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PFRS Home > Doctrinal Studies > Progressive Dispensationalism

Progressive Dispensationalism
Copyright © Tim Warner

The Problem:
Even the casual student of Scripture is aware that the Old Testament and the New Testament present different approaches to how God deals with man. The Bible itself recognizes this. In John's prologue to his Gospel, he drew this distinction by saying, "the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." The book of Hebrews opens with a similar statement. "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds." The entire book of Hebrews goes on to compare and contrast the "better covenant" with the Law given through Moses. Christianity must reconcile both Testaments in order to embrace the whole Bible as the Word of God. The apparent disparity between Testaments has led to the development of several theological systems.

Jesus and the Apostles handed down a complete system which harmonized both Old and New Testaments. However, from the very beginning men allowed their own human philosophies to color how they viewed the Scriptures. Just as Paul warned the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, after his departure false teachers began to draw away disciples after themselves. Because of this, the early orthodox Christian churches found themselves competing with a variety of false pseudo-Christian cults, called Gnostics. They were forced to defend the Pristine Faith against these heresies springing up attempting to choke the Word of God and the primitive Church. While their struggle against heresies was difficult and often put the early Church in turmoil, it forced the orthodox Church to refine Christian apologetics, and put down in writing the oral teaching of the Apostles.

The Jewish Solution
The disparity between Testaments was not a problem for the Jews. They simply rejected Jesus Christ and the entire New Testament. To the Jews, the New Testament represented a false religion of the followers of an executed criminal. The "Father" Jesus proclaimed was not the God of Israel, in Jewish thinking. Moses was the final authority for the Jews. Jesus of Nazareth was an impostor.

The "Mystical" Solution - Gnosticism:
The Gnostics were a group of cult like sects who claimed to be Christian, yet rejected most of the Christian fundamentals. Some of these sects developed very early, while John was still alive. They multiplied greatly throughout the second century and became a real problem for the orthodox churches. Many of them found a home in Alexandria, Egypt, the center of philosophy and mystical thought. The prologue to John's Gospel (John ch. 1) and his first and second Epistles deal with an early form of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were mystics, heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato. The Gnostic world view was vertical. That is, Greek thought viewed the cosmos as engaged in a dualistic struggle between heaven and hades, with the physical creation in the middle of this struggle. The primary premise of Gnosticism was that matter (the tangible creation and physical reality) is inherently evil. That is, the source of all evil that we see around us comes from physical matter. "Salvation" or escape from the influence of evil was to escape the physical creation. It was attaining to a higher spiritual heavenly reality which they called the "pleroma" (Greek for "fulness"). Gnostics viewed the earth and physical reality as the basest existence. Attaining the cosmic destiny by escaping the bondage of the physical creation was their ultimate goal. This goal could be attained only through receiving mystical "gnosis" (hidden knowledge), and with the help of spiritual being called "Aeons."

Because Gnostics viewed the creation as corrupt and evil, they thought the Creator (the God of the Jews) was a defective God who imprisoned man with His laws and selfishly demanded worship. They claimed the God of the Old Testament was not the "Father" Jesus proclaimed, but a lesser god, a defective "Aeon." They got rid of the problem of harmonizing the Old and New Testaments with a dichotomy between "gods" who had completely different and conflicting "programs."
One of the best known Gnostic cults, followers of Marcion, claimed that only Paul's Epistles and Luke's Gospel were inspired. They used Paul's explanation of the "mystery" to claim that the new revelation of Gnosticism was not prophesied at all in the Old Testament. They flatly rejected the Old Testament concept of a restored creation and the Kingdom of God coming to earth. Rather, they envisioned a cosmic destiny for a special "elect," who, despite the bungling of the creator Aeon, had a divine spark within them. Because of their loathing of the material creation, they naturally denied the resurrection of the body, and a literal Kingdom of Christ on a restored earth. Gnostics relied heavily on allegorical interpretation of Scripture. To them, the real truths of Scripture were secret, meant only for this enlightened "elect." The secrets of Gnosticism were therefore not derived from the normal literal reading of the text of Scripture.
The Orthodox Solution - Chiliasm:
Early orthodox Christian writers denounced the Gnostic approach, and insisted on holding to what had been handed down by the Apostles. Irenaeus (AD120-202) wrote five volumes cataloging and refuting the beliefs of the various Gnostic cults. His approach was to demonstrate HARMONY between the Old Testament and New Testament. He proved from a multitude of Scripture citations and logical arguments that the present dispensation was prophesied in the Old Testament, and is the next step in a single progressive plan for the redemption of mankind. To the early orthodox Christians, the "mystery" was the Gospel contained in the Old Testament, hidden in such a way that it could not be understood until revealed by Jesus to His Apostles. Now, through the Church, it is being made known to all nations. It was no longer hidden.

The Gnostics sought to climb to a higher cosmic reality and to escape the lower physical creation through the accumulation of mystical knowledge. But, the orthodox Christians (and the Jews) had a horizontal world view. They viewed man's existence in consecutive ages within the created order. They believed the destiny of believers was Christ's coming eschatological Kingdom. Their hope was not a spiritual existence in the "pleroma," but the "restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3:21). That is, the redemption of the physical creation at Christ's coming Kingdom. This theology was called "Chiliasm" (kil'-E-az-um) after the Greek word "chilia" (kil'-E-a) meaning "millennium." They were called this by later writers because they interpreted the 1000 year "millennium" in Rev. 20 literally.

