Dispensational Theology

The Greatness of the Kingdom, by Alva J. McClain (Zondervan, 1959, 556 pp., $6.95), is reviewed by George Eldon Ladd, Professor of Biblical Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, and author of The Gospel of the Kingdom, soon to be published by Eerdmans.

The importance of this book must be measured against the not insignificant movement within evangelical Christianity which insists that a dispensational theology alone is a truly biblical theology and that any deviation is a movement toward liberalism. Alva McClain is president of Grace Theological Seminary and has been teaching theology for 30 years. This volume is the first in a projected series of seven which will treat the entire field of theology. Here is the mature product of one of America’s leading dispensationalist theologians setting forth an exhaustive biblical exposition of the kingdom of God which is the most important doctrine for dispensationalism. The book raises the question whether dispensational theology, as represented by this volume, can lay valid claim as legitimate spokesman for evangelical Christianity.

We must first clarify the nature of dispensational theology. The heart of the system is not seven dispensations nor a pretribulation rapture of the Church. It is the notion that God has two peoples, Israel and the Church, and two programs—a theocratic program for Israel and a redemptive program for the Church. Israel is a national people with material blessings and an earthly destiny; the Church is a universal people with spiritual blessings and a heavenly destiny. The oft-used verse, “rightly dividing the Word of truth,” means to discern between the Scriptures which apply to Israel and those which apply to the Church. Judaism and Christianity: these are two biblical religions which must not be confounded or confused (L. S. Chafer, Dispensationalism, Dallas, 1951, p. 107).

This is the pattern of McClain’s theology. The mediatorial kingdom of Christ is a blessing for Israel, not for the Church. “We meet … one insuperable obstacle to the view which equates the Messianic kingdom of Christ with his work as a personal Saviour of men. As to the latter, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile; each human soul must be saved in the same way of grace, and there are no national priorities. But in the established Kingdom on earth the nation of Israel will have the supremacy” (p. 424). Christ did not come to bring a spiritual Kingdom. That which he offered Israel was the earthly Davidic Kingdom. When it was rejected, he disclosed his purpose to bring into existence a new thing—the Church. But the Kingdom was not given to the Church (as the natural exegesis of Matt. 21:43 suggests; see 1 Pet. 2:9); it was rather deferred until a new generation of Jews (“a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”) accepts the Kingdom at the second advent of Christ. The idea of a present spiritual Kingdom is a “fiction” (p. 440); the Church is heir to salvation, not the Kingdom of God. The “mystery of the Kingdom” (Mark 4:11) is the existence of an interregnum between the arrival of the King and the establishment of the Kingdom (p. 325). The Pharisees, by their obstinate rejection of the King, shut both themselves and their contemporaries out of the Kingdom (Matt. 23:13) by causing its delay (p. 358).

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McClain attempts to exegete all references to the Kingdom in Acts and the Epistles in terms of the future earthly Jewish Kingdom. In Acts 3, the Kingdom was officially reoffered to Israel. Throughout Acts, the Kingdom is proclaimed as “an impending possibility, contingent upon the attitude of Israel toward the King” (p. 423). Such apparently clear passages as Colossians 1:13 which says that the saved have already been brought into the kingdom of Christ cannot be taken at face value but must be interpreted “judicially.” Believers are now de jure in the Kingdom; the reality awaits the establishment of the earthly Kingdom (p. 439 f.).

McClain achieves this structure not from an inductive exegesis of the New Testament but from the Old Testament. The prophets picture an earthly Kingdom with Israel as the favored nation under a Davidic King. This Old Testament concept McClain takes as the basic idea of the Kingdom, and the New Testament data are interpreted in light of the Old Testament pattern.

This brings us to the fundamental dispensational hermeneutic in contrast with that of classical theology. Classical theology recognizes progressive revelation and insists that the final meaning of the Old Testament is to be discovered as it is reinterpreted by the New Testament. McClain does indeed give lip service to this hermeneutic (p. 261) but he does not practice it. The natural exegesis of Colossians 1:13 places Christians in the present spiritual kingdom of Christ; but McClain’s hermeneutic will not tolerate this exegesis because the Kingdom, by definition (derived from the Old Testament) is an earthly kingdom with Israel at its center, and such a kingdom must await the return of Christ. Therefore Colossians 1:13 must have reference to this future Kingdom.

