What Is Dispensationalism?

Dispensationalism Defined

Compiled By Theologue

The purpose of this page is to summarize the definition of dispensationalism as currently used by theologians.

I. Definitions By Dispensationalists

Charles C.Ryrie, graduate and Professor, Dallas Theological Seminary, and graduate of Edinburgh University writes:

“The essence of dispensationalism is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of the dispensationalists’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.”

"A concise definition of a dispensation is this: a dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purpose"

Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary defines dispensationalism in these words:

“The dispensationalist believes that throughout the age 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 objectives involved, which is Christianity.”

Daniel Payton Fuller, former dean of the Fuller Theological Seminary defines dispensationalism in much the same way as Chafer and Ryrie when he writes.

“The basic premise of dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity.”

Dr. E. W. Bullinger (How to Enjoy the Bible)."Dispensation...The Greek word rendered dispensation is oikonomia and refers to the act of administering. By the figure Metonymy, the act of administering is transferred to the time during which that administering is carried on" 

II. Other Definitions And Background

Beacon Dictionary of Theology
(article by H.Ray Dunning)

Dispensationalism. This is a term referring to a type of interpretation of Scripture which for all practical purposes originated early in the 19th century among a group of people who are known as Plymouth Brethren. Their most prominent leader, and most original thinker was John Nelson Darby, whose teaching was marked by antagonism toward the organized church. The tenets of Darby and his peers are proliferated through the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, edited by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843 -1921).

The distinguishing feature of dispensation teaching is the idea that the Bible portrays seven dispensations(1), a dispensation being incorrectly defined as a span of time marked by a different method of divine dealing with man, and all ending in failure. The present dispensation is the Church age, which will culminate in judgment.  This related to Darby’s original disparagement of the organized church. Dispensationalism’s most popular ideas relate to its eschatological teachings. Building upon a Calvinistic view of covenant as unconditional, it is deeply interested in national Israel and her relation to the land of Palestine, which dispensationalists insist will be possessed in the end time for the establishment of an earthly, Jewish kingdom in fulfillment of God’s promise to David. (i.e. “The Millennium”) The kingdom of heaven they say refers to the earthly, nationalistic rule which Jesus offered to the Jews but which they rejected. Thus God’s programme for Israel had to be postponed until later, and as an interim arrangement the Church age was ushered in. A further implication of this is the dispensationalist teaching of a secret Rapture of the Church to remove the Church from the earth so God can resume His original plan of establishing a Jewish earthly kingdom”.

What then is “Dispensationalism”?
(extract from the article Dispensationalism Examined by Dr Jeffrey Khoo, Far Eastern Bible College)

What then is dispensationalism? The word “dispensation” comes from the Greek oikonomia (literally “house law”) which means “stewardship,” or “administration.” For a time, dispensationalists were not able to agree among themselves whether a dispensation is a period of man’s stewardship, or a period of God’s administration. Lewis Sperry Chafer, for example, said that a dispensation is “a stage in the progressive revelation of God constituting a distinctive stewardship or rule of life.” Charles C. Ryrie, on the other hand, explained that in a dispensation, “God is . . . administering its affairs according to His own will in various stages of revelation in the process of time.” So, is a dispensation a human stewardship or a divine administration? It took quite a while before it is finally agreed that it is both. The doctrinal statement of Dallas Theological Seminary (the dispensational school) defined the dispensations as “stewardships by which God administers His purpose on the earth through man under varying responsibilities.”

How did Dispensationalism Come About?

Dispensationalism may be traced to J.N. Darby (1800-1882) who was an ordained minister of the Church of England. Darby, however, was dissatisfied with the strict clericalism found in that Church, and joined a group of like-minded men who did not see the need for a trained, and an ordained ministry. Everyone was a “pastor” and could preach and teach the Word regardless of whether he was equipped to do so or not. He became one of the important leaders of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Having a prolific pen, Darby left behind at least 53 volumes (each volume containing about 400 pages) of his writings. He interpreted the Bible in terms of a series of dispensations.

C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) was closely associated with the Plymouth Brethren, and through them he received Darby’s teachings. Scofield was so enamoured with Darby’s dispensationalism that he systematised his theology. In 1909, he published his Reference Bible which promoted and popularized dispensational theology. He compartmentalised the Scriptures into neat dispensational sections. This made it an extremely attractive Study Bible.  Dallas Theological Seminary, under its founder Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952), became the School to champion dispensational theology. Till today, it is unashamedly dispensational. Its dispensational distinctive is clearly spelled out under Article V of its doctrinal constitution where covenant theology is unequivocally rejected. [Covenant theology sees only one unifying dispensation (better termed “covenant”) since the fall of Adam when God promised a divine Saviour who will save His people from sin (Gen 3:15, Rom 5:12-21)].

