Considering Dispensationalism

After hearing my testimony of growing up in dispensational churches, of attending dispensational bible schools, and of subsequently becoming a proponent of Promise Theology and finding myself at home in the greater Reformed stream of Christianity, a friend asked if I would further clarify both what dispensationalism is and what seemed to me to be problems with the dispensational system of interpretation. This seemed appropriate for my blog readers as well given that in my last post I contrasted a dispensational approach to law versus gospel with the historic Christian understanding.

First I want to give an unbiased, straightforward reporting of the historical and theological facts before getting into anything that seems problematic to me. Furthermore, I do not want to disparage the manner in which God is using and has used Christians of a dispensational bent to further His kingdom.  Therefore my approach below is heavy on the description of what dispensationalism is/was (it has changed over the years), and light on the analysis of its problems. I mostly provide some classic Christian statements that it seems impossible to reconcile with dispensational interpretation. With no further ado, therefore:

Dispensationalism: Yesterday & Today


The term dispensationalism comes from the word dispensation which refers to a distinctive manner in which God relates to humans during a specific range of time. To quote H.A. Ironside,

A dispensation, an economy, then, is that particular order or condition of things prevailing in one special age which does not necessarily prevail in another.[1]

Dispensationalism as a system of biblical interpretation was fathered by John Darby, who was also significant in the formation of the Plymouth Brethren. Darby lived from 1800 to 1882 and came to believe the basic tenets of early dispensationalism while at college in Dublin (1819-ish). His theology seems to have been fully formed by 1833. Those basic identifying tenets were:

  1. A future salvation and restoration of national Israel
  2. A clear distinction between Israel and the church
  3. An imminent (any moment) rapture of the church
  4. followed by Daniel’s 70th Week and the resurgence of Israel to center stage, and a millennial kingdom where God would finally fulfill His promises to Israel (while the church was in heaven)
  5. Darby saw distinct dispensations during which God placed mankind under different conditions
  6. and, notoriously, Darby concluded that each dispensation ended in the failure of God’s plan

Darby had a great influence on individuals like D.L. Moody, and C.I. Scofield. The notes in the Scofield Reference Bible had an enormous influence on American Christianity and may have contributed to the spread of dispensationalism more than any other single factor.

The creation of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and the 8-volume Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer codified and further developed the characteristics of the dispensational belief system and their principles of interpretation. We’ll call this Classic Dispensationalism. Its heyday was from roughly 1850-1945.

Sometime in the 1950’s, several theologians at DTS began to exert an enormous influence on dispensationalism and its distinctives changed. The most influential of those scholars was probably Charles Ryrie, although John Walvoord, Roy Zuck and Dwight Pentecost were equally respected. Let’s call this Modern Dispensationalism. Ryrie’s 1965 publication of Dispensationalism Today became the standard definition of Modern Dispensationalism. Incidentally, I was privileged to study under and spend a short period of time “hanging out” with Dr. Ryrie in the early 90’s. While I disagree with some of his conclusions, I have seldom met a man of such robust scholarship and extraordinary humility. Modern Dispensationalism reigned supreme from the late 1950s to mid 90’s.

Post-modern dispensationalism, commonly called Progressive Dispensationalism was largely the product of Robert L. Saucy. Dr. Saucy graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary, but teaches (or taught) at Talbot School of Theology – Biola University. He first introduced this line of thinking in The Church in God’s Program (1972), but I don’t think the rumblings of change really hit the street until 1992 & 1993. Saucy published The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, then Drs. Craig Blaising and Darrel Bock published Dispensationalsim, Israel and the Church (1992) and Progressive Dispensationalism (1993).

Today, we have Classic Dispensationalists, Ultra-Dispensationalists, Modern Dispensationalists, and Progressive Dispensationalists. I listed those in increasing order according to my impression of their number of present-day adherents (Progressive Dispensationalists being the greatest in present-day number).


