The Roots of Dispensational Theology Continued

Continuing on from our look at the roots of dispensational theology: After formulating the five initial beliefs we looked at previously, John Nelson Darby left the Church of Ireland to help start the Plymouth Brethren church. A man by the name of John Inglis (1813-1879) is seen by many as the first to introduce the teaching in America. But one of the major contributors in America for dispensationalism was Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921). C.I. Scofield could probably be seen as the father of formulating the precise system of dispensational theology. In the 1880’s, Scofield would become a church leader in the Congregational church.

Scofield saw that God dealt with the world through ‘dispensations’. A dispensation is defined as ‘a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.’ In more simple words, God gives a certain responsibility to humanity, they have failed (and always will fail) with that responsibility, and therefore, God has to bring judgment on that group of people. Then, following the judgment, God begins with a new dispensation. For example, God had given a responsibility to Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:16-17), they failed (Genesis 3:6-7), and so God came with judgment (Genesis 3:14-19). But, after the Fall, God gave a new dispensation. Scofield saw seven main dispensations in Scripture, though some dispensational theologians hold to three or eleven.

These are the seven dispensations which Scofield saw:

  1. Age of Innocence: Creation until the Fall
  2. Age of Conscience: The Fall until the Flood
  3. Age of Human Government: Noah until the Tower of Babel
  4. Age of Promise: Abraham until Mt. Sinai
  5. Age of Law: Moses until John the Baptist
  6. Age of Grace: Christ until the Millennium (Church age)
  7. Age of the Kingdom: the Millennium until the ‘age to come’

As stated above, each new test, or dispensation, ends in failure and judgment. Some would point out that this understanding has a negative focus on humanity and the continual failure of man. But dispensationalists say this focuses on and highlights God’s great salvation.

Scofield saw the Church as a parenthesis in God’s plan. This was to be a time for mainly the Gentiles to be included in God’s purpose of salvation. Jesus wanted to set up God’s kingdom on earth with Israel the first time He came, but the Jews rejected Him. So, God pushed the ‘pause button’ on Israel in order to do something with the Gentiles. When Christ returns the second time, He will establish His kingdom with Israel physically on earth in Jerusalem.

Scofield also added the idea of a pretribulational rapture. This would be a secret catching away that would take place before the millennium and before the ‘great tribulation’.

A lot of these teachings were not orthodox until some 150 years ago. But by 1950, this was the predominant view of the Church in the western world. There are four main reasons why dispensationalism became big in the western world:

  1. The rise of liberalism. In western Europe and America, there were people teaching that the Bible was not the authoritative and inerrant word of God, and they were even looking to take out specific texts in the Bible such as the miracles. So covenant theologians saw a greater enemy with liberalism. Dispensationalists were rooted in the fundamental belief that the Bible was the word of God. So these two sides joined forces to combat against rising liberalism.
  2. Dispensationalists created platforms for what they believed. They started conferences and Bible institutes to teach the tenants of dispensational theology. Scofield created the Scofield Study Bible with his own notes added at the bottom. He was the first to publish a study Bible in 1909.
  3. Evangelists and revivalists such as Moody and Finney began to preach that Jesus could return at any moment, in the blink of an eye. People were, thus, getting saved into dispensational thinking.
  4. Wars: World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War all took place in about a fifty-year span. To many, it did not seem like the world was getting better (which postmillennialists and some amillennialists held to), but rather worse (lining up more with a dispensational understanding.

