Dispensationalism

4 04 2011

Introduction

            Dispensational teaching, made popular by the likes of John Darby, C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer, has been the center of controversy among scholars for about the past 100 years. Over the years many charges have been leveled against the system of Dispensationalism and those who adhere to it. One of the loftiest and most serious charges against the system is that it denies the true gospel of Jesus Christ and purports many other ways to salvation. John Gerstner writes,

“What is indisputably, absolutely, and uncompromisingly essential to the Christian religion is its doctrine of salvation… If Dispensationalism has actually departed from the only way of salvation which the Christian religion teaches, then we must say it has departed from Christianity. No matter how many other important truths it proclaims, it cannot be called Christian if it empties Christianity of its essential message. We define a cult as a religion which claims to be Christian while emptying Christianity of that which is essential to it. If Dispensationalism does this, then Dispensationalism is a cult and not a branch of the Christian church. It is as serious as that. It is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the situation.”[1]

Of course, Gerstner is right in that if Dispensationalism denies the true and only gospel of Jesus Christ it should be abandoned by its adherents. As we will see this is quite possibly the most serious charge leveled against the system. In light of this charge, and many others, an examination of the Biblical evidence for Dispensationalism is necessary. The scope of this paper will be to define the system known as Dispensationalism, to set forth and defend the distinctives of the system, and then finally to examine the Biblical evidence that pertains to the key elements of the system.

Part 1: Dispensationalism Defined

Defining Dispensationalism

            It would be helpful in defining the system of Dispensationalism to first define the word ‘dispensation.’ Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘dispensation’ as “the ordering of events under divine authority.”[2] Charles Ryrie defines the word as “a stewardship or administration or economy.”[3] Thus, we see that a ‘dispensation’ is a period of time ordained by God, in which He holds mankind responsible as stewards of that which He has entrusted to them.

Many scholars have attempted to define Dispensationalism. Ryrie states,

“…in its Biblical usage, a dispensation is a divinely established stewardship of a particular revelation of God’s mind and will which brings added responsibility to the whole race of men or that portion of the race to whom the revelation is particularly given by God.”[4]

Shawn Abigail defines it as “…a framework for understanding the Bible. It is a system of Bible interpretation. In essence, dispensationalism is a period of stewardship during which man is tested during God’s dealings with him.”[5] Paul Enns plays off of Ryries view that a dispensation is a household run by God when he further states,

In this divine household God gives man certain responsibilities as administrator. If man obeys God within that economy (dispensation), God promises blessing; if man disobeys God, He promises judgment. Thus there are three aspects normally seen in a dispensation: (1) testing; (2) failure; (3) judgment. In each dispensation, God has put man under a test, man fails, and there is judgment.[6]

One more definition is in order, this one from Barackman:

“A dispensationalist is one who recognizes the biblical divine dispensations and the people to whom they are given. Also, dispensationalism is the interpretation and application of the Scriptures that recognizes the various dispensations and their features, the people to whom each dispensation is given, and the portion of the Bible that relates to the dispensation and its recipients.”[7]

Thus, dispensationalists recognize various economies throughout human history in which God has revealed Himself and/or His will in some specific way, and as such, man becomes a steward of that particular revelation and is tested and judged as to how they respond to the revelation of God.

The Word ‘Dispensation’ in the Bible

            In view of the lengthy history of Christianity, Dispensationalism can be considered a relatively new system of thought, although many scholars of the Christian faith have set forth dispensational principles over the course of Church history. However, there are several occurrences in the New Testament of the various words for dispensations. For the sake of time we will limit our discussion to three key passages:

“That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Eph. 1:10)[8]

“If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel…” (Eph. 3:2-6)[9]

Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints…” (Col. 1:25-26)[10]

It is clear from the Apostle Paul’s writings, under inspiration, that this current dispensation was previously a mystery that had not been revealed in the Old Testament. In the aforementioned verse of Ephesians one, Paul speaks of a yet future dispensation (“the dispensation of the fullness of times”) where God will gather together all things in Christ. So we clearly see that the Holy Spirit, through the Apostle Paul, revealed that there are various dispensations in God’s dealings with mankind. Thus, it proves at the very least that some form of Dispensational teaching is indeed Biblical.

