Dispensationalism is a theological system that teaches biblical history as best understood in light of a number of successive administrations of God's dealings with mankind, which it calls "dispensations." It maintains fundamental distinctions between God's plans for national Israel and for the New Testament Church, and emphasizes prophecy of the end-times and a pre-tribulation rapture of the church prior to Christ's Second Coming.
Born out of the restless religious environment in England and Ireland in the 1820s, the beginnings of the modern dispensationalism (as a system) are rooted in the Plymouth Brethren movement and particularly the teaching of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). The Plymouth Brethren movement, basically a reaction against the established church and its ecclesiology, became known for its anti-denominational, anti-clerical, and anti-credal stance. While theologically within the orthodox camp, the Plymouth Brethren (Darby in particular) developed some unique ideas regarding the interpretation of Scripture while emphasizing prophecy and the second coming of Christ. The theology of this movement became known as "dispensationalism".
This new teaching spread in America through prophecy conferences such as the Niagara Bible Conferences (1883-1897). James H. Brookes (1830-1898), a pastor in St. Louis and prominent figure in the Niagara Conferences, disseminated dispensationalist ideas through his ministry and publications. Most importantly, Dwight L. Moody was sympathetic to the broad outlines of dispensationalism and had as his closest lieutenants dispensationalist leaders such as Reuben A. Torrey (1856-1928), James M. Gray (1851-1925), Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), William J. Eerdman (1833-1923), A. C. Dixon (1854-1925), and A. J. Gordon (1836-1895). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts. They also gave the dispensationalist movement institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new independent Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institute (1886), the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (1907), and the Philadelphia College of the Bible (1914). The network of related institutes that soon sprang up became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.
The energetic efforts of C. I. Scofield and his associates introduced dispensationalism to a wider audience in America and bestowed a measure of respectability through his Scofield Reference Bible. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 by the Oxford University Press was something of an innovative literary coup for the movement, since for the first time, overtly dispensationalist notes were added to the pages of the biblical text. The Scofield Reference Bible became the leading bible used by independent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists for the next sixty years. Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), strongly influenced by C. I. Scofield, founded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 which has become the flagship of dispensationalism in America. Dispensationalism has become prominent in the American Evangelical scene especially among non-denominational Bible churches, many Baptists, and most Pentecostal and Charismatic groups. Among modern dispensationalists with a Reformed view of salvation are John MacArthur, Bruce Ware, and Erwin Lutzer.
Dispensationalism seeks to address what many see as opposing theologies between the Old Testament and New Testament. Its name comes from the fact that it sees biblical history as best understood in light of (usually) seven dispensations in the Bible. These are:
- (1) the dispensation of innocence (or freedom), (Genesis 1:1 - 3:7), prior to Adam's fall,
- (3) of government, (Genesis 9:1 - 11:32), Noah to Abraham,
- (4) of patriarchal rule (or promise), (Genesis 12:1 - Exodus 19:25), Abraham to Moses,
- (5) of the Mosaic Law, (Exodus 20:1 - Acts 2:4), Moses to Christ,
- (6) of grace, (Acts 2:4 - Revelation 20:3), the current church age, and
- (7) of a literal earthly 1,000 year Millennial Kingdom that has yet to come but soon will, (Revelation 20:4 - 20:6).
Each one of these dispensations is said to represent a different way in which God deals with man, specifically a different testing for man. "These periods are marked off in Scripture by some change in God's method of dealing with mankind, in respect to two questions: of sin, and of man's responsibility," explained C. I. Scofield. "Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment - marking his utter failure in every dispensation."
The idea of different "dispensations" may be found in the writings of some of the early church fathers, and viewing the flow of biblical history as a series of "dispensations" may be seen in some works that pre-date Darby's dispensationalism, such as L'OEconomie Divine by Pierre Poiret (1646-1719). But these earlier works did not include the unique testing/failure motif described by Scofield or any hint of the underlying tenets of Darby's dispensationalism.
