With this post I want to address how Historic Premillennialism differs from Dispensational Premillennialism. I have found that there is some confusion on this matter. Sometimes at the beginning of my eschatology classes I’ll ask the students, “What are the main issues that separate Historic Premillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism?” More often than not, there is no clear understanding on this. The problem is not with them but with an overall lack of clarity on this issue.
Recently, there was a book published, A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Baker, 2009). A compilation of scholars presented the case for Historic Premillennialism and a case against pre-tribulationism often associated with Dispensationalism. Although there were some helpful chapters in the book, there was no clear explanation of how Historic Premillennialism (hereafter HP) differs specifically from Dispensational Premillennialism (hereafter DP). If one thing came through it was that HP does not hold to a pre-trib rapture. But that’s not good enough when it comes to distinguishing the two camps since the timing of the rapture is not the primary issue that separates HP from DP. There are some dispensationalists who are post-trib too. So we need to dig deeper on this one.
There are three major beliefs that I believe separate HP from all forms of DP:
First, historic premillennialists believe in New Testament priority in which the New Testament interprets/reinterprets the OT. As the leading HP proponent, George Ladd has stated:
The Old Testament must be interpreted by the New Testament. In principle it is quite possible that the prophecies addressed originally to literal Israel describing physical blessings have their fulfillment exclusively in the spiritual blessings enjoyed by the church. It is also possible that the Old Testament expectation of a kingdom on earth could be reinterpretedby the New Testament altogether of blessings in the spiritual realm.
No dispensationalist would affirm this statement of Ladd since all dispensationalists reject the hermeneutic of “reinterpretation” and affirm that the meaning of all passages in the Bible is found in the authorial intent of all the Bible authors, including those of the OT. Dispensationalists reject the hermeneutic of reinterpretation because they don’t believe that New Testament passages override or transcend the meaning of earlier passages of Scripture.
Second, historic premillennialists believe the church is the new Israel. Ladd asserted that the church is now the new “spiritual Israel.” Millard Erickson, too, holds that the church is the new Israel: “To sum up then: the church is the new Israel. It occupies the place in the new covenant that Israel occupied in the old.”
Dispensationalists, on the other hand, do not see the church as replacing or fulfilling national Israel. They assert that all references to “Israel” in the New Testament are references to ethnic Jews or believing ethnic Jews (see Gal. 6:16).
Third, unlike dispensationalists, historic premillennialists do not believe in a future restoration of national Israel. Historic premillennialists like George Ladd have affirmed a salvation of ethnic Israel but this salvation is viewed as incorporation into the Church. This salvation is different from the concept of restoration in which Israel is saved as a national entity with a role to play to other nations in the future. Thus, historic premillennialists often believe in a salvation of Israel but not a restoration of national Israel.
Dispensationalists, on the other hand, believe in both a salvation and restoration of national Israel. Israel is saved and then restored to a position of prominence and service to the other nations on the earth. The coming millennium is also a time when God will fulfill all aspects of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New covenants with Israel and the nations.
There are other differences but I believe these are the three main issues that separate HP from DP.
On a final note, sometimes I read or hear statements that HP and Progressive Dispensationalism are very close cousins with no major differences between them. But I believe the three points above show that there are major points of difference between HP and Progressive Dispensationalism.