Dialogue With A Dispensationalist
Robert Klaus provides a brief overview of dispensationalism and then exposes its errors regarding St. Paul’s role in the New Testament. His opponent’s comments are in blue.
The Dispensationalist “movement” had John Nelson Darby as its founder back in the 1830s. Following two generations later was CI Scofield who was the first to take Darby’s rather novel ideas and systematize them by way of a special Study Bible with all of the verses that are pertinent to Dispensationalism cross-referenced.
Modern day Dispensationalists have become very popular in the American eye, starting with author Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) and continuing on with Tim LaHaye, the author of the vastly popular Left Behind series. Dispensationalists are positively obsessed with End Times topics in general, and with the Rapture theory in particular.
“The rapture,” of course, is the belief that Christ will come again and take up into heaven those who make up “the Church” – that is to say “born again” believing Christians – prior to seven years of tribulation for those who are left behind.
Thus, those who are raptured into heaven not only escape death but also escape the tribulations that God rains down on earth. After the seven year so-called “Great Tribulation” Christ will come again and establish a 1000 year reign on earth (called “The Millennial Reign”) – thus ushering in the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies about the Kingdom of Israel – a literal and physical kingdom centered in Jerusalem at the rebuilt and restored Temple.
It should be noted that Dispensationalists often dispute among themselves as to where the Word should be “rightly divided” as well as disputing between themselves if the rapture will occur before, during, or after the Great Tribulation. The majority of Dispensationalists are known as “Pre-tribulation Millennialists” since they hold that the rapture will occur before the Tribulation after which Christ will reign in the earthly Kingdom of Israel for 1000 years.
Dispensationalists do not view the era of Grace, that is to say the Church Age, to be a continuation and fulfillment of the Old Covenant. Rather, they believe that Salvation History is broken up and divided into several different periods of time – called “dispensations.” The idea is that God has specific “programs” in mind that are addressed specifically to the people within any given era…with little or no connection from one dispensation to the next.
Catholics, as well as many mainstream Protestants, believe that the Church founded by Christ on the Apostles is the Kingdom of God on earth since the Church is nothing less than the continuation of the Incarnational ministry of Christ. Dispensationalists dispute that notion and insist that there is a sharp separation between the “Church” and the “Kingdom” (by which they mean the literal earthly reign of Christ in Israel).
Thus, they believe that Jesus and the 12 Apostles, since they were Jews who directed their evangelization efforts to the nation of Israel, are in “Israel’s program” whereas the Apostle Paul, since he was known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” is in the “Church program.” Therefore Dispensationalists believe that all four Gospel books in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) plus the first 8 chapters of Acts (since chapter 9 marks the conversion of Paul – the Apostle to the Gentiles), all pertain to Jews only, whereas the balance of the New Testament (especially the Epistles written by Paul) pertain specifically to the Gentiles and the “Church Age.”
Therefore they, as Gentiles, paint themselves into a rather odd corner in that they are Christians who view the words of Paul to have more direct influence on them than they view the Gospels or the words of Christ Himself.
The bottom line is that they perceive that the ministry of Christ and the 12 Apostles was to be directed solely toward converting the nation of Israel. When that proved to be a lost cause, due to the rejection of Christ by the Jews in the first century, God put the “Israel Program” on the shelf, so to speak, and instead raised Paul as the Apostle to the Gentiles and thus entered the “Church Age” which is viewed as sort of a “parenthesis” in Salvation History. So, for the last 2000 years we have been in the Church Age and will remain there until God decides to rapture up the Church and once again send down Jesus (The Second Coming) to reign in earthly Israel.
Thus, the “Church Age” will have been raptured into heaven and the “Israel Program” will be taken off the shelf and re-opened. At the end of the literal 1000 year reign of Christ in Israel, a great battle between Satan and his minions will ensue against Christ and His Angelic forces. This will result in the end of time and God emerging triumphant and Satan finally and eternally defeated and vanquished. Again, please note that this is only a general summary since many Dispensationalists dispute exactly where to “rightly divide the Word” and hence they argue among themselves as to the actual order that these prophesied events will unfold.
