Study the Bible Dispensationally
A consistent application of the literal method of interpretation will result in a dispensational theology. We agree with the following statement by Charles Ryrie: “If plain or normal interpretation is the only valid hermeneutical principle and if it is consistently applied, it will cause one to be a dispensationalist. As basic as one believes normal interpretation to be, and as consistently as he uses it in interpreting Scripture, to that extent he will of necessity become a dispensationalist” (Dispensationalism, revised 1995, p. 20).
This, to me, is the bottom line, because I am convinced that the normal literal method of interpretation is the only proper method.
Not surprisingly, those who are committed to Reformed theology and its allegorical method of interpretation despise dispensationalism. Charles Ryrie, in his book Dispensationalism, gives many examples of this, including the following. Arthur W. Pink warned of the “crudities and vagaries” of dispensationalism and described those who follow it as “poor dupes” (Pink, The Divine Covenants, p. 10). John Gerstner called dispensationalism “a cult and not a branch of the Christian church” (Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, pp. 150, 262). John Bowman said Scofield dispensationalism “represents perhaps the most dangerous heresy currently to be found within Christian circles” (Bowman, “The Bible and Modern Religions: II. Dispensationalism,” Interpretation, April 1956, p. 172). The Presbyterian Journal called it “a conservative heresy” (Presbyterian Journal, Jan. 2, 1963, p. 8). Rousas Rushdoony called dispensationalism “unbelief and heresy” (Rushdoony, Foreword to Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 2nd ed., 1984). The faculty of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary included dispensationalism in their list of “isms” alongside of Seventh-day Adventism and Perfectionism (Arnold Rhodes, ed., The Church Faces the Isms, 1958).
What Is Dispensationalism?
Dispensationalism refers to the fact that Bible history can be divided into distinct periods of time during which God works out His purposes. Dispensationalism is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible and a clear distinction between Israel and the Church.
The Bible uses the word “DISPENSATION” in Ephesians 1:10. “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” This is the Greek word oikonomia (oy-kon-om-ee’-ah), which Strong defines as “administration (of a household or estate); specially, a (religious) ‘economy.’’’ This Greek word is also translated “stewardship” (Lk. 16:2-4). It refers to a period of time during which God is doing some particular work.
Another Bible word for this is “TIME.” We see this word in Ephesians 1:10—“the fulness of times...” Though the word “time” means different things in the Bible, one of its meanings is a period of time during which God is working out His purposes. In Ephesians 1:10 we see God’s grand plan of the ages, which is to gather together all things in Christ. In Acts 1:7 we find the phrase “the times,” referring to God’s plan. These are also called “the seasons.” It refers to the time on God’s great calendar. The Bible speaks of the “times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24), the “times of the restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), and “this present time” (Rom. 11:5).
Another Bible word for this is “AGE.” The Bible refers to “ages past” (Eph. 3:5), “ages to come” (Eph. 2:7), and “all ages” (Eph. 3:21).
Another Bible word for this is “DAY.” This term is used in many different ways in the Bible, but one of the ways it is used is to refer to a period during which God performs a certain work. Examples are “the day of salvation” (Isa. 49:8; 2 Co. 6:2), “the day of the Lord” (Isa. 2:12), “the last day” (Jn. 6:54), and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co. 1:8; Ph. 1:10; 2:16; 2 Th. 2:2).
Thus, the Bible teaches that there are great periods of time during which God works out His eternal plan. These periods are called “dispensations,” “ages,” “times,” and “days.”
Following are some definitions of dispensationalism based on the previous terms. These are taken from Charles Ryrie’s book Dispensationalism, pages 29-20.
Charles Ryrie: “Dispensationalism views the world as a house-hold run by God. In His household-world God is dispensing or administering its affairs according to His own will and in various stages of revelation in the passage of time. These various stages mark off the distinguishably different economies in the outworking of His total purpose, and these different economies constitute the dispensations” (Dispensationalism, p. 29).
W. Graham Scroggie: “[Dispensationalism is] the administration of the human race or any part of it, at any given time. Just as a parent would govern his household in different ways, according to varying necessity, yet ever for one good end, so God has at different times dealt with men in different ways, according to the necessity of the case, but throughout for one great, grand end” (Scroggie, Ruling Lines of Progressive Revelation, 1918, pp. 62-62).
Harry Ironside: “[Dispensationalism is] an ordered condition of things. ... There are various economies running through the Word of God. A dispensation, an economy, then, is that particular order or condition of things prevailing in one special age which does not necessarily prevail in another” (Ironside, In the Heavenlies, p. 67).
Clarence Mason, Jr.: “... in its Biblical usage, a dispensation is a divinely established stewardship of a particular revelation of God’s mind and will which brings added responsibility to the whole race of men or that portion of the race to whom the revelation is particularly given by God. Associated with the revelation, on the one hand, are promises of reward or blessing for those responding to the obedience of faith, while on the other hand there are warnings of judgment upon those who do not respond in the obedience of faith to that particular revelation. However, though the time period (age) ends, certain principles of the revelation are often carried over into succeeding ages, because God’s truth does not cease to be truth, and these principles become part of the cumulative body of truth for which man is responsible in the progressive unfolding revelation of God’s redemptive purpose” (Mason, notes on his course on Eschatology at the Philadelphia College of Bible, pp. 5-6).