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This hermeneutic leading to the definition of the Kingdom as the earthly Davidic Kingdom raises two problems which McClain has failed to solve. The first is the relation of the Church to Israel and to the Davidic Kingdom. He admits that some kind of relationship exists. The Church is already experiencing the spiritual blessings of this future Kingdom—forgiveness, justification, regeneration, the gift of the Holy Spirit (p. 440), and the Church will be the spiritual nucleus of the future Kingdom (pp. 423, 429). McClain fails to explain by what logic the Church can experience the blessings of the Kingdom when the Kingdom itself is future. If the kingdom of God, as Paul says, is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17), and if such blessings are the present fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), then in some sense of the word the Kingdom itself must be present. The exegesis by which McClain tries to relegate such verses as Romans 14:17 (p. 434) and Col. 1:13 (p. 439 f.) to the future is unnatural and artificial; and he fails to discuss Luke 16:16 altogether. Furthermore, McClain fails to establish an intelligible relation between the Church and Israel in the future Kingdom. Israel will be the favored nation and will reign over the Gentiles (p. 149 ff.). The Church is to be the spiritual nucleus in the Kingdom (p. 429) and will occupy the place of honor (p. 330). The Church will not only be the spiritual nucleus in the Kingdom; but from its residence in heaven it will rule with Christ over the earth (pp. 496–499) much as a business man commutes to the city from his home in the suburbs (p. 500). How can the Church be both the “spiritual nucleus” of the Kingdom and yet rule from heaven over the earth? What is to be the relationship between Israel and the Church, both of whom are to reign over the earth during the Millennium? We look in vain for solutions to these problems.

An even more serious problem is that of the relation of the death of Christ to the Mediatorial Kingdom. Christ did not speak of his death until his offer of the Kingdom to Israel had been firmly rejected, and he disclosed his purpose to bring the Church into existence by his death. McClain places great stress on the fact that Jesus at first proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom with no word about his death and resurrection (p. 332). The conclusion is unavoidable: in McClain’s system, the Cross is relevant to the Church but not to the Kingdom. The proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom needed no work of the Cross. McClain dismisses the question of what would have happened if the Jews had received their Messiah as speculative and deserving no final answer. “The objector might well be reminded, however, that there was once in Old Testament history a Theocratic Kingdom on earth before Messiah died, and therefore the possibility [of a Kingdom without a cross] need not he rejected on a priori grounds” (p. 333, n. 21).

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This theological confusion stems from a basic failure to understand the nature of Christ’s mediatorial ministry; and this in turn derives from an unwillingness to accept the New Testament definition of the kingdom of God and to reinterpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament definition. McClain does indeed recognize verbally the New Testament concept of the Kingdom. “When the last enemy of God has been put down by our Lord, acting as Mediatorial King, the purpose of His Mediatorial Kingdom will have been fulfilled. As the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘He must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet’ (1 Cor. 15:25)” (p. 512). Just so! And Paul adds, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed (katargeo) is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). The kingdom of God is the reign of God in Christ to “destroy” or “put down” his enemies, the last of which is death. When death, Satan, sin, and all the evil which goes with them have been subdued, God’s kingdom will come. Indeed, the coming of the Kingdom means their destruction. The Kingdom is indeed future, awaiting the return of Christ.

But Scripture is clear that the death and resurrection of Christ have already begun the “destruction” of these enemies. By his death, Christ has “destroyed” (katargeo) him that has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2:14). Our Saviour, by his appearing, has “abolished” (katargeo) death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:10). Furthermore, the believer shares spiritually Christ’s death “that the body of sin might be destroyed” (Rom. 6:6) (katargeo). The “destruction” of Christ’s enemies is not a single act but two acts. By death and resurrection, Christ has won an initial victory over his enemies; by his Second Coming, he will finish the conquest of evil. Both are redemptive acts of Christ’s mediatorial reign. Therefore the kingdom of God, the redemptive rule of God, is both future and present. It has manifested itself in history, and it will manifest itself again at the end of history. We enjoy its blessings, and yet we look forward to its blessings. Fulfillment and consummation: these are the two stages in the accomplishment of God’s Kingdom.

