Is Dispensationalism Dying? (Part 2)


Read Part 1.

Continuing my personal assessment of the state of Dispensationalism, here are four more factors:

6. Lack of grounded, holistic Dispensationalist Systematics

I referred to this above but it bears a little more investigation. Dispensational Systematic Theologies don’t exactly grow on trees. And this is unusual amid the general popularity of Systematic Theology in evangelical circles. Here are the major Dispensational works that I am aware of:

  • Lewis Sperry Chafer (1947) – a large work with some excellent chapters. However, the heavy-lifting is left for other non-dispensational writers.
  • Henry Thiessen (1979 rev) – a once popular concise theology which relied quite a lot on A. Strong.
  • Emery Bancroft (1977) – a concise survey.
  • Charles C. Ryrie (1986, 1999) – a very fine introductory theology, but, as its title says, “Basic.”
  • Norman Geisler (2005) – a large set which was slightly abridged into a one-volume edition. Philosophy definitely vies with theology in this one.
  • Roland McCune (2009) – Another solid work but not very explorative nor original.
  • John MacArthur & Richard Mayhue, editors (2017) – a solid systematics with various contributors. Basically Reformed theology with Dispensational eschatology.
  • Michael Svigel & Nathan Holsteen, editors (2014) – a basic multi-author work competently done.

I might throw in the big book by Lewis and Demarest here, although only Lewis was dispensational. There are others, but these are the main ones. None of these works in my opinion are up to the standard of Erickson, Frame, Letham, Culver, Grudem, Oden, Reymond, Beeke & Smalley, Kelly, and Horton, let alone the older works of Berkhof, Hodge, Shedd, Dabney, Bavinck, etc.

The fact of the matter is that Dispensationalists have tended to avoid “deep” theology and have also not written their theologies from within the purported sine qua nons of the system. Additionally, they would need to do lots more work in OT and NT Biblical Theology, something they have tended to avoid (with a very few exceptions). This would require them, I believe, to build up each corpora of a systematics from their hermeneutical premises, not simply copy what Reformed writers (especially) have said in all but eschatological matters. If that seems too strongly worded I admit it is intentional, for I want Dispensationalists to stop this trend. It diverts serious theologians away from Dispensational Systematic Theology, even within the movement! This is the conclusion I arrived at over ten years ago when it dawned on me that the vaunted dispensations (esp. “Conscience,” “Government,” and “Promise,” but all have problems) are not arrived at via the grammatical-historical hermeneutic – certainly not without ignoring the primacy given to God’s covenants. But then the road ahead begins to appear more and more biblical-covenantal and less dispensational.

7. Lack of Dispensational Worldview

If one thinks about it for a moment it should be clear that a rounded Systematic Theology is basically a Worldview. Therefore, a fully developed systematics from a fully worked out “Dispensational” prolegomenon. Because dispensationalists borrow much of their theology from Reformed works they also borrow their worldview from the same sources. Hence Dispensationalism looks impoverished as a teleological outlook.

8. Lack of prescriptive theological thinking

When one realizes all this the impulse is to look at the system to try to find where these important areas can be developed. It then starts to become apparent (well, for me it did anyway) that the system cannot produce these emphases because it is so restricted as a system. Dispensations are merely (and sometimes tamely) descriptive. One thing they are not is prescriptive.

For example, by way of contrast, the “covenants” of Covenant Theology, even though they are not exegetically impressive, are teleological. they prescribe a way forward, and that way forward develops into a Systematic Theology and Worldview. Although I will not enter into the details here, the redemptive-historical reading of the Bible of Covenant and New Covenant Theology results in a certain outcome – a deductive program.

