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The Last Days of Dispensationalism: A Scholarly Critique of Popular Misconceptions Paperback – October 28, 2010
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From the Back Cover
How we understand God's future purposes for the world must shape, to a significant degree, how Christians live life in the present. The decades since the publication of Hal Lindsey's, The Late Great Planet Earth, have seen a great deal of "end-times" speculation. Signs of the end-time apocalypse occurring soon have been heralded across our radios, televisions, the internet, and through written forms of media, urging people to either be ready for the rapture or be left behind to endure the horrific suffering of the tribulation as God's end-time program unfolds. Is this really what the Bible teaches about the purposes of the God of whom our Bible declares "so loved the world" that he gave his only son in order that all things be reconciled. The Last Days of Dispensationalism carefully examines this popular understanding known to us as dispensationalism and urges us to think again and to see within the Bible's grand salvation narrative and in the person of Jesus Christ a better message of redemptive hope for the future and a greater sense of meaning and purpose for the present.
"Alistair's work offers a refreshing and much-needed approach to biblical hope. He combines a lucid grasp of the main contours of biblical theology with an attention, where necessary, to exegetical detail. His writings will prove invaluable to those people who want to think hard about what the Bible is really saying, to have some of their assumptions challenged, but also to grow into new depths of biblical convictions and faith."
Associate Vice-Principal and Lecturer in New Testament Studies, Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford
"My newspaper reported this week on Western Christians in Israel celebrating the resumption of Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank, probably unaware that this is a major obstacle to peace. They imagine that their support of Israel will speed the return of Jesus. This timely book exposes the defective hermeneutic and erroneous conclusions of dispensationalism. We all should read it. If we understand its message perhaps we will indeed see the last days of dispensationalism.
-- Philip Church
Senior Lecturer, School of Theology, Laidlaw College
"This is a much-needed corrective of an unbiblical stance on Israel that actually causes considerable global harm to Western interests. The book is cogently but charitably written, well-argued, and, above all, biblical in its conclusions."
Senior Lecturer, School of Theology, Laidlaw College
About the Author
Alistair Donaldson is a lecturer in Biblical Theology, Biblical Studies, and Worldview at Laidlaw College in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Top customer reviews
"The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God's plan for both Israel and the West... a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ."
These are not the views of some eccentric or extremist cult leader, but of Pastor John Hagee, the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Texas, a church of more than 19,000 members at the heart of America's Bible belt. John Hagee's apocalyptic speculations are disseminated to 100 million homes via radio and TV on a weekly basis. His views are shared by many other evangelical, charismatic and pentecostal leaders, seminary professors and television evangelists. Together, they are promoting a deeply pessimistic, confrontational and destructive view of Amerca's present and future role in the world, and in the Middle East, in particular.
Alastair Donaldson could therefore not have written a more timely or needed book. He rightly insists:
"Beliefs shape how Christians live their lives. Eschatology is no mere appendage at the end of the bible with little to say to life in the present. Eschatology is the goal of God from the beginning of time; the bible is therefore eschatological from beginning to end. The past, present and future of God's redemptive work is the Christian's context for exegeting an understanding of who they are. To get that context wrong is to misunderstand our role in effecting God's redeeming activity."
Perpetuating a dualistic and Manichean world view, first Communism and now Islam are demonised as the `enemy'. Bible verses are quoted confidently to explain contemporary geo-political events leading to the battle of Armageddon. Religious sounding rhetoric such as "Operation Infinite Justice" and "Axis of Evil" is used to justify a beligerant foreign policy and military intervention against other sovereign States. Huntingdon's `Clash of Civilisations' is becoming the self fulfilling prophecy of the Christian Right.
The Church in America, in particular, must therefore rethink its eschatology. For a century or more, the dominant eschatological view held by Christians in America has been Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism teaches that God has two separate chosen people, Israel and the Church, a heavenly and an earthly people. This has led many Chritians to believe that their responsibility is to take sides and support or `bless' Israel to ensure God's continuing blessing of America.
