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Dispensationalism is a religious interpretive system for the Bible. It considers Biblical history as divided deliberately by God into defined periods or ages to each of which God has allotted distinctive administrative principles. According to dispensationalist interpretation, each age of the plan of God is thus administered in a certain way, and humanity is held responsible as a steward during that time. Each dispensation is marked by a cycle. God reveals himself and his truth to humanity in a new way. Humanity is held responsible to conform to that revelation. Humanity rebels and fails the test. God judges humanity and introduces a new period of probation under a new administration. Ultimately, the dispensational scheme demonstrates the progress of God's revelation to man and God's sovereignty through history.
- 1 Dispensations
- 2 Concepts
- 3 History
- 4 Influence
- 5 Judaism
- 6 United States politics
- 7 Fiction
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The number of dispensations discerned by theologians within Biblical history vary typically from three to eight (See History below). The three- and four-dispensation schemes are often referred to as minimalist, as they include the commonly recognized divisions within Biblical history. The typical seven-dispensation scheme is as follows:
- Innocence – Adam under probation prior to the Fall. Ends with expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Some refer to this period as the Adamic period or the dispensation of the Adamic covenant or Adamic law.
- Conscience – From the Fall to the Great Flood. Ends with the worldwide deluge.
- Human Government – After the Great Flood, humanity responsible to enact the death penalty. Ends with the dispersion at the Tower of Babel. Some use the term Noahide law in reference to this period of dispensation.
- Promise – From Abraham to Moses. Ends with the refusal to enter Canaan and the 40 years of unbelief in the wilderness. Some use the terms Abrahamic law or Abrahamic covenant in reference to this period of dispensation.
- Law – From Moses to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Ends with the scattering of Israel in AD70. Some use the term Mosaic law in reference to this period of dispensation.
- Grace – From the cross to the Second Coming. Ends with the wrath of God comprising the Great Tribulation. Some use the terms Age of grace or the church age for this dispensation.
- Millennial Kingdom – A 1000 year reign of Christ on earth centered in Jerusalem. Ends with God's judgment on the final rebellion.
Numerous purposes for this cycle of administrations have been suggested. God is seen to be testing humanity under varying conditions, while vindicating His ways with humanity in originally granting them free will. The dispensations reveal God's truth in a progressive manner, and are designed to maximize the glory that will accrue to God as he brings history to a climax with a Kingdom administered by Christ, thus vindicating his original plan of administering rule on earth through "human" means. The goal of the dispensations is summarized by Paul the Apostle in Ephesians 1:9-10, "He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth" (NASB).
Below is a table comparing the various dispensational schemes:
|Dispensational schemes||Bible chapters|
|Genesis 1–3||Genesis 3–8||Genesis 9–11||Genesis 12
to Exodus 19
|Exodus 20 until
Birth of the Church
|Revelation 20:4–6||Revelation 20–22|
|7 or 8 step
|Millennial Kingdom||Eternal State
|3 step (minimalist)
One important underlying theological concept for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. Some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, whereas dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore, there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are associated with the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Dispensationalism emphasizes the original recipients to whom the different Biblical covenant promises were written. This has resulted in certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.
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Another important theological concept is an emphasis on the historical-grammatical (or literal) method of biblical interpretation. For example, Israel is said to have literally experienced the curses mentioned by the Old Testament, and dispensationalists believe that the Jews will one day literally receive the blessings mentioned by the Old Testament. Neither the historical-grammatical method nor the concept of progressive revelation is exclusive to dispensationalists. However, a dispensational distinctive is created when the historical-grammatical method is coupled with an emphasis on progressive revelation, along with the historical development of the covenants in Scripture.
Distinction between Israel and the Church
Some dispensationalists profess a definite distinction between Israel and the Church. For dispensationalists, Israel is an ethnic nation consisting of Hebrews (Israelites), beginning with Abraham and continuing in existence to the present. The Church, on the other hand, consists of all saved individuals in this present dispensation—i.e., from the "birth of the Church" in Acts until the time of the Rapture. The distinction between Israel and the Church is not mutually exclusive, as there is a recognized overlap between the two.:295 The overlap consists of Jewish Christians such as Peter and Paul, who are ethnically Jewish and also have faith in Jesus Christ. Dispensationalists also believe that Israel as a nation will embrace Jesus as their messiah toward the end of the Tribulation, right before his second coming. The spectrum of teaching on Israel and the Church may be depicted as below:
|Spectrum of viewpoints about Church–Israel distinctions|
Classical dispensationalists refer to the present-day Church as a "parenthesis" or temporary interlude in the progress of Israel's prophesied history. Progressive dispensationalism "softens" the Church/Israel distinction by seeing some Old Testament promises as expanded by the New Testament to include the Church. However, progressives never view this expansion as replacing promises to its original audience, Israel.
