Understanding Dispensational Theology

Once again I am up against the lack of space by which to fully explain such a large term as dispensationalism. Because of space constraints please forgive me if I paint the system broadly. The characteristics are based on the writings of many well-known proponents of dispensationalism. If you read this and say, “I’m a dispensationalist, and I don’t believe that,” then please go publish your own book. After it has gained wide acceptance we will be sure to include your ideas as well (In case you are frowning, that last statement was intended to be humorous). Also, if you have not read my previous article on covenant theology, then please read it first. I will be explaining some aspects of dispensationalism by means of contrast with covenant theology.

In contrast to covenant theology, dispensational theology tends to emphasize the distinctions or discontinuities within the program of God. John Walvoord explains, “While not denying an essential unity to divine dealings in human history, it [dispensational theology] distinguishes major stewardships or purposes of God, particularly as revealed in three important dispensations of law, grace, and kingdom.” Just as covenant theology recognizes these various administrations but emphasizes the continuity, dispensational theology recognizes the uniform working of God but chooses to emphasize the
discontinuity. Charles Ryrie, a leading spokesman for dispensationalism, has attempted to put the essence of dispensationalism in one paragraph.
“To summarize: Dispensationalism views the world as a household run by God. In this household-world God is dispensing or administrating 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” (Dispensationalism, 33).
Ryrie’s definition of dispensationalism shows the emphasis of this system upon discontinuity. While covenant theology acknowledges various administrations, they still find their orientation within the covenant of grace. Dispensationalism allows these different administrations to stand on their own merits. To the dispensationalist, these administrations reveal more than the redemptive plan of God alone.