According to Blaising and Bock, there are several beliefs that are common to all variants of Dispensationalism:

  • Authority of Scripture
  • Dispensations
    • “The word dispensation refers to a particular arrangement by which God regulates the way human beings relate to Him. Dispensationalism believes that God has planned a succession of different dispensations throughout history, both past, present, and future. Furthermore, dispensationalists believe that these dispensations are revealed in Scripture, in both biblical history and prophecy.”[2]
    • According to dispensationalists, understanding these different relationships God has had and will have with humanity, is crucial for comprehending the teaching and message of the Bible. The number of dispensations believed to be presented in Scripture varies from four to nine, but seven seems to be the most commonly held view.
  • Uniqueness of the Church
    • “Traditionally, dispensationalism has always viewed the church as a distinctively new dispensation in biblical history. The church finds its historical origin in the “Christ event”—that is the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ—and particularly in the “baptism of the Spirit” which Christ has bestowed equally upon believing Jews and Gentiles since that feast Day of Pentecost following His ascension.”[3]
    • Progressive Dispensationalism has waffled on this issue a bit, but to what degree is a matter of debate.
  • Practical Significance of the Universal Church
    • “Dispensationalists have always supported the belief that the reality of the church is to be found in Christ, and that reality transcends the denominational divisions which separate Christians from one another.”[4]
  • Significance of Biblical Prophecy
  • Futurist Premillennialism
    • “Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism. That is, it holds to the belief that Christ will return to this earth and rule over it for 1,000 years. Like most premillennialists, dispensationalists interpret biblical prophecy to teach that Christ will return during a time of trouble traditionally called “the Tribulation.” … most dispensationalists have advocated the doctrine of the pretribulational Rapture—the doctrine that Christ will come for the church prior to the Tribulation, resurrecting the dead in Christ, translating living believers into immortal life, and then taking the church with Him to heaven prior to His millennial return in which He will visibly rule the nations on earth.”[5]
  • The Imminent Return of Christ
    • Traditional Dispensationalism teaches that Christ will return for the Church before the Tribulation and that this return could happen at any time.
  • National Future for Israel
    • This is one of most well known features of dispensationalism. It teaches that there will be a future for a nation-state of Israel, at the very least during the Millennial Kingdom, and perhaps into Eternity. This along with the preoccupation with prophecy has led Dispensationalists to be strong proponents of Zionism and the right of Israel to exist as a state in their historic land.


Classic Dispensationalism:

  1. Dual Redemptive Purpose
  2. Dispensations as failed plans
  3. Spiritual Nature of the Church

Perhaps the most important, distinctive feature of Classic Dispensationalism was the idea of dual redemption or the idea that God was pursuing two different purposes, one on earth and one in heaven. This has been often evidenced by the Scofield Reference Bible’s distinction between the “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” in the Gospels as two different things.

Modern Dispensationalism:

  1. a dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct.
  2. a dispensationalist uses a literal (plain) hermeneutic.
  3. a dispensationalist believes the underlying purpose of God in the world is His own glorification. (and salvation is simply one means to that end)[6]

The Modern Dispensationalists’ use of the term “literal interpretation” was very different from what was meant by Classic Dispensationalists, who believed that a literal interpretation of the Old Testament revealed God’s plan for an earthly people (Israel) while a spiritual or typological interpretation revealed God’s plan for a heavenly people (the Church), and the New Testament contained the literal revelation (mystery) of God’s spiritual purpose and spiritual people.

Modern Dispensationalists use “literal interpretation” to refer to a plain sense meaning and interpretation of Scripture, also sometimes called a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. They attempt to avoid typological or symbolic/allegorical interpretation whenever possible. But it must be noted, that this characterization was more of a goal than a reality as the observation of Drs. Blaising & Bock records:

Now, even at the time this was published, evangelical biblical scholars were beginning to move toward a more consistent grammatical-historical interpretation, but it was a grammatical-historical interpretation which was developing in sophistication beyond that which was practiced by classical dispensationalists or even early revised dispensationalists. Over the past three decades, the practice of consistently grammatical-historical interpretation (where “grammatical-historical” has developed to a more advanced form of literary study) has not led evangelicals to become classical or revised [modern] dispensationalists. Furthermore, a number of dispensationalists who today practice consistent grammatical-historical interpretation (in its more developed sense) have revised some of the distinctive interpretations of earlier dispensationalism. Literary interpretation has developed so that some things which earlier interpreters thought they “clearly” saw in Scripture, are not “clearly” seen today at all.[7]

While Modern (Revised) Dispensationalists rejected the idea that God has dual purposes, they retained the idea of dual peoples (Israel and the Church).

Progressive Dispensationalism:

  1. Holistic Redemption in Progressive Revelation
  2. Progressively Developing Dispensations (as opposed to failed plans)
  3. The Church is a new dispensation but not a new people; part of the blessings given to Israel have been inaugurated and in the next dispensation all of the blessings of the New Covenant will be realized.
  4. Claims more consistently literal interpretation but re-introduces typology as having a legitimate historical-literary place, though not as a spiritualizing of the text as was practiced by classic dispensationalists
  5. Biblical Covenants are seen as unified, with the Abrahamic as the seed covenant, and all others being progressive extensions of it.

