few years ago, while pastor of a church, a lady in my congregation ask me, " Why
is dispensationalism bad?" I asked what provoked her question. She had
recently talked to a woman who knew that our church was dispensational. The
women spoke harshly against dispensationalism to my congregate and warned her
that it was unscriptural and no biblically responsible Christian should be
involved in such heresy. For many, dispensationalism is Christian cuss word!
The lady in my church ask, " What is dispensationalism?" That is a good
question. I hope to answer it in this article.
A Definition of Dispensationalism
A leading spokesman
for dispensationalism is retired Dallas Seminary professor, Dr. Charles Ryrie.
Many know Ryrie through his books and articles, but he is best known by his
popular Ryrie Study Bible. Ryrie' s book, Dispensationalism Today, is the reference point to look
for a definition of dispensationalism. I will summarize his material. He
notes that The Oxford English Dictionary defines a theological dispensation as " a stage in
a progressive revelation, expressly adapted to the needs of a particular nation
or period of time . . . also, the age or period during which a system has
prevailed."  The English word " dispensation"
translates the Greek noun oikonom’a, often rendered " administration" in modern translations.
The verb oikonomŽ™
refers to a manager of a household. " In the New Testament," notes Ryrie,
means to manage or administer the affairs of a household, as, for example, in
the Lord' s story of the unfaithful steward in Luke 16:1-13." 
Scriptural Use of Dispensation
The Greek word oikonom’a is a compound of o’kos meaning " house" and n—mos meaning " law." Taken together
" the central idea in the word dispensation is that of managing or administering the affairs
of a household." 
The various forms of the
word dispensation are used in
the New Testament twenty times. The verb oikonomŽ™ is used once in Luke 16:2 where it is translated
" to be a steward." The noun oikon—mos is used ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 4:1,
2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; I Pet. 4:10), and in all instances it is translated
" steward" except " chamberlain" in Romans 16:23. The noun oikonom’a is used nine times (Luke 16:2, 3, 4; I Cor.
9L17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; I Tim. 1:4). In these instances it is
translated variously (" stewardship," " dispensation," " edifying" ). The
Authorized Version of Ephesians 3:9 has " fellowship" (koin™n’a), whereas the American Standard Version has
" dispensation." 
Features of Dispensationalism
Examination of oikon—mos in the Gospels finds Christ
using the word in two parables in Luke (Lk. 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8). Ryrie notes
that in Luke 16 we find " some important characteristics of a stewardship or
dispensational arrangement."  The characteristics are:
(1) Basically there are two
parties- the one whose authority
it is to delegate duties and the one whose responsibility it is to carry out
these charges. The rich man and the steward play these roles in the parable of
Luke 16 (v. 1).
(2) These are specific
responsibilities. In the
parable the steward failed in his known duties when he wasted the goods of his
lord (v. 1).
(3) Accountability as
well as responsibility is part
of the arrangement. A steward may be called to account for the discharge of
his stewardship at any time, for it is the lord' s prerogative to expect
faithful obedience to the duties entrusted to the steward (v. 2).
(4) A change may be
made at any time unfaithfulness is found in the existing administration. (" Mayest be no longer steward" is better
translated " cannot longer be steward." ) (emphasis added)
Further features can
be gleaned in the other occurrences of the " dispensation" word group. All
other uses, except 1 Peter 4:10, are found in the writings of Paul. Ryrie
cites the following features:
(1) God is the one to
whom men are responsible in the
discharge of their stewardship obligations. In three instances this relationship
to God is mentioned by Paul (I Cor. 4:1-2; Titus 1:7).
(2) Faithfulness is required of those to whom a dispensational
responsibility is committed (I Cor. 4:2). This is illustrated by Erastus, who
held the important position of treasurer (steward) of the city (Rom. 16:23).
(3) A stewardship may
end at an appointed time (Gal.
