Part 1 – A look at Dispensationalism
What is Dispensationalism?
You’ve probably been exposed to dispensationalism whether you realize it or not, whether you know what it is or not, and whether you can pronounce it or not. Dispensationalism is the theology behind the record-breaking Left Behind series of books and movies. The Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ books have sold over forty million copies (Demar, Left Behind, 2009, Forward), and no doubt millions more have seen the movie based on the series. If that were not enough, most television preachers and a plethora of popular ministries postulate, exposit, explain, declare, and otherwise generally promote the system. The average member of any fundamental or evangelical church can expound its basic tenets, especially the tenet that declares that the blood descendants of Abraham are “God’s chosen people”, and that modern Israel has a God-given right to claim the land of Palestine for its own, even to the ancient boundaries described in the Old Testament. It is “normative within American evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic and independent churches, and pervasive among Para-church institutions, Christian TV and radio stations and mission agencies” (Sizer, Christian Zionism, 2005, 106-107).
The main theme of Left Behind is the idea that Christians will suddenly be “raptured” (i.e., caught up) out of the world into the air and be taken to heaven to escape a period of horror on earth known as the “Great Tribulation”. The rapture is a key feature of dispensationalism’s eschatology, but this treatise is not about eschatology in particular, but is more about hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and Israel. So let’s define dispensationalism in its basic framework and proceed from there.
As its name implies, at the heart of dispensationalism is the concept of dispensations or “stewardships” which divide history into time periods in which God relates to man in different ways.
Richard Belcher defines it this way:
Dispensational theology looks on the world and the history of mankind as a household over which God is superintending the outworking of His purpose and will. This outworking of His purpose and will can be seen by noting the various periods or stages of different economies whereby God deals with His work and mankind in particular……..The word “dispensation” is from the Greek work oikonomia which means stewardship, administration, oversight, or the management of others affairs or property. (A Comparison, 1986, page 8 ).
The dispensations are typically divided into seven periods of time or ages. These ages are designated as Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and Kingdom. Each dispensation is characterized by a distinctive idea of God’s revelation, a specific test of obedience in relation to that divine revelation, a failure of man under that economy to the divine revelation, a judgment of God for the failure, and the beginning of a new dispensation.
Innocence is the age before the fall of Adam and Eve in which they lived in innocence until Adam’s sin and ejection from the Garden; Conscience is the age from Adam’s fall to Noah’s flood in which man lives by his awakened conscience and is responsible to God to live according to all known good; Human Government is the age from the flood to the call of Abraham in which man was to obey the government of man over man; Promise is the age from the call of Abraham to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai in which man was to live according to the gracious promises given to Abraham and the nation which would sprout from him (man’s failure in this case is alleged to be Israel’s acceptance of God’s offer of life under the Law); Law is the age from Mount Sinai to Israel’s rejection of Christ in which Israel was to live according to God’s (Moses’) Law; Grace is the age from the rejection of Christ to the future rapture in which God’s people, Israel, are temporarily set aside as punishment (though they retain the title of “God’s people”) while God calls another people out of the Gentile world called the Church, who in turn eventually apostatize into judgment, and are taken out of the world through the rapture; Kingdom is the age from the rapture to the end of time in which the Jews will be purified by a seven-year tribulation followed by a thousand years in which Christ will rule on the earth in the office of King of Israel. The eternal state follows the Kingdom. (Seven Dispensations, BibleLife.org, 2009)
I will note at this point that, as with any other system of theology, agreement among the adherents is not absolute. Many dispensationalists disagree on the number and order of dispensations. More importantly, there is marked dissention as to how the dispensations are to be understood. For example, while they all agree that we live today in the “age of grace”, they are split on whether, or to what extent, grace was given to people who lived in the past ages or who will live in future ages. Some propose that salvation was under the law during the Dispensation of Law, while other propose that salvation was by grace just as it is today, even though their understanding of God was strictly through the Law.
I personally find many things about the “seven dispensations” inconsistent and self-contradictory, and worthy of a severe critique. However, I have chosen to not include these issues within the scope of this work. I have chosen rather to focus on the three most important areas of doctrine that dispensationalism affects: the Bible, the Church, and Israel.
