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Saturday, July 2, 2011

How Does Historic Premillennialism Differ from Dispensational Premillennialism?

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 reinterpreted by the New Testament altogether of blessings in the spiritual realm.[1]

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.”[2] 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.” [3]

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.

[1] George E. Ladd, “Revelation 20 and the Millennium,” Review and Expositor 57 (1960): 167. Emphasis mine.)
[2] George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977), 25.
[3] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1053.


  1. Interesting Observations!!!! My presuppositions to these two dealt with the nature of Israel and the placement of the rapture. I thought a DP was typically a Pre-Trib who includes Israel and a HP is typically a Post-Trib who has a covenantal view of Israel.

    Therefore, can there be the following:

    1. A Post-Tribulational DP (i.e., "Church and the Tribulation" by Robert Gundry)

    2. A Pre-Tribulational HP

  2. I have to comment, being a historic premillennialist myself, that I believe you are misrepresenting a large portion of historic premillennialism. For one, you should separate Ladd from the other historic premillennialists such as Nathaniel West, BW Newton, SP Tregelles, and the other old school premillennialists who did not embrace the dispensationalism that was being developed at that time. Ladd had some things that were unique to him alone that are not shared by any other historic premills.

    For the first belief, I do not share Ladd's view that the NT causes us to reinterpret the OT, and neither did the old school premills.

    For the second, I do not believe that the church is the new Israel and neither did any of the old school premills. I also wonder if Ladd believed this. While I do not own the work which you cite for this, but I have thoroughly read The Presence of the Future and other works by Ladd. In these works, Ladd never once used the term "the new Israel" but used the term "the true Israel", the believing remnant through whom God had been working all throughout the OT.

    For the third point, it seems like you don't believe the current method of salvation will prevail after the coming of Christ. Perhaps you believe Israelites can be saved without becoming a part of Messiah's body, which is the church. The old school premillennialists that I have cited above all believed a future restoration of the nation of Israel, and Ladd also held a place for this. Here is a quote from Ladd's commentary on Revelation concerning Rev. 21:12-14, "...John indicates that the city encompasses both dispensations, and that both the Israel of the Old Testament and of the church of the New Testament have their place in God's final establishment."

    I have read and blogged through Progressive Dispensationalism (Bock/Blaising) and A Case for Historic Premillennialism which you also mention. I was a bit frustrated at the ambiguity of the latter, but would still consider myself closer to the latter, and cannot call myself a dispensationalist even though I can affirm many things that they hold to. I consider myself a Historic Premillennialist after the old school line of thought, aligning myself with Ladd in many areas excepting that of the NT reinterpreting the OT.

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  3. Hello T. O. M.

    It seems all terminology such as "New" Israel, "True" Israel, and "Spiritual" Israel, whether held by old or new school proponents, refer to the same basic premise held by all nondispensationalists, and that is that certain promises initially made under the Abrahamic Covenant, in particular the land promise made to the ethnic descendants of Abraham through the line of Isaac and Jacob, have now been transferred to the Church. If Ladd saw an "Israel" of the Old Testament in the future economy of God but didn't see the ethnic descendants of Abraham "in the land" as promised in the Genesis account, then all references to "New", "True", and "Spiritual" indicate a practical replacement of Israel and a denial of a true restoration of the Jews as a nation.

  4. Theorangemailman,

    Thanks for your comment. I found it to be very informative.

    I'm wondering about two things, though.

    1. What you would say is the (are the?) sine qua non(s) of Historic Premillennialism?

    2. How would you say Historic Premillennialism differs fundamentally from dispensationalism (particularly progressive dispensationalism)?


  5. On July 2 I had posted a lengthy comment, but it disappeared. Maybe it was because I had to keep editing it to make it fit the space requirements. I'm going to try again and see what happens.

  6. Dr. Vlach,

    What you've posted seems to be a good short summary as I understand it of "HP" of the Ladd variety, which is generally what people think of when hearing the term HP today. (I will admit at the outset that at this time my familiarity with Ladd's work consists almost entirely of secondary sources.)

    However, as Barry Horner points out in Future Israel, it's questionable how representative of the older HP Ladd's views really were. While I'm not nearly as familiar with the older HP's as I would like to be, I would think it's safe to say that they did engage in varying degrees of what many DP's would call reinterpretation. But it also appears that Ladd reinterpreted OT prophetic passages in a way that many older historic and covenantal premils were not willing to do. HP's like Horatius Bonar inveighed against the kind of spiritualization employed by Patrick Fairbairn, for example. On the other hand, my understanding is that Ladd's interpretation of many OT passages differed little from the amil interpretation.

    It appears that a belief in not only a conversion but also a regathering and restoration of national Israel was rather common among earlier HP's, especially in the 19th Century. (It seems to have been affirmed by a number of classic postmils as well.) I would imagine you are familiar with your colleague Dennis Swanson's work on C.H. Spurgeon's eschatological position. Spurgeon clearly affirmed the restoration and conversion of the Jews, something that many today would assume is a DP distinctive. (Before reading Horner, I assumed that it was a DP distinctive.) Spurgeon's HP and that of many of his contemporaries appears to be much more robust than the Ladd variety with regard to how literally they interpret OT prophecy. No doubt the degree of restoration and especially the degree of literal adherence to certain OT passages (e.g. millennial sacrifices) envisioned by the older HP's sometimes falls short from the point of view of many DP's, but it appears to be clearly distingishable from Ladd's interpretations. There is also the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony, a Calvinistic ministry based in England which seeks to carry on the HP exemplified by Bonar, Ryle, Spurgeon, B.W. Newton, Tregelles and others.

