Academics meet for a debate with implications that are hardly academic.

The view that evangelism—verbally spreading the gospel—is the highest priority among believers is one that has come to be associated with theological conservatives. It is a view that has caused many to shun involvement in such activities as politics, the arts, and social ministry, except when these activities can be viewed as means to the end of spreading God’s spiritual kingdom.

But in the 1970s, the writings of the late philosopher Francis Schaeffer and the rise of the Moral Majority helped pave the way for a new way of thinking among conservatives on the question of how they should interact with the structures of this world. Without downgrading the importance of evangelism, many now reject the view that the kingdom of God in this age is merely spiritual in nature. They thus urge a greater emphasis on reforming the structures of society—politics, education, economics—according to principles prescribed in the Bible.

Among those who advocate this latter view is the Coalition on Revival (COR), which is trying to rally conservative troops around a common philosophy for reforming this world. According to COR director Jay Grimstead, the believing community must come to fundamental agreement on the nature of the kingdom of God “if the church is to move forward with the proper unity and strength.”

With this in mind, a team of theologians and writers associated with COR drafted a statement last year of 25 affirmations and denials on the kingdom of God, or the nature of God’s reign. COR then invited scholars most likely to disagree with the statement—mainly dispensational theologians—to a debate.

That debate took place late in January in Washington, D.C. Those arguing in favor of the document included Gary DeMar of Atlanta-based American Vision; Henry Krabbendam of Covenant College; and Joseph Kickasola of Regent University (formerly CBN University). Among the dispensational theologians who formed a rebuttal team were Phil Lueck of Northwestern College; Harold Hoehner of Dallas Theological Seminary; and Wayne Strickland of Capital Bible Seminary.

A Critique of the Affirmations

Anabapist theologian Ronald Sider and New Testament scholar Gilbert Bilezikian of Wheaton College responded to CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s request to critique the document that served as the centerpiece for COR’s January conference. Their evaluations are summarized below.

• Sider expressed agreement with most of the document, adding that “it may help a certain range of evangelicals become more involved in public life.” He suggested some minor revisions in wording, including in one case where he felt the document implies the Bible’s endorsement of a particular economic system.

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Sider added that he was more concerned about what the affirmations either omit or fail to stress. He cited, for example, the “inadequate emphasis on the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit today as a sign of the kingdom.” He said also that the document contains “virtually no hint of the constant teaching in both Testaments that the King of the kingdom has a special concern for the poor, weak, and marginalized.”

Sider said it was possible to read “theonomist leanings into [the document], but that the document itself does not require such a reading. He said the crucial question is one of methodology, of how to translate biblical truths to public-policy prescriptions.” Said Sider, “If [COR is] serious about a real dialogue in the body of Christ, then the next challenge is for them to be open to the full range of evangelical viewpoints.”

• Bilezikian said he was troubled that the document’s drafters appeared deliberately to avoid defining their concept of the kingdom and their proposed methods for establishing it. “These articles seem to be devised to obtain, if not the cooperation of the dispensationalists, at least their neutrality,” he said. Nevertheless, he predicted most dispensationalists would find the document’s core concepts unacceptable.

Bilezikian faulted both theonomists and dispensationalists. “In different ways,” he said, “they each conjure up a Judaizing agenda to supplement and even supplant the New Covenant agencies of Christ and the church to bring about the kingdom.” Thus, he added, “they rob the church of its ultimacy as God’s pleroma [Greek for the concept of ‘fullness’] and they supplement the Cross with an Old Covenant type kingdom program to be realized prior to the [second coming of Christ] for reconstructionism (theonomy), and following it for dispensationalism.”

Historical First

The dialogue revealed opponents’ fundamentally different orientations to Scripture. Said Kickasola, a primary drafter of the document, “We had variant exegeses of nearly every relevant biblical text.”

At the center of the dispute was the issue of whether Christ is reigning over the whole world today, or if his reign is limited to the church. Dispensationalists emphasized the futility of trying to change the world in the current age, maintaining that Christ has the authority to reign but has chosen not to exercise it until he returns. In the meantime, according to this view, Satan is the ruler of the world.

