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Dispensationalism

In the Nick of Time

Dispensationalism has always come in different varieties. It has also developed over time. For example, few (if any) present-day dispensationalists accept Scofield’s complete system. In spite of the differences, however, dispensationalists also display similarities. Charles Ryrie tried to identify these similarities in his 1969 volume Dispensationalism Today. Ryrie was not articulating a new form of dispensational theology so much as seeking to articulate the common features that distinguished dispensational theology from other approaches to Scripture.

Ryrie famously reduced dispensationalism to three essentials, which he reiterated in the later revision to his book, retitled Dispensationalism. These sine qua non include the following. First, dispensationalism “keeps Israel and the church distinct.” Second, this distinction arises from “a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation.” Third, God’s underlying purpose in the world consists not only in the provision and application of salvation, but in the glory of God.

In spite of Ryrie’s (and others’) explanations of these distinguishing marks, confusion remains. Do not covenant theologians also emphasize the glory of God? Furthermore, do dispensationalists not recognize many non-literal passages in the Bible? As for Israel and the Church, does not the New Testament itself apply many Old Testament Scriptures to the Church that were first spoken to Israel? Rather than counting against Ryrie’s sine qua non, these questions reflect poor understanding of dispensationalism’s core ideas.

For example, dispensationalists acknowledge that other theologies strongly emphasize the glory of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (hardly a dispensational document) insists that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. How, then, can Ryrie say that God’s doxological purpose is a difference between his system and theirs?

The answer lies in how each system sees God glorifying Himself. Non-dispensationalists believe that God glorifies Himself in the world primarily through the salvation of individuals. For their part, dispensationalists acknowledge that individual salvation is one way in which God glorifies Himself, but they see His doxological plan as much grander and more complex. God plans to get glory when people are brought to salvation, but He also plans to get glory when He finally judges the wicked. He plans to get glory from the elect angels, and He also plans to receive glory through the fate of the angels who sinned. God’s plan includes not only individuals, but also ethnic groups (nations) such as Egypt and Assyria (Isa. 19:19-25). God’s plan includes the restoration of the created order, its dissolution, and the creation of a new order (2 Pet. 3:9-14).

Both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists understand that God’s purpose in the world is to bring glory to Himself, and both yearn to see Him glorified. The dispensationalist, however, insists that God’s glory is so magnificent and manifold that it must be revealed in many ways. For the dispensationalist, salvation history is one of those ways, but only one.

What about dispensationalism’s supposedly literal hermeneutic? Of course, dispensationalists recognize the full orbit of stylistic and literary devices that are present in the text of Scripture. Indeed, they stand in awe that God has chosen to reveal Himself in such ways. For the most part, dispensationalists interpret the Bible just as other Christians do.

The difference arises over the interpretation of prophecy, and particularly of promises and prophecies that remain unfulfilled. All true Christians believe that God will keep His word and that all unfulfilled prophecies and promises will someday be brought to completion. The question is how they will be fulfilled, and the answer to that question is what distinguishes dispensationalists from others.

Dispensationalists insist that unfulfilled promises and prophecies must be interpreted in the same way as promises and prophecies that have already been fulfilled. For their purposes, prophecies that contain both fulfilled and unfulfilled elements are especially illustrative. The unfulfilled aspects must be fulfilled in just the same way as the parts that have already been fulfilled. For example, Daniel 9 narrates the famous prophecy of the “seventy weeks.” All agree that sixty-nine of these weeks are already past. Dispensationalists insist that the seventieth week must be a week of the same kind as the first sixty-nine.

One can find disagreement among dispensationalists as to whether Old Testament promises and prophecies made to Israel can somehow be extended to apply to the Church. Generally, progressive dispensationalists are more optimistic about such applications, while traditional dispensationalists are less so. All dispensationalists agree, however, that no application to the Church is sufficient to exhaust the fulfillment of these prophecies. Even if they can somehow be extended to include the Church, they cannot be detached from Israel. Their ultimate fulfillment has to be understood using the same hermeneutic that applies to fulfilled prophecy.

The three sine qua non are linked, and the discussion of hermeneutics has already opened the third mark of dispensationalism: the problem of Israel and the Church. To be clear, most dispensationalists do not wish to deny the element of continuity in God’s dealings with all saved individuals of all ages. The book of Hebrews is predicated upon an analogy between the life of faith in the Old Testament and the life of faith in the New. If Israel and the Church were utterly and qualitatively different, then a chapter like Hebrews 11 would be impossible.

Nevertheless, dispensationalists also see a significant element of discontinuity between God’s dealings with Israel and God’s dealings with the Church. The distinction is great enough that the two should be seen as different peoples (if people is understood in its normal biblical sense of ethnic nationhood). Israel is constituted as a people by virtue of its biological union with the patriarchs. The Church is constituted as a people by its spiritual union with Christ. The two are not interchangeable, nor do they exhaust the category of peoples of God. God intends to have other peoples besides Israel and the Church. Furthermore, some saved individuals are identified with no particular people at all.

On a dispensational understanding, Israel and the Church stand in an analogous relationship. Since both are peoples of God, whatever is said of Israel as a people of God can often be said of the Church as a people of God. What is said of Israel as Israel, however, is unique to Israel. Specifically, promises made to Israel must be fulfilled to Israel, whether they can somehow be applied to the Church or not.

One may or may not agree with Ryrie’s sine qua non. Whether one affirms or denies them, however, one ought to understand what they mean. Even if they are not true, they are coherent and, taken together, they do distinguish dispensationalism from the alternatives.

 

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Conference Notice:
Signs and Wonders? The Pentecostalization of Global Christianity

In Acts 2 Peter declares that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people in the last days so that they prophesy, perform miracles, and have visions. Contemporary Pentecostals claim to practice these and other related miraculous gifts of the Spirit, and the influence of this movement is increasing greatly throughout the world, predominantly in the Global South.

Central Seminary professor Dr. Jeff Straub has written and taught widely on the history and present condition of Pentecostalism. His travels addressing this topic have taken him to Africa, India, and China. During Central Seminary’s MacDonald Lecture Series on February 10, Dr. Straub will trace the history of Pentecostalism, describe its current state, and make a case for the cessation of miraculous gifts from the Scriptures.

We invite you to join us for this one-day conference on the campus of Central Seminary.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Meditations on the Day Before the Sun Rising
John Bunyan (1628–1688)

But all this while, where’s he whose golden rays
Drives night away and beautifies our days?
Where’s he whose goodly face doth warm and heal,
And show us what the darksome nights conceal?
Where’s he that thaws our ice, drives cold away?
Let’s have him, or we care not for the day.
Thus ’tis with who partakers are of grace,
There’s nought to them like their Redeemer’s face.

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.