Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Dispensational Premillennialism in Reformed Theology: The Contribution of J.O. Buswell to the Millennial Debate

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Dispensational Premillennialism in Reformed Theology: The Contribution of J.O. Buswell to the Millennial Debate

Article excerpt


Hear a Jewish proverb: "The nations of the world wish to irritate the Lord, but they can't. What do they do? They vex Israel instead." This seems to be the case, not just in the political, but also the theological arena, especially in the field of eschatology.

Covenantalism and dispensationalism are the two main systems of theology in evangelicalism today. Insofar as eschatology is concerned, amillennialism is the most prevalent view among covenant theologians. There are those who take a postmillennial view (e.g. the theonomists), and there are some who are premillennial. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, are always premillennial.

The millennial debate today focuses on these three main issues: (1) Is the millennial reign of Christ a physical or a spiritual reign? (2) Will it happen before or after the Second Coming of Christ? And (3) what is Israel's place in the millennium? The debate is particularly controversial when the fate of the nation of Israel is addressed. Historic premillennialists, amillennialists, and postmillennialists believe that Israel has been replaced by the Church, and that prophecies relating to Israel must be interpreted in ecclesiastical and not Jewish terms. Dispensational premillennialists, on the other hand, emphasize the importance of the nation of Israel in the study of the end times, and how God will restore his chosen nation to greatness when Messiah returns.

As noted, there are two types of premillennialism: the historic and the dispensational. Historic premillennialism agrees with dispensational premillennialism that there will be a literal millennium of Christ's rule on earth after his return. But apart from this, both offer somewhat opposite eschatological perspectives on how God will fulfill his redemptive plan. Most reformed scholars who take the premillennial view are historic premillennialists. However, there are those who are Reformed, and yet hold to the dispensational premillennial view of Israel and of the end times. This position is unfortunately much neglected in the perennial millennial debate. The late James Oliver Buswell (1895-1977) of Faith Theological Seminary 2 (Bible Presbyterian) is perhaps the most prominent Reformed scholar who took a dispensational premillennial view. My paper intends to revisit Buswell's Systematic Theology3 and demonstrate how dispensational premillennialism is compatible with covenant theology.


Buswell graduated with a B.A. from the University of Minnesota, a B.D. from McCormick Theological Seminary, an M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. from New York University. In 1926, he was appointed third president of Wheaton College, a post he occupied with distinction until 1940, when he joined Carl McIntire's Twentieth Century Reformation Movement, and the new Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC). McIntire appointed him president of National Bible Institute (later Shelton College) in New York City. At the same time, he taught systematic theology at Faith Theological Seminary in Wilmington, Delaware.

Buswell's alignment with Carl McIntire and the BPC is significant, since they were like-minded in three ways: (1) both were Presbyterians and covenant theologians;' (2) both were fundamentalists,5 and (3) both were premillennialists. It is well documented that one of the reasons why the BPC was formed was because the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) refused to tolerate McIntire and Buswell's premillennial views.6 It must be noted that in the 1937 controversy, the OPC confessionalists were not averse to historic premillennialism but to dispensational premillennialism. Hart and Muether wrote, "The most important feature of fundamentalism that played havoc in the division of 1937 was dispensational premillennialism."7 Both McIntire and Buswell held to a premillennialism of the dispensational type. They saw no reason why dispensational premillennialism could not fit into Reformed theology. …

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