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Dispensationalism is an evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that understands God to have related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of "dispensations," or periods in history.
As a system, dispensationalism is expounded in the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–82) and the Plymouth Brethren movement,:10 and propagated through works such as Cyrus Scofield's Scofield Reference Bible. The theology of dispensationalism consists of a distinctive eschatological end times perspective, as all dispensationalists hold to premillennialism and most hold to a pretribulation rapture. Dispensationalists believe that the nation of Israel is distinct from the Christian Church,:322 and that God has yet to fulfill his promises to national Israel. These promises include the land promises, which in the future world to come result in a millennial kingdom and Third Temple where Christ, upon his return, will rule the world from Jerusalem for a thousand years. In other areas of theology, dispensationalists hold to a wide range of beliefs within the evangelical and fundamentalist spectrum.:13
With the rise of dispensationalism, some conservative Protestants came to interpret Book of Revelation not as an account of past events (with specific reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, a position known as Preterism) but as predictions of the future.
Estimates of the number of followers of Dispensationalist beliefs vary between 5 and 40 million in the United States alone.
One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalism is progressive revelation. While some non-dispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalism emphasises to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the Church.
Another important theological concept is the emphasis on what is referred to as the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. This is often popularly referred to as the "literal" interpretation of Scripture. Just as Israel was said to have literally experienced the curses spoken of in the Old Testament, dispensationalists believe that they will one day, literally, receive the blessings spoken of in the Old Testament. Just as it is with progressive revelation, the historical-grammatical method is not a concept or practice that is exclusive just to dispensationalists. However, a dispensational distinctive is created when the historical-grammatical method of interpretation is closely coupled with an emphasis on progressive revelation along with the historical development of the covenants in Scripture.
All dispensationalists hold to a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. Israel is an ethnic nation consisting of Hebrews (Israelites), beginning with Abraham and continuing in existence to the present. The church consists of all saved individuals in this present dispensation—i.e., from the "birth of the Church" in Acts until the time of the Rapture. The distinction between Israel and the Church is not mutually exclusive, as there is a recognized overlap between the two.:295 The overlap consists of Jewish Christians (such as Peter and Paul – although the Apostle Paul was also a Roman citizen, by birth, he was of the tribe of Benjamin and a strong Jewish nationalist in heart (Rom 9:1-3)) who are ethnically Jewish and also have faith in Jesus Christ. Dispensationalists also believe that toward the end of the Tribulation, Israel as a nation will turn and embrace Jesus as their messiah right before his second coming during the Great Tribulation. The spectrum of teaching on Israel and the Church may be depicted as below:
|Spectrum of Belief about Church–Israel Distinctions|
Classical dispensationalists refer to the present day Church as a "parenthesis" or temporary interlude in the progress of Israel's prophesied history. Progressive dispensationalism "softens" the Church/Israel distinction by seeing some Old Testament promises as expanded by the New Testament to include the Church. However, progressives never view this expansion as replacing promises to its original audience, Israel.
Covenant Theology is the alternative view to dispensationalism that holds that God has one people Israel and the promises to Israel made in the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the new Israel, and the object of Abraham's hope. Dispensationalists have often criticized Covenant Theology as being identical with what they call "Replacement Theology" or Supersessionism, the concept that the Church has replaced Israel. However, in Covenant Theology, the church is not a replacement for the nation of Israel but an expansion of it where Gentiles are "grafted into" the existing covenant community. Jewish Christians are included in the spiritual Israel.
The label "dispensationalism" is derived from the idea that Biblical history is best understood through division into a series of chronologically successive dispensations. The number of dispensations held are typically three, four, seven, or eight. The three- and four-dispensation schemes are often referred to as minimalist, as they recognize the commonly held major breaks within Biblical history. The seven- and eight-dispensation schemes are often closely associated with the announcement or inauguration of certain Biblical covenants. Below is a table comparing the various dispensational schemes:
|Range of Bible Chapters|
|Schemes||Genesis 1–3||Genesis 3–8||Genesis 9–11||Genesis 12|
to Exodus 19
|Exodus 20 until|
Birth of the Church
|Revelation 20:4–6||Revelation 20–22|
|7 or 8 Dispensational|
|Millennial Kingdom||Eternal State|
Mainstream dispensationalists such as Scofield and Ironside identify Pentecost, in the second chapter of Acts, with the start of the Church as distinct from Israel; this may be referred to as the "Acts 2" position. Grace Movement Dispensationalist believe that the church started after Acts 2, focusing primarily on the ministry of Paul. Advocates of the "mid-Acts" position, such as Darby identify the start of the church after the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, or with the salvation of Saul in Acts 9, or with Paul's first missionary journey in Acts 13. The 'Acts 28' position, most notably expounded by E. W. Bullinger and Charles H. Welch, posits the beginning of the church in Acts chapter 28 where the Apostle Paul quoted Isaiah 6:9,10 concerning the blindness of Israel and announced that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentile world in Acts 28:28.