Paul Nevin: “A dispensation is God’s distinctive method of governing mankind or a group of men during a period of human history, marked by a crucial event, test, failure, and judgment. From the divine standpoint, it is a stewardship, a rule of life, or a responsibility for managing God’s affairs in His house. From the historical standpoint, it is a stage in the progress of revelation” (Paul Nevin, “Some Major Problems in Dispensational Interpretation,” unpublished Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1963, p. 9).
What Are the Dispensations?
The Bible does not specifically tell us how many ages there have been since God made man or how many there will be in the future. C.I. Scofield, author of the famous Scofield Bible, and many other well-known dispensational teachers, have taught that there are seven dispensations. Scofield said, “Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment, marking his utter failure in every dispensation.”
The seven Scofield dispensations are as follows:
1. Man innocent (Genesis 2-3)
2. Man under conscience (Genesis 3-8)
3. Man in authority over the earth (Genesis 9-11)
4. Man under promise (from Abraham to Moses)
5. Man under law (from Moses to the first coming of Christ)
6. Man under grace (from the first coming of Christ until the second coming)
7. Man under the personal reign of Christ (the millennial kingdom and new heaven and new earth)
That is one way that the ages can be explained and divided; but there are other ways to look at them, and the number seven is not necessary. It depends on how you define an age. The important point is that there have been various periods during which God has worked out His purposes, and during these periods God has related to men in different ways and has required different things of him. The knowledge of this is necessary for a right interpretation of the Bible.
I am not satisfied with the Scofield dispensational system for several reasons. For example, to call the time from Adam’s Fall to the Flood “man under conscience” is misleading and arbitrary, it seems to me, because there is no significant difference in God’s dealings with man before the Flood or after the Flood. To call the age from the Flood to Abraham “man in authority over the earth” is also misleading, since man was actually in authority over the earth from the time of Adam’s creation. To call the age from Moses to Christ the age of “man under law” is misleading, since the law of Moses was given to Israel, not to mankind in general. Further, to call the church age “man under grace” is misleading, since salvation has always been by grace and always will be (Romans 4:1-8).
I believe it is more profitable to divide the ages into the following categories:
1. The Age of Testing. This refers to the time when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden before the Fall (Genesis 1-3). The first man and woman were created sinless and were given only one commandment, which was not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they were tempted by Satan and sinned, the age of testing ended. We do not know how long Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden before they sinned, but we do know that they didn’t have any children until after they were put out of the Garden.
2. The Age of Lawlessness. This age lasted from Adam’s Fall to Abraham (Genesis 4-9). During this period, rebels such as Cain built godless cities and societies. The world became so corrupt that God destroyed it with a global Flood and only Noah and his three sons and their wives survived. This period lasted roughly 1,600 years.
3. The Age of Babel. After the Flood Nimrod and his associates built the godless empire of Babel (Genesis 10:8-12; 11:1-9). Idolatry was invented at Babel and spread throughout the world (Romans 1:21-23). This resulted in great moral perversion (Rom. 1:24-28). The age of Babel has continued through the millennia and will not end until God destroys the Babylon world system during the Great Tribulation (Revelation 17).
4. The Age of Israel’s Beginning. During this period, God built the foundation of the nation of Israel (Genesis 12-50). God called Abraham out of Ur and gave him the covenant; the covenant passed to Isaac, then to Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel), then to the 12 sons of Jacob who were the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. During the days of Joseph, Israel moved to Egypt and dwelt there until the time of Moses. This period lasted about 430 years.
5. The Age of the Law of Moses. This age lasted from Moses to the coming of Christ (Exodus to the end of the Old Testament). During this period, God put Israel under the Mosaic Law to prepare for the coming of Christ. The law does this in two ways: First, it shows God’s holiness and man’s sinful condition and condemnation before God and his need of salvation. Second, it points to Christ by many types, such as the Passover lamb and the Tabernacle. It is important to understand that men were never saved by keeping the law of Moses. Salvation has always been by God’s grace through faith in His Word (Romans 4:1-8). The law was given as a schoolmaster to lead men to Christ (Galatians 3:24). This period lasted roughly 1,500 years.
6. The Church Age. This age lasted from the Cross to the Rapture. During this age, God is calling out a special body of people from among all nations (Acts 1:8; 15:14-17; Romans 11:25-26). So far this period has lasted almost 2,000 years.
7. The Age of Daniel’s 70th Week. This seven-year period lasts from the Rapture until the return of Christ in glory. It is the final seven years of Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 Weeks (Dan. 9:24-27). It is called the Day of Lord (Isaiah 2:12) and the day of Jacob’s trouble (Jeremiah 30:7). It is described in Matthew 24:3-31 and Revelation 6-19. During this period, God will prepare Israel and the world for the return of Christ. He will judge the nations for their sin and rebellion and idolatry. He will complete His judgments upon Israel and convert her according to the New Covenant. The antichrist and his armies will be overthrown at Armageddon, and Satan will be bound in the bottomless pit.
8. The Age of the Millennial Kingdom. This age lasts from Christ’s second coming to the end of millennial reign (Revelation 19-20). During this period, God will establish the Messianic kingdom on earth, with its headquarters in Jerusalem, and the nations will be ruled with a rod of iron. This period will last 1,000 years.
9. The Ages of the New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21-22). From this point on, God will continue to work out His plans from age to age throughout eternity, but the Bible does not reveal any further details. We call this the “ageS” plural rather than “age” singular, because the Bible indicates that there will be endless ages during which God will work out His eternal purposes. The Greek phrase translated “forever and ever” is eis tous aionas ton aionon, which means “into the ages of the ages” (1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 11:15; 20:10; 22:5).
The Benefits of Dispensationalism
1. Dispensational theology employs a consistent normal-literal method of interpretation throughout the Scripture.
We have already seen the importance of a literal approach to Bible prophecy. Dispensationalism is the only theology that uses the normal-literal method of interpretation consistently throughout Scripture.
2. Dispensational theology helps us to study the Bible within its proper context.
Paul instructed Timothy to rightly divide God’s Word (2 Tim. 2:15). The Greek word orthotomeo, which is translated “rightly divide,” means “to make a straight cut, to dissect correctly.” The Bible is one Book, but it is also divided into individual books and major divisions (e.g., law, prophecy, Gospels, Acts, Epistles), and each segment must be rightly interpreted within its proper context. Dispensational theology enables the student to accomplish this.
Consider Genesis 1:29-30, which says that man may eat only vegetables. This is no longer in effect, though, since after the Flood God told Noah that he could eat meat (Gen. 9:30).
Consider Leviticus 11:7-8, which forbids the eating of pork. These dietary restrictions were required by the law of Moses, but Paul taught that the New Testament believer is not under dietary restrictions (1 Tim. 4:3-5).
Consider Deuteronomy 13:6-10 and Exodus 22:19, which command that idolators and witches be stoned to death. That was true in Israel under the law of Moses, and it will be true in Christ’s kingdom, but in the church age Christians don’t put idolators and witches to death. Paul didn’t call for the death of the witch in Acts 16:16-18. When he visited the idolatrous city of Athens, Paul didn’t try to seek to have idolators put to death; instead, he preached the gospel to them (Acts 17:22-34). We aren’t living in the age of the law of Moses; we are living in the age of the Great Commission.
Consider 2 Kings 23:14-15, where King Josiah destroyed the idols. As a king of Israel operating under the law of Moses, he had God’s authority to do this. But we never see the apostles and early churches breaking up idols, except for their own personal idols after they were saved. When Christ returns, He will destroy all idols from the earth, but today is the Great Commission age. It is not time to destroy idolators and break down their idols; it is time to preach the gospel to every person to give sinners an opportunity to be saved. This is what we see in the book of Acts. A believer can and should destroy his own idols, but he cannot destroy idols not belonging to him. If he rents a house or apartment that has an idol, he should ask the landlord if he can cover up the idol while he is occupying the facility. If the landlord does not agree, the believer should find another place to rent, but he is not authorized by the Bible to destroy idols that don’t belong to him.
Consider Ezekiel 33:12-16, which says men are judged by whether or not they keep the law. Many have erred by thinking that this teaches how to be saved. Those who believe you can lose your salvation use verses like these to prove their doctrine. But the Bible student must interpret every passage in its context, and the context here is the law of Moses. We know from the New Testament that Moses’ law was not written to show men how to be saved. It was written to show men that they are sinners under God’s judgment and that they need to flee to Christ for salvation (Romans 3:19-20). The law of Moses required perfect obedience (Ezek. 33:15), which no sinner can do. Compare Galatians 3:10-12.
Consider Matthew 5:25-26, which calls for imprisonment for those who do not reconcile with their adversaries. This is not referring to believers in the churches. Nowhere in the book of Acts or in the New Testament epistles do we see the early churches operating prisons. In Matthew 5 Jesus is preaching the principles of the kingdom He will establish when He returns.
Consider Matthew 10:5-15. Here Christ sends out His disciples to preach, but note the following restrictions: (1) They were to preach only to Jews (v. 6). (2) They were to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (v. 7). (3) They were to do miracles (v. 8). (4) They were not to carry any money or extra clothes (v. 9-10). (5) They were to carry no weapons (a staff). This is directly contradictory to the commands given later in the New Testament. Later Christ Himself commanded His disciples to preach to all men (Matt. 28:18-20), to preach the gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection rather than the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mark 16:15), to carry both money and a sword (Lk. 22:35-26), and there is no command to do miracles. What is the difference between these accounts? The difference is that they are spoken under different dispensations. In Matthew 10, Christ was sending His disciples out to proclaim to Israel that their Messiah and King was present. That is the meaning of the message they preached, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was at hand because the King was standing right there! Thus in Matthew 10 the messengers were to preach only to Jews, were to do miracles to demonstrate that the Messiah had come as foretold in the prophets, were not to provide anything for themselves because it was just a short period of time and they were operating under the direct earthly supervision of the Messiah. Later, after Israel had rejected Christ, He began to prepare for the church age and the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth. In the church age, the program of God changed.
