American evangelicalism has never quite comprehended the big idea that is the kingdom of God or the church’s role in ushering it in. For that matter, much of evangelical theology has been more concerned with its delay than with its consummation. This is due, in large part, to the predominance of dispensationalism, a theological methodology built around the theory that the kingdom was postponed after the Jews rejected Jesus as their promised Messiah and God had to resort to “Plan B,” that is, the church, until which time the Jews were finally ready to accept Jesus.
This dubious system, popularized by John Nelson Darby, codified by C.I. Scofield, and systematized by Lewis Sperry Chafer, has held sway in popular evangelicalism since the middle of the nineteenth century. The rival school of covenant theology has been prevalent among scholars of evangelical bent, like George Eldon Ladd, but has not matched the popularity of dispensationalism among the masses.
The weaknesses of the dispensational system, most notably its transparently heretical ecclesiology (which borders on Marcionism) and escapist “rapture” eschatology have not gone unnoticed by some of its adherents, who have lately begun an endeavor to rehabilitate it and find points of agreement with the covenantal system. The emerging consensus among “progressive” dispensationalists and “modified” covenentalists in the areas of eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology is the subject of Russell D. Moore’s study, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004). Although written nearly a decade ago, Moore’s work will continue to be of great contemporary significance, especially in light of his recent election as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Coming as I do from a more liturgical, although no less evangelical (in the most positive sense of the word) tradition, I approached Moore’s work with a certain degree of skepticism. My contemporary influences are the likes of Peter Leithart and N.T. Wright, neither of whom seem to figure in Moore’s emerging “evangelical consensus.” His survey focuses primarily on theologians of the free church tradition, beginning with Carl F.H. Henry whose 1947 work, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, serves as a launching pad for the move toward dispensational/covenantal dialogue.
In the end, Moore is quite successful in forging common ground for his primary audience in the form of an “inaugurated eschatology” which emphasizes both the “already” of the kingdom, present in the church and its mission, and the “not yet,” the final consummation which will come at the end of history. That is something of a cliché, however, and the kingdom continues to be held pretty much at arm’s length. Moreover, Moore’s primary audience is rather narrow. The postwar liberalism of mainline Protestantism is rightly dismissed for its “realized eschatology” and de-emphasis on the age to come. Moore’s dismissal of conservative dominionism, however, is premature, as Leithart has more recently argued quite convincingly that Constantine and the Christendom he inaugurated during the latter days of the Roman Empire deserve a second look.
As commendable a work as it is, I still come away from Moore’s book with one nagging question which illustrates, I believe, what continues to be at the heart of American evangelicalism’s “uneasy conscience.” The rehabilitation of dispensationalism into a more palatable “progressive” school of thought requires not merely revision on some minor points of departure. It requires abandoning some points altogether. For dispensationalists, this means eliminating the radical Israel/church distinction, the low ecclesiology which relegates the church to “God’s Plan B,” and the preposterous fantasy of a pre-tribulational “rapture” of the church. Much of the work of the “progressive dispensationalists” has moved in this direction. It is difficult to understand, however, why such theologians wish to retain the name of “dispensationalist,” having indeed “progressed” so far beyond that system’s infantile excesses.