Dispensational theology refers to the unified teachings of Dispensationalism that address what other views teach as divergent theologies in the Old Testament and New Testament. Its name reflects a view that biblical history is best understood as a series of dispensations, or separated time-periods, in the Bible.
Each dispensation is said to represent a different way in which God deals with man. Some writers also believe that it also involves a different testing of Man. "These periods are marked off in Scripture by some change in God's method of dealing with mankind, in respect to two questions: of sin, and of man's responsibility," explained C. I. Scofield. "Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment—marking his utter failure in every dispensation."
Seven dispensational periods
Dispensationalism seeks to address what many see as opposing theologies between the Old Testament and New Testament. Its name comes from the fact that it sees biblical history as best understood in light of a series of dispensations in the Bible. Most dispensationalists cite seven dispensations although this is not a critical or foundational factor to the theology:
- the dispensation of innocence (Gen 1:1–3:7), prior to Adam's fall,
- of conscience (Gen 3:8–8:22), Adam to Noah,
- of government (Gen 9:1–11:32), Noah to Abraham,
- of patriarchal rule (Gen 12:1–Exod 19:25), Abraham to Moses,
- of the Mosaic Law (Exod 20:1–Acts 2:4), Moses to Christ,
- of grace (Acts 2:4–Rev 20:3—except for Hyperdispensationalists and Ultradispensationalists), the longest dispensation, is the current church age, and
- of a literal, earthly 1,000-year Millennial Kingdom that has yet to come but soon will (Rev 20:4–20:6).
Each one of these dispensations is said to represent a different way in which God deals with man, specifically a different test for man. "These periods are marked off in Scripture by some change in God's method of dealing with mankind, in respect to two questions: of sin, and of man's responsibility," explained C. I. Scofield. "Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment—marking his utter failure in every dispensation."
Viewing the flow of biblical history as a series of "dispensations" may be seen in some works that predate Darby's dispensationalism. Joachim of Fiore proposed that human history would be divided into the three ages of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term "dispensation" is drawn from Calvinist theology, as in the Westminster Confession, to describe the different forms of divine worship and law practiced in Judaism and Christianity. Some writers, such as L'Économie Divine by Pierre Poiret (1646–1719), listed multiple dispensations. However, these earlier works did not include the unique testing/failure motif described by Scofield or any hint of the four underlying tenets of classic dispensationalism listed below.
Four dispensational periods
An alternative to the above “seven-dispensations” approach derives from the question: How and by whom is God evangelizing lost men and women at any given time? A pattern can be traced through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. First, through various Gentile nations; second, through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the progenitors of the nation Israel; thirdly, through Jesus Christ; fourthly, through the Church, the Body of Christ. (Israel becomes the focus of divine dealings again after the Rapture for 7 more years). This is followed by the Second Coming proper and the instituting of the millennial kingdom.
- the dispensation or age of Gentile nations (Gen 1-11), from Adam to Abraham’s Call;
- of Israel (Gen 12 – Acts 1), from Abraham’s Call to Pentecost in Acts 2;
- of the Church (Acts 2 – Rev. 2), the longest one, from Pentecost in Act 2 to the end of the Church age;
- of the (missionary) tribulation of Israel (Rev. 6-19), A yet-future seven-year period;
- of a literal, earthly 1,000-year millennial kingdom that has yet to come but soon will (Rev 20:4–20:6).
Basic tenets of dispensationalism
One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalists is progressive revelation. While some nondispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore, there is an emphasis on discontinuity as seen in Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalists place more emphasis on to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the church.
Another important theological concept is the emphasis on what is referred to as the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. This is often popularly referred to as the "literal" interpretation of Scripture. Just as it is with progressive revelation, the historical-grammatical method is not a concept or practice that is exclusive to dispensationalists. However, a dispensational distinctive is created when the historical-grammatical method of interpretation is closely coupled with an emphasis on progressive revelation along with the historical development of the covenants in Scripture.
Distinction between Israel and the church
All dispensationalists perceive a clear distinction between Israel and the church, particularly as different groups who receive a different set of promises. Dispensationalists hold that God provided the nation of Israel with specific promises which will be fulfilled at a future time in the Jews. The Church has received a different set of promises than that of Israel. Most dispensationalists also recognize "membership" overlap between Israel and the Church. Jewish Christians such as Paul, Peter and John are in this category. While most do not believe that Israel and the church are mutually exclusive groups, there is a small minority of past and present dispensationalists who do. Those who do hold that Israel and the church are mutually exclusive include some classical dispensationalists and virtually all ultradispensationalists.
Other proposed distinctions: law and grace
Classical dispensationalism teaches that law and grace are mutually exclusive concepts. Statements made by Scofield and other early classic dispensationalists teach a radical law-grace distinction. In other words, they teach that law contains no grace, and that grace is not conditioned on keeping the law. This does not mean that grace was missing from the dispensation of law, only that the law itself was diametrically opposed to grace, which operated by other means (such as promises and blessings). Some modern dispensationalists disagree with making such a radical distinction. In fact, Daniel Fuller, a non-dispensationalist, stated in his book Gospel and Law (p. 51) that "Although today's dispensationalism explains the relationship between law and grace in wording that is different from that of covenant theology, there is no substantial difference in meaning."
Types of dispensationalism
Early dispensational writers such as Darby and Chafer are referred to as classical dispensationalists. This view differs from today's traditional or "revised" dispensationalists. The early Scofield Bible (but not the Revised Scofield Bible) reflects a classical dispensational view. Classical dispensationalists are a small minority today, and Miles Stanford is one writer who represents this point of view.
The traditional view is the majority view for dispensationalists today. John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie are two traditional dispensational authors. The Revised Scofield Bible of the 1960s also reflects a traditional dispensational view, which is why traditional dispensationalists are sometimes called "Revised" dispensationalists.
In the late 1980s a number of dispensational scholars—in particular Craig A. Blaising, Darrell L. Bock, and Robert L. Saucy—proposed a significant new position developed from within dispensationalism. The major difference between traditional and progressive dispensationalism is in how each views the relationship of the present dispensation to the past and future dispensations.
Traditional dispensationalists perceive the present age of grace to be a parenthesis or "intercalation" with relation to past and future dispensations. In general that means God's plans as revealed in the past dispensations have been "put on hold" until after the rapture. Progressive dispensationalists however hold that this present dispensation is a key link between past dispensations and the future dispensations. In general that means God's plans have continued in this present dispensation, marking it as a crucial link between past and future dispensations and not a parenthesis. This idea of a key link or progression between dispensations has resulted in the label progressive dispensationalism.
Progressive dispensationalism holds much in common with traditional dispensationalism, including a distinction between Israel and the Church, a future rapture, a 7-year tribulation, and the rule of Christ over the earth centered in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom.
Both progressive and traditional dispensationalists hold to a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. In short, God has provided the nation of Israel with specific promises such as possession of the land, promises which will be fulfilled in the future. Both Progressive and traditional dispensationalists do recognize some "membership" overlap between the Israel and the Church: Jewish Christians such Paul, Peter, and John are all Jewish (of Israel) and Christian (members of the church). This is in contrast to ultradispensationalists who see the Church and Israel as mutually exclusive.
Both progressive and traditional dispensationalists hold to a distinctly "dispensational" end-time view with a pretribulation rapture and a millennial kingdom with Jesus physically reigning from Jerusalem. This common view with traditional dispensationalism is also what clearly distinguishes progressive dispensationalism from historical premillennialism.
The reasons for progressives holding to a progression of dispensations as opposed to a parenthesis is related to: 1) the relationship between the covenants, and 2) hermeneutics.
