Dispensationalist Charges William Lane Craig with ‘Willful Ignorance’ on the Rapture

While doing my daily trek through Facebook looking for relevant news stories, I came across a post with a link to an article with this title: “The Willful Ignorance of William Lane Craig.” The author of the article takes Dr. Craig to task for his comments on the historicity of the rapture in his short video “Is the Rapture a Biblical Doctrine?” Eschatology is not Dr. Craig’s main field of study. In recent years, several scholars have worked hard to prove that dispensationalism existed prior to John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) around 1830. Here’s the standard argument: “Dispensationalists … argue that while Darby may have been the first to order dispensational distinctives into a lucid system, other theologians held certain dispensational-like presuppositions far before Darby.”1 For example, William C. Watson’s Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism (2015), a book that is loaded with great historical sources, argues this way. I contend that every prophetic system can make the same claim. For example, dispensationalists are premillennial, but premillennialists often argue vociferously against dispensationalism. Consider historic or classical premillennialist George Eldon Ladd:

We can find no trace of pretribulationalism in the early church, and no modern pretribulationist has successfully proved that this particular doctrine was held aby any of the church fathers or students of the Word before the nineteenth century.2
Also, apocalypticism and dispensationalism are not synonymous since amillennialists believe in an end-time apocalypse. Neither is a belief in a future great tribulation, the rise and demise of antichrist, or the future redemption of Israel. These and other prophetic doctrines can be found among most prophetic systems. For example, in the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy kingdom come”) of the 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, the following is found: “we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, [and] the fullness of the Gentiles brought in … and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends” (Larger CatechismQ/A. 191). A dispensationalist could agree with what’s stated above, but only within the context of its system. It’s dispensationalism as a system that does not have historical support. Long before dispensationalism, many Christians commenting on eschatology, most of whom would be described today as postmillennialists, taught the future conversion of the Jews. What they did not teach is the “rapture of the church” prior to a seven-year period in order to separate a remnant of Jews from a new entity called the “church.” See Chapter 3 of my book 10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered. So much of what we read in the historical record on the topic of Bible prophecy is marred by a failure to consider the nearness of certain prophetic events that Jesus and the New Testament writers specify. Watson and Craig are aware of preterism but do not do a good job dealing with preterist arguments from a biblical perspective. Watson has numerous entries of preterism in his subject index. He mentions and quotes John Owen (1616–1683) who believed in a future papal antichrist, a belief common to most of the Reformers, many of who were historicists. There is no way that anyone would identify Owen as a dispensationalist even though dispensationalists and Owen (among others) believed in a future conversion of the Jews. As Watson admits, Owen was mostly a preterist who believed that in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) Jesus “came to destroy Jerusalem and put an end to the Jewish state and dispensation.” Owen had this to say about 2 Peter 3:10 and the passing away of heaven and earth, a position that dispensationalists, premillennialists, and most amillennialists and postmillennialists would not agree with:
On this foundation I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state — i.e., the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. (John Owen’s Works (9:134–135).
Dr. Craig has addressed the subject of preterism from a biblical perspective here. My responses are here, here, and here. Craig and the dispensationalists share a similar textual fault by failing to account for audience relevance and the timing of prophetic events. Craig’s views on eschatology are all over the map, but he does seem to share some of the same tenets of dispensationalisms, for example, the belief that “[t]he fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 may have been just a foreshadowing of a final great tribulation and fall of Jerusalem that will take place again at the end of the age. Although Jesus may have thought that many of ‘these things’ would take place within his generation, I don’t think we have any solid grounds for saying that Jesus believed that the coming of the Son of Man was going to take place within the lifetime of his contemporaries.” To repeat, to hold similar positions on some prophetic topics does not mean that the people who held these similar positions can or should be identified as proto-dispensationalists. Many premillennialists and amillennialists hold a similar mixed view of the Olivet Discourse but would not see eye-to-eye on the rapture of the church. See Chapter 4 of my book Prophecy Wars for my response to this interpretation. If there is something in the historical record that aligns with something dispensationalists teach, then that source is often used by dispensationalists to support their claim that dispensationalism was taught before the 19th century. For example, in the first chapter of the book Ancient Dispensational Truth, the author states the following as if it’s historic evidence that dispensationalism existed before Darby and Co.:
Ancient writers called the various ages in which God dealt with mankind in different ways, “dispensations.”
This claim isn’t new to critics of dispensationalism. The system called dispensationalism is more than differences between the covenants or the fact that theologians divided redemptive history into dispensations. “Rightly dividing the word of truth” (a more accurate translation is “accurately handling the word of truth”: 2 Tim. 2:15), a favorite Scofieldian phrase, does not mean dividing up the Bible into sealed off redemptive divisions. The NT itself makes this clear by declaring that there has been a change in the operation of God’s covenant as is obvious from the book of Hebrews and Paul’s writings. In reading some of these early authors, the word “dispensation” is most often used as a synonym for “covenant.” For example, from John Chrysostom’s “Letter to a Young Widow”: “And God has furnished us with certain tokens, and obscure indications of these things both in the Old and in the New Dispensation.” Chrysostom is saying nothing more than that both the Old and New Testaments have something to teach widows. This is hardly an endorsement in any way of modern-day dispensationalism. Dispensationalism, as a system, is not found prior to the 19th century. There is no such system among the early church fathers since their writings lack the necessary elements of the system that defines dispensationalism. Alan Patrick Boyd, author of “A Dispensational Premillennial Analysis of the Eschatology of the Post-Apostolic Fathers (Until the Death of Justin Martyr),” submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Theology (May 1977) at Dallas Theological Seminary, sums up his detailed study of the period with the following:
It is the conclusion of this thesis that Dr. Ryrie’s statement [that “premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church”3] was the view of the early is historically invalid within the chronological framework of this thesis. The reasons for this conclusion are as follows: 1). the writers/writings surveyed did not generally adopt a consistently applied literal interpretation; 2). they did not generally distinguish between the Church and Israel; 3). there is no evidence that they generally held to a dispensational view of revealed history; 4). although Papias and Justin Martyr did believe in a Millennial kingdom, the 1,000 years is the only basic similarity with the modern system (in fact, they and dispensational pre-millennialism radically differ on the basis of the Millennium); 5). they had no concept of imminency or a pre-tribulational rapture of the Church; 6). in general, their eschatological chronology is not synonymous with that of the modern system. Indeed, this thesis would conclude that the eschatological beliefs of the period studied would be generally inimical to those of the modern system (perhaps, seminal amillennialism, and not nascent dispensational pre-millennialism ought to be seen in the eschatology of the period).
This means, if premillennialism is not the historic faith of the Church, then neither can dispensationalism be. The system known as dispensationalism is a 19th-century invention.
  1. Scott Aniol, “Was Isaac Watts a Proto-Dispensationalist?,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, 16:1 (2011), 91. []
  2. The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 31. []
  3. Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ: Loiseaux Brothers, 1953), 17. Also see page 33. []
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