Dispensationalists therefore have a very hyper-Pauline theology in which anything that Paul says (as Dispensationalists interpret his words, of course) will “trump” anything else that even Jesus might say. They are able to dismiss the words of Jesus by remarking that Jesus was talking to Jews and since they are Gentile they do not have to pay as much attention to them as the words of Paul. This, of course, is a very stilted and unnatural way of reading Scripture. It is, frankly, dangerous.
So…with this background in mind, please read the following dialog between myself and a Dispensationalist. The actual dialog is much longer than this excerpt, but it will serve the purpose of exposing some of the fallacies that Dispensationalists bring to the table – especially when it comes to their over-emphasis on the role of Paul. Remember that they have a vested interest in separating and clearly dividing Paul and his Gospel (to the Gentiles) from the Gospel preached by Peter and the other Apostles.
I am not mocking Peter and I don’t believe that Paul is my “pope” but if there was such a thing as a “pope” Paul would be most likely choice because he was given the “revelation of the mystery of Christ” which Peter had to learn from him.
Peter did NOT “learn from” Paul. Read Acts 10 (the account of the conversion of the Gentile man named Cornelius by way of Peter’s divinely mandated visit to his home) in which – clearly – Peter received a Divine Revelation completely independently of Paul – unless you want to claim that the being who came to Peter in his vision was really was really Paul and not an angel. 😉
Your claim that Paul taught Peter about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Covenant is totally baseless and a gross distortion of the Bible.
When Paul came on the scene in the book of Acts Peter disappears off the scene.
You are reading as a modern day American (which can be a dangerous thing since the Bible is anything but a modern American document). The Bible in general (and Acts in particular) is not written as if it is a linear history textbook trying to tell the whole story from A to Z…so why are you acting as if it is?
The other thing is that Luke, clearly, intended to write another book picking up where Acts abruptly left off. For whatever reason, known only to God, the “sequel” was either never written or it was lost. Obviously God did not want it written or in the canon. But the point here is that, objectively speaking, Peter went on in his ministry and DID things even if we do not have written accounts of it. What I am saying is that just because Peter “disappears” from the Bible does NOT mean than he “disappeared off the scene” as you so boldly claim.
The only recorded Gentiles Peter ever preached to was Cornelius and his family and he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do that. Peter did not go “kicking and screaming.” Rather, Peter was naturally caught off guard, so to speak, because the Revelation he received was something that was new (and unexpected) to him. According to Acts 10:19 Peter was “pondering” the Revelation – he wasn’t fighting against it (kicking and screaming) as per your assertion.
Also – you are obviously trying to minimize the importance of this passage since it is so lethal to your hyper-Pauline heterodoxy. Even if you are correct (and I can prove that you are not correct) that Peter preached to “only” Cornelius…well…it still must be admitted by you that that one event was HUGE.
Firstly, it wasn’t as if Peter stumbled upon some poor hapless Gentile and decided (on his own) to preach to him on the spur of the moment as a whim. Rather, Peter was commanded by divine mandate to seek out Cornelius and to preach to him. It was God Himself who commanded this and so you would be wise to recognize the significance of this event instead of minimizing its import.
Secondly, the record DOES prove that Peter was not taught by Paul, but rather Peter received his understanding regarding the Gentiles directly through Divine Revelation – PRECISELY the same way that Paul received his own understanding regarding the Gentiles. Why you should put so much emphasis on Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and so little emphasis on Peter’s vision with regard to Cornelius only belies your own hyper-Pauline bias that keeps you and all Dispensationalists blinded to Truth.
Thirdly it can be Biblically demonstrated that Peter preached to more Gentiles than “only” Cornelius. I realize that you qualified your assertion by saying that the Cornelius event was the only “recorded” instance of Peter preaching to Gentiles, but that is simply not true…and a careful reading of Acts and Galatians proves my point.
Here is why…
Remember the incident mentioned in Galatians 2 of Paul “rebuking” Peter because Peter turned away from the Gentiles and instead sat at table with the Judaizers? Think for a moment about what that is REALLY saying. Is it saying that Peter was rebuked for never preaching to the Gentiles, or was he rebuked for TURNING AWAY from the Gentiles THAT HE WAS HERETOFOR EVANGELIZING so that he would not scandalize the Judaizers??? Obviously Peter had to have been preaching to more Gentiles than “only” Cornelius – and this is “recorded” in Scripture…if one were to carefully read the text without hyper-Pauline bias. Galatians 2:12 proves my point:
“For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.”
