Dispensationalism: rightly dividing the Word?

Many evangelical Christians dismiss this system of interpreting Scripture as lacking Biblical support.

Don F. Neufeld is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.


Dispensationalism is a system of Bible interpretation that divides human history—past, present, and future—into seven periods: 1. Innocency, beginning with Creation and ending with the expulsion from Eden. 2. Conscience, ending with the judgment of the Flood. 3. Human Government, the period of racial testing ending with the confusion of tongues. 4. Promise. From the promise of Abraham to the law (Ex. 19:8). 5. Law. Sinai to Calvary. 6. Grace. Death of Christ to the final great apostasy. 7. Kingdom. The ultimate reign of Christ (C. I. Scofield, Reference Bible, p. 5.). Scofield defines a dispensation as "a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God."—Ibid. (Italics supplied.)

According to S. P. Tregelles, the scholar famous for his study of the Greek New Testament, dispensadonalism originated in an "utterance" by means of tongues in Ed ward Irving's church in England. He says, "It was from that supposed revelation that the modern doctrine and the modern phraseology respecting it [dispensationalism] arose. It came not from Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God." —Quoted in George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope, p. 41.

Tregelles could speak from first hand knowledge. Dispensationalism arose in the Brethren movement, of which he was a member in its early days. In 1827, J. N. Darby joined the fellowship and became a leader in the movement in the area of prophetic interpretation, so that dispensationalism is sometimes called "Darbyism."

However, C. I. Scofield's Reference Bible probably has done more than any other agency to popularize dispensationalist views. The first edition of the Reference Bible was published in 1909, a revised edition appeared in 1917, and in 1967 The New Scofield Reference Bible was introduced, representing further re vision. On the editorial committee of the 1967 revision, chaired by E. Schyler English, were scholars such as Frank E. Gaebelein, headmaster emeritus, The Stony Brook School; Charles L. Feinberg, dean, Talbot Theological Seminary; Allan A. MacRae, president, Faith Theological Seminary; Wilbur M. Smith, editor, Peloubet's Select Notes; and John F. Walvoord, president, Dallas Theological Seminary.

Since its beginning 150 years ago, dispensationalism has spread rap idly, until today millions of Christians espouse it. It is taught in most of the Bible schools throughout the land, where thousands of young people receive their religious training. In fact, according to George Eldon Ladd, "So deeply intrenched has it [dispensationalism] become that many pastors and Christian leaders have been led to assume that this teaching has been an essential doctrine in the history of the Church extending back to apostolic times and has prevailed widely in all ages among believers who have had a sincere love for the Word of God and who have cherished the Blessed Hope of Christ's return." —Ibid., p. 9.

In their partitioning of the Scriptures, dispensationalists apply not only most of the Old Testament to the Israelites only but the Gospels as well. In other words, according to dispensationalists, Jesus' teachings were not directed toward the Christian church but toward the Jews, since Jesus lived and taught under the dispensation of law. Though Scofield admits that the Sermon on the Mount has "beautiful moral application to the Christian," he insists its immediate application is to Jews. Thus Scofield allows for no continuity between the Old Testament believer in God and the New Testament church. Only when one gets to the Epistles does he have the Bible speaking directly to the Christian church.

It is one of the phenomena of religious history that a thesis with as little Biblical support as has dispensationalism should be so widely accepted, even by Christians who accept the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible.

Louis Berkhof, author of Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1941), takes issue with dispensationalists, showing that even their use of the term "dispensation" is non-Biblical. He says, "The word 'dispensation' (oikonomia), which is a Scriptural term (cf. Luke 16:2-4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4), is here used [by dispensationalists] in an un-Scriptural sense. It denotes a stewardship, an arrangement, or an administration, but never a testing time or a time of probation." —Page 290.

He calls the distinctions between the dispensations "arbitrary." "The distinctions [between dispensations as periods] are clearly quite arbitrary. This is evident already from the fact that dispensationalists themselves sometimes speak of them as overlapping. The second dispensation is called the dispensation of conscience, but according to Paul, conscience was still the monitor of the Gentiles in his day (Rom. 2:14, 15). The third is known as the dispensation of human government, but the specific command in it which is disobeyed and therefore rendered man liable to judgment, was not the command to rule the world for God of which there is no trace but the command to replenish the earth. The fourth is designated the dispensation of promise and is sup posed to terminate with the giving of the law, but Paul says that the law did not disannul the promise, and that this was still in effect in his own day (Rom. 4:13-17; Gal. 3:15-29). The so-called dispensation of the law is replete with glorious promises, and the so-called dispensation of grace did not abrogate the law as a rule of life." Ibid., pp. 290, 291.

