Dispensationalism, and variants of it. are easily among the most controversial theologies within the evangelical Christian church over past centuries. But as we know already from our studies, much of what is taught under dispensationalism is a kind of fortune or future telling which has been shown repeatedly to have a fanciful and wildy inaccurate character to it. This is hardly surprising as the Bible itself contains no reliable information to support many of the conclusions being reached. Thus, much of what is taught under the dispensationalist “end times” banner is based on human reasoning, without much evidence of theological principles being engaged with. Historically. there has been limited engagement with dispensationalism from within the established theological community among those with tertiary level qualifications or in established offices in seminaries, and that trend continues today.
This topic is important for us because it exposes within us our tendency as churches to allow our thinking to be dominated by international churches and ministries which have achieved prominence on the subject through media such as radio and TV, and thus are able to disseminate their messages widely. This is especially true of the leading Christian TV networks in the US, whose content is available here in NZ through our national Christian channel, Shine TV, and via free to air satellite reception of TBN Pacific on the Optus D2 satellite and via the Sky TV network. It is also significant because dispensationalism is essentially an American cultural phenomenon, both from within and without the church, and has gained a strong following in the US mainly as a vehicle of asserting greater prominence within the Church community worldwide by allowing the American church to position themselves as history makers and enablers of the future of Christianity.
Dispensationalism in its best known form originated with John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethen church, and later of the Exclusive form of the same, in the mid 1800s. As the Brethren espoused worldly leadership influences over their churches, and even any form of leadership calling, Darby was not a learned man, and did not initially establish fundamental tenets of dispensationalism at a scholarly level; that work was left to others, most notably at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas, US. An early prominence to Darby’s ideas was given in the Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909. DTS was founded in 1924 and became the most prominent theological college promoting and disseminating the teachings of dispensationalism.
The core beliefs of dispensationalism as they are most widely known today revolve around the division of human history into seven periods, or dispensations, of time, in each of which God is said to be testing human obedience by differing means. The current day dispensation between the first and second comings of Christ is called “the dispensation of grace” and is to end with a rapture of all believers from the earth and a seven year tribulation period, followed by a millenial reign of Christ which constitutes the seventh dispensation. As Donaldson (2011) writes, a central belief of the dispensational system is “the maintaining of a radical distinction between God’s two peoples, Israel and the church”. This includes the assumption that the Jewish temple in Jerusalem will be re-established along with the system of sacrifical atonement through the shedding of animal blood; a clear contradiction of the establishment of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ, and one of many promulgated by dispensationalism’s ardent advocates. A key challenge in the dispensationalist belief system is created by their insistence that the Book of Revelation and other important scriptures must be interpreted literally, instead of allegorically or metaphorically as is generally accepted by by scholarly theologians in most other branches of theology as a whole.
The widely known form of dispensationalism falls within a theological school of thought known generally as eschatological futurism. There are two other principal timescale contexts of eschatology, known as preterism and historicism. Preterism holds that the key Biblical eschatological teachings and events referred to, have already mostly or fully occurred within the period from the 7th century BC until the first century AD. Thus, the “end times” in fact refers not to the “end of time” as in the end of the world, but the end of the Jewish sacrificial system that was swept away by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and which in fact occurred in 70AD when the Romans sacked and burned the temple in Jerusalem. Historicism proposes that the events referred to have taken place over all of the history of the New Testament church as well as in the BC era to some extent. Prior to the rise of Darby, historicism is said to have been the most prevalent form of eschatological interpretation. It was widely used during the Reformation to identify the Catholic Pope as the antichrist, a view shared with parts of the futurist movement to the present day. What all scholars of theology need to understand first and foremost is that in any branch of theological thought, it is seldom possible to find universal agreement and in key areas of controversy throughout the church, generally the distinctive characteristics are different theological views on a particular subject or doctrine. Thus it is difficult to point to the futurist viewpoint and accept at face value that it must be the only right eschatological interpretation.
Well that’s it for Part 1. Part 2 will follow in a day or two.
Bibliography: “The Last Days of Dispensationalism” by Alistair W Donaldson. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, US – 2011.