Start of the Church Age
Mainstream dispensationalists such as Scofield and Ironside identify Pentecost (Acts 2) with the start of the Church as distinct from Israel; this may be referred to as the "Acts 2" position. Grace Movement Dispensationalists believe that the church started after Acts 2, emphasizing the beginning of the church comes with the ministry of Paul. Advocates of this "mid-Acts" position identify the start of the church variously from with the salvation of Saul in Acts 9 to the Holy Spirit's commissioning of Paul in Acts 13. The "Acts 28" position posits the beginning of the church in Acts chapter 28 where the Apostle Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9,10 concerning the blindness of Israel, announcing that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentile world (Acts 28:28).
Dispensationalists are premillennialists who affirm a future, literal 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ which merges with and continues on to the eternal state in the "new heavens and the new earth", and they claim that the millennial kingdom will be theocratic in nature and not mainly soteriological, as it is considered by George Eldon Ladd and others with a non-dispensational form of premillennialism. Dispensationalism is known for its opinions respecting the nation of Israel during this millennial kingdom reign, in which Israel as a nation plays a major role and regains a king, a land, and an everlasting kingdom.
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The concept of the arranging of divisions of Biblical history dates back to Irenaeus during the second century. Other Christian writers since then have offered their own arrangements of history, such as Augustine of Hippo and Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202).:116 Many Protestant and Calvinist writers also developed theological schemes and divisions of history, in particular after the Westminster Confession of Faith noted "various dispensations". Other concepts also predated dispensationalism as a system, such as premillennialism and the rapture.
Dispensationalism developed as a system from the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800–82) who strongly influenced the Plymouth Brethren of the 1830s in Ireland and England. The original concept is expressed in Darby's interpretation of 2 Timothy 2:15, "rightly dividing the word of truth." Darby traveled extensively to continental Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States in an attempt to make converts to the Brethren philosophy. While his Brethren ecclesiology failed to catch on in America, his eschatological doctrine became widely popular in the United States, especially among Baptists and Old School Presbyterians.:293 American dispensationalism crossed over many denominational boundaries.
Regarding any supposed connection to Edward Irving, Thomas Ice concludes in his article: EDWARD IRVING AND THE RAPTURE on pages 71-72, after examining the historians for and against, as well as, the evidence:
"While Irving and the Albury group had a few eschatological ideas that were unique, a belief in the pre-tribulation rapture was not one of them. It is impossible for one to follow the historicist approach and also believe the rapture will occur before the tribulation, since historicists believe that the tribulation began hundreds of years ago and runs the course of most of the current church age. It is also true that Irvingites spoke of a soon coming of Christ to translate believers to heaven, but this view was part of their second coming belief that they could have derived from Manuel Lacunza’s writings, which were not the product of futurism at that point...."
"On the other hand, Darby most likely thought of and then developed the idea of pre-tribulationism in the process of shifting to futurism. Paul Wilkinson notes that ″Darby found an exegetical basis in Scripture for his doctrine of a pretribulation Rapture. As a careful student of the Bible, Darby had no need to appeal to an oracle for his doctrines. The unfounded and scurrilous accusations of MacPherson and his sympathizers contravene the whole ethos of John Nelson Darby, a man of integrity to whom the Word of God was paramount.″"
United States of America
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John Nelson Darby is considered by some to be the father of dispensationalism,:10, 293 which was adopted, modified, and made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield's reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh (1820–96) popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author. Some critics have claimed that there was no Christian teaching of a rapture before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, but recent research has discovered many sources in the preceding 250 years showing a development of the concept.
Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put them at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because they believe that he will restore the Jews, according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that the methodologies of God may change but his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten; he will show unmerited favor to a remnant of Israel, just as he has to the Church, in order to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.