Classic Dispensationalism suggested that God had two peoples and two purposes in the world. Modern Dispensationalism significantly modified that theory, but clung to the idea of two peoples. Progressive Dispensationalism recognizes that God has a unified purpose and a unified people, but attempts to apply timeline (dispensational) restrictions to the realization of that truth.

In 2007 Dr. Ryrie released an updated version of his classic Dispensationalism Today, now titled simply Dispensationalism, where among other updates he added a chapter addressing Progressive Dispensationalism. Dr. Ryrie’s assessment of that system’s distinctives were as follows:

  1. The kingdom of God is the unifying theme of biblical history.
  2. Within biblical history there are four dispensational eras.
  3. Christ has already inaugurated the Davidic reign in heaven at the right hand of the Father, which equals the throne of David, though He does not yet reign as Davidic king on earth during the Millennium.
  4. Likewise, the new covenant has already been inaugurated, though its blessings are not yet fully realized until the Millennium.
  5. The concept of the church as completely distinct from Israel and as a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament needs revising, making the idea of two purposes and two peoples of God invalid.
  6. A complementary hermeneutic must be used alongside a literal hermeneutic. This means that the New Testament makes complementary changes to Old Testament promises without jettisoning those original promises.
  7. The one divine plan of holistic redemption encompasses all people and all areas of human life—personal, societal, cultural, and political. [8]

In my opinion, Progressive Dispensationalism is a train station along the route to acknowledging that while dispensationalism contains many truthful ideas (the rejection of supersessionism, for example) it is unsustainable as an interpretive system. However, many good observations and much helpful development has been made by Progressive Dispensationalism; I hope its adherents will continue to allow biblical theology and the grammatico-historical hermeneutic to carry them along to increasing apprehension of the narrative cohesion and requisite unity of Scripture.


The basic problem I have with dispensationalism is that I am convinced Scripture is a unified whole while the guiding principle of dispensationalism is the dividing of Scripture and of God’s people. How precisely Scripture ought to be divided is argued amongst themselves, so there are all kinds of “answers” to that question, but I take issue with the basic premise.

The dispensational understanding of Scripture, advocated by many sincere and well-studied believers, emphasizes discontinuity with Old Testament ethics (particularly the Mosaic law) and emphasizes discontinuity between God’s work in the present Church age and His work in the millennium. The dispensationalist contends that Christians are not under the law of Moses for their moral guidance, and that Christ must return prior to the millennium (“premillennial”) in order for this world to enjoy significant transformation.[9]

An issue of almost equal importance is the dispensational contention that Christ nailed the law to the cross. The reality, of course, is that Christ nailed the “curse of the law” to the tree, meaning that the condemnation of the Law’s witness against us was nailed to the tree along with Messiah. Dr. Dwight Pryor is fond of telling the following story:

Once I was faulted by a pastor for speaking affectionately of the Torah and the biblical Feasts. “Don’t you know that the Law ended with Christ?” he protested. “God nailed the Law to the cross!”

“Excuse me,” I replied, “but if God nailed the Law to the cross then He doubled-crossed himself. He’s the one who gave the Torah to his redeemed and beloved children as a gracious gift.” What was nailed to the cross was not the Torah but our “record of debt” (ESV), that accounting of our trespasses, rightly condemned by the Law (Col 2:13-14).[10]

Colossians, of course, tells us that we were forgiven “…all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” [11] Certainly there “is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” but this is a result of the cancelling of our “record of debt,” not as a result of the abolishing of the law.

Opposition of Law and Grace

The dispensational system forces one to think of Law and Grace as being opposed to one another rather than complementary. While there have been examples of this thinking throughout Christian history—one thinks of Martin Luther’s statement, “Whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian. “[12]—such thinking, it must be stressed, is the exception to the rule.

John Wesley wrote:

I am afraid this great and important truth is little understood, not only by the world, but even by many whom God hath taken out of the world, who are real children of God by faith. Many of these lay it down as an unquestioned truth, that when we come to Christ, we have done with the law; and that, in this sense, “Christ is the end of the law to every one that believeth.” “The end of the law:” so he is, “for righteousness,” for justification, “to every one that believeth.” Herein the law is at an end. It justifies none, but only brings them to Christ; who is also, in another respect, the end or scope of the law, — the point at which it continually aims. But when it has brought us to him it has yet a farther office, namely, to keep us with him. For it is continually exciting all believers, the more they see of its height, and depth, and length, and breadth, to exhort one another so much the more, —

Closer and closer let us cleave
To his beloved Embrace;
Expect his fullness to receive,
And grace to answer grace.[13]

But a dispensationalist does not accept such thinking, despite its biblical nature and historic precedent. One thinks of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith,[14] or of Article VII in the 39 Articles of Religion, settled in 1563.[15]

J.I. Packer elaborates on the necessity of recognizing the unity of the Scriptures.