            It is also beneficial to note other passages of Scripture that clearly teach the various workings of God at different times with different peoples. John wrote in his Gospel, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.[11] This verse does not lead to a theology that excludes the grace of God from the Old Testament, but simply teaches that with the coming of Jesus Christ the fullness of God’s grace and truth was now made known unto man. Under the dispensation of the law, as it is referred to, the Law as it was given to Moses by God was the emphasis or test. However, the Old Testament Scriptures clearly indicate that God was many times very gracious in His dealings with His covenant people, Israel (Lev. 26:4-8; Deut. 7:14-16; Jer. 31:20, 32; Hos. 2:19). With the first advent of Jesus Christ the fullness of God’s grace is now made known unto mankind.

Paul declares in Romans, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”[12] (Emphases mine) Clearly a new emphasis upon the fullness of the grace of God is found in the New Testament. Galatians 3:19-25 is another passage of Scripture that sets forth the difference between the dispensation of law and the dispensation of grace.

“Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.”[13]

Notice that this passage clearly sets forth the purpose of the Mosaic Law, it was “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” The revelation of God in the various dispensations does not make null and void previous revelation, nor do they contradict previous revelation. God’s character is consistent throughout and if God seems to contradict Himself it is not because He has, but because man has misunderstood His revelation. This is an important point due to the charges from many that dispensationalists contradict themselves and teach more than one way of salvation.

            It has been adequately proven that the Scriptures teach some system of Dispensationalism and as such, the opponents of Dispensationalism must come to terms with the clear teaching of the Bible.

Part 2: Dispensational Distinctives

            Ryrie, among others, sets forth three distinct teachings of Dispensationalism. The first distinctive is that “a dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct.” The second distinctive is that Dispensationalism “…is born out of a system of hermeneutics which is usually called literal interpretation.” Finally, the third distinctive is one that sees the underlying purpose of God in the world as His pursuit of His own glory.[14] These three distinctions are the foundation for Dispensational theology and will be explored one by one, although not in the order that Ryrie lays them out.

The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism

            The fact of the matter is that not every person approaches the Bible with the same method of interpretation. Hence the reason why there is and will always be disagreements about what the Bible says to man and how we are to respond to the revelation of God. Dispensationalists approach the Bible through a literal or normal or plain hermeneutic. While it doesn’t sound exciting it is the most thorough and consistent approach to the interpretation and application of God’s holy word. Enns describes literal interpretation as follows:

Literal, when describing hermeneutical approach, refers to interpretive method, not to the kind of language used in the interpreted literature. Literal interpretation recognizes both literal and figurative language. Dispensationalists insist on literal interpretation for prophetic Scriptures even though they abound with figurative language. One reason for this, besides consistency, is the demonstrable literalness of prophecies already fulfilled in Christ’s first coming.”[15]

One of the keys to the dispensational approach to interpretation is that the literal approach is applied to all Scripture including matters of prophecy. Many non-dispensationalists may apply a literal hermeneutic to the majority of Scripture, but then allegorize or spiritualize the prophetic portions. This is a major point of difference as Allis, an opponent of Dispensationalism, points out:

“One of the most marked features of pre-millennialism in all its forms is the emphasis which it places on the literal interpretation of Scripture. It is the insistent claims of its advocates that only when interpreted literally is the Bible interpreted truly; and they denounce as ‘spiritualizers’ or ‘allegorizers’ those who do not interpret the Bible with the same degree of literalness as they do. None have made this charge more pointedly than the dispensationalists.”[16]

The fact that the dispensationalist uses a consistent grammatical-historical interpretive approach to the Bible is a great strength of the system.

