Is Dispensationalism Progressing or Regressing? — An Analysis of Progressive Dispensationalism

by Pastor James Healan

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The practical strength of dispensational truth throughout the years has been the ability of dispensationalism to deal with “troubling” paradoxes (paradox = an incongruity; an apparent discrepancy or irreconcilable inconsistency). This is still true today. However, recently those paradoxes are not being suggested by those outside the dispensational camp but surprisingly by some who claim to support dispensational truth. Their solutions need to be examined carefully.

There has been a recent development in what is called dispensational theology, known as “Progressive Dispensationalism.” The term “progressive” was coined by two professors at Dallas Theological Seminary, Carl Blaising and Darrell Bock (Progressive Dispensationalism) in an attempt to describe what they perceive as the progressive role of dispensations in manifesting the purpose of God. Robert Saucy (The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism) from Trinity Divinity School in Chicago has also proposed many of the same thoughts with a few subtle differences. Since the publication of their ideas, a rather heated debate has developed within dispensationalism as to whether these new ideas are a progression or regression in dispensational truth.

I believe Progressive Dispensationalism (referred henceforth as P. D.) to be a sincere response by several “mainline” (Acts two) dispensational scholars to criticisms raised by non-dispensational systems (especially covenant theology) concerning contradictions that arise from starting the Church (Body of Christ) at Pentecost. In the past, these contradictions have largely been ignored by most mainline dispensationalists. However, if dispensationalism is going to be intellectually honest, those “contradictions” must be answered. Dispensationalism rests upon the foundation of a literal hermeneutic—what the words of the text say is what the text means.

A literal understanding of the early chapters of Acts and the prophecies cited by Peter in chapters two and three lead to an inescapable conclusion—Messiah had to return to heaven for the last week of Daniel’s seventy week prophecy to be fulfilled. The fulfillment of that final week of Daniel’s seventy weeks, the Day of the LORD, starts on the Day of Pentecost (“…this is that…” in Acts 2:16; also see 3:18-21). The Kingdom is being offered again to Israel. The Body of Christ is not present (visibly or invisibly) according to Ephesians 3:2-9.

However, mainline dispensationalism starts the Church, the Body of Christ, with the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Yet, this event happens on the prophetic Jewish feast day of Pentecost which creates a major conflict. How can God’s offer to Israel (in fulfillment of prophecy) be a legitimate offer if a “mystery” Body (not part of Israel’s covenants or prophecies—see Ephesians 2-3) is being started by God on Pentecost with the same audience (Israel) to whom the Kingdom is being offered? An honest evaluation of this conflict leads to one of two divergent conclusions: either a move back toward covenant theology with its method of “spiritualizing” difficulties in Scripture or a move toward a literal and reasonable understanding of Scripture consistent with Mid-Acts dispensationalism. Therefore, P. D. is a subject with which every “Grace” believer should be concerned and which holds potentially far reaching implications for Mid-Acts dispensationalism.


In 1981, Dr. Kenneth Barker (editor of the NIV Old Testament Study Bible), gave his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments,” which seemed to contain precursory ideas of progressive dispensational thought. However, the actual birth of P. D. appears to have taken place in a series of articles presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society by Robert Saucy (Trinity Divinity School) in December of 1983. P. D. then became clearly defined through several publications by Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary (Progressive Dispensationalism and Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church).

So then, what is progressive dispensationalism? “Progressive dispensationalism” is a movement seeking to stress a greater continuity within God’s soteriological (or redemptive) program. Probably the most striking example of this is the assertion that the current Church dispensation is an inaugural fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of the Messianic Kingdom. This is postulated because P. D. feels that God’s promise of worldwide redemption was given in the covenants of promise (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) which have final and complete fulfillment in the Millennial Kingdom. P. D. feels that the last two are interrelated and dependent on each other, having started on the Day of Pentecost (which IS the birth of the Church); thus the Church Age, starting on the Day of Pentecost, is simply a progressive part of the prophetic (salvation/kingdom) plan of God.

“…in the direction of a greater continuity with God’s program of historical salvation. Instead of a strict parenthesis that has no relation with the messianic kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament, many dispensationalists now acknowledge the present age of the church as the first-stage partial fulfillment of these prophecies.” (Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p9.)

To progressive dispensationalism, the Church is a mystery, not because it was unknown, but because it was not understood. With a new complementary hermeneutic (see 2. below), we can now understand Old Testament prophecies as they relate to the Church, yet they will still retain their literal meaning for Israel. Confusing—you bet. Simple—anything but. Brilliant—possibly!

While I think P. D. is honest in its attempt to answer an ignored difficulty in mainline dispensationalism, P. D. has departed from traditional dispensationalism. When it refuses to consider the exclusive claims of the Apostle Paul over the Church which is His Body, P. D. has and is continuing to move towards covenant theology, a direction that is disturbing if not dangerous for the Grace Movement. I know of at least one grace church that has disintegrated after the pastor became involved with Progressive Dispensationalism.


Below are listed in broad terms several of the major tenets of Progressive Dispensationalism.

1. P. D. believes the salvation of man is the unifying theme of biblical history. God has designed one divine plan of redemption for all mankind from Adam until the last human descendant of Adam has been born and God’s purposes and workings in the various dispensations are to illustrate His plan. P. D. seems to concentrate upon the salvation and minimizes the blessings that result from obeying God according to His dispensational instructions after receiving His salvation.

2. P. D. believes a “new” complementary hermeneutic must be employed—Old Testament prophecy while retaining its original purpose may change in its relationship to current situations based upon progressive revelation [? understanding]. The “mysteries” of the New Testament, especially the Church “mysteries,” are divinely revealed “expansions” [deeper understanding] of the Old Testament biblical covenants and prophecies. Therefore, a “mystery” is something that you now understand more fully instead of something hidden by God and now revealed.

3. The Abrahamic covenant, primarily through its the promise of redemption—”through you all the nations of the world shall be blessed…,” is being progressively fulfilled in the successive dispensations (through the Mosaic covenant in the Mosaic dispensation and through the New Covenant and the Davidic covenant in the Church and Millennial dispensations). The Dispensation of Grace (the Body of Christ) is not considered a parenthesis (an interruption) in God’s prophetic program nor a break in the progressive fulfillment of the covenants, but an essential stage in that fulfillment.

4. P. D. believes that the New Covenant has already been inaugurated with its spiritual blessings, but its political and physical blessings are not fully realized until the Millennium. P. D. understands dispensations not merely as differing arrangements between God and mankind, but as successive arrangements in the progressive relation of God’s accomplishment of redemption. All covenants subsequent to the Abrahamic Covenant further expand its promises (specifically, the blessing of redemption to all mankind). The New Covenant is dependent upon concurrent fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant and New Covenant—the Davidic king is to mediate the New Covenant blessings.

5. P. D. believes that the Church (the Body of Christ) inaugurates the Davidic reign of Jesus. Jesus Christ has already assumed the Davidic throne with His ascension, thus beginning the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. There is some disagreement in P. D. as to whether Christ is actively reigning today [Bock and Blaising] or merely residing at the right hand of the Father waiting to actually reign on earth as the promised Davidic Messiah-King during the Millennium [Saucy].

6. P. D. believes the Church (the Body of Christ) is distinct only in this age. The concept of the church as completely distinct from Israel and as a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament needs revising, making the idea of two purposes and two peoples of God invalid. There is disagreement among Revisionist Dispensationalism as to whether the Church is a part (the first stage) of the Kingdom or whether Israel has become the Church which will once again at the end of the Church Age revert to the Kingdom at the Millennium (P. D. sees only one eternal people of God).


The direction P. D. is taking is found in the question, “Is the Church part of the Kingdom?” The view of P. D. is revealed in the following statements:

The Church is a “sneak preview” of the kingdom and called “a functional outpost of God’s kingdom” (Bock/ Blaising, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, pp 53 & 155).

The Church is “a present revelation of the [Messianic] Kingdom” (Bock/Blaising, Progressive Dispensationalism, p257).

Yes, it appears that P. D. teaches that the Church is part of the Kingdom. Our answer to P. D. is simple and centered in the revelation given to the Apostle for the Body of Christ—the Church is separate and distinct from Israel. Paul is very clear in his epistles that the hope of the Church is the return of Christ for His Body, not His return to set up His Kingdom. The Church, the Body of Christ, will maintain its distinctive identity in heaven, in the Millennium, and probably in the Eternal State (Eph. 1:10 needs further study). This specific identification does not take away from our identification as members of the household [family] of God as are all the righteous of any dispensation. I think three reasons support the distinctiveness of the Church:

1. The Church is a mystery (Eph. 3:6; Col. 1:26-27) not predicted in the Old Testament. Nothing indicates that it was part of anything prior or will be part of something future other than itself—the Body of Christ.

2. The “Body” metaphor represents a unique and abiding relationship between Christ and His Church and between members of the Church.

3. Sometimes Romans 16:25-26 is used to support that idea that Paul’s gospel was part of the prophetic program of God. Since Paul’s writings are uniquely directed to the Church, the Church must be some part of the prophetic program of God. However, Romans 16:25-26 does not mean that the gospel of the grace of God was revealed in Old Testament times by Old Testament prophecies. A literal rendering of v. 26 is “the prophetic Scriptures” which refer to the revelation given to Paul and the inspiration of those laboring with him in writing his epistles.

Probably the most disturbing idea of P. D. is the inseparable linking of the New Covenant to the Davidic Covenant and their current fulfillment in the Dispensation of Grace. However, the New Covenant is not inseparably dependent upon the Davidic Covenant so that one cannot be fulfilled without the other being in some sense fulfilled. Again, I think there are three reasons for this:

1. The New Covenant was inaugurated on the day of Pentecost but was literally suspended as the nation of Israel was set aside. Certain blessings of salvation are enjoyed by the Church today based upon the blood of the New Covenant (shed by the Lamb of God who took upon Himself the sins of the world)—such as forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Christ (See Romans 15:27).

2. The Davidic Covenant has not been instituted and the LORD Jesus Christ still awaits His Second Coming to be installed upon the throne of David.

a. The use of Psalms 110 and 132 in Acts 2 does not mean that David was the first king/priest in the line of Melchizedek. Psalm 132 refers to David’s throne and the Aaronic priests. Psalm 110 refers to the LORD God’s throne and a Melchizdekian priesthood. However, the context of both Psalms leads us to see David’s earthly throne is different from the LORD God’s heavenly throne.

b. The coming of the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with the Davidic Covenant. What Christ did on the day of Pentecost and afterwards was to send the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of the redemptive promises of the New Covenant and then sit down at the right hand of the throne of God. There is nothing to indicate that the provisions of the Davidic Covenant are being fulfilled at this present time. David was appointed and anointed king long before his inauguration and enthronement.

c. To posit that “hopos” [that] in Acts 3:19-20 introduces a two part reign of Christ (that “times of refreshing” = Church age and “send Jesus Christ” = the literal Millennial Kingdom) is faulty exegesis. Nothing grammatically separates these promises from each other.

3. The Church, although enjoying certain blessings provided by the blood of the New Covenant (Rom. 15:27, I Cor. 11:25, Eph. 1:7), is not a partner in either the New Covenant nor the Davidic Covenant. To suggest such is to ignore the exclusiveness of these covenants with Israel. These covenants belong to Israel. The Church is not Israel nor is Israel the Church, therefore these covenants do not belong to the Church. Therefore, the Church is not the first stage of the Kingdom to which these covenants pertain.


“While not denying the pretribulation Rapture or the literal tribulation period, revisionists do not give much attention to these aspects of eschatology. Blaising and Bock do not take obvious opportunities to mention the Rapture, and in one place (discussing I Thess. 5) they say only that the Rapture `would appear to be pretribulational'” (C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p177). This would be logical since the “progressive dispensationalists” view only four dispensations: Patriarchal—to Sinai; Mosaic—to Messiah’s ascension; Ecclesial—to Messiah’s return; Zionic—part 1 is Millennial and part 2 is Eternal. These dispensational divisions, especially the “Ecclesial” which is said to run from the ascension until the Second Coming, seem to ignore that the 70th week from Daniel 9:24-27 is clearly focused on Israel and Jerusalem and must be part of the Dispensation of Law—therefore the Church is not in view.

The men in this movement are believers—premillennial brothers who have started in the dispensational camp. Not every idea and question they have raised is dubious—some have merit. However, while I think they are honestly seeking answers, the old saying is still true: “Starting with a faulty premise will always lead to a faulty conclusion no matter how brilliant the argument.”

Those seriously seeking to answer the questions raised by Progressive Dispensationalism will move to one of two conclusions: a move toward Covenant Theology or a move toward Mid-Acts Dispensationalism. Although no friend to Mid-Acts Dispensationalism, Charles Ryrie may have defined this movement best when he referred to it as “Revisionist Dispensationalism” (Dispensationalism Today, 2nd edition), since P. D. seems to be more of a move to accommodate the criticisms of Covenant Theology through revision of its dispensational positions rather than a moderating of traditional dispensationalism.