In July 2012, the popular Presuppositional Apologetics’ blog “Choosing Hats” had a post titled “The Transcendental Argument Against Dispensationalism: What is Dispensationalism?” It was written by one of their contributors who goes by the handle “Ben W.” The post was supposed to be the first of a series critiquing Dispensationalism. The opening paragraph made it clear that Ben was “not planning to make a historical argument against Dispensationalism.” Instead, Ben stated in the last sentence: “As this series continues, we will explore further the developments which Progressive Dispensationalism has made to these tenets and discuss whether or not a consistent application of these hermeneutical principles can allow us to interpret scripture intelligibly and consistently.” The angle sounds interesting but unfortunately the series was discontinued before any Transcendental argument against Dispensationalism (hereafter TAAD) materialized. What makes the idea of TAAD interesting is that Presuppositionalism is big with the Transcendental argument for the existence of God (TAG) and to see another Transcendental argument successfully refute another “ism” further boost Presuppositional apologetics and also advance the thesis advocated by some that Presuppositionalism and Dispensationalism are incompatible. For those interested, I have written on the topic of hermeneutics, Dispensationalism and Presuppositionalism here but reached an opposite conclusion.
The best argument I’ve seen against Dispensationalism by Presuppositionalists that mimic the Transcendental Argument is offered by those within the Christian Reconstructionist camp. There are some Christians I know who have an instant knee-jerk reaction to anything Christian Reconstructionism, which is also known as Theonomy, due to a lot of misrepresentations out there (all Theonomists reject salvation by grace alone, they want the Church to persecute non-Christians, etc). I must say that I have benefited from many Theonomists and what they have to say (see our blog’s tag on the category on Theonomy). I believe non-Theonomists can benefit from reading Christian Reconstructionists, even if they disagree with them, but that’s another subject for another time. Here in this post I want to limit the scope to the Theonomists’ “Transcendental” argument against Dispensationalism and whether its argument has any weight.
Christian Reconstructionists are Postmillennial in their eschatology and are critical of Amillennialism and Premillennialism. In 1990 Gary North published a book titled Millennialism and Social Theory. The inside book flap says “In Millennialism and Social Theory, Dr. Gary North, co-founder of this movement, examines why both pre-millennialism and amillennialism have never developed independent social theories, and why the spokesmen of both positions appeal to the prevailing ethics of contemporary humanism as the only possible way to run society.” Inside on page 95 North writes
“If there is no cultural alternative to humanism available in history, then the one reasonable Christian response is to pray for either the Rapture (dispensationalism) or the end of history (amillennialism). (Historic premillennialists and post-tribulational dispensationalists believe that the millennium will come only after Christians have gone through Armageddon and the Great Tribulation. I have no idea what they pray for.)
Premillennialists and amillennialists share a commitment to a coming cosmic discontinuity as the Church’s great hope in history: deliverance from on high (and in the case of premillennial dispensationalism, deliverance to on high). Again, citing Norman Geisler: ‘Hence they do not view their present social involvement as directly related to the emergence of the future kingdom of God. In this respect amillenarians are more like premillennarians and have thereby often escaped some of the extremes of postmillennialism.’ This affirmation of a coming cosmic discontinuity cuts the ground from under the Christian who would seek to discover a uniquely biblical social theory. It also undercuts the incentive for social action. Social action becomes a holding action at best and a kamikaze action at worst.”
The result? According to North, “The result is predictable: the absence of Christian social theory” (Page 95).
Here we see an argument where North argues that Christian must have a distinctively Christian social theory (as opposed to that of humanistic and godless social theory); I imagine most Christians who desire to be Biblical would agree. North argues that amillennialism and premillennialism is a defeater for Christian foundation for Christian social theory because its pessimistic philosophy of history would undermine any social endeavor by the Christian. As the rest of Gary North’s book argues, Postmillennialism’s philosophy of history is optimistic and is a great foundation for Christian social theory. We see here the argument is Transcendental in form and hence I think it’s helpful to see it as TAAD.
To simplify the above, think of the following illustration from the Titanic.
Let’s say you know the ship will sink. As Theonomists love to quote from Vernon McGee, “Do you polish brass on a sinking ship?” If you knew that the ship is going to sink at any moment, it seems that polishing brass is relatively unimportant or for that matter anything that doesn’t contribute to survival such as playing music! This illustration originated with McGee but it has been recycled by Theonomists against McGee’s own Dispensationalism ever since Gary North employed it on page 100 of his 1993 book Rapture Fever. This illustration and argument is really an “internal critique” of Dispensationalism since it attempts to adopt the view of Dispensationalism to show how it is internally problematic. Again, internal critique is an important Presuppositional apologetics’ motif.
While it’s a powerful and vivid illustration I think it’s an inadequate illustration and argument: In the scenario of the sinking ship, it does not account for the reality of spiritual warfare that will always be the context of constructing any Christian social theory against the prevailing false and unbiblical social theory of the World. I imagine a better illustration is the following:
There is a big war between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. You are a warrior in the forces of light. You know that the eventual outcome would be victory of the side of Light. However, the outcome of individual battles is not something you know. Your immediate group of men are surrounded and it seems that as the battle rages on, your sector has all the factors stacked up against you. Surrounded and having several grounds lost to the enemy, the enemies proposes you surrender and surrender means you must now switch allegiance and fight against the very forces of light. The other option is futile resistance and you will be anhiliated. You want to please your King no matter the personal cost. What will you do?
Again, I believe this is a better illustration because it captures the ethical and spiritual warfare dimension of the Christian. This is also a better illustration because all Christians know that victory is in the Lord and there is a sense of optimism that even Dispensationalists hold on to with the Lord’s victory. However, where Premillennialists are not as optimistic is the more nearer aspect of End Times events which this illustration captures. Futhermore, the illustration seems to be more fitting because it stresses the issue is one of faithfulness rather than the pursuit of meaningless activity.
Seen from this angle, one can be dispensational and not have one’s eschatology undermine the meaningfulness of studying and applying a distinctively Christian social theory. To mix Kuypers’ and Van Til’s illustrations, every square inch is own by God, even those squandered by rebellious renters who do not show respect for the Lord who owns it. If every sphere belongs to the Lord, we as Christians must be faithful to the Lord in every sphere we are involved with. It comes down to an issue of being faithful to God despite the opposition and personal costs. Even if the situation seems very pessimistic, one should continue to be faithful to God in every sphere one is involved in. We know compromising does not mean peace, but rather that we have now switch sides and at the very least we are enabling the enemy to advance, if not even more, actively fighting God’s Side.
As any good Marine knows, surrender is not an option. Sometimes it means we lose the battle but we’re not going to be unfaithful to the One who is ALWAYS FAITHFUL.