Dispensationalism was introduced to North America by James Inglis (1813–72) through the monthly magazine Waymarks in the Wilderness, published intermittently between 1854 and 1872. During 1866, Inglis organized the Believers' Meeting for Bible Study, which introduced dispensationalist ideas to a small but influential circle of American evangelicals. They were disturbed by the inroads of liberalism and saw premillennialism as an answer. Dispensationalism was introduced as a premillennial position, and it largely took over the fundamentalist movement, over a period of several decades, which stood against liberalism. The American church denominations rejected Darby's ecclesiology but accepted his eschatology. Many of these churches were Presbyterian and Baptist, and they retained Darby's Calvinistic soteriology.
After Inglis' death, James H. Brookes (1830–98), the pastor of Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, organized the Niagara Bible Conference (1876–97) to continue the dissemination of dispensationalist ideas. Dispensationalism was boosted after Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899) learned of dispensational theology from an unidentified member of the Brethren during 1872. Moody worked with Brookes and other dispensationalists and encouraged the spread of dispensationalism. The efforts of CI Scofield and his associates introduced dispensationalism to a wider audience in America by his reference Bible. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible during 1909 by the Oxford University Press for the first time displayed overtly dispensationalist notes on the pages of the Biblical text. The Scofield Bible became a popular Bible used by independent Evangelicals in the United States. Evangelist and Bible teacher Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952) was influenced by Scofield; he founded the Dallas Theological Seminary during 1924, which has become the main institution of dispensationalism in America. More recently, the Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania became another dispensational school.
Other prominent dispensationalists include Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928), James M. Gray (1851–1925), William J. Erdman (1833–1923), A. C. Dixon (1854–1925), A. J. Gordon (1836–95), and William Eugene Blackstone, author of the bestselling book of the 1800s "Jesus is Coming" (endorsed by Torrey and Erdman). These men were active evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts. They also gave the dispensationalist philosophy institutional permanence by assuming leadership of new independent Bible institutes, such as the Moody Bible Institute during 1886, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) during 1908, and Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University, formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) during 1913. The network of related institutes that soon developed became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism has become very popular with American evangelicalism, especially among nondenominational Bible churches, Baptists, Pentecostal, and Charismatic groups. Conversely, Protestant denomiminations that embrace covenant theology as a whole tend to reject dispensationalism. For example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA termed it "evil and subversive" and regards it as a heresy. The Churches of Christ underwent division during the 1930s as Robert Henry Boll (who taught a variant of the dispensational philosophy) and Foy E. Wallace (representing the amillennial opinion) disputed severely over eschatology.
Dispensationalism rejects the notion of supersessionism, still considers the Jewish people as God's chosen people, and sees the modern State of Israel as resulting in the Israel who will receive the fulfillment of all God's Old Testament promises.
John Nelson Darby taught, and most subsequent dispensationalists have maintained, that God considers the Jews as his earthly chosen people, even as they remain in rejection of Jesus Christ, and God continues to maintain an earthly destiny in the future millennial Kingdom when the Lord Jesus Christ returns to earth and establishes it in fulfillment of prophecy in the prophetic scheme. Dispensationalists teach that a remnant within the nation of Israel will be born again, called of God, and by grace brought to realize that they crucified their Messiah. Dispensationalism is unique in teaching that the Church stands in a dispensation that occurs as a parenthesis in the prophetic Kingdom program, a dispensational "mystery" or "grace" period, meaning that it was not directly revealed in prophecy in the Old Testament, and that this "age of grace" will end with the rapture of the church allowing the prophetic clock for Israel to start up again and finding the Jewish remnant becoming manifest through the Great Tribulation. Israel will finally recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah during the trials that come upon them in this Tribulation. Darby's teachings envision Judaism as continuing to enjoy God's protection literally to the end of time, and teach that God has a separate earthly and prophetic Kingdom "program," to use J. Dwight Pentecost's term, for Israel and another heavenly (destined) Mystery program for the Church. Dispensationalists teach that God has eternal covenants with Israel which cannot be violated and must be honored and fulfilled.
Dispensationalists affirm the necessity for Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah, while also stressing that God has not forsaken those who are physically descended from Abraham through Isaac. They claim that God made unconditional covenants with Israel as a people and nation in the Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New Covenant.