There is another reason. Follow me here:
Step 1 we see Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. We learn that Peter received his new understanding of God’s Will for the Gentiles directly by Divine Revelation (not from Paul).
Step 2 we see in chapter 11 starting in verse 1 that the other “Apostles and the brethren in Judea” learned from Peter that the Gentiles “ALSO” had received the word of God. So the entire hierarchy within the Apostolic church in Judea learned of God’s Will for the Gentiles FROM PETER (not Paul!).
Step 3 we see (verse 18) that Peter’s instruction to them as to the Divine nature of the Revelation he received from an angel effectively “silenced” those in the hierarchy who were previously objecting to Peter’s actions with Cornelius. Even they acknowledged that “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” So the very center of the Church knew of God’s Will for the Gentiles at that very moment. And the center of the Church learned this from Peter – not Paul.
Step 4 we see (verse 20) that men from Cyprus and Cyrene arrived in Antioch (just a short journey from Jerusalem – and we know from Scripture that there was much communication between Jerusalem and Antioch) where they too preached to Gentiles (just like Peter had preached to Cornelius). As of this point in time – Paul is living in Tarsus and has not arrived on the “Gentile scene,” so to speak, in Antioch. But these other men (from Cyprus and Cyrene) THEY did preach to Gentiles. And they preached to the Gentiles with much success. Verse 21 tells us that these men (not Paul) were able to “greatly” increase the number of Gentile believers in Antioch.
Step 5 we see (verse 22) that news of this great increase of Gentile converts came to the ears of the hierarchy in Jerusalem (as I said – it is a short distance and there was much communicated between the two cities). So, what did they do? They “sent Barnabas” (not Paul) to oversee the whole situation at Antioch. When Barnabas arrived (verse 23) he was greatly pleased by what he found and, in verse 24, the efforts of Barnabas resulted in the Gentile population continuing to grow the Church in Antioch to such a degree that he needed some help.
Step 6 we see (verses 25-26) the FIRST TIME IN ALL OF SCRIPTURE that here – finally – Paul is specifically referenced to be in the company of Gentiles (although it is highly possible that Paul had preached to Gentiles while living in Tarsus – but Scripture does not spell that out for us). Barnabas went to Tarsus (where Paul had been living at the time) and “recruited” him (for lack of a better word) to help out in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas “worked” at Antioch for a whole year – again with great success.
So, my point here is that your claim that the Cornelius event is supposedly the only recorded time that Peter preached to Gentiles is a baseless argument (as per Galatians 2). Not only that, but you are also ignoring the Biblical evidence that says that (1) Peter informed the Church hierarchy of his Revelation, and (2) the events that followed in Antioch (when the men from Cyprus and Cyrene preached to Gentiles) were an indirect result of Peter’s instruction to the universal Church. According to Scripture, the Church in Antioch had “greatly increased” its number of Gentile converts long before Paul went to Antioch.
Let’s look at the record of Paul’s initial activities as a Christian:
Step 1 is Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. Paul receives a Divine Revelation from Jesus Himself. He is sent on to Damascus where he eventually meets with Ananias (a Jewish Christian). Ananias also received a Revelation and he is told that Saul is “a chosen instrument” to carry God’s name to Gentiles. That is the first time we learn of God’s plans for Saul/Paul with regard to the Gentiles…and it is interesting that we learn of it through the Revelation given to Ananias (and not through the Revelation given to Paul).
So…what does Saul/Paul do next?
Step 2 in verses 19-22 we learn that after several days with the (Jewish) disciples in Damascus Saul did his first preaching as a Christian. Where did he preach? In a Synagogue to Jews (not Gentiles)!
Verses 22 reads:
“But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”
There is no mention yet of Saul preaching to Gentiles.
Step 3 tells us, in verses 23-25, that the JEWS (not the Gentiles) tried to kill him and so he escaped (to Jerusalem).
Step 4, in verses 26-27, he eventually meets the Apostles. Barnabas vouched for his conversion and therefore the hierarchy of the Church accepted Saul as a brother in Christ.