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McClain’s system leads him to further difficulties. He recognizes that Christ is now enthroned at God’s right hand; but “this was not the throne of David transferred somehow from earth to heaven, as some have mistakenly supposed, but God the Father’s own Throne in the Universal Kingdom” (p. 34). But if, as McClain admits, the Mediatorial Kingdom means the subduing of such enemies as death, then the present session of Christ at God’s right hand by which he has been exalted over the powers of evil is at the heart of his mediatorial work. McClain fails to understand that the mediatorial work of Christ is concerned not only with the subduing of rebellion and evil on earth (p. 35) but with the subduing of rebellion and evil in the spiritual realm (Luke 10:18; John 12:31; 16:11; Eph. 1:20–22; Col. 1:15). Evil has a cosmic dimension of which McClain is not aware.

We must conclude that dispensationalism can be no substitute for classic theology because its false hermeneutic prohibits it from recognizing the true character of the kingdom of God as set forth in the New Testament. Dispensationalism is an Old Testament theology which is unable to fit New Testament theology into its system.

A final observation reflects unfavorably upon our author’s work. McClain, like most dispensationalists, has lost contact with the world of theological thought. Dispensationalism has never thrived upon dialogue with other theological points of view; it flourishes only in the hothouse of its own exclusive system. Most of the literature, exegetical and theological, cited to give support to his interpretation, is about two generations old. Alford, Lange, H. A. W. Meyer, Ellicott, and Godet are his chief New Testament authorities. Almost no modern literature on the kingdom of God is used. Certainly a theology designed to meet the needs of the twentieth century should be relevant to the issues of the hour.


Battle Against Temptation

Between God and Satan, by Helmut Thielicke, translated by C. C. Barber (Eerdmans, 1958, 77 pp., $2), is reviewed by the Rev. Cecil V. Crabb, Pastor of Rock Island (Tenn.) Presbyterian Church.

This little volume by the professor of systematic theology at the University of Hamburg is a very timely, profound discussion of the temptation of Christ. The author does not give us a mere devotional, homiletical treatment of this great theme but a profound, theological consideration of its meaning to Jesus and to the believer. He discusses each temptation clearly and in many ways in an original manner. In the first temptation he deals with the reality of hunger, the appeal of Satan to basic instinct. As the author well points out, the adversary does not assail Christ with mere speculative doubts in “the shadow art of apologetics” but challenges him in the “realm of concrete things.” In the second temptation the author deals with the “alluring miracle of display.” The devil takes his stand upon the fact of God, but only upon his own terms; and yet he presents a deity of sheer power and not of holy, personal will. In the third the author discusses Satan’s offer of universal dominion upon his own terms in contrast with Jesus’ kingdom of the world. Upon the background of “the shining landscape,” with “the globe in the devil’s hand,” the temptation is very alluring, since one passion of the Christ is to win the world to the Father.

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In these crucial times demonic power often seems manifested in a godless technology, ruthless dictatorships, dangerous ideologies, and religious myths of various kinds. Yet, after all, the real struggle is not here but goes back to that great historic mount of temptation where Christ defeated Satan decisively.

This bood will help the reader interpret world conflicts and strengthen him to meet his temptations.


Anthropology And Fiction

Man in Modern Fiction, by Edmund Fuller (Random House, 1958, 165 pp., $3.50), is reviewed by Henry W. Coray, author of Son of Tears.

Here is a kind of critique of pure literary reasoning long overdue. People concerned with the decline and fall of great writing will stand up and cheer. Mr. Fuller believes that modern fiction has made a sharp break with the great literary tradition, a break that finds its roots deep in anthropology as well as in theism. What has been the result? We have lost more than we have gained.

Basically, there are three images of man: the concept of man as innately good, God-emergent, progressing toward perfection; man as lost, desperately evil but still redeemable; man as soulless, morally unresponsible, sub-human, a stark animal product of the atheistic segment of the existentialist movement. It is against the exponents of this third doctrine that Fuller releases his angriest blast. He puts the James Joyce, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Philip Wylie, and Jack Kerouac school of writers on the table, operates with a scalpel honed to razor-edge sharpness, and lets you watch the patients soak in their own malignant juices.

