The essence of dispensationalism

A system of Biblical interpretation begun in the nineteenth century is embraced by many Christians today. What are the key concepts of this relatively recent hermeneutical method, and how do they differ from what the church has generally held?

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University, Bernen Springs, Michigan.

Dispensationalism as a system of Scripture interpretation can best be understood against the background of its historical rise in the nineteenth century. John N. Darby (1800-1882), one of the chief founders of the Plymouth Brethren Movement in England, is credited with the development of a new system of theological interpretation not known before in the history of Christian thought. Clarence B.

Bass, at first a dispensationalist himself, detected during his doctoral research into Darby's doctrine of the church "a basic hermeneutical pattern of interpretation that is broadly divergent from that of the historic faith." 1

Bass states in his historical study: "Darby introduced not only new concepts into theology, but a wholly new principle of interpretation. He himself admitted that this principle had been hidden from the church for nineteen centuries, and then revealed only to him." 2

This new principle was a strictly applied literalism in the interpretation of the Bible resulting in a sharp separation between "Israel" and the "church," and between "dispensations" of law and of grace.

Bass concludes: "Whatever evaluation history may make of this movement, it will attest that dispensationalism is rooted in Darby's concept of the church—a concept that sharply distinguishes the church from Israel." 3 Darby conceived the idea that the church was not prophesied in the Old Testament. Therefore he began to teach a future hope for Israel outside the church, based on his assumption that God's covenant promises to Abram and Israel were unconditional. Consequently, a whole new chronology of final events had to be constructed in order to safeguard the premise of a separate hope for Israel after the church had been raptured away from earth to heaven. Darby's concept that it is a fundamental error of historic Christianity to believe that the church of Christ Jesus is the true Israel, and therefore has inherited Israel's covenant promises and responsibilities, is still the basic assumption of modern dispensationalism.

One needs to recognize the spiritual climate of the early nineteenth century with its theological liberalism, its loss of hope in the second advent of Christ, and its widespread ignorance of Biblical teachings, to understand the ready acceptance of Darbyism. William E. Cox explains: "The Brethren teachings with their emphasis on prophecy and the second coming of Christ, met a need in the lives of the spiritually-starved people of that generation. It is not difficult to replace a vacuum! . . . Darby not only returned to the faith once delivered to the saints—which admittedly had been discarded and needed to be recovered—but he went far beyond that faith, bringing in many teachings of his own, which were never heard of until he brought them forth." 4

However, in the 1920s many leaders of the fundamentalist movement came to feel that in order to be a fundamentalist—to believe in the fundamental teachings of Holy Scriptures—one also automatically had to be a dispensationalist. Thus modern dispensationalism, as a system, arose as a reaction against the spiritualizations of the liberal theology of the nineteenth century. It originated in the teachings of John N. Darby and is popularized in the footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible (1917) and The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967). Dispensational theology is worked out systematically by Lewis Sperry Chafer (successor of C. I. Scofield) in his apologetic work Systematic Theology (8 vols.) and in the writings of John F. Walvoord, currently president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Dispensationalism is taught in principle at the Moody Bible Institute (Chicago) and in an estimated two hundred Bible Institutes in the U.S.A. The dispensationalist magazine is Bibliotheca Sacra, inherited by Dallas Theological Seminary in 1934.

Popular authors such as Hal Lindsey, Salem Kirban, and others have influenced millions through their writings and motion pictures to accept dispensationalist futurism—a Middle East "Armageddon" war and a Jewish millennium kingdom centered in Jerusalem—as the true prophetic picture of God's plan for the Jewish people and the world.

The fact that Darby was the originator of the system of dispensationalism does not in itself, of course, indicate whether the system is therefore false or true. The truthfulness or falsehood of dispensationalism depends exclusively on its harmony or disharmony with the Holy Scriptures. The claim of the dispensationalist Harry A. Ironside that Darby's teachings were "scarcely to be found in a single book or sermon through a period of sixteen hundred years!" 5 invites critical investigation into the essence of dispensationalism—its distinctive hermeneutic of literalism.