4:2). In this reference the end of the stewardship came because of a different
purpose being introduced. This reference also shows that a dispensation is
connected with time.
(4) Dispensations are
connected with the mysteries of God,
i.e., with specific revelation from God (I Cor. 4:1; Eph. 3:2; Col. 1:25).
(5) Dispensation and
age are connected ideas, but the
words are not exactly interchangeable. For instance, Paul declares that the
revelation of the present dispensation was hidden " for ages" (Eph. 3:9). The
same thing is said in Colossians 1:26. However, since a dispensation operates
within a time period, the concepts have some interrelation.
At least three dispensations
(as commonly understood in dispensational teaching) are mentioned by Paul. In
Ephesians 1:10 he writes of " the dispensation of the fullness of times," which
seems to be a future period. In Ephesians 3:2 he designates the " dispensation
of the grace of God," which was the emphasis of the content of his preaching at
that time. In Colossians 1:25-26 it is implied that another dispensation
preceded the present one in which the mystery of Christ in the believer is
revealed. (emphasis added)
It should be noted
that dispensationalists have developed the theological term " dispensation" in a
way similar to the biblical use of the term. Therefore, I believe that the
system of theology we know today as dispensationalism is consistent with
Building upon the
above biblical observations, we are now able to define dispensationalism.
According to Ryrie, a dispensation is a " distinguishable economy in the outworking of God' s
purpose." In addition to a definition of a dispensation, Ryrie notes that if " one were describing a dispensation he would include
other things, such as the ideas of distinctive revelation, testing, failure,
and judgment."  Finally, he notes concerning a
The distinguishing features
are introduced by God; the similar features are retained by God; and the
overall combined purpose of the whole program is the glory of God. Sauer
states it this way: . . . a new period always begins only when from the side
of God a change is introduced in the composition of the principles valid up to
that time; that is, when from the side of God three things concur:
1. A continuance of
certain ordinances valid until then;
2. An annulment of other
regulations until then valid;
3. A fresh introduction
of new principles not before valid.
In his classic work,
Dispensationalism Today, Ryrie formulates the following extensive definition of dispensationalism:
Dispensationalism views the
world as a household run by God. In this household-world God is dispensing or
administering its affairs according to His own will and in various stages of
revelation in the process of time. These various stages mark off the
distinguishably different economies in the outworking of His total purpose, and
these economies are the dispensations. The understanding of God' s differing
economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within
those various economies.
summarized dispensationalism as follows:
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 an economy, or administration. From the human 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
emphasizing a dispensational view of history, gives the following definition:
Dispensational Theology can
be defined very simply as a system of theology which attempts to develop the
Bible' s philosophy of history on the basis of the sovereign rule of God. It
represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several
dispensations of God' s rule.
. . . the term dispensation as it relates to Dispensational Theology could
be defined as a particular way of God' s administering His rule over the
world as He progressively works out His purpose for world history.
Essentials Of Dispensationalism
Who is a
dispensationalist? Essentials are needed by which to can gauge a theology.
What are the essentials that characterize a dispensationalist? Ryrie has
stated what he calls the three essentials or sine qua non (Latin, " that without which" )
The essence of
dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church.
This grows out of the dispensationalist' s consistent employment of normal or
plain interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God
in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through
salvation and other purposes as well.
The three essentials
are not a definition or description of dispensationalism, instead they are
basic theological tests which can be applied to an individual to see whether or
not he is a dispensationalist.
First Essential: Literal Interpretation
Ryrie' s first
essential of dispensationalism is not just literal interpretation, but more
fully, a consistent
literal hermeneutic. " The word literal is perhaps not so good as either the word normal or plain," explains Ryrie, " but in any
case it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as
nondispensational interpretation does."  Literal
interpretation is foundational to the dispensational approach to Scripture.
Earl Radmacher went so far as to say that literal interpretation " is the
' bottom-line' of dispensationalism." 
defines literal as " belonging to letters." It also says literal interpretation
involves an approach " based on the actual words in their ordinary meaning, . .