The Dispensational View of the Bible
The Bible is the Word of God. It is infallible, completely reliable as to all prophecies and propositions. Both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists find general agreement in this. But beyond this basic doctrine of the Bible, dispensationalists have a distinct reputation for an over-emphasis on literal interpretation. Sizer quotes Charles Ryrie and Dwight Pentecost, in turn:
(Ryrie) “Dispensationalism is a result of consistent application of the basic hermeneutical principle of literal, normal, or plain interpretation. (Pentecost) two established rules of interpretation are as follows: 1) ‘When scripture makes common sense use no other sense’; 2) ‘Prophecy…must be interpreted literally…” (Christian Zionism, 2005, p. 121)
In addition to flat literalism, dispensationalism features an absolute futurist understanding of nearly all prophecies. This ultra-literal-futurist hermeneutic is described by Sizer as:
“a novel hermeneutic in which …the prophetic parts of Scripture are seen as pre-written history; and eschatology fulfilled in the interpreter’s generation … Although the traditional Protestant or covenantal hermeneutic values literalism also, this differs in that traditionally the literal is understood by the historical setting and cultural, grammatical, and theological contexts (emphasis mine) (Christian Zionism, 2005, p. 108).
Another important feature of dispensationalism’s treatment of the Bible is its emphasis on differences between dispensations, making the Bible a series of changes and minimizing its continuity. One of their favorites Bible verses to support this theory is II Timothy 2:15:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
The word dividing is given as the “proof” of their method. This is taken as a directive to divide the Bible into various epochs, administrations, economies, and divine about-faces that make it a cacophonous collection of unrelated directives in which no person can be sure he or she is obeying and believing the section which applies to them and their time.
An accurate exegesis of the text will show that the Greek word ὀρθοτομέω (orthotomeō) , translated “divided”, literally means to “cut straight”, not just “cut”; it also means to “direct aright; to set forth truthfully, without perversion or distortion” (Perschbacher, Greek Lexicon, 1990, pg. 296) . Obviously, it is the duty of the teacher of God’s Word to cut it straight, not adding to it or taking away from it so that it become the teacher’s own opinion of a matter, but that it is clearly presented as God’s commandments. The passage has nothing to do with splitting the Bible into disjointed sections and determining whether a particular section “applies” or not.
The Dispensational View of the Church
One of the implications of the dispensational hermeneutic is the effects on one’s understanding of the Church, which represents a radical departure from traditional Protestantism, and in my opinion, is the most egregious error of dispensationalism (to be discussed at more length in the last chapter).
The dispensational view of the Church is that the Church is an anomaly, a historical parenthesis (Darrell Bock, Dispensationalism, 1992, p. 360). By extension, this makes the Church a sort of “plan B” or an afterthought of God. The dispensational theory is that after the church age, God will resume relations with His covenant people, His truly elect and beloved, the natural descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel. Therefore, the Church is sort of a consolation prize in light of Israel’s rejection of Christ, and its members are immigrants into God’s Kingdom. Dispensaionalists cliam that the covenants are not with the Church, including even the New Covenant described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8, although some of them do allow that the New Covenant is “applied” to the Church, but even in that scheme national Israel remains as its true participants. There is wide uncertainty among dispensationalists as to the meaning of the New Covenant, leading to conferences being convocated for the sole purpose of defining the New Covenant. Unfortunately these conferences have yet to render a satisfactory definition of the New Covenant to the dispensational world (Churches, Baptistbulletin.com, 2009).
Since dispensationalism views the Church as another people of God, apart and radically distinct from Israel in terms of purpose, administration, and destinies, by extension it proclaims that there are two concurrent Peoples of God: Israel, and the Church (Pitchford, The People of God, 2006, p. 1).
The Dispensational View of Israel
As was stated in the previous section, dispensationalism views the Church and Israel and distinct bodies with different destinies. Israel is seen as that body of people related by blood to the patriarch Abraham whom shall inherit the blessings and promises found throughout the Old Testament epic, especially those found in the Abrahamic/Mosaic prophetic discourses. They retain their place as “God’s people” even during the current age of grace and the Gentile Church. In essence, they alone are truly God’s chosen people, and in the future “millennium” God will once again bring them to their rightful place of favor in His sight, simultaneously reducing the “Gentile” Church to a servile citizenry in the Kingdom. Let the words of a leading dispensational theologian explain it in his own words:
“The Gentiles will be Israel’s servants during that age …The nations which usurped authority over Israel in past ages find that downtrodden people exalted and themselves in subjection in their kingdom. The Gentiles that are in the millennium will have experienced conversion prior to admission.” (Things to Come, 1958, pg. 507)
In addition to patriarchal kinship requirements, dispensationalists further define Israel as both the people and the land to which those people are eternally tied. According to Lewis Sperry Chafer, a prominent dispensational systematic theologian, “Israel is an eternal nation, heir to an eternal land, with an eternal kingdom, on which David rules from an eternal throne, so that, in eternity, ‘never the twain, Israel and church, shall meet’ (Sizer, Christian Zionism, 2005, p. 138).
