What is Dispensationalism?

Christian Womanhood

In this episode of Verity Podcast, I break down the history of dispensationalism, how it spread so quickly throughout the continental United States, and the impact it has had on our view of the church and end times theology.

You’ll learn:

  • The historical origins of dispensational thought
  • How dispensationalism took root in baptist and charismatic traditions
  • How this theology impacts our view of Israel and end times
  • Things to consider when interacting with dispensationalism

Articles for further reading:

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Transcription

This episode is going to be a bit of a doozy, but that’s nothing new if you’ve been following my Instagram for the last couple of weeks, in which I talked about dispensationalism, how it came to be, and how it impacts our view of the world today as Western Christians. Now, if you’re like me, you probably know a few of the pieces of dispensationalism. But the word itself is really vague and confusing, because we don’t use the word ‘dispensation’ in conversation as a general rule. So, the meaning of the term is usually lost on us. Once I started explaining it, you’ll most likely recognize exactly what I’m talking about, but the actual term is foreign to a lot of people. We’re going to go on a little history lesson and then a little definition journey to talk about what dispensationalism is, and how it impacts Christians today, especially in their view of the end times. Now, like I said, I talked about this on Instagram, I have an entire dispensationalism Highlight, including my Whiteboard, which is my favorite place to spend my time where I’ve sketched out some of the history in a timeline of this view and where it came from. But if you need a visual, that could be a good resource. Otherwise, continue listening. 

A dispensation is an era of time. It’s not a new idea to divide the Bible up into eras of time or ways that God deals with man. But dispensationalism, as we see it in church history was and is a rather new doctrine. It began in the 1830s with John Nelson Darby. Though the idea of dividing the Bible timeline into different pieces or eras isn’t new, it usually revolved around the covenants. The Noahic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant, the Abrahamic, and then, of course, the New Covenant and Jesus. Whereas with John Nelson Darby, there was a division of biblical history into dispensations or eras of time that was much more strict, and evolved instead around his idea of what God was doing in those dispensations. Each dispensation and there are seven, according to John Nelson Darby, is a period of time in which God interacts with man, tests man, and then when man falls, and disobeys, and rejects God’s test or his interaction with man, there is a judgment. God then moves to interacting with man and revealing himself in a new way. 

Now, in front of me right now is a chart, and I wish I could show it to you, but if you were to go on Google, and look up dispensationalism chart, it’ll come right up. You’ll see a whole bunch of them. Most of them will show you a timeline with seven arrows or seven dispensations. The first one is innocence. This is Genesis 1-3. This is before the fall leading up to the fall. Adam is then cast out after the fall, and this leads to the dispensation of conscience. This is Genesis 4 to Genesis 8 and the flood. After that rebellion and judgment of the flood, we move to the dispensation of government and this is Genesis 9 to 11, leading up to the introduction of Abraham. Once we get into Abraham’s story, we’ve entered dispensation four, which is the dispensation of promise. The promise to Abraham to bless all the nations of the world through his seed. This is typically said to last through Genesis 12 to Genesis 50, which is when we see the end of Genesis and Joseph’s death in Egypt. We start dispensation five, dispensation of the law, with Israel being enslaved in Egypt, and then consequently the Exodus, and the giving of the law at Sinai. The dispensation of the law lasts all the way up to Acts 1, and the launching of the Church of Jesus Christ, so the entrance of the New Covenant. For most of history, we have the dispensation of law, and then the sixth dispensation, dispensation of grace or the church. This is from Acts 2 all the way through to Revelation 3. According to dispensationalism, there is one dispensation or era that is yet to come, and that is the thousand-year millennial reign of Jesus Christ on earth.

I give you this summary of the seven dispensations because this is fundamental and important to understanding this worldview as a whole. John Nelson Darby – who really pushed this out there, really invented the whole system – was very adamant about a couple things related to his framework. Number one, the Church and Israel are two distinct peoples of God. The promises given to Israel during the time of promise, the dispensation of promise, given to Abraham are unconditional promises that cannot be lost. The land that was given to Abraham is always going to be the land of Israel, regardless of who or what nation has a say about it. This is really important to understand why Western Christians today with a premillennial view of end times, go back and listen to the end times theology episode, if you want to know more about that. Why Christians who hold the premillennialism today often have an unwavering support for a national, ethnic Israel. It has to do with this view of the church and Israel as distinct peoples of God. 

Another distinctive of Darby’s dispensationalism is the rapture or the taking away of the church. This was a new doctrine with Darby. It’s separate from the Second Coming. Christ comes for His saints, and then at the Second Coming, He comes with His saints. He brings all of the Christians back to Earth with Him. The overarching theme of dispensationalism is an extremely strict literalism. Strict literalism: what that means is that the Bible is read at face value. Even apocalyptic literature, which utilizes a lot of symbolic language, like the number of 1000, or the number 7, or number 3, instead of reading these numbers symbolically, the dispensationalist sees them literally. Sees them to mean exactly 1000 years, exactly 7 years. When Revelation talks about things like a seven-year tribulation, that is literally seen as a seven-year persecution, time, before the millennial reign, instead of representative of, say, completion or complete persecution.

