- Dispensationalism is probably the most common theology among modern evangelical Christians.
- For the first time I am a member of a church were the dispensationalists far outnumber the Reformed. The two views are historic enemies in Protestantism, although the polemical dialogue is not as harsh as it once was.
- It is a fascinating subject, both historically and theologically.
- It is changing—although the vast majority of “real-people” dispensationalists still follow the classic school, the seminaries (as usual) now abound with various “progressive” variants of classic dispensationalism.
A Definition of DispensationalismDispensationalism has the following features:
- It recognizes certain distinct dispensations, administrations, economies, or stewardships. During each dispensation, God deals with His people in a certain, specific way. The number of dispensations depends on the particular flavor of your view. We’ll see that classic dispensationalism held to seven, while some newer progressive views describe as few as two. This feature is often given as the definition of dispensationalism, even by its proponents. However, delimiting God’s dealings with man into different stewardships is not unique to dispensationalism and so cannot be regarding as a definition.
- A literal hermeneutic of Biblical interpretation. This is (rightly) a source of pride among dispensationalists. However, it must be noted that it is impossible (even after excluding obvious metaphors) to develop a self-consistent interpretation of scripture based entirely on a literal hermeneutic. For example, we will look at prophesy that refers to Israel and at the same time mentions nations that no longer exist. Dispensationalists interpret Israel literally, as the modern nation state, but other countries figuratively, as inhabitants of a region.
- Premillennial Eschatology. Dispensationalists believe that Christ will return prior to the millennial kingdom. Again, this is erroneously offered at times to be a definition of dispensationalism. In fact, premillennialism far predates dispensationalism, and there are non-dispensationalist premillennialists.
- A emphasis on the Glory of God. This is hardly arguable—what is contentious is that classic dispensationalists claim that their system of theology is the only one that makes God’s Glory its centerpiece. Reformed theology is said (by dispensationalists) to be man centered instead of God centered in that it makes man’s redemption God’s chief purpose—rather than His own glory. Of course, Reformed Christians do not accept this criticism and point to the emphasis on God’s Glory that is evident in the Reformed Confessions.2
- A clear distinction between Israel and the Church. This is the key feature, and the only one that is truly unique to dispensationalism. According to dispensationalists, God continues to make an ethnic distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles. There is a difference, for all time, between God’s redemptive plan for Israel and His plan for the Church.
A Brief HistoryDispensationalism arose in the Plymouth (of late-Puritan Great Britain) Brethren movement sometime in the nineteenth century. The leaders of the movement in England included John Nelson Darby, Samuel Tregelles, and C. H. Mackintosh. The theology colonialized America where it found its most influential proponents in James H. Brokes, D. L. Moody, and perhaps most importantly, C. I. Scofield.
In 1909, Scofield published his classic Scofield Reference Bible. The detailed notes in Scofield’s Bible became, and in many ways still are, (they have been revised) dispensationalism’s text book and articles of faith. The advent and popularity of Scofield’s Bible is an important reason for the success of dispensationalism and its spread around the globe. (To be fair, its proponents would argue that its accurate Biblical interpretation is the primary reason for its popularity.)
Dispensationalists are slightly schizophrenic when it comes to the historicity of their views. They want to claim both novelty and early church support3. So at times, they point to the features of dispensationalism that are ancient (such as premillennialism) and at the same time point out how the early dispensationalists (especially Darby) were able to weave, for the first time, all the features into a self consistent theology.
Dispensationalist Lewis Chafer founded what would become the epicenter for dispensational theology: The Dallas Theological Seminary—which has produced such luminaries as John F. Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, and Charles Ryrie.
More to come…I’ll be looking into dispensationalism for some time. I hope you find the topic to be of interest.
1So far I am relying on two sources (in addition to the internet): Dispensationalism (Rightly Dividing the People of God?), Keith A. Mathison, P&R Publishing, 1995, and The Gospel of the Kingdom, Philip Mauro, Old Paths Gospel Press, 1927.
2 Indeed, the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is: Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
3 All movements want to avoid, if possible, the somewhat unfair stigma of newness. The question always arises: if this school of thought is correct, why did it take so many centuries to be revealed? All Protestants must deal with this question in response to Catholic criticism. Dispensationalism and the Charismatic movement (unrelated), being even "newer" than Protestantism, are challenged even more on this front. Part of the response is, whenever possible, to point out that aspects of the movement were actually present in the early church.