Christian dispensationalists sometimes endorse what some critics have pejoratively termed Judeophilia, ranging from endorsement of the state of Israel to observing traditional Jewish holidays and practicing traditionally Jewish religious rituals. (See also Christian Zionism, Jewish Christians, Judaizers, Hebrew Roots, and Messianic Judaism). Dispensationalists typically endorse the modern state of Israel, consider its existence as a political entity as God revealing His will for the Last Days, and reject anti-Semitism.
Dispensationalists tend to have special interest in the Jews because the dispensationalist hermeneutic honors Biblical passages that list Jews as among God's chosen people. (The others would be the Gentiles in the church and proselytes to Judaism.) Some Messianic Jews, however, reject dispensationalism in favor of related but distinct hermeneutics called Olive Tree Theology. The name refers to the passages of Romans 11:17–18: "If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive, were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, then don't boast as if you were better than the branches!"
United States politics
Political analyst Richard Allen Greene has argued that dispensationalism has had a major influence on the foreign policy of the United States. This influence has included continued aid for the state of Israel.
Political commentator Kevin Phillips claimed in American Theocracy (2006) that dispensationalist and other fundamentalist Christians, together with the oil lobby, have provided political assistance for the invasion of Iraq during 2003.
Dispensationalist themes form the basis of the popular Left Behind series of books. However, not all dispensationalists agree with the theology of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
- Christian eschatology
- Fundamentalist Christianity
- Law of Christ
- Millennial Day Theory
- Hebrew Roots
- Progressive dispensationalism
- Post Tribulation
- Second Coming
- Whore of Babylon
- Ryrie, Charles Caldwell (1965). Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press. p. 137.
- Ironside, Harry A. "Not Wrath, but Rapture".
The prophetic clock stopped at Calvary; it will not start again until ‘the fulness of the Gentiles be come in’.
- Blaising, Craig A.; Bock, Darrell L (1993). Progressive Dispensationalism. Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint. ISBN 1-56476-138-X.
- The Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, but he was of the tribe of Benjamin by birth and also a Jewish nationalist (Rom 9:1-3).
- Mike Stallard. "Progressive Dispensationalism" (PDF).
Ladd starts the eschatological kingdom in the Gospels. Progressives start the kingdom with the ascension of Christ. The most significant difference, however, is that Ladd treats the Church as a kind of "New Israel" in his commentary on Revelation. Progressive dispensationalism in no way advocates that the Church replaces Israel as in Ladd and in a more developed way in Covenant Theology (including brands of covenant premillennialism).
- Harry A. Ironside. "The Great Parenthesis".
It is the author's fervent conviction that the failure to understand what is revealed in Scripture concerning the Great Parenthesis between Messiah's rejection, with the consequent setting aside of Israel nationally, and the regathering of God's earthly people and recognition by the Lord in the last days, is the fundamental cause for many conflicting and unscriptural prophetic teachings. Once this parenthetical period is understood and the present work of God during this age is apprehended, the whole prophetic program unfolds with amazing clearness.
- Mike Stallard. "Progressive Dispensationalism" (PDF).
some OT promises can be expanded by the NT. However, this expansion is never viewed as replacing or undoing the implications of that OT promise to its original audience, Israel. For example, the Church's participation in the New Covenant taught in the NT can add the Church to the list of recipients of the New Covenant promises made in the OT. However, such participation does not rule out the future fulfillment of the OT New Covenant promises to Israel at the beginning of the Millennium. Thus, the promise can have a coinciding or overlapping fulfillment through NT expansions of the promise.
- Charles Caldwell Ryrie (1995), Dispensationalism,
(p.53) ...the Scofield Reference Bible... is Watts's [dispensational] outline, not Darby's!
- Isaac Watts (1812). The Harmony of all the Religions which God ever Prescribed to Men and all his Dispensations towards them.
The kingdom of Christ, therefore, or the christian dispensation was not properly set up in all its forms, doctrines and duties, till the following day of Pentecost, and the pouring down of the Spirit upon the Apostles
- Harry A. Ironside. "Wrongly Dividing The Word of Truth. Chapter 3: The Transitional Period. Is the Church of The Acts the Body of Christ?".
