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Introduction: A dispensationalist’s (small “d” intended) Gripe

At Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, we’re unabashedly committed to irenic theology. This means that even when we vehemently disagree with a particular theological stance, we do our very best to describe that stance fairly and squarely. And there’s only one sure-fire way of knowing that we’ve met this objective: anyone who’s adopted the position we’ve put on the table could pull up a chair and say, “It looks good to me!”

Before getting to our main course, let me say that I’ve had more than my fill of current eschatological fare. In fact, these days, my stomach turns every time I catch wind of a new book someone is cooking up to satisfy our urge to know what the Bible really teaches about the end times. It’s not eschatology in itself that I find disagreeable (it is, after all, part of the whole counsel of God); it’s the smug smell rising from so many contemporary popular works on the subject. And nothing stinks more than works that caricature other positions.

Let’s be honest: no eschatological camp is entirely innocent of constructing and collapsing a house of cards (representing an opposing position) every now and then. It’s easy to take the path of least resistance through an opposing camp and wave a victory flag when we’re done. Oftentimes, this impresses the socks off of folks who proudly display our stripes. But it always makes us look xenophobic, theologically speaking, to those on the outside who see the broader landscape.

Dispensationalism is getting a bad rap these days. Much of that rap is deserved. As someone reared theologically in this tradition, I readily admit that dispensationalists of old have made many careless, some outlandish, and even a few heretical statements. Exposing these blunders is like shooting fat carp in a slim barrel. Unfortunately, those bent on ridding the doctrinal waters of dispensational pests are so impressed with each hit (especially when they’re the ones pulling the trigger!) that they never bother to see—or simply choose to ignore—bigger fish that aren’t as easy to fry.

I confess that I’m weary of witnessing assaults on dispensationalism in books and blogs where it’s defined in antiquated, simplistic, myopic terms. Now let me be clear: I’m not married to dispensational thought and I don’t have problems with critiques of it per se (I’ve written a few of my own!). But 9 times out of 10 when I find dispensationalism defined prior to an attempted dismantling, I’m put off by the description. It almost never “looks good to me.”

The reason for this is simple: dispensationalism is not monolithic. It’s not a one-size-fits-all system, as so many would have us think. Different brands of dispensationalists believe quite different things, and it’s time that popular dispie-busters get a clue on this front. Then again, maybe that’s too much to expect. I mean, this discussion has only been going on in print for the last few decades.

Why the sarcasm? Let’s just say that I finally received one too many e-mails essentially asking, “How can someone who seems so smart be so naïve as to believe that God has two plans of salvation, two distinct peoples, and two eternal destinies for those who are saved?” In my less charitable moments, I’m tempted to retort, “How can someone who seems so interested in dispensationalism be two decades behind in the discussion?” By God’s grace, I haven’t responded that way—yet.

Rather than merely cry foul, I want to give readers of Parchment and Pen a simple snapshot of three major schools of dispensational thought, with the hope that folks will see just how far removed many current dispensationalists are from the caricatures (which, if true, would make just about every dispensationalist with whom I rub shoulders drop the label like a bad habit!) that so readily find their ways to my inbox. So without further ado…

Three Brands of Dispensationalism

There are three primary schools of dispensational thought existing today. The different schools can be labeled as follows:

1. “Classic” Dispensationalism (CD)

2. “Revised” Dispensationalism (RD)

3. “Progressive” Dispensationalism (PD)

In the remainder of this entry I want to briefly compare these schools by noting their historical roots, primary distinctives, and well-known adherents. [What follows barely skims the surface. I can recommend further reading if people want to unpack things.]

Historical Roots

CD is descriptive of early British and American dispensationalism, most widely promoted during the period of time beginning with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and ending with Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952). Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921) is largely credited as the key representative of this model, and his Scofield Study Bible of 1909 is used as the initial reference point for the term dispensationalism. The influence of CD has dwindled significantly over the years.

RD arose as a revision of CD in the 1950’s and 1960’s and found its clearest expression in the 1966 edition of Charles C. Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today. RD still enjoys a large following, more so outside of academia than within.

PD is the result of dialog over the past thirty or so years, and formally received its current label at the Evangelical Theological Society meetings in 1991. Spearheaded by adherents of RD who further refined historical-literal interpretive methods, its development has primarily been the result of advances in the study of biblical theology (with its focus on the historical progression of divine revelation).

Primary Distinctives

The primary distinctive of CD is its emphasis upon two separate groups of redeemed people. According to CD, redeemed persons living at the time of Christ’s return will comprise an earthly people relieved of the curse and restored from sin. On the other hand, redeemed persons (of any dispensation) who die before the Second Coming will comprise a heavenly people privileged to inhabit a celestial world. The distinction between these two redeemed groups will remain throughout eternity.

RD abandons the idea that two distinct groups of redeemed people will spend eternities separated from one another, but nonetheless maintains a rigid distinction between Israel and the Church. Interestingly, this has required adherents of RD to choose between an eternity of all redeemed peoples in heaven or on earth. Both options are supported in the RD camp.

