What is Dispensationalism?
This is not an easy question to answer in few words, in view of the great variety of Dispensationalists today. Broadly and quite loosely, there are those who may be called Classical or Normative Dispensationalists; Ultra-Dispensationalists; and neo-Dispensationalists or Progressive Dispensationalists. There are vehement disagreements between each group on numerous points, and there are even key disagreements within the groups themselves.
Historically, Dispensationalism is a system of doctrine promoted by John Nelson Darby around 1830; and made popular by C.I. Scofield through his book Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth and the Scofield Study Bible. It was called Dispensationalism because one prominent feature in the system is that it sees biblical history as being divided into several different epochs in which God deals with His people with different sets of criteria. Each dispensation is supposed to begin with a test and end with failure and judgement. Classical Dispensationalism had seven dispensations; but today not all Dispensationalists will agree that there are seven dispensations. In fact, it is generally recognised today that what makes a person a Dispensationalist is not really whether he sees the Bible as being divided into dispensations. Also; all Dispensationalists are Premillenial in their eschatology (doctrine of last things). They believe that Christ will return to institute a political kingdom, operating from Jerusalem and the temple and sacrificial system will be re-instituted. The millennial kingdom will last 1000 years, and end with a revolt led by Satan. However, a person who is premillennialist is not necessarily Dispensational. There are Covenant Theologians, e.g., Gordon Clark and George Eldon Ladd, who believe that there will be a Christian millennium after Christ’s Second Coming. In other words, they have a different kind of premillennialism. But in any case, it shows that not all premillennialists are Dispensationalists.
Who then, is a Dispensationalist? Charles C. Ryrie, who presents himself as a Normative or Classical (i.e., true) Dispensationalist, asserts in his book entitled Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995 [revising Dispensationalism Today, 1966]), that there are three sine qua non (distinguishing marks) in Normative Dispensationalism (pp. 38–41). These are: (1) the belief that Israel and the church are to be strictly distinguished; (2) consistent literal interpretation; and (3) the affirmation that the underlying purpose of God in the world is His own glory.
We may have occasion to look at these three points in greater details in future, but for now let me briefly make some remarks.
Firstly, Dispensationalists believe that God has two people,—Israel and the Church,—and hence two plans of salvation. The Church is an intercalation or parenthesis, which interrupts God’s plan for Israel, she was not prophesied in the Old Testament. One day the Church will be raptured and then God will continue with His plan for Israel. Non-Dispensationalists (Reformed, Calvinist, Covenantalist, etc.), on the other hand, do not see Israel and the Church as being strictly distinguished. We believe that the nation of Israel was the "church under age" (WCF 19.3) in the Old Covenant. They were the covenant people of God. Today, Israel is no longer the holy nation or the people of God. They are, in the words of our Lord, they that "say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan" (Rev 2:9; 3:9). The Church is the holy nation and the people of God (1 Pet 2:9–10; cf. Ex 19:5–6). She is the "Israel of God" (Gal 6:16) and her members are true Jews (Rom 2:28–29) and true descendants of Abraham (Gal 3:16, 29). Note that we are not saying that the Church has replaced Israel. No, Israel was the Church in the Old Testament, but her unbelieving members have been cut off and Gentiles are grafted in (Rom 11:16–24). In other words, the Church (visible) which begun with Adam and Eve, continues in the New Testament with a predominantly Gentile membership. God has only one people and one plan of salvation. We are not denying that there are ethnic Jews and that we should pray for their salvation, but unconverted ethnic Jews remain outside the kingdom of God just as unbelieving Gentiles are outside.
Secondly, while Dispensationalists pride themselves as interpreting the Bible literally consistently, we must realise that they are not always successful. No Dispensationalist will believe that the key, chain and bottomless pit in Revelation 20:1 are literal, though they would insist that the thousand years (vv. 2–7) must be taken to be exactly a thousand calendar years. When Martin Luther reintroduced literal interpretation back to the Church, he was referring not to plain or wooden literalism but Literary interpretation. Allegorical passages must be interpreted allegorically. Prophetic passages must be interpreted as prophecy, which may not be fulfilled literally. For example, the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31–34 finds its fulfillment in the New Testament (Mt 26:28; Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; Heb 8:10–12; 10:16–17), not in the millennium. Also, narrative texts should be interpreted plainly as narrative; but even then we must realise that much of the Old Testament is typological. Thus the covenant of Abraham (Gen 15) is not ultimately about land but about our spiritual inheritance in Christ (Rom 4:13; Heb 6:13–20; 11:8–10, 13–16, etc.).
Thirdly, in expounding the third sine qua non, Ryrie suggests that Covenant theologians believe that the underlying purpose of God in the world is salvation, which he implies to be man-centred (p. 40). This is a misrepresentation and caricature. Although Covenant theologians do see that the unifying principle of the Scripture is soteriological (cf. p. 93), they do not see the underlying purpose of God to be soteriological, if by "underlying purpose" Ryrie refers to the primary and fundamental purpose as is implied in the text. The salvation of man is but a vehicle to the glory of God (Eph 1:6, 12, 14). So the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter I, section 5, tells us that the scope of the whole Bible is to give all glory to God. Furthermore, the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches that the chief end of man is to glorify God. It is indeed for the purpose of ensuring that God receives all the glory due Him that the Covenant / Reformed theologians insist that regeneration (which is wholly a work of God) precedes faith, a point which is seldom taught by dispensational theologians.
Having said all these, we must note that today many Dispensationalists are beginning to deny much of what was held by Classical Dispensationalists. Many Progressive Dispensationalists, for example, believe that "Christ has already inaugurated the Davidic covenant and is now reigning in heaven on throne of David"; and that "the concept of two purposes and two peoples of God (Israel and the church) is not valid" (Ryrie, Op. Cit., 69). However, because Dispensationalism touches many areas of theology and because it is popularly promoted by Study Bibles and guide books, such as the Ryrie Study Bible, the KJV Study Bible and the Wilmington Guide, much of the errors of Dispensationalism are lingering on in the churches. Indeed, it is most interesting that there are even (at least here in Singapore) those who hold to the two key sine qua non’s of Dispensationalism while affirming that they differ on the third point, who call themselves Reformed and Covenantal!
The errors of Dispensationalism are widespread and pervasive. They touch not only eschatology, but clearly also soteriology (doctrine of salvation), ecclessiology (doctrine of the church), anthropology (doctrine of man). Most Dispensationalists, for example, would deny Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption and call themselves 4-point Calvinists; and would teach that there is such a thing as a carnal Christian who has Christ as Saviour but not as Lord.
I would highly recommend anyone who is interested to know more about the errors of the system to read Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn, III, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow (Footstool Publications, 1985); Vern S. Poythress,Understanding Dispensationalism (P & R, 1987), Keith Mathison’s Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? (P & R, 1995) and John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, 2nd edition (Soli Deo Glori, 2000).