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When Doctrinal Labeling Attempts Go Too Far

From various online discussions with other believers, it soon becomes apparent that labels are often used to describe the various beliefs of particular teachers.  In a general way these definitions are helpful, in the larger differences such as between “cessationism” and “continuationism,” as well as in the overall categories of millennialism and the past-present-future continuum approach to the book of Revelation.

Through this approach, though, some have a tendency to get carried away and take the labels and categories too far.  On the one hand, are those who habitually change their views on important doctrines, one week a Dispensational premillennial, next week a Postmillennial Preterist.

We must continually remember the abiding principle, to understand the biblical doctrines underlying what we say we believe, and read the Bible as primary, rather than try to analyze and categorize every known and lesser-known Bible teacher.  When someone asks the question, “what type of dispensationalist is John MacArthur?” the real answer is that he shuns labels precisely because of the confusion and misperceptions that they can cause; and if the person really wants to know what MacArthur believes, the way to find that out is by listening to or reading his sermons, to see how he interprets various texts of scripture.

Sometimes the labels and categories go into even further details:  NCT premillennial, covenantal premillennial, historic premillennial, classic dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism, etc.

I am among those who use the terms dispenationalist, and Calvinist-Dispensational.  In my recent post “The Five Points of Dispensationalism,” a few others agreed with the final list of five distinctives of dispensationalism:

1.  Distinction between Israel and the Church.  The church is not Israel, it is not the continuation of Israel, and it has not replaced Israel.
2.  Israel’s Future. Israel has a future as a nation in the plan of God in which the Lord will fulfill the covenant promises He made to her in the Old Testament.
3.  Emphasis on the Biblical covenants set forth in scripture, and especially on the unconditional, unilateral Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants.  These take precedence over the theological covenants of Covenant Theology.
4.  Literal future kingdom of God upon the earth, which will last for a literal 1000 years, in which Christ reigns from Jerusalem, and Israel has a place of prominence among the nations.
5.  Literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic.  The Old Testament stands on its own and is not “reinterpreted” to have additional meanings.  Bible texts can have multiple applications, but have (one) singular meaning.

Labeling of different beliefs can also be taken too far, in restricting the meanings to only “the select few” who hold to a more restricted meaning instead of an overall meaning such as this.  Recently, for instance, I have come across those who limit dispensationalism to only the classic kind, noting the exception of PD; anyone outside of the traditional “classic dispensationalism” cannot be called a dispensationalist.  Thus, these individuals concluded that S. Lewis Johnson (in a sentence also listing A.W. Pink and Waltke) rejected dispensationalism due to the tension with 5-Point Calvinist / Reformed theology.  Further discussion noted that of course SLJ did not abandon dispensationalism in the manner of Pink or Waltke, two individuals who completely left and switched to amillennial CT.  Yes, SLJ would be in the group that “the other side” would still call dispensationalism. Yet they still were very reluctant to admit that SLJ was, in the overall definition, dispensationalist.  They especially noted SLJ’s apparent later abandonment of the pre-trib rapture as well as the characteristics of classic dispensationalism in favor of “one people of God” and all believers inheriting all the Abrahamic promises including the land promises (the grafting-in in the Romans 11 olive tree).  Then attempts followed to say how SLJ was NOT dispensationalist, how he was more like “NCT Premillennial” or like “PD” (Progressive Dispensationalism), even to say that surely we cannot include SLJ as a dispensationalist, since that would mean widening the definition so greatly as to include covenantal premillennialists like Spurgeon and Ryle.

However, we need to remember that S. Lewis Johnson focused on the biblical covenants (not the theological covenants of CT, the case of Spurgeon and Ryle).  Furthermore, he did not see the church or this age in any way “spiritually fulfilling” the Kingdom, or that Christ is now seated and reigning on David’s throne (distinctives of NCT-Premill and PD).  That point was finally understood, with the conclusion that indeed SLJ defies the standard doctrinal labels; yet still they preferred to say that SLJ left dispensationalism and in later years was not dispensational.

In the comments follow-up from the “Five Points of Dispensationalism” post, a few others also preferred removing the pre-trib rapture as one of the “five points,” and yet they were comfortable with calling the final five points “dispensationalism.”  S. Lewis Johnson certainly fit those points, even in his later years.  Matt Weymeyer similarly defines himself as a dispensationalist, as do many others I know on the  “Calvinist Dispensationalists” group.

The conclusion of all these discussions is that at any rate I’m in good company with many others who understand  dispensationalism in the overall sense (the five points cited above) and who are comfortable with the terms “dispensationalist” and “Calvinist Dispensationalist.”  We all need to avoid such extremes as narrowing definitions too much, to restrict doctrinal terms to only a select few who agree exactly with our own particular notions.  In reality, as I continue to learn from the views of different believers, we all have slightly different views on particular biblical texts and particular issues in Christian life and practice.  No two Bible teachers, however similar, are always going to interpret the same passage in exactly the same way.

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