Hyperdispensationalists are considered divisive notably because they reject the rite of water baptism practiced by almost all Christian denominations. They do practice baptism, but instead of water baptism (which is sometimes considered the only baptism), they believe in Baptism with the Holy Spirit, which occurs when a person becomes saved by believing that Jesus Christ died for our sins. Grace Movement Dispensationalists do not condemn water baptism but see it as not being necessary for salvation. Acts 28 dispensationalists believe in the “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5 to be a spiritual baptism which closely identifies the believer with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
Dispensationalists are premillennialists who affirm a future, literal 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ which merges with and continues on to the eternal state in the "new heavens and the new earth", and they hold that the millennial kingdom will be theocratic in nature and not mainly soteriological, as it is viewed by George Eldon Ladd and others who hold to a non-dispensational form of premillennialism. Dispensationalism is known for its views respecting the nation of Israel during this millennial kingdom reign, in which Israel as a nation plays a major role and regains a king, a land, and an everlasting kingdom.
The vast majority of dispensationalists hold to the pretribulation rapture, with small minorities holding to either a mid-tribulation or post-tribulation rapture. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 states "the dead in Christ shall rise first" and Revelation 20:4-5 (after the tribulation and the binding of Satan) says, "They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection!"
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The concept of arranging of divisions in Biblical history dates back to Irenaeus in the second century. Other Christian writers and leaders since then, such as Augustine of Hippo and Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), have also offered their own arrangements of history.:116 Many Protestant and Calvinist writers, including Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, and Isaac Watts also developed theological schemes and divisions in history, in particular after the Westminster Confession of Faith noted "various dispensations". Other concepts such as premillennialism and the rapture also predated dispensationalism as a system. Stemming from the Reformed tradition emerged the Covenant Theology, which deals with Biblical history as different covenants between God and mankind, but not dispensations.
As a system, dispensationalism is rooted in the Plymouth Brethren movement in the 1830s of Ireland and England, and in the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800–82). The original concept came from Darby's interpretation of 2 Timothy 2:15, "...rightly dividing the word of truth".
Darby traveled extensively to continental Europe, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States in an attempt to make converts to the Brethren movement. Over time, Darby's eschatological views grew in popularity in the United States, especially among Baptists and Old School Presbyterians.:293
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John Nelson Darby is recognized as the father of dispensationalism,:10, 293 later made popular in the United States by Cyrus Scofield's Scofield Reference Bible. Charles Henry Mackintosh, 1820–96, with his popular style spread Darby's teachings to humbler elements in society and may be regarded as the journalist of the Brethren Movement. Mackintosh popularized Darby more than any other Brethren author.
As there was no Christian teaching of a "rapture" before Darby began preaching about it in the 1830s, he is sometimes credited with originating the "secret rapture" theory wherein Christ will suddenly remove his bride, the Church, from this world before the judgments of the tribulation. Dispensationalist beliefs about the fate of the Jews and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel put dispensationalists at the forefront of Christian Zionism, because "God is able to graft them in again", and they believe that in his grace he will do so according to their understanding of Old Testament prophecy. They believe that, while the methodologies of God may change, his purposes to bless Israel will never be forgotten, just as he has shown unmerited favour to the Church, he will do so to a remnant of Israel to fulfill all the promises made to the genetic seed of Abraham.
