Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A brief introduction to dispensationalism

There are a lot of links from this article. To be consistent, I linked to Wikipedia whenever possible. I find articles on Christianity at Wikipedia are heavily biased; I chose the links because Wikipedia covers the most names in a single resource. Please don't take Wikipedia's bias as mine: if you have comments, please make them!

A few weeks ago, Anne commented 'I am unfamiliar with “Dispensationalism” and plan to learn more about it if possible.' Well, I am not really qualified to give a definitive dissertation on dispensationalism, but I thought I'd give a quick description. And then The Dawg posted about it today, so I finally wrote down some thoughts.

Before going too far, I want to recap the two major points of an earlier article I wrote:
  1. No theology is perfect. Theology is an attempt to "connect the dots", to come up with a model for reality that is in agreement with what Scripture says. Our models end up missing a few dots. "All models are wrong, but some are useful," George E. P. Box. Dispensationalism is almost certainly wrong in at least some areas, but I think it is terribly useful.
  2. We must not confuse reality with our models of it. This the first step on the road to heresy: if we start to treat our understanding of truth as infallible, we sooner or later end up drawing conclusions that fly in the face of Scripture. The Word of God is infallible, but our understanding of it is not.

Wikipedia starts its article on Dispensationalism with:
As a current theology among many Protestant and other Conservative Christian groups, Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism which teaches biblical history as a number of successive "economies" or "administrations", called "dispensations", each of which emphasizes the discontinuity of the Old Testament covenants God made with His various peoples.
I suppose this is fairly accurate, albeit somewhat vague. I wouldn't necessarily suggest one look to Wikipedia for insight on topics like this, but it might bring a different perspective.

Dispensationalism is a theology built on three premises:
  1. Israel and the Church are distinct
  2. the Church started after the Lord Jesus' ascension
  3. God works differently with respect to His people on earth in different time frames

The most hotly debated premise of dispensationalism is undoubtedly the first. Basically, there are three views you can have on the Church/Israel question: (a) the Church replaces Israel ("replacement theology"), (b) the Church partially replaces Israel, or (c) Israel and the Church are distinct. There are godly people who take each of those positions.

I suppose the vast majority of dispensationalists hold the "Acts 2" position, which is that the Church began in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended. There are various other positions that are "Post-Acts-2" (PA2), including "Acts 9", "Acts 13", "Acts 19", and "Acts 28". There are even some who hold a "Pre-Acts-2" position, but those are much more rare in my experience. I am personally of the "Acts 2" persuasion.

The last premiss is the most often misunderstood. Dispensationalists are frequently accused of teaching that there are many ways of salvation: for example, that Jewish believers were saved by keeping the Law, while New Testament Christians are saved by faith in Christ alone. This is a false accusation, plain and simple. It is a gross misrepresentation of what every dispensationalist I have ever met holds. The idea is not that God saves different ways in different dispensations (or "economies"), but that God deals differently with His people. It is a question of God's earthly government, not of eternal salvation.

This raises an interesting point: dispensationalism has a dual focus. On the one hand, God saves individuals. On the other, God rules over the earth. Both statements are true, and dispensationalism is an endeavour to recognize both are part of the Whole Counsel of God.

Dispensationalists typically break up Biblical history into dispensations, or periods of time where God deals with people in a certain way. A typical breakdown would be the one popularized by Scofield in his reference Bible. Scofield had seven dispensations:
  1. Innocence: begins at Creation and ends when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden
  2. Conscience: begins at the promise of the Messiah to Adam and Eve, and ends at the Flood
  3. Human Government: begins when Noah and his sons are given the commandment of capital punishment and ends at the destruction of the Tower of Babel
  4. Promise: begins when Abram is called and ends in the plagues on Egypt
  5. Law: begins with the giving in the Law at Sinai and ends at the Crucifixion
  6. Grace: begins at Pentecost and ends at the Great Tribulation
  7. Millenium: begins with the battle of Armegeddon and ends with the battle of Gog and Magog
Scofield's dispensationlism (sometimes referred to as "Classical Dispensationalism") is probably the most popular breakdown. In Scofield's model, each dispensation begins with a covenant that establishes the terms of the dispensation, and ends with a judgement where man's breaking of the terms is punished.

Scofield's is not the only dispensationalist breakdown. Clarence Larkin (who wrote several books on the subject) has eight dispensations: he adds one after Scofield's, "the heading up of all things in Christ". Darby, often credited as "the father of dispensationalism" only had about three (he doesn't specifically list them, that I remember). Darby specifically taught that dispensations only began after the Flood, because they are only God's dealing with people in this world: the world before the Flood was an entirely different world, and outside the scope of prophecy.

Modern dispensationalists range from "Progressive Dispensationlists" (who are arguably not dispensationalist at all) like Chuck Swindol to "Hyper-Dispensationlists" like Cornelius Stam. Somewhere in the middle (but leaning more the hyper side) are the "Pauline Dispensationlists", including Miles Stanford.

I personally lean towards Darby's dispensationlism, which is not nearly so regimented as the Scofield "classic" version. I am not a fan of the "Pauline" views; although a very close friend is avowedly "Pauline". It's not blasphemous heresy, but there are some ideas I can't accept. It is true, however, that the "Pauline" people seem to have a handle on the necessity of Romans 6--8 in the Christian life, which others have lost. I have little or no use for the extremes: progressive dispensationalism and hyper-dispensationalism. Again, godly believers live in both camps, but I find them flawed.

