John Nelson Darby is regarded as the father of dispensationalism100, although William Kelly Edward Irving played no small part in the restoration of premillennial speculations out of which Darby's dispensationalism arose.101 It was C. I. Scofield, however, that brought Darby's eccentric theology into mainstream evangelicalism.
The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 by the Oxford University Press was something of a innovative literary coup for the movement, since for the first time, overtly dispensationalist notes were added to the pages of the biblical text. Others before Darby and Scofield had used the term 'dispensation' to describe the progressive revelation of God's purposes in biblical history. What distinguished Darby's innovative scheme was the conviction that these dispensations were irreversible and progressive.102 While such a dispensational chronology of events was largely unknown prior to the teaching of Darby and Scofield103, the Scofield Reference Bible became the leading bible used by American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists for the next sixty years.104
The 'proof text' of dispensationalism is the Authorised translation of 2 Timothy 2:15, in which the Apostle Paul calls upon Timothy to, '... rightly divide the word of truth.' Scofield took this as the title for his first book which is a defence of this novel way of 'dividing' Scripture into discrete dispensations.105
Following Darby and Scofield, dispensationalists claim to find in Scripture evidence of seven distinct dispensations^ during which mankind has been tested in respect of specific revelation as to the will of God. In each, mankind, including in the sixth dispensation, the church, has failed. These dispensations began with Creation and will end, it is claimed, in an exclusive Jewish kingdom on earth. Ryrie offers the clearest outline of dispensationalism.107
The Dispensations Name Scripture Responsibilities Judgment(s) Innocency Genesis 1:3-3:6 Keep Garden... Curses... Conscience Genesis 3:7-8:14 Do Good Flood
Civil Government Genesis 8:15-11:9 Fill earth... Forced scattering.. Patriarchal Rule Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27 Stay in Promised Land Egyptian bondage.. Mosaic Law
Exodus 19:1 - John 14:30 Keep the Law... Captivities Grace
Acts 2:1- Revelation 19:21 Believe in Christ... Death... Millennium Revelation 20:1-15 Believe & Obey... Death...
These dispensations are seen by proponents as 'providing us with a chronological map to guide us'108, leading the more fundamentalist to insist that the world is about to end.109 Gerstner concedes that the church has always understood biblical revelation to be progressive. However,
Unlike traditional interpreters, dispensationalists "divide" these sections sharply such that they virtually conflict with one another rather than enfold from one another... sharply divided from one another rather than integrated with one another. They conflict rather than harmonize. Even the word divide is a sharper term than Paul's original requires but the dispensationalists have made it sharper still.110
Dispensationalism the source of the most virulent and pervasive form of Christian Zionism today because it is based on an arbitrary division of the Bible into dispensations. Darby and Scofield taught, as a consequence, that God has two separate but parallel means of working, one through the church, the other through Israel, the former being a parenthesis to the later.111 Thus there is, and always will remain, a distinction, 'between Israel, the Gentiles and the Church.'112 It was Darby who first insisted that, 'The Jewish nation is never to enter the Church.'m Likewise Scofield elaborated,
Comparing then, what is said in Scripture concerning Israel and the Church, we find that in origin, calling, promise, worship, principles of conduct and future destiny all is contrast.114
In its classical form, Charles Ryrie insists the sine qua non of Dispensationalism to be:
1. A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct...
2. This distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation...
3. A third aspect... concerns the underlying purpose of God in the world... namely, the glory of God... 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.115
Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, elaborates further on this dichotomy between Israel and the church,
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.116
For Chafer, 'Israel is an eternal nation, heir to an eternal land, with an eternal kingdom, on which David rules from an eternal throne'117 so that in eternity, '...never the twain, Israel and church, shall meet.' 118 Ryrie even concedes the conclusion of his critic Daniel Fuller in stating that the,
...basic promise of Dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity.119
Certain implications follow the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant. For dispensationalists, logically, Israel can do no wrong.
