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Dispensationalism: Part I – Millennial Views Prior to the Rise of Dispensationalism by Mark Sarver

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Dispensationalism


It is scarcely possible that those who labor in the gospel will be able to escape the necessity of ministering to those who have been influenced by modern dispensationalism. We live in an era flooded with dispensational preaching, books, schools, and even study Bibles. The teaching of dispensationalism has successfully crossed the boundaries of most major Protestant denominations. Turn on the radio and you will hear a steady diet of this teaching being broadcast from most evangelical stations.

Dispensationalism has a pervasive influence not only extensively, but also intensively. It is usually the case that those who embrace its teachings as a system are affected in almost every area of their theological thinking. So pervasive is its effect on those who have become its pupils, that even those who have come to see the error of its basic presuppositions testify that dispensational cobwebs have remained in their thinking for a long time after the initial sweeping took place. My own experience bears witness to the truth of what I say.

Because dispensationalism has had such a widespread effect, the sheer bulk of the material makes it very difficult to adequately treat the subject in a few short lectures. We cannot hope to thoroughly examine all of its tenets. Our basic desire is to gain a working acquaintance with its essential features and of the difference between these basic presuppositions and the Word of God. In order to do this, we will begin with a survey of the historical genesis and development of dispensationalism (as presented in this paper).

In the lectures to follow we will then turn to consider its presuppositions and a few of the features that almost invariably emerge as part of the teaching and practice of dispensationalists. Though we will enter into refutation, our primary aim is identification. We trust that as you give diligence to the studies of Biblical and systematic theology, the principles embedded upon your souls through these disciplines will enable you to cut a straight course in dealing with this error.

However, this does not minimize what we are now about to endeavor. Many are ineffective in dealing with dispensationalism because they miss the mark in understanding what it is, or because they are responding to a dogma held only by a few or held primarily by earlier dispensationalists. Often, there is a failure to recognize that though the presuppositions of dispensationalism, if carried to their logical conclusion (as is sometimes the case), may have a damning effect, there are many who are blessedly inconsistent with their own presuppositions, and who have truly understood and experienced the doctrines and power of the gospel. May God spare us from a vindictive spirit, dishonest reporting, and ignorant misrepresentations!

Before we turn to survey the history of dispensationalism, it is in order that we at least give a brief statement as to what dispensationalism is. The most characteristic understanding of it is from what its theological tag, ‘dispensationalism,’ implies. It is a system that divides God’s plan as it is unfolded in history and prophecy into various ‘dispensations.’ Scofield’s definition of a dispensation is standard: ‘A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.’ In each of these chronological compartments: a distinct revelation is given; men are tested by this revelation; judgment follows upon the failure of men with reference to this stewardship. Though modern dispensationalism insists that the revelation in these dispensations is cumulative and progressive, in the application of this revelation, dispensationalists inevitably compartmentalize. Dispensationalists commonly divide history into the following seven dispensations:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Noahic
  • Covenant
  • Abrahamic Covenant
  • Sinai
  • Pentecost
  • Great Tribulation
  • Great White Throne


  • Innocence
  • Conscience
  • Human Government
  • Promise
  • Law
  • Church
  • Kingdom

This compartmentalization undermines the unity of God’s purpose to save a people for Himself. Dispensationalism replaces the Reformed concept of one soteriological purpose of God and of one people of God with two purposes of God (on one hand, to set up an earthly and national theocracy, and on the other hand, to redeem a people whose destiny is spiritual and heavenly) and with two peoples of God (Israel and the church). The church is viewed as an interruption of God’s plan for Israel. And, because God’s dealings with Israel are earthly, it is to be expected that all of God’s promises to Israel are the exclusive property of Israel and are to be fulfilled literally.

Purpose Peoples Promises
Set up earthly, national theocracy Israel earthly Literal
Spiritual redemption Church heavenly Spiritual

Because the presence of the church interrupts God’s purpose for Israel, before Jewish prophesies begin to be fulfilled, the church will be ‘raptured’ from the earth; this rapture may take place at any moment. The rapture marks the time when God will then again deal with Israel according to His prophetic Word: first, by means of the Great Tribulation and then with the establishment of the millennial Kingdom. Such is this teaching so popular today.1

But is this teaching historic Christianity? And, how did it come into being? How did it develop, and how did it gain such popularity? These questions will occupy our attention throughout this introductory paper.

Millennial Views Prior to the Rise of Dispensationalism

Our search for the origins of dispensationalism is not motivated merely by a desire to satisfy academic curiosity. We firmly believe that God has been guiding the church into the truth throughout its history. But we do not believe that God has left His church in the dark from the beginning as pertains to the larger Biblical doctrines and principles, only to reveal them in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Dispensationalists do not regard dispensationalism as being of minor importance. For example, an advertising circular presenting ‘Twelve Reasons why you should use THE SCOFIELD REFERENCE BIBLE,’ says:

First, the Scofield Bible outlines the Scriptures from the standpoint of DISPENSATIONAL TRUTH, and there can be no adequate understanding or rightly dividing of the Word of God except from the standpoint of dispensational truth.2

If ‘dispensational truth’ is so indispensable to a correct understanding of the Scriptures, then surely it is part of historic Christianity. It is not surprising, then, that dispensationalists have felt the pressure of this argument and, consequently, have sought to demonstrate the historic validity of dispensationalism. Dispensationalists commonly attempt this by finding examples of millenarianism and then by attributing to such chiliasts ‘dispensational tendencies.’ Therefore it is important that we give due attention in our study to millennial views prior to the rise of nineteenth-century dispensationalism.

The Early Church

As we now turn to the early church, let it be emphatically stated from the outset that we do not, in so doing, look to it as our authority. Our one authority is the Word of God. But we are convinced that God would not have left His church ignorant of vital truth for eighteen centuries.

A sample of the outlook of the early church is obtained if we read the Didache (dating from the first quarter of the second century). The writer urges upon his readers watchfulness in view of the coming of the Lord. ‘Watch over your life; let your lamps be not quenched and your loins be not ungirded, but be ready, for you know not the hour in which your Lord cometh’ (16.1). But as the writer goes on to speak of the Antichrist, his language is patently different from the way dispensationalists would describe the same events. There is no concept of the church being taken out of the way by means of a pre-tribulation rapture. Rather, there

shall appear the deceiver of the world as a Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders and the earth shall be given over into his hands and he shall commit iniquities which have never been since the world began. Then shall the creation of mankind come to the fiery trial and many shall be offended and be lost, but they who endure in their faith shall be saved by the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth. First the sign spread out in Heaven, then the sign of the trumpet, and thirdly the resurrection of the dead: but not all the dead, but as it was said, The Lord shall come and all his saints with him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming on the clouds of heaven.

It is not necessary for us at this point to examine each of the post-apostolic writers. A good survey of this data has been given by George E. Ladd in his book, The Blessed Hope. Ladd very ably demonstrates the absence of the dispensationalist concept of the pre-tribulation rapture. And no dispensationalist has been able to prove otherwise. The premillennialism that sometimes is expressed by the writers of the early church is no proof of the presence of dispensationalism. Nor is it a necessary deduction that this early chilaism was primarily the result of a study of the Scriptures. Chiliastic views were extensively circulated in the early church through such Jewish or Jewish-Christian writings as Enoch, 4 Esdras, Assumption of Moses, Ascension of Isaiah, