Dispensationalism: A Historical Survey.

After a blessed day with family celebrating Thanksgiving I decided to end the evening with some light reading from Progressive Dispensationalism by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock. For those who are not familiar with dispensationalism – a philosophy of eschatology within Christianity – this post will probably be uninteresting…feel free to skip it. For those who are interested in the historical development of dispensationalism – read on…and let me know if I have mistakenly made any misrepresentations.

Classical Dispensationalism:

Originated with the Brethren Movement in England, an ecumenical movement which encouraged unity in Christ over against denominational barriers. Leading proponent was John Nelson Darby. Probably the best known participant of this movement was George Muller.

From England the movement spread to the United States. Its most famous proponent was D.L. Moody, its most systematic and publicized expositor, C.I. Scofield.  Additionally, it was supported by Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary. The ecumenical nature was carried over in slightly different form by forming various bible conferences – beginning with the Niagara Bible Conference. In 1909 the first edition of a bible conference in a book would be released – the Scofield Reference Bible.

Distinctive beliefs of this form of dispensationalism included:

  • Dualistic Redemption - “In order to understand the Bible, one needed to recognize that God was pursuing two different purposes, one related to heaven and one related to the earth…To put it another way, one of God’s purposes in redemption was to release the earth from the curse of corruption and decay, and to restore upon it a humanity free from death and sin. This was the earthly purpose of God…It is important to understand that in classical dispensationalism this earthly humanity is eternally…But God has a second purpose, a  heavenly purpose which envisions a heavenly humanity. This heavenly humanity was to be made up of all the redeemed from all dispensations who would be resurrected from the dead. Whereas the earthly humanity concerned people who had not died but who were preserved by God from death, the heavenly humanity was made up of all the saved who had died, whom God would resurrect from the dead.” (pp. 23-4)
  • Separate Dispensations – There is a strong emphasis on the separation of dispensations and little emphasis in their interrelationship. For example, “Classical dispensationalism saw the dispensations as different arrangements under which human beings are tested. God arranged the relationship of humankind to Himself to test their obedience to Him.” (pg. 24)
  • Nature of the Church – “The heavenly nature of the church’s salvation was interpreted…in an individualistic manner. Political and social issues were earthly matters which did not concern the church.” (pg. 27)
  • Church as Parenthesis – Wrote Lewis Sperry Chafer, “A parenthetical portion sustains some direct or indirect relation to that which goes before or that which follows; but the present age-purpose is not thus related and therefore is more properly termed an intercalation…The present age of the Church is an intercalation in the revealed calender or program of God as that program was foreseen by the prophets of old.” (pg. 27) In other words, the church is an entirely separate process from the rest of human history – past and future.
  • Literal / Spiritual Interpretation – While advocating mainly a literal hermeneutic, believed the use of a spiritual hermeneutic (typology) was necessary for the Old Testament. This was used to apply “spiritually” the promises of the O.T. to the church today, while maintaining also their literal application to Israel as a nation.

Revised Dispensationalism:

This is the version of dispensationalism most are familiar with today – at least it is the version I am most familiar with. Its major proponents include Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and J. Dwight Pentecost.

It differs most significantly from classical in its abandonment of a dualistic redemption. In other words, while not all revised dispensationalists agreed whether the redeemed’s future was in heaven (Ryrie, Walvoord) or earth (Pentecost), they all agreed that all would spend it together – there would not be a “heavenly” and a “earthly” people of God.

Additionally, there is a deemphasizing of the individualistic nature of the church age and an emphasis upon the church community under the leadership of Ray Stedman and Gene Getz.

Revised Dispensationalists were also quick to abandon the “spiritual” hermeneutic previously utilized (e.g. typology), instead favoring a straight literal (grammatical-historical) interpretation.

This resulted in an abandonment of the idea that the church was entirely separate from Old Testament prophecies and instead saw these prophecies at least partially in O.T. prophecies. This resulted in a dependence upon what Blaising and Bock consider to be a similar “spiritual” hermeneutic to that just rejected by revised dispensationalists.