The hermeneutic of literalism

Dispensationalism represents that system of Bible interpretation which maintains that in Scripture the terms "Israel" and "church" always stand for two essentially different covenant peoples of God: an earthly, national-theocratic kingdom for Israel, but for the church only an eternal place in heaven. As Lewis S. Chafer puts it: "The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved." 6 Daniel P. Fuller correctly concludes: "The basic premise of Dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity."7

In other words, dispensationalism maintains different eschatologies for "Israel" and the "church," each having its own, contrasting covenant promises. The essence of dispensationalism therefore consists in "rightly dividing" the Scriptures, not merely into compartments of time or dispensations, but also into sections of scripture that apply either to Israel or to the church or to the Gentiles, a division derived from 1 Corinthians 10:32. L. S. Chafer taught that the only Scriptures addressed specifically to Christians are the Gospel of John, the book of Acts, and the New Testament epistles. 8

The final conflict or tribulation in Revelation 6-20 is claimed to be between the antichrist and godly Jews, not between antichrist and the church of Christ, because, as J. F. Walvoord says, "the book as a whole, is not occupied primarily with God's program for the church." 9

The fundamental principle from which this compartmentalizing of the Scriptures stems is called a "consistent literalism." One of its modern spokesmen, Charles C. Ryrie, categorically states: "Since consis tent literalism is the logical and obvious principle of interpretation, dispensationalism is more than justified." 10

"Dispensationalism is a result of consistent application of the basic hermeneutical principle of literal, normal, or plain interpretation. No other system of theology can claim this." 11

"Consistent literalism is at the heart of dispensational eschatology." 12

The implications of this principle of literalism are far-reaching in theology, especially in eschatology. It demands the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, which therefore must take place during some future period in Pales tine, "for the church is not now fulfilling them in any literal sense." 13 Thus literalism leads necessarily to dispensational futurism concerning national Israel in prophetic interpretation.

According to dispensationalism the church of Christ, which was born on the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, is definitely not a part of God's covenants with Abraham and David. The Christian church with its gospel of grace is only an "interruption" of God's original plan with Israel, a "parenthesis" (H. Ironside) or "intercalation" (L. S. Chafer), unforeseen by the Old Testament prophets and having no connection with God's promises of an earthly kingdom to Abraham, Moses, and David.

Basic to the dispensationalist system is the assumption that Christ offered Himself to the nation of Israel as the messianic king to establish the glorious, earthly kingdom that was promised to David. On this supposition rests the inference that Christ "postponed" His kingdom offer when Israel rejected Him as her rightful king. Instead, Christ began to offer His kingdom of grace (from Matthew 13 onward) as a temporary covenant of grace that would terminate as soon as He would again establish the Jewish nation as His theocracy. The church of reborn believers must therefore first be taken out of this world through a sudden, invisible "rapture" to heaven before God can fulfill His "unconditional" Old Testament promises to Israel. The restored Jewish nation will then be plunged into the tribulations of "the time of Jacob's trouble." Thus the dispensationalist system requires a "pretribulational rapture" of the church of Christ.

Dispensationalism asserts that the Old Testament covenant promises to Israel can be fulfilled only to the Jewish nation (in all details as written) during the future Jewish millennium of Revelation 20. Only then will God's distinctive and unconditional purposes with Israel be gloriously consummated. This implies of necessity the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the reinstitution of animal sacrifices in "commemoration" of the death of Christ. All the nations will then acknowledge national Israel as the favored people of God. Ryrie says, "This millennial culmination is the climax of history and the great goal of God's program for the ages." 14

Thus it is quite clear that dispensationalism separates the church of Christ from the total redemptive plan of God for Israel and mankind and restricts the future kingdom of God to the restoration of a strictly Jewish kingdom the so-called millennial kingdom.

This dichotomy between Israel and the church, between the kingdom of God on earth and the church, between Jesus' gospel of the kingdom and Paul's gospel of grace, is the logical outgrowth of the adopted principle of literalistic interpretation of the prophetic Word of God.

