What’s in a Name? (Understanding of Dispensationalism)

August 22, 2013

An uproar in the online blog world this week started with David Murray’s post at Ligonier, actually an excerpt from his book, in which he suggested – rather casually, in passing – several reasons why preachers avoid teaching the Old Testament.  Reason #4 was quite out of place amongst the others: Dispensationalism, or rather the author’s mistaken concept of dispensationalism based on lack of familiarity with what dispensationalism actually believes and teaches, plus John MacArthur’s comments in this interview.   Jesse Johnson at the Cripplegate soon responded, and then David Murray at his blog featured a guest post from Dan Phillips, also in response to this erroneous idea that dispensationalism leads to neglect of the Old Testament.  The comments continue at those two posts, but what I want to focus on, here, is an overall look at some of the common doctrines (and some myths) associated with ‘dispensationalism’ by outsiders, and clarify these issues.

Dispensationalism Focuses Too Much On The Dispensations Rather Than the Covenants

This may be true of some seminaries and perhaps Arminian dispensational churches, at least the ones mentioned from people’s past experiences.  But current-day dispensationalism – and by this I mean Calvinist Dispensationalism as represented today at the Masters Seminary and associated teachers – gives the proper emphasis to the biblical covenants and understanding of the unconditional, unilateral covenants, especially the Abrahamic, Davidic and New Covenants.

Dispensationalism Leads to Neglect of the Old Testament

This issue has been well addressed this week by Jesse Johnson and Dan Phillips.  My own observation here is that actually the dispensationalists have a stronger overall unity of scripture and God’s overall purpose, including the overall biblical theme of the Kingdom of God, which covers everything from Genesis to Revelation (and special emphasis on the reverse-parallels seen in Genesis and Revelation).

Dispensationalism Teaches Two Ways of Salvation

This myth has been responded to many times, yet some non-dispensationalists keep repeating it, seemingly in willful ignorance.  See this article from Tony Garland, also this previous post and its quote from Dr. Richard Mayhue.  Dispensationalism has never taught such; dispensationalism addresses eschatology and ecclesiology but not soteriology.

The Pre-Trib Rapture

Current-day dispensationalism does consider the pre-trib rapture a secondary matter, of lesser importance and not essential to the basics of dispensationalism.  See, for instance, Michael Vlach’s list of six essentials of dispensationalism.  That said, it is true that the vast majority of dispensationalists, and even progressive dispensationalists, believe in the pre-trib rapture, though a few hold to mid-trib or pre-wrath (3/4) rapture.  I’ve found the writings of one person who refers to himself as a Post-Trib Progressive Dispensationalist (but that individual is also evidently a non-Calvinist).  It is also worth noting that, often, those who hold to the essentials of dispensationalism (as defined by Dr. Vlach) yet post-trib rapture, distance themselves from the term “dispensationalism” due to the strong association of that term with the pre-trib rapture.  S. Lewis Johnson in his day certainly viewed dispensationalism as closely associated with the pre-trib rapture, observing in the Divine Purpose series (mid-1980s) that this is one challenge for dispensationalists: to work on the fine points of the hermeneutical claims, the defense of their millennialism against recent challenges to their position on the relation of pre-tribulationism to dispensationalism on their soteriology and on their integration of dispensational truths and to the biblical covenantal unfolding of Scripture which they themselves often acknowledge.  Barry Horner (author of Future Israel) never calls himself a dispensationalist yet holds to the essentials as defined by Michael Vlach.  Horner further describes several of the 19th century classic premillennialists as “non-dispensational” though they too believed in the future restoration of Israel; among these teachers, notably B. W. Newton, S.P. Tregelles, and Nathaniel West, believed basically the same as the early dispensationalists (and current day dispensationalists as described here) but with post-trib rapture.

Premillennialism With Future Restoration of Israel to Their Land

This is one of the defining essentials of dispensationalism.  Here, too, is some irony.  As noted concerning the pre-trib or post-trib rapture, here is where some believers, who hold the essentials of dispensationalism (including Future Israel) yet are post-trib, distance themselves from the label of “dispensationalist.”  Yet it is on this very point, premillennialism with future restoration of Israel, that non-premillennialists over-generalize, unaware of the different variations in various individuals’ overall Christian beliefs: anyone who believes this “must be dispensational,” which of course includes the whole package of other ideas of that label (pre-trib rapture, antinomianism, two ways of salvation, neglecting the Old Testament).  Especially appropriate here, and to conclude, Barry Horner observes:

This writer’s frequent experience has been, especially within a Reformed environment, that upon his expression of a future premillennial hope, he is then subjected to careful scrutiny. Qualification is sought as to whether one is an historic premillennialist, after the manner of George Eldon Ladd, or a dispensationalist after the lineage of Darby, Schofield, Chafer, Walvoord, etc. The tone of the enquiry suggests that the former is acceptable while the latter is unacceptable. So explanation is made that one believes in a glorious future time when the redeemed people of God, distinctively comprising national Israel and the Gentile nations, will enjoy the consummation of their salvation on an earth of renovated spiritual materiality where the glorious, spiritually tangible and substantial Jesus Christ will reign from Jerusalem in the midst of Israel. At this juncture, the common response is that such a belief identifies one as a dispensationalist, especially since Ladd is said to have not incorporated such particularity concerning Israel within his premillennialism. In other words, if a person was an historic premillennialist, he would not retain any clear-cut distinction between Israel and the church, but especially within the one redeemed people of God in their future manifestation. When one then points out and specifically names a number of notable Christians who were not dispensationalists, such as Horatius Bonar, J. C. Ryle, and C. H. Spurgeon, even postmillennialist Jonathan Edwards, who nevertheless believed in the aforementioned scenario, that is Israel and the Gentile nations retaining their distinctive identity under the earthly reign of Christ, the frequent response is that of a blank stare.

