It is doubtful if there has been
any other circle of men [dispensationalists] who have done more by their
influence in preaching, teaching and writing to promote a love for Bible study,
a hunger for the deeper Christian life, a passion for evangelism and zeal for
missions in the history of American Christianity.
Critic, George E. Ladd
first systematic expression of dispensationalism was formulated by J. N. Darby
sometime during the late 1820s and 1830s in the British Isles. I believe that
Darby' s development was the culmination of various influences which produced
within his thought one of the most literal approaches to Bible interpretation
in history and a theology which distinguishes God' s plan for Israel from God' s
plan for the church. The most well known feature of dispensational theology is
the much-debated pretribulational rapture doctrine.
ELEMENTS OF DISPENSATIONALISM
single element of dispensational thought can be said to be the unique domain of
dispensationalism alone. It is true that some hold to the Pre-Trib position
that do not want to be called dispensationalists, but it is equally true that
it was dispensational thought which provided the theological rationale for the
Pre-Trib viewpoint. Even the important " Israel- church" distinction has been
held by non-dispensationalists like Nathaniel West and George Peters.
Dispensationalists are not just characterized by the elements of their
theology, but also, their arrangement in relationship to one another.
In order to be a
dispensationalist, one has to hold to a literal approach of interpreting the
Bible. When compared to other interpretative approaches, dispensationalists
take the text more literally. For example, belief in literal days and years in
Genesis as well as literal days, months, and years in Revelation are
maintained. This means that we see Bible prophecy from a futurist, as opposed
to an idealist, preterist, or historicist perspective. A dispensationalist
holds to the above mentioned " Israel- church" distinction as well as the
Pre-Trib rapture. This means that current church-age believers are of the
spiritual seed of Abraham, but are not spiritual Israel. Dispensationalists
believe that God has a distinctive plan for ethnic and national Israel that
includes their spiritual restoration and conversion, as well as a specific
geographic destiny. On the other hand, the church began on the day of
Pentecost and will end with the rapture. Her mission is to preach the gospel,
disciple, and nurture believers, and to separate from evil by living a holy
life in this current dark age. While the church age will be characterized by
worldwide growth, at the same time the age ends in doctrinal and moral ruin and
apostasy. Based on their literal interpretation of Scripture,
dispensationalists believe that God has administered history in successive
stages, during each of which man is tested, fails, and suffers judgment. This
linear progress of history began in innocence, continued with man' s fall, was
punctuated by the cross of Christ, and moves toward the second coming and the
Although Darby was the first to
systematize dispensationalism, I believe that rudimentary features can be found
prior to the nineteenth century, especially in the early church and the three
hundred years prior to Darby. Opponents often debate a pre-Darby heritage, but
I think the evidence does support our claim that there are historical and
theological antecedents to the modern system.
The Early Church
Crude, but clear, schemes of
ages and dispensations are found in ante-Nicene fathers such as Justin Martyr
(110-165), Irenaeus (130-200), Tertullian (c. 160-220), Methodius (d. 311), and
Victorinus of Petau (d. 304). Dispensationalist, Larry Crutchfield concluded
Regardless of the number of
economies to which the Fathers held, the fact remains that they set forth what
can only be considered a doctrine of ages and dispensations which foreshadows
dispensationalism as it is held today. Their views were certainly less well
defined and less sophisticated. But it is evident that the early Fathers
viewed God' s dealings with His people in dispensational terms. . . . In every
major area of importance in the early church one finds rudimentary features of
dispensationalism that bear a striking resemblance to their contemporary
offspring (" Ages and Dispensations, " 398).
Crutchfield charted these Fathers' schemes in the
following chart which I have reproduced in an abbreviated form.
Justin Enoch/ Abraham Moses
Moses Christ Millennium
Irenaeus to to to
Tertullian Adam Noah Abraham Moses Christ
Crutchfield outlined the early
Fathers' views on Israel and the church, which is another feature important to
The Fathers (1)
distinguished between the church and national Israel, (2) recognized
distinctions among the differing peoples of God throughout biblical history,
and (3) believed in the literal fulfillment of covenant promises in the earthly
kingdom. . . . The contemporary dispensational position on Israel and the
church is primarily a refinement and not a contradiction of the position of the
ante-Nicene church(" Israel and the Church," 271.
