A Brief Examination of Dispensationalism
Updated: Jan 12
In modern Christianity a lot of time is spent thinking about the end times. Recent popular books such as the Left Behind series showcase a novel eschatological idea known as premillennialism which claims that Christ will reign on earth for a literal millennia after his Second Coming. Although virtually unknown for the first 1800 years of Christianity, this teaching became very popular because of an innovative way of interpreting the bible popularly known as Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism claims an evangelical hermeneutic and a peculiar ecclesiology which results in claims about a Christian’s place in the world that many would find shocking. Many of these beliefs are built on questionable premises which need to be examined to understand the Dispensationalist system.
Any good argument starts off with clear premises so it is necessary to explain the major points of Dispensationalism. According to Charles Ryrie, a prominent classical dispensationalist Theologian, there are three defining non-negotiable aspects. The first is a hard distinction between Israel and the Church (Ryrie 38). The main idea is that God has a different plan for the Jews and the Gentiles. This ecclesiology posits that there is a complete distinction between God’s promises to Israel and God’s promises to the Church. In other words, God forms two different people with distinct purposes throughout eternity (Fuller 25).
The purpose of Israel is an earthly purpose while the purpose of the church is a heavenly purpose. The first distinction between the two is that the Church includes both Jews and Gentiles because of its relationship with Christ (Ryrie 123). The Church is understood as those who are saved limited to the present age and its birth in no way effects the covenants and promises made to Israel (Ryrie 126). This is a congregationalist vision of the church, made up of true believers (Gerstner 176). On the other hand, Israel means physical descendants of Abraham who are awaiting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. These prophecies and blessings will be bestowed in the millennial kingdom and given dominion over the earth while the Church will be raptured to heaven (Gerstner 173).
In order to come to this conclusion, the second critically important characteristic is a literal interpretation of Sacred Scripture (Ryrie 40). As with most Evangelical interpreters, this is meant a plain or simple interpretation without spiritualizing or allegory. The intended hermeneutic is grammatical-historical whereby every word should be interpreted in the normal way based on grammar and historical consideration. This is not unique to Dispensationalism, Catholics also use such methods, but they claim to be more consistent in the application. The assertion is that “God originated language for the purpose of communicating His message to man and that He intended man to understand that message [and] literal interpretation seeks to interpret that message plainly” (Ryrie 90).
Finally, the third important characteristic is that the underlying purpose of God in the world is for His glory (Ryrie 40). The entire purpose of Scripture is to showcase the glory of God. This is the governing principle of God’s work which should be plainly evident in Scripture. This is manifest on earth through Israel and spiritually in the Church. While it is true that God’s creation is for His glory, there seems to be a false dichotomy present between God’s glory and His redemption of man.
Although the Dispensationalist would likely claim the third characteristic is key to their theological system, it appears that their Ecclesiology is the most important aspect and their interpretation of Scripture follows their beliefs about the Church. It is this distinction in the way that God treats different peoples in different periods of time that gives Dispensationalism its name.
Most of the characteristics peculiar to Dispensationalism were systematized, if not originated, by a man named John Nelson Darby (Gerstner 65). In 1830, Darby heard the story of a girl who received a vision of “of a two-stage return of Christ” and coupled with a concern about unfulfilled biblical prophecies devised a way to fit the two ideas together (Witherington 110). Darby devised a scheme by which God dealt with different people at different times with different rules. Each of these dispensations “is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” (Scofield). Described another way, each dispensation is a distinct way by which God governs mankind in a certain period of history (Ryrie 29).
The fact that this doctrine appears to be novel does not appear to cause much trouble for Dispensationalist theologians. They will readily admit that the system was largely formulated by Darby, but this is not a concern. This is because they are not interested in what was taught in the early Church, they are only interested in what is “scriptural” (Ryrie 62). Their claim is that this is a development of doctrine, but not in the sense that John Henry Newman had in mind. Their development means that a theological truth has been in the bible from the beginning, but it was not dug out until more recent times. Ryrie himself appeals to John Calvin to support this idea, “that it long lay buried and unknown is the guilty consequence of man’s impiety; but now when, by the kindness of God, it is restored to us” (Calvin 1).
This understanding of doctrinal development is very different than the way it is understood in Catholic Theology. Catholic understanding finds that teachings that are received from the Deposit of Faith can become more detailed and explicit as understanding of them increases. This, however, is very different from the concept of finding an entirely unknown theological concept in the course of studying scripture. Rather, in the Catholic view, doctrine builds upon what was handed down and remains consistent with earlier teachings.