Consider the miracles of Christ in the Gospels and the miracles of the apostles in the book of Acts. These are not examples for believers today to imitate. Rather, they were signs to authenticate special ministries. Jesus did miracles to prove that He was the Messiah (John 5:36; 20:30-31). The apostles did miracles to demonstrate that they were the Lord’s special apostles (2 Cor. 12:12).
Consider Revelation 13:10. This is written in the context of the reign of the antichrist (see verses 1-8). When verse 10 says, “He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity; he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword,” it refers to the antichrist’s law that will require all people to worship him (v. 8). It is not referring to using the sword at any time and in any age. Pacifists who use this verse to forbid the use of weapons in every situation are abusing the Scripture by taking things out of context. Jesus Himself at one point instructed His disciples to get a sword (Lk. 22:36). What Revelation 13:10 is warning about is joining hands with the antichrist in his war against those who refuse to bow to him.
3. Dispensational theology allows us to see that not everything in the Bible was written to or is directly about the church-age believer, but everything in the Bible is for the church-age believer in that everything has lessons for us.
See Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11.
Consider Psalm 126:5-6. These verses are used for evangelism, but the verses actually refer to the return of Israel to the land. See verses 1-4. This is a promise that God will fulfill His covenants with Israel and will bring them back to the land. We can apply these verses to evangelism, but it is important first to understand the main interpretation of a passage according to its dispensational context.
Consider 2 Chronicles 7:14. This is a promise given to Israel when the First Temple was built by Solomon. The promise, therefore, belongs particularly to Israel and not to the churches. Israel had a promised land, but we don’t have a promised land in this present church age. We can make an application of this promise, though. God does bless nations to some extent when His people in the churches walk in obedience. How the Christians live will have an effect upon their nations. But we are strangers in this present world and our citizenship is in heaven, and nowhere does God promise to heal a pagan nation if Christians have a spiritual revival.
4. Dispensationalism makes a clear distinction between Israel and the Church.
1 Corinthians 10:32 states that there are three categories of people in the world today -- the JEWS, the GENTILES, and the CHURCH. Obviously, then, Israel is not the same as the church.
Some of the most common errors in theology have occurred through confusing the church with Israel. This is called “Replacement Theology.”
This is one of the errors of ROMAN CATHOLICISM. Rome claims to be the new Israel and has adopted many things from the Old Testament dispensation, such as priests, temples, candles, incense, and sprinkling of water. This is one reason why Rome attempted to take over the Holy Land during the crusades of the Middle Ages, but the Holy Land belongs to Israel, not the Church.
This is also one of the errors of PROTESTANTISM. By this, I am referring especially to Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, and Lutheran denominations. When the Protestant denominations left Rome, they did not leave behind all of Rome’s errors. One of the errors they brought with them pertains to ecclesiology and the interpretation of prophecy. They teach that Israel was permanently rejected by God and replaced with the church. They do not believe that the Old Testament promises and prophecies pertaining to Israel will be literally fulfilled. To one extent or another they have also adopted certain rituals from the Old Testament dispensation, such as priests, liturgy, infant baptism (which they claim is the spiritualizing of circumcision), sabbath-keeping (which they foisted onto the first day of the week with no Scriptural authority), etc.
Most of the CULTS also claim to be a continuation of Israel in one form or the other. For example, the Worldwide Church of God, founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, claimed that 10 of the tribes of Israel had been lost and had re-surfaced today in England and America and had been restored in his cult. This is called British-Israelism, and there are other heretical groups that teach a form of it. Jehovah’s Witnesses apply things from the book of Revelation that are for Israel, directly to itself, such as the sealing of the 144,000 from the 12 tribes in Revelation 7. Seventh-day Adventists claim that New Testament believers are obligated to keep the Sabbath and keep Old Testament dietary restrictions.
God’s promises to Israel have not failed. God warned that if Israel rejected His Law she would be judged and evicted from her land and scattered among the nations (Deuteronomy 28:15, 25, 37, 64-67), but God also promised to restore Israel (Deut. 30:1-9). This is summarized in the prophecy of Hosea 3:4-5.
God’s covenants with Israel (other than the Mosaic covenant) are unconditional, eternal, and unchangeable.
Consider the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7. In His covenant with David, God (1) promised that Israel would own her own land (2 Sa. 7:10), (2) promised that the throne of David would be established forever through David’s seed (2 Sa. 7:13), (3) promised chastisement for sin, but never annulment of the promise (2 Sa. 7:14-15), (4) established David’s house and kingdom forever (2 Sa. 7:16). All of this is fulfilled through Jesus Christ, David’s Son, who has inherited the throne of David (Mat. 1:1) and who will establish the Davidic kingdom when He returns from heaven (Isa. 9:6-7).
All of God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament will be literally fulfilled.
a. Israel will be restored to the land (Zech. 10:6-12).
b. Israel will be brought through severe judgment during the Great Tribulation and one third of the Jews will call upon God’s name (Zech. 13:8-9).
c. Israel will repent and will be redeemed (Zech. 12:10 - 13:1).
d. Messiah will return and defeat Israel’s enemies and rule from Jerusalem (Zech. 14:1-21).
In contrast to Israel’s covenants and prophecies, the Church is a mystery that was not revealed in Old Testament prophecies. See Ephesians 3:4-6.
Romans 11:25-29 tells us more about the mystery of the church. Christ came to Israel but was rejected (John 1:11). Christ was crucified and raised from the dead and ascended back to heaven. A few years later the armies of Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the Jews were scattered among the nations and for 2,000 years she did not have a home of her own. Israel has been blinded because of her rebellion against God. During the Church Age, God is calling out people from among all nations to form the Church. See Acts 15:13-18. When God is finished with this work, the Church believers will be Raptured out of the world and God will turn His attention back to fulfilling His covenants with Israel.
Contrast Covenant or Reformed Theology
The opposite of Dispensational Theology is Covenant Theology. This is the standard Presbyterian theology. It is also called Reformed and Federal Theology. It can be traced back to the time of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1584 and was encapsulated within the Westminster Confession one hundred years later. There is considerable variety within Covenant Theology traditions, but the following are some of the standard characteristics:
a. Covenant Theology says that there were only two covenants. Traditional Covenant Theology says there was a covenant of works before the Fall and a covenant of grace since the Fall, a covenant of works with Adam and a covenant of grace with Christ. The Westminster Confession stated, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ.” Another variety of covenant theology, called New Covenant Theology, says that the two covenants are the old covenant of law with Israel and the new covenant of grace with the church.
b. Covenant Theology claims that the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Israel have already been fulfilled spiritually or allegorically or symbolically in the church. Covenant theologians believe that Israel has been permanently rejected.
c. Covenant Theology says there has been only one group of redeemed people: Israel in the Old Testament times and now the church, which supposedly has replaced Israel.
d. Covenant Theology has traditionally been accompanied by the practice of infant baptism, which is seen as the entrance into God’s new covenant. They argue that since the old covenant had the rite of circumcision for babies, the new covenant must have the rite of baby baptism.
NOTE TO TEACHERS: The rest of this study on dispensationalism can be skipped if there is a lack of time.
Some Dangers of Dispensationalism
1. One potential danger of dispensationalism is thinking that the Bible student must accept one certain form of dispensational teaching.
While it is obvious that there are different dispensations in the Bible, the Bible student is not forced to accept the view of dispensationalism as taught by any certain man or group of men. In fact, no two dispensational teachers have agreed in every point. They have differed as to whether the church will be on earth during the millennium, as to how the new covenant relates to the church, as to how men were saved under the Law of Moses, as to how the Church will relate to Israel in eternity, and other things. Every systematic theology and every teaching of man must be carefully tested by the Bible itself. We must never forget the admonition found in the following three important verses: Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:21.
It appears to me that no one system of dispensational theology can satisfy everything the Bible teaches about Israel, the Church, and future events. One reason is that God does not tell us everything. Not every question can be answered in this present time.
Further, I do not agree with the doctrine of the church as taught by most of the aforementioned men. (I say most, and not all, only because I am not familiar with what is taught by every one of them.) Typically they hold to a Protestant view of a universal church and they speak of “the church” in a universal sense as much as or even more often than they speak of the local sense, and I do not see this in Scripture. There is a “church” that is beyond the local church as described in Ephesians 2-3, but this is not a Protestant universal church and it is not something that is emphasized in the New Testament because it has no present practicality. Of the 110 mentions of the Greek word “ecclesia,” no more than two or three can refer to anything other than the local assembly by any standard of interpretation. It is not scripturally correct to refer to the church in a universal sense as Protestants use the term, such as “the church in America” or “the church in Europe.” There are churches, plural, in these localities, but it is unscriptural to refer to the church, singular, in this sense. The New Testament is very precise in the use of these terms. When referring to churches in a country or region, the term is always used in the plural -- e.g., the churches of Judea (Gal. 1:22), the churches of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), and the churches of Asia (1 Cor. 16:19).
2. Another potential danger of dispensationalism today is Modified or Progressive Dispensationalism.
Since the late 1980s some men have made significant modifications to the traditional dispensational view. Three names are prominent in this field: Darrell Bock (Dallas Theological Seminary), Craig Blaising (Dallas Seminary), and Robert Saucy (Talbot Theological Seminary). In 1993 Bock and Blaising published Progressive Dispensationalism while Saucy published The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism.
Some of the principles of Progressive Dispensationalism are as follows:
a. The church is not a parenthesis but is the first step towards establishment of the kingdom of God.
b. The term “mystery” does not mean that the church was unrevealed in the Old Testament, but only that it was “unrealized.”
c. The church is not a separate category distinct from Israel and the Gentiles. There are not “two peoples of God.” There is no distinction between Israel and the church in the future state. A Jew who becomes a Christian will be a part of Israel in the Millennium.
d. The Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant have already been inaugurated and Jesus is presently sitting on the throne of David.
e. Within biblical history there are only four dispensational eras.
f. Kingdom righteousness and “holistic redemption” (for all of society) is to be pursued in the church age. “Revisionists give more attention to social action than they feel normative dispensationalists did or do” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 176).
