What is dispensationalism?

What Is Dispensationalism?

Dispensationalism is an hermeneutical framework which, while not entirely modern, has been defined and promulgated most sharply since the 19th Century. It has strong links to premillennialism — that is, dispensationalists are premillennialists, but not all premillennialists are dispensationalists — and is uniquely Protestant.

Often set against Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism stands out for its literal hermeneutic, commitment to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, and its doctrine of Israel and the Church. It is understood in a typical breakdown of salvation history into seven dispensations, or eras, in which God deals with humanity’s sin and responsibility in different ways, culminating in the return and final victory of Christ.

A Brief History of Dispensationalism

In the mid-1800s, John Nelson Darby (an Anglo-Irish Plymouth Brethren church planter, missionary, Bible translator, scholar, Bible commentator, hymn writer) began teaching and defining his unique views on eschatology and ecclesiology. He widely traveled and taught, but his theology took root in the United States through the likes of D. L. Moody, and particularly Cyrus Scofield, who published his Scofield Reference Bible in 1909.

Scofield’s dispensationalism, written about extensively in the Scofield Reference Bible’s vast commentary sections, seemed nearly prescient to an American readership on the cusp of World Wars I and II, and the dispensationalist system, where Scripture is read and understood within seven dispensations of how God interacts with humanity, became increasingly popular and relevant to a populace who was beginning to ask questions about the end of the world. Far from being sensationalist at the time (though today we cannot say the same), it seems to have provided much-needed comfort and clarity to an alarmed and confused country, whether the modern reader agrees with its propositions or not.

Many view 1948 as one of the major moments in the history of Dispensationalism, when the State of Israel was re-established. By then, Dispensationalists (who view Israel and the Church as distinct entities, with different divine promises) had long been waiting for what they understood as a prophecy that Israel would be established as a nation before being grafted back in, and experiencing a mass turning to the Lord. While this did much to establish the validity of Dispensationalism in the eyes of many, it also seems to have coincided with an increase of sensationalism and abuse of the system, resulting in bogus Second Coming predictions and alarmist theology. But far from being defined by these claims, today such academic heavy-hitters as John MacArthur, Norman Geisler, and Darrell Bock teach and adhere to Dispensationalism, but would distance themselves (rightly so) from false end-times predictions, and the unfortunate fallout from such works as the Left Behind series by LaHaye and Jenkins. And many of the afore-mentioned, well-grounded scholars (if not all of them) believe that the re-establishment of the state in 1948 was not a redeemed ingathering of Israel; that ultimate regathering will happen at the return of Christ.

Basic Tenets of Dispensationalism

Most Dispensationalists agree on seven main dispensations:

  1. Innocence (pre-Fall)
  2. Conscience (Fall–Noah)
  3. Government (Noah–Abraham)
  4. Promise (Abraham–Moses)
  5. Mosaic Law (Moses–Christ)
  6. Grace (current age)
  7. Millennial Kingdom (1,000 year earthly reign of Christ, yet to come)

Each of these dispensations is marked by a particular way that God holds humans accountable for their sins, according to the revelation given them at the time. As revelation progresses or grows, so does man’s responsibility. In Dispensationalism, we are essentially held accountable only for that which has been revealed to us. Yet because this revelation is progressive, throughout salvation history each dispensation builds on what came before, and deepens our understanding.

Chief among the distinctive aspects of Dispensationalism are its doctrines of Israel and the Church. This framework views Israel and the New Testament church as distinct and separate entities; the promises of God to Israel in the Old Testament by no means are fulfilled in the church. As a result, Israel must be re-established nationally, and must turn to the Lord, when he will fulfill his promises to them literally, in the last days. Thus, Dispensationalist eschatology centers geographically around Israel. Today, much of this doctrine can be seen worked out politically in a strong Christian base of support for the people and nation of Israel, and the insistence on maintaining Israel as a close ally.

Dispensationalism is premillennial in its eschatology, though Darby is often credited as the father of pre-tibulation rapture eschatology. In this system, Christ will return, raise the saved from the dead, and rapture them away from Earth, thus beginning the seven years of tribulation. This period of tribulation—during which time some may still choose to know the Lord and be saved—culminates in the Battle of Armageddon. Christ will return again to decisively and glorious end the battle, and begin his literal 1,000 year reign on Earth.