. not going beyond the facts."  " Literal interpretation of the Bible
simply means to explain the original sense of the Bible according to the normal
and customary usages of its language."  How is this done? It
can only be accomplished through the grammatical (according to the rules of
grammar), historical (consistent with the historical setting of the passage),
contextual (in accord with its context) method of interpretation. Literalism
looks to the text, the actual words and phrases of a passage. Nonliteral
interpretation imports an idea not found specifically in the text of a passage.
To some degree, all Bible interpreters interpret literally. However,
dispensationalists consistently handle the text literally from Genesis to Revelation.
interpretation recognizes that a word or phrase can be used plainly
(denotative) or figuratively (connotative). In modern speech, as in the Bible,
we talk plainly- "Grandmother died" (denotative), or more colorfully,
" Grandmother kicked the bucket" (connotative). An important point to make is
that even though we may use a figure of speech to refer to death, we are using
that figure in reference to an event that literally happened. Ryrie says:
Symbols, figures of speech
and types are all interpreted plainly in this method and they are in no way
contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any
meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of
the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the
literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader.
Some are mistaken to
think that just because a figure of speech is used to describe an event (i.e.,
Jonah' s experience in the belly of the great fish in Jonah 2), that the event
was not literal. Such is not the case. A " Golden Rule of Interpretation" has
been developed to help discern whether or not a figure of speech is intended.
When the plain sense of
Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word
at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the
immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and
fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.
E.E. Johnson (Dallas
Seminary) notes that much of the confusion over literalism is removed when
understanding the two ways it is used: " (1) the clear, plain sense of a word or
phrase as over against a figurative use, and (2) a system that views the text
as providing the basis of the true interpretation." 
Thus, dispensationalists, by and large, use " literal" to refer to their system of interpretation (the
consistent use of the grammatical-historical system), and once inside that
refers to whether a specific word or phrase is used in its context figuratively
Johnson' s second use
(i.e., systematic literalism) is simply the grammatical-historical system
consistently used. The grammatical-historical system was revived by the
Reformers and was set against the spiritual (spiritualized) or deeper meaning
of the text common in the middle ages. The literal meaning was used simply as
a springboard to a deeper (" spiritual" ) meaning, which was viewed as more desirable.
A classic spiritualized interpretation would see the four rivers of Genesis
2- the Pishon, Havilah, Tigris and Euphrates- as representing the body, soul,
spirit and mind. Coming from such a system, the Reformers saw the need to get
back to the literal or textual meaning of the Bible.
The system of literal interpretation is
the grammatical-historical or textual approach to hermeneutics. Use of
literalism in this sense could be called " macroliteralism." Within
macroliteralism, the consistent use of the grammatical-historical system yields
the interpretative conclusion, for example, that Israel always and only refers to
national Israel. The church will not be substituted for Israel if the
grammatical-historical system is consistently used, because there are no
textual indicators that such is the case. One must import an idea from outside
the text by saying that the passage really means something that it does not
actually say. This replacement approach is a mild form of spiritual or
allegorical interpretation. So when speaking of those who do replace Israel with the church as not taking
the Bible literally and spiritualizing the text, it is true, since such a
belief is contrary to a macroliteral interpretation.
interpreters, within the framework of the grammatical-historical system, do
discuss whether or not a word, phrase or the literary genre of a biblical book
is a figure of speech (connotative) or is to be taken literally/plainly
(denotative). This is Johnson' s first use of literal which could be called
microliteralism, there may be discussion by literalists as to whether or not a
given word or phrase is being used in a literal or figurative way within a
given passage. Some passages are quite naturally clearer than others and a
consensus among interpreters develops, while other passages may find literal
interpreters divided as to whether or not it should be taken as a figure of
speech. This is more a problem of application than of method.
Ken Gentry, in his attack on literalism, argues that " consistent literalism is unreasonable." 