The Distinction between Israel and the Church

            One of the most well known principles of Dispensationalism is their insistence upon keeping Israel and the Church separate in the eternal plan of God. Again this principle flows from a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. The opposing view, or that of the Covenant Theologian, is stated as follows, “In contrast, Christian theology has always maintained the essential continuity of Israel and the church. The elect of all the ages are seen as one people, with one Savior, one destiny.”[17] Barackman more thoroughly states that,

“Non-dispensationalists…usually believe that Israel, by their rejection of Christ, forfeited their future place in God’s program and that all prophecies about the future of this nation are to be interpreted allegorically as pertaining to the church. On the other hand, dispensationalists hold that Israel has a definite place in God’s future program, as the biblical prophecies indicate, and that the elect of this nation must experience the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to them as a function of His essential faithfulness.”[18]

So we see a great divide between the two approaches to the Scriptures and the end result of each interpretative method leaves a lasting gulf fixed between the two positions. However, Barackman is correct when he states that it is the faithfulness of God that is at stake. The apostle Paul left very little doubt in Romans 11 that God was not yet done with His chosen people, Israel:

“I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”[19]

The logical question that came to Paul as he wrote in Romans 10 was, “Has God cast away His people, Israel? The emphatic answer in chapter eleven was, No! Rather God is preserving a remnant for Himself just as He did in the days of Elijah. Paul continues in verse eleven by anticipating another question, “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.”[20] God is clearly not done with Israel as a nation for He has brought salvation to the Gentiles in order to provoke Israel to jealousy. Thus, we see that when an opponent of Dispensationalism attempts to take the promises of God to Israel and apply them to the Church they are making a grave error, because God is clearly not done with Israel. Paul goes on further in Romans eleven to expound on the mystery that he speaks of,

“For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.”[21] (Emphases mine)

Rest assured, God’s faithfulness to His people Israel has not and will not be broken. It is clear that Paul distinguished between Israel and the Church. In closing, Enns sums up the dispensational position with further clarification from the New Testament,

“Dispensationalists teach that God has a distinct program for Israel and a distinct program for the church. The commands given to one are not the commands to the other; the promises to the one are not the promises to the other. God calls on Israel to keep the Sabbath (Exod. 20:8–11), but the church keeps the Lord’s Day (1 Cor. 16:2). Israel is the wife of Yahweh (Hos. 3:1), but the church is the Body of Christ (Col. 1:27). First Corinthians 10:32 is important in noting that a distinction is maintained between Israel and the church after the birth of the church (Acts 3:12; 4:8, 10; 5:21, 31; Rom. 10:1; 11:1–29).”[22]

God’s Central Theme Throughout Time

            The final distinct teaching of Dispensationalism deals with the central theme of God throughout the history of mankind. Again we see a division take place between the Covenant theologian and the dispensationalist. One of the charges leveled against Dispensationalism by Covenant theologians is that Dispensationalism destroys the unity of the Bible. At the root of this accusation is what Covenant theologians consider to be the central theme of God throughout history: the redemption of man. Roderick Campbell, a Covenant theologian, writes, “Everything in history and life is subservient to spiritual redemption.”[23] Fuller considers this theme when he writes,

“There are those, on the one hand, who see the Bible as the outworking of God’s one purpose of redemption, whose focal point is in the cross of Christ. This is the traditional view voiced by the conservative elements within the major denominational groups.”[24]

Thus the charge is that Dispensationalism destroys the unity of the covenant of grace that the Covenant theologian insists runs the course of human history.