Step 5, in verses 28-29, we see a soon-to-be familiar pattern emerge. Saul preached to the “Hellenists” in Jerusalem. The “Hellenists” were not Gentile Greeks, but rather they are Greek speaking Jews! Therefore Saul had still not preached to Gentiles. And these Hellenists, being non-Christian Jews, tried to kill him, just as the Jews in Damascus had tried to kill him previously.
Step 6, verse 30, explains that the Church in Jerusalem, presumably fearing for Saul’s life, sent him off (eventually) to Tarsus. Tarsus, of course, is where he was from originally. It is a safe assumption that Saul returned back to his family or old neighborhood (since Jews are very clannish this should be a safe assumption – but it is admittedly only speculation) where he lived until the day that Barnabas arrived to recruit him for the Church’s work in Antioch (preaching to Gentiles).
Still, up until Paul’s arrival in Antioch there is not one explicit Biblical word about Saul/Paul preaching anything to a Gentile. It can be fairly speculated that Paul may have preached to Gentiles while in Tarsus since we know that there was a Gentile Christian population in Tarsus by the time of the Jerusalem Council in that the Council sent a letter to the gentile believers in “Cilicia” – the province where Tarsus is – even though we don’t know with certainty who evangelized these believers (see Acts 15:23). I personally believe that Paul had most likely preached to the Gentiles there prior to his departure to Antioch…but that is speculation on my part.
And all of this tells us that not only was Paul NOT involved in teaching the universal Church as to God’s Will for the Gentiles (According to Acts 11 it was Peter who taught the Church this – not Paul), but it also tells us that the act of preaching to Gentiles was already in practice long before Paul’s arrival in Antioch – even by those in the Church who were not even Apostles and had not received any Revelation themselves (such as Barnabas and the men from Cyprus and Cyrene).
Therefore the Revelation about Gentiles that Paul received was NOT “unique” to Paul alone (as you Dispensationalists continually assert again and again)…hence the Gospel that Paul preached was not contrary to, or separated from, what the wider Church in general, and the other Apostles in particular, were already preaching and practicing independently of Paul.
And for proof that what the Apostles (and especially Peter) preached was IN ACCORD with Paul’s gospel message – and therefore Paul’s gospel was NOT unique or separate – can be found in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem.
Before we delve into Acts 15, though, let’s set the stage:
Step 1 is Acts 12 whereby we learn that King Herod began a great persecution of the Church. He killed the Apostle James (brother of John) and had Peter arrested. With divine assistance (from an angel sent by God) Peter escaped the prison and sent a message to the other “James” (the one who was now the head of the local Church in Jerusalem) and then went into hiding. Basically the Apostles “got out of Dodge” and the local Church that remained was forced to go underground, under James who was a very Jewish (i.e., not at all Gentile-like) leader.
Step 2, in Acts 13, we switch the story over to Antioch where Paul and Barnabas where working hard at building the Church – and where there was great success at evangelizing Gentiles.
But here we suddenly find yet another Divine Revelation. According to verses 2-4 the Holy Spirit came to – not Paul alone – but rather to the local Church leadership. And here the Spirit commanded that they – the Church – “set aside” Paul AND Barnabas so that they could go on a special mission. So…the Church then laid hands on them (their formal Episcopal ordination) and they went on their way on Paul’s historic “First Missionary Journey”. It is interesting that the vision was not given to Paul directly and exclusively, but rather the mandate was given to the Church itself to set Paul and Barnabas aside for God’s Divine purposes. In that respect Paul worked under the Church – not independently from it.
In step 3 (Chapters 14 and 15:1) we can see that, with the Apostles in hiding and scattered (there is a tradition that Peter went to Rome for the first time during this period – but that is mere speculation) due to Herod’s persecution of the now underground Church, the Judaizing faction in Jerusalem gained in influence – or at least they were more vocal and active. The Judaizers, being aware of the influx of Gentiles in Antioch, went to Antioch (remember that Paul and Barnabas had already been sent on their journey) whereby they began to teach the Gentiles that they must first become Jews (in the Mosaic Law way of understanding what makes one a child of the Covenant) before they can become Christians. Hence, they began to preach that Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could join the New Covenant family. There was nobody in Antioch (or Jerusalem) to dissuade the Judaizers from adding this Mosaic burden to the Gentile converts. At least there was nobody until Paul and Barnabas returned back to Antioch after their first missionary journey was ended. And that is when the fertilizer hit the proverbial ventilator, so to speak.