Typified by John Hagee, Dispensationalism is deeply sceptical of peacemaking as a Christian calling. It has largely silenced the propetic call for justice. It has sacralised unilateral military and economic support for a beligerant Zionism. It is exacerbating the deep mistrust much of the world feels toward America and more importantly, toward Christianity.
Donaldson shows with careful logic that following a literal hermeneutic does not lead to a distinction between God's purposes for the Jewish people apart from other races. Just the reverse, God's purposes for both are fulfilled only in and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not that the Church has replaced Israel. Israel and the Church are one people. In the progressive revelation of Scripture through history there is a continuity among God's people. Membership has always been on the basis of faith not race.
Donaldson shows that it is artificial and unbiblical to distinguish between Israel and the Church in God's purposes. There has only ever been one people of God. Indeed, there is an organic unity of God's people between the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church. Christ has made the two - Jewish and Gentile believers - one. (Ephesians 2)
Donaldson tests the veracity of dispensationalism and finds it inherently defective. He shows that it is inconsistent and selective in its hermeneutic; flawed in distinguishing God's purposes between Israel and the Church; acquiesces in the face of suffering and injustice because of its pessimistic and determinist eschatology; and is therefore confused about its redemptive mission to a lost world.
By contrast, in the New Testament, followers of Jesus Christ are called to be `peacemakers' - indeed it is peacemaking that Jesus insists identifies the authenticity of those who claim to be his followers. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9). The apostle Paul elaborates on this radical yet intrinsic role of Christ-followers in 2 Corinthians 5:
So from now on we regard no-one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.(2 Corinthians 5:16-20)
We are to repudiate worldly criteria that distinguishes and categorizes people on the basis of wealth, race, colour or creed. God is not willing that any should perish: `The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.'(2 Peter 3:9) The vision of the future found in the Book of Revelation is ultimately a message of hope not despair. We see in the closing chapters, God's dream not his nightmare: `And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' (Revelation 21:3-4)
The closing chapter of the New Testament takes us back to the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the removal of the curse arising from the Fall: `Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb... On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.' (Revelation 22:1-2) Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his followers to work and pray that God's kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.
In this book, Donaldson offers a more robust, biblically consistent and constructive view both of the future and of the role for the Church between now and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"The alternative eschatological view here presented has sought to be faithful to the biblical text and to the far-reaching all-creation inclusive restoration hopes inherent in the gospel of the kingdom; God's redeemed and restored humanity purchased from every tribe and language and people and nation as one people - one kingdom of priests, enjoying restored fellowship with God who is
present with them, and reigning in the place that God intended for them to live - the new heaven and earth. This is the good news of the kingdom of God - experienced now in part - the full realization is yet to come."
"Amen, Come Lord Jesus." (Revelation 22:20)
It is obvious from reading The Last Days of Dispensationalism that Donaldson is not writing independent of the tradition of Christian thought, as if we can make the arrogant claim that we, and only we, are capable of understanding Scripture while good Christians throughout the church's 2000 year history have always erred or been deceived. However, importantly, his primary concern is to draw us back to Scripture to see what the text really has to say. In the end, we don't want to worry so much about what people have said Scripture says, but to hear Scripture for ourselves. For this reason, much of the book consists of a close reading of various passages which have typically been misused by dispensationalists. Donaldson exposes the many flaws in dispensational interpretation, but he does much more than critique this erroneous perspective. He proceeds to offer a better, fuller, grander interpretation that is hermeneutically sound (and consistent!) and which doesn't resort to a proof-texting that overlooks passages which conflict with the interpretation.
As debates about dispensationalism relate not so much to what the bible says but how we should interpret the bible, Donaldson's first chapter is concerned with hermeneutics. His case is incredibly compelling: while claiming to possess the only valid way to interpret Scripture and simultaneously claiming that all other interpreters are twisting Scripture to fit their interpretive agenda, dispensationalists have been anything but consistent in their supposed "literal" interpretations. His conclusion is unfortunately fair: "The inadequacies of the dispensational hermeneutical principle enumerated above suggest that literalism is profoundly problematic as a basis from which to construct a biblically sound eschatological understanding ... . A better interpretive framework for approaching and understanding the text of Scripture, especially the prophetic and apocalyptic books that form much of the dispensationalist eschatological comprehension, is necessary" (30). He is right to suggest that the cost of dispensationalism's simplistic hermeneutic - which largely ignores important issues such as the genre of biblical passages - is far greater than the gains.