A good review and refutation of Progressive Dispensationalism can be found in the revised edition of Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie.
3. Another potential danger of dispensationalism is in making improper dispensations and making too sharp a division between them.
This is called “ultra-dispensationalism” or “hyper-dispensationalism” and is characterized by making a sharp division between the ministry of Christ and that of the apostles, and of further dividing Paul’s teaching from that of Peter and the other apostles. Some of the well-known teachers of ultra- or hyper-dispensationalism are E.W. Bullinger, Cornelius Stam, J.C. O’Hair, Charles Welch, Otis Sellers, A.E. Knoch, and Charles Baker.
There are many varieties of ultra-dispensationalism, but the following are some of the chief characteristics:
a. The four Gospels are entirely Jewish and contain no direct teaching for the churches. Yet, the writer of Hebrews said that the same gospel of salvation that was preached by the apostles was preached by Christ (Heb. 2:3-4). Though we know that Christ presented Himself to the Jewish nation and we do understand that there are differences between the gospels and the epistles, yet in Hebrews 2 we do not see a sharp delineation between the gospel preached by Christ and that preached by the apostles who followed. In fact, the Gospel of John presents exactly the same gospel as that preached by Paul. Further, 1 Timothy 6:3 shows that Christ spoke directly to the church age.
b. The book of Acts is also largely Jewish. Hyper-dispensationalists commonly believe that after Christ was rejected by Israel in the Gospels, that they were given a second chance to receive the kingdom in the first part of the book of Acts. They teach that there are two different churches viewed in the book of Acts, and the true Pauline church only started after Acts 9, 13, or 28. The church mentioned in the first part of Acts allegedly refers to a different church than that of Paul’s prison epistles. The earlier “church” in Acts is simply an aspect of the kingdom preached in the Gospels. Most of the book of Acts is therefore discounted as a guideline for the churches today. Yet, at the very end of the book of Acts we still find Paul preaching about the kingdom (Acts 28:23). In fact, he was still preaching about it in his epistles! (2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:1). While we can see an obvious transition in the book of Acts, and not everything in Acts continues to be in effect in the churches today (e.g., tongues speaking and apostolic sign gifts) this does not mean that there are different gospels and different churches in various parts of Acts. The book of Acts is a book about and for the churches. The pattern of the first church as described in Acts 2 is the pattern for the churches throughout the age, except for the temporary and unique aspects pertaining to the coming of the Holy Spirit and the apostolic miracles.
c. The mysteries given to Paul are a different revelation from that given to Peter and the other apostles, and only Paul’s writings are directly for the church today. The other epistles, such as Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and John’s epistles are not for us today in a direct sense. Yet, Paul himself said that the church is built upon the “apostleS” plural and not merely upon himself (Eph. 2:20) and the mysteries were “revealed unto his holy apostleS and prophetS” (Eph. 3:5) and not to him alone. Peter also referred to the writings of Paul and made no distinction between Paul’s teaching and the teaching of the other apostles (2 Pet. 3:1-2, 15-16). Peter said Paul wrote to the same people and preached the same message. Though we know that Paul was the special apostle of the Gentiles and he was given unique revelations about the church as the body of Christ, his revelations in no way contradict the revelations given in the General Epistles (Hebrews - Jude).
d. The gospel preached by Peter in the early part of the book of Acts is different from the gospel preached by Paul. Yet, there is no difference between the gospel preached by Peter and that which Paul preached. (1) Consider the gospel Peter preached in his first epistle. He preached salvation through the blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:2), salvation by God’s free mercy (1 Peter 1:3), the new birth (1 Peter 1:3), eternal security because of the resurrection of Christ (1 Pet. 1:3-4). (2) Acts 15 plainly states that all of the apostles, including Peter and Paul, agreed on the gospel. (3) Paul plainly said in 1 Corinthians 15:11-14 that they all preached the same gospel. (4) Even in Acts 2, Peter was preaching the gospel of the grace of Christ rather than a “kingdom gospel.” He preached Christ -- His crucifixion (Acts 2:23), resurrection (Acts 2:24-32), ascension and Lordship (Acts 2:33-36). He preached that the people should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). This is not a “kingdom gospel.” (5) Further, Paul states in Galatians 1, that anyone who preached a different gospel was cursed. If Peter were truly preaching a different gospel in those days, he would have fallen under this curse.
e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were given to Paul before he received the church age mysteries; thus they are not for the churches today. Hyper-dispensationalists differ on this point. Some accept both baptism and the Lord’s Supper; some reject water baptism and the Lord’s Supper altogether; while others reject only baptism and keep the Lord’s Supper.