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Those who drafted the document argued that Christ is now reigning, and his followers with him. They expressed optimism about the prospect for changing the world according to biblical norms. This led to further debate on the nature of those norms, including the relevance of the Old Testament to Christian living.

In the end, participants voiced unanimous consensus on 10 of the 25 affirmations, though only 6 were rejected unanimously. There were mixed votes on the remaining 9, suggesting that consensus could be reached with clarification or modified wording, something participants tried to do before running out of time.

Kickasola said the meeting marked “the first time in history that a panel of dispensationalist and nondispensationalist theologians have met to discuss in detail their agreements and disagreements.” Praising Grimstead for bringing the group together, Kickasola proclaimed, “Both sides won the battle of trying to understand each other and achieve some basis for unity beyond ‘Christ is Lord.’ ”

Opposing Evaluations

Nevertheless, Dallas seminary’s Hoehner said he had no interest in a continued association with COR. “I think the whole thing is wrong-headed,” he said. “I just can’t buy their basic presupposition that we can do anything significant to change the world. And you can waste an awful lot of time trying.” Hoehner suggested this would be time better spent on evangelism.

But Northwestern College’s Lueck is more optimistic that there can be meaningful cooperation between the opposing theological camps despite their disagreement. “Some of our differences are semantic,” he said. “I’ve been pushing for a lot of the same things they’re advocating, but I never put it in terms of extending the kingdom.” Lueck expressed hope that COR would be able to gain “the support of bigger names than were [at the dialogue.]”

Lueck said one of his concerns prior to the dialogue was COR’s association with advocates of theonomy, the view that the laws governing Old Testament, theocratic Israel, as modified by the New Testament, are normative for civil government today. Among those listed on COR’s letterhead are such key theonomic thought leaders as Gary North and R. J. Rushdoony.

Lueck said he came away from the dialogue convinced that many in COR do not consider themselves theonomists, and that those who do “are not interested in imposing their views [on society] by violent means or coerciveness.”

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In fact, Kickasola emphasized that theonomists are interested in “right, not might.” “We want [Mosaic Law] as the New Testament interpreted it,” said Kickasola. While there is disagreement among theonomists on the details of implementing these laws, he said, there is “complete unity as far as I can discern on the mode of implementation, and that is not revolution, but revival.”

Image Problems

DeMar lamented that critics of theonomy continue to focus on controversial positions held by some theonomists, such as supporting the stoning of homosexuals. DeMar said theonomists spend most of their time on issues on which there is consensus, such as abortion, economics, and education.

Nevertheless, he is firm in his view that the approach to Scripture taken by dispensationalists is simply wrong, suggesting that dispensationalists pick and choose from the Old Testament. “I challenge those who don’t believe [Old Testament laws] apply anymore to provide a good hermeneutical model that explains why.” Dispensationalists maintained at the debate that the Old Testament is applicable today only in cases where its principles are reaffirmed by the New Testament.

According to some participants, one shortcoming of January’s debate was that it did not allow sufficient room for those who have disagreements with both major theological positions represented. Among those present, for example, was Thomas Finger of Eastern Mennonite Theological Seminary, who approaches these issues from an Anabaptist perspective.

“Dispensationalists from my point of view are far too spiritualist,” said Finger, adding that he agreed with most of the affirmations of the COR document and with the view that the earthly kingdom of God is operational in this age. But he said, “How you interpret Scripture is at least as important as the general affirmation of the presence of the kingdom.” Finger expressed hope that COR would include evangelicals who believe the kingdom is present, but whose political views and understanding of the applicability of the Old Testament are at odds with the leanings of COR.

Grimstead has organized a committee, including representatives from both sides of the January debate, to plan a similar dialogue for next January.

Next year’s debate will focus on the central areas of disagreement. Grimstead said he is committed to broadening the discussion to include other theological perspectives, but that he is uncertain as to how that will be accomplished.

By Randy Frame in Washington, D.C.

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