In step 4 things take a very interesting turn. Acts 15:2 reads:
And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them [the Judaizers], Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question [about circumcision being a requirement for salvation].
Okay – what is going on here? There was great dissention and debate about “this question.” “This question” must have been something new to the Church (for if it wasn’t new then it would already have been dealt with, right?) and both sides agreed that ONLY way to definitively settle the dispute would be an appeal to the Apostles themselves and the “elders” of the Church hierarchy (which, by the way, also demonstrates that the Church was not merely a bunch of independent local congregations with no central authoritative structure).
So, if you take a moment and reflect on what this is saying to us, there were two mutually exclusive sides to this disputed new question, but only one of the sides could be *in accord* with the Apostles and their views.
And so, the parties from Antioch (both sides) headed to Jerusalem where the Church hierarchy was gathered together to settle the matter. In verses 6-7 we read that the gathered elders/Apostles and both parties from Antioch began “much debate” UNTIL Peter rose and spoke. Verse 7 says that AFTER there had been much debate, Peter rose and spoke (thus implying that Peter silenced the debate when he rose to speak).
And here, in step 5, we read what Peter said (verse 7):
“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that BY MY MOUTH [not Paul’s mouth] the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.”
Well, I must say that that is a very powerful statement – and one that many hyper-Pauline Protestants gloss over as if it isn’t even there.
But – it gets even better:
10 Now therefore WHY DO YOU make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But WE believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Whoa. Let’s not go too fast here. Notice that Peter is making a CONTRAST between those who are putting a yoke on the Gentiles (the Judaizers) and those who are not. Not only that, but Peter squarely contrasts (and therefore excludes) himself with the Judaizers. Notice that Peter did NOT ask “Why do WE put a yoke…” but rather – in speaking directly to the Judaizers – he asked “Why do YOU….”
Peter is saying that this practice of Judaizing is NOT something that is in accord with anything that he or the other Apostles have taught or practiced. For if, for example, Peter had demanded circumcision for Cornelius then Peter would have asked “Why do WE” instead of asking “Why do YOU.”
And this notion is reinforced even further when James, the head of the Church in Jerusalem (the hotbed, if you will, of the Judaizing faction who had come from Jerusalem and into Antioch) rose up later (in verses 19-21) and stated this:
19 Therefore my judgment is THAT WE SHOULD NOT TROUBLE those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”
So again we have another reference point of compare and contrast. James, the head of the Church in Jerusalem, in speaking directly to those in his flock who had been Judaizing said, “…WE should not trouble…” as contrasted with Peter’s words of “Why do YOU.”
The bottom line in all of this is that what Paul was preaching in terms of “his gospel” as it pertains to the Gentiles was NOT UNIQUE (as you have claimed over and over again in our various emails), but rather what Paul preached to them was in accord with what the Apostles were ALREADY DOING long before Paul ever interacted with the rest of the Church on the Gentile mission field. For evidence of that, all you need to do is consider all the time in Antioch when Barnabas was there BEFORE Paul arrived…were they circumcising Gentiles then? Of course not. Therefore the Church was not in accord with the Judaizers at any time prior to when the new “question” question arose and became hotly debated. And thus Paul’s “gospel” was not unique and divided and separated from that of the gospel preached by the Apostles to the Jews.
For if “Paul’s Gospel” was so unique and “different” than that which the 12 Apostles (and their disciples such as Barnabas) had been preaching prior to Paul’s arrival in Antioch, Paul would have – necessarily – “straightened out” what the Gentiles had been taught previously. We have no words in Scripture whereby Paul said to the Gentiles in Antioch, “I know that the man the Apostles sent to you taught you ABC, but I am here to tell you that I am the Apostle to the Gentiles and therefore I now am about to teach you XYZ – a completely unique and different Gospel than you had been previously taught.” We never see those words. Why not? Because when Paul arrived at Antioch he found Gentile believers who were perfectly orthodox in their beliefs. Paul’s Gospel was not “unique” and “separated” from the Apostolic teaching with regard to the Gentiles.
Dispensationalists are grasping at straws.
The Catholic Legate
June 10, 2005