What is Dispensationalism?

I’ve recently explained this to a few different people and thought, “I can just write a blog post about this to clear it up a little.”

Before I get into this, let me refer you to the best book to understand dispensationalism called, appropriately enough, Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie. This book is clearer and cleverer than I can ever be. However, if you’re looking for a shorter summary of the concepts, I suppose this blog post can suffice.

Okay, what is dispensationalism? Here’s the outline of the post: (1) What it is. (2) The opposites. (3) What usually comes along with it. (4) What many mistakenly make it.

What it is.

Dispensationalism is often misunderstood to include more than it actually does, and often because the name leads people in a wrong direction. Dispensationalism, at its core, is three tenants. Ryrie calls them the sine qua non, which is latin for “Without which there is not.” Simply put, without these three sine qua non you don’t actually have dispensationalism. They are as follows:

  1. Apply a consistent literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic to the biblical texts.
  2. By applying that literal hermeneutic consistently you determine that the church is distinct from Israel, and…
  3. God’s overall purpose in creation and history is to glorify Himself.

If you want to know what dispensationalism is, it’s that. Let me explain those three points a little bit to be sure we’re clear.

Consistent literal hermeneutic

“Hermeneutic” is a fancy word for “method of interpreting.” All written texts have to be interpreted somehow. If you read, then you have a hermeneutic. It may be a cultural hermeneutic, or a familial hermeneutic, or a spiritual hermeneutic, or an ice-cream-centric hermeneutic. Whatever the case may be, you’re interpreting the text you read somehow. By applying a literal hermeneutic, dispensationalists mean they want to know what the words written down literally meant, in their original context, when the author wrote them. We are searching for authorial intent, and we’re reading the original languages of the Bible. We do this with ALL the biblical texts, and we try to figure out what the author meant literally when he wrote it. That also means we take figures of speech into account. However, figures of speech always point to literal realities. In a literal hermeneutic, metaphors are treated as metaphors and similes as similes, but we’re always looking for the literal reality (physical or metaphysical) that each figure of speech describes.

The church is distinct from Israel

By reading the Bible literally we notice that 99% of it is about Israel. Dispensationalists believe that God’s redemption of humans all revolves around Israel and us gentiles are grafted in by grace. This is apparent in Romans 11, Genesis 12, 15, 17, Deuteronomy 28-32, and all the prophets who talk about Gentiles being blessed through Israel. It all revolves around Jesus, and Jesus was an Israelite. Dispensationalists usually point to the absurd amount of Israel-esque references in Revelation to support this point, including the final two chapters that describe a New Jerusalem, (the capital of Israel). Us Gentiles are just piggy-backing on the Jewish Messiah, and holding on for dear life while God saves his chosen people.

Glory of God

Most people don’t have a big problem with this one. It is one of the solas of the reformation. The glory of God is always the furthest back and highest up purpose. Just read any of the epistles and you’ll notice how often the phrase, “to the glory of God” is used. Ultimately, God is trying to get all the glory he deserves and that’s why he created anything to begin with.

That’s what dispensationalism is at its core. There are some other things that usually follow from sine qua non number 1, (things like the progress of revelation, the 7 dispensations, and the one way of salvation) but they are not the essentials.

The opposites.

Dispensationalism is often noted for its dissenting views. The three sine qua non have three oft-proposed alternatives to oppose them, which most Covenant Theologians would argue for. Many opposers would say that The Bible need not always be interpreted literally, spiritual interpretations are preferable, the church need not be distinct from Israel, thinking of the church as the new or true Israel is preferable, and the glory of God is not the highest purpose, but the redemption of humanity is preferable.

Many who read Dr. Ryrie’s book notice that the first chapter is spent in defense against opposition, instead of affirmative statements. (I noted this the first time I read it, and thought he was being rather whiny.) Later I realized that dispensationalists (in that time period in particular) are routinely degraded and disregarded, or misquoted and misunderstood. Once I started defending dispensationalism myself, I understood why Dr. Ryrie spent so many pages defending it from the outset.

In further response to the opposition, I would say that spiritual interpretations are not acceptable, because of where they lead. They lead people to denying the historical Adam, the literal fall, and the literal need of a savior. There is a large contingent of “Christians” who would say believing Adam and Eve were literal people is not essential to Christian faith. If they weren’t literal people, then they couldn’t have literally sinned, they couldn’t have passed that literal sin nature to everyone alive today, and there would be no need for a literal savior from that sin. And that’s just what follows in the first 5 seconds of considering such a view. The out-workings of that interpretation are frightening and distinctly un-Christian. Spiritual interpretations almost always lead to abuse of the text. Literal hermeneutics forces people to say, “I may not like what it says, but I have to affirm what it says, because it says it.” (Confusing enough for you?)

I would say that the church being the “new Israel” or “true Israel” disregards a whole lot of what Paul said, and makes nonsensical a whole lot of what Jesus taught. And finally, if the overall purpose of God in creation were the redemption of humanity, what was the purpose in days 1-7?

What usually comes along with it.

There are a few points that usually come along with dispensationalism. I’ll summarize a few of the most common ones here. Please know, though, that you don’t have to accept all of these to be a dispensationalist. (Some of them you have to accept to be a Christian… but that’s a different story.) There are some dispensationalists, however, who don’t agree with the following points but are well and truly in our camp. The ones I’ll cover are: (1) the progress of revelation (2) the seven dispensations (3) premillennialism (4) saved by grace through faith in every age.