Chapters 2 - 5 go on to look at specific elements of dispensational teaching. After offering a fair but hard-hitting critique of the dispensational understanding of Israel (chapter 2), the Kingdom of God (chapter 3), the rapture and tribulation (chapter 4), and the millennium (chapter 5), Donaldson offers alternative perspectives which are biblically grounded and conducive with the church's God-given mission in the world. Though each chapter is worthy of careful consideration, I found Donaldson's perspectives on the Kingdom of God to be the most helpful and profound. The Kingdom of God was so central to Jesus' teaching, yet it is something that many Christians are incredibly hazy on; somehow, this central element of Jesus' own mission has been largely sidelined by the church. Donaldson demonstrates that the New Testament is thoroughly eschatological, yet that this eschatology was not primarily about the times and order of particular future events. Instead, eschatology was (and is) about how the God of all creation was someday going to restore his creation, bringing shalom, blessing, peace to all things. This is what the New Testament speaks about when it refers to the Kingdom of God. However, remarkably, that Kingdom of blessing had already broken into the present in the coming of Jesus. Such an understanding helps us understand how Jesus could speak of "salvation," "eternal life," and "the age to come" as if they were virtually synonymous (80-82). Whereas we evangelicals have often come to see salvation as being merely the process whereby our sins are forgiven, for the New Testament salvation includes this but also encompasses so much more. To be "saved" was to be incorporated into those who would enter into the future "age to come," the time of "eternal life," and Jesus invited people to begin experiencing this in the present. When faced with the New Testament's profound understanding of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, it is puzzling how anyone could find the dispensational view of the kingdom as a postponed political national kingdom for "natural" Israel compelling at all.
In the final chapter Donaldson offers a clear reminder that an escapist worldview is unhelpful and unbiblical. Instead, if we are to enter into the overarching story of the Bible we will discover that God has always been about restoring all things. The point is not for us Christians to be raptured away from God's creation to some disembodied "heaven." Donaldson concludes: "The alternative eschatological view here presented has sought to be faithful to the biblical text and to the far-reaching, all-creation-inclusive restoration hopes inherent in the gospel of the kingdom. This is the hope of God's redeemed and restored humanity purchased from every tribe and language and people and nation as one people - one kingdom of priests, enjoying restored fellowship with God who is present with them, and reigning in the place that God intended for them to live, the new heaven and earth. This is the good news of the kingdom of God, experienced now in part; the full realization is yet to come" (160).
If I were to pick one quote which I believe sums the message of this book up the most succinctly it would be this: "Eschatology is no mere appendage at the end of the Bible with little to say to life in the present. Eschatology is the goal of God from the beginning of time; the Bible is eschatological from beginning to end. The past, present, and future of God's redemptive work is the context for coming to an understanding of who Christians are and of our participation in God's mission. To get that context wrong will see us not only mislead others but also misunderstand our role in effecting God's redeeming activity in the world" (147).
As a final comment, it is important that the title of this book not exclude people from reading it. Though very thorough and detailed, this content of this book should not be overwhelming to the average Christian who hears the word "scholarly" and shudders. Donaldson has been able to offer a scholarly book without making it inaccessible to non-scholars. Moreover, it is important to recognize that this book is not merely a dull critique of dispensationalism. Even if you have no interest in debates about dispensationalism, this book is worth reading! If you want, skip the sections of each chapter which critique dispensationalism and only focus on Donaldson's own position. This will be enriching for any Christian who desires to live faithfully before God in the present.
PS - my only negative comment about the book is that the cover hardly does it justice! We live in an age when books are judged by their covers; a more interesting cover would have let people know that this book is worth picking up.