Here we are distinctly informed as to the way in which the Body has been brought into existence, and this is exactly what took place at Pentecost.
- Robert C. Brock. "The Teachings of Christ".
The ministry of Christ did not stop with His ascension in the first chapter of the book of Acts. Christians have failed to realize that when Saul is saved in Acts 9, a NEW ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ is begun by God, and this NEW ministry ushers in this present age of grace. Saul's name is changed to Paul, and he is designated as the Apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 11:13). He is given revelations from the risen Christ, and these are the revelations embracing Christianity.
- Most notably expounded by E. W. Bullinger and Charles H. Welch
- Rev. 21
- Walvoord, John F (1990). Blessed hope and the tribulation. Contemporary Evangelical. ISBN 978-0-310-34041-6.
- Including Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, John Bale, Thomas Brightman, Henry Finch, John Archer, Thomas Manton, William Gouge, Thomas Goodwin, John Birchensha, William Sherwin, Francis Hutchinson, Pierre Jurieu, Pierre Poiret, John Edwards, and Isaac Watts
- Watson, William (2015). Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism. Silverton, OR: Lampion Press. ISBN 978-1-942-61403-6., chapter 6
- Covenant Theology emerged from the Reformed tradition, which considers Biblical history through the "covenant of Grace" (not recorded in scripture) as administered variously through the actual recorded covenants in scripture. While many covenant theologians developed dispensational schemes, they were not theological dispensationalists even if Ryrie appeals to them for this one element of dispensationalism.
- Elwell, Walter A. (1984). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. ISBN 0-8010-3413-2.
- Watson, William (2015). Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism. Silverton, OR: Lampion Press. ISBN 978-1-942-61403-6.
- "Reflections: dispensationalism". Bible.org..
- Prior to World War II, there had been no significant presence of amillennialism in Churches of Christ. See also Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who established amillennialism as the eschatology of the Roman Catholic Church.
- David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto, The Complete Jewish Bible, and The Jewish New Testament Commentary.
- Greene, Richard Allen (2006-07-19). "Evangelical Christians plead for Israel". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-03-20.
- Allis, Oswald T. Prophecy and the Church (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1945; reprint: Wipf & Stock, 2001). ISBN 1-57910-709-5
- Bass, Clarence B. Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Baker Books, 1960) ISBN 0-8010-0535-3
- Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Belknap, 1994) ISBN 0-674-95129-8
- Clouse, Robert G., ed. The Millennium: Four Views (InterVarsity, 1977) ISBN 0-87784-794-0
- Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (Moody, 1989) ISBN 0-8024-3428-2
- Gerstner, John H. Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism. Third edition. Nicene Council, 2009. ISBN 978-0977851690
- Grenz, Stanley. The Millennial Maze (InterVarsity, 1992) ISBN 0-8308-1757-3
- LaHaye, Tim, and Jerry B. Jenkins. Are We Living in the End Times? (Tyndale House, 1999) ISBN 0-8423-0098-8
- Mangum, R. Todd, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift (Wipf & Stock, 2007) ISBN 1-55635-482-7
- Mangum, R. Todd and Mark Sweetnam, "The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church" (Colorado Springs: Paternoster Publishing, 2009) ISBN 9780830857517
- McDonald, Marci The Armageddon Factor:The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010) ISBN 0-307-35646-9
- Phillips, Kevin American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (Viking Adult, 2006) ISBN 0-670-03486-X
- Poythress, Vern. Understanding Dispensationalists (P&R Publishing 2nd ed., 1993) ISBN 978-0-87552-374-3
- Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism (Moody, 1995) ISBN 0-8024-2187-3
- Ryrie, Charles C. Basic Theology (Moody, 1999) ISBN 0-8024-2734-0
- Showers, Renald (1990). "There Really Is a Difference: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology." Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. ISBN 0-915540-50-9
- Walvoord, John. The Millennial Kingdom (Zondervan, 1983) ISBN 0-310-34091-8
- Sweetnam, Mark The Dispensations: God's Plan for the Ages (Scripture Teaching Library, 2013) ISBN 978-1-909789-00-5
- Walvoord, John F. Prophecy In The New Millennium (Kregel Publications, 2001) ISBN 0-8254-3967-1
- O'Hair, J. C. The Unsearchable Riches of Christ