Dispensationalism was introduced to North America by James Inglis (1813–72), through a monthly magazine called Waymarks in the Wilderness, published intermittently between 1854 and 1872. In 1866 Inglis organized the Believers' Meeting for Bible Study, which introduced dispensationalist ideas to a small but influential circle of American evangelicals. They were disturbed by the inroads of liberalism and saw premillennialism as an answer. Dispensationalism was introduced as a premillennial position and it took over the Fundamentalist movement which stood against liberalism. The American church denominations rejected Darby's ecclesiology but accepted his eschatology. Many of these churches were Presbyterian and Baptist and they retained Darby's Calvinistic soteriology who had applied it to his notion of dispensations. After Inglis' death, James H. Brookes (1830–98), the pastor of Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, organized the Niagara Bible Conference (1876–97) to continue the dissemination of dispensationalist ideas. Dispensationalism was boosted after Dwight L. Moody (1837–99) learned of "dispensational truth" from an unidentified member of the Brethren in 1872. Moody became close to Brookes and other dispensationalists, and encouraged the spread of dispensationalism, but apparently never learned the nuances of the dispensationalist system.
Dispensationalism began to evolve during this time, most significantly when a significant body of dispensationalists proposed the "pre-tribulation" rapture. This caused a bit of a clash with the "historical premillennialists" within the Fundamentalist camp. Dispensationalist leaders in Moody's circle include Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928), James M. Gray (1851–1925), Cyrus I. Scofield (1843–1921), William J. Erdman (1833–1923), A. C. Dixon (1854–1925), A. J. Gordon (1836–95) and William Eugene Blackstone, author of the bestselling book of the 1800s titled, "Jesus is Coming" (endorsed by Torrey and Erdman). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts.
They also gave the dispensationalist movement institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new independent Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institute in 1886, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) in 1908, and the Philadelphia College of the Bible (now Cairn University, formerly Philadelphia Biblical University) in 1913. The network of related institutes that soon sprang up became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.
The efforts of CI Scofield and his associates introduced dispensationalism to a wider audience in America through his Scofield Reference Bible. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 by the Oxford University Press for the first time displayed overtly dispensationalist notes to the pages of the Biblical text. The Scofield Reference Bible became a popular Bible used by independent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the United States. Evangelist and Bible teacher Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), who was influenced by CI Scofield, founded the Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, which has become the flagship of dispensationalism in America. More recently, the Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania became another dispensational school.
The Grace Movement, which began about 1938 with the teaching ministries of JC O'Hair, Cornelius R. Stam, Henry T. Hudson and Charles Baker has been labeled "ultra" or "hyper" dispensationalism. The term serves to distinguish a theological system that has applied the tenets of dispensationalism far more consistently than the Acts 2 position. Thus it has also been designated at times as "consistent" dispensationalism. J.C. O'Hair in the early 1920s understood the "sign" gifts to be not for this age of grace and thus not for the present church. Soon thereafter, he understood as a correlating dispensational truth that water baptism could not then apply to this dispensation either. Among others, DeHaan and Ironside were sympathetic and did not perform the water rite themselves but none of these men forbade it if a Christian had a conscience to be baptized. By the 1930s, J.C. O'Hair rejected an Acts chapter two beginning of the church and started to explore and lean towards a position similar to Sir Robert Anderson and E.W. Bullinger. It was during this time that Ironside wrote "Wrongly Dividing The Brethren" attacking "Bullingerism" (i.e., the Acts 28 position). Some have failed to understand that Ironside's book does not address the Mid-Acts position which O'Hair had not settled on until later. Almost all attacks on hyper-dispensationalism totally fail to differentiate between the Mid-Acts position and the Acts 28 position. But J,C, O'Hair also rejected the Acts 28 position after studying the writings of Bullinger and C.H. Welch. O'Hair seems to finally have landed on the Mid-Acts position by about 1938.
The contrasts between law and grace, prophecy and mystery, Israel and the Church, the body of Christ were promoted by Scofield, Barnhouse and Ironside, then studied and taught by O'Hair, Stam and other "grace" teachers. It is however contended by dispensational teachers such as Charles Caldwell Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost and Arnold Fruchtenbaum that ultradispensationalism is removed enough from dispensationalism to not any longer be dispensationalism at all. Nevertheless, ultradispensationalism continues to be forcefully advocated by many as the consistent position on dispensationalism. They allege that the Acts 2 position does not take the time to properly and fully understand the Mid-Acts position and challenge it in any way other than superficially if at all. Mostly, they feel consistent dispensationalists are ignored and that, until consistent dispensationalism is taken seriously, such dismissals by Acts 2 proponents cannot be taken seriously. Ultradispensationalists consider themselves fundamentalists, evangelical, and serious dispensationalists holding to the tenets of dispensationalism far more strictly and precisely than the more popular Acts 2 position.