He attempts to prove his point by arguing that, since dispensationalists take
some words and phrases as figures of speech, they are not consistently literal.
He says, " the dispensational claim to ' consistent literalism' is frustrating due
to its inconsistent
employment."  Gentry seeks to discredit the
dispensational hermeneutic by citing examples of dispensationalists who
interpret certain passages as containing figures of speech, citing this as
inconsistent with the system of literal interpretation. According to Gentry,
the dispensationalist has to abandon literal interpretation when he realizes
that Jesus refers figuratively to Himself as a door in John 10:9.
Gentry is not defining literal interpretation the way dispensationalists do.
Therefore, his conclusions about literal interpretation are misguided because
he commonly mixes the two senses noted by Johnson. When speaking of the
macroliteral, he uses an example from microliteralism, and vice versa,
therefore appearing to have shown an inconsistency in literal interpretation.
In reality, his examples fall within the framework of how dispensationalists
have defined what they mean by literal interpretation.
This is the first
essential of dispensationalism. A way of approaching Scripture that allows the
Scripture, through the progress of revelation to interpret itself. It does not
approach the Bible through some fantastic interpretational scheme, composed of
complex symbolism which reduces Scripture to a mystical code book that requires
a special decoding manual in order to figure it out. The second essential,
flows from the first. It is a distinction between Israel and the Church.
Second Essential: Distinction Between
Israel and the Church
" A dispensationalist
keeps Israel and the Church distinct," declares Ryrie. He also notes that
anyone " who fails to distinguish Israel and the Church will inevitably not hold
to dispensational distinctions; and one who does, will."  What
does it mean to keep Israel and the church distinct? Dispensationalists
believe the Bible teaches that God' s single program for history includes a
distinct plan for Israel and a distinct plan for the church. God' s program has
two people: Israel and the church. John Walvoord says that " dispensations are
rules of life. They are not ways of salvation. There is only one way of
salvation and that is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ." 
Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder and first president of Dallas Seminary has
described the distinction as follows:
believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one
related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved which
is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and
heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity. . . . Over against this,
the partial dispensationalist, though dimly observing a few obvious
distinctions, bases his interpretation on the supposition that God is doing but
one thing, namely, the general separation of the good from the bad, and, in
spite of all the confusion this limited theory creates, contends that the
earthly people merge into the heavenly people; that the earthly program must be
given a spiritual interpretation or disregarded altogether.
If the unfulfilled
promises given to Israel in the Old Testament literally refer to the Jews, then
it is clear that many are yet unfulfilled. Therefore, it is clear that God' s
plan for Israel, who is currently in dispersion (Deut. 4:27-28; 28:63-68;
30:2-4), is on hold until He completes His current purpose with the church,
which is to take out from the Gentiles a people for His name (Acts 15:14), and
Raptures His Bride to heaven. After the Rapture, God will then complete His
unfinished business with Israel (Acts 15:16-18) during the seven-year
Tribulation period. Thus, if one does not distinguish between passages in
which God speaks to Israel from those given to the church, then there results
an improper merging of the two programs.
In the Old Testament
God made certain promises to Abraham when He pledged to make him the father of
a special people. Dispensationalists understand these promises, and other
unconditional covenant promises (i.e., treaty grants) made by God to Israel as
still for Israel although the church may share in some spiritual blessings
(Rom. 15:27). Ultimately God will not only restore Israel to a place of
blessing (Rom. 11), but will also literally fulfill the land and kingdom
promises made to Israel in the Abrahamic (Gen. 12:1-3), Palestinian (Deut.
30:1-10) and Dividic (2 Sam. 7:12-16) Covenants. In the present time, God has
another plan for the church which is distinct from Israel (Eph. 2-3).