    While my investigation into these matters up to this point hasn't been nearly as extensive as I would like, it seems to me that a national restoration and conversion is not a core issue. It is, as you note, one of the major differences between DP and HP of the Ladd variety, but that doesn't appear to be the case with the older covenantal HP's.

    In several of your works and articles I’ve seen you you note that DP impacts eschatology and ecclesiology. Regarding ecclesiology, I imagine what you mean is whether the church consists only of those who are saved between Pentecost and the Rapture or if it consists of the saved throughout redemptive history. I have to admit that, while I generally understood the differences in ecclesiology, it was only relatively recently that I began to grasp what the implications of those differences are.

    Although there are some exceptions here and there, it would appear that the question of ecclesiology is more or less inseparable from the issue of pretribulationism. I can see how one could be post-trib and be a DP with regard to one's interpretation or division of redemptive history and ecclesiology. But I don't see how (or why) one could reject DP ecclesiology and affirm pretribulationism.

    Another difference would be the character of the millennium and the worship therein. In other words, how "Israelitish" will it be?

    I'm looking forward to digging deeper into the writings of the older HP's to see their full presentation of their views.

    I'm glad that we have the opportunity to interact with you here. I look forward to your response, including pointing out any misunderstandings or inaccuracies in what I've posted here.

  7. Hello Ron-

    I don't believe Ladd's terminology leads to replacement theology at all. In fact, I have The Gospel of the Kingdom right in front of me. As I read through the chapter titled The Kingdom, Israel and the Church, it becomes obvious that Ladd believed in a future restoration of the nation of Israel. Two quotes are "Israel is yet to be saved" and "There will be a restoration of Israel". That directly contradicts the claim made in the above post.

    Hey Mike Riccardi-

    #1- The basic idea is that you can be a premillennialist without having to be a dispensationalist. I have people that I have interacted with about premillennialism that would have flat out shut me down if they knew that I was a dispensationalist. I believe it's essential to separate the two. They are not equivalent yet some people treat them that way. Further, most dispensationalists use "dispensational extrapolation" to reach some of their viewpoints. "This is in this dispensation, that is in that dispensation, problem solved." My case for Premillennialism rests on a better exegesis of the scriptures, in my humble opinion.

    #2- Historic Premillennialism begins with God's covenant dealings with mankind. Dispensationalism begins with the dispensations. The dispensations flow out from the covenants, so why not start with the covenants. The problem comes when dispensationalists only begin with the Abrahamic Covenant as the first covenant. This leads into an Israel centered redemptive program rather than a redemptive program for all mankind. Bock and Blaising did better in going back to the Noahic Covenant which led into the Abrahamic Covenant (you can't have a unique nation without God's mandate for nations), but this was not back far enough. Both Bock/Blaising and Saucy severely constrict the ramifications of Genesis 3:15 into God's redemptive program. Historic Premillennialism on the other hand, begins at the beginning, and you can read chapter 7 in A Case for Historic Premillennialism, while Progressive Dispensationalism makes Israel have the sole claim on Genesis 3:15 and I can provide the quotes directly from their works.

    That's my main beef with PD, that it's too centered around the nation of Israel and not centered around God's redemptive plan for all nations. The millennium will be a time when Israel will be restored, raised up, and regathered, see Isaiah 49:5-6, yet other nations will also experience God's grace throughout this time period. So bringing God's plan for the nations as a whole does not weaken the position of God's future plan for Israel, it actually strengthens it.

    My other issues are quite minor. Saucy believes in a hidden church age. Both skip over the Palestinian Covenant, but they would probably agree with my take on it. And I can't swallow that Christ is on the Davidic Throne now, but they would probably agree to disagree on that one.

    Thanks for the ?

    Have fun and stay busy - Luke 19:13

    -The Orange Mailman

  8. I expected, reading the post, that you'll get a pushback on the issue of whether or not HP (which, to me, means Harry Potter) people believe in a national restoration.

    For my part, the difference I feel I've noticed is more attitudinal. It often seems born of an "I don't want to be associated with those people — I'm sophisticated!" Witness the title of the book you reference, for instance.

  9. Does anyone know whether John MacArthur, Jr. is a historic premillenialist or a dispensational premillenialist?

  10. IOW a Biblical premillennialist.


  11. Chris Poe,
    Please forgive me for my late response to you. I have been out of town several times in the last two weeks and have not gotten back to you and others like I should. I think you have a point that there may be some differences between earlier HP's and later HP's from Ladd onward. I am mostly dealing with HP presentations from Ladd onward since I want to deal with the most mature expressions of HP that we have. Since Ladd is usually the focal point of HP discussions, I focus a lot on him. I also look at presentations of HP in more recent theology books (Erickson, Grenz, Moore, etc.). When I look at HP as described by Ladd and others post-Ladd, I think my three points hold up very well. I'll be blogging more on those issues soon.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. For those interested, I have chosen to respond to The Orange Mailman in other blogs related to Historic Premillennialism. Please see those more recent blogs and another response at