In all of this, here are four summary beliefs for dispensational theology:

  1. Belief in a strong literal interpretation of Scripture. They do admit to some figurative interpretation, but it is very easy to see that the Scripture is meant figuratively. In general, look as much as possible for a literal interpretation of prophetic Scriptures. If it says in Scripture that the moon will turn blood red, then it will turn to blood red. Therefore, anybody can read the Bible and know exactly what it is saying. Also, Biblical prophecy is mainly tied to fulfillment on earth.
  2. Developed the belief that God had two peoples – Israel and the Church. Therefore, there is a double-method with interpreting Scripture. Israel is God’s earthly people and the promises spoken to them in the Scriptures were to be literally fulfilled on earth. The Church is God’s spiritual people and the promises spoken to them in the Scriptures were symbolic and they were to be spiritually fulfilled in heaven.
  3. The Church is a parenthesis, an aside, in God’s plan. Thus, the purpose of God in the New Testament is different from His purpose in the Old Testament. In this, they also saw quite a distinction between Law (for the Old Testament) and grace (for the New Testament).
  4. Very strong premillenial belief (Christ returning before the millennial reign), also seeing a pretribulational secret rapture (Christ taking the Church out of the world before the ‘great tribulation’), as well as an imminent end of the world.

Some dispensationalists have recently reformed their theology, which they call progressive dispensationalism. In the next blog, we will take a look at the specific beliefs of those in the school of covenant theology.

The Roots of Eschatology

When studying eschatology, one needs to be aware of the fact that it is not advantageous to begin by simply reading certain books of the Bible such as Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel. One might say, ‘Well, yes, you start with Scripture. That’s how you understand Scripture.’ While studying Scripture is of the greatest importance, one must also realize that you need to know the history, culture, and even some theological backgrounds of particular belief systems. Thus, you actually need to start at the root of why specific beliefs have been formed concerning the last days.

What I mean by this is that there are two major theological schools holding different beliefs about God’s redemptive activity in history. Both schools see God with different plans concerning His salvation of mankind. Both sides also hold somewhat opposing views concerning hermeneutics. What is hermeneutics, you ask? It is simply the study of how to interpret, understand, and apply the Biblical text. This is where we look to consider the language, history, culture, and other such things.

So, what are these two schools? They are referred to as dispensational theology and covenant theology. For sake of keeping articles shorter, I will just focus in on the background of dispensationalism over the next 2 or 3 blogs. After that, I will focus on covenant theology.

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was a clergyman in the Church of Ireland. During the 1820’s, Darby began to struggle with understanding some spiritual issues. Throughout this struggle, Darby hurt his leg after falling from a horse and spent a lot of time in bed. During this time, he was able to study and consider a lot of things in the Scriptures. As he looked around at people in general, Darby felt there was not a lot of personal purity in the Church and that people were not walking out what he read in Scripture.

In his study, Darby began to develop the belief that the Church had a heavenly, or spiritual, nature to it. The Church was spiritually pure because they were pure in Christ, but there was not to be much expectation of purity as the Church lived in the world. He also developed the conviction that the Church was God’s people only during the New Testament times. Darby also saw a big difference between Law and grace, feeling they were different concepts. Still, no structured doctrines had been formed from his study.

There was also great disappointment with the Church because he felt that there was a lack of expectation for Christ’s return in his day. He felt people were too focused on a current, millennial reign of Christ and not His second coming.

We could summarise five main concepts developed by John Darby:

  1. There is a distinction between Law and grace. These two are not related. The Law was for Israel and grace is for the Church.
  2. There are two peoples of God: a) Physical Israel/Jews – this was God’s earthly people and the promises spoken to them in the Scriptures were to be literally fulfilled on earth; b) The Church – this was God’s spiritual people and the promises spoken to them in the Scriptures were symbolic and they were to be spiritually fulfilled in heaven.
  3. He held to a strong literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies, which were mainly tied to fulfillment on earth (mainly for Israel).
  4. He developed a strong premillennial belief, meaning Christ would return before the millennium. The Church’s millennium was to be in heaven, the Jews would be on earth during this reign.
  5. He developed a separatist attitude toward the Church. What I mean by that is he looked at the Church more as an institution rather than a people (see my article on church). So he saw the Church as consisting of some saved and some unsaved, some wheat and some tares.

So, now we have uncovered some major roots of dispensational theology. Doing so, one can probably see how some eschatological beliefs have developed in this school of theology. Stay tuned as I will look to share some more of the history and theology of dispensationalism in the next couple of days.