There is no doubt that the position of the Fathers
on the relationship between Israel and the church has problems. But certain
elements in their thought place them close to, though not altogether within,
the dispensational camp.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages were a time in
which premillennialism, literal interpretation, dispensations, and an
Israel- church distinction were largely absent from theological discussion or
The Reformation and
post-Reformation periods did much to restore a more intensive study of the
Bible to the church. For the first time ever, printing made literature
accessible to most anyone. A greater effort was also put forth to systemize
the Bible within the light of Protestant theology. About 250 years before
Darby, Reformed scholars developed a school of theology that is known as
" Covenant Theology." With it, a precedent was established for viewing theology
from the perspective of an important concept like " covenant. " While others,
like Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), wrote his " History of the Work of Redemption,"
which viewed God' s salvation of man progressively in history. Such
developments were preparing the way for the birth of modern dispensationalism.
Ryrie, has shown that for about 150 years prior to Darby, an increasing number
of theologians were articulating dispensational schemes of Biblical history (Dispensationalism
Pierre Poiret's scheme is seen in his six volume work, The Divine Economy (1687) as follows:
I. Infancy- to
II. Childhood- to
III. Adolescence- to
IV. Youth- to the coming of
V. Manhood- " some time
VI. Old Age- " the time of
man' s decay"
& VI are the church age)
of all things- the millennium (Disp. Today, p. 71)
Note that Poiret stressed the ruin or decay of the
church, a major theme in Darby' s thinking.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the
famous theologian and hymn writer, also wrote about dispensations in a
forty-page essay entitled " The Harmony of all the Religions which God ever
Prescribed to Men and all his Dispensations towards them." His definition of
dispensations is very close to modern statements.
The public dispensations of God towards men, are those wise and holy
constitutions of his will and government, revealed or some way manifested to
them, in the several successive periods or ages of the world, where in are contained the duties
which he expects from men, and the blessings which he promises, or encourages
them to expect from him, here and hereafter; together with the sins which he
forbids, and the punishments which he threatens to inflict on such sinners, or
the dispensations of God may
be described more briefly, as the appointed moral rules of God' s dealing with
mankind, considered as reasonable creatures, and as accountable to him for
their behavior, both in this world and in that which is to come. Each of these
dispensations of God, may be represented as different religions, or at least,
as different forms of religion, appointed for men in the several successive
ages of the world.
dispensational scheme is as follows:
Dispensation of Innocency
II. Adam after
III. The Noahic
IV. The Abrahamic
V. The Mosaic
VI. The Christian
Dispensation (Disp. Today,
J. N. DARBY- THE MAN
Darby' s Life
Irishman, John Nelson Darby
(1800-1882) is unquestionably the father of modern dispensationalism. Darby
came from a highly honorable family and received an excellent education. He
entered Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of fifteen and graduated with
highest honors as a Classical Gold Medalist at age eighteen.
Upon graduation he entered the
legal profession and was called to the Irish Chancery Bar at age 21. Shortly
after entering the legal field, he was converted to Christ. In 1825 he entered
the ministry within the Church of England and was given an Irish parish. Darby
engaged in a tireless and successful parish ministry that saw the conversion of
hundreds of Roman Catholics to Protestantism. Within a year he was ordained as
a minister in the Church of England.
Soon after ordination he was
disillusioned by a decree from his bishop that all converts to Anglicanism
would have to swear allegiance to the King of England. Darby saw this as a
compromise with the Lordship of Christ and the decree greatly reduced his
success with Catholics. For a number of years he tried to reform the church,
but met with little success. In 1829 he resigned from Anglicanism and became
independent, following the polity of the Brethren, with whom he had already
been meeting for a few years.
Even though once engaged to the
beautiful and wealthy Lady Powerscourt, Darby never married and lived an
austere life, ignoring the things of this world, by blending piety with
biblical scholarship. His only personal indulgence was the purchase of books
for study, after that he gave most of his money to the poor.