Hermeneutical Features
Throughout most of the recent literature concerning dispensationalism there is mention of the threefold sine que non (the absolutely indispensable part) of the system. The first essential mark of the dispensationalist is the consistent distinction between Israel and the church. Lewis Sperry Chafer states,
“The dispensationalist 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” (Dispensationalism, 107).
Charles Ryrie sees this distinction as “the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive” (Dispensationalism, 39).
The second mark of a dispensationalist is the consistent use of a literal hermeneutic. The term literal does not imply that the dispensationalist rejects all figurative expressions. For this reason Ryrie would rather use the words normal or plain. The dispensationalist will interpret figuratively if the text is either impossible to take literally, or if the context suggests figurative language clearly. It is this second mark of consistent literal interpretation that serves as the basis for the first mark of consistent distinction between Israel and the church.
The third mark of a dispensationalist is one’s view of the underlying purpose of God in the world. While the covenant theologian supposedly holds to a soteriological purpose of God’s purpose in this world (as explained earlier), the dispensationalist sees the purpose as the glory of God (doxological). Walvoord affirms this mark of dispensationalism.
“The larger purpose of God is the manifestation of His own glory. To this end each dispensation, each successive revelation of God’s plan for the ages, His dealing with the non-elect as with the elect…combine to manifest divine glory” (“Review of George Ladd’s ‘Crucial Questions About the Kingdom,’” Bib Sac, 1953).
This three-fold sine que non of dispensationalism is somewhat insufficient in that it is more indicative of the system than foundational to the system. Although the three-fold sine que non is certainly characteristic of the system, it is best to investigate the underlying hermeneutical underpinnings that lead to such characteristics. The first mark of consistent distinction between Israel and the church is actually an interpretational ramification. Ryrie himself states, “This distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation” (Dispensationalism, 40). Accordingly, this mark of dispensationalism will be treated below in connection with other resulting theological propositions.
The second mark of a consistent literal hermeneutic is also the result of a more foundational hermeneutical principle. This statement of a consistent literal hermeneutic receives a negative response by covenant theologians. Many covenant theologians claim that they also adhere to a historico-literal hermeneutic. The dispensationalist’s claim to literalness must add a referent to its broad assertion. Dispensationalism consistently follows a literal (normal or plain) hermeneutical principle with reference to Old Testament prophecy. Some covenant theologians admit readily that they interpret Old Testament prophecies non-literally (O.T. Allis). The confusion occurs amid the claims of other covenant theologians that do claim to interpret Old Testament prophecy literally. John Feinberg offers some helpful insight:
“Both sides [dispensational and covenant theologians] claim to interpret literally, and yet they derive different theological systems. This suggests that the difference is not literalism v. non-literalism, but different understandings of what constitutes literal hermeneutics” (Continuity and Discontinuity, 74).
Both dispensational and covenant theologians may employ basic rules of historico-literal hermeneutics, but they apply these rules within the framework of testament priority. Each system understands the grammatical and lexical information, but testament priority determines the overall meaning of those words and their grammatical connections. Covenant theologians look to the New Testament for guidance in the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Dispensational theologians realize that one can find some further insight to Old Testament passages from the New Testament, but the meaning that was understood by the hearers of the day must be allowed to stand on its own merit and be fulfilled accordingly. Feinberg echoes this idea himself.
“Dispensational and nondispensational thinkers agree that the NT fulfills the OT and is a more complete revelation of God; but there is disagreement as to what that means for the priority of one testament over the other. Nondispensationalists begin with NT teaching as having priority, and then go back to the OT. Dispensationalists often begin with the OT, but wherever they begin they demand that the OT be taken on its own terms rather than reinterpreted in the light of the NT”(Continuity and Discontinuity, 75).
For the dispensationalist, if there is a prophecy concerning a promise of land to Israel, then that prophecy will result in Israel’s procurement of the prescribed land. Covenant theologians, on the other hand, would either interpret such a promise figuratively or interpret the literal fulfillment as part of a larger, spiritual truth to be applied to all the people of God. The dispensationalist’s idea of consistent literal interpretation, therefore, is understood within the framework of Old Testament priority.