Unlike both CD and RD, PD sees no eternal distinction in redemptive blessing upon various groups of people. Though the Church has its own identity, it is part of the same plan of redemption with Israel. This is a rather logical development, since the very nature of PD is a complementary relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

Well-known Adherents

The most visible, ardent defenders of CD are deceased. They included men such as John Nelson Darby, C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, James H. Brookes, Harry A. Ironside, William Pettingill, Henry C. Theissen and Arno C. Gaebelein.

Published, influential adherents of RD include both deceased and living men the likes of Charles C. Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, J. Alva McClain, Renald Showers, John F. Walvoord, Robert P. Lightner, Thomas Ice, and Paul Feinberg.

As far as I can tell, proponents of PD are considerably less aggressive about pushing an eschatological agenda and, in fact, are often better known for contributions to other areas of study. They include men like Darrell L. Bock, Robert L. Saucy, Craig A. Blaising, W. Edward Glenny, and J. Lanier Burns.

Preview of Forthcoming (and Much Shorter!) Entries

In the next entry, I’ll take a quick, comparative look at CD, RD, and PD with respect to their hermeneutical practices, the dispensations, and biblical covenants. In the third and final entry, I’ll overview each school’s teaching on the Church, the Kingdom, and salvation.

By the time the three-part mini-series is complete, it should be clear that not all dispensationalists today look the same. And thank God for that! As much as I admire Darrell Bock, I’m not ready to lose my hair!

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    10 replies to "What Comes to Mind When You Hear the Word “Dispensationalism”? (Part 1)"

    • C Michael Patton

      Sorry folks. Someone hacked into the site and posted something that lacked in aesthetic beauty, if you know what I mean. I am sorry for all who had to see it. I have your comments saved, but cannot log on as you and post them again. I have posted them all below in one post. Sorry for the trouble. Dispensationalism always stirs up trouble!

    • C Michael Patton

      1. rumblebelly on 12 Jun 2007 at 11:06 pm

      Great post. I grew up reading the Scofield Bible and Pentecost so glad to see the differences. If you could list your book recommendations at the end of the series it would be great.
      Thanks
      Juan

      2. C Michael Patton on 13 Jun 2007 at 1:21 am

      Great post Ed. I share your feelings about the subject and am glad that you wrote on this. I don’t think I have ever heard one anti-dispensationalist represent the view fairly. I hope that this will cause people to rethink the subject and at the very least give dispensationalists are fair shake.
      But, sad to say, I don’t think the alternative positions have been traditionally handled well by many dispensationalists.

      3. Ed Komoszewski on 13 Jun 2007 at 2:03 am

      You’re absolutely correct, Michael: dispensationalists have historically blown hot air at too many straw men—especially when it comes to amillennialism.
      I’m just as tired of hearing the “amillennialists spiritualize the text” mantra as I am of hearing that the most sophisticated dispensational hermeneutic is like a Ginsu ripping through a soda can (remember those commercials?).

      It’s almost comical to read amillennialists and dispensationalists of past generations accusing one another of mimicking the hermeneutic of liberals. But is our contemporary dialog in certain evangelical quarters really any less embarrassing?

      4. Preacher Jack on 13 Jun 2007 at 10:19 am

      Ed I agree that when someone wants to trash Dispensationlism they usually start with a description that isn’t well researched, cherry picked or slanted to help prove their position.
      However, when current dispensationalists defend their position they have to beware not to fall into one of two traps. The first is to present Scoffield’s mutation of the dispensation theology he learned from J.N. Darby as Darby’s views. I have read a lot of Darby’s letters and his writings and Scoffield did not correctly represent Darby or what he taught on the subject. There are many avenues for us to read what Darby said on the matter (in print and on line). May I also suggest that today’s dispensationalists read a guy buy the name of William Kelly who was a contemporary of J.N. Darby.
      The second trap they fall into is to think that those from the non-dispensational camp have it all wrong (don’t feel bad covenant theologians make the same mistake). I have spent time with both those who are adherents to covenant theology and those who are adherents to dispensational theology and it is my impression that there is allot on both sides they are right on but they cloak it in terminology and are willing to fight to the death over verbiage then listen to each other.
      You cannot read the bible and deny God makes covenants with man. You also can not read the bible and realize that there were eras, epoch or time periods (dispensations) and under both God revealed more and more of Himself to us.
      Oh and If I can offer a little disagreement on something about Darby and him being the father of dispensational theology (before I finish). Darby was part of a movement called “Plymouth Brethren” which started before he joined the movement after leaving the Anglican Church. He is labeled with this title because he was a prolific writer and these writings have survived and unfortunately the others have not. The group had held to dispensational theology before he joined.

      5. Eriol on 13 Jun 2007 at 10:35 am

      For all our theological studies, I wonder at times if we are not seven blind men exploring an elephant and arguing about our differing conclusions. Perhaps we are right to an extent but, sadly, all wrong at the same time.