Although most dispensationalists admit seven distinct dispensations (there is dispute on this point), there are three that are especially pertinent. First, through Moses we have the dispensation of the Mosaic Law whereby God governed his people through the law. The people were to keep the law as their test, but they failed repeatedly and were met with a variety of punishments, such as the Babylonian Exile (Ryrie 55). This was in effect until the dispensation of grace, which begins either at Pentecost or for some theologians with Paul (Ryrie 197). In this dispensation, God deals with all of mankind by offering a free gift of grace to everyone. Most will reject Him and will be judged (Ryrie 56).
Finally, when Christ returns the dispensation of the millennium will begin. The Church will be raptured from the earth and Jesus will take charge of the world. He will have a thousand-year reign of peace. In the end, a rebellion will form and attack Christ’s government, which will fail and the rebels will be damned (Ryrie 56). This is when the unfulfilled prophecies of the restoration of the Davidic kingdom will be realized. This distinction between Israel and the Church is vital to Dispensationalism and is the core interpretive principle of the system.
Thus, the Church is not the main means of redemption. Rather, the Church age is a brief stop before God’s primary plan is fulfilled: Christ’s kingdom of Israel (Currie 15). In fact, the dispensational understanding means the Church was not foreseen or foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Ryrie 125). Perhaps even more oddly, since the age of grace did not start until Pentecost, some Dispensationalists assert that most of the Christ’s teachings do not even apply to Christians because they were part of the dispensation of the law. For example, the original Scofield Bible claimed the Sermon on the Mount only applied to the millennial kingdom (Ryrie 99).
Considering Darby’s view of the church as local gatherings of true believers, while the universal Church is invisible in nature, it is easy to see why he did not think the Church could be the Kingdom of God. The lack of worldwide, institutional unity in no way resembles a Kingdom of Christ (Currie 50). This anemic view of the Church is quite troubling, especially considering what Jesus himself had to say: “If I cast out devils by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).
The Catholic conception of the Church is very different. The Church is the kingdom of Christ, mysteriously present in the world, to draw all men into union with Christ (Lumen Gentium 3). It is both visible and invisible, in history and transcending history (Olson 240). In the pilgrim Church the Kingdom is already on earth (Lumen Gentium 5). Jesus himself promised it when he said, “But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27).
There is, indeed, a distinction between Israel and the Church, but it is not the one asserted. The history of the people of Israel prepared the way for the Church through the Old Covenant (Lumen Gentium 2). Further, we can see hints in the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12:2 and 22:18 and the prediction that all families of the world would worship God in Psalm 22 (Olson 227). God draws all people to himself both as individuals and corporately as the one people of God, both Gentile and Jew.
The promises given to Israel are brought to fulfillment in the New Covenant. Jesus did not abrogate the law, but accomplished its full purpose as the New Moses. Likewise, he fulfills the promises of the Davidic Kingdom both on earth and in heaven. Christ is present in the Church, and at the right hand of the Father, a kingdom which is at hand but not yet fully manifest. It is between Christ in his Incarnation and the Parousia. Christ is active in the Church to join men to himself so they might learn the meaning of terrestrial life by their faith while at the same time awaiting the new heavens and new earth (Lumen Gentium 48). Christ created His Church to inherit the covenant promises as the people of God (Olson 218). The continuity between Israel and the Church is an ancient teaching (Gerstner 178).
The Dispensationalist idea that the Church is a mystery unrelated to the Old Testament does not seem tenable. For instance, compare Hosea and Exodus to 1 Peter (Gerstner 178). 1 Peter reads:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10).
Hosea tells us that “Not my people” will be his people, and He shall be their God (Hosea 2:23). Peter compares the Church to Israel, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). There are many other similar passages, but this helps demonstrate how puzzling this dispensationalist assertion is.
Yet, even if this evidence is not accepted, there are other issues that plague Dispensationalist Ecclesiology. When dispensationalists read the bible, they do not always agree on proper interpretation and this tends to lead to groups breaking away from each other regularly. Darby and the Plymouth brethren were part of a separatist movement and encouraged the breaking away from larger denominations (Ryrie 72). This seems to be directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus, for example in the Gospel of John he prays that those who believe in him should be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21). Yet, even if we posit the concept that Jesus’s teachings only apply to the restored Israel in the millennial reign of Christ on earth (which even generously is very contentious), this also does not square with what Paul teaches about the Church.
Paul is quite clear that the Church should be united. He reminds the Ephesians that the Church is the one body of Christ that belongs to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Ephesians 4:4-5). Paul tells the Corinthians that all the parts form one body, not many (1 Corinthians 12:12). He tells the Colossians that “over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14). It seems hard to reconcile Paul with the idea that organizational unity is not an important consideration for evaluating the Ecclesial ramifications of a doctrine. Rather, Ryrie compares it to the Reformation explaining, “the plain, unvarnished fact is that Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church and formed a new fellowship of believers... [if separatism is wrong] then the theological system of the Reformation is wrong... for there is no way to view the Reformation as anything but a separatist movement” (Ryrie 72).
