What is Dispensationalism?
Dispensationalism is an interpretative system used to understand the progression of revelation throughout the entire Bible. Like any major system used to interpret the Bible, its proponents differ on many points of theology, and as a result, clumping dispensationalists into one box is unfair. My goal is to outline the most common factors in dispensationalism, not provide a comprehensive doctrinal statement of what every dispensationalist believes.
Dispensationalism stems from the word ‘dispensations’ which is defined as a period of time during which God relates to man in a specific way, in light of a specific revelation. Generally it is understood that there are seven dispensations: Innocence, Moral Responsibility, Human Government, Promise, Law, the Church, and the Kingdom.
Two Basic Principles
As stated above dispensationalism is concerned with the interpretation of the Bible as a whole, and specifically how God operates in different ways at different times. Whilst there is diversity in this, there are two key principles that undergird every form of dispensationalism (Taken from: Anthony Hoekema, ‘The Bible and the Future’)
- Literal interpretation of prophecy
Every attempt to understand the Bible in a holistic way must involve a principle for interpreting prophecy. Prophecy is one of the major genres of Biblical literature and ties together the story of the Bible; we see consistently throughout scripture the pattern of prophecy and fulfilment. A contemporary dispensationalist, Herman Hoyt, describes the way dispensationalism interprets prophecy in the following way:
He states that scriptures must be taken ‘in their literal and normal sense.’ He states that the doctrinal, moral, spiritual and prophetic material in scripture must also follow this rule. An example of this principle would be the one thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20. Dispensationalists would interpret that to be a literal one thousand year period whereas other would not. This is not to say that dispensationalism ignores figurative language rather when figurative language is used ‘it is an application of the literal method to interpret the passage.’ By this he means that the figurative language within a text simply supports the literal interpretation, and so the main idea or argument within a text remains literal in its meaning.
- Distinction between Israel and the Church
This is a principle that is common in dispensationalism, yet there is variety in emphasis. Scofieldian dispensationalism, revised dispensationalism and progressive dispensationalism all agree there is a distinction between Israel and the church however they differ on the degree of separation between the two. Dispensationalism acknowledges that everyone, regardless of race, share equal standing in Christ, however, God has a way of operating in certain eras of time where his focus is primarily on one or the other. Currently God’s focus is on the Gentiles, or the Church, seeking to bring them in to make Israel jealous. Dispensationalism holds that this is simply for a time and when Christ returns to rule on earth in the millennium, God’s focus will return to Israel.
Another aspect of dispensationalism is a pre-millennial understanding of the end times. This belief directly stems from the two principles discussed above. The main focus for dispensationalism in their eschatology (understanding of the end times) is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Dispensationalism holds that the promises of Israel’s return to the Promised Land, rebuilding of the temple and so forth, must be fulfilled literally at some point in the future. Accordingly, this will take place under the Davidic king, who is Christ, when he returns in the future.
The dispensational understanding of Christ’s return and his millennial kingdom is derived from the literal interpretation of passages such as Revelation 20. Therefore, dispensationalism holds that Christ will rule on earth, for one thousand years in Jerusalem; during this time, Jews will return to the Promised Land, rebuild and worship in the temple and enjoy the blessing promised to them in the Old Testament. Prior to the reign of Christ on earth, the church would be raptured and the world would have gone through the tribulation. Differing forms of dispensationalism understand certain details of the rapture and tribulation differently, but all hold that it precedes the millennium.
Dispensationalism is a system that seeks to understand the bible in its most literal sense. It understands that God deals with humanity differently, in different dispensations. Furthermore, dispensationalism, due to its emphasis on a literal view of prophecy, holds to a pre-millennial eschatology. C. I Scofield, Derby and Chafer are amongst the most notable early dispensationalists and made dispensationalism popular heading into the 20th century. Darrell Bock, a popular bible commentator, along with John MacArthur are more popular modern dispensationalists. There is much to be said concerning dispensationalism and if you wish to learn more I recommend the following:
Robert Clouse – “The Meaning of the Millennium” (Specifically the chapter by Herman Hoyt)
Lewis Sperry Chafer – “Dispensationalism”
John Walvoord – “The Blessed Hope” and “The Millennial Kingdom”