Dispensationalism

May 19, 2010 — 6 Comments

[This post is part of the Eschatology series]

If you remember where we left off, it was an exploration of the millennial options. It is unfortunate to say the least, that one’s eschatology is basically categorized by how you interpret Revelation 20. My study of the topic over the course of this semester has helped broaden my understanding of eschatology and to realize that it does not necessarily restrict itself to a discussion of an end-time timeline. This is another unfortunate stereotype of eschatology, due in large part I’m sure to such nonsense as the Left Behind series, which while entertaining to read, is more or less a work of fiction.

Hopefully over the course of these few posts and of my continuation of the Adventures in Eschatology series, we can rehabilitate eschatology into the practical relevant topic that it is (that’s right, practical and relevant). The course at DTS is at least good for that, although in the end, the presentation of the current progressive dispensational view was more or less what undid my confidence in dispensationalism being an accurate system of Bible interpretation.

I had read Ryrie’s magnum opus in undergrad and was left thinking old school dispensationalism was not really viable, but not really sure where to go from there. I put off studying it any further until I got here to DTS, and even then put it off until the spring of my third year. But now having taken the course and heard the most up to date presentation of dispensationalism and wrestled with the ideas most of the semester, here in several parts is where I came out, and outlines why, after studying at DTS for 3 years, I am not a dispensationalist.

Dispensationalism

If at this point, you are for some reason foggy on dispensationlism, it is in short, the view God rules history in different economies or dispensations. We are currently in the dispensation of grace (or the church are), and this dispensation will end when the church is raptured (taken away to heaven) and a 7 year tribulation of judgment ensues. At the end of the tribulation, Christ will return and the millennial kingdom will begin on earth and last 1000 years. At the end of the millennium, there will be a final judgment on believers and non-believers alike and then the eternal state will begin. That is probably an oversimplificataion, if you need more precise clarification, don’t Wikipedia it, but go here and see specifically Articles V, XIX, XX, XI.

Whatever else one may make of the idea of dispensations themselves, the key things one must hold to in order to be a dispensationlist are: (1) a premillennial view of the millennium (Christ returns before it); (2) a belief in a rapture separate from and preceding the 2nd coming; (3) a 7 year tribulation of unprecedented woe based on the prophecy of 70 weeks in Daniel 9 (this sometimes called Daniel’s 70th week); and (4) a largely nationalistic future to be realized in the 1000 year millennial kingdom ruled by Christ on earth. In the end, I do not think any of those beliefs are taught in Scripture, so I can’t be a dispensationalist. Other people who I greatly respect will strongly disagree with me. But part of seminary is teaching young minds to think for themselves and to implement sound tools of interpretation. Upon doing so, here’s where I came out:

Metaeschatology

In the most general terms possible, to me, the study of eschatology is like a jigsaw puzzle. The biggest problem it has is not a lack of pieces, nor lack of competent jigsaw puzzle aficionados, but rather that the box top is missing.[1] This is the more or less the same problem that the Jews ran into prior to Christ’s First Coming. Looking back at the Old Testament, we can clearly see all the pieces and how they fit together and which passages are indiscriminate blue sky, and which are shall we say, crucial to the picture looking just right. I mean in no way to demean Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, but in this analogy, Christ’s person and work in His First Coming is the box top to Old Testament prophecy. Now, we could extend this and add the New Testament, and then say, “Christ’s person and work in His First AND Second Coming is the box top to ALL Biblical prophecy.” Since we are missing that second box top, there is no reason to expect or to believe that any one system of eschatology has put the puzzle together completely right. Some can be more “right” than others, some can be plain wrong (i.e. hyper-preterism), but none of them can be completely right in their interpretation of all the details prior to their fulfillment.