  1. Truth2Freedom
    August 22, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

    • August 22, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      Thanks for the reblog!

  2. August 22, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for this Lynda.

    I of course have a problem with the term dispensationalism, and the definitions it inevitable brings about. Even Vlach’s definition is problematical because it reduces dispensationalism to two corpora of the theological loci.

    • August 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      Thanks, Paul. Yes, as I think you have said, ‘biblical covenantalism’ would be a more appropriate term, and the term ‘dispensationalism’ means many different things to different people. (And yes, the word ‘dispensationalism’ implies focus on the dispensations instead of the biblical covenants.) Lately I’ve been studying more of the different types of premillennialism, and read today that the original definition of dispensationalism (from Darby) included the pre-trib rapture as essential — quite different from Vlach’s definition and other variations such as Progressive Dispensationalism.

  3. August 23, 2013 at 4:22 am

    Wow, thank you for this. I was kind of surprised when I read the mention of Dispensationalism as why people don’t normally read the OT. I thought it was incompatible with some of the objections that’s popular with Covenantal guys that I hear, in particular the charge that Dispensationalists spend too much focus on Israel. If Dispensationalists see the church and Isreal is different, and that the largest portion about Israel is in the OT, then if Dispensationalists is focused on Israel too much then it must be focusing on OT too much. This of course is incompatible with the claims that Dispensationalism is the root cause of why the OT is neglected and not read/preached. What do you think?

    • August 23, 2013 at 7:54 am

      Agree, Jim, that is a good point. Dispensationalists are interested in Israel, have a love for Israel as God’s people and look forward to their future — which leads to more interest in the Old Testament. Also the extra emphasis on the Second Coming (rather than trying to say everything in the Bible is really about Christ’s First Coming) leads dispensationalists to study the prophetic passages even as we see the connection between the Bible and the real world, in the activity of the nations and what’s going on in the Middle East. As Jesse Johnson well put it, the Masters Seminary profs want to teach the OT “BECAUSE WE FINALLY UNDERSTAND WHY ITS THERE!”

  4. August 23, 2013 at 5:29 am

    While the overall structure you attach to Scripture may be significant, mu complaint is with preachers who view all Scripture as a big pot from which to draw whatever they wish. The result is spiritualizing or allegorizing the OT in ways that have nothing to do with the context or the probable meanings to the hearers of that day.They teach the “whole Bible” by twisting passages to suit their own purposes. Perhaps that reflects divinely inspired insight into the more subtle meanings of a passage, but I doubt it!

    • August 23, 2013 at 7:57 am

      Agree, Tom. Yes, the dispensational/premillennial approach to the OT — the literal, grammatical, historical hermeneutic — is what makes teaching and studying the OT so interesting. It is the premillennialists who properly understand the OT and “why it’s there” and give it higher regard, as contrasted with the CT/NCT approach of spiritualizing the OT as all about the church.

  5. August 23, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I read the DTS doctrinal statement today. You’ll have to show me where a refutation of LA is articulated. I heard 5 point Calvinism all through my 5 years from the Theology department. Free Grace is not even popular there anymore.

    The only place where I could see anything about atonement which might be interpreted as unlimited is where it says under Article VI “become the Redeemer of a lost world…We believe that, in infinite love for the lost, He voluntarily accepted His Father’s will and became the divinely provided sacrificial Lamb…His death was therefore substitutionary in the most absolute sense—the just for the unjust—and by His death He became the Savior of the lost.” However, I don’t really think that is substantive enough to say that they refute a limited atonement or not permit faculty to adopt a limited view of atonement.


    • August 23, 2013 at 11:24 am

      I don’t know about the actual DTS statement now or back then (about 1976). S. Lewis Johnson later described it, as in this transcript as follows (from the Bunyan Conferences in the late 1990s): “I taught for thirty years at Dallas Seminary, teaching most of the time as New Testament professor but also then for some years as professor of systematic theology, and so these questions concerning the atonement began to resonate in my mind and heart from the exegesis of the text, the Greek text we’re talking about, not the English text, the Greek text. And finally, over a period of time, I was forced by my convictions in signing the doctrinal statement. You had to sign the doctrinal statement every year at Dallas Seminary. As far as I know, they still do, but I’m not now acquainted with the details. But you’d have to sign the doctrinal statement that you agreed with the doctrinal statement. And they would put “With what provisions do you have disagreement,” but it was pretty well known if anyone ever put down disagreement with regard to the atonement, that was the end. And we proved that that was the case. [Laughter] And so I would like to say this: I think honestly that Dr. Walvoord did not want me to leave the seminary, but they were put in the position of having to do it because that’s what they had been doing for years. As far as I know, they still do it, but I have no way of really knowing.”

      That’s good to hear if they are now teaching 5 point Calvinism and that free grace is not popular there as it once was.

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