This leads to a timeline of church history, of world history, and especially the end times that is extremely complicated. It’s where you will see these charts with three and a half years, and three and a half years, and seven years and thousand years, and like a fire, and a rapture, and a return. All of that stuff is written out that way, because Revelation is read in such a literalistic manner. Again, characteristic of dispensationalism, and that began with John Nelson Darby.

Why would Darby do this? Well, Darby was a very passionate minister. He was especially concerned about the church taking seriously its faith. He became very disenfranchised with the state of the Anglican church. He was highly educated in Ireland. He was an Anglican minister, but because the Anglican church was so associated with the state, a lot of it was really passionless, and people weren’t actually seeking the Lord’s face. They weren’t actually walking with him at all. He began to associate with a group called the Plymouth Brethren, who are very simple, kind of like a home church, or early church style of gathering, and very quickly began to perpetuate this literalistic interpretation and view that the world would get worse and worse until Christ returns and sets up a thousand-year reign. You might be wondering, “Okay, well, I grew up with that view, and I thought that’s what every Christian believed. I think that’s normal.”

But in reality, this view of the end times is extremely new. For the 1500 years before John Nelson Darby, it was not what the church taught – not even in the first 300 years of the church. From when Jesus ascended to about the time that Constantine made Christianity the state religion, historic premillennialism was the dominant end times view and the view of church history. It was a physical and futuristic view. Jesus was going to return, He was going to reign on Earth from Jerusalem, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that the early church was still very connected to Jerusalem and very aware of it. They also just came through an extensive period of heavy, heavy persecution. Looking at Revelation through that light and knowing the very cities that were addressed in Revelation, many of the people in the early church had a strong premillennial view. After Christianity became legalized by Constantine, and as there was more peace within the church and in its relationship to the state, Agustin and other church fathers began to propose a more spiritual reading of end times theology and looking at how God interacts with man in history. Amillennialism and post millennialism began to become the dominant view. To be amillennial means there is no physical thousand-year reign. It means that the reign of Christ is simply in the church. His life lived through members of the church, and while you were living as a member of the church, tribulation will happen that entire time for all of history. We will experience it until the Second Coming comes. The post millennial view is that as Christians are walking out the reign of Christ in their hearts, which is the millennial reign, they will preach the gospel and the world will be transformed. It will get better and better and better until Christ returns. Both of these views were the dominant views from around 300, 400 AD all the way up to 1830 and John Nelson Darby. So, what Darby was doing was very, very new.

This then brings us to a new character on the stage, and his name was Cyrus Scofield. Scofield is a bit of a shyster – at least at first. He started out as a lawyer, who committed several forgeries. Forgeries that were major enough, he ended up going to jail for six months. While he was in jail, he got saved. He was quickly discipled in John Nelson Darby’s thought. After he served his sentence, he immediately went into the ministry and about two years after he was in jail, he became a pastor. Now as a pastor, he, of course, was researching, digging into the Word, and he became convinced even more of what Darby was teaching and the premillennial point of view. Scofield eventually wrote what was known as the Scofield Reference Bible. This Bible included copious notes promoting the dispensational premillennial view. It was first published in 1909, and then reprinted, and published again in 1917. 

Meanwhile, the church at large, the whole body of Christ, was really struggling with the advent, or rather not the advent, but the inundation of theological liberalism. This came out of the enlightenment humanism, and it took a very allegorical reading of Scripture, downplayed the authority of the Bible, the authenticity of the resurrection, and the virgin birth, took on a social gospel, which in many ways is very good, but that moralized Christianity and gutted it of its historical roots. Many pastors were very concerned about this, especially at the seminary and university level. Because of that, there was a fight for the fundamentals of the faith, which led to a term called fundamentalism. The war being waged between liberalism and fundamentalism started around the turn of the century around 1900, and really escalated into the early teens of the 1900s, right as World War I was happening. The first use of the word ‘fundamentalist’ was actually in 1920. It referred to these people who held to a more literal historical understanding of Scripture. This was prime time for the Scofield Bible to be launched into the world. At the same time, we also saw the Azusa Street Revival, which sparked the Pentecostal church in 1906. In 1914, the Assemblies of God denomination was founded, which is a charismatic/Pentecostal denomination.

As all of this is happening and the Scofield Bible full of the dispensational teaching is launched into the world, we then saw this Bible pushed out, and funded as the unofficial text of most of these fundamentalist and charismatic Bible schools. It was everywhere. 5 million copies of the Scofield Bible were distributed and bought between 1917 and the 1960s. This Bible, interestingly, wasn’t just the idea of Scofield. Scofield was a brand-new author that nobody knew and he was picked up by a publisher that only published well known authors. He was also funded not just by Christians, but also by non-Christian Zionist Jews. This is an interesting fact to consider, because in 1948, is when Israel became a national state and received its own land. There has to be a bit of a connection between these things, and it’s something I can’t get into on this podcast, but definitely it would be an interesting study if you want to look more into it. 