I begin, now, by observing that in both east and west, in both reformed and unreformed churches, the traditional emphasis has been on the harmonious unity of the canonical Scriptures. Historically this emphasis went with a stress on their divinity as being in truth God’s message to the world, his instruction in faith and life—in other words, as being throughout God’s law (torah) in the Biblical sense of that term. Showing the internal unity of the Scriptures was then seen as part of the interpreter’s task….

The first idea was of normative content. Scripture was the heavenly Legislator’s didache, his teaching, his doctrina (to use the Latin equivalent beloved of Augustine and Calvin), from the explicit statements of which, both narrative and explanatory, we learn what is true orthodoxy, true worship and true obedience.

The second idea was of internal coherence. As lawcodes are to be presumed consistent, so all the contents of Scripture, originating as they were held to do from God’s mind as their single source, were to be treated as harmonious and were to be interpreted in terms of the principle that the Reformers called the analogy of Scripture or the analogy of the faith (analogia fidei). Accordingly Anglican Article 20 states that the Church may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”—for such exposition would necessarily be wrong somewhere.

The third idea was of continuing and multiple application. What the books of Scripture said to their original recipients they were thought of as continuing to say in application to each successive generation, just as unrepealed secular legislation continues to bind each generation of citizens. As applications of secular law are made by bringing its principles to bear on particular cases under the guidance of its overall purpose and are valid whether or not the terms of the law explicitly envisage the cases in point, so it was held to be with the Bible.

The fourth idea was of the legislator maintaining his law. God was believed to watch over his Word to perform it, keeping his promises, blessing those who trusted and obeyed him, and judging any who failed to tremble at his Word.[16]

Dispensationalists do not interpret Scripture in such a way as to make sure that one section is not “repugnant to another”, rather they feel free to interpret the New Testament in such a way that it would contradict the Old Testament, but they feel free to do this because they are confident that the New Testament writings belong to a different “dispensation”, and is not therefore contradictory.  The historic church, as Packer points out, both reformed and unreformed variants, have always emphasized the harmonious unity of Scripture—this is lacking from dispensational interpretation.

Eschatological Escapism

The dispensational manner of interpreting eschatological texts often gives adherents a sense of “holy escapism” rather than a conviction that God intends to change the world here and now by our lives in partnership with His Holy Spirit. This is the rabbinic concept of tikkun olam, which we find elucidated clearly in Ephesians 2:10 and Peter’s second epistle: the idea that we were created specifically for the purpose of partnering with God in the doing of “good deeds”, which we understand was a 1st century synonym for keeping the commandments, and thereby partner with God in His ongoing plan to heal the world. Dispensationalism breeds in believers a desire to endure this evil world until such time as they’re raptured out and can escape to “Glory.” The truth is that it is God’s passion to come down into the world, not to escape us up and out of it.

Listen to the focus of this conclusion to an essay on sanctification by John Walvoord.

In Scripture, from beginning to end, sanctification is the work of God for human beings rather than their work for Him. It is grounded in the death of Christ, which makes it possible. It is continued in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian and is ultimately perfected as the Christian stands in God’s presence—forever free from sin, with its guilt and stain. The believer is destined to reflect forever the holiness of God, as an example of what the grace of God can do. The Christian doctrine of sanctification is separated forever from human attainment and is thus totally removed from all legalistic systems of non-Christian religions. In the end, sanctification is all to the glory of God and an evidence of His infinite perfections.[17]

Note the emphasis on the future. Technically speaking, very little can be said to be wrong about the above statement. The Christian doctrine of sanctification is not “separated forever from human attainment,” but otherwise these are true statements. However, this certainly does not point out God’s design for His children to reflect the holiness of God here and now, but rather on our eschatological hope of perfection.

Three Functions of the Law

This obsession with the future rather than today is a carry over result of the parenthetical view of history proposed by the dispensational system. Just as, according to the dispensational reading of Scripture, the Age of Grace (or the Church Age) is a parenthesis in redemptive history, so our lives are parenthetical to our “real” destiny as future saints, ruling and reigning with Christ in our perfected state.