By extension, dispensationalists view the Jewish citizens of modern Israel, established in 1948 by an act of the United Nations, as the posterity of the ancient Jews, and see in them and the re-birth of the nation itself as a confirmation of their views. This has spawned a strong Zionist movement among Evangelical Christians, a phenomenon about which I will have more to say later.
Baptists, 1689. 1689 Baptist Confession. http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/baptist_1689.html (accessed January 28, 2010).
Barcellos, Richard C. In Defense of the Decalogue. Enumclaw: WinePress Publishing, 2001.
Battle, John A. “Premillennialsim and Covenant Theology.” WRS Journal 2, no. 1 (Feb 1995): 2-6.
Belcher, Richard P. A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Fort Mill: Richbarry Press, 1986.
Board, Baptist. What, No Church? 2009. http://www.baptistboard.com/showthread.php?t=62790 (accessed January 28, 2010).
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Churches, The General Association of Regular Baptist. The Baptist Bulletin. September 24, 2009. http://www.baptistbulletin.org/?p=5104 (accessed December 10, 2009).
Clark, R. Scott. Theses: Covenant Theology. 2008. http://www.wscal.edu/clark/covtheses.php (accessed November 10, 2009).
Darrell L. Bock, Walter C. Kaiser, Craig A. Blaising. Dispensationalism, Israel and the church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
DeMar, Gary. Left Behind: Separating Fact from Fiction. Powder Springs: The American Vision, 2009.
—. Response To A Critic. 2010. http://www.americanvision.org/article/a-brief-response-to-a-critic-of-is-jesus-coming-soon/ (accessed January 29, 2010).
Fisher, G. Richard. The Other Gospel of John Hagee. 2009. http://www.pfo.org/jonhagee.htm (accessed January 30, 2010).
Friedman, Emanuel, ed. Collier’s Encyclopedia. Vol. 19. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
Gentry, Kenneth. Postmillenialism Made Easy. Draper: Apologetics Group, 2009.
Gill, John. The Baptist Commentary Series. Vol. 9. Paris, Arkansas: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006.
Hafemann, Scott J. The God of Promise and the Life of Faith. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001.
Hodge, A.A. God’s Covenants with Man. http://www.fivesolas.com/coven1.htm (accessed November 15, 2009).
Howell, R.B.C. The Covenants. 2009. http://www.founders.org/library/covenants/ch4.html (accessed January 24, 2010).
Johnson, Terry L. The Case for Traditional Protestantism. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004.
Lewis, Nathan. Biblical Proof that the Mosaic Administration is part of the unfolding Covenant. http://www.fivesolas.com/mosaicad.htm (accessed November 15, 2009).
McMahon, Matthew. John Owen and the Covenant of Redemption. 2009. http://www.apuritansmind.com/Baptism/McMahanJohnOwen.htm (accessed January 21, 2010).
Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958.
Perschbacher. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990.
Pitchford, Nathan. What the Bible Says About the People of God. Portland: Monergism Books, 2006.
Reymond, Robert L. Against Dispensationalism. October 18, 2008. http://againstdispensationalism.blogspot.com/2008/10/who-really-owns-holy-land.html (accessed November 14, 2009).
Robertson, O. Palmer. The Israel of God. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2000.
Scofield, C.I. The Seven Dispensations. 2009. http://www.biblelife.org/dispensations.htm (accessed December 20, 2009).
—. The Seven Dispensations. 2009. http://www.biblelife.org/dispensations.htm (accessed January 24, 2010).
Sizer, Stephen R. Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Strawbridge, Gregg. Covenantal Framework of Scripture. http://www.fivesolas.com/cov_def.htm (accessed November 15, 2009).
The Baptist Bulletin. September 24, 2009. http://www.baptistbulletin.org/?p=5104 (accessed November 11, 2009).
Turretin, Francis. The Covenant of Grace and Its Twofold Economy in the Old and New Testaments. http://www.fivesolas.com/turretin.htm (accessed November 15, 2009).
Watson, Thomas. The Covenant of Grace. http://www.fivesolas.com/watson/covgrace.htm (accessed November 15, 2009).
Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2003.