He clearly sees the implications when he suggests that if the Reformers were wrong then they should all return to Rome (Ryrie 73). Obviously, he denies the consequent. They should not return to Rome; therefore, the Reformers were not wrong, therefore separatism is not wrong, therefore unity is not a key characteristic of the Church. In addition to being apparently contrary to scriptural evidence, this is flatly refuted by the testimony of the early Church. Upon examining any of the earliest creedal statements we see an insistence that there is one Church. There is an amazing breadth of evidence from the early Church to support that the earliest Christians were quite convinced that the unity of the Church was integral to its mission and purpose. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin Martyr to name just a handful are all firmly in agreement (First Epistle to the Corinthians 47-7; Letter to the Philadelphians 3; Dialogue with Trypho 42).
Before closing, it is important to take a brief look at the hermeneutic principles that allegedly undergird this entire enterprise. Ryrie states “these principles guide and govern anybody’s system of theology. They ought to be determined before one’s theology is systematized, but in practice the reverse is usually true” (Ryrie 78). Naturally, this presupposes that the bible is the sole rule of faith, which is not self-evident; however, accepting this for the sake of the argument we can examine the interpretive principles that Dispensationalist theology espouses.
The primary tenet is literal hermeneutics whereby every passage is assumed to be understood in normal usage and interpreted in the same way. This does not rule out symbolic language or figures of speech, just that these should be understood plainly (Ryrie 80). It is the case that all of scripture has a literal meaning that is integral to understanding the message intended to be conveyed by God and those he inspired to write. The main issue taken up here is the assertion that Dispensationalist theology applies this hermeneutic consistently and that all prophecies are to be interpreted in a hyper-literal way.
In the book of Revelation, we are told that Satan will be bound and thrown into a pit for one thousand years and in this time, Christ will reign along with those who were martyred for their witness to Jesus (Revelation 20:1-4). Since Dispensationalism is deeply integrated with premillennialism, they interpret this passage as meaning that Christ will return to earth and reign there for a thousand years. There is no mention of the restoration of Israel, but Dispensationalists make the assertion that this is part of the millennial reign.
Yet, if we turn back to chapter 19, we are told that Christ will come riding on a white horse, wearing many crowns, with a sword in his mouth, and wearing a bloody robe. Presumably we are to imagine Christ coming down from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16) riding a horse, with a sword in his mouth wearing a bloody robe. This image is clearly meant to convey Christ’s return and authority. The Scofield Reference Bible lacks commentary on verses 12-16, but I am more skeptical of the logistics presented (Scofield Revelation 19:12-16).
There is an odd tendency to literalize things that deal with Israel or Canaan, but it does not seem to be consistently applied. For example, if you look at Ezekial 39 you will find that Gog will bring his armies from the furthest part of the north against the mountains of Israel. The Scofield reference bible interprets this as Northern European powers, headed by Russia (Scofield Note on Ezekial 38:2). If taken literally, we would see that this force would use “shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, handpikes and spears” and that Israel would take these weapons and use them as firewood (Ezekial 39:). Yet, some Dispensationalists have no problem symbolizing the weapons of the enemies of Israel. Hal Lindsey, for example, interprets the invasion from a literal modern Russian force, but the weapons are symbolic of modern-day weaponry (Gerstner 81).
In closing, the Dispensationalist view presents an extreme dichotomy between the Church and Israel. This is a presupposition that colors their interpretation of scripture. It teaches that salvation history is very segmented with radically different approaches for different ages instead of a gradual development and preparation for Christ’s saving mission. The plain sense hermeneutic does not appear to be equally applied, and ideas from different seemingly unrelated parts of the bible are spliced together in an attempt to form a cohesive prophecy that aligns with the rapture of the Church and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom of Israel. Deficient Ecclesiology leads to a defective hermeneutic which result in a problematic view of prophecy.
Calvin, John. “Address to Francis, King of the French”. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveride. https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/institutes.i.html. Accessed 22 February 2021.
Currie, David B. Rapture. Sophia Institute Press, 2003.
Fuller, Daniel. The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism. 1957. Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, TH.D dissertation.
Gerstner, John H., and Don Kistler. Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism. Apologetics Group Media, 2009.
Olson, Carl E. Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? Ignatius Press, 2003.
Ryrie, Charles. Dispensationalism. Moody Publishers, 2007.
Scofield, C.I. Scofield Reference Bible. 1909. Oxford University Press.
Second Vatican Council. Lumen Gentium. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. 21 Nov. 1964. https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html. Accessed 22 February 2021.
Witherington, Ben. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Wesleyanism, and Pentecostalism. Baylor University Press, 2016.