Dispensationalism Then & Now, Part 1

Detail from the cover of a Scofield Reference Bible (ca. 1917)

(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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. It sees a presently inaugurated Messianic kingdom in spiritual form that will also have an eschatological manifestation on earth.
  4. It views the dispensations as stages in salvation history, positing much more continuity between law and grace than before.
  5. 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).

15407 reads

There are 37 Comments

alex o.'s picture

Larry wrote:

Anyway, are there any other reasons that you can think of besides the redemptive approach is lacking than its not *cover to cover*. 

I won't pretend to speak for Dr. McCune, but for my part, I don't think a "redemptive motif" is big enough to explain the things that don't have to do with redemption, like creation or judgment or sovereignty over all things including non-redemptive things like the hairs of our head or the birds that fall to the ground. A redemptive motif can only account for these things by what seems like some rather awkward line drawing.

Furthermore, it seems that the overriding message of Scripture is that in the end God wins--he sets up his kingdom for his glory, just like he did at the beginning. Even redemption itself is the servant to the glory of God (Eph 1). So I find the redemptive motif too lacking to explain enough of Scripture. 

Hi Larry,

The judgment nature in Gen. 3 shows ownership of creation. I say it was The Eternal Son who was judging here. It certainly shows sovereignty. So, the things you have objected to I can't really understand since it is inherent in the account. That God wins is clear that immediately after the Fall, He fully determined the future outcome decisively. This shows that He is fully in control and ordains history. How much more powerful a scene can be asked to show this very idea?

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield


Larry's picture


The judgment nature in Gen. 3 shows ownership of creation.

My point is that judgment is not redemptive, nor is creation, nor is  his sovereignty per se. There are other themes that redemption cannot account for and therefore redemption is not big enough to be "the" theme of the Bible.

alex o.'s picture

As a summary and recap I've titled this post to reflect what, I believe, is the organic theme of scripture. It is both comprehensive and elegant and what has been recognized by many believers throughout the ages. The theme verse of the bible is without question Gen. 3.15. The section of scripture which precedes is important in its own right but thematically serves as a prologue to the main story line. An epilogue closes out the biblical record.

The inherent fact that The Eternal Son rightfully sits in judgment indicates ownership which encompasses that He is Creator, Sustainer and Sovereign.

Gen. 3.15 sets forth summarily the hope of redemption and eschatological judgment on the Serpent. Both Dispensationalism and its variants and Covenant Theology with its variants are unnecessary and impose an artificial grid which is unwarranted and, in my view, only muddies understanding of the biblical record. The fact that throughout the bible that reference is repeatedly made to Gen. 3.15 warrants this promise as comprising the biblical theme.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield


J. Baillet's picture

All of God’s perfections are glorious. He is Glory. His glory always was, is, and ever will be—it is eternal. That is His state of being. With Him there is no variableness neither shadow of turning. Throughout the history of this world, God’s glory has been manifested in a multitude of ways. There is nothing which He has done or will do that does not reflect His glory.

The question is, is there a pattern to the ways in which His glory has been and will be revealed in history as recorded in the Scriptures?


Ed Vasicek's picture

Although we may disagree as to the major theme(s) of the Bible (I stand by my two), I hope we all realize that the Bible does not say, "The major theme(s) of the Bible are...."

We are in the realm of human fallibility.  if a billion people agree that it is this way or that, even that agreement does not carry the weight of Scripture.  We need to remember that our conclusions are based upon our observations.

"The Midrash Detective"

Pastork's picture

Having been taught Dispensationalism for three years as a teenager in a Christian high school back in the late '70's, I have always had an interest in the theology and have tried to follow what is happening in Dispensational circles when I am able. I am what I would call a Covenant Premillennialist (a Reformed version of an Historic Premillennialist, along the lines of Charles Spurgeon), which means I have many affinities with Progressive Dispensationalism. Anyway, I enjoyed this brief historical overview and look forward to reading further articles on the subject. Now, on to part two!

J. Baillet's picture

Scott S. had provided the following assistance.

You stated in relation to one of Dr. McCune's statements:

I would be interested in a more detailed development of the statement “there were unsystematized principles of a dispensational nature long before him [Darby]."

While there may be other good sources, one that I found helpful on that topic was Larry V. Crutchfield's series of articles in the Conservative Theological Journal all titled “The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism”: 

Volume 2 n.7 (Dec 1998):375-404.
Volume 3 n.8 (April 1999):26-52.
Volume 3 n.9 (August 1999):182-203.

They can be found at Galaxie Software(link is external) online or in Logos Bible Software.

Scott S.


Finally got around to reading these.  Dr. Crutchfield failed to make his case but appreciate learning the arguments that are advanced in the attempt.



Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.