The third mark of dispensationalism regarding the doxological purpose of God in the world also needs further refinement. As mentioned before, covenant theologians are indeed doxologically oriented in their theology, but soteriologically oriented in their interpretative focus of Scripture. Dispensationalists claim to be doxologically oriented both in their theology and in their interpretive focus. Ryrie is representative of this claim:
“To the normative dispensationalist, the soteriological, or saving, program of God is not the only program but one of the means God is using in the total program of glorifying Himself. Scripture is not man-centered as though salvation were the main theme, but it is God-centered because His glory is the center. The Bible itself clearly teaches that salvation, important and wonderful as it is, is not an end in itself but is rather a means to the end of glorifying God” (Dispensationalism, 40).
The difficulty with Ryrie’s statement is that he seems to charge the covenant theologian with minimizing the glory of God, which is certainly not the case. Ryrie does not make a clear distinction between theological goal and interpretive focus. John Feinberg notes this weakness in Ryrie’s statement as well.
“Ryrie claims that distinctive to Dispensationalism is the idea that God uses history [God’s purpose in this world] to bring himself glory. I disagree, because I cannot imagine a nondispensational Calvinist, for example, who would say anything different. However, I think dispensational and nondispensational systems do differ on their emphases [the means by which God reveals His glory to man] in regard to what God is doing with history” (Continuity and Discontinuity, 84-85).
Interestingly enough, Ryrie states in his Basic Theology that soteriology is “the theme of the Old and New Testaments” (319). Ryrie himself concedes that ones interpretive focus may be distinct from one’s theological goal. (Please note that I do not point out perceived inadequacies of Ryrie’s statements lightly. I respect him too much. He is more of a scholar than I may ever be. Sometimes we only have more insight because we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.)
There is, however, a reason for the use of such a broad term (doxological) concerning interpretive focus. The reason is found in the aforementioned quotation, “To the normative dispensationalist, the soteriological, or saving, program of God is not the only program but one of the means God is using in the total program of glorifying Himself” (emphasis supplied). The idea of the glory of God is the only term broad enough to include the multiple themes of Scripture. These multiple themes are apparent in the writings of dispensationalists. Dispensationalists have been anything but monolithic on this idea of Scripture’s overarching theme. Alva McClain , for example, would contend that history is the gradual implementation and outworking of the kingdom of God. Other dispensationalists such as Arnold Fruchtenbaum view the people of Israel as a major theme for the proper understanding of Scripture. Ryrie even admits in the quotation above that God’s redemptive plan is a major theme of Scripture. Rather than concluding that dispensationalism is confused as to the major theme of God’s revelation, one should credit the system with calling attention to the multiplicity of themes that may be neglected under a more monolithic approach. Nondispensational treatments of the nature of the covenants and of Israel’s future invariably emphasize soteriological and spiritual issues, whereas dispensational treatments emphasize both the spiritual/soteriological and the social, economic, and political aspects.
The difference of interpretive focus can be explained in terms of tracks. In covenant theology, one arrives at his doxological goal by means of a single track (Gods’ redemptive plan) through which other biblical themes are understood. In dispensational theology, one arrives at his doxological goal by mean of a multi-track system in which each theme stands on its own. Interpretive focus is a major hermeneutical foundation for both systems. Whether one takes a single or multi-track interpretive focus has a profound effect on his theological orientation.
To summarize: dispensational theology is a system that emphasizes discontinuity. One of the bases of this discontinuity is Old Testament priority. The Old Testament, especially prophecy, stands on its own merit and will receive a literal fulfillment as understood by the hearers of the time. The second basis is that of interpretive focus. Dispensationalism sees the doxological nature of theology revealed by means of a multi-track approach. The fact that such a variety of overarching themes of Scripture have been suggested by some within the system demonstrates that dispensationalism as a system does not confine the multiple themes of Scripture under the umbrella of one overriding theme.