Even though Israel should fall into sin, and should seem no longer to be a recipient of God's blessing, it would still be true that God has promised that those who bring blessing to His earthly people will themselves be blessed, while those who curse His earthly people will themselves suffer the results of God's displeasure. All history is full of examples of this fact... The fate of the nations that have injured Israel is a terrible warning that God never goes back on His promises. From Haman to Hitler, history shows how dangerous it is to hate His chosen people.120
Hal Lindsey goes as far as to accuse those who refuse to accept dispensationalism of encouraging anti-Semitism for denying a role for the State of Israel in God's future purposes, '...the same error that founded the legacy of contempt for the Jews and ultimately led to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany.' 121
Not surprisingly, dispensationalists refute the supposition inherent in all other non-dispensational theologies, and especially reformed covenantalism, that the ethical law of the Pentateuch applies as much now as then, and that God has one purpose for all people, namely their salvation through Jesus Christ, bringing both Jews and Gentiles into one people, the church, and that in and through Him the earthly will be transformed into the heavenly. Chafer, in particular, criticises non-dispensational theology for giving a spiritual interpretation to what he sees as earthly realities.122
This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.123
Dispensationalism is based on a hermeneutic in which all Scripture, and especially the prophetic, must always be interpreted literally. Darby's hermeneutic might be summed up in this sentence in which he admitted, 'I prefer quoting many passages than enlarging upon them.'124 Scofield, who popularised and synthesised Darby's theology, taught,
Not one instance exists of a 'spiritual' or figurative fulfilment of prophecy... Jerusalem is always Jerusalem, Israel is always Israel, Zion is always Zion... Prophecies may never be spiritualised, but are always literal.125
Ryrie similarly asserts,
To be sure, literal/historical/grammatical interpretation is not the sole possession or practice of dispensationalists, but the consistent use of it in all areas of biblical interpretation is.126
Dwight Pentecost goes as far as to insist that,
Scripture is unintelligible until one can distinguish clearly between God's program for his earthly people Israel and that for the Church.127
One is left in no doubt that a literalist interpretation is the only consistent one for evangelicals. Perhaps wondering how the universal church coped before 1830, Gerstner observes,
...that without pretribulational, premillennial Dispensationalism, the Scripture is "unintelligible"... Even if a person were a traditional premillennialist, without this other element by means of which Israel is distinguished from the church, Scripture would remain a mystery and confusion would reign.128
James Bear makes this assessment of dispensational hermeneutics.
[They] ...are content to reiterate the catch-phrases which set forth their distinctive principles, supporting them by reference to Bible passages of which they do not stop to show the validity. They usually do not attempt in their books to follow out their principles to their logical conclusions, and one often wonders if many who call themselves 'Dispensationalist' have ever actually faced the conclusion which must flow from the principles which they so confidently teach.129
Nevertheless based on such an interpretative principle, dispensationalists hold that the promises made to Abraham and through him to Israel, although postponed during the church age, were nevertheless eternal and unconditional and therefore await future fulfilment since they have never yet been literally fulfilled in their entirety. So, for example, it is an article of normative dispensational belief that all Israel will be literally saved; that the boundaries of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants will be literally instituted; and that Jesus Christ will return to a literal and theocratic Jewish kingdom centred on Jerusalem. In such a scheme the church on earth is relegated to the status of a parenthesise, '...a sort of footnote or sidetrack in contrast to God's main mission to save ethnic, national Israel.'131
It is for this reason many Christian Zionists are happy to disavow evangelism among Jews believing 'all Israel will be saved' when or after Christ returns,132 and why the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem, proudly welcomes the Israeli Prime Minister to speak at their annual gatherings. It also explains why dispensationalists such as John Walvoord, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have in the past been happy to attend joint worship services with Jewish Rabbi's since both Jews and Christians are seen as 'descendants of Abraham' and 'chosen under the terms of [God's] covenants.'133
Sandeen observes that dispensationalism has, 'a frozen biblical text in which every word was supported by the same weight of divine authority.'134 Bass goes further insisting that,
No part of historic Christian doctrine supports this radical distinction between church and kingdom. To be sure they are not identical; but dispensationalism has added the idea that the kingdom was to be a restoration of Israel, not a consummation of the church.135
In the light of this principle, it is legitimate to ask whether dispensationalism is not orientated more from the Abrahamic Covenant than from the Cross. Is not its focus centred more on the Jewish kingdom than on the Body of Christ? Does it not interpret the New Testament in the light of Old Testament prophecies, instead of interpreting those prophecies in the light of the more complete revelation of the New Testament?136
Notwithstanding such serious criticisms, dispensationalism increasingly came to replace the simpler form of historic premillennialism.137 Writing in 1958, Norman Kraus could observe how,