Dispensationalists do not believe that the church is the New Israel or has
replaced Israel as the heir to the Old Testament promises. Contrary to some
who say that the church has superseded Israel, the New Testament nowhere calls
the church Israel. Dispensationalist Arnold Fruchtenbaum says:
The conclusion is that the
church is never called a " spiritual Israel" or a " new Israel." The term Israel
is either used of the nation or the people as a whole, or of the believing
remnant within. It is never used of the church in general or of Gentile
believers in particular. In fact, even after the Cross there remains a
threefold distinction. First, there is a distinction between Israel and the
Gentiles as in 1 Corinthians 10:32 and Ephesians 2:11-12. Second, there is a
distinction between Israel and the church in 1 Corinthians 10:32. Third, there
is a distinction between Jewish believers (the Israel of God) and Gentile
believers in Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16).
six reasons why the New Testament keeps Israel and the church distinct. They
(1) the church was born at
Pentecost, whereas Israel had existed for many centuries. . . .
(2) certain events in the
ministry of the Messiah were essential to the establishment of the church- the church
does not come into being until certain events have taken place. . . .
(3) the mystery character
of the church. . . .
(4) the church is distinct
from Israel is the unique relationship between Jews and the Gentiles, called
one new man in Ephesians 2:15 . . .
(5) the distinction between
Israel and the church is found in Galatians 6:16 [i.e., " the Israel of God" ] .
(6) In the book of Acts,
both Israel and the church exist simultaneously. The term Israel is used twenty times and ekklesia (church) nineteen times, yet the two groups are
always kept distinct.
Third Essential: Glory of God is the
Purpose of History
The third essential
of dispensationalism also revolves around another important distinction.
Showers says, this " indispensable factor is the recognition that the ultimate
purpose of history is the glory of God through the demonstration that He alone
is the sovereign God."  Ryrie explains:
we avow that the unifying
principle of the Bible is the glory of God and that this is worked out in several
ways- the program of redemption, the program for Israel, the punishment of the
wicked, the plan for the angels, and the glory of God revealed through nature.
We see all these programs as means of glorifying God, and we reject the charge
that by distinguishing them (particularly God' s program for Israel from His
purpose for the Church) we have bifurcated God' s purpose.
This essential is
the most misunderstood and often thought to be the least essential. When
properly understood, I believe that this is a valid essential.
Dispensationalists are not saying that nondispensationalists do not believe in
God's glory. We are making the point that the dispensationalist understanding
of the plan of God means that He is glorified in history by more areas or
facets, than those who see mankind's salvation (probably the most important
aspect of God' s plan) as the single area displaying God' s glory.
A Biblical Philosophy of History
Showers notes that a
dispensational view of the Bible provides a believer with a biblical philosophy
of history. This is important for a Christian,
because when we understand God' s purpose for each era of history we are able to
develop a world view for living in accordance with God' s will for each
dispensation. A believer who has a Divine perspective on the past, present and
future is able to know what God expects of him in every area of life. In the
current church age, the New Testament instructs us in both private and public
spheres of life. The dispensationalist, for example, does not live in this age
of grace as if he was still under the rule of the Mosaic Law. Instead he
understands that he is now under the Law of Christ.
I believe that
dispensationalism is a system of theology that has been properly developed from
the Bible itself. Dispensationalism is essential to correctly understanding
the Bible, especially Bible prophecy. No one will be able to rightly divide
God' s Word without understanding these great truths. In this article I have
provided definitions, descriptions and essentials in an effort to answer the
question: " What is dispensationalism?" Dr. Ryrie concludes:
If one does interpret the
Bible this way, will it mean that he cuts out some of its parts? Not at all.
Actually, the Bible comes alive as never before. There is no need to dodge the
plain meaning of a passage or to reinterpret or spiritualize it in order to
resolve conflicts with other passages. God' s commands and standards for me
today become even more distinct, and His program with its unfolding splendor
falls into a harmonious pattern. The history of dispensationalism is replete
with men and women who love the Word of God and promote its study, and who have
a burden for spreading the gospel to all the world.