What is Progressive Dispensationalism?
Progressive Dispensationalism is a pattern of biblical interpretation that focuses—not entirely, but most particularly—on the question of how Old Testament promises made to Israel relate to the church. Proponents of Progressive Dispensationalism attempt to walk a middle path between Traditional Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Progressive Dispensationalists affirm much of what is affirmed in each of these other two approaches to biblical interpretation without negating elements that each of the other two approaches negate. Since there are numerous details involved—and it can all get complicated quickly—I will limit this description to the most important question Progressive Dispensationalists are trying to answer: how do the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament relate to the church? The easiest way to understand what Progressive Dispensationalism affirms is to contrast it with Traditional Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. I have included a chart that will help you visualize my intentionally simplistic descriptions.
- Classic dispensationalism looks at the Old Testament promises to Israel (of future glory, land, peace, etc.) as only applicable to Israel.
- There is a sharp distinction between God’s plan for ethnic Israel and God’s plan for the church. The church age is a parenthesis in God’s program for Israel, while God brings in Gentile believers.
- The Old Testament promises to Israel will be fulfilled literally and physically for ethnic Israel in a future Millennium.
Detractors: Their detractors might call this Postponement Theology.
Kingdom: The “kingdom” in Jesus’s teaching is primarily future and physical.
My ultra-short summary: The church does not presently share in Israel’s promises.
- The promises to Israel found in the Old Testament have been swallowed up into Christ’s first coming and are fulfilled spiritually in the church.
- There is no literal future fulfillment (i.e., no physical future Millennium) for the nation of Israel because the church is spiritual Israel.
Detractors: Their detractors might call this Replacement Theology.
Kingdom: The “kingdom” in Jesus’s teaching is primarily present and spiritual.
My ultra-short summary: The Old Testament promises to Israel get applied to the church.
Some combination of both approaches has been increasingly recognized by biblical scholars.
- In this approach, both spiritual and physical aspects of Old Testament promises to Israel need to be identified.
- The church in the present age shares in many of the spiritual promises that were made to Israel, but does not swallow these promises up.
- Though the church shares in these promises, the church is not itself the new Israel. There will be a future Millennium, the Old Testament promises will be literally (both spiritually and physically) fulfilled for Israel, and the church will share in both the physical and spiritual blessings of Israel during the Millennium.
- Thus, you could say there are two-stages: a spiritual fulfillment that the church shares in now, and a physical and spiritual fulfillment that will take place in a future Millennium.
Detractors: Their detractors might call this Cake & Eat It Too Theology.
Kingdom: Some verses about the “kingdom” in Jesus’s teaching point toward something spiritual in the present, others toward a future spiritual and physical age (Millennium), and others toward both.
My ultra-short summary: The church spiritually shares in the promises to Israel, but God still has a future plan for believing ethnic Israel.
As one scholar put it, Progressive Dispensationalists may want to view themselves as dispensationalists with a small d. Most Progressive dispensationalists I have talked to—and I have talked to many over the years—feel as much appreciation for what they have gained from Covenant Theologians as they do for what they have gained from Traditional Dispensationalists. They really are trying to “have their cake and eat it too.” I think that the main reason “dispensationalism” continues to be included in the description is because early articulators of Progressive Dispensationalism (such as Robert Saucy, Craig Blaising, and Darrell Bock) cut their theological teeth in dispensational schools, and continued to affirm some of the notions they learned from their background. But a biblical interpreter could agree with the main tenets of this approach and call it something else…. I don’t know, something like Both-And Premillennialism? In the end, whatever it gets called ought to be multisyllabic and hard-to-pronounce, don’t you think so? (smile)
I wonder if trying to “have your cake and eat it too” might not be such a bad thing when it comes to certain areas of biblical theology—like the relationship of Israel and the church. The more biblical affirmations that can be affirmed without resorting to hermeneutical gymnastics should be affirmed—and the more biblical material that can be held together without resorting to theological gymnastics should be held together—wouldn’t you agree?
 The most recognizable group trying to carve out some middle ground are the Progressive Dispensationalists (cf. Robert Saucy, Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock). Progressive Dispensationalists emerged as a recognizable group while trying to move toward some sort of middle ground, though early adherents came out of dispensational backgrounds. Other recent attempts to moderate Covenant Theology to greater or lesser extents have come from Historic Premillennialists, New Covenant Theologians, and Progressive Covenantalists—all of whom tend somewhat more in the direction of Covenant Theology than they do toward Traditional Dispensationalism.