N.T. Wright on Dispensationalism/Pretribulationalism and the Nation of Israel

Jerusalem besieged, 70 A. D.

I thought this was an interesting point made by N. T. Wright in his book Paul: Fresh Perspectives, he is discussing the nation of Israel and how Israel functions in the theology of the Apostle Paul. The point I am lifting from Wright here is a point that illustrates his dismay over North American Dispensational readings of Paul’s theology, in particular his conception of the second coming of Christ. Here is what Wright writes:

[…] For some, alas, the very phrase ‘second coming’, and even perhaps the word ‘eschatology’ itself, conjures up visions of the ‘rapture’ as understood within some branches of (mostly North American) fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity, and as set out, at a popular level, in the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels by Tim F. Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, and the theology, if you can call it that, which those books embody. That scheme of thought, ironically considering its fanatical though bizarre support for the present state of Israel, is actually deeply un-Jewish, collapsing into a dualism in which the present wicked world is left to stew in its own juice while the saints are snatched up to heaven to watch Armageddon from a ringside seat. (p. 145, Nook edition)

And then he goes on in the next paragraph to develop the Apostle Paul’s actual thinking, in contrast to dispensationalism, on such things; he continues to write:

This is massively different from anything we find in Paul [referring to the dispensationalist reading he just mentioned], for all that the central text for the ‘rapture’ theology is of course I Thessalonians 4.16-17. What we find in Paul at this point is four things, in each of which we see the still-future Jewish eschatology redrawn around the Messiah…. (p. 145, Nook edition)

He goes on to develop his ‘four things’, which I don’t want to get into at this point. Instead, I simply want to draw attention to the way that N. T. Wright (unsurprisingly) thinks of dispensational theology. I have come to agree with Wright about my former dispensationalism (I am an American Evangelical after all). But what does Wright mean when he writes ‘That scheme of thought, ironically considering its fanatical though bizarre support for the present state of Israel, is actually deeply un-Jewish, collapsing into a dualism in which the present wicked world is left to stew in its own juice while the saints are snatched up to heaven to watch Armageddon from a ringside seat’? It is something that I have harped on for quite some time, whenever I write about dispensationalism; that is, this neo-Platonic, hard and fast distinction between Israel and the Church (the Church=for Wright ‘the saints snatched up’). It is this distinction that ironically, but not, makes the Church God’s saints, and the nation of Israel his Covenant People; such that the latter are judged (even though Jesus already was … he was the Jew, wasn’t he) by God in the ‘Great Tribulation’ (Daniel’s so called 70th Week, or Jacob’s Trouble, cf. Jer. 30:7), and the former are the beneficiaries of Christ’s death for them on the cross. So we end up with this strange dualism between God’s “two people,” with the result that one still has to go through a blood letting of unimaginable depth, and the other has been released from such blood letting (the Church) through their Savior, Jesus Christ. My depiction might seem crude, but this is the inevitable conclusion to consistent and honest classical dispensational theology.

Wright, in the end, is right that dispensational theology offers a bizarre picture of what it means to ‘support’ the nation of Israel. Their theological framework has abstracted the nation of Israel out from Christ (in this dispensation, anyway … i.e. the so called “Church Age”), and essentially placed them into a situation that has them facing something akin to a medieval Roman Catholic conception of purgatory; but instead dispensationalists have named it, ‘The Great Tribulation’, riffing on Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse.

What say you Dispensationalist?

PS. In the end, though, I think Wright unhelpfully ends up offering an ecclesiocentric view of God’s people, instead of grounding God’s people (the Pauline ‘One New Man’ cf. Eph. 2.11ff) in God’s life in Christ as his new creation in his covenant life of grace. So I think Wright is still in need of some dogmatic reflection, and I am happy to see that he seems to be open to some correction by some of his more recent interaction with Kevin Vanhoozer (esp. in areas having to do with union with Christ theology).

**This is a repost from another blog of mine. I wrote this many months ago.

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5 comments

  1. This post interestingly coincides with some thoughts I’ve been working through. Although the popularized evangelical form of dispensationalism has ceased to make sense to me, I’ve not yet landed on the “perfect” replacement perspective.
    However, I just finished reading through Romans last night and was noting Paul’s attitude toward his unbelieving brothers-by-birth. So much anguish over their eternal well-being. And I can’t ignore that he says the Lord still loves them even though they have “stumbled”. And he gives such a stern warning to gentiles who think we have God’s plan for the naturally-born Israelite people all figured out (ie: we’re His special people now. Too bad for those poor, deceived Jews)…

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  2. @Heather,

    Yeah, I think any system that sees the Jews superseded just can’t fit with Romans 9–11. Amil doesn’t have to see the Jews superseded. And my approach is still functionally amil, I think a remnant of ethnic Jews are currently being saved, and at the end and intensification of this will happen (which if you look at the 20th and 21st centuries there has been an exponential amount of Jewish conversions to their Messiah).

    @David,

    Hi. I have read quite a bit on this. I don’t really have a problem interpreting the Romans passages; just see my comment to Heather. Thanks for the link.

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  3. Thanks for the response, Bobby. I agree with you about the amil. position with respect to the Jewish people. I appreciate that Paul centers salvation for all on faith in Christ.

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