The History of Dispensationalism
As we will see, dispensationalism is a relatively recent development of theology among conservatives.
That said, the roots of dispensationalism go back to the second century A.D.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 110–165). Ryrie quotes Justin Martyr from his Dialogue with Trypho. In this quotation, Martyr recognizes different administrations with in the Old Covenant. Martyr recognizes that prior to circumcision and the law of Moses, a truly redeemed individual could please God without being circumcised. It was only after God revealed the Law of Moses that God’s people were required to practice circumcision to please him. Martyr recognized different administrations of the law of Moses and the administration previous to the law of Moses. In seed form, this is part of the modern-day teaching of dispensationalism.
Irenaeus (A.D. 130–200): Irenaeus refers to four covenants. He draws a distinction between three of those covenants, which are typical of dispensationalism today.
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150–220): Held to four dispensations Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic.
Augustine (A.D. 354–430): Augustine differentiated between God’s economy under the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Specifically, Augustine discussed the fact that there was one kind of sacrifices under the Old Covenant and that the economy of God under the New Covenant is not suitable for sacrifices. He also sees differences in the offerings and calls all of this “the changes of successive epochs.”
The point here is to say that, though believers in the early church were not dispensationalists, they discussed some of the foundational principles of dispensationalism. They held to concepts that dispensationalists do today.
[See the image Dispensationalism 1700. Wilhelmus a Brakel. He argues against the 7 dispensation scheme, which is likely Poiret.]
Pierre Poiret [Pua-hey] (1646–1719): A French philosopher and Christian mystic. He wrote a six volume systematic theology. It is Calvinistic and pre-millennial. In it, he presents a dispensational outworking of history.
1. Infancy—to the Deluge
2. Childhood—to Moses
3. Adolescence—to the prophets (about the time of Solomon)
4. Youth—to the coming of Christ
5. Manhood—“some time after that” (early part of Christianity)
6. Old Age—“the time of man’s decay” (latter part of Christianity)
7. Renovation of all things—the Millennium
John Edwards (1637–1716). Not Jonathan Edwards, Edwards was an English Calvinist, pastor Trinity Church, Cambridge. He published two volumes entitled A Complete History or Survey of All the Dispensations. He attempted to show God’s providential dealings in each dispensation from creation to the end of the world.
1. Innocency and Felicity (Adam created upright)
2. Sin and Misery (Adam fallen)
3. Reconciliation (Adam recovered: from Adam’s redemption to the end of the world)
Isaac Watts (1674–1748). He wrote numerous hymns, including “Jesus Shall Reign.” Below are just a few stanza’s. What do you think this sounds like?
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
To Him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown His head;
His Name like sweet perfume shall rise
With every morning sacrifice.
People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on His Name.
Theologians should write the hymns we sing. That lines up with the purpose of music in the NT, teaching and admonishing. Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Here are Watts’s dispensations:
1. The Dispensation of Innocency (the Religion of Adam at first)
2. The Adamical Dispensation of the Covenant of Grace (the Religion of Adam after his Fall)
3. The Noahical Dispensation (the Religion of Noah)
4. The Abrahamical Dispensation (the Religion of Abraham)
5. The Mosaical Dispensation (the Jewish Religion)
6. The Christian Dispensation
Major Development within the Modern Period#1: Classic Dispensationalism: 1830 to 1955ca (Darby, Chafer, Scofield)
John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). Darby is foundational to modern dispensationalism. After receiving Christ, he left his practice of law and was ordained in the Church of England. After leaving the Church of England, he settled in Plymouth, England. By 1840, he was meeting regularly with 800 people. Many call their group the “Plymouth Brethren.”
1. Paradisaical state to the Flood
Under the law
Under the priesthood
Under the kings
6. The Spirit
7. The Millennium
Darby distinguishes the dispensations, not by time, but because of some condition or because of some responsibility man has toward God.
C. I. Scofield (1843–1921). Like Darby, Scofield was also a lawyer. He too identified seven dispensations distinguished by the failure of a previous dispensation or because of man’s new/unique responsibility toward God.
1. Innocence (from creation to expulsion from Eden). Gen. 1:28
2. Conscience (from Eden to the Flood). Gen. 3:23
3. Human Government (Noah to Abraham). Gen. 8:20
4. Promise (Abraham to Moses). Gen. 12:1
5. Law (Moses to Christ). Exodus 19:8
6. Grace (death of Christ to the rapture). John 1:17
7. Kingdom (millennial reign of Christ). Eph. 1:10
The Scofield Reference Bible was instrumental in popularizing Scofield dispensationalism. It was first published in 1909, which he revised in 1917. The notes of the Scofield Reference Bible are the go to source for the traditional beliefs of classic dispensationalism.