Since most of the men who helped shape dispensationalism subscribed to Calvinistic creeds, there are strong elements of Calvinism in dispensationalism. Kraus says that "the sovereign transcendence of God, is the foundational assumption which underlies the very concept of a dispensation." —Dispensationalism in America (John Knox Press, 1958), p. 61.

He explains how this is so. "A dispensation is begun when God projects Himself into the historical process and initiates a covenant of His own making with some part of the human race. It ends when He intervenes in judgment because of man's disobedience. While there is a pattern of historical development within the dispensation, no covenant is in any way conditioned by historical processes, nor is it necessarily historically related to the covenants which precede or follow it. The promises enumerated in the covenants are in the last analysis unconditional, because although man cannot and does not cooperate with God, He fulfills His promises which He sware unto the fathers. He works out His predestined purpose in history, but quite apart from it and one might almost say in spite of it. Each dispensation is set off as a distinct period of time which has little or no organically historical relation to what precedes or follows. Further, God's sovereignty is exercised in the predestination and election of nations and men to a special relationship to Himself. The whole justification for giving the Jews the dominant place in God's future plan is worked out on the ground of their national election. What Israel wishes or does is quite aside from the point. God has chosen them to be His people, so they are His people come what may." —Ibid., pp. 61, 62.

This same principle is applied to individual predestination. "The same rigid predestination is applied in this dispensation to the individual believers who have been elected to salvation. Their election is absolutely effective. Working on this assumption, contemporary dispensationalists have elaborated an almost mechanistic theory of eternal security, and have interpreted the New Testament strictly within the frame work of this norm." —Ibid., p. 62.

To the dispensationalist, then, prophecy is an unalterable decree having its grounds in the sovereign transcendence of God. But this is not the way prophecy is presented in the Bible. A conditional element in prophecy is clearly set forth. Let us notice particularly the predictions concerning Israel.

"Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shall speak unto the children of Israel" (Ex. 19:5, 6).

"And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to ob serve and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth." "But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee" (Deut. 28:1, 15).

Even if a condition is not stated, it may be implied. "At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them" (Jer. 18:7-10).

Ignoring the Biblical principle of conditionality, as well as the obvious teaching of plain texts, dispensationalists, who are futurists, speculate an incredible series of events. Alexander Reese mentions their postulation of a prodigious missionary enterprise despite the removal of the Holy Spirit from the earth at the rapture: "Their exegesis now [in the area of prophecy rather than in the central truths of Christianity], in stead of adhering to the main emphasis of Scripture, and basing itself on careful and obvious deductions from clear texts, was shot to pieces by idle speculation, by the adoption of innovations like the Secret Rapture, and the prodigious missionary tour of the world in 1,260 days, by an army of half-converted Jews. . . . Without the Holy Ghost . . . [they] will do in 1,260 days what the whole Christian Church has been unable to do in 1,900 years—evangelize the world, and convert the 'overwhelming majority' of the inhabitants of the world to God. This declaration of Scofield's works out as about a million converts a day; and this at a time when ex hypothesi, the Holy Spirit is in heaven, Antichrist is raging here below, and the elect evangelists are torn between the Imprecatory Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount!"—The Approaching Advent of Christ, p. 269.

Although dispensationalists make up a large segment of evangelical Christendom, although they are vocal and influential, and their extensive literature has invaded even the best-seller field, there are many evangelical Christians who dismiss dispensationalism as lacking in Biblical support. My counsel is that Christians wondering about the scheme study the Bible for them selves. I am convinced that no one taking the Bible and the Bible only could come up with dispensationalism. Without the utterance in tongues in Edward Irving's church, the system never would have arisen.

The dispensationalist view of the rapture will serve as an example. In The Millennium in the Church (William B. Eerdmans, 1945), D. H. Kromminga says, "The assumption that the rapture will precede the appearance of the Son of Man in public on the clouds of heaven so clearly contradicts the order of events as indicated in Matthew 24:30, 31, that it is puzzling to meet with the theory as often as one does without a word of explanation. In Matthew 24:30, 31, the order is very distinctly and unmistakably indicated as being first the public appearance of the Son of Man at which all the nations shall mourn, and then in that appearance the ingathering of His elect by His angels." —Page 309.

Let the dispensationalist give plausible Biblical evidence for his views, and the seeker for truth will be happy to investigate his claims. Until such time, the seeker will be better off studying the Scriptures for their obvious meaning, following sound principles of exegesis and hermeneutics.

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Don F. Neufeld is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.

July 1978

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