John F. MacArthur Jr. and Richard Mayhue, General Editors | Review by: Benjamin Wright
John F. MacArthur Jr. and Richard Mayhue, General Editors. Christ's Prophetic Plans: A Futuristic Premillennial Primer. Chicago: Moody, 2012. 224 pages. $19.99.
Though dispensational, pretribulational, premillennialism likely maintains majority status in evangelicalism, support appears to be diminishing. Additionally, dialogue between dispensational, covenantal, and other theologians in recent decades has generated meaningful reevaluation and retrenchment of eschatological views. Consequently, a restatement of dispensational eschatology is welcome—particularly one offered by the Word-centered, sober voice of John MacArthur and The Master’s Seminary faculty.
They call their view “Futuristic Premillennialism” (hereafter FP), a name derived from their conviction that Revelation 6-18 describes entirely future events, in distinction from “Historic Premillennialism” (HP). I found this usage curious. First, FP actually incorporates broader dispensational commitments than a merely futuristic view of those chapters. Second, their assertion that HP’s name derives from one interpretation of Revelation contradicts widespread understanding that the term arises from the premillennialism of the early church fathers. At its essence, FP represents dispensationalist eschatology. Without addressing issues that distinguish revised dispensationalists from progressives, the authors intend for the reader to embrace not only pretribulational, premillennial eschatology, but also the uniquely dispensational expectation of a restored place of particular prominence for ethnic, national Israel in the millennium.
Inevitably, eschatological distinctives stand downstream from a myriad of hermeneutical conclusions. Biblical usages of “Israel,” the definition of “literal,” and relationships between the covenants lie nearer the headwaters. Michael Vlach succinctly surveys evidence that OT promises must be ultimately fulfilled in a future reconstitution of Israel. Nevertheless, his arguments for fulfillment exclusive of Gentile believers (and others elsewhere in the book) are ultimately unpersuasive. Too many arguments are contingent on hermeneutical assumptions that certain OT texts referring to “Israel” must refer to biological descendants of Abraham. Similarly, their critique of covenant theology’s “alleged biblical covenants” (63) is undermined when they eisegete national Israel into covenantal texts.
Another battlefield for hermeneutical conflict is the usage of “literal.” Literal interpretation may describe interpreting an author’s words 1) in the sense he intended, or 2) in a non-figurative or non-symbolic sense. Unfortunately, these authors sometimes swap usages unpredictably, so that non-FPs are broad-brushed as non-literalists (see esp. 143-146).
Matthew Waymeyer’s exegesis of Revelation 20 is thorough and persuasive—the portion every non-FP ought to weigh most carefully. Richard Mayhue’s exegetical work on pretribulational texts is strong, but contingent on more foundational questions. His influence on non-FPs will also be limited by the absence of exposition from Daniel.
The authors interact insufficiently with NT texts that associate Abraham’s seed and David’s kingdom with Gentile believers, undermining the authors’ commitment to literal hermeneutics. Readers are left without explanation for how to understand many NT texts literally—in their “plain sense,” one might say. I’m left wondering whether the authors spiritualize the NT similarly to how they suggest non-FPs spiritualize the OT. An FP counterpart to Carson and Beale’s Commentary on the NT Use of the OT might be an outstanding project for them to tackle.
Though they offer a provocative case from Acts 1 for a distinct future kingdom role for Israel (116-117, 165-168), this argument from silence is insufficient to compensate for unaddressed questions. Similarly, a reader will not have a clear sense whether the authors think Jesus and the apostles applied appropriate exegetical methodology to the OT. Absolute clarity on that issue is essential if one intends to make dogmatic arguments favoring eschatological certainty.
Nathan Busenitz examines historical sources for evidence of early premillennialism and finds an abundance. Significantly, his quotations from church fathers only allude to premillennialism. Because they do not advance dispensational, pretribulational particulars, this chapter does not add support to the other theses of the book. He also proposes a plausible historical explanation for the decline of premillennialism. Richard Mayhue’s chapter, “Why Futuristic Premillennialism,” also injects a strong historical argument that the pattern for fulfillment of OT prophecy throughout history has been both physical and spiritual (64).
One of the authors’ central arguments is that evangelical theology proper necessitates commitment to God’s faithfulness to his promises. MacArthur quotes extensively from non-FPs to build a case that their eschatology undermines that very doctrine (148-149). MacArthur is right that non-FPs have articulated conclusions in ways that imply God does not fulfill his promises consistently with their original sense. But his argument is rooted in unproven presuppositions about the recipients of those promises. Anyone who understands OT promises to have been intended more broadly than mere biological descendants of Abraham will remain unpersuaded.
MacArthur and Mayhue respond well to a contemporary wave of theological minimalism and eschatological marginalization. Others have noted that evangelicals have just two categories for doctrine: what’s essential and what’s unimportant. At this moment, it appears as though more doctrines from the former category are migrating into the latter. Nevertheless, it is unreasonable to infer that Scripture clearly reveals everything we might like it to.
Michael Vlach argues that dispensationalism remains unjustifiably associated with aberrant soteriology (39-40), as he recently documented at his blog. Non-dispensationalists need to recognize that no dispensationalist has more forcefully, clearly, and prolificaly repudiated false teaching among dispensationalists than John MacArthur. Aberrant soteriological views are not intrinsic to dispensationalism.
Unfortunately, similar misrepresentations appear in this work. None is more jarring than MacArthur’s claim that R. C. Sproul’s partial preterism constitutes biblically prohibited “date-setting” comparable to Harold Camping and Hal Lindsey (197-198). Flaws fatal to this assertion should be immediately obvious. This sort of claim, as well as several peculiarities—awkward chapter order, inconsistent spellings, inaccurate headers, and a biased glossary—suggests that the publisher provided inadequate editorial input.
Criticism of supersessionism, or “replacement theology,” seems to imply that all non-FPs believe the church has displaced Israel, in the sense that promises made to ethnic Israel have been retracted and reassigned. Theologians who perceive covenantal or promise fulfillment in Christ, with Gentiles party to the promises by incorporation into him, are either overlooked or painted with the same “replacement” brush, even though non-Jews have always been party to all the biblical covenants. Their assertion that non-FPs are guilty of “interpretive negligence” (161) is no doubt true in some cases, but they overstate the scope of the problem. Perhaps these particular arguments are victims of previous FP success, as non-FPs have refined their views in dialogue with FP theologians.
As a premillennialist who retains a strong residual gravity in my soul toward a pretribulational rapture, part of me really wanted to be convinced. Nevertheless, while much of the exegesis is plausible, too many foundational hermeneutical arguments remain unresolved for this book to persuade more than the most sympathetic readers. And perhaps that is precisely what the authors intended—to steel dispensationalist nerve against the anti-dispensationalist wave (203).
In large part, the authors’ confidence in their conclusions exceeds the weight of their arguments. That doesn’t mean their conclusions are wrong, and it certainly should not liberate non-FPs to disregard FP. Much here might be more persuasive if it were attached to a better-developed hermeneutical foundation. Robust, respectful debate on these issues should be fostered among representatives across the spectrum of gospel-centered evangelicals, particularly as a counterbalance to Christ-centered hermeneutics run amok into allegory. This book may well serve that purpose if its authors continue to dialogue with those who still disagree.
Benjamin Wright (MDiv, SEBTS) serves as associate pastor at High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. He and his wife, Meredith, have one son and twin boys due any day.