Orthodox Christianity differed fundamentally from Gnosticism at its basic premise. That is, the creation was made by God, and was originally "good." God came into His creation, and began the restoration process through the incarnation of Christ, the God-man. The physical body of the Christian was destined for salvation. It was called "resurrection." Likewise, the rest of the creation was destined for renovation as well, in which resurrected mankind could enjoy intimate and tangible fellowship with the Creator.

The orthodox writers used the literal method of interpretation in both Testaments to support this position. Some of them also used "types" from the Old Testament as additional support, but not typically at the expense of the literal interpretation. (Sometimes this is confused with allegorical interpretation which claims non literal meanings at the expense of the literal meaning). They recognized that the "mystery" of which Paul wrote, was the Gospel contained in the Old Testament in enigmatic form so that it could not be understood until Christ came and revealed it to His Apostles, and then sent them out to all nations with the good news of the Kingdom.
Origen's Solution - Semi-Gnosticism:
The orthodox opinion about the creation and its destiny was not all that appealing to the educated Greeks. The idea that the material creation was to be redeemed, and the bodies of believers were destined for resurrection in a material form, was seen as silly to the intellectuals steeped in Greek philosophy. Origen, a third century Alexandrian writer, attempted to merge Christian orthodoxy with the same dualistic Greek philosophies that drove Gnostic thinking. Origen was skilled in Greek philosophy and Christianity. He attempted to make Christianity acceptable to students of Greek philosophy. In doing so, he went far beyond what the Apostles and prophets taught. He used an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament to inject the philosophy of Plato into the Scriptures. Origen's theology had a familiar ring for Gentile Christians raised in the Greek culture steeped in philosophy, and seemed to harmonize the Bible with the familiar Greek poets. But, Origen's allegorical methodology subtly undermined the fabric of orthodoxy. By his skill in writing, his command of Greek philosophy, and his apparent zeal in winning over the intellectuals, Origen's influence began to sway Christian thinking away from Chiliasm.

While Origen acknowledged one God in both Testaments, he accepted the "cosmic destiny" ideas of Gnosticism, and opposed the eschatological physical Kingdom of Christ held by the orthodox writers before him. His world view was mostly vertical, like the Gnostics and Greek philosophers. Origen was a teacher, and head of the Alexandrian school. His theology was based on a teacher's mindset. Origen taught that the whole creation was a classroom for the education of mankind. God's interaction with man within the creation was a maturing process to make him fit for inhabiting his cosmic destiny. Origen believed souls existed prior to birth, but were sent to earth for training in the physical realm so they could excel in their "cosmic" roles after this training was ended. He denied the resurrection of the body for the saved. And he taught that in the end, everyone would be saved and achieve their cosmic destiny, including Satan himself!

Origen is considered the father of allegorical interpretation of Scripture at the expense of the literal meaning. Thanks to Origen, the allegorical interpretive methods, formerly used almost exclusively by Gnostics, became acceptable. It was Origen and his Alexandrian school that turned many of the churches away from the Pristine Faith to a hybrid orthodox - Hellenistic Faith. While Gnosticism itself, with its absurd speculations, was an external problem for the churches founded by the Apostles, Origen brought some of the subtle thinking and assumptions of Gnosticism into mainstream Christianity.
Augustine's Solution - Amillennialism:
Augustine (4th century) was no doubt strongly influenced by Origen, but was more orthodox. Unlike Origen, he maintained a physical resurrection of the body. In short, he developed what is now called "amillennialism." Augustine's world view was both vertical and horizontal. He saw history coming to a climax with the return of Christ. All men then either went to heaven or hell for eternity. Like Origen and the Gnostics, He did not believe in a future material Kingdom of Christ on earth, nor a redeemed and restored creation.

Augustine used a dual interpretive method. Very often he interpreted Scripture literally, and was quite orthodox in many areas. But, where Old Testament prophecy was concerned, especially regarding the restoration of the earth and Kingdom of God, he felt free to allegorize the Scriptures. Augustine's influence dominated Christianity from the fourth century, and still dominates both Catholicism and Reformed theology of mainline Protestantism. His cosmic destiny for the saved remains a staple of Christianity in the minds of many Christians. 
Darby's Solution - Dispensationalism:
The Reformation overturned a great deal of Roman Catholic theology. But, the overall views of cosmology remained. Augustine's ideas that had endured for a thousand years continued in the Reformed churches. Things began to change, however, in the early nineteenth century. John Nelson Darby, founding member of the Plymouth Brethren, recognized the error of interpreting Old Testament prophecy allegorically. He insisted on using a more literal method. However, he was once again faced with the original problem. God has dealt differently in the Old Testament with Israel than in the New Testament with the Church. The destiny of the redeemed according to the Old Testament was Christ's coming Kingdom, and the restoration of the creation. Yet, Darby had no reason to doubt Augustine's heavenly destiny concept for Church. Darby's solution was to claim a complete dichotomy between Israel and the Church. Up until Darby, Christians have always considered "the Church" to include all of the redeemed, including Old Testament saints. Darby devised two classes of "elect," an "earthly people" which was consistent with the Messianic Kingdom hopes, and a "heavenly people" which he thought was consistent with the "heavenly hopes" of the Augustinian view.