As a result, dispensationalists have little use for the historic third use of God’s Law. Rather their view can be typified by the quote, “The age of the church has rendered the law inoperative.”[18] Sinclair Ferguson reminds us of the traditional Christian view:

This is why…the law of God is seen to play such an important role in sanctification. Its three functions or uses are well known: to convict of sin, to restrain evildoers and to instruct believers.[19]

A dispensationalist calls the use of the law to instruct believers legalism, as evidenced in Walvoord’s reference to human attainment being a “legalistic system.” What is the role of human effort in sanctification? First of all, let’s acknowledge that any human effort is useful only after God’s regenerating work of justification. As Dallas Willard so often writes, “Grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort.”[20]

In an essay for the book Five Views on Law and Gospel, Wayne Strickland presents a dispensational view, and lists only two purposes for the law from the New Testament perspective (which obviously, from a dispensational perspective, is the only pertinent view): the law as exposing sin, and the law as tutor. Both of which apply only to an unjustified person.

Thus the law is regarded by Paul as clearly inferior, in the sense of being preparatory to the gospel of Jesus Christ. With the advent of faith in Jesus Christ, however, the law as a pedagogue is no longer necessary. In other words, the law is temporary with regard to this regulatory purpose. ‘The context makes it clear that the apostle is speaking . . . of the historic succession of one period of revelation upon another and the displacement of the law by Christ.’[21]

John Calvin, on the other hand, wrote:

The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. For even though they have the law written and engraved upon their hearts by the finger of God [Jer. 31:33; Heb 10:16], that is, have been so moved and quickened through the directing of the Spirit that they long to obey God, they still profit by the law.[22]

Some Closing Thoughts

In preparing this document I had occasion to read Ryrie’s updated edition of Dispensationalism Today now titled simply Dispensationalism, and I was reminded again how thoroughly impressed I am with this man’s sense of balance (he did write Balancing the Christian Life, after all), his dedication to fair treatment, and his humility with regard to the beliefs of others. A case in point is this very apropos reminder from the chapter titled “A Plea.”

It may help to be reminded of some of the important doctrines to which dispensationalists subscribe wholeheartedly. After all, dispensationalists are conservatives and affirm complete allegiance to the doctrines of verbal, plenary inspiration, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, eternal salvation by grace through faith, the importance of godly living and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the future coming of Christ, and the eternal damnation of the lost…. As already noted, some doctrines are more important than others, so it particularly behooves us not to cut off our fellowship from those who share similar views about these important doctrines. There are few enough these days who believe in the fundamentals of the faith, and to ignore those who have declared themselves on the side of the truth of God is unwise. Something is wrong with our circles of fellowship, sense of priority, or doctrine of unity when conservatives view fellow conservatives as the opposition party and then find their theological friends among those who are teaching and promoting error. There is something wrong, too, with our conception of wisdom and scholarship when we discount the teaching ministry of the Spirit. [23]

[1] H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies (New York: Loizeaux Bros., n.d.), 67.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Ibid, 17.

[5] Ibid, 19.

[6] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 44-47.

[7] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 36.

[8]Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Rev. Ed. of: Dispensationalism Today. 1965.; Includes Indexes., Rev. and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 193.

[9] Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., House Divided: The Break-up of Dispensational Theology (Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 5.

[10] Dwight A. Pryor, “Rejoicing in the Law?” (Dayton, OH: The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 2009) , accessed 9/9/2009, 9:21p.m.

[11] Colossians 2:13-14 (ESV)

[12] LW 26:115, Lectures on Galatians, chaps. 1-4, on Gal. 2:14 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1962), 1531.

[13] John Wesley, Sermon #34 – The Original Nature, Property, and Use of the Law (United Methodist Global Ministries – accessed 08-19-2009.

[14] 1689 London Particular Baptist Confession of Faith, 19:5, “The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof…neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”

[15] 39 Articles of Religion, Article VII, “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ…. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises….yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

[16] J.I. Packer, “Upholding The Unity Of Scripture Today” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 25 (The Evangelical Theological Society, 1982; 2002), 25:409-410

[17] John Walvoord, “The Augustinian-Dispensational Perspective” in Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 226.

[18] Wayne G. Strickland, “The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View” in Stanley Gundry, Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 259.

[19] Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View” in Donald Alexander, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 68-69.

[20] This phrase is oft repeated in Willard’s writings, but we quote here from Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 76.

[21] Wayne G. Strickland, “The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View” in Stanley Gundry, Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 245.

[22] John Calvin, Institutes 2.7.12 as quoted in Donald Alexander, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 69.

[23]Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Rev. and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 246.