Wednesday, December 11, 2002

More on Dispensationalism

I have been thinking more about dispensationalism, and rereading Philip Mauro’s amazing book: The Gospel of the Kingdom (from which I will borrow). 1

As a reminder:

Dispensationalism is a system of doctrine which divides the history of God’s dealings with man into different time periods, called dispensations. In each dispensation, C. I. Scofield 2 writes:
A dispensation is a period of time 3 during which man is tested in respect to some specific revelation of the Will of God.

In classic dispensationalism, there are seven dispensations:

  1. Innocence. From creation to the expulsion from the Garden.
  2. Conscience. From the expulsion to the flood.
  3. Human Government. From the flood to the call of Abraham.
  4. Promise. From the call of Abraham to the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai.
  5. Law. From Mt. Sinai to the crucifixtion of Christ.4
  6. Grace. The current gospel age.
  7. Millennial. This is Christ’s earthly post-tribulational millennial kingdom.

In previous posts, I stressed that dispensationalism is more that its pretrib, premill eschatology. It is about God’s plan for ethnic Israel. Its famous left-behind eschatology grew out of the necessity that God remove the church before turning his attention back to the Jews.

I am modifying my position somewhat. I now think that dispensationalism is inherently eschatological. This is related to its view of the present dispensation—more about that in a moment.

Dispensationalism is preeminent in American evangelistic circles. It is a new theology—newer than the theory of evolution. Being new always carries with it a heavy burden: why did this doctrine lay undiscovered for nearly nineteen centuries?

The questions that one must ask about dispensationalism are:
  • Is it fully supported by scripture? If so, we all should embrace it.
  • Does it have some scriptural support, such that reasonable people might agree to disagree? If so, it should not be an issue that endangers fellowship.
  • It is totally unbiblical, in which case is becomes a "various and strange" doctrine of which we are warned about in Hebrews 13:9.
The most radical aspect of dispensationalism is its notion that the current age, the dispensation of grace, was unforeseen by the prophets.

Here is the argument (according to dispensationalists):
  • The OT prophets foresaw the Messiah’s mission as a reestablishment of the Jewish state and a return of Jewish preeminence. This is the long awaited realization of the Kingdom of God: A real, earthly, political, Jewish Kingdom—a restoration of the Davidic throne.
  • Christ made the offer, but it was rejected by the Rabbinical elite.
  • God then postponed the Kingdom to some unspecified future, and quickly and parenthetically inserted the Church.
Notice that this view demands that 1st century Jews interpreted the prophets correctly, but rejected the offer. Having interpreted prophecy correctly, they inexplicably rejected precisely what they had been waiting for, (There is no scriptural account of the offer being given or declined) necessitating the postponement of the Kingdom. (One can only speculate what would have happened had they accepted the offer—no cross?)

Contrast this with the non-dispensationalist view, which is that the 1st century Jews misinterpreted the prophets. This is supported by such scripture as:
For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. (Acts 13:27, KJV)
Which teaches, interestingly enough, that not only were the 1st century Jews mistaken in their understanding of prophecy, they unwittingly allowed themselves to become agents of prophetic fulfillment by their complicity in Christ’s death.

Non-dispensationalists also point out that scripture overwhelmingly teaches of the "nowness" of the Kingdom of God, such as: Matt 3:2, 4:17, 10:7, 12:28; Mark 9:1, 12:34; Luke 9:27, 10:9-11, 17:20-22; Acts 20:25, 28:31 (just to list a few).

Scripture also teaches of the Spiritual (or at least non-earthly) aspect of God’s Kingdom:
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." (John 18:36, NIV)

Mauro points out the (slightly chilling irony) that modern dispensationalists (at least of the classic flavor—when Marou wrote there were no "progressive" dispensationalists) are looking for the same thing that 1st century Jews looked for: The reestablishment of an earthly, Jewish kingdom.

Upon reflection, the fact that the current dispensation is an unforeseen "parenthesis" in God’s plan for mankind is what really makes dispensationalism inextricably tied to an eschatological viewpoint. One cannot imagine dispensationalism without its pre-trib, pre-mill expectation. In fact, although I know of many who claim to be pre-trib and pre-mill without affirming dispensationalism, I am finding it more difficult to understand how that view can be made self consistent.

1 The Gospel of the Kingdom, Philip Mauro, Old Paths Gospel Press, 1927.

2 The spread of dispensationalism throughout America is credited in large part to the Scofield Bible, which contains the commentary of the renowned dispensationalist C. I. Scofield.

3 This is in spite of the fact that the word dispensation is never used in the bible to denote a time period. It is used either in the “dispensing” of something (such as grace, in Eph. 3:2) or as an administration, stewardship, or economy (as in Col 1:25).

4 It is no small matter that the ministry of Christ, according to classic dispensationalism, occurred in the dispensation of Law, not grace. But that is for another day.

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