Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dispensationalism Notes

The following is my brief examination of Dispensationalism that we went over in our Bible study group a couple of months ago. I got mixed reviews on it, and that's why I didn't initially put it on here. But after some thought, I decided to post it anyway. Let me note a couple of things as a preface to it.

First, it isn't the best writing I've ever done. So if you're thinking that as you read it, be comforted that I think that as well. Secondly, one can hardly leave their house nowadays without stepping on a Dispensationalist. Though the system is becoming more and more discredited by actual scholars, the average layman still believes Dispensationalism to some extent, though he may not be able to identify it as such. Consequently, any number of Dispensationalists may read this and say, "that isn't my position." But the goal here is mainly to represent Classic Dispensationalism, as taught by people such as Lewis Sperry Chafer and C. I. Scofield, not the hybrid systems that most individuals hold to today. The reader may think what I have written is overly harsh, or a misrepresentation of the system. But what I have presented here is accurate, I would contend, and I have been much gentler than one finds in critics such as John Gerstner, Cornelis van der Waal, Lorraine Boettner, Hank Hanegraaff, Reginald Kimbro, or Michael Williams. It is true that I have brought up some radical issues at times. But whereas I did not provide references to substantiate my claims, anyone wishing to track them down may consult the aforementioned authors.


In the life of the Church there have been various approaches to understanding God's way of working in the world through time. An exhaustive study of this would be impossible, even after a lifetime of research. Nonetheless, certain approaches have been more generally accepted, and therefore an examination of them is not only profitable but necessary.

Two views on God's overarching plan for the universe stand out in particular: Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.

I. Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism originated around 1830 in the British Isles. While elements of the system emerged from various teachers of the Plymouth Brethren movement, its main systematizer was John Nelson Darby. In the United States, Dispensationalism was disseminated largely through the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. Eventually the system became the predominant approach to interpreting the Scriptures among Christians in the United States.

Dispensationalism teaches that God's working in the world is carried out in a series of dispensations or stewardships. At the initiation of each dispensation, God comes to man and gives man a fresh revelation of Himself. Man is then faced with new obligations before God, through which God tests the faithfulness of man. So long as man is obedient, the dispensation continues and man is blessed. But in each dispensation, it is said, man inevitably fails, bringing God's judgment upon himself.

There is disagreement among Dispensationalists on how many dispensations there will be. But the majority, drawing off of the writings of C. I. Scofield, hold that there will be a total of seven dispensations:

1.) Innocence - from Creation to the Fall
2.) Conscience - from the Fall to the Flood
3.) Human Government - from the Flood to Babel
4.) Promise - from Abraham to Egypt
5.) Law - from Moses to Christ's 1st Advent
6.) Grace - from Christ's 1st Advent to His 2nd Advent
7.) Millennium - from Christ's 2nd Advent to the Final Judgment

But while an ordering of history by a scheme of dispensations is a key feature of Dispensationalism, it is not the most important feature. The most important feature of Dispensationalism is the distinction it makes between Israel and the Church. Israel and the Church are considered to be as unmixable as oil and water. The distinctions that Dispensationalists make between the two groups are numerous. Chiefly, Israel is regarded as a physical and earthly people, whereas the Church is regarded as a spiritual and heavenly people. All other distinctions between the two arise from these.

Dispensationalists claim that God's primary concern in the history of the world is Israel. And so when Christ first came to earth, His purpose was to set up His kingdom in the earthly Jerusalem, as promised by God through the prophets. And yet Israel crucified him, having rejected His offer to rule over them.

Having risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, Jesus Christ now sits as a rejected Messiah. The kingdom is postponed until His second coming, at which time He will set up His reign in Jerusalem as He sought to do in His first coming.

So what, according to Dispensationalists, is the time we are living in now? This is the Dispensation of Grace, also known as the Church Age. Since Israel has rejected His legitimate offer, Christ has set Israel aside and has inaugurated the Church. The Church is not God's primary concern; Israel is. And so some Dispensationalists have gone so far as to refer to the Church as "God's Plan B". The Church Age is regularly considered and referred to by Dispensationalists as a "parenthesis" in God's prophetic scheme.

The Church, we are told, is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. They say that the Church was entirely hidden and unknown prior to its being revealed by Christ during His earthly ministry. And so all the prophecies in the Old Testament apply only to the nation of Israel and her interaction with the Gentile nations considered apart from the Church.

Since there are, in the Dispensational scheme, O.T. prophecies yet to be fulfilled, and the Church is not in them, and since God can only deal with one "people" at a time, then the Church must be taken out of the world before God can begin His work with Israel again. Hence, Dispensationalists propose that the Rapture occurs prior to the Tribulation.

In the Tribulation, Israel, God's first love, will return fully to the land of Israel and be restored as a nation. During that time, the Antichrist will arise and rule the world, until Christ returns and destroys the Antichrist and all those who aligned themselves with him.

One of the features of this idea of the reconstituted Israel that has come under critique by non-Dispensationalists has been the belief that Solomon's Temple will be rebuilt, in which the O.T. sacrificial system will be reinstated. The sacrifices will not only exist during the Tribulation, but will continue throughout the Millennium. This is believed, in spite of the fact that the Messiah, whom the sacrifices were originally instituted to point forward to, will Himself be seated on David's throne in Jerusalem. This is also criticized by non-Dispensationalists because of the Book of Hebrews' teaching that in His death Christ fulfilled all the types of the O.T. sacrifices through his once-for-all sacrifice, and actually propitiated sins, which Hebrews tells us the O.T. sacrifices could never do.

At the end of the Tribulation, Christ will return with the Church, will destroy His enemies, and will set up His Kingdom in Jerusalem, from where He will rule the earth for a thousand years. This is the Millennium, the seventh dispensation. In the Dispensational scheme, this means that believers who were raptured and therefore already have their resurrected, perfected bodies will dwell on earth and live forever, while those saved during the Tribulation will die and be buried. Non-dispensationalist theologians, of course, have noted the strange nature of this arrangement fairly regularly in their critiques. It would also seem contrary to the Israel-Church distinction to have the Church return with Christ and dwell on the earth with Israel, when the Church is considered a non-earthly people. Some have proposed, however, that after the Millennium, when God creates a New Heavens and a New Earth, Israel will inhabit the new Earth for eternity, whereas the Church will inhabit the new Heavens for eternity. And so the two groups will remain forever separate.

Classical Dispensationalism differs from historic orthodox Christianity on so many points that Dispensationalists have found themselves having to defend their doctrines fairly regularly since their system emerged in the 19th century. Here are a few more controversial ideas found in Dispensationalism.

1.) Classical Dispensationalism sees the world as ruled by Satan. They define the world as the works of man apart from God, which to them includes practically all aspects of culture. Sometimes, however, Dispensational theologians have slipped into condemning the material universe altogether, thus falling into the ancient heresy of Dualism, which states that all matter is evil. In condemning all culture, the result among consistent Dispensationalists has been to withdraw from society to a large extent, which in turn has led to the creation of the Christian subculture.

2.) Classical Dispensationalism sees man as made up of three parts: soul, spirit, and body. Historic Christianity regards man as composed of two parts: spirit and body. The latter view is called Dichotomy. The former view is called Trichotomy, and was condemned in the theology of Apollinaris by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

3.) Classical Dispensationalism has often been confusing in many ways when it comes to the doctrine of salvation. Historic orthodox Christianity teaches that man does not achieve favor before God (that is, salvation) by good works. And yet, good works accompany salvation in such a way that no person who is without good works will be saved. In other words, good works are the natural and necessary result of salvation, not the cause of it. Dispensationalism takes these distinctions and reverses them.

On the one hand, Dispensationalism makes a strong distinction between a Christian's position in Christ and his practice before Christ. A person may be saved, they say, and his position in Christ is therefore secure. And yet that person in practice may be living in total rebellion against God. This also shows up in the distinction between the "spiritual" Christian and the "carnal" Christian. A "spiritual" Christian is one who is saved and living according to God's word; a "carnal" Christian is one who is saved but is living contrary to God's word.

On the other hand, some Dispensationalists have fallen into teaching that the people of God have been saved in different ways in different dispensations. In particular, certain statements made by C. I. Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, suggested the belief that, whereas people in the Church Age are saved by grace, those who lived in the Age of Law were saved by good works. Later Dispensationalists have denied that their system teaches different ways of salvation, and have sought to prove that this is not what Scofield and Chafer believed. Nonetheless, no small measure of confusion on this exists in their writings.

Dispensationalism has gradually changed since its inception, as its adherents, through dialogue with non-dispensationalists, have sought to correct its more egregious errors to bring it more in line with historic Christianity. This is most notable in the school of thought known as Progressive Dispensationalism. Progressives view the dispensations as progressively building one on another (hence the name) through time, in contrast with the Classical Dispensational view, which sees each new dispensation as an entirely new era of God's dealing with man. Progressives believe, along with Covenantal theologians, that Christ is now seated on David's throne in heaven, though they believe in a future Millennium. They also see the Church and Israel in a more united fashion, though they maintain that certain promises made to Israel remain Israel's alone.

While Progressive Dispensationalism has gradually grown through the past twenty years of its existence, it has yet to make many inroads into local churches, its impact being felt moreso at this point at the seminary level. The vast majority of Evangelical churches still hold to Classical Dispensationalism as I have outlined it here, though they may not hold to every detail. And while the differences between Classical and Progressive Dispensationalism are so great that many consider Progressives to not even be Dispensationalists, they still maintain enough of traditional Dispensationalism that they cannot be considered Covenantal.


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