      6. Carrie Hunter on 13 Jun 2007 at 11:21 am

      Before I started having theological discussions the only thing I thought of when I heard dispensation was dispense and subsequently thought of Pez dispensers. All that has changed however in the past few years.
      When I hear that word now, I think of my personal theology because evidentially I am a dispensationalist. Usually the first thing I think of in respects to that theology is the end times. However it is important to know that dispensationalism covers much more than that, something I really need to learn much more about.
      So over all when I hear the word dispensation I am reminded of how much studying lies before me.
      Great post Michael.
      Blessings,
      Carrie

      7. Chad Winters on 13 Jun 2007 at 11:51 am

      Ohh timely post!!!
      I was just realizing the other day that as much as my understanding of theological concepts has grown thanks to Reclaiming the Mind, I am still pretty clueless about dispensationalism, covenant theolgy, etc.
      I had already decided to devote sometime trying to get the basics of these schools downI hope the last class covers a lot of this (although I am likely to be out of the country this fall so I may mis the class
      Perhaps you can summarize Covenant theology next? that one confuses me too
      Its funny, I remember studying amil, premil, post mil etc. but not dispensationalism itself

      8. Chad Winters on 13 Jun 2007 at 11:55 am

      The PD camp sounds pretty interesting, could you advise some good reading material for that?

      9. C Michael Patton on 13 Jun 2007 at 12:38 pm

      Carrie, as much as I would like to claim that I wrote this, it is the result of the scholarship of one Ed Komoszewski!

      10. C Michael Patton on 13 Jun 2007 at 12:39 pm

      Chad, too bad you cannot make it to E and E. We will cover both Covenant theology and Dispensationalism quite a bit in sessions 3 and 4. Here is a link to the E and E.

      11. Chad Winters on 13 Jun 2007 at 12:42 pm

      I’ll take the video’s and manual (if they’re not illegal) but I probably won’t be able to meat online

      12. Eriol on 13 Jun 2007 at 1:07 pm

      Preacher Jack:
      At the risk of being an historical prig, Darby (having become disenchanted with the Church of England in which he had been ordained) joined with a group known as the “Christian Brethren” which was centered in Plymouth, England.
      The “movement,” if it could be considered as such, became known as the “Plymouth Brethren” in the States.

    • Ed Komoszewski

      Preacher Jack, thanks for sharing your insights on Darby. Please note that I intentionally refrained from calling Darby “the father of dispensational theology.” Rather, I simply noted that he was the first to widely promote classic dispensationalism.

      I agree that dispensational and covenant systems are not as far removed from one another as some of us were first led to believe. Indeed, they’re often only separated by a few interpretive judgments that could, frankly, go either way.

      I’m further convinced that some differences are simply a matter of perspective. Dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists alike have stressed certain truths to the exclusion of others. And we all have our blind spots. Thus, each of us would do well to remember this simple fact: oftentimes what an opposing view sees is not wrong; it’s just not all there is to see.

    • Curt

      Great article, and I appreciate your irenic approach. Would you at some point address the differences between progressive dispensationalism and historic premillennialism? There seems to be a lot of overlap with these two views and not many clear descriptions of the distinctions. Thanks!

    • Carrie Hunter

      OOPS it was Ed!

      Great post Ed. 😀

    • […] Part 1 we introduced the three following schools of dispensational […]

    • Ed Komoszewski

      Curt, you’re right that there’s a lot of overlap between historic premillennialism and progressive dispensationalism (e.g., both systems view Christ’s reign [i.e., his rule from David’s throne] as spiritually inaugurated though it still awaits a physical consummation). However, there are a few differences.

      First, whereas historic premillennialism sees no distinction whatsoever between Israel and the church, progressive dispensationalism assigns the church its own identity within God’s single redemptive plan. We might say that progressive dispensationalism sees one people of God with two different roles in the history of salvation.

      Second (and things get a bit fuzzy here), historic premillennialists are post-tribulational, whereas progressive dispensationalists seem, for the most part, to be pre-tribulational. However, there is nothing that would keep a progressive dispensationalist from being post-tribulational. Unlike the case with revised dispensationalism (which maintains a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church), a pre-tribulation rapture is not a defining feature of the progressive dispensational system.

      These are the main differences, as far as I can tell.

    • Curt

      Ed,

      Thanks for the response. I appreciate your clarity regarding the timing of the rapture in each view. And I’ve heard the same distinction made concerning how each view perceives Israel and the church. What has caused me pause with this distinction is a historic premillennialist such as Doug Moo who seems to place great importance in the fulfillment of prophecy specifically intended for ethnic Israel. Does this just show a diversity of views within historic premillennialism, or am I missing some nuance?

      Thanks again!
      Curt

    • Ed Komoszewski

      Curt, I’m sure that you could teach me a thing (or three!) on these fronts. But, for what it’s worth, I think that historic premillennialists can see no essential distinction between Israel and the Church and still locate ethnic Israel in future prophecy for one primary reason: some Old Testament texts originally applied to ethnic Israel (or at least a remnant within ethnic Israel) are just too hard to squeeze into the present age or the age of the eternal kingdom. Texts like Isaiah 11 and 65 come to mind here. In each of those texts, we read of semi-restored conditions that go beyond our experience now but also fall short of the sinless perfection of the eternal kingdom. Historic premillennialists thus locate these texts in a restored earthly kingdom between the present age and eternity.

      You might have some other insights into this matter. If so, I’m all ears eyes!

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