A Handful of Mud: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (XV)

March 19, 2010

The next major topic in regard to the Book of Revelation that I am going to take on is the meaning of the “kingdom (of God)” in the book.  However, before delving into the usage of the specific terminology and related concepts in the Apocalypse, I am going to do an introductory post on the current status of the “kingdom” idea in certain evangelical circles, which has shifted quite a bit in just the past 20 years or so.  (This is the kind of piece in which my partial expertise in theology and church history, over and beyond biblical studies—my first love—is very helpful.)

When I was in the master’s program at Dallas Theological Seminary 35 years ago, things could hardly have been more polarized between the views of dispensational and covenant theologians.   The Dallas Seminary-centered dispensational orbit, largely led by the views of Drs. Walvoord, Ryrie and Pentecost—all classroom professors of mine, by the way—all saw the “kingdom” idea in the New Testament as being almost entirely future, notably centered in the 1,000-year reign of Christ spoken of in Revelation 20.  By contrast, the amillennial scholars at schools like Westminster and the then fledgling Reformed seminaries held to a present-tense kingdom, in and through the church, though it did extend into eternity future, after the Second Coming of Christ.

Now, what’s most striking to me about what has taken place as these two major systems have moved notably closer to each other in the expressed views of what would have to be considered the emerging “best and brightest” on both sides of the aisle is this: it was not from the standpoint of systematic theology primarily that the changes came about, even though the changes did have major doctrinal ramifications.  Instead, it was the contributions of sustained exegetical and biblical theology studies work on both sides that began and continued the thawing of these two great theological glaciers, which have, over the last roughly two decades, seen the “cutting edge” of both theological movements slide—barely perceptibly to a surprising degree—to where they are no longer that far apart, at least in broad brushstrokes.

For example, many in wider Dallas Seminary circles (notably, the “progressive dispensationalism” movement, led by Drs. Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising—formerly of DTS, currently Provost at Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth—and Bob Saucy, of Talbot School of Theology) now see a present form of the kingdom of God that is much more significant.  Over the last couple of decades, the get-togethers of the Dispensationalism Study Group just before the annual national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society has definitely played a large part in that.  And, there is a growing group of covenant/Calvinist scholars (e.g., Drs. Vern Poythress, Willem VanGemeren and others) who are increasingly willing to speak of a future form of the kingdom, even a kingdom of an earthly variety.  On occasion, they have even met with dispensationalists and had very constructive—and congenial—interaction in this area.

Why did this happen?  While it is certainly not a comprehensive explanation, a lot had to do with the fact that, while systematic theological treatments tend to be definitive and very black and white and often stir up a lot of emotional “heat” (i.e., defensiveness), exegetical and biblical theology studies tend to be more “modest” and “baby step” in their implications, requiring quite a bit of dialogue to cover that much ground and, as result, stir up less heat and produce more light (i.e., a willingness to listen and openly consider what is being said).

Bottom line: If the icy distance between the dispensational concept of the kingdom and that of their rival evangelical viewpoint, covenant theology, is visualized as having been, say, a mile apart in 1975, it is probably fair to say that the creative edges of the two movements in 2010 are now perhaps a quarter mile apart.

Will they ever come completely to the same identical position?  That is highly unlikely, given the ongoing hermeneutical distinctives of each viewpoint.  However, it is certainly possible that even greater common ground can be found as exegetical/biblical theology studies continue,   potentially including the next few posts.

But, something else very interesting also happened in regard to evangelical belief in the “kingdom of God” during this past 35 years.  The “battle for the Bible” in the Southern Baptist Convention ended up pushing much of the conservative wing of the SBC in the direction of Dallas Seminary, a fairly natural theological partner in the conservative enterprise.

Why “natural,” you ask?  Because during the period between the 1960s and the early ‘80s, when the “moderate” wing of the SBC had firm control of the denominational machinery, including the seminaries, many of the conservative ministers-to-be in the SBC went elsewhere to get at least their master’s degree, in order to get a solid biblical/theological grounding, schools like Trinity and Gordon-Conwell, yes, but also to Grace, Western, Talbot and especially to Dallas, the only major option in their primary geographical region: the South.  For example, by the master’s class of 1976 at DTS—my graduating class—there were far more SBC background students than any other denomination represented… and that trend only continued to grow.  Also, professors from DTS, and graduates from the school teaching elsewhere, began to get involved in SBC churches and, by the 1990s, especially those holding PhD degrees from prestigious American and European universities and seminaries, were beginning to find their way onto the faculties of SBC schools, particularly the seminaries.

Why is this significant for the topic of the “kingdom of God?”  Well, all you really have to do is to compare the doctrinal statements of Dallas Seminary and the SBC (i.e., currently the Baptist Faith and Message 2000) and do a little bit of “outside the box” thinking.  In the DTS doctrinal position, there is essentially nothing said about the kingdom at all.  Yes, the dispensation of the “millennium” is in play, as is the future eternal state.  But, that’s about it.  By contrast, the BFM2000 has a great deal to say about the “kingdom of God,” but completely avoids the specific eschatological issues that dominate the DTS perspective, such as the Rapture, Tribulation and Millennium.

So, you may be wondering (and with good reason!), with such huge differences in their official doctrinal stances, how is it that the DTS and conservative SBC types could end up working together so well?  The explanation is actually quite simple.  It had comparatively little to do with what the doctrinal statements actually said—though the fact that most of the rest of the DTS doctrinal position and the BFM2000 are, on the whole, quite compatible cleared the way.  Instead, it was the areas of utter silence that allowed for the finding of common ground in the area of eschatology.

What do I mean by that?  Well, if a doctrinal statement or creed does not speak to an issue, it is assumed that the person who has to adhere to that doctrinal summary is free to believe whatever they wish over and beyond the issues to which it speaks.  Therefore, DTSers who wished to pursue the aspects of the kingdom on which their doctrinal stance was silent had relative freedom to do so (e.g., Blaising, Bock, Saucy and others), while SBCers who chose to adopt the DTS schema on the end times had every right to do so, given that the BFM had absolutely nothing contradictory to say in those areas.  In other words, each moved closer to the other by effectively “filling a vacuum” in the doctrinal frameworks in which they found themselves.


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