Book Review: Eschatalogical Relationships and Jesus in Ben F. Meyer, N. T. Wright, and Progressive Dispensationalism
Starting life as a doctoral thesis of the same title undertaken at the Dallas Theological Seminary, this book invites the reader “to consider the explanations about the restoration of Israel and eschatology in apocalyptic literature provided by both Ben Meyer, N. T. Wright, and Progressive Dispensationalism” with the author self-identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist and locating his starting point in the Gospel of Mark (vii).
The structure of the book unfolds through Introduction, How Apocalyptic Literature is Read in Relation to Eschatology, Antecedents and Apocalyptic Literature in Ben F. Meyer’s Theological Construct, Antecedents and Apocalyptic Literature in N. T. Wright’s Theological Construct, The Approach of Progressive Dispensationalism [PD] to Eschatological Relationships, Hermeneutics and Exegesis of Mark 13:1-2 and 13:24-27, and Summary and Conclusions. Three appendices follow: establishing a Synoptic Framework, Sequence and Literary Relationships in the Synoptic Gospels for Prophetic and Apocalyptic Sayings with Priority Given to Mark’s Content and Order, Biblical Historical Pattern. The book is rounded off with a Bibliography and Index of Scripture and Other Jewish Literature.
The thesis of the study is this: concerning the restoration of Israel, “the historical crisis and eschatological crisis are not parallel (the same) historical event but two scenarios and that, for Jesus, a pattern relationship existed between AD 70 and the period of the eschaton so that AD 70 is like the end. AD 70 is an eschatological event in the sense that it is a type of the end. It therefore follows that the language of eschatology in the process of fulfillment is not merely metaphorical.” (5) More succinctly put the thesis is: “I argue there is a relationship between the history in Mark 13:2 and Mark’s transcendent concerns in Mark 13:24-27” (12).
Fountain is therefore committed to careful examination of key terms (e.g. apocalyptic(ism) / eschatology), to elucidating (with a fine, careful discussion) How Apocalyptic Literature is read and, having made a choice to limit his research in a reasonable way by comparing two scholars Meyer and Wright with PD on Mark 13, focuses on that famous “little apocalypse.” This focus is not exclusive as there is plenty of looking sideways to Matthew and Luke and forwards to what some of the epistles, including Revelation have to say. Along this unfolding pathway, Fountain’s scholarship is detailed and also dense (illustrated by frequent use of abbreviations such as AE, OD, PD). Familiarity with the general contours of Dispensationalism, to say nothing of Meyer and Wright’s work will make the going easier for the reader because this book is a contribution to Dispensationalist scholarship.
Within that particular department of scholarship, Fountain makes an advance for “Progressive Dispensationalism.” I would have liked to have seen this defined earlier in the book (e.g. in the Definitions section, 7-1), even if only in a brief anticipation of the fuller definition which comes once we get to the chapter on it (143-170). Dispensationalism is the assertion that a restored Israel as a national entity has a future role in God’s kingdom plan; with dispensations referring to different arrangements “by which God regulates the way people relate to him” (144 n.4) and “progressive dispensationalism” meaning that through the different dispensations there is an unfolding, or progressing or God’s revelation sequentially (144-45). Here, incidentally, Darrell Bock, one of Fountain’s teachers at DTS, is a strong influence.
Does the pathway through these chapters on apocalyptic, Meyer, Wright and PD end with a conclusion anticipated by the statement of the thesis above? The answer is affirmative: “critical scholars and traditional dispensationalism have viewed Jesus’ future teaching differently: the former are in favour of finding fulfilment in the events of AD 70; the latter a future fulfilment. PD advocates a complementary hermeneutic in which AD 70 is like the end” (201).
Obviously Progressive Dispensationalism is “the winner” here, trumping a strand of critical scholarship and another school of dispensationalism but affirming both their results. A both/and rather than an either/or. I then have two questions. First, could this “both/and” conclusion be found without the aid of PD? I think the answer is affirmative. Secondly, is the general case for dispensationalism strengthened here? I suggest the answer is negative. Nothing in this work provides evidence of God working out a series of different arrangements by which the people of God are regulated. Dispensationalism is assumed not proven. In particular the sense in Dispensationalism of God clearly working to a plan and that plan itself consisting of (so to speak) sub-plans is simply not supported by any of the gospels, and certainly not Mark. It is reasonable to expect of the Dispensationalist God that Scripture conforms to the plan by making it plain to the reader. It does not. The plan is a deduction from Scripture, somewhat recently arrived at within the history of Christianity. It is not a plan which Scripture itself delineates for readers. Of the gospel focused on in this monograph, the author himself writes, “Mark’s themes do not fit neatly into set or formal standards.” (204)
The very fact that Mark 13 is so difficult to understand, painstakingly borne witness to by the detailed scholarship here, raises significant questions for the verifiability of dispensationalism. The fact that classical or traditional dispensationalism does not make satisfactory sense of Mark 13 and needs a new version, PD, to do so, begs the question whether any form of dispensationalism is supported by this remarkable apocalyptic chapter.
Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House and Director of Education, Anglican Diocese of Christchurch.