Relationship between the covenants
One of the most crucial covenants which highlight the differences between progressive and traditional dispensationalists is the new covenant. In the past, dispensationalists have had a surprising variety of views with regard to the new covenant. Some dispensationalists (Charles Ryrie, Walvoord in the 1950s) argued for two new covenants: one new covenant for the church and another new covenant for Israel. Other dispensationalists (Darby and John Master) argued for one new covenant applied only to Israel. And still other dispensationalists (Scofield and John McGahey 1950s) have argued for one new covenant for 1) believing Israel today and an ongoing partial fulfillment, and for 2) a future believing Israel when Jesus returns for a complete fulfillment.
Progressive dispensationalists, like Scofield and McGahey, argue for one new covenant with an ongoing partial fulfillment and a future complete fulfillment for Israel. Progressives hold that the new covenant was inaugurated by Christ at the last supper. Progressives hold that while there are aspects of the new covenant currently being fulfilled, there is yet to be a final and complete fulfillment of the new covenant in the future. This concept is sometimes referred to as an already-but not yet fulfillment.
Both traditional and progressive dispensationalists share the same historical-grammatical hermeneutic. As with all dispensationalists, progressive revelation is emphasized so that the dispensationalist interprets the Old Testament in such a way as to retain the original meaning and audience. Thus progressives, like traditionalists, place great emphasis on the original meaning and audience of the text.
The primary differences in hermeneutics between traditionalists and progressives are that 1) progressives are more apt to see partial or ongoing fulfillment, and 2) progressives are more apt to utilize Complementary hermeneutics.
These differences between traditionalists and progressives show up in how one views the Old Testament texts and promises in the New Testament and how they are handled by the New Testament writers.
For traditionalists who perceive the present dispensation as a parenthesis, the standard approach has been to view Old Testament quotations in the New Testament as applications rather than fulfillment. If an Old Testament quotation is said to have a fulfillment role in the New Testament, then that may imply that the present dispensation is no longer a parenthesis, but has a relationship or connection with the prior dispensation.
In contrast, progressives, instead of approaching all Old Testament quotations in the New Testament as application, attempt to take into account the context and grammatical-historical features of both OT and New Testament texts. An Old Testament quote in the New Testament might turn out to be an application, but it also might be a partial fulfillment or a complete fulfillment or even something else.
Complementary hermeneutics means that previous revelation (such as the Old Testament) has an added or expanded meaning alongside the original meaning. For example, in Jeremiah 31:31-34, the original recipients of the new covenant were Jews - i.e., "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." Progressives hold that in Acts 2, believing Jews first participated in the new covenant based on Jer 31:31-34. Gentiles were not named as original participants. However, additional revelation came in Acts 9-10 concerning believing Gentiles where God (through Peter and Cornelius) formally accepted believing Gentiles as co-heirs with the Jews. In other words, God used additional NT revelation to further expand the participants of the new covenant to include believing Gentiles. God did not replace the original recipients or change the original meaning of the new covenant, he simply expanded it. This expansion of meaning while keeping the original intact is called complementary hermeneutics.
Hyper-dispensationalism and Ultra-dispensationalism
The majority of dispensationalists are known as Acts 2 dispensationalists. They believe the present church began on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. The majority also believe the New Testament epistles of Hebrews through Revelation were written directly to the present church. Likewise, most dispensationalists also believe the doctrine contained in the Four Gospels also pertains to the present church.
However, there are two minority camps within dispensationalism branded by their opponents as hyper-dispensationalists and ultra-dispensationalists. One camp, known as the Mid-Acts view, believes the church began with the Apostle Paul in either Acts chapter 9 or others in chapter 13 (and there are a very few variations). The second camp believes that the church began with the Apostle Paul after Acts 28:28 with Paul's announcement "Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it." The latter camp differs over the relevance of Paul's ministry from the middle of Acts to the end of the book, and consequently over Paul's epistles written prior to the so-called Prison Epistles.
