Irwin, Brian P., with Tim Perry. After Dispensationalism: Reading the Bible for the End of the World. Lexham Press, 2023. xxiii+405 pp. Hb. $24.00 Link to Lexham Press
Brian Irwin is an associate professor of Old Testament at Knox College in Toronto. He has written many articles and book chapters on Old Testament topics. Tim Perry is a professor of theology at Providence Seminary in Otterburne, Manitoba. He is active in parish ministry and has written extensively on ecumenical dialogue and Mariology, including Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord (InterVarsity, 2006). After Dispensationalism is an irenic critique of Dispensationalism that attempts to correct some of the excessive interpretations of apocalyptic literature. The authors state early on that “this book commends dispensationalism’s scriptural zeal even as it finds that its way of reading often misses what the biblical authors wished to communicate” (2).
In the first part of the book, “The World of End-Times Teaching,” Irwin and Perry trace the history of dispensationalism. They begin with a survey of early attempts at predicting the end times, starting with early rabbinic and church writers who held to a 6000-year history of the world. Since “a day is like 1000 years,” these writers looked forward to a final 1000-year kingdom in the near future. After a summary of the (non-dispensationalism) Millerite movement, they conclude that we should not make predictions about the end of the world (since Jesus told us not to bother). These kinds of predictions miss the point of the original authors of the Bible (27).
A standard and fair history of dispensationalism follows from Darby to the Scofield Reference Bible, including an account of Dallas Theological Seminary. Then, the authors move to Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, who they describe as representing “end times as entertainment” (60). Chapter four is important since it outlines dispensationalism’s main ideas. These include literal interpretation, dispensations, a separation of Israel and the church, the pre-tribulational rapture, and the premillennial return of Christ. As most surveys observe, some of these elements appear in other forms of conservative theology, but the combination is “dispensational theology.” There are many examples of premillennialism throughout church history, but that does not mean early church fathers were dispensationalists.
Irwin and Perry then outline dispensationalism’s “end time story,” including the restoration of Israel to the land, the rebuilding of the temple, a rapture followed by a seven-year tribulation, Armageddon, and the return of Christ to establish the millennial kingdom. After the 1000-year kingdom, Christ judges the world at the great white throne judgment followed by “the new heavens and the new earth.” Once again, this is a fair summary of the kinds of things dispensationalism teachers about the end times. Although there are a few charts from Clarence Larkin (always entertaining and out of copyright), they avoid drawing on the lurid details found in the Left Behind movies.
For Irwin and Perry, the main problem is that dispensationalism needs to pay more attention to the original biblical audiences and contexts (95). Dispensationalism’s unrelenting focus on present fulfillment means literal interpretation can be idiosyncratic and constantly shifting. The solution? Study the literary genre of prophecy and apocalyptic (chapter five). This chapter clearly describes biblical prophecy, clarifying common misconceptions that Old Testament prophecy is only about the future. The authors use Ezekiel 34 as an example. The original audience would have understood this prophecy as the near-future return from exile, specifically, 538 BC, when Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to the land and rebuild the temple. However, does the return from exile exhaust the details of Ezekiel 34? Is this an example of a prophecy that has an immediate fulfillment in the prophet’s life and another at the time of the Messiah? This would be like Isaiah 7:14, “The virgin will give birth to a child.” The prophecy refers to an actual child being born at the time of Isaiah but is then used in the New Testament to describe the coming of the Messiah.
This book is a fair summary of dispensationalism up to the mid-twentieth century. Like other writers outside of dispensationalism, the authors know Darby and Scofield but then leap to Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and the Left Behind books and films. There is some interaction with Dwight Pentecost and a little with John Walvoord, but for the most part, Pentecost’s 1964 Things to Come is the most recent dispensationalist in this book. For example, in the 1990s, Progressive dispensationalists published several important books hoping to revise (or reform) dispensationalist thought, and these books generated significant responses from other dispensational writers.
Like Daniel Hummel’s Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, Irwin and Perry seem to be unaware there are many dispensational writers producing scholarship that do not predict the end of the world, the rapture, or map out the tribulation period. One example is the assertion that “most dispensationalist interpreters” evaluate John’s description of the New Jerusalem “in terms of engineering” (155). Dispensationalist Robert Thomas is aware of allusions to Ezekiel and thought the tangible aspects of the city’s architecture were not without “symbolic meaning” (2:461). He compares the size of the city to modern geography and concludes, “the prophet is struggling to express the vastness of the city through language accommodate to this creation” (2:467). DTS faculty member Buist Fanning’s recent commentary on Revelation tries to avoid excessive literalism and spiritualizing. He says, “Working out what the specific symbols mean and how much the mirror that future reality will still demand good judgment, but this is the broad approach taken in the present commentary” (539). John’s description is “under the influence of Ezekiel,” and the names of the apostles “represent the fullness of the New Testament church” (540). There is no speculation about the “engineering” of the New Jerusalem. For Daniel, recent commentaries by Paul Tanner and Joe Sprinkle approach the book from a dispensational perspective without devolving into excessive literalism or speculation. Although Fanning, Tanner, and Sprinkle do not state, “This is a dispensationalist commentary,” they represent the current state of dispensationalist scholarship on Daniel and Revelation.
