances need not be true in another. Where it goes wrong is in the incorrect assumption that the course of history is marked by "dispensations" each of which has its own "body of truth"; so that when one "dispensation" gives way to another, the "body of truth" changes with it. The idea is, in fact, that there exists "truth" which is true at one time and not true at another.

Actually time does not come into the matter except in one respect: at various points of time God has revealed hitherto unknown truths. Before such truths were revealed, they were not knowable as truths; and so in a sense they were not truths, in that they were not accessible to mankind as certainly true.

The real fact which this idea about truth has so effectually hidden is that what is a truth applicable to one set of people in one set of circumstances may not be a truth applicable to another set of people in another set of circumstances. In Canada it is right to give one's first loyalty to the Queen, in the U.S.A. it is not.

As this booklet correctly points out; for any Israelite it was right to be circumcised; for the Galatians to whom Paul wrote, it was wrong. For any Israelite, it was right to condemn failure to keep the Sabbath, for the Colossians it was wrong. But this was not because these people lived at two different times or in two different "dispensations"; but because they were two entirely different KINDS of people. The former were people bound by covenant. The latter were not.

The booklet says (p. 56) :—"When the Apostle distinguishes between Jew and Gentile, between kingdom and church, between earthly promises and heavenly places, between Bride and Body, between the citizenship of the New Jerusalem and the seating together of some 'in heavenly places,' each portion of Scripture is recognized as 'truth,' but not every portion referred to is 'truth for the times.'" This statement is true only to a very limited extent. Where the distinction is valid, it is between two sets of people, not two periods of time.

As I have pointed out again and again; God's people come under two classes; those who believe Him under covenant conditions, and those who believe Him as Abraham did, apart from covenant—what the Apostle Paul calls "in akrobustia," "in uncircumcision" (Rom. 4:9-12). This summarizes the whole of what is actually true in "dispensational truth."

And IT IS TRUE. Furthermore, here is where there is a grain of truth in the idea of time "dispensations." Because these two kinds of conditions cannot exist simultaneously without involving a contradiction in terms; either one or the other may be in operation at a given point of time, but not both.

What matters at any moment is which is in operation at that moment.

Which was in operation during what some call "the Acts period"? This question is really meaningless, because its terms are indefinable. We can follow this better if we pin-point some of the events recorded in Acts. First, which set of conditions was in operation for Paul and for all those whom he evangelized Uncovenanted blessing, for this is the essence of his Evangel. Then, which when Peter and the rest of the Twelve spoke at and immediately after Pentecost? No direct answer exists; because the account of the Pentecostal events and speeches does not discuss the matter at all. IF WE REALLY DO BELIEVE GOD'S WORD, WE HAVE GOT TO BELIEVE IT AS IT STANDS, and to be content to remain ignorant when it refrains from enlightening us. We may have our opinions, but we must not magnify them into truths.

Lastly, which set of conditions was in operation at the start of the ministry of the Lord Jesus? The answer is, and must be, covenant.

In theory it may be possible to chop all this up into time periods, "dispensations"; but not in practise unless we reason out a whole mass of deductions; and this is precisely what the "dispensationalists" have to try to do. The further they go into the maze they have invented for them selves, the more fantastically complex it becomes. Some have now got to the point where only four "epistles (Eph., Phil., Col. and 2. Tim) minister truth for the present dispensation, as no other part of Scripture can." But I have yet to learn that these people have completely scrapped Romans as teaching for the present time. Mr. Welch certainly used "Roman stones" for his "Ephesian temple"; but his attempt to divide Romans into two sections, "doctrinal" and "dispensational," fails because the whole epistle is doctrine.

Dispensationalists all talk as if at the stroke of some great clock, as it were, God's plans change abruptly, and a new set of plans comes into being. Nothing of that kind ever occurs. What really happens is that circumstances change, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly; but never is the past utterly wiped out, even for the time being.

At the call of Abraham, faith-righteousness came into being apart from any covenant. Then God made a covenant with him; and thereafter God's direct dealings were only for those in covenant relation with Him. But this does not mean that faith-righteousness was thereby cancelled. On the contrary we find subsequently, again and again, men and women who were righteous out of faith. Nevertheless some difficulty existed. It was that as soon as a section of mankind had come into covenant relation with God, that relation had become the only way of approach to Him. Those who were of faith had to go on by way of covenant and the Law; and even of those outside Israel, the covenant nation, many did so by becoming proselytes. Then in due time came Messiah. When He was rejected, covenant rights were repudiated by His covenant people, and so no one any longer could approach by way of covenant. This was not because the way of covenant was abrogated or annulled, but simply because no covenant people existed any longer to approach God by that way. So the way of faith-righteousness apart from covenant was developed at the call of Paul, as Romans explains.