            The Dispensational view, while not seeking to diminish God’s redemptive purposes throughout history, sees the central theme of God throughout human history as God’s passionate pursuit of His own glory. Ryrie sums this up well when he writes, “The unifying principle of dispensationalism is doxological, or the glory of God, and the dispensations reveal the glory of God as He manifests His character in the differing stewardships given to man.”[25] How can we be sure that God’s glory is the central theme throughout redemptive history? The answer is found in the Scriptures. Certainly we see in the Bible that God receives glory from the salvation of the lost (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). However, God also receives glory through His judgment of the lost (Rom. 9:17; Heb. 12:29), through the works of His Son, Jesus (Jn. 13:31, 14:13, 17:4; 1 Pet. 4:11), and through the sanctification of the saints (2 Cor. 3:18). God also receives glory through His angels, and yet they are outside of His redemptive plan. If the central theme of God’s history is redemption then what are we to do with the judgment of God? Is God indifferent to His judgment of the rebellious? Certainly not! God receives glory not only by His redemption of all those who by faith trust in Christ, but also by His wrath that will be poured out on the devil and his angels and all those who reject God’s love through the Lord Jesus Christ. This may seem too harsh for some, but there is to be a distinction made between God receiving glory through His judgment verses God receiving pleasure through His judgment.

            Thus, we see that the Covenant theologian’s emphases on the redemption of man as God’s central theme throughout history, ultimately leads to a man-centered theology, while the dispensational emphases on the glory of God throughout history, ultimately leads to a God-centered theology.

Part 3: Dispensationalism Defended

What are the Dispensations?

            While it is not within the scope of this paper to defend any number of dispensations, it is necessary to at least give some background on the number of dispensations as well as those traits which characterize any particular dispensation. There are various views on the number of dispensations. This is another charge leveled against Dispensational theology. Albeit, Ryrie states, “Some opponents of dispensationalism recognize that these matters of number and name are relatively minor.”[26] We’ve already seen that the Bible clearly indicates at least three different dispensations. Ryrie writes,

“Most dispensationalists see seven dispensations in God’s plan (though throughout the history of dispensationalism they have not always been the same seven). Occasionally a dispensationalist may hold as few as four, and some hold as many as eight.”[27]

Most dispensationalists would hold to the following seven dispensations: freedom, conscience, government, promise, law, grace, and Kingdom.

            While the number of dispensations may vary it is well established as to what characterizes a dispensation. Barackman identifies the following characteristics: the recipients of the dispensation, the duties of the dispensation, the recipients response to the dispensation, God’s reaction to people’s response, the duration of the dispensation, and finally God’s use of the dispensation.[28] Each of the seven dispensations listed above is characterized by these six principles.

Does Dispensationalism Teach Multiple Ways of Salvation?

            As was mentioned in the introduction, one of the most serious charges leveled against Dispensationalists is that they teach multiple ways of salvation. Again, this argument stems mainly from the Covenant theologians insistence on the central theme of God’s redemption throughout history and the unity of the covenant of grace throughout the Bible. A lesser reason for the charge is due to the naming of the dispensations, particularly the dispensation of grace. Because the dispensationalist adheres to a dispensation of grace their opponents wrongly reason that they must believe that God’s grace was not active in the Old Testament and therefore must conclude that people were saved by something other than grace, namely the law. Perhaps Bass sums up the charge best when he writes,

“…the presupposition of the difference between law and grace, between Israel and the Church, between the different relations of God to men in the different dispensations, when carried to its logical conclusion, will inevitably result in a multiple form of salvation – that men are not saved the same way in all ages.”[29]

In light of this serious charge, the dispensationalist must respond Biblically.

            Ryrie states the answer to the problem succinctly when he writes,

“The dispensationalists’ answer to the problem is this: The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”[30]

The required response in every dispensation from man is faith in God. We clearly see that salvation was by grace through faith in the Old Testament. Genesis 15:6 declares of Abraham, “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”[31] Abraham was counted righteous by God not because of some work that he accomplished, but simply because he believed God, and God graciously accounted it as righteousness. One of the major problems the opponents of Dispensationalism have is found in Ryrie’s statement that “the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.” Ryrie writes,

“On Mars Hill Paul summarized the Old Testament understanding of salvation and called the period ‘the times of this ignorance’ at which God ‘winked’ (Acts 17:30). This does not reflect very clear comprehension of the Christiological content of their faith! Paul again summarized the situation concerning salvation in the Old Testament as ‘remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God’ (Rom. 3:25). The understanding of the average Israelite concerning Messiah at the time Jesus walked the earth was very feeble (Jn. 1:21; 7:40), and even the prophets lacked comprehension (1 Pet. 1:10-11).”[32]

Therefore, although the basis of salvation was, always has been, and always will be the death of Christ, the content of the faith of the Old Testament believer was different than the content of the faith of believers today. In no way does the dispensationalist teach more than one way of salvation through the different dispensations. This is a baseless charge against the system.