Concerning apocalyptic literature, Irwin and Perry offer a clear description of the genre that aligns well with contemporary academic scholarship. Much of this section is similar to what I have written on apocalyptic, especially on Revelation. My main issue with their definition of apocalyptic is that it does not allow for any prediction as part of the genre. For example, Daniel 11 is certainly apocalyptic, and I completely agree with the fact that it refers to the Maccabean revolt. However, beginning in Daniel 11:36, there is a shift from the history leading up to the events of the revolt to a prediction of a judgment on the willful king. If this willful king is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, then the description of his demise is wrong. Maybe Michael refers to Judas Maccabees (or the Hasmoneans), but can “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2) really refer to real-world events in the lifetime of the prophet? Either the writer of Daniel 11 “gets it wrong,” or he begins looking forward to a future judgment that has not yet happened (from his perspective). So, apocalyptic can have a predictive quality (even if scholars disagree on what a particular apocalypse predicts).
The third section of the book demonstrates these principles using texts from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. These are not full-blown commentaries on either book. In fact, there are barely two pages on Daniel 10-12. They conclude, “Most scholars agree that Daniel’s original audience were Jews in Judea suffering under the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanies” (210). This is not wrong, but it does not entertain the possibility that Daniel 11:36-45 is a genuine prophecy about a final judgment of an ultimate enemy of God. If Daniel 7:13-14 refers to a “son of man” with authority to judge the arrogant horn and rule over a kingdom that will never end, when did that happen in the prophet’s lifetime? It seems like Daniel has in mind a future judgment that cannot be tied to anything in history. Irwin and Perry do, in fact, see a future aspect to the book of Revelation. Commenting on the New Heaven and New Earth, they suggest, “The scene of perfect peace and relationship with God is not yet realized, however, so this final section and the book as a whole concludes with the reminder and encouragement that Christ is coming soon” (282).
Part of the problem is Irwin and Perry assume one must approach Revelation as either a futurist, a preterist, or an idealist. A survey of recent commentaries on Revelation shows this either/or method does not work. Most commentators recognize that Revelation is grounded in a first-century situation and can be applied to all cultures and contexts in church history. But it also looks forward to a consummation of the ages, whatever that looks like. I realize this seems a little bit like wanting to have my cake and eat it too, but Revelation itself claims to be a prophecy (Rev 1:3). It certainly speaks to the culture of the prophet’s day but also has application to various cultures throughout church history. That is how scholars approach Romans 13:1-7, for example. Paul addresses a real issue in the first century that can be applied to any culture at any point in church history (now and in the future). Why not approach Daniel and Revelation the same way?
Irwin and Perry conclude the book with thirteen theses summarizing their approach to prophecy and apocalyptic. None of these are surprising to dispensationalists outside of the entertainment-style dispensational theology of LaHaye and Lindsay. Many dispensationalists have warned against trying to interpret revelation through the lens of a modern newspaper, and they’re warning that modern political Israel is not equivalent to the future biblical Israel regathered in the land. I wholeheartedly agree with their warnings in this final chapter, but I still think Daniel and Revelation look forward to the return of Christ and the future kingdom of God.
Conclusion. Despite this overly long review and some misgivings about the details, this is really a very good book. Everyone needs to heed their warnings to stop reading current events through the lens of Revelation. Irwin and Perry provide an excellent introduction to understanding prophecy, even if I am more willing to see a future aspect in some details than they are. I wish they were reading more contemporary dispensationalists.
Irwin describes current dispensationalism as like a supertanker with its engines cut. It is still moving but is aimless and slowly losing momentum (37). Daniel Hummel goes further in his Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism (Eerdmans 2023, review coming soon). Scot McKnight blames Dispensationalism for many of America’s political woes in Revelation for the Rest of Us (Zondervan 2023, reviewed here). Yet a book like Discovering Dispensationalism (SCS Press, 2023) seems to indicate that Dispensationalism is “not quite dead yet,” even if scholarship does not take notice.
The physical book is an attractive 5×8 inches and hardback, a handy size. Unfortunately, the book uses endnotes. There is a thirty-three-page bibliography, so the body of the book is only 297 pages. The book is illustrated with various charts and graphs.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.