Summary Of Dispensational Beliefs
(extract from The Millennial Reign (Chapter2), by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes)

“Briefly, it is the contention of dispensationalists

* that the Old Testament did not foresee or foretell the coming of this present age of the Christian church, but that its expectation was focused on the setting up of the messianic kingdom which would be the proper inheritance of the Israelites, or physical descendants of Abraham, as distinct from the Gentiles, though blessings were intended for the latter also;

* that the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom, whether in parables or other forms of discourse, was directed exclusively to the Jews; that the Jews turned away from the kingdom that was then offered to them, with the result that the offer was withdrawn and the establishment of the kingdom postponed to a later occasion;

* that meanwhile the period of the church was inaugurated as a “parenthesis” in the divinely revealed sequence of events, but a period which, as we have indicated, is outside the scope of biblical prophecy and to which Christ’s kingdom teaching has no application;

* that at the close of this church age Christ will come for his saints, who will be caught up to meet him in the air;

* that there will follow an interval of seven years during the first half of which many Israelites will accept Jesus as their Saviour and Messiah and will carry out a massive program for the evangelization of the world, while the latter three-and-a-half years will be a time of intense persecution known as “the great tribulation”;

* that at the end of these seven years Christ will come again, this time not for but with his saints (this event generally being described as his second coming proper), in order to reign upon earth for one thousand years;

* that thus, the church parenthesis now a thing of the past, the prophecies of the messianic kingdom will achieve fulfilment and his own kingdom teaching be observed;

* that, with a resplendent Jerusalem as his capital, the temple demarcated by Ezekiel will be constructed and the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices reinstituted; and

* that in this millennium of peace, order, and prosperity his sovereignty over all the earth will be established for all to see.”

Distinguishing Features Of Dispensationalism
(Charles C. Bass, Backgrounds To Dispensationalism):
The Nature and Purpose of a Dispensation
The Literal Interpretation of Scripture
The Dichotomy Between Israel and the Church
A Restricted View of the Church
A Jewish Concept of the Kingdom
A Postponed Kingdom
The Distinction Between Law and Grace
The Compartmentalization of Scripture
The Pre-tribulation Rapture
The Purpose of the Great Tribulation
The Nature of the Millennial Reign of Christ
The Eternal State
The Apostate Nature of Christendom

The Dispensational System Of Theology

(article Lordship, Non-Lordship and Dispensationalism by Ernest Reisinger @ www.founders.org)

"Let me say at the outset that this dispensational system of theology is diametrically opposed to covenant theology. It opposes all historic Reformed Theology, such as that which is taught in the Westminster Confession, the Old Baptist Confession of 1689, and the Heidelberg Catechism....

Although there are many important differences between the two schools of thought, there are four differences that go to the heart of Dispensationalism. The truth or error of Dispensationalism stands or falls on four main pillars. These could be called the four main roots of the system:

  1. Their literalism and Jewish understanding of Old Testament prophecy and the Messianic Kingdom.

  2. The parenthesis theory of the Kingdom and the Church. According to this theory, (and it is only a theory) the Church Age is an unforeseen parenthesis in the Jewish program prophesied by Old Testament prophets. If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, the Jewish Kingdom would have begun at our Lord's first coming. But, God's "Plan A" was thwarted, or interrupted, or failed, and the Church age totally unforeseen by the Old Testament prophets was interjected, or, "Plan B" substituted for "Plan A." The dispensationalists call this the parenthetical Church age. My Bible knows nothing about a God who does not have power to perform His plan. The God of the Bible is sovereign in creation, sovereign in redemption and sovereign in providence. He is all-wise in planning and all-powerful in performing.
    We must ask the dispensational teachers the following questions about their parenthesis theory. If the Church is a parenthesis, when did it begin, and how do you know? When will it end, and how do you know?
  3. The third pillar or root of the dispensational system that most dispensationalists apparently have not seriously examined is the dichotomy between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. Dispensationalism teaches that the Old Testament saints are not now in the Church universal, which is the body of Christ.

  4. The fourth pillar or root of this erroneous teaching is on the biblical relationship between the law and the gospel. The Moral Law (the Ten Commandments) to dispensational teaching today is nothing but the cold ashes and the dying fire of the religion of another day. However, the Moral Law carries permanent validity and goes straight to the root of our modern problems. It lays its finger on churches' deepest needs in evangelism and in the Christian life, namely, sanctification. We live in a lawless age. Lawlessness in the home, school, land and in the church. We must find the same rules for our actions, the same duties required, the same sins forbidden in the gospel as in the law. The law by which God rules us is as dear to Him as the gospel by which he saves us".

(1) The number of dispensations is debated, I have seen arguments for few as 2 and as many as 18! (in fact a minimum of 3 dispensations is necessary for the Church age to be the so called 'gap' between the 69th and 70th week of Daniel 9 - an essential feature of the dispensational scheme).  The 'father of dispensationalism', John Nelson Darby, held to a scheme of 6 dispensations. C. I. Scofield proposed a 7 dispensation scheme in his Scofield Reference Bible which has become the most widely held view. For comparision of the various schemes see the article: How Many Dispensations?. For further information see The Scofield Bible And Dispensationalism, and The Relationship Of Dispensations.

Updated: 10-10-2006