...the dispensationalists had won the day so completely that for the next fifty years friend and foe alike largely identified dispensationalism with premillennialism.138
Today, premillennial dispensationalism still dominates American evangelicalism and fundamentalism. R. C. Sproul concedes that dispensationalism is now '... a theological system that in all probability is the majority report among current American evangelicals.'139 Gerstner adds,
Most leading evangelists have been teachers or followers of Dispensationalism. Earlier in this century, the radio broadcasts of dispensationalists such as D. G. Barnhouse, Charles E. Fuller, and M. R. DeHaan attracted a wide audience. Today, most of the noted 'electronic' evangelists, including Rex
Humbard, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, James Robison, and Billy Graham are dispensational.140
Leading dispensationalists who are also overtly Zionist include Charles Ryrie141, Dwight Pentecost142, John Walvoord143, Eric Sauer144, Charles Dyer145 and Hal Lindsey.146 Christian Zionism, although latent within 19th Century dispensationalism, has grown in popularity within evangelical circles, particularly in America and especially since 1967, coinciding with the Arab-Israel Six Day War and a few years later in 1970 with the publication of Hal Lindsey's 'The Late Great Planet Earth.'147
Tracing the development of Christian Zionism from the mid-19th and early 20th Century, the premillennial dispensationalist preoccupation with a distinctly Jewish millennium preceded by a pre-tribulation rapture of the church and an end-time gathering of the remnant of Israel, came to replace the simpler form of historic premillennialism.148
...the dispensationalists had won the day so completely that for the next fifty years friend and foe alike largely identified dispensationalism with premillennialism.149
There has also been some constructive dialogue between contemporary dispensationalists and reformed covenantal theologians on the relationship of the church to Israel, although primarily still as a theoretical and academic, theological question.150 Furthermore, a new generation of younger dispensationalists among the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary have attempted to redefine their movement as 'progressive dispensationalism'.151 They distance themselves from what they regard as the 'naïveté' of the founder's vision, ^distinguishing the traditional dispensationalism of Lewis Sperry Chafer and Charles Ryrie153 from 'Scofieldism',154 as well as from 'the popular 'apocalyptism' of Lindseyism'.155 They regard themselves as 'less land centred' and less 'future centred'.156
Ryrie is sceptical, unwilling to concede to such revisionism. He prefers to describe the position of theologians such as Blaising and Bock as 'neo-dispensationalist' or 'covenant dispensationalist', for holding, for instance, to a 'slippery' hermeneutic.157 Ryrie similarly insists on distinguishing normative dispensationalism from 'Ultradispensationalism'. This is rooted in the teaching of Ethelbert W. Bullinger (1837-1913) and his successor Charles H. Welch, who, according to Ryrie, have merely carried dispensationalism to its 'logical extremes'. Ultradispensationalists hold for instance, that the church did not begin at Pentecost but in Acts 28 when Israel was set aside; the Great Commission of Matthew and Mark is Jewish and therefore not for the church; the Gospels and Acts describe the dispensation of the Law; only the Pauline prison epistles, that is Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, relate to the church Age; water baptism is not for the church Age; and Israel, not the church, is the Bride of Christ.158 Their teachings are perpetuated today by the Berean Bible Society, Berean Expositor, Berean Publishing Trust159 and Grace Mission.
Despite these attempts to redefine and reshape the dispensationalism of Darby and Scofield, many remain unconvinced.160 As an outsider, James Barr insists in all its variations, 'Dispensationalism is a totally fundamentalist scheme.'161
Following Darby and Scofield's literalistic hermeneutic and rigid distinction between Israel and the church, most contemporary dispensationalists regard the founding of the State of Israel as evidence of divine intervention, that the Jews remain God's 'chosen people'; having a divine right to the Middle East in perpetuity. Crucial to the dispensationalist reading of biblical prophecy is the conviction that the period of tribulation is imminent along with the secret rapture of the church and the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. This will signal the return of the Lord to restore the Kingdom to Israel centred on Jerusalem. This pivotal event is also seen as the trigger for the start of the war of Armageddon in which large numbers of Jews will suffer and die.162
Clearly such views, whether promulgated by academics from respectable Christian theological institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute, or by Jewish fanatics such as Baruch Ben-Yosef and the Temple Mount Yeshiva,163 the consequences could be devastating as these fundamentalists have considerable political influence seeking the endorsement of their divinely ordained and predetermined apocalyptic visions of the future. Karen Armstrong traces the pervading legacy of the Crusades on the contemporary Middle East, claiming Christian Zionists, 'have returned to a classical and extreme religious crusading.'164
Ominously, Charles Colson, the former senior aide to president Richard Nixon, claimed in 1988 that the United States Government had contingency plans for a scenario in which Jewish fanatics would capture the Temple Mount, destroy the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Jewish Temple, caught live by American Christian television channels based in Jerusalem. Based on State records, Colson speculated that if Israeli military forces refused to intervene to maintain the existing status quo, the United States would be forced to do so.165
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