Beliefs about the Church and Israel
In addition to these dispensations, the real theological significance can be seen in four basic tenets which underlie classic dispensational teaching. Dispensationalism maintains:
- (1) a fundamental distinction between Israel and the church, i.e. there are two peoples of God with two different destinies, earthly Israel and the spiritual church,
- (2) a fundamental distinction between the Law and Grace, i.e. they are mutually exclusive ideas,
- (3) the view that the New Testament church is a parenthesis in God's plan which was not foreseen by the Old Testament, and
- (4) a distinction between the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ, i.e. the rapture of the church at Christ's coming "in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17) precedes the "official" second coming (to the earth) by 7 years of tribulation.
These tenets are supposedly derived from the dispensationalists' insistence on "consistent literalism" in their hermeneutic, especially in the literal interpretation of OT prophecies regarding Israel. Crucial to the dispensationalist reading of biblical prophecy, drawn principally from Daniel and Revelation, but also, to some degree, from Ezekiel, is the assertion that the Jewish Temple will be rebuilt on the Temple Mount as a precursor to the Lord returning to restore the earthly Kingdom of Israel centered on Jerusalem. The dispensational movement was therefore fueled by the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. It has grown in popularity particularly since 1967, coinciding with the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, and a few years later in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey's blockbuster book The Late Great Planet Earth.
Dispensationalism teaches that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will be a physical event, by which a worldwide kingdom will be established in human history, geographically centered in Jerusalem. Dispensationalists teach that the Second Coming will be a two step process. In the first step, Christ returns to resurrect the blessed dead and rapture the living believers from the Earth. After this, a seven-year period of tribulation occurs, climaxing in the Battle of Armageddon. In the second step, Christ intervenes at the Battle of Armageddon and establishes a literal 1000-year millennial kingdom on earth. As such, some Dispensationalists are often associated with the circulation of end times prophecy, which professes to read omens of the Second Coming in current events; however, other Dispensationalists have criticised this apocalypticism popularized by authors such as Hal Lindsey.
Premillennialism and dispensationalism
By way of clarification, it should be noted that while all dispensationalists are by definition premillennial in their eschatology, not all premillennialists are dispensational in their theology. Historic Premillennialism (e.g. in George Eldon Ladd) rejects pre-tribulationalism, dispensationalism's radical tenets, and its uniquely Jewish view of the 1000 year millennium. Historic premillennialism may be traced back to some of the early church fathers where it was sometimes termed "chiliasm."
- See article Premillennialism.
Dispensational theology in Christianity at large
Prior to dispensationalism, Covenant theology was the prominent Protestant view regarding redemptive history and is still the view of the Reformed churches. A relatively recent view, which is seen as a third alternative, especially among Calvinistic Baptists, is called New Covenant Theology. Outside of Protestantism, however, other Christian branches (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism) have not embraced any form of dispensationalism.
“Progressive Dispensationalism” by Blaising and Bock (Baker Books, 1993) introduced a movement showing that progressives within the dispensationalist camp have resolved many of the issues upon which classic Dispensational theology has been attacked -- especially by Reformed theology. However, some have questioned whether these progressives, having abandoned certain crucial tenets, can fairly continue to call themselves dispensationalists at all.
- Bass, Clarence B.: Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Baker Books, 1960) ISBN 0801005353
- Boyer, Paul: When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Belknap, 1994) ISBN 0674951298
- Enns, Paul: The Moody Handbook of Theology (Moody, 1989) ISBN 0802434282
- Reymond, Robert L.: New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith (Nelson 2d ed., 1998) ISBN 0849913179
- Ryrie, Charles C.: Basic Theology (Moody, 1999) ISBN 0802427340
- Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism (Moody, 1995) ISBN 0802421873
- Crenshaw, Curtis I., and Grover E. Gunn, III. Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Footstool, 1987) ISBN 1877818011
- Crutchfield, Larry. Origins of Dispensationalism: The Darby Factor (University Press of America, 1992) ISBN 01819184683
- Saucy, Robert. The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Zondervan, 1993) ISBN 0310304415
- The Obituary of Dispensationalism: 1830-1988 by Vic Reasoner
- Dispensationalism - A Reformed Evaluation, by Ligon Duncan
- Modern Dispensationalism, by Oswald T. Allis
- Dispensationalism, by Gordon H. Clark
- Is Dispensationalism Biblical?, by Nathan Pitchford
- The History of Dispensationalism, by Kevin Hartley
- Dispensationalism (Monergism.com)
- What is Dispensationalism?, by Michael J. Vlac
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