Both views believe that the Church of today is based on Paul's unique ministry. This belief is referenced in Scripture in what may be referred to as the "Pauline Distinctive" and the "Gospel of the Grace of God", and marks an unmistakable shift away from the Mosaic law and the beginning of a completely new Church, called the "Body of Christ" consisting of both Jews and Gentiles "in one body." It is this distinction, rather than eschatology as such, that marks both camps. The Acts 2 camp says that the mystery of the church was merely first revealed through Paul rather than actually starting with Paul. The Mid-Acts and Acts 28 camps point out that Acts 2 was merely the beginning of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy concerning the New Covenant made only with Israel. Nothing new that was not prophesied was going on there nor is there any indication of the equality found in the church which is Christ's body in which Jew and Gentile are joint-heirs. Rather the men of Israel were being addressed concerning their king, kingdom, and their restoration unto it. Both the Mid-Acts and Acts 28 camps hold that all prophecy belongs to Israel and their literal kingdom and is not for the church. The New Covenant is with Israel and not the church. Christ's shed blood is the basis for redemption for all, as well as, the New Covenant for Israel. The New Covenant is not cause of redemption, rather the shed blood is the cause for both. Thus the Acts 2 camp is inconsistent in failing to maintain the dispensational distinction between "prophecy" and "mystery," i.e., the earthly kingdom program for Israel from the heavenly program for the church.
One notable implication of both hyper-dispensationalism and ultra-dispensationalism is the view that the doctrine contained in the four Gospels (biographies of Jesus' earthly ministry) and many of the New Testament epistles written by the Twelve Apostles was directly applicable to the Jews of Jesus' day, and which will come to fruition in the coming millennial kingdom. These books are held as proclaiming the "Gospel of the Kingdom", and as such are not directly applicable for the member of Christ's body church of today. The Pauline Epistles are held to be the primary authority for the Church as they proclaim the Gospel of the Grace of God first revealed through the apostle to the Gentiles/uncircumcision.
The prefixes "hyper" or "ultra" mean "farther than", and are not meant to be derogatory terms, although some mainstream dispensationalists use them as such. These two groups are branded by the opponents as "hyper-dispensationalists" and "ultra-dispensationalists" because they tend to take dispensational concepts farther than those of the Acts 2 persuasion. They themselves see this as simply being consistent with the dispensational distinction that is supposed to be maintained between Israel and the church.
Alternatives to dispensationalism
Prior to dispensationalism's 19-20th century systemization, Covenant Theology was the prominent Protestant view regarding redemptive history and is still the view of the Reformed churches. A relatively recent view, which is seen as a third alternative, especially among Reformed Baptists, is called New Covenant Theology.
The early Christian theologians saw the New Covenant in Christ as a replacement for the Mosaic Covenant (see "Roman Catholicism", below). Historically, statements on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church have claimed her ecclesiastical structures to be a fulfillment and replacement of Jewish ecclesiastical structures (see also Jerusalem as an allegory for the Church). As recently as 1965 Vatican Council II affirmed, "the Church is the new people of God," without intending to make "Israel according to the flesh", the Jewish people, irrelevant in terms of eschatology (see "Roman Catholicism, below). Modern Catholicism affirms these spokesmen as authoritative for doctrine, alongside the New Testament. Modern Protestants hold to a range of positions, some with more emphasis on continuity (covenant theology) and others with more emphasis on discontinuity (dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology).
- C. I. Scofield. "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth". pp. 34, 36. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- John Nelson Darby, The Law, and the Gospel of the Glory of Christ, pp. 431, 432.
- [Acts 28:28 ""Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it."]
- [Romans 11:13 "For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office."]
- [Romans 16:25 "Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began."]
- [Acts 20:24 "But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God."]
- [Romans 8:3 "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."]
- [Ephesians 1: 22-23 "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all"]
- [Ephesians 5:30 "For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones."]
- [Ephesians 2:16 "And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby."]