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Edmund Fuller is master of the invective. But he does make his point; he turns on light as well as heat. There is, he argues, a terrifying split in the human family. It involves politics, ideas, art, and science. Man is divided against man. But basically it is a religious division, “for it simply is not possible to express a doctrine about the nature of man without a religious implication” (p. 6).

A serious flaw in the book is the misrepresentation of Calvin’s view of sin. One could wish that before Mr. Fuller attacked the Reformer, he had revisited the Institutes.


Editor’S Note

Beginning with this October 12, 1959, issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Volume IV will carry consecutive cumulative page numbering, in addition to individual issue page numbering. This new arrangement should facilitate more satisfactory use of the index for library reference and research and for general purposes.

For All?

For Whom Did Christ Die? by R. B. Kuiper (Eerdmans, 1959, 104 pp., $2), is reviewed by G. Aiken Taylor, Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, Louisiana.

This is a serious theological treatise on the divine design of the Atonement. The author’s preoccupation, in traditional and typical Dutch Calvinistic fashion, is with the question: Did Christ die for all or for some?

Existing viewpoints generally fall within three broad categories, according to the author. Unrestricted Universalism, traceable in history as far back as Origen, preaches the ultimate salvation of all men. Its modern exponents include not only professed Universalists but an increasing number of representatives of all major denominations, such as Nels Ferré, C. H. Dodd, J. A. T. Robinson, William P. Paterson and others.

Arminian Universalism or “inconsistent” Universalism is widespread among so-called evangelicals and even fundamentalists. This view holds that the Atonement was universal in its design, but limited in its accomplishment. The Trinity are said to have purposed the salvation of all, yet somehow that purpose is frustrated by men, for plainly not all are saved. Dr. Kuiper adds Karl Barth to the company already mentioned, of “inconsistent” universalists. His view of election makes him “clearly innocent of consistency at this point.”

Particularism, identified with historic Calvinism, is the third alternative, of course. The author makes a strong case for the Reformed doctrine of limited Atonement as the Scriptural teaching. He argues that practical experience and the need for consistency as well as the overwhelming weight of all the scriptural data combine to support the conclusion that Christ died only for those who are numbered among the elect.

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Preaching The Word

Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, edited by Vernon Latrelle Stanfield (Harper, 1959, 147 pp., $2.75), is reviewed by H. C. Brown, Jr., Professor of Preaching, Southwestern Theological Seminary.

The Master, the minister, the message, the members of the congregation, and the mechanics of homiletics (preparation and delivery) are the normative elements in the preaching situation. While it is not desirable or perhaps even possible to arrange these in a complete order of relative importance, one should easily recognize that the minister, next to the Lord, is the most important factor in the experience of preaching.

John Albert Broadus, according to Dr. V. L. Stanfield, ably filled the role of being a qualified man for the high calling of preaching. Stanfield closes his introduction on the life, devotion, character and preaching of John A. Broadus with a statement and quotation reflecting his estimate of the personality and preaching of Broadus: “It was … the total impact of man and message that made John A. Broadus such a tremendously popular preacher to his own generation. In Broadus, his audience sensed reality. One listener summarized and made articulate what many felt about Broadus’ preaching. ‘It was not so much what he said. It did seem that almost anyone might have said what he was saying. But it was the man behind the message. He spoke with the authority of one who tested and knew the truth.’ ”

Furthermore, Stanfield in his introduction lists four other factors responsible for Broadus’ greatness as a preacher: (1) his devotion to God’s message, (2) the simplicity of his preaching, (3) his concern for spiritual decision when he preached, (4) and his effective method of preparation and delivery of sermons.

The 24 sermons in this book, complete messages and outlines, ably demonstrate that John A. Broadus not only could write about and teach homiletics, but that he could also prepare appealing sermons. These messages are lucid, attractive, forceful, and relevant. They are worthy to be studied from the standpoint of practical homiletics, as well as for devotional and spiritual values.


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