Theological Ramifications
Just as testament priority and interpretive focus affect a covenant theologian’s ecclesiology, so do these hermeneutical foundations affect the ecclesiology of the dispensational theologian. The key issues within dispensational ecclesiology are the same as noted above in covenant theology, namely the relationship of the church to Israel and the kingdom of God.
It is on the basis of Old Testament priority and multi-track interpretive focus that the dispensationalist formulates a key characteristic of his theology and specifically his ecclesiology. A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct.
Charles Ryrie’s line of argumentation for this distinction is based on a multi-track interpretive focus:
“Though God’s purpose for Israel and God’s purpose for the church receive the most attention in Scripture, God has purposes for other groups as well. He has a purpose and plan for the angels, which in no way mixes with His purpose for those who reject Him, which also is distinct from other purposes (Prov. 16:4). He has a plan for the nations, which continues into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:2), and those nations are distinct from the bride of Christ. God has more than two purposes even though He reveals more about His purposes for Israel and His purpose for the church than He does about the other groups”(Dispensationalism, 39).
Not only is this distinction the logical outcome of a multi-track interpretive focus, but also of an Old Testament priority. If Israel and the church are to be identified as one, then the prophecies of future Israel would have to have been fulfilled in the church literally. Since no literal fulfillment exists, then they are two groups that must maintain their distinction. Dispensationalism’s basis of Old Testament priority is evident in the words of J. Dwight Pentecost. He states that there is a “divine purpose: Israel – the earthly promises in the covenants; Church – the heavenly promises in the gospel” (Things to Come, 201). Elsewhere Pentecost argues, “Since the church today is composed of both Jews and Gentiles without national distinction, it would be impossible for the church to fulfill God’s promises made exclusively to the nation of Israel” (Thy Kingdom Come, 173).
The other issue is the church’s relationship to the kingdom of God. Both covenant and dispensational theologians hold that there is more than one facet to the kingdom program. As is true with covenant theology, dispensationalism understands the kingdom of God in spiritual and earthly representations. Alva McClain uses the term universal to refer to the spiritual kingdom and the term mediatorial to refer to the earthly kingdom. J. Dwight Pentecost uses the term eternal to refer to the former and the term theocratic to refer to the latter. Roy Beacham offers a clear discussion of the two-aspect view of the kingdom of God.
“Specifically, God’s kingdom appears to be portrayed in two overlapping yet distinguishable realms. In the broadest sense, the Scriptures teach that God rules at all times over every aspect and entity of the created order. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of a limited rule of God, a rule that is localized on earth, framed within time, and centered on a select human constituency.
The broadest sense of God’s rule, His dominion over all of creation at all times is commonly called the universal kingdom of God…. This earth-oriented, time-related, ethnic-centered kingdom is called, by some, the mediatorial kingdom of God. Other names are assigned to this limited kingdom, such as the kingdom of Israel and Judah, the kingdom of David, or the messianic/millennial kingdom” (Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, 235).
Other dispensationalists have introduced a formulation of the kingdom of God consisting of four aspects. Ryrie uses the terms universal kingdom, Davidic/Messianic Kingdom, mystery form of the kingdom, and spiritual kingdom. The major difference between the two-aspect and four-aspect formulation of the kingdom lies in the present nature of the kingdom of God. According to Alva McClain, the church is related to the kingdom of God only in that it falls under God’s universal dominion. There is no relation between the church and the mediatorial kingdom. McClain states that the mediatorial kingdom is “something altogether different from that general rule of God over all the nations which is exercised providentially without interruption” (The Greatness of the Kingdom, 292). There can be no relationship between the church and the mediatorial kingdom because the mediatorial kingdom is a Jewish institution that began with Abraham. Jesus Christ, the rightful Davidic heir, offered to mediate this kingdom but was rejected by the nation of Israel. Since Christ, the rightful heir, is not presently on earth, there is no mediatorial kingdom present on earth during this dispensation. The church therefore belongs to a period of time that McClain calls the “interregnum.” This is commonly called the postponement theory of the kingdom of God.
The four-aspect formulation of the kingdom was proposed by those dispensationalist theologians that desire to make some kind of connection between the church and an earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God. Dispensationalists such as Ryrie affirm that the church is not equal to the Davidic or messianic kingdom promised in the Old Testament. However, Ryrie attempts to establish a connection between the church and the kingdom of God beyond McClain’s idea of the universal kingdom to which all entities belong. Ryrie uses the term spiritual kingdom to refer to that aspect of God’s rule that is evident in the lives of believers. The term mystery form of the kingdom refers to the broader idea of “Christendom.” This covers any earthly manifestations of God’s rule between the first and second advents of Christ. This time frame was not prophesied by the prophets in the Old Testament, but rather it is a mysterious phase of the kingdom that Christ revealed to his disciples through various parables in Matthew 13.
J. Dwight Pentecost opened the door to a closer relationship between the church and the kingdom of God. Pentecost holds to four aspects of the kingdom of God, but his designations are much different. He uses the terms the eternal kingdom, the past theocratic kingdoms, the present theocratic kingdom, and the future theocratic kingdom. Pentecost’s concept of the present theocratic kingdom is not much different from the mystery form of the kingdom held by Ryrie and Walvoord, but his terminology blurs the sharp distinctions that other dispensationalists have commonly held. The terminology seems to suggest one earthly kingdom manifested in three different phases. Pentecost, however, still maintains that the church is different from the messianic kingdom promised in the Old Testament.

Concluding Remarks
Several articles could be written on the different views of the Kingdom of God within dispensationalism. I have tried to map out the major views and in so doing went just a bit over 3,000 words. Thank you for your patience as I needed a few extra words to maintain some degree of accuracy.


2 thoughts on “Understanding Dispensational Theology

  1. Thanks for the info Dr. Barney. It is helpful, when reading internet literature, to have double-spaced paragraphs. 😀


    Matt Olmstead

  2. Thaks Matt. Good to hear from you again. I hope all is well. I will try to incorporate your suggestion.

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