Now I am not recommending deductive theology (and Reformed theology is heavily deductive). While deduction is an important tool in the theologian’s belt it ought never to be the first tool he reaches for. Inductive exegesis ought to limit the deductive options available to us. For instance, we cannot claim that because the OT must be understood through the NT that the OT covenants and promises to Israel were types and shadows of the “fulfillment” in the New Israel, the Church. I am recommending the divine covenants as prescriptive replacements for the descriptive dispensations. God’s covenants, when traced through the Bible, set down a path forward: a path which is both teleological and eschatological (in the expansive sense of movement towards as final scenario). Such an approach divides the system from eschatology (in the restrictive End Times sense of say, Dispensational PreTribulationism). It is worldview building.

9. Lack of discernment about who should represent Dispensationalism

Finally, although we cannot prevent people with odd, errant, or highly conjectural opinions from holding to our basic eschatological ideas, we must be more discerning about who we want to be our spokemen. Popularizers have their place, but they tend to be shallow and the theological diet they produce will not satisfy those who want to dig deeper. In Reformed theology the popularizers (think R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, John Piper, Tim Keller) are also serious scholars who have a great deal of scholarly work behind them. They carry therefore a level of authority and credibility that many Dispensational popularizers cannot duplicate.

Just here I want to make it clear that just because a person has a doctorate does not mean they are well-rounded thinkers or that they are well read. It is relatively easy to impress someone if you know a little more than they do. Every educator is aware of the dogmatic student who has read a few theological works that have stretched them and have jumped on the bandwagon of such and such a well known teacher. They know they know more than most, but they have no idea how little they know relatively speaking. They lack balance. Well, we need representatives who have balance, and who are thus enabled to improve the system by their unique contributions (exemplars of this sort of person would be Michael Vlach and Charles Clough).

In Closing

Of course, none of these nine concerns exists in a vacuum. Their overlapping nature is readily seen. All of them are interconnected. Movement in these areas will inevitably shake up the structural presuppositions of the system. I think that will be a good thing. I realize that will elicit some push-back, but I hope it will not look like circling the wagons (I fear it will). But someone has to be a little controversial!

I have a bias towards the biblical covenants. I am not sold on dispensations. I wish dispensations would be kicked to the sidelines and God’s covenants would become the backbone of the system. But “Dispensationalism” is a wonderful and accurate approach to studying the Bible. It gets so much right. But unless Dispensationalism moves in these directions I believe it will become weaker and weaker.


The areas where dispensationalism has spent most, if not all, of its theological efforts are in eschatology and ecclesiology. I'm not sure how dispensationalism addresses the other theological areas, quite honestly. I've read Ryrie and Lewis/Demarest, and their treatment of other theological areas wasn't that noteworthy as distinctly dispensational.

I appreciated Lewis/Demarest's integrative approach to doing theology, but outside of eschatology and ecclesiology I wasn't sure how dispensationalism mattered.

Maybe I missed something?

Well, if Dispensationalism is built upon the 3 sine qua nons then they ought to be worked through in the other corpora of Systematic Theology. They surely are applicable in those other areas.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Maybe I missed something?

I wrote a response and then in a stroke of providence or luck (good or bad) SI logged me out before I could post it.

So here is a shortened view: I don’t think you are missing something. I think Paul is (and we have briefly discussed this before). I think what we are missing is a defense of why dispensationalism would have a distinct doctrine in other matters. I think we are missing Paul’s ideas of what this would look like.

Perhaps we should ask why Reformed and dispensational theology is so similar in other areas. I would suggest it is because the Reformed use the dispensationalist hermeneutic right up until it comes to ecclesiology and eschatology and then they abandon it and turn to another hermeneutic. I would agree that the 3 sine qua non (to use a rather anachronistic designation perhaps) would apply and I think a great number of Reformed theologians have done rather well with them in many areas such that dispensationalism has no unique contribution.


I believe you are correct in that Reformed writers tend to be more literal in the other corpora than in e.g., eschatology. But I think it is incorrect in the important sense that Reformed theologian employ this more literal hermeneutic with the assistance of deductive reasoning around their system. This is why they can be diverted in the areas of e.g., the extent of the atonement, infant baptism, the meaning of sovereignty. For me it isn't whether we sometimes come out at the same place, but how we arrive there.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.