As Scofield’s Bible expands dispensationalism and expands then the idea of the church and Israel as two separate entities, that the church is not the spiritual Israel or the fulfilled Israel that had been taught for the last 1500 years, many of the charismatics, who came out of the holiness Methodist movement were adopting this point of view. It was immediately integrated into their theology. But it wasn’t just charismatics. This view also permeated the Baptist churches in the United States and any church that held to a more fundamentalist approach to Scripture with the exception of many of the Reformed churches. The Reformed churches held to covenant theology. Because of that, they were much less likely to buy into the ideas of dispensationalism. Because so much of the church had been planted and led by Methodist Holiness and Baptist movements, and then with the rise of the charismatic and Pentecostal churches, dispensationalism quickly took root. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, we see the expansion of the idea. The culture was right for this. Premillennialism made a lot more sense in the 20th century, given what they were seeing in their world, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, communism, all of it was around them looking like the tribulation that was promised and the end times that were getting so much worse before the advent of Christ.

As time went on, this then played into the Left Behind movement, which many of us in the 90s grew up with these books, the kids’ versions, the adults’ versions. This was a fictionalized version of dispensational pre millennial thought. Because it was fictionalizing, it was adding on to even what Darby or Scofield had originally taught and left us with such “doctrines” as the silent rapture. A rapture that happens with no trumpet sound. When in reality, the rapture itself is a very thinly supported doctrine. It was brand new with Darby. It wasn’t taught before then. And it only has a couple scriptures that are used to support it further, if there is a rapture, it won’t be silent. There will be a trumpet sound. Things like the silent rapture and left behind, left a lot of Christians in the 90s wondering what the end times actually look like, am I about to get taken out of the world at any moment, maybe even become fatalistic about end times theology or wonder why they should even care. Some of them didn’t even read Revelation for themselves, but basically base their entire end times theology off of hearsay and dramatic retellings of dispensational theology.

But one of the most profound impacts of dispensationalism was the impact on an entire nation, and its support for national Israel. Now, it’s one thing to say between Israel and its enemies politically, I agree more with Israel. That’s one thing, and everybody has a right to make that decision, which country they decide to support politically. But what dispensationalism did was it applied Scripture to the equation. It played Scripture in to say you must support Israel, because the Bible says that God unconditionally supports Israel and therefore Christians should too. Because Israel was not seen as the spiritual forbear of the church, but instead as an entirely separate entity, this resulted in an evangelical adoration, and sometimes even idolatry of Israel. We even see today that many Christians will unequivocally send money to or support the nation of Israel perhaps without even realizing why and it goes back to dispensationalism.

Now, here’s the important thing to know here. This theology quickly formed. It has a lot of both political and theological and personal implications. It changes how we view the world in many ways, how we view the end times, how we even feel about the end times. One thing I want to be sure to articulate is that people who do not hold to a dispensational view of Israel are not antisemitic. They can love Israel just as much as they love the people of any other nation and they should, because we’re to have a heart to every nation of the world. The difference for those who are not dispensational is that they simply don’t view ethnic Israel as an integral part of God’s plan of salvation today. Israel ushered in the Messiah, and then the church, it didn’t replace Israel. It fulfilled what Israel was meant to do. 

Every Jewish person who comes to faith in Jesus Christ then would be the natural branch who is grafted back into the vine of Jesus Christ, according to Romans 11. That would be the view of those we call supersessionists. Those who believe that Israel and the church are one family of God in the Old Testament and the New, and that the church fulfills Israel’s promises. For dispensationalists, this makes zero sense, because of that fundamental belief that Israel and the church are separate and distinct entities.

So, why do I share all this history? Why do I share all this now? I think it’s important that we understand why we’re seeing what we’re seeing in social media right now, as we see Israel going through the conflict that it has with Palestine and with Hamas. I think it’s very important to actually evaluate the origins of our theology and ask ourselves, is this biblical? Do we believe it? Maybe it is biblical. Maybe we land on the dispensationalist side. Maybe we land on the covenant theology side. Maybe we land somewhere in between. Whatever the case may be, we need to prayerfully approach it, and be willing to check our long-held views, both against Scripture and even against history. Let’s look at what history says, and what’s the story here with the development of this theology? Where did it come from? What were the cultural influences? Those are important questions to ask. Now, I’d have to say, if you think you know where I stand, you probably don’t. So, don’t bother guessing. 🙂

What I want to encourage right now, regardless of where you stand on dispensationalism, is that given what we see going on in Israel right now we can all be encouraged to pray for Israel – but also to pray for Palestine. Pray for peace between them. Remember that many of the Christians who are in Israel right now are Palestinian, and they are our family of God. It’s important for us to be in prayer for both parties in this equation, and remember that the family of God is our first loyalty always, and that we should keep that in mind as we navigate these tough, tough political and cultural issues. I hope this was helpful and understanding a little bit about dispensationalism.