(From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission.)
In early 1992, I was invited by Dr. Ernest Pickering, pastor of Fourth Baptist Church and president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, to participate in the annual Founders Conference in the seminary. He expressed an opinion that we needed “a clear call on the subject of dispensationalism.” I was honored to be asked and was delighted to go. I suppose there is never a time when we do not need to refresh ourselves on doctrinal truth, especially the distinctives of dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism is simply an approach to understanding the overall storyline of the Bible. As a set of systematized principles and teachings it began about 1825 with John Nelson Darby. However, there were unsystematized principles of a dispensational nature long before him. There has been refinement and modification over the years in dispensational thought. Revision, reevaluation and more precise statement are always ongoing in theology and biblical studies.
A brief historical outline of general dispensational thinking is given here, followed by a discussion of one major area that calls for clarification and/or a renewed understanding.
Early Epochs in Dispensational Thought
Darbyism/Niagara Premillennialism: 1875-1909
Darby’s systematized dispensational thought, developed in about 1825, prevailed in the Niagara Bible Conference (Niagara, Ontario). It had a somewhat official beginning in 1875 with George Needham and James Inglis, and is generally acknowledged to be the inception of the Bible conference movement. The dispensationalism of the conference (not all were dispensationalists) emphasized an almost absolute dichotomy between Israel and the church as two separate peoples of God. The church was a heavenly people and Israel was an exclusively earthly people. It also promoted the pretribulational rapture of the church.
Scofieldism or “Classical” Dispensationalism: 1909-1965
A new era dawned with the publication of C. I. Scofield’s Reference Bible (1909) along with the writings of Lewis Sperry Chafer, A.C. Gaebelein and others. There was a unified approach to all the Bible via seven dispensations. A dispensation was defined as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.”1 The central thrust was “a period of time.”
Classical dispensationalism also vigorously emphasized the two peoples of God in strict dichotomy. Pretribulationalism was also one of the chief components. Dispensationalism fairly dominated the Bible institute, Bible conference and other movements of the time.
Classical premillennial dispensationalism was strongly faced with rebuttal by scholarly thought self-styled as “historic premillennialism.” It was alledged that pretribulationalism began in the early 1800s, whereas premillennialism before was posttribulatlional, going back to the early first- and second-century Church Fathers and continuing through various (relatively small) groups until the 19th century.
The New Evangelical coalition, formed in the 1940s, played probably the largest role in advocating covenant premillennial postribulationism and criticizing dispensationalism. This occurred in the 1950s and ’60s, principally through the energies of George Eldon Ladd, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. This brought out a strong dispensational response through the studies of Charles C. Ryrie, John F. Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost and others, and schools such as Moody Bible Institute, Philadelphia College of Bible, Omaha Baptist Bible College (now Faith Baptist Bible College), Dallas Theological Seminary, Grace Theological Seminary and Talbot School of Theology, to name a very few.
Later Epochs in Dispensationalism
Modified/Essentialist or “Traditional” Dispensationalism: 1965-1982
The publication of Dispensationalism Today by Charles C. Ryrie (Moody Press, 1965) marked the beginning of another stage of dispensational refinement. Walvoord, Pentecost, Clarence Mason, Alva J. McClain, among others, also contributed.2
Ryrie laid down a three-fold sine qua non, or three irreducible minimum essentials of dispensational theology—the fundamental theological and historical distinction between Israel and the church, the consistent use of literal or normal interpretation of Scripture and the glory of God as the underlying purpose of the dispensations. This modification offered a new definition, with elaboration, of a dispensation that put the emphasis on the sovereignty of God and man’s stewardship of God’s truth: “A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose.”3 Ryrie lessened somewhat the dichotomy between law and grace (via the continuing revelational principles, or carryovers, between the dispensations). But the position continued the pretribulational rapture of the church with exegetical, Biblical explication.
Progressive Dispensationalism: 1982-
An article by Kenneth Barker in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (March 1982) set in motion the present revisionism known as progressive dispensationalism. Others who assisted were Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, Robert Saucy, Bruce Ware, Carl B. Hoch and W. Edward Glenny.4
A general overview here notes some of the basic structure of this thought.
- It operates from hermeneutical principles that allow expanded meanings to accrue to Old Testament words. This greatly affects the relationship between the nation Israel and the New Testament church.
- It rejects the sine qua non of essentialist dispensationalism, creating a problem of determining the actual boundaries, i.e., the essentials, of a dispensational approach to the Scriptures.
- It sees a presently inaugurated Messianic kingdom in spiritual form that will also have an eschatological manifestation on earth.
- It views the dispensations as stages in salvation history, positing much more continuity between law and grace than before.
- It also holds, somewhat tenuously, to a pretribulational rapture of the church but with far less enthusiasm than in the previous periods.
Progressive dispensationalism’s new thought brought further effort by dispensationalists to clarify and promote their approach to the Scriptures. I am sure it played a large part in the reasoning of Dr. Pickering to issue a clear call of renewal more than two decades ago. Other groups and ministries are showing fresh exegetical, theological and practical responses, such as the Dispensational Publishing House. World events have probably contributed to such investigations into Bible prophecy and dispensational thought. Undoubtedly, simple fascination and curiosity had a part. It would be interesting and challenging to investigate the tributaries to dispensational thought of the last two decades or so. The field of interests is quite broad.
1 New Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 3. See also p. 5 of theScofield Reference Bible (1917 ed.).
2 See, for example, the editorial committee of the New Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).
3 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 29.
4 See the many contributors to Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
Dr. Rolland D. McCune served at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary from 1981 to 2009 as professor of systematic theology, dean of the faculty and president. He previously taught at Central Baptist Seminary for 14 years. He is the author of A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Allen Park, MI: DBTS, 2008-2010) as well as other books and many journal articles.