In this sense then, the different eschatological approaches, unfortunately tied to how one interprets the millennium, are all in the category of theory, and not dogma, and in some ways can be conceived of as different perspectives on the Biblical story. Each has their own emphasis to add, but unfortunately that cannot each be completely correct in what they assert. To be sure, there are some eschatological details that transcend the differing systems. The main one of course is Christ’s Second Coming. If I could pick a name for my position, I would prefer meta-millennial. Part of this is a preference to not affirm any of the major options, and the other part is the a penchant for the meta- prefix. In the end, though I’d rather not identify myself with anyone one of them, what I present below more or less falls under one of those umbrellas. It just gets the conversation started out differently if I say I hold to “metamillennialism.”[2]


[1]To give credit where credit is due and render unto Dr. Johnston what is Dr. Johnston’s, the box top analogy is his creation (unless he came to it from another source). I asked him if it could be applied similarly to eschatology and he agreed. I unfortunately have no record of this conversation since it was after class one day.

[2] Since no one else I know of uses the term, it might be free from stereotyping, thus forcing the other person to patiently listen to its explanation.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

6 responses to Dispensationalism

  1. In addition to some of your concerns about Dispen. theology, I always felt that the dispensations (most of which are not clearly there though there is some support for the idea of a dispensation) ran the biblical theology over the covenants (which are clearly there). Further, the point to which they take the discontinuity between Israel and the church was more than I could accept.

    • That’s kind of where I was in seminary. Especially when there is flexibility on the number of dispensations in progressive dispensationalism. If there’s only 3, then we’re just slicing up the biblical storyline in a slightly different way than covenant theology.

  2. You seem to be confusing Dispensationalism with Premillennialism, specifically pretribulational Premillennialism. One can be a Dispensationalist without believing Premillennialism (the four points you mentioned), although such a person would be admittedly rare. Furthermore, there are many Premillennials who believe in a posttribulational rapture.

    Dispensationalism itself is not an eschatology. It is mostly focused on the distinction between Israel and the church. Admittedly, most Dispensationalists are Premillenial and vice versa, but they are not the same thing.

    • It was my understanding at DTS that dispensationalism necessitates premillennialism, though it doesn’t mandate a specific stance on the timing of the rapture. You cannot be either amil or post-mil and be a dispensationalist (at least according to professors at DTS, who seem like they would be the authorities on the matter). Dispensationalism is an eschatology when eschatology is defined as view towards the end or goal of salvation history. It is not an end times scenario though, if that’s what you mean by “eschatology,” and so it is not the same thing as premillinialism, but the two go hand in hand. Not every premillennial is a dispensationalist, but the reverse is true, at least as far as major authors and thinkers in the movement (and who would claim that’s the only option).

      • I see a very clear distinction between Israel and the church. I think that God had very different purposes, expectations, and rules for Israel that have no bearing on the church, being a different entity. That makes me a Dispensationalist. That distinction I see does not have to influence my eschatology.

        I disagree with your definition of eschatology. Eschatology is “The department of theological science concerned with ‘the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell’” (Oxford English Dictionary).

        Dispensationalism, on the other hand, is not about the “last things.” The last things are just one part of the whole. Dispensationalism is about the dispensation of the church that we are in right now. I could hold to any number of eschatologies (as Oxford defines it) and still be a Dispensationalist, simply because of the distinction I see between Israel and the church.

        • Maintaining a strict distinction between Israel and the church does qualify you to be a dispensationalist. It’s not a distinction I would agree with (depending on how you nuance it), which is another reason I’m not a dispensationalist. I think we’re using eschatology in different senses though, and I don’t consider the specific definition in OED accurate for how the term is used in theological discourse. If you take the 3 semester Eschatology course at DTS, that is only a small part of the course topics. The distinction between Israel and the church, the events surrounding the return of Christ, the eternal state, the creational ideals present in the garden and the purposes to which God is working in redemption history are big chunk of it. So, in a sense, dispensationalism is not a type of eschatology, but it is very eschatological and it requires a certain view of how the end of redemption history unfolds. The commitments like maintaining a distinction between Israel and the church, for various reasons, require a literal millennial kingdom, and so by definition you can’t be an amil dispensationalist. You might could be a post-mil, but I do not know of any reputable dispensational thinker who would agree that it is possible to do so.

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