f. According to hyper-dispensationalism there are different ways of salvation in the Old Testament and during the Tribulation. Peter Ruckman, for example, teaches that men were saved by faith plus works in the Old Testament and that they will be saved by faith plus works in the Tribulation and by works alone in the Millennium. In Millions Disappear: Fact or Fiction? Ruckman says: “If the Lord comes and you remain behind, then start working like a madman to get to heaven, because you’re going to have to. ... You must keep the Ten Commandments (all of them, Ecclesiastes 12:13), keep the Golden Rule (1 John 3:10), give your money to the poor, get baptized, take up your cross, hold out to the end of the Tribulation, wait for Jesus Christ to show up at the Battle of Armageddon, and be prepared to die for what you believe. In the Tribulation you cannot be saved by grace alone, like you could before the Rapture.” In fact, Romans 4:1-8 plainly states that Abraham before the law and David under the law were saved by faith without works. This is the only plan of salvation God ever has had and ever will have--salvation by grace alone through faith alone based upon the shed blood of Jesus Christ alone. The Old Testament saints did not know what the New Testament saint knows, but Romans 4 makes it plain that they were saved by faith without works. Like Abraham, they believed God and it was counted unto them for righteousness. Those who are saved in the Tribulation will also be saved through faith in God’s Word and by the blood of Jesus Christ and through this alone (Rev. 7:14).
A more recent statement of hyper-dispensationalism is presented in One Book Rightly Divided: The Key to Understanding the Bible by Dr. Douglas Stauffer (2000, McCowen Mills Publishers). Stauffer’s book comes with recommendations from some well-known independent Baptist preachers, including Evangelist Dennis Corle of Revival Fires, William Grady, and J. Wendell Runion of International Baptist Outreach Missions. In his glowing Foreword to Stauffer’s book (which he calls a “spiritual masterpiece”), Grady says that “this book will undoubtedly create shock waves within certain ‘camps’ of fundamentalism...” I doubt that the book will create shock waves within any camps, but it probably will create shock waves in some individual lives and churches.
Stauffer’s teaching is largely the same as that which has been promoted by Peter Ruckman for many years, though Stauffer gives Ruckman no credit. He does mention that he received “the principles of right division” from Dave Reese. I sat under Reese’s hyper-dispensational teaching in a course on prophecy at Tennessee Temple Bible School in the mid-1970s. It was a blessing when Reese was forced to leave part way through the course, and we were no longer subjected to his hyper-dispensational rants. We had the joy of finishing the rest of the course under the sound and profitable teaching of Bruce Lackey.
There are many good things in Stauffer’s book. He has an excellent section on repentance, defining it properly as “a change of mind and heart attitude which leads to a change of actions” and warning that “too many sinners bow their heads and say the ‘sinner’s prayer’ without any inward conviction or belief on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Though Stauffer’s hyper-dispensationalism is milder than some of the other approaches (he accepts both baptism and the Lord’s Supper as church ordinances, for example), there is no doubt that he is teaching a form of hyper-dispensationalism and that his false teaching will produce confusion and division.
Following are some of the errors that Stauffer teaches:
* Paul is THE spokesman for the church age (p. 17).
* The epistles from Hebrews to Revelation, while containing some church age applications, are actually written for Great Tribulation saints (pp. 20, 27).
* Salvation is obtained by works during the Tribulation (p. 23).
* Hebrews and James do not teach eternal security (pp. 23, 29).
* Peter did not preach the gospel of the grace of God (p. 26).
* The seven churches of Revelation 1-3 are not the body of Christ (p. 29).
* John’s first epistle teaches that salvation is through works (p. 56).
* The book of Acts was not given “to show how to establish the local church or its functions” (p. 72)
* Abraham had to keep his salvation through works (p. 175).
Stauffer even has a chapter warning about “hyper-dispensationalism”! In this, he conveniently redefines hyper-dispensationalism to mean something other than what he himself teaches. In fact, he sets up a straw man form of hyper-dispensationalism that doesn’t actually exist, or if it does exist, is so exceedingly rare as to be of no concern. He claims, for example, that a real hyper-dispensationalist teaches that the law is inapplicable today, but in reality, hyper-dispensationalists commonly teach that the law has applications for the church. He claims that hyper-dispensationalists exclude some portions of the Bible from study and application, but hyper-dispensationalists typically claim that all portions of the Bible have some value for study. Stauffer defines hyper-dispensationalism as “any intentional false division of the Bible” (his emphasis) (p. 149). Such a definition would be impossible to employ for the simple fact that we cannot look into the heart of a man and see what his motives are. In fact, hyper-dispensationalism is “any false division of the Bible” period, regardless of the motive of the one doing the teaching. A hyper-dispensationalist can be sincere or insincere. That is beside the point. The whole issue is whether he creates divisions in the Scriptures that should not be created. Stauffer’s book does precisely this. (He drops the word “intentional” in the third edition.)
Stauffer’s expanded third edition (2006) slightly modifies a few of these things, but it presents the same type of hyper-dispensationalism. He does not renounce anything he taught in previous editions. To me, his chief error is three-fold. First, his error is in allotting the book of Acts and the General Epistles to a dispensation different from the church age. In chapter 16 he divides the New Testament era into four dispensations -- the Age of Readiness (Matthew-John and Hebrews-Revelation 19), the Age of Church (Romans-Philemon), the Age of Kingdom (Revelation 20), and the Age of Eternity Future (Revelation 21-22). As for the book of Acts, Stauffer says, “The church should not base its existence or functions upon the book of Acts any more than upon a history book of the Soviet Union” (p. 72). The so-called Age of Readiness into which he lumps the General Epistles is a dispensation in which people are required to “seek the kingdom and to be ready whenever it might come” (p. 188). Stauffer claims that these books are not addressed directly to the church-age believer and that reading them is like reading mail intended for someone else (p. 28), and that they are primarily written for the Tribulation time (p. 47). To the contrary, the General Epistles are fully church-age revelations. The epistle of James was written for the churches in this present age as certainly and fully as Ephesians. There are no doctrinal contradictions between Paul’s epistles and the General Epistles. And the book of Acts, though we recognize its transitional character and the fact that there are things in it of a temporary nature (e.g., the apostolic sign miracles, 2 Cor. 12:12), it should be studied as church doctrine rather than a book applying to some different dispensation.