Dispensationalism has some interesting consequences. Here are just a few:
  1. dispensationalists believe believers are not to keep the Law, not even the Ten Commandments
  2. dispensationalists don't vote
  3. dispensationalists believe in a literal millenial reign of Christ on the earth
  4. dispensationalists believe strongly in types and shadows of Christ in the Old Testament, and frequently have Bible studies on those topics
  5. dispensationalists frequently hold that most or all prophecies in Scripture have two fulfillments: a "greater" and "lesser" fulfillment
  6. dispensationalists are extremely literal in their exegesis and tend to know their Bibles fairly well (this, alas, is changing with time)
  7. dispensationalists are frequently Zionist, as they believe Israel is still God's chosen people; but this is by no means a hard and fast rule

So that's a very broad overview of dispensationalism. Not the most enlightening, but hopefully somewhat helpful.

I'm sure The Dawg could say a lot more, good and bad. (Not to put you on the spot, bro)


Ames said...

Good intro/overview.

Chuck Hicks said...

That was an excellent summation, Ox.

There is nothing "bad" per se about dispensationalism. I backed away from classical dispensationalism because of some of the practical implications i saw resulting therefrom.

As we've discussed in another stting, I've adopted the now relatively obscure "historic premillenialism," (HP) the rudiments of the which are found in Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165) and articulated in modernity by George Eldon Ladd. Like classical dispensationalism (CD), HP expects a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth. What makes HP unpopular and wrapped in obscurity is that, unlike CD, it does not dogmatically insist upon the pre-trib rapture of the church. I wouldn't say that the rapture won't occur before the Tribulation; it's just quite as clear from scripture or early church writings as some would like it to be.

The sine qua non of CD is the "mystery" in Ephesians 3:6. By this Darby (and later Scofield) saw the church as something completely unanticipated in prior ages, as Paul seems to indicate. That may or may not be true.

In HP, the mystery of Ephesians 3:6 is an expansion upon the "mysteries" of the kingdom of heaven Jesus taught in Matthew 13. Israel expected Messiah to come in power and establish His reign; only after this event would Gentiles be blessed -- and that, at a distance. But the kingdom parables in Matthew underscire God's intention to expand His kingdom prior to Messiah's coming in glory. And Paul takes that a step further -- the Gentiles are now (not later) fellow-heirs. As Jesus promised, the kingdom was taken from Israel and given to "another nation."

Thus, Romans 9 -11 tells HP all it needs to know about the progress of history. WIld branches have been grafted into God's olive tree (His kingdom); in the future (possibly, hopefully near future) the Deliverer will come forth from Zion and the natural branches (Israel) will be grafted back in.

Under most CD schema, the kingdom was postponsed by Israel's rejection of the Messiah. Under HP, the kingdom did come -- just not in the expected manner.

And therein is why I had to get out of the CD boat -- it's understanding of the kingdom (something abstract, based on a misunderstanding of Colossians 1:13) is irrelevant to the present time -- we effectively sit around waiting for the next thing to happen. The present age is a "parenthesis" in God's prophetic dealings.

By contrast, under HP the present age is vital stage toward the ultimate consummation of the kingdom of God, which is the goal toward which history has been moving.

Ox, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and I didn't intend to go this far with it. But dispensationalism is an excellent system of biblical interpretation and I'll defend "dispies" to the end. I just believe the practical results are less than desirable from a kingdom perspective. And a discussion of the kingdom will have to wait for another time.

Blessings, good bro!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ox, can you elaborate on the differences you see between Darby dispensationalism, classical dispensationalism, and Pauline dispensationalism?

clumsy ox said...

Mr. Bill,

I started a reply to your post, but it's grown so large I'm just going to post it as a totally new article. It should be ready sometime tomorrow or late today.

Chuck Hicks said...

Mr. Bill,

Before Ox favors us with a fully developed response, let me take the liberty to add a comment.

Ox correctly notes that Darbyite dispensationalism is a "whole" system. It has implications far beyond dividing scripture into ages, or a particular eschatological view. Darby's distinction between the church (heavenly) and Israel (earthly) was very sharp; hence, as Ox correctly notes, Darbyites don't vote, don't keep the Commandments, etc., because they see these things as pertaining strictly to the earth.

Most American evangelicals embrace a particular nuance of dispensationalism -- the pre-trib rapture of the church. Apart from this, most have no idea what dispensationalism really is or the implications it has for the life a believer. The same American evanglicals who are waiting for the rapture also vote and are, generally speaking, quite caught up in temporal affairs of all sorts.

The full dispensational theology of Darby and the Brethren never really took root in the U.S.; we got the Scofield/Chafer modifications instead. (Scofield's personal experience as a defeated Confederate soldier coupled with the break-up of his first marriage and family might have predisposed him to focus more on the prophetic aspects of the system. After the U.S. "Civil War" interest in biblical prophecy peaked in this country. For many, the prospects of the imminent return of Christ brought great comfort)

As for "Pauline" dispensationalism, Ox can speak more accurately to this. My point is that most American evangelicals have been influenced by dispensational eschatology, but not much of its other aspects.