Saturday, 8 October 2016

Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? by Keith Mathison

Keith A. Mathison, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? 1995 Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing

Dispensationalism is a system of Premillennial evangelical theology that makes a consistent distinction between God's program for Israel and His purposes in the Church. It is best known for its views on the rapture and the end times. As an Evangelical, I was enthusiastic about Dispensationalism and chose J.N. Darby, the founder of this system as the topic for my PhD thesis.

Mathison's provides a critique against Dispensationalism from Reformed/ Calvinist perspective. He not only addresses the distinctive beliefs of Dispensationalists about eschatology, but also attacks them on issues of soteriology. While many Dispensational theologians claim to be 'Four-Point Calvinists,' Mathison argues that they are wobbly on all of the five points of Calvinism and other key theological issues. Since becoming a Catholic, I have become more positive in my views of Calvinism than I was as an Arminian Evangelical, nevertheless, I find Calvinist polemics rather tedious to read. Mathison is one of the many Calvinists who insist on calling Arminianism 'semi-Pelagian.' No doubt, he would also call Catholics semi-Pelagian, despite the Catholic Church's condemnation of semi-Pelagianism as heresy.

This is a rather harsh critique. Mathison makes little attempt to build bridges with Dispensationalists or acknowledge the positive aspects of their theology. I suspect Dispensationalist readers will be put on the defensive. Vern Poythress wrote a much kinder and irenic critique of Dispensationalism which is well worth reading.

One interesting point, from a Catholic perspective: In the preface, our author quotes a lady who says that she believes in the Pre-Tribulation rapture because "all the famous prophecy scholars" teach it. In contrast, Mathison urges readers not to form their opinions on the basis of what Bible teachers say, but on the basis of Scripture. The problem with Mathison's counsel is that the prophecy teachers that this unknown lady favours would also claim to base their opinions on the teaching of Scripture. In effect, Mathison is advising this lady and other readers not to follow Scripture, which they already aspire to do, but to trust their own opinion of what it means, rather than the opinion of their pastor or favorite author. Given the crassness of some evangelical writers and speakers, that might be wiser, but it raises the fundamental problem with Sola Scriptura, that one becomes in the end the ulimate judge of religious questions. Even Mathison admits to the need of something of a teaching magisterium with his Reformed creeds.

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