Second, Stauffer’s error is in setting up Paul as THE spokesman for the church and in contradiction to Peter and the other apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament. He says, “God’s specific directions for the Church are found predominantly in the thirteen epistles that God used Paul to pen for the Church” (p. 22). While we know that Paul holds a unique place as the apostle of the Gentiles and he was given some wonderful revelations of church truth, he was not the only apostle who wrote for the churches, the non-Pauline New Testament epistles are as much for the Church as Paul’s are. Paul’s revelations in no way contradict those of the General Epistles, and he did not preach a different gospel from the others.
Harry A. Ironside wrote a helpful little booklet about this problem called “Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: Ultra-Dispensationalism Examined in the Light of Holy Scripture.” He deals largely with the error of Bullingerism. This is available on the Internet at http://www.brethrenonline.org/books/ultrad.htm.
For more about the way of salvation in other dispensations, see “Salvation Is the Same in the Old Testament and the New Testament” by Bruce Lackey and “Salvation in the O.T. and the N.T. Follow-up.” These are available at the Way of Life web site and in the Fundamental Baptist Digital Library.
4. Another potential problem with dispensationalism is not recognizing that there are transitional periods between dispensations.
One problem that can arise when looking at the Bible dispensationally is to fail to recognize transitional periods. For example, John the Baptist is a transitional figure. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets to Israel, but he is also the forerunner of Christ, Who is the founder of the church. Actually, the four Gospels themselves are transitional books. They are for Israel and for the church, as well. In Matthew, for example, Christ is presented as the king of Israel and is rejected by the nation Israel and then He begins to focus His attention on building the church (Mat. 16:18). Yet, there is not a sharp and immediate transition; it is gradual. The book of Acts is also a transitional book, and not everything in the book of Acts is the norm for churches today. Pentecost, for example, was unique. The gift of tongues was a witness to Israel (1 Cor. 14:21-22) and is no longer relevant. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was also unique for that initiation period of the church. None of the epistles instruct believers to seek a baptism of the Holy Spirit; they refer, rather, to the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the past tense (i.e., 1 Cor. 12:13).
5. Neglecting some parts of the Bible, thinking that they are not important for us today.
Some neglect the four Gospels or the book of Acts or the book of Revelation, but this is wrong. While not every part of the Bible is written TO us, every part of the Bible is written FOR us and has important lessons for Christians today. See 1 Cor. 10:6, 11; Rom. 15:4.
The Lie about Dispensationalism
Some who despise dispensationalism have claimed that it was not taught until the 1800s. Some claim it was started by John Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement.
While it might be true that a certain form of dispensationalism, such as Darby dispensationalism or Scofield dispensationalism, might not have been taught until more recent times, it is plain that a belief in dispensations goes all of the way back to the apostles.
1. We have seen that the New Testament teaches that there are dispensations during which God has worked out His great purposes. These are also called ages, times, and days. In this sense, dispensationalism is 2,000 years old!
2. The early Christians after the apostles taught a form of dispensationalism. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) believed in four phases of history in God’s plan: From Adam to Abraham, from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ, and from Christ to the eternal state. Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202) taught something similar, dividing the dispensations into (1) the creation to the flood, (2) the flood to the law, (3) the law to the gospel, (4) the gospel to the eternal state. In Ages and Dispensations of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Larry Crutchfield observed that some of the early church leaders “came very close to making nearly the same divisions modern dispensationalists do.”
3. Influential Baptist leader Morgan Edwards, the founder of Brown University, was teaching the pre-tribulational doctrine in the first half of the 18th century. Between 1742 and 1744 he wrote a book presenting this doctrine. The book was published in 1788 in Philadelphia where Edwards was a pastor. John Bray, who for many years published a challenge that he would give $500 to anyone who could prove that the pre-tribulational rapture was taught before 1830, was forced to pay out! The Plains Baptist Challenger observed: “If Morgan Edwards wrote a book in 1742-44 teaching the Pre-Trib Rapture, then many people must have read it. No doubt there must have been other preachers who read the same Bible that Edwards did and preached the same truth. I wonder if John L. Bray will offer $500 to anyone teaching the Pre-Trib Rapture before Morgan Edwards? I hope he does. Of course Paul taught it, but the enemies of the Pre-Trib Rapture will never accept that. They just explain it away. Of course, the Apostle John taught it in the book of Revelation, but they spiritualize the book of Revelation away” (Plains Baptist Challenger, Lubbock, Texas, September 1995).
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