Yet this is not a permanent state of affairs. Presently the fulness of the Gentiles will have entered and God will have completed His direct dealings on earth with them. But Paul's Evangel will not have been cancelled: it will simply. have ceased to operate because God will already have called in all those on whom it could operate: and so it will by then have ceased to present the insuperable obstacle it now presents to the Evangel of the circumcision, to an evangel essentially based on covenant. The instant Paul's Evangel ceases to operate because it has fulfilled its mission, the way has become cleared for Peter's Evangel: covenant will once more be the only way of approach to God, and Israel will again begin to be God's Covenant People. Yet none of the glories revealed through Paul to mankind will be abrogated or annulled: their effects will remain, even though people capable of being called to receive them will no longer exist on earth.

Finally, when in due time covenant will have fulfilled its function, uncovenanted glory will again take its place.

It has cost me many years of study and meditation to reach this sound core of "dispensational truth" as set forth above, and to state it in crystal clear terms; and I have been subjected to some scorn for the mass of verbiage I am supposed to have put out in the process. Actually the total mass altogether is no greater than some of the very many books the dispensationalists have written; and anyhow I consider that it has been necessary, and only fair, to pay these writers the compliment of a full and thorough refutation. This now stands written; but if any more problems arise, I am quite willing to tackle them on demand. After a complex case has been met and answered, it is always easy. to see how much more simply the work could have been done.

I think those who have criticised me for these studies ought to ask themselves which is the better: a sound and thorough examination of the facts; or a casual casting aside of everything, "throwing out the baby with the bath water"? I emphasize this point, for it seems to me that a fashion has set in against "dispensational truth," and that many are doing this very thing, to their great loss.

This brings me to a booklet of a very different calibre. "The Berean Expositor" is reiterating what it has been teaching for some forty years. One of its former supporters, Mr. Thos. Glendinning, has lately scrapped its whole system. In his booklet "The Day of Redemption," he has set out the ideas which he has found in its place.

I do not propose to say much about this booklet here, because I do not yet properly understand the basis of Mr. Glendinning's novel ideas; but they have interested and stimulated me, and I have no doubt they will do the same for others. He notes the three distinct aspects of the Father's Will in Eph. 1:3-11 the third of which (to quote his own words) "The Counsel begins about A.D. 30 and terminates about A.D. 70, a period of 40 years, within this period the dispensation of Eph. 1:10 took place." (p. 21). In examining this, it is essential to keep in mind that he uses the word "dispensation" strictly as the equivalent of the Greek word "oikonomia," and confines his use of it to the passages where that word occurs (pp. 32, 33). He does not use it as "dispensationalists" do; and if this point is overlooked, he will certainly be unfairly misunderstood.

As I have remarked, I cannot perceive any adequate basis for this idea; so I can do no more than recommend others to study the booklet; not only on account of its very interesting positive teaching, but of the many interesting and important things its author has to say incidentally. It is a pleasure to come across a writer who is capable of dropping all preconceptions and viewing Scripture with fresh eyes, even where one cannot follow him.

I understand that Mr. Glendinning regards my inability to follow his novel idea as due, in part at least, to my inability to follow him in making a clean break with all "dispensational" teaching. No doubt this is so; but as I have already pointed out, I am by temperament and training unprepared to scrap even one grain of truth merely because my predecessors and their followers have hidden it within a mass of error. Others may see the matter quite differently; so I commend his booklet to their attention because I am reluctant to oppose a novel idea merely on the ground that it does not appeal to me. So convinced am I that the covenant-noncovenant sequence is as it were the backbone of Scripture viewed historically, that I treat with great caution any interpretation of some part of Scripture which does not appear to fit into the sequence. This does not imply immediate and uncompromising opposition to the new interpretation. On the contrary, I have so often found myself mistaken, and so often found others mistaken, that I am convinced that we should never reject a fresh idea at sight.

More strongly than ever now do I believe that in this era we are as men wending our way along a forest trail. No doubt God could, as it were, carry us from clearing to clearing by aeroplane. No doubt He did so enlighten specially favoured ones like the Apostle Paul; but if He had wanted us to proceed along the way to enlightenment by leaps instead of by slow and painful struggle, He would have made provision accordingly, and the Greek Scriptures would have been a very different book.

In conclusion, I would like to enlarge on the point made at the start of this paper: that at various points of time God has revealed hitherto unknown truths. This is, I think, almost universally acknowledged; but the dispensationalists have confused the whole idea by their teaching that at "a change of dispensation" certain truths cease to be true and are replaced by other truths. This is, as I have pointed out, wholly untenable. As circumstances change, some truth may cease to be applicable, but it can never cease to be true. The theory of electricity and magnetism is quite inapplicable to the study of the flora of Madagascar or the history of ancient Egypt, but it is nevertheless a part of truth. God's Word is not like a rising and falling tide. It progresses in a stately and regular development from Genesis onward. What is revealed in the Apostle Paul's Epistles will never be superseded or scrapped; though much of it is, and will remain, inapplicable to people who are under covenant; just as the matters which belong essentially to covenant are inapplicable to ourselves. But the fact remains that we have many things to learn from covenant teaching; and in due time God's Covenant People will have many things to learn from what He has revealed to us. No good is ever lost. Until we have taught ourselves to view Scripture as a whole, we have not learnt to view it at all: it is seen as a mere collection of texts. But that is what Scripture should not be. It is a revelation, not a scrapbook.

R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 24.9.2005