Educational Influences Upon Darby
Many of the major tenets of
Darby' s dispensationalism can be seen as influences of the faculty of Trinity
College, Dublin where Darby was a student. His primary educational influence
came from Professor Richard Graves. Graves, a futurist postmillennialist,
believed that prophecy must be interpreted literally. Elmore notes, " As odd as
it may seem to modern dispensational premillennial literalists,
postmillennialists in Graves' day were known for their literalism with respect
to prophecy" (" A Critical Examination," 66). Graves argued, as do dispensationalists, that
" unfulfilled prophecy was to be literally interpreted, and the Abrahamic
covenant treated as unconditional" (68). He also believed and defended a
literal, future national conversion and restoration of Israel to their land.
He believed that the " conversion of Israel was imminent. Then a new
dispensation would be inaugurated on planet earth" (71). Graves called the new
era " a grand era in the Divine dispensations" (72). " Graves distinguished
between ' the Jewish scheme' (a phrase Darby would nearly wear out in years to
come!) or dispensations and the Gentile or Christian dispensation" (72). This
distinction was common among Anglicans in Darby' s early years (73).
Elmore concluded that many of
the theological themes and vocabulary in Darby can be traced to Graves and the
The theological grist for
Darby' s later synthesis was certainly present at Trinity College in his student
days. Darby was trained in an atmosphere in which it was commonplace to refer
to ' the Church of Christ' and ' the Jewish Nation' fulfilling different but
related future roles. He was primed to anticipate a future dispensation in
which Israel would play a distinctive part among the nations of the world,
living in prosperity in their ancient land. (73-74)
While Darby supplied other
ingredients to form dispensationalism, there is no question that like all
people, he was influenced to a large extent by others in the formulation and
development of his thought.
DARBY' S THOUGHT
No one questions whether Darby
believed and practiced a literal method of interpretation. However, his
hermeneutic is more sophisticated than many casual observers recognize. Darby
believed in literal interpretation in the sense that the 1290 days of Daniel 12
were really days, in contrast to the host of historicists in his day who saw
them as years. Darby thought that this kind of " spiritualization" of the text
could only be used to support human ideas.
Elmore notes that " when it comes
to evaluating any interpretation of Scripture or theological formulation,"
Darby " seems to admit two levels of evidence: (1) direct statements of
Scripture, and (2) deductions from direct statements of Scripture" (131). Like
most literalists, Darby did not believe in " wooden literalism" that disallows
figures of speech, typology, and the theology of the Bible to guide exegesis.
Rather, he followed " a literal, face-value approach to the text," while
maintaining " a balance between detailed exegesis and biblical theology of books
and writers, always having the progressive nature of revelation in mind"
(198-99). " Darby believed that the language of the Old Testament allowed for
additional theological content to be revealed later, but no redefinition of its
theological content" (198) as do many covenant theologians.
Dispensations, Israel, and the Church
From his earliest days, Darby,
like Graves, believed not only in the future conversion of the Jews, but also
restoration to their homeland. By taking promises to both Israel and the
church literally, Darby thought that God' s single plan of salvation is
harmonized for God' s two peoples- Israel and the church. Israel, God' s earthly
people, are destined to rule over the Nations with Christ before their
resurrection. The Church, God' s heavenly people, will reign with Christ in the
same kingdom, but in resurrection bodies.
Darby' s distinction between
God' s plan for Israel and the Church formed the basis for his most
controversial contribution to Evangelical Christianity- the pretribulation
rapture of the Church. Even strong opponents to this doctrine admit that it is
logical if God is going to literally fulfill His ancient promises to Israel.
The Church must be removed before God resumes His work with Israel, enabling
the two programs to fully participate in the millennial kingdom.
Like many before him, Darby saw
God' s progressive revelation of His plan in terms of dispensations. Unlike C.
I. Scofield, Darby did not begin his first dispensation until after Noah' s
Darby' s view of the church was
crucial to his development of dispensationalism, especially his view (shared by
many in his day) of the present ruin of the church. Elmore observed:
By separating any earthly
governmental concepts from the Anglican doctrine of the one, holy, catholic,
apostolic church, Darby maintained a high view of the gathered church without
aligning it with any race or national government fashioned after Old Testament
Israel. By emphasizing Pauline uniqueness, he separated the Church unto its
heavenly destiny. (312-13)
Darby is the father of
dispensationalism. " Although he was not a systematic theologian, he was an
expositor of ' dispensational truth.' He synthesized exegetical truths to show
the full story-line of the Bible, God' s activity in human history" (Elmore,
312). Darby' s
employment of the hermeneutical
principle of literal interpretation for all of Scripture, including prophecy,
naturally led to the distinction between Israel and the Church. This resulted,
of course, in the understanding that the hopes of Israel and those of the
Church were of a different nature. (Crutchfield, 341)
Dispensationalism came to North
America through Darby and other Brethren before the Civil War. After the war
dispensational teachings captured the minds of a significant number of
Christian leaders, and by 1875, its distinctives were disseminated throughout
Canada and the United States. Dispensationalism spread through preaching,
conferences, the founding of schools, and literature. By the turn of the
century dispensationalism was well known and quickly became the most popular
evangelical system of theology.
DARBY VISITS NORTH AMERICA
Darby made seven trips to the
U.S. and Canada between 1862 and 1877 spending a total of seven of those
sixteen years in America. He spent most of that time in Canada and four
American cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, where many early
leaders of American dispensationalism lived. Pastors James Hall Brookes
(1830-1897) of Walnut Street Presbyterian Church, St. Louis and A.J. Gordon
(1836-1895) of Clarendon Street Baptist Church, Boston were patriarchs of
American dispensationalism who came under Darby' s influence. It was through
the ministry of such men, more so than Darby, that dispensationalism spread in
AMERICAN FOUNDING FATHERS
James Hall Brookes
The father of American
dispensationalism was James Brookes. He studied at Miami University and
Princeton Seminary, and was one of the first to host Darby at his church. In
the 1870' s, Brookes wrote Maranatha, which was widely distributed and popularized a
dispensational view of prophecy. Brookes also edited The Truth magazine and chaired the
Niagara Bible Conference, both of which played critical roles in spreading
dispensational beliefs among Christian leaders. As a result, he became the
accepted leader of a large circle of pastors, evangelists and Christian
workers. He will perhaps, best be remembered as the man who introduced C.I.
Scofield to dispensationalism shortly after his conversion.
Adoniram Judson Gordon
Baptist Pastor A. J. Gordon
(1836 -1895), for whom Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary is named, was
another early dispensational leader. He was an important leader in the
Prophecy Conferences and edited The Watchword. Through personal persuasion
and his pen, he affected many on the East coast with dispensational views.
Gordon lead D. L. Moody to accept dispensationalism.
PERIOD OF EXPANSION
Arno C. Gaebelein
Arno Gaebelein (1861-1945)
migrated to the U.S. from Germany in his youth. Although he was initially a
pastor, he is best known for his work in Jewish evangelism and as editor of Our
Timothy Weber noted of his abilities that Gaebelein " acquired such an expertise
in the Talmud and other rabbinic literature and spoke such flawless Yiddish
that he often had a difficult time convincing many of his audiences that he was
not a Jew trying to ' pass' as a Gentile." (Living in the Shadow, 144)
Gaebelein did much to spread dispensationalism
through his speaking, books, and magazine Our Hope.
William E. Blackstone
Like many early
dispensationalists, William Blackstone (1841-1935) was also involved in a
ministry of Jewish evangelists. Blackstone lived in the Chicago area and was
the " Hal Lindsey " of his day when he wrote the best-selling book Jesus Is
Blackstone, even though a Christian, is also viewed as one of the fathers of
the Zionist movement. He worked constantly for the return of Jews to Israel
and lobbied politicians, convened conferences, and raised funds for the cause.
" At a 1918 Zionist Conference in Philadelphia, Blackstone was acclaimed a
' Father of Zionism.' " (Weber, 140) In 1956, Israel dedicated a forest in his
honor. Weber says of this unique Jewish- Christian relationship,
dispensationalists " were able to stress the evangelization of the Jews while at
the same time they supported Jewish nationalistic aspirations" (141).
Cyrus Ingerson Scofield
Kansas attorney C.I. Scofield
(1843-1921), was converted to Christ at age 36. Later, during the 1880' s in
St. Louis, James Brookes discipled Scofield teaching him dispensationalism. An
ordained Congregationalist, Scofield, pastored both Congregational and
Presbyterian churches. He also was active in missions and founded the Central
American Mission. He is well-known as a systematizer and popularizer of
dispensationalism through his widely-known and controversial Scofield
(1909). His work has done more to spread dispensationalism throughout the
English-speaking world than anything else. However, dispensationalism was
already a growing movement before Scofield. His Bible simply made it more
popular. Scofield was highly regarded in dispensational circles and his
influence remains to this day.
