What is Dispensationalism?

 This entry is by no means intended to be a treatise on Dispensationalism.  That would take a large volume.  It is simply my way of processing some things I read recently.

Dispensationalism has stirred up a great deal of controversy since it’s systemization in the 1800’s by one of the Plymouth Brethren named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).  Since it’s systemization it has been rapidly evolving, some of its claims even being abandoned altogether.[1]

Dispensationalism is a system of doctrine and a method of biblical interpretation.  It claims to help in supplying the need for biblical distinctions, offer a satisfying philosophy of history, and employ a “consistently normal principle of interpretation.”[2]  Its adherents often pit the system against the various forms of covenant theology.

The label dispensationalist comes from their characteristic division of the course of history into various distinct epochs.  During each of these epochs, Poythress says, God is said to work out a particular phase of his overall plan.  Each particular phase represents a “dispensation” in which God exercises his government over the world and tests human obedience.[3]  However, it is not their belief in these dispensations that is distinctive, but what they have to say about them (particularly the church age and the Millennium) that sets them apart from other theologians.[4]

Despite the many variations of Dispensationalism out there, Charles Ryrie says that three things make up the sine qua non (the absolutely indispensable part) of Dispensationalism.  They are as follows: (1) Israel and the church are distinct.  That is, God formed two peoples with two express purposes which remain intact throughout all eternity.  (2) A normal or plain method of interpretation. This method is sometimes called literal interpretation.  This method does not allegorize or spiritualize as non-dispensational interpretation often does.  And lastly, the dispensationalist believes that (3) the underlying purpose of God in the world is the glory of God.  The redemption of fallen man is secondary in this view—it serves the greater purpose of God to glorify himself.[5]

I can’t say that I personally ascribe to Dispensationalism.  However, I can say that I appreciate their honest recognition of the discontinuity that is manifest in the differences between the Old and New Covenants.  The New Covenant is a major collection of events that inaugurates various significant changes in God’s program and that give the world additional clarity about the nature of God and his purpose in the world.  In other words, it creates a category we call “Christianity” and a category we call “Judaism.”  Without the New Covenant we would still be in the era of the Old Covenant, which is, essentially Judaism.

Clearly something very different exists between Judaism and Christianity.  The differences between the two religions are vast.  However, many theologians minimize these differences. For example, Covenant theologians emphasize the unity of the covenants and any distinction they make is generally related to the underlying covenant of grace which ties them all together; each covenant becomes one piece in a program of progressive revelation, each building upon the previous.  Ryrie says Dispensationalists do not see it that way: “His dispensations are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace but are God’s distinctive and different administrations in directing the affairs of the world.”[6] Whether or not God’s program can or should be described this way, I appreciate their honesty in recognizing that if Christianity were so much like Judaism as some claim, there would have been little reason for Jesus and the early church to be persecuted to the point of death by the Jews.


[1] See Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, and Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 43-44.  Here Wells mentions that at one time many dispensationalists held to the conviction that there were two New Covenants.  He goes on to say that this view has been abandoned by the vast majority of them.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 24.

[3] Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists. 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 9.

[4] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 11.

[5] See Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 45-48.

[6] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 20.

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