The Progress of Revelation

It seems clear to most dispensationalists, from reading the text literally, that God has progressively revealed himself more and more throughout history after the fall, and in different methods throughout history. The clearest and closest revelation we’ve received yet is Jesus of Nazareth, God in flesh. When he returns and rules literally on earth in a glorified body, the revelation will be even clearer. But back before Moses learned it on Mount Sinai, God didn’t even reveal his covenant name “YHWH” to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. We dispensationalists see a progression in this. In Genesis 3:15, we see clearly that a seed was promised who would end the enmity between the serpent and humanity, but as the history progressed we learned where this seed would be born (Micah 5:2), how he would be born (Isaiah 7:14), what family he’d be from (Gen 49:10) and much, much more. It all culminates in his showing up the first time (Gospels), and telling us he’s coming back a second time (Matt 24-25; Rev 19). The progress of revelation is also what tells us that gentiles don’t have to be circumcised (Acts 15), eating bacon and associating with gentiles is okay for Jews (Acts 10), and the fact that we don’t have to make sacrifices in the temple because Jesus’s sacrifice was better (the whole book of Hebrews). In fact, the progress of revelation is why we have a Bible at all! (Last time I checked, Genesis was written many many years before Malachi. It didn’t all come at once.)

The 7 Dispensations

Another thing that often comes along with dispensationalism is the idea of a dispensation (hence the confusing name). A “dispensation” is an “administration” or “way of interacting with/ruling.” Like a vending machine dispensing drinks, God dispenses responsibilities, judgments, and grace. (Is comparing God to a vending machine inherently bad, or only in the context of prayer? Oh well.) Dispensationalists notice that God has at least 7 different “administrations” throughout history. The first would be that of innocence, from creation to fall. God gave man one prohibition and a few commands, (don’t eat from the tree and be fruitful and multiply, tend the garden, etc.). Humans failed and God ushered in the dispensation of human conscience, from fall to flood. God expected humanity to do what was right and not evil. Instead, “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” God then ushered in the dispensation of civil government… the cycle continues. In every dispensation God gives man a responsibility, man fails that responsibility, God judges man, and another dispensation is brought forward.

Below is a chart form Ryrie’s book summarizing the seven dispensations as he understood them.

7dispensations

Paul also references dispensations. In Ephesians 1:21 he references at least two “ages” (This age and the one to come) and in 3:2 he talks about the “stewardship of grace.” That word “stewardship” is oikonomia meaning administration or dispensation. We currently live in the 6th dispensation, that of grace, which is the one Paul references.

There’s plenty of literature out there on this. I would just encourage you to remember that these dispensations are not the essence of dispensationalism. This is something that most dispensationalists recognize is a reality in the text because they read it literally. There is variety on this and this is not what makes someone a dispensationalist… the three sine qua non are.

Premillennialism

One passage that dispensationalists read literally (since they read all of them that way) is Revelation chapter 20, which describes a kingdom that lasts 1,000 years in which Christ rules. Dispensationalists read chapter 19, 20, and 21 in the sequence in which they’re written and look at people saying it’s not literal or sequential and say, “Seriously?” They seem to make sense in that order: Christ returns (19), sets up his kingdom for 1,000 years (20), then ushers in the new heaven and new earth (21). Regardless, this is yet another point that is not essential to dispensationalism. It seems hard to say that you hold to a literal hermeneutic and deny premillennialism (pre meaning christ’s return is before the 1,000 year kingdom or millennium) but I hear there are some who try to. I just think they’re working too hard.

Saved by Grace Through Faith in Every Age

This is one that every Christian should believe. It’s something Dispensationalists are often accused of not believing. Dispensationalists are often accused of believing in two types of salvation, that Old Testament people were saved by the sacrificial system and New Testament people are saved by grace through faith. This is false. Ryrie summarizes the distinct nuances of what dispensationalists believe about salvation in different dispensations nicely.

“The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ. The requirement for salvation in every age is faith. The object of faith in every age is God. The content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”

That is to say, under the Mosaic Law, those who would be saved did not know the name Jesus of Nazareth, but they knew of a promised Messiah. The content was different. I would put it, “The knowledge that drives the faith,” is different, but it is still always by grace through faith in God that any are saved, and most importantly, it’s always been on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

What many mistakenly make it.

Most people who know anything peripheral about dispensationalism, know us for our cooks, our crazy uncles, and our slightly over-zealous eschatologians.

Most think dispensationalists are crazed apocalypse hunting fear mongers who are constantly trying to find the anti-Christ and figure out what the mark of the beast is. That’s not dispensationalism. To be fair, because we read the bible literally, searching for the literal interpretation behind the figures of speech (including Revelation) we sometimes get caught up in studying the prophecies concerning the end times in which we live (and have lived since the resurrection)… but not all of us are crazy cooks trying to figure how fax-machines will play a part in fulfilling prophecy.

Many mistakenly think that we teach two types of salvation. As shown above, that is patently false.

Many suggest that dispensationalism is all about the dispensations. While the vast majority of dispensationalists do hold to a scheme of dispensations, that is not the heart of the system. The 3 sine qua non are. The dispensational schemes can range from 3 dispensations, to 4, to 8. I’ve even seen one that had 15. The 7-dispensation scheme is the most common, however. Regardless, the dispensations are merely secondary to the hermeneutic we employ in studying the Bible.

And now I have suddenly run out of things to say, so this post is going to end rather abruptly (mirroring the immanent pre-tribulational rapture which could happen at anytime… and which I didn’t talk about at all in this post… so I’m breaking a lot of rules by mentioning something new at the end.)

In thinking of a way to finish this post I’m reminded of a quote my friend James has about dispensationalists, particularly relating to the point about the progress of revelation. He says, “If you don’t go slaughter a sheep every time you commit a sin, then you’re a dispensationalist, whether you realize it or not.”

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