Dispensational Eschatology

            Possibly the greatest effect of dispensational theology has been in the area of eschatology. A consistent literal interpretation of the Bible has led the dispensationalist to interpret prophecies concerning the nation of Israel literally. As was stated earlier, the opponents of Dispensationalism fail in this area and spiritualize these prophecies by applying them to the Church. The literal hermeneutic along with maintaining the distinction between Israel and the Church has led the dispensationalist to what is called a pre-millennial, pre-tribulational view of the end times. In other words, the dispensationalist believes the Scriptures teach that the Church is not in view during the seven-year tribulation period and will be raptured from the earth prior to this period (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thes. 5:9; Rev. 3:10). The tribulation period is a time when God will judge the unbelieving nations of the world and will discipline His people Israel and bring them to faith in Jesus Christ (Jer. 30:7; Ezek. 20:37-38; Dan. 9:24).

            Of course, there is a charge leveled against dispensationalism in regards to its eschatological teaching. The charge is concerning whether or not Christ made a genuine offer of the Davidic Kingdom to Israel during His first advent. The Covenant theologian argues that this could not be a genuine offer in the dispensational system because had Israel accepted Christ would have never gone to the cross, but rather He would have immediately set up His kingdom on earth. Like others, this charge is baseless. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there would have been no kingdom to offer because men would be lost in their sins. Ryrie argues,

“The postponement of the kingdom is related primarily to the question of God’s program in this age through the Church and not to the necessity of the crucifixion. The crucifixion would have been necessary as foundational to the establishment of the kingdom even if the Church age had never been conceived in the purposes of God. The question is not whether the crucifixion would have been avoided but whether the Davidic kingdom was postponed.”[33]

Therefore, the cross of Christ is not minimized by dispensational eschatology. The cross was necessary not only for the Church age, but also for the Kingdom age as well.

Conclusion

            At the beginning of this paper we set out to define the system known as Dispensationalism, to set forth and defend the distinctives of the system, and then to examine the Biblical evidence that pertains to the key elements of the system. As we have seen, despite the charges leveled against it, Dispensationalism has a firm foundation, rooted in a consistent literal hermeneutic of the Bible, and is substantially based upon the Scriptures. While there is much more evidence from the Scriptures to support dispensational teaching, in this brief analysis it has been shown to stand the test as we have weighed it against that which is our final authority: the Word of God.

Bibliography

Gerstner, John H. “Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism.” Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991.

Webster’s New World Dictionary” Cleveland, OH: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1990.

Ryrie, Charles C. “Dispensationalism Today” Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1973.

Abigail, Shawn. “An Introduction to Dispensationalism” Dispensationalism Central: http://www.brethrenonline.org/articles/dispen.htm.

Enns, Paul P.: “The Moody Handbook of Theology.” Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1997, c1989, S. 519.

Barackman, Floyd H. “Practical Christian Theology: Examining the Great Doctrines of the Faith, 3rd ed.” Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Allis, Oswald, T. “Prophecy and the Church” Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945.

Dispensationalism: A Return to Biblical Theology or Pseudo Christian Culthttp://users.frii.com/gosplow/disp2.html.

Campbell, Roderick. “Israel and the New Covenant” Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936.

Fuller, Daniel P. “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism” Doctor’s Dissertation, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Chicago, 1957.

Bass, Clarence B. “Backgrounds to Dispensationalism” Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960.

Ryrie, Charles C. “Biblical Theology of the New Testament” Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1959.

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, Fifth Improved Edition: King James Version. Indianapolis, IN,  B.B Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc., 1988.


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