Progressive Dispensationalism:

Its proponents are not laid out in detail, but obviously include Bock and Blaising amongst them. The major change in progressive dispensationalism is whence it takes its name from – the idea that the dispensations are progressive in nature, that is, “progressive dispensationalists believe that the church is a vital part of this very same plan of redemption. The appearance of the church does not signal a secondary redemption plan, either to be fulfilled in heaven apart from the new earth or in an elite class of Jews and Gentiles who are forever distinguished from the rest of redeemed humanity. Instead, the church today is a revelation of spiritual blessings which all the redeemed will share in spite of their ethnic and national differences.” (pg. 47)

This results in similar developments in their ideas regarding the church, “…while seeing the church as a new manifestation of grace, believe that this grace is precisely in keeping with the promises of the Old Testament, particularly the promises of the new covenant in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.” (pg. 49)

While revised dispensationalism was greatly influenced by the abandonment of most forms of the spiritual/typological method and then expansion of the grammatical-historical method, progressive dispensationalism looks to a similar expansion of the literal method for many of its tweaks in interpretation – namely expanded understanding of these same, e.g. applications of genre and syntax.

When Blaising and Bock attempt to sum up what progressive dispensationalism is they state, “Its major distinctive is found in its conception of the progressive accomplishment and revelation of a holistic and unified redemption. That redemption covers personal, communal, social, political and national aspects of human life. It is revealed in a succession of dispensations which vary in how they stress the aspects of redemption, but all point to a final culmination in which all aspects are redeemed together.” (pg. 56)

My Conclusion:

I must admit that there is much in this chapter that was both foreign to me and difficult to understand. There is much I have yet to wrestle with in my understanding of Scripture and various philosophical approaches to aspects of it – e.g. eschatology. That said, the one thing which becomes clear to me through every study I undertake of the churches’ history is the variety of opinion within the church. I am not suggesting a new ecumenism, but I do think that a realization that our intellectual and spiritual forefathers differed greatly in their theological opinions can provide us with some much needed humility as we wrestle with the Scriptures today, and perhaps help us weigh a little more graciously the opinions of others.

When I read of the idea that God would have two separate redeemed people (heavenly and earthly) throughout all eternity – I scoff at the idea…and yet, these are my spiritual forefathers. If giants of the faith can make such poor assumptions, what am I, a poor student of the Scriptures capable of? As Bonhoeffer writes so aptly in Life Together, we read Scripture in part to help us recognize our own inability to comprehend it in its fullness and thus drive us back in reliance upon Christ. Ahh, there is the central and glorious truth of our faith – the person and the grace of God as expressed through His Son Jesus!

P.S. I was barely able to scrape the surface of the extensive information Blaising and Bock provide in this first chapter. I’d recommend it as a worthy read to any aspiring pastor, theologian, writer, etc.

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2 thoughts on “Dispensationalism: A Historical Survey.”

  1. Dave, it does sound interesting however I wonder where the Pentecostals like myself find the relevance? Dispensationally speaking we are outside the allotted time frame. Although I understand the premise of economies of time within God’s progressive revelation of Himself once we step beyond The Book of Acts retrograde sets into dispensationalism. The whole abandonment of Spiritual meaning of scripture appears to coincide with the Church being stripped of it’s Supernatural Power. “Powerlessness and silence go together.” -Margaret Atwood. Dispensational silences the Word and its real power. Jesus said the traditions of men nullify the Word of God.

    I speak with so many people who dismiss the Gifts, miracles, signs and wonders due in large part to dispensational teaching. It’s sad to have to reteach the Church its Supernatural heritage and it’s ensuing rights and privileges. But once the hurdle of “that’s not for today” is cleared the Bible comes alive to them.

    Dispensational teaching I believe was intended as a rudimentary overview. Beyond that it’s a hinderance in my opinion. However upon further reading maybe “Progressive Dispensationalists” will embrace the full revelation of what God is doing in the world.

  2. Grant,

    Spiritual interpretation in regards to Dispensationalism is about how the New Testament reads the Old – not about if there is a spiritual reading to the texts. Traditional Dispensationalists question how to understand Old Testament events and stories and conclude that the church should take a spiritual understanding of such things.

    In regard to ‘gifts’ I don’t believe Dispensationalism is required to form a cessation or non cessation viewpoint.

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