Dispensationalism: Progressive Dispensationalism

Updated on December 10, 2018
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Barry is the founder and director of Expositors International Ministry and dean of Bible Expositors Seminary, Philippines.

The Progressive Dispensationalist view finds its beginnings in the early 1980s. We have seen that Dispensational thought has evolved over time from Classical to Tradition to the Revised view. Progressive Dispensationalism is the next logical step in the evolutionary process. In my opinion, Progressive Dispensationalism seems to be seeking a middle-ground between Revised Dispensationalism and the Reformed views of Covenant Theology and eschatology.[1] It seeks to answer some of the lingering questions that challenge Dispensationalism but many believe that it has completely departed from the view.

Progressice Dispensationalism acknowledges the significance of the Church. They see that the Church is vital to the historical purpose of God and is more than a temporal turning of God from the Jews to the Gentiles. It is not merely a parenthesis as the Traditional and Revised views say. They also see that there is no radical distinction from the Old Testament and the New Testament. There is greater continuation than the Dispensationalists have historically acknowledged. However, they still want to hold to a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth with His focus on the Jewish nation.

For the Progressive Dispensationalist, the church is not a temporal pause in the plan of God as the mainline Dispensationalists say. But neither is it the fulfillment of the work of Christ as progressively revealed in Scripture as the Covenant Theologians believe. Rather, the church is the great mystery of God revealed. They say that this is what the Bible was teaching but this is not the last or the greatest thing in time. Rather they hold that the Millennium is still the ultimate end purpose but the church is part of the mystery of the Millennium and will serve as the preparatory stage for the earthly reign of Christ. It should be noted that they refrain from using the word Millennium but rather substitute the phrase “Messianic Kingdom” for the 1000-year reign.

“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.”[2]

Secondly, there is also a greater emphasis upon grace over obedience. In the Classical and even among some who hold to the Traditional view of Dispensationalism, salvation of the Jewish people was by obedience to the covenant commands during the time that in which a person was alive. For example, if one were alive during the time of David, their salvation would hinge upon their obedience to the demands of the Davidic Covenant. Likewise, for the Mosaic, Abrahamic, etc. The Revised position saw the flaw that this view creates a “salvation by works” and salvation apart from Christ. Part of the revision was to emphasize that salvation was always by grace through faith in Christ and that grace was demonstrated through covenant obedience.

What differs in Progressive Dispensationalism is that there are not two plans for salvation, that is one for the Jew and another for the Gentile, but rather one plan. The various ages or dispensations, progressively reveal one plan not two. This is in full agreement with the Reformed view of salvation. However, the Progressive Dispensationalists are charged with ignoring the blessings of God that come through convenental obedience. None the less, they insist that all is of grace to distinguish themselves from the Dispensational views that either mingle works with grace or more radically, insist upon works and obedience alone.

The Progressive Dispensationlists arrive at their conclusions by borrowing heavily from the Reformed[3] view of Scripture. While the historical practice of the Dispensationalist is to view the Bible in what they call “literalism,” the PD do acknowledge a historical literalism as well as typological elements in the Old Testament that point to Christ.[4] The Progressive view is more inclined to understand that while the Old Testament was literal and historic it also served as typology that would be fulfilled in Christ. For example, the sacrificial lamb given on the Day of Atonement did temporarily set aside the sins of the nation of Israel but was ultimately pointing to the sacrificial Lamb of God, which is Christ. This is the same approach the Reformed take.

What is the New Covenant?

Most Dispensationalists do not see the New Covenant as having fulfillment in the Church age. Rather they say that the New Covenant is the covenant that God will make with the nation of Israel in the Millennium. God will write His law on their hearts and they will perfectly obey King Jesus. This is not without its exegetical and theological challenges but we will set those aside for now in order to focus on the history of the development of Dispensational thought. For the Progressive Dispensationalist, the New Covenant begins in the Church Age and the church lays the foundation for the Millennium. They teach that since Adam, God has been progressively building to His ultimate purpose, that is the reign of Christ on the earth during the “Davidic” or “Messianic Kingdom” (millennium). The Church Age is the first step into the Davidic Kingdom and serves as a sort of foundation for the Millennial Reign.

In Conclusion

Progressive Dispensationalism holds to a Pretribulation rapture, a literal millennial earthly reign of Christ, the Israelite nation as the ultimate fulfillment of the promises of God and a distinction between the Church and Israel. The view also sees that God’s revelation is progressive in nature. This is to say that what starts as dim and far away in the Old Testament becomes bright and clear in the New Testament. It is obvious that they are responding to the criticisms of Covenant Theology in their desire to emphasize progressive revelation, grace and the New Testament Church. However, they create a convoluted system that is incoherent.

The biggest issue is that they are not attempting to build a system on exegesis alone but rather are desiring to hold to their presupposition while at the same time, responding to their critics. While the PD recognize that their predecessors have been less than scholarly, they themselves have not solved the problems associated with the Dispensationalism. Rather than bringing a resolution to the issues, they have created an incoherent, in-cohesive system that raises far more questions than it purports to answer. It is clearly an attempt to have one’s a cake and to eat it as well.


[1] The origins of Progressive Dispensatonal thought can be found in the works of Kenneth Barker, (see “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments”), and Robert Saucy The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. See also the works of Craig Blaising and Darrel Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary such as Progressive Dispensationalism, and Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church.

[2] Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, Zondervan Publishing House, September 13, 1993, p9.

[3] I am using Reformed here in the sense of those who hold to the Reofrmed Doctrines that came out of the Reformation; namely Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, and To the Glory of God Alone.

[4] This is not the “double interpretation” that we see driving much of Dispensational hermeneutics.

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