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Dispensationalism Defined

I was asked by email to defined what I meant by dispensationalism when I used the term in an earlier post. Here was the answer I sent:

Dispensationalism is a system of prophetic theology.

In short dispensationalists are those who believe in the pre-tribulational rapture of the church.

Dispensationalists emphasis the teaching of prophecy and the imminent, at any moment, return of Christ.

Many ministries who hold dispensational beliefs also emphasize the “soon” return of Christ. The generation that has seen the restoration of the nation Israel to the land is the last generation before the return of Christ. These added beliefs, however, are not a part of dispensational teaching. It can be argued that these added beliefs contradict dispensational theology, and many dispensational scholars reject these teachings as unsound. There are some ministries that have taken the dispensational prophetic system as a starting point and gone to extremes. One of the most recent examples was the Korean movement that taught that the rapture would occur on Oct. 28, 1992.

The maim points of dispensationalism (1) are:

  1. The recognition of a distinction between Israel and the Church.
  2. A consistently literal principle of interpretation — particularly of Bible prophecy.
  3. A basic working and conception of the purpose of God as His own glory rather than as the single purpose of salvation.

Some of the beliefs derived from these principles:

  1. The O.T. prophecies of the restoration of national Israel to the land in the last days will be literally fulfilled.
  2. The millennial kingdom mentioned in Revelation will be literally fulfilled at Christ’s return after which Christ will reign on the earth for 1000 years. (Pre-millennialism)
  3. The 70 weeks of Daniel spoken of in Daniel 9 refers to a period of 490 years and apply only to Israel. The first 69 weeks have been fulfilled historically, ending at the first coming of Christ. When the Jews rejected the Messiah, the 70 weeks were suspended and a new age or dispensation called the Church age began. The Last or 70th week of Daniel, the last seven years, has yet to be fulfilled. This last week will immediately precede the second coming of Christ.
  4. The book of Revelation after the letters to the seven churches is a prophecy concerning events that will occur during the last seven years before the second coming or 70th week. (Futurist) This 70th week is called the tribulation period. The last half of this week (the last 3.5 years) is the Great Tribulation spoken of in Dan. 9 and in the olivet discourse (Matt. 24). This tribulation period is a time when God will pour out his wrath on a sinful world.
  5. The coming (Parousia) of Christ will occur in two phases. The first phase will occur at the start of the seventh week. This will be Christ’s imminent return for his saints to “rapture” his church as described in I Thess 4. All of the Christians (in some cases only overcoming Christians) will be resurrected and taken to the heavenly mansions Christ has prepared for us. (John 14) The church will not be here during the tribulation period because God has ended the Church age and resumed dealing with Israel. The church is also raptured to keep the Christians from the wrath of God which according to Romans 5:9 Christians will not experience. The second phase is Christ’s second coming at the end of the tribulation with his saints to begin the Kingdom age dispensation.
  6. The tribulation period will see a restoration of the fourth worldly kingdom spoken of in Daniel. The fourth kingdom was represented by the legs of Iron in the image of Nebechadnezzer’s dream in Dan. 2. The latter phase of the kingdom is represented by the feet or iron and clay. This kingdom is also represented by the terrible beast of Dan. 7. This fourth kingdom was the Roman empire. The Roman empire will be restored in time for the tribulation and will consist of a confederation of 10 kings or kingdoms headed by the little horn of Daniel also known as the son of perdition (II Thess. 2 – the falling away is the rapture, that which restrains is the Holy Spirit whose taking away implies the absence of the church from the earth). The son of perdition is called the Anti-Christ and spoken of in Rev. 13 where he makes all who dwell on the earth to receive the mark of the beast.
  7. Sacred history consists of different dispensations or ‘economies’. A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Dispensational schemes will vary slightly from one author to the next. One of the most popular schemes is that found in the Scofield Reference Bible (one of the sources that helped popularize dispensationalism). It is:
            Creation to fall                    Innocency
            Fall to flood                       Conscience
            Flood to Abraham                    Human Government
            Abraham to Moses                    Promise
            Moses to Christ                     Law
            Church Age                          Grace
            Millennium                          Kingdom

    A new period or dispensation begins when God introduces a change in the principles or ordinances valid up to that time. For example a number of ordinances are introduced at the time of Noah. At the coming of Christ many of the Mosiac Laws or ordinances are annulled. The purpose of God in each dispensation is his own glory.

This system of dispensational teaching including the concept of the pre-tribulational rapture was first developed among the Plymouth Brethren in the early 19th century in England and Ireland. John N. Darby in particular is credited with forming much of this theology. Dispensational theology was popularized more widely in evangelical and fundamentalist circles in North America through a series of Bible Conferences beginning in the late 1870’s. By the early 20th century about the time of the writing of _The Fundamentals_ (from which the term fundamentalist is derived) dispensationalism became the most popular prophetic theology in fundamentalist schools and Bible Institutes in America.

This is only a quick summary of some of the dispensational ideas to give you an idea of what I mean when I use the term. I am not a dispensationalist myself. I do have friends who believe this theology and who I respect.

John Baskette

  1. These three points come from _Dispensationalism Today_ by Charles C. Ryrie, The Moody Bible Institue of Chicagp, 1965. Ryrie has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh and a Th.M. and Th.D from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is a professor of systematic theology at Dallas.Dallas Theological Seminary is known for being the premier dispensational school in the U.S., perhaps the world. Moody Bible Institute is also a markedly dispensational school. Many well known ministers and teachers (at least in the U.S.) are graduates of these schools.

Here is a comparison of dispensational versus historic or classical views as given by Bob and Gretchen Passantino:

             Differences Concerning Israel and the Church
                    (Classic or Dispensational)
Classic                             Dispensational
God has always had but one          God has two bodies -- Israel and
spiritual people, represented       the church.
by the remnant in every
God's promises to Israel were       God's promises to Israel were
conditional.                        unconditional, and therefore are
                                    still binding.
All earthly promises to Israel      God's promises concerning the
have been either fulfilled or       return to the land, rebuilding
invalidated through disobedience    the temple, etc., were never
and unbelief.                       fulfilled.  They are therefore
                                    still future.
Israel was a type of the church     Although Israel was a type of
and was superseded by the           the church, they will always
church.                             remain separate.
The church was prophesied in        Christ instituted the church as
the Old Testament, in Old           a "parenthesis."
Testament language.
Christ was, and is, the only        Christ came the first time to
Hope of Israel. And Israelites      establish an earthly millennial
(Jews) will be saved only if        kingdom with Israel.
they accept him during this age.
The first advent of Christ          Israel rejected him, the God
completed Israel's redemption,      postponed this plan until the
and manifested the Israel of        second advent.
God (the church) referred to in
Galatians 6:16.
Christ instituted a                 Christ instituted a Gentile
Jewish-Gentile church.              church.
All unfulfilled spiritual           Israel is God's earthly people,
promises to Israel are being        the church is God's heavenly
fulfilled through the Christian     people.
This does not represent a change    Israel's destiny is to remain o
in God's plans, but evidences       earth forever, the destiny of
progressive (continually            the church is to spend eternity
unfolding) revelation.              in heaven.
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