Ask Steve: Dispensationalism









Question: Steve, what are you thoughts on dispensationalism? What do you perceive are its strength and weaknesses? Do you agree with it? 

Answer: Dispensationalism is the alternative system to Covenant Theology that views all of biblical history as divided into dispensations, or economies (programs), based on a literal, grammatical-historical understanding of the Old and New Testament. Scholars disagree on how many dispensations there are, but the general consensus is that there are seven, in which we are currently living in the sixth (the church dispensation), and the seventh is the millennial kingdom (1,000 reign of Christ) which is still to come. This is in contrast to the Covenant theologian’s more simplistic understanding of “dispensation,” – they believe that there are only two eras in God’s timeline – pre-Christ and post-christ. Contrary to popular misconception, dispensationalism does not teach different methods of salvation (e.g. salvation by law forIsrael, grace for the church). Dispensationalism is primarily concerned with the doctrines of ecclesiology and eschatology, emphasizing a historical-grammatical meaning of Old Testament prophetic passages and covenants, a distinction between Israel and the church, and a future salvation and restoration of the nation of Israel in a future millennial kingdom.

I would like to begin by exploring the weaknesses proposed by the opponents to this system, one of which is the apparent division of thought within the dispensational camp concerning various issues. Whether you are a classical, modified, or progressive dispensationalist, you will have different views as it regards Lordship salvation, Israel and the church, the timing of the rapture, the exact number of dispensations, Calvinism and Arminianism, the kingdom of God and the place of Jesus’ kingdom ethics such as the Sermon on the Mount teachings, the definition of the kingdom of God, the definition of the church, and the timing of the New Covenant and Davidic Covenant’s fulfillment (future or now?). In contrast, Covenant Theology is much simpler because there are less factions and thoughts within its camp. Because of that, there is more unity of thought, though that does not necessarily make it true. This division within dispensationalism is a weakness because it demonstrates lack of unity and a plethora of thoughts/theories that are not helpful when the whole system is supposed to be built on the commitment to discovering the intended meaning of Scripture through grammatical-historical hermeneutics.

Another weakness of dispensationalism is its lack of defined number of dispensations (since there is disagreement as to the exact number in history), as well as the appropriateness of certain names that describe the dispensation period. For example, the 1,000 year reign of Christ following the period of the church age is generally described as the official “kingdom dispensation.” However, Jesus seems to reference a spiritual kingdom that reigns in the hearts of the redeemed before that time period (Luke 17:21; Matthew 3:2). Even before Jesus birth, God’s kingdom has manifested and had its influence in other forms, such as in the form of theocracies in the time of David and Solomon. This casts some doubt as to the rigidity of the dispensational system as proposed by scholars. It is not an issue of whether or not there are four, six, or seven dispensations, but whether or not the idea of dispensational structures governing or interpreting the Bible is a man-made theory, as much as Covenant Theology is in its own right, or based on solid Scriptural evidence?

Of course, the traditional definition of dispensation is the rigid dividing of the Bible into seven dispensations, which has been the source of some criticism. If this were really the definition, then skeptics would have reasonable doubt to question this system. Yet, I would contend with this definition because it upholds believing in dispensations as the sole distinguishing characteristic of dispensationalism. Whether one is a dispensationalist or not, all Christians believe in dispensations. Is it just a matter of how many and of what kind? Pre-fall and post-fall? Old covenant era and New Covenant era? Before Christ and after Christ?

Now I would like to present the strengths for dispensationalism, which I believe rightly describes what dispensationalists believe, and acts as the foundation behind the dispensational 7-fold model that is proposed by the dispensationists. The first commendable and defining aspect of dispensationalism is that they faithfully abide by a consistent grammatical-historical hermeneutics, especially when it comes to prophetic passages. This has led to a particular interpretation of ecclesiological and eschatological issues that has divided themselves from covenant theologians, who view prophetic/apocalyptic books as overly allegorical and figurative in nature. It is because of this hermeneutical practice that dispensationalists come to an understanding of the dispensations that are evident throughout biblical history, that God had delegated economies or stewardship to His people (whether the Adam, Israel, or the church) at different times of history to carry out the stated responsibilities, and the people are held accountable for what they do before God, whether its salvific or sanctifying. If the person faithfully discharges his duties, there is reward, but if he fails to do so, there are negative consequences.

Because dispensationalism is based on a consistent and literal interpretation of Scripture, its clarity is obvious, as are God’s plans. This means that the New Testament does not reinterpret the Old Testament passages in a way that cancels the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics. We don’t read New Testament meaning into the Old Testament, but rather use the New Testament to inform our understanding of the Old Testament. Whatever God meant to say to the OT writers and the audience is what He meant to say and what He will set out to do before history is complete. Because of the grammatical-historical hermeneutics, we understand that the nation of Israel exists as a separate unity from the church.Israel has experienced the curses of the Mosaic covenant and exile from the land, yet the OT prophets also prophesied spiritual salvation to the Israelites and a literal regathering to the Promised Land in the last days. This promise is not negated by the New Testament, since the promises ofIsraelis not transferred to the church in anyway. Therefore, God is entirely faithful in His eternal, unilateral covenants to Israel.

Another strength, and benefit, of dispensationalism is that the grammatical-historical interpretation allows for the idea of a future millennial kingdom and a restored Zion, which entails the reality of a vibrant political, social, and cultural life that will exist on earth. In other words, dispensational theology strongly emphasizes the physical aspects of the kingdom and does not spiritualize or allegorize everything into soteriological or spiritual issues. In contrast, dispensational theology can faithfully accommodate soteriological and spiritual themes along with social, economic, and political realities that characterize the New Creation Model, portraying the future kingdom of God as not just a mystical concept, but a physical reality where the good created things of this world can exist there, without sin.

Recommended Resource: The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism by Robert Saucy