By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Some traditional dispensationalists, such as Ice, say otherwise. "They've destroyed the church and thus undermined the whole purpose for the Rapture," Ice says indignantly. "Why do you have a Rapture if the church is a form of the kingdom?" Ice thinks the progressives have thrown literal interpretation of the Bible out the window. "Progressives were dispensationalists who were educated at universities in Europe, who got Ph.D.s in Europe and who started applying what I would call liberalism, critical-type scholarship, to interpreting the Bible," he scoffs.
Indeed, Bock and Blaising both hold degrees from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Even a theologian of J. Dwight Pentecost's stature seems wary of the European influence. "Some of those who have advocated the progressive view have second doctorates from prestigious universities in Europe, and that gives them a lot of leverage with students," he says. "I don't have that same thing because I never studied in Europe." Pentecost rejects the progressives' interpretations, but he seems disposed to let his colleagues slide on a technicality. "Those fellows still have to sign our doctrinal statement," he says, "but that area [of disagreement between progressives and traditionalists] isn't covered in our doctrinal statement, so they can sign the doctrinal statement and still be on our faculty."
Tommy Ice is not so accommodating. He looks back fondly at his student days at DTS. "It was wonderful and I loved it," he says. "But to see it 25 years later, 30 years later to be so different..." Ice trails off and starts again. "Dallas Seminary has changed. I really don't consider that to be much of a source now for dispensationalism." As director of the LaHaye-financed Pre-Trib Research Center, Ice is ready to take up the torch. "We probably are the main defenders of traditional dispensationalism now," he says.
Bock isn't sure that dispensationalism needs defending. "We recognize that we have a common belief, a common goal, and we have fun playing with the nuances," he says. "It's like we're siblings in a family. We may sound like we're on each other's nerves, but when push comes to shove we know what family we're part of." Kreider, who counts himself among the progressives, believes the shift will make dispensationalism stronger. "I really do share the perspective of critics of dispensationalists for our lack of emphasis on our responsibility for social issues and for environmental concerns," he says. For the first time, dispensationalism can now include the present world in God's plan for mankind, a message Kreider plans to pass on to his students. "I want them to take social justice seriously and to take the environment seriously," he says. "I work hard at that."
The 10 adults gathered in the brightly decorated classroom just after nine on Sunday morning seem more intent on linking up with the banana-nut bread and coffee. Eventually, however, Steve Ackley, the Bible study group leader, gets the session rolling. Sure enough, the topic is pure dispensationalist fare, the difference between law and grace in the governing of Christian behavior. All evangelicals follow some variation on the theme, but only dispensationalists believe the two form the fifth and sixth dispensations, respectively.
Ackley, natty in a sweater vest and sharply creased pants, is warming to his subject. "They will know us as God's children by our love, not by our degrees or our theology or our eschatology," he says, his voice radiating goodwill. Then Ackley picks up a leather-bound copy of former DTS professor Charles Ryrie's tome on dispensationalism. Even at Scofield, this is a little heavy for Sunday morning, but Ackley is just making a point. "It's written in English, but as much as I love Dr. Ryrie it might as well be written in Hebrew," he says ruefully.
Ackley's message is clear: The theological minutiae of dispensationalism that are hotly debated by DTS faculty mean little to those in the congregation. "They would all know about the Rapture," Curran says. "Probably the most distinctive thing about dispensationalism is the difference between Israel and the church, and I think they would understand that." Beyond that, Curran says, he just sticks to the Bible and lets the theology take care of itself.
That's also the attitude he's taking toward the progressive split at DTS. Curran takes his cue from his former mentor at DTS, the late John Walvoord, an expert in classical dispensationalism. "Walvoord was friends with Blaising and Bock," Curran says. "They agreed they had some nuances that were different, but it wasn't a big deal to Walvoord, and if it wasn't a big deal to him it's not a big deal to me."
Yet it would seem that Curran, of all people, would take eschatological distinctions very seriously; after all, during his previous career as a Louisiana advertising executive and Republican activist, he came face-to-face with the Antichrist. Or at least, an antichrist. "I think Satan has people in place throughout time that could be the Antichrist, because he doesn't know either when Christ is coming back, so he's always got someone ready," Curran says. "People like Hitler--people like David Duke."