Lewis Sperry Chafer
Presbyterian Bible teacher Lewis
Chafer (1871-1952), Scofield's disciple, culminated his ministry with the
publication of an eight-volume dispensational systematic theology. Chafer
systemized dispensationalism and spread its influence through founding Dallas
Seminary (The Evangelical Theological College) in 1924. Dallas has been the
center of dispensationalism for seventy years and has many well-known faculty,
among them: E.F. Harrison, A.T. Pierson, H.A. Ironside, Henry Thiessen, J.
Vernon McGee, Merrill Unger, Charles Feinberg, Lewis Johnson, John Walvoord,
Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, Howard Hendricks, and Norman Geisler.
Well-known graduates include Hal Lindsey and Charles Swindoll. Chafer and
Dallas Seminary have been the largest single influence for spreading
dispensationalism in Christian higher education.
REASONS FOR GROWTH
From a human perspective there
are many reasons why dispensationalism has grown to become a dominant force in
American religious life in less than seventy-five years. First, it grew
because many believers were dissatisfied with dominate views of prophecy at the
end of the 1800' s. Postmillennialism was the popular view of eschatology, but
increasingly things did not appear to be following its optimistic script.
Premillennialism seemed to provide a more realistic explanation. The dominate
historicist premillennialism, with its date-setting and current events
speculation, fell into disfavor, while dispensationalism' s " any-moment" view of
the rapture provided a more sensible premillennialism.
Second, dispensationalism had a
tailor-made answer to a growing technological society. As life became more
complicated, so did explanations of God' s plan for history in dispensational
charts. This era appreciated complicated and logical explanations.
Third, with the rise of
liberalism in denominational churches, dispensationalism provided answers to
these attacks. Liberalism denied the historical veracity of Scripture with its
literal interpretation and dispensational distinctions. Dispensationalism
allowed a layman to answer liberal ministers thru Scofield's notes. The
premillennial view of the Church Age ending in apostasy appeared to be coming
to pass in the rise of liberalism and was very appealing.
Fourth, dispensationalism fit
nicely with the growth of verse-by-verse Bible exposition. This was evidenced
by the rise of interdenominational Bible conferences such as Niagara.
Fifth, dispensational theology
furnished a reasonable explanation for how God could be sovereign over a world
that seemed to be increasingly evil. Americans had difficulty retaining
postmillennial optimism in view of the Civil War and World War I, the
development of slums, immigration, rising crime, big business, and other social
conditions related to industrialization. Dispensationalism made sense to many
Calvinists who were pessimistic about individual human nature and it followed
that society as a whole was in the same condition. Just as individual
salvation requires a miracle from heaven, so would society if it were to be
changed. Kraus noted that dispensationalism emerged from within the womb " of
orthodox Calvinism." (Dispensationalism in America, 60).
Taking all this into
account, it must still be pointed out that the basic theological affinities of
dispensationalism are Calvinistic. The large majority of the men involved in
the Bible and prophetic conference movements subscribed to Calvinistic creeds."
Finally, a very important appeal
of dispensationalism was its view about the restoration of Jews to Israel in
the last days. Dispensationalism' s view of the two peoples of God, Israel and
the church, appealed to those who placed importance upon God' s future plan for
Dispensationalism has always
been a growing and developing theology. However, since World War II, there has
been some decline. Some causes include: the revival of posttribulationism,
attacks from covenant theology, the rise of dominion theology and
postmillennialism, the philosophical shift toward idealism which negatively
impacts literal interpretation, a drive for consensus within Evangelical
scholarship, the push for ecumenical unity, the overall decline of interest in
doctrine, and finally, attacks launched from some Pentecostals and Charismatics
who once were dispensational. Yet, all is not gloom and doom and
dispensationalism is not dying. It is has experienced a resurgence of interest
within the evangelical academic community and it continues to be a popular
theology with great influence upon the Christian world.