Classic dispensationalists held to the belief that God is pursuing two different purposes. He is pursuing one purpose as it relates to heaven and the other to earth. These purposes remained distinct and separate. They do not eventually flow together in the end. This is an eternal distinction.
Israel is the earthly people of God and the church is a heavenly people of God. God has two separate plans for two distinct people. Israel and the church have separate destinies as well. Israel will spend eternity on earth and the church will spend eternity in heaven.
Major Development within the Modern Period#2: Normative/Revised Dispensationalism: 1955ca-1980s. (Ryrie, Walvoord, Alva McClain, Merrill Unger)
Today, Ryrie’s work Dispensationalism (textbook) is still a standard work. Other’s such as J. Dwight Pentecost, John F. Walvoord, Charles L. Feinberg, and Lewis Sperry Chafer are notable works.
Dallas Theological Seminary is the flagship seminary that carries the dispensational banner.
Normative/revised dispensationalists dropped the dualistic purpose of God, believing instead in an ultimate single purpose of God. However, the emphasis on two peoples of God remains and they see the church and Israel as existing together during the millennium and the eternal state; however, the distinction as different groups remains.
SEE Ryrie’s dispensations
Major Development within the Modern Period#2: Progressive Dispensationalism: 1980-present (Blaising, Bock, Saucy).
The word “progressive” in progressive dispensationalism refers to the relationship between the dispensations (not that it’s up to date or ‘cool’). It focuses on the continuity between the dispensations. This will be observed in various doctrines of PD. For example, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. [so, like NCT, PD tries to find continuity between the testaments]
The baptism of the Holy Spirit, as we saw, is foundational to our understanding that as New Testament Christians we are living in a new dispensation. God no longer requires Gentiles to convert to Judaism and be circumcised. And the reason that we know that is because Peter argued from his experience with Cornelius that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just as the Jews did when they trusted in Christ.
Progressive dispensationalism sees the baptism of the Holy Spirit as not only extending from the OT, that the OT predicted it (based on Luke 3:15-18; 24:49, “the promise from the Father”=a promise from the OT since Luke 24 is OT fulfillment context, Joel 2:28), but also extending to the end times (Peter’s preaching in Acts 2). (+/-_____ PD)
Progressive dispensationalists see more continuity between Israel and the church. Progressives stress that Israel and the church are the one people of God and both are given the blessings of the New Covenant. This course would be in keeping with Jeremiah 31:31, where the NC is made with Israel. (+/-_____ PD)
They are spiritual equals but functionally distinct. In other words, progressive dispensationalists do not equate the church with Israel, like CT does, and they still see a future for the nation of Israel. (+/- ______ PD)
Progressive dispensationalism was born out of a desire to find common ground between the covenant theology and normative dispensationalism. Kenneth Barker, a progressive dispensationalist, stated that his desire was to “foster ecumenicity.”
Ryrie writes in chapter 9 of his book…
“The public debut was made on November 20, 1986, in the Dispensational Study Group in connection with the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. The group has continued to gather at those annual meetings, and several proponents have published books and articles in the succeeding years. Actually the label “progressive dispensationalism” was introduced at the 1991 meeting, since “significant revisions” in dispensationalism had taken place by that time. Darrell L. Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary (New Testament) and Craig A. Blaising, formerly a professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas, have been in the forefront of the movement, along with Robert L. Saucy (Systematic Theology) of Talbot Theological Seminary. So far three books have been published: Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (edited by Bock and Blaising, 1992), Progressive Dispensationalism (written by the same two men, 1993), and The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (written by Saucy, 1993).”
The history is history, now, can we actually please see if it is taught explicitly in the Bible?
Continuity in the preaching of the kingdom is found in the promise of the Spirit as it is tied to repentance. John the Baptist had specifically noted that one of the distinctive features of Jesus’ ministry versus his own was the baptism of the Spirit, which the “Coming One” would supply (Luke 3:15–18). Luke 24:49 refers to “the promise of the Father” that Jesus shall send and for which the disciples must wait. This must be an Old Testament promise, given the context of Old Testament fulfillment in Luke 24. Blaising, Craig A.; Blaising, Craig A.; Bock, Darrell L.; Bock, Darrell L.. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Kindle Locations 658-661). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. ↑
Kenneth Barker, “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25 (March 1982): p. 3. ↑