Key to the Old Testament

According to Christ and the New Testament, is the dispensational hermeneutic of "consistent literalism" the genuine key to interpret the future fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies? Is the hermeneutic of dispensational literalism organically (i.e., genuinely and intrinsically) related to the Holy Scriptures themselves, or is it a presupposition that is forced upon God's Word from the outside as an "objective standard" 15 in order to safeguard the Bible against unwarranted spiritualizations and allegorizations? Should not the "objective" principle for understanding the Word of God be derived inductively from the inspired record itself?

The cardinal point is this: Is the Christian believer permitted to take the writings of the Old Testament as a closed unit by themselves, in isolation from the New Testament witness of its fulfillment, or must he accept the Old Testament and the New Testament together as one organic revelation of God in Christ Jesus? Is the Christian expositor allowed to interpret the Old Testament as the complete and final revelation of God to the Jewish people, a closed canon, without letting Jesus Christ be the true interpreter of Moses and the prophets, and without letting the New Testament, as the final revelation of God, have the supreme authority to interpret the Old Testament prophecies according to Christ?

In the first place, the Old Testament by itself lacks the guiding norm of Jesus Christ and His apostles for a Christian under standing of the Hebrew Scriptures. The principle of "literalism" is then introduced into this vacuum of an unfinished canon of Scripture to supply the guiding norm of interpretation that Christ and the New Testament were appointed by God to fulfill. The term literalism itself becomes dubious in meaning if one defines it as the literal or normal grammatico-historical exegesis of the Old Testament but then immediately exalts this Old Testament exegesis as the final truth within the total canon of the Bible, so that Christ and the apostolic gospel have no authority to unfold, modify, or (re-)interpret the Old Testament covenant promises.

Charles C. Ryrie states that the dispensational view of progressive revelation can accept additional light but not that the term "Israel" can mean the "church." This would be an unacceptable "contradiction" of terms and concepts.16 Dispensationalism denies an organic relationship between Old Testament prophecy and the church of Christ Jesus. It rejects the traditional application of the Davidic kingdom promises to Christ's spiritual rulership over His church, because to do so would be interpreting prophecy allegorically, not liter ally, and therefore illegitimately.

A crucial question then becomes, Do dispensationalists really accept the organic character of the Bible as a whole, that is, the spiritual and theological unity of the Old and New Testament revelation?

Should our idea of "literalism" be set as the highest norm for the understanding of the ultimate fulfillment of Israel's prophecies, or should Christ Jesus Himself be our norm for the full understanding of the entire Old Testament? F. F. Bruce gives the answer: "Our Lord's use of the Old Testament may well serve as our standard and pattern in biblical interpretation; and Christians may further remind themselves that part of the Holy Spirit's present work is to open the Scriptures for them as the risen Christ did for the disciples on the Emmaus road." 17

The next article in this series will take up such questions as: When did the church actually begin according to Christ? How do Christ and the New Testament writers apply God's ancient covenants with Abraham, Israel, and David? Does the New Testament present the church as the "Israel of God," heir of all God's promised covenant blessings for the present and future?


1 Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 9.

2 Ibid., p. 98.

3 Ibid., p. 127.

4 William E. Cox, An Examination of Dispensanonalism (Philadelphia, Penna.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.; 1963), pp. 4, 5.

5 Harry A. Ironside, The Mysteries of God (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1908), pp. 50, 51, as quoted by D. P. Fuller, Gospel and Law (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 13.

6 Lewis S. Chafer, "Dispensationalism," in Bibliotheca Sacra 93 (1936), p. 448.

7 Daniel P. Fuller, The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism (unpub. diss., Northern Baptist Theol. Sem., Chicago, 111., 1957), p. 25.

8 Chafer, op. cit., pp. 406, 407.

9 J. F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967, 2d printing), p. 103.

10 C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 97.

11 Ibid., p. 96.

12 Ibid., p. 158.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., p. 104.

15 Ibid., p. 88. Ryrie: "What check would there be on the variety of interpretations which man's imagination could produce if there were not an objective standard which the literal principle provides?"

16 Ibid., p. 94.

17 In Baker's Dictionary of Theology (Baker Book House, 1973), p. 293.

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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University, Bernen Springs, Michigan.

May 1981

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