What Is Dispensationalism?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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When did you first discover the joy of being uncool? For some of us it was when we blew out the candles on our eighteenth . . . no, wait, our twenty-ninth . . . okay, maybe our forty-ninth birthday cake. Once we free ourselves from the desire to be accepted or part of the “in crowd,” it allows us to orient our lives in a way that doesn’t depend on what the cool kids or adults think. When it comes to theology, dispensationalism suffers from a lack of the cool factor; a lot of people raised in churches that teach it are looking to blow out the candles on this so-called naïve way to read Scripture. Often, though, they’re rejecting a caricature of the hermeneutical and theological system, not a clear understanding of it. So, let’s clarify what it is before we blow out the candles.

A Definition of Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism is a set of hermeneutical processes practiced by some evangelical Protestants beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but continuing into the twenty-first century. One of its presuppositions is a rejection of supersessionism, an interpretive position that maintains the church has fulfilled or replaced Israel in God’s plan. A corollary of this stance is that Israel and the church are distinct. These concepts are evident in Scripture through the consistent application of the literal-historical-grammatical approach to hermeneutics.

Dispensationalism is also a philosophy of history, in that everything in history is oriented toward God’s glory as He administers the affairs of the world in stages. The word “dispensation” comes from the Greek word oikonomia and can also be translated as “administration” or “economy.” God administers the affairs of the world through promises, commandments, and principles by which to live. If humans fail to abide by these, judgment occurs, and the next stage of God’s plan in the world emerges. While there is debate as to the number of these dispensations, seven are most common: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace/church, and kingdom/millennium.

Dispensationalism is the most distinctive approach to hermeneutics to survive from nineteenth-century revivalist evangelicalism. It can be traced back to the theology of John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Popularized by Bible prophecy conferences, it evidenced the innovative position that ethnic Israel remains God’s chosen people. In light of this, Israel will be restored in an earthly millennial kingdom so that all of God’s promises to the nation will be fulfilled in a literal, not a figurative or spiritual, way.

Doctrines Related to Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism also highlights two shared theological positions: premillennialism and a pretribulation rapture. The unique teaching on the church, history, and the last things has led to warm debates between dispensationalists and covenant theologians. Covenant theology is also a set of hermeneutical processes practiced by some evangelicals, though its practitioners draw from writings of sixteenth-century Reformers such as Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger. It is central to Reformed theology and Calvinism. Its interpretation of Scripture revolves around the presence of a covenant of works, redemption, and grace rather than the seven distinct dispensations. It relies on creedal and confessional statements, though in a subordinate way to Scripture, which functions as the “norming norm” among Presbyterian and Reformed churches. In covenant theology, the church is seen in continuity with the people of God in the Old Testament and becomes the new Israel in the New Testament. In regard to eschatology, rather than dispensational premillennialism, the dominant position is amillennialism.

There are several crucial points of distinction between dispensationalism and covenant theology, but the use of typology functions as one of the more important ones. In dispensationalism, the covenantal promises made to Israel are not seen as types; they are continuing promises that will be fulfilled literally in the future. A corollary is that dispensationalists believe the author’s intention, as evidenced by the grammar and syntax of an Old Testament passage, is not overridden by the Emmaus Road hermeneutic, where a New Testament passage is thought to provide new, Christocentric meaning to the earlier biblical passage.

In the mid-1990s, a group of dispensationalist theologians tried to carve a middle path between dispensationalism and covenant theology—this became known as progressive dispensationalism. It allowed for an already/not yet approach to the kingdom of God and the covenants of promise. Rather than the literal-grammatical-historical method followed by classical and revised dispensationalists, this new group practiced a literary-grammatical-historical method. This slight hermeneutical shift allowed for more continuity between Israel and the church by rejecting the traditional (and controverted) two-peoples-of-God framework. Progressive dispensationalists viewed Israel and the church as two salvation-historical embodiments of the one people of God. Jewish Christians, then, are part of the church but still have claims on the promises God made to the nation of Israel.

Some contemporary covenant theologians have sought to distance themselves from the supersessionist implications of traditional covenant theology. Others argue for a future for Israel within the context of covenant theology (Rom. 11:25–26). The most popular landing spot, the via media, is new covenant theology or progressive covenantalism, a view that holds that God’s revelation is revealed progressively over time and that this occurs through covenants that find their fulfillment in Christ. God’s unified plan/promise climaxes in the new covenant. All of these theological systems are moving closer to each other on three important hermeneutical issues: Israel, the church, and the land.

Clarity Is Important

Why does definitional clarity matter in this area? Well, what you decide in regard to dispensationalism will affect almost every area of your personal theology and the way you read your Bible. This does not mean, however, that those who follow one of the other theological systems are not one of the cool kids—we all are (John 17:21). The dispensational/covenantal divide has led to a lot of ingroup/outgroup categorizations. It would be preferable to practice hospitality and recognize there’s a lot of room here for diverse interpretive practices as expressions of who we are in Christ.

For Further Reading:

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