Protestant denomiminations that as a whole embrace covenant theology reject dispensationalism. For example, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA termed it "evil and subversive" and regards it as a heresy.
Dispensationalism rejects the notion of supersessionism, sees the Jewish people as the true people of God, and sees the modern State of Israel as leading to the Israel of biblical promises, a national Israel who will receive the fulfillment of all God's Old Testament promises.
John Nelson Darby taught, and most subsequent dispensationalists have consistently maintained, that God looks upon the Jews as his chosen people even as they remain in rejection of Jesus Christ, and God continues to have a place for them in the dispensational, prophetic scheme of things. Dispensationalists teach that a remnant within the nation of Israel will be born again, called of God, and by grace brought to realize they crucified their Messiah. Dispensationalism is unique in teaching that the Church is a provisional parenthesis, a "mystery" period, meaning that it was not revealed in the Old Testament, directly, which period will end with the rapture of the church and the Jewish remnant entering the Great Tribulation. Israel will finally recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah during the trials that come upon them in this Tribulation. Darby's teachings envision Judaism as continuing to enjoy God's protection literally to the End of Time, and teach that God has a separate 'program', to use J. Dwight Pentecost's term, for each Israel and the Church. Dispensationalists teach that God has eternal covenants with Israel, which cannot be broken.
While stressing that God has not forsaken those physically descended from Abraham through Isaac, dispensationalists do affirm the necessity for Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah. They hold that God made unconditional covenants with Israel as a people and nation in the Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic and the New Covenant.
Christian dispensationalists sometimes embrace what some critics have pejoratively called Judeophilia — ranging from support of the state of Israel, to observing traditional Jewish holidays and practicing traditionally Jewish religious rituals. (See also Christian Zionism, Jewish Christians, Judaizers, and Messianic Judaism). Dispensationalists typically support the modern state of Israel, recognize its existence as God revealing His will for the Last Days, and reject anti-Semitism.
Dispensationalists tend to have special interest in the Jews because the dispensationalist hermeneutic honors Biblical passages that list Jews as among God's chosen people (the others would be the Gentiles in the church, and proselytes to Judaism). Some Messianic Jews (Messianic Judaism), however, reject dispensationalism in favor of a related but distinct hermeneutics, called Olive Tree Theology. The name "Olive Tree Theology" refers to the passages of Romans 11:17–18: "If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive, were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, then don't boast as if you were better than the branches!"
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Some dispensationalists, such as the late fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, have asserted that the Antichrist will be a Jew, based on a belief that the Antichrist will falsely seem to some Jews to fulfill prophecies of the Messiah more accurately than Jesus did.
However, many dispensationalists do not accept this belief, and claim that a number of scriptures do not cite any evidence, such as Daniel 9:27.
Such dispensationalists claim that this "prince" will be of the same people that destroyed the Jewish city in 70 AD, i.e., of Roman origin and therefore will not be Jewish. However, other dispensationalists base the nationality of the army that destroyed Jerusalem as comprising an Arab and Syrian ethnicity, and therefore the Antichrist, or the "prince", shall not actually be of Roman origin.
In turn, this "prince" will stand up "against the Prince of princes" and destroy many "by peace" (Dan 8:25); and will be responsible for the false "peace and safety" that will precede the destructive day of the Lord (1 Thess 5:2–3). Some believe this man will be a Jew, based in part on John 5:43, where the Lord stated that the unbelieving Jews would receive another who "shall come in his own name" (as opposed to the Lord Himself, who came in the Father's name). Further evidence is taken from Daniel 11:37, "Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all", although in a passage as late as Daniel, a better translation is probably, "He will reject the gods (Eloha) of his fathers." The prophet Daniel refers to this man as "a vile person", who will "obtain the kingdom by flatteries" (Daniel 11:21). This belief is not essential to dispensationalism.
Darby himself taught the Antichrist will be a Jew, and the Beast, a separate person, will be the political leader of the revived Roman empire.
Political analyst Richard Allen Greene has argued that dispensationalism has had a major influence on the foreign policy of the United States. This influence has included continued support for the state of Israel.
Political commentator Kevin Phillips points out in his book American Theocracy (2006) how dispensationalists and other fundamentalist Christians, together with the oil lobby, have provided political support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, without approval of the United Nations.