In our estimation, Darby did a lot of good by bringing the literal method of interpretation back into use regarding prophecy, and once again popularizing the ancient millennial view (what is today called "Premillennialism"). However, Darby was still influenced by his amillennial - Augustinian background in the Anglican Church. The "cosmic destiny" ideas that had been a staple of Christian theology since the 4th century, remained firmly fixed in Darby's thinking. By rediscovering the literal hermeneutic and applying it to the Old Testament, yet still holding the "cosmic destiny" ideas of amillennialism and using allegory when dealing with the "Church,"1 Darby was forced to develop a dichotomy between Israel and the Church in order to explain two seemingly radically different destinies for the elect. We believe dispensationalism was a step in the right direction. But, Darby was mistaken to simply assume amillennialism's "cosmic destiny" for the Church, originally borrowed from Gnosticism. In order to harmonize his literal interpretation of the Old Testament and his Augustinian view of the New Testament, Darby was forced to adopt some of the dualistic thinking of one of Christianity's earliest heretics, Marcion. This included Marcion's view that Paul was exclusively the Apostle of the "mystery," and that the "mystery" had no basis whatever in the Old Testament Scriptures which concern a different people and program.2 Darby did not, however, take this step to such an extreme as to divorce the God of the Jews from the God of Christians, as did Marcion. We are not the only ones to notice Darby's adoption of some of Marcion's thinking.

"Marcion's teachings have points of similarity with the doctrine of dispensationalism, as taught by some later Protestants such as J. N. Darby (1800-1882). Both saw the true church, as they defined it, as being outside world history in a sense; both saw one law had been made for the Jews, and that Christians lived under a different law (or dispensation), that of grace." 3

PFRS' Solution - A Return to "Chiliasm" / Progressive Dispensationalism:
In keeping with the whole purpose of the Pristine Faith Restoration Society, which is to discover and restore the earliest Christian tradition, we naturally must promote and defend the earliest Christian view of the destiny of the redeemed. Our "system," if one must call it that, is a radical modification of Darby's Dispensationalism, called "Progressive Dispensationalism." Don't let the name scare you. It is simply a return to the "Chiliasm" of the early Church before the Greek influence overturned the ancient hope of a restored creation. Darby took the first major step, that of taking a literal approach to Old Testament prophecy. We are simply taking the next step that puts our theology in line with that of the early Church (and the Bible). Progressive Dispensationalism holds to a single progressive plan of redemption that includes Israel and the Gentiles, as well as the whole creation. It includes a single destiny for the redeemed — Christ's eschatological Kingdom and a restored creation. And it interprets the Old Testament promises to Israel literally, being fully realized in that coming physical Kingdom. Progressive Dispensationalism is able to use a consistent hermeneutic in both Testaments, and explain the differences between God's dealings with Israel as a nation and the whole Church as a redeemed body. Progressive Dispensationalism does these things exactly the same way Irenaeus did in the second century when he refuted Marcion and other Gnostics. It is by illustrating that the present "Church" was prophesied in the Old Testament, albeit in a kind of enigma (mystery). This mystery was explained to the Apostles by Jesus from the Old Testament Scriptures. Progressive Dispensationalism relies heavily on the actual interpretations of the Old Testament by the New Testament writers.

In the following articles, we will present the biblical arguments in support of Progressive Dispensationalism. These articles were written primarily for traditional dispensationalists, and will be best understood by those of that background (which is also the background of this author). However, amillennialists will no doubt also find them informative and helpful. Our approach is not to tear down competing systems held by other Christians. Rather, we intend to build our case from a positive exposition of the Word of God. Occasionally we will have to point out errors of other systems. Our premise is that this view is the oldest Christian view historically, and the view most consistent with the natural reading of both Testaments. The articles are listed in the left column. They are best read in sequence.


1. In Darby's first article on prophecy, published in 1830, he wrote: "First, in prophecy, when the Jewish church or nation (exclusive of the Gentile parenthesis in their history) is concerned, i.e., when the address is directly to the Jews, there we may look for a plain and direct testimony, because earthly things were the Jews' proper portion." "And on the contrary, where the address is to the Gentiles...there we may look for symbol, because earthly things were not their portion... When therefore facts are addressed to the Jewish church as a subsisting body ... I look for a plain, common-sense, literal statement.... On the other hand, as the church was a system of grace and heavenly is...symbolized by analogous agencies." [p. 35]. (J. N. Darby, On Days Signifying Years in Prophetic Language, Prophetic No. 1, The Collected writings of JND, compiled by William Kelly, p. 35. First appeared in The Christian Herald Dec. 1830, Dublin, Ireland)
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. XIII, 1
3. Clifton, Chas S., Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, Barnes & Noble, 1992, p. 91

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