Saturday, September 8, 2018

Cut to pieces by higher criticism

I admit that I only skimmed this somewhat curious book, "The Foundations of Dispensational Truth" by E. W. Bullinger. The number of Christian groups seems to be legion, and Bullinger was apparently a representative of something known as hyper-dispensationalism or ultra-dispensationalism. Some of its ideas are similar to "classical" dispensationalism, but I can't help wondering whether Bullinger's motives for developing his version might have been very different. His book sounds like an indirect response to the higher criticism of the Bible, and his solutions can be considered an adaptation to the same.

In effect, Bullinger concedes to the Bible critics that the various texts in the New Testament really do contradict each other. Some are more "Jewish" (Jewish-Christian), others more "Gentile" and de-Judaized in orientation. The historical-critical explanation is, of course, that early Christianity evolved over time, from a kind of Jewish sect to something strikingly different. Paul is often seen as the mover and shaker in this evolution. Bullinger seems to agree with all this. Another point where Bullinger makes a de facto concession concerns the return of Christ. The early Christians believed that Jesus would return soon, perhaps already during their lifetimes. When this failed to happen, the prophecies about a speedy second advent had to be reinterpreted. Bullinger, somewhat surprisingly, admits that the prophecies in the NT were interpreted literally by the apostles and their listeners, and nevertheless failed to materialize. To a higher critic, this means that the prophecies were false, period. Of course, as a Bible-believing Christian, Bullinger had to find other explanations for the evolution of the Christian message and the prophecies which didn't come to pass.

Essentially, Bullinger believes in a kind of progressive revelation. He divides the New Testament into several different dispensations or time-periods. God's actions changes depending on the dispensation. I never grasped the total number of dispensations discovered by the author in the NT scriptures. Five? The first stage in the NT revelation was Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom, a proclamation directed exclusively to the Jews. Jesus was a specifically Jewish Messiah. He was, of course, also the saviour of the world, but this salvation clearly comes through the Jews and the restoration of Israel. The second stage commenced when the Jews rejected their Messiah, who was therefore condemned and crucified. After the resurrection, the third phase of the drama begins, as the apostles reveal that Christ hasn't rejected his people. On condition that the Jews repent and accept Jesus as their Messiah, he will return to Earth and set up the Kingdom. (The central proof-text here is Acts 3:19-26.) Even Paul originally preached this message. Only when the Jewish leaders in Rome finally rejected Paul's invitation to repent, did the dispensation change to a Christian one, which the author calls the Dispensation of the Mystery, during which an entirely new gospel is preached among the Gentiles. During this age, the Kingdom is in abeyance. However, in the future God will once again pardon his chosen people (the Jews), Jesus Christ will return and fulfil all the promises in the Old Testament and the relevant "Jewish" ones in the New Testament.

Needless to say, this exegesis makes it necessary to assign the Pauline epistles to several different dispensations. 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians and Romans belong to the Dispensation of the Acts of the Apostles, during which Paul still called on the Jews to repent, accept Jesus as their Messiah, and expect corporate salvation as a people. (The epistles of John, James and Jude plus Revelation also belong to this period.) However, Romans also contain traits of the Dispensation of Mystery. In a sense, it's a transitional epistle in which Paul lays the foundation for the next stage of revelation. Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians belong to the explicitly Christian dispensation, while the Pastorals seem to have a somewhat unclear status. I didn't understand where the letter to Philemon falls. One consequence of this cutting of the Bible into smaller pieces, is that only the later Pauline epistles are normative for Christians! Apparently, Bullingerites tend to reject the sacraments (including baptism and the Lord's supper), since they aren't mentioned in the later Paulines.

One thing that struck me when reading Bullinger's book is the strong emphasis on free will. Nothing seems to be predestined or preordained, and God's plan seems subject to change depending on the choices of men. The original plan was to gather the Jews around the earthly ministry of Jesus. Thus, the crucifixion and the creation of an entirely new religion were never part of God's original intention. The crucifixion, resurrection and new call to repentance through the apostles were made necessary because the Jews exercised their free will and refused to recognize Jesus as the Christ. Bullinger believes that the prophecies about Christ's swift return to set up the millennium were *conditional* on the repentance of the Jews. If the Jews had heeded the apostles' call, Jesus would have come back during their lifetimes, just as foretold in various NT passages. This is Bullinger's somewhat awkward solution to the problem with the prophecies not coming to pass.

Of course, there is an obvious problem here: how does Bullinger know that Jesus will return in the future? How does he know that the Kingdom is only in abeyance? If God's prophecies are conditional for their fulfilment on the free will of men, perhaps further dispensations await us in the future. To this, Bullinger has no real response, expect faith in God being true to his word - one way or another, it seems, God *will* fulfil all his prophecies (OT and NT). It should be noted that Bullinger himself never discuss the obvious problems of his position, but they have been spotted by others. Comparisons with both Open Theism and even process theology have been made by opponents of hyper-dispensationalism on the web.

I don't doubt that E. W. Bullinger honestly believed in his strange new gospel, but in the end, it sounds like a message cut to shreds by higher criticism. Perhaps he would have been more consistent if he had simply embraced some form of liberal theology...

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