Further Reading

This brief article is nearly a drop in the bucket compared to the wealth of information available, not to mention the breadth of theologically-Dispensational commentaries and monographs. For further reading on what makes Dispensationalism distinctive, see Theopedia, CARM, and Friends of Israel.

For theologically-rich and useful resources by Dispensationalist authors, see:

“The unity of divine revelation, of the various dispensations, is found in the goal of history, the kingdom of God. And since this kingdom is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the dispensational unity of Scripture and of history is Christological as much as it is eschatological.”

— Craig A. Blaising

“. . . it is the testimony of the Scriptures, without exception, that every feature of man’s salvation from its inception to the final perfection in heaven is a work of God for man and not a work of man for God.”

— Lewis Sperry Chafer

Why Dr. Michael Windsor is a Dispensationalist

The following is re-published with permission from Virginia Beach Theological Seminary’s monthly e-bulletin. Dr. Michael Windsor is Professor of Church History at Virginia Beach Theological Seminary, and contributed this piece titled “Why I Am a Dispensationalist” to the editorial section Truth for the Agora in September, 2018.

I am a dispensationalist in my theological conclusions — not because I carried a Scofield Reference Bible to church as an 18 year-old, nor because the man that led me to Christ was a dispensationalist, nor because I attended a dispensational seminary for my theological education. Each of the preceding factors encouraged me along the way, but they were not decisive. Let me share three concepts that cause me to see dispensational contours in the pages of Scripture.

Progressive revelation. God gave revelation over the course of time. When looking at the progress of revelation, we find that at times, God chose to alter His relationship to mankind. This divinely chosen adjustment of mankind’s relationship to God, rooted in divine revelation, we call dispensationalism. The word for dispensation is oikonomia. The word implies a management of a home environment or a stewardship. God grants a stewardship of life to men and women grounded in the boundaries of His revelation. This is what Paul meant when he wrote “of the dispensation of the grace of God” and how God “by revelation . . . made known to me the mystery” so that Christians can “read” and “understand” what God was doing (Eph. 3:2–4). God gave revelation in order to adjust mankind’s relationship to Himself and His work. Dispensational interpreters are endeavoring to understand Biblical history marked by God’s revelatory transitions.

Hermeneutics. A dispensational reader of Scripture consistently uses a normative approach for all of Scripture. The difference between a dispensational hermeneutic and a non-dispensational hermeneutic can be illustrated in Isaiah 11. Note how each approaches the three sections of this passage. (1) Both hermeneutic approaches take the first 5 verses literally, understanding that the Messiah will come from the stem of Jesse (11:1), will have the Spirit rest upon Him (11:2), will judge with righteousness (11:4), and will be faithful in all he does (11:5). (2) In verses 6–10, non-dispensationalists are divided; some join the dispensational reader’s conclusion and accept Isaiah’s promise as literal realities of the future kingdom, while others view the paragraph as allegorical blessings for the church. (3) In verses 11–16, non-dispensationalist readers usually agree that these verses should be rendered in a more allegorical sense. Dispensational readers, on the other hand, accept Isaiah’s promise as the literal reunification of Israel and its regathering in the Holy Land during the coming kingdom. In short, the dispensational hermeneutic maintains the same normative hermeneutic throughout Chapter 11, while the non- dispensationalist struggles whether or not to adopt a figurative hermeneutic after verse 5. Since consistency ought to be the norm for the interpreter, the dispensational approach seems most satisfying.

Church and Israel. As a dispensationalist, I recognize an exegetical distinction between the Church and Israel. Scriptures may use similar imagery for both Israel and the Church, but the Scriptures never identify the Church as Israel. Both spiritual communities may share similar features because they both relate to the same God. For example, Peter exhorted Christians to be holy because God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15), just as Moses earlier exhorted the people of Israel to the same spiritual state (Lev. 11:45). Holiness was expected of a person walking with God, whether that person was an OT saint or NT saint. Recognizing the distinction between these two spiritual communities leads me to see distinctions in their eschatological destinies. When Jesus returns in His Second Advent, He will establish the Kingdom of God on earth. The nation of Israel will be regathered in the Holy Land and the Church will reign with the King.

Having been in the ministry for over 40 years, I can say that following the dispensational contours of God’s progress of revelation has allowed me to appreciate what God has accomplished in the OT and will yet accomplish under his New Covenant. I treasure the Scriptures as being directly from the mind of God to the heart of mankind. Therefore, I want to know exactly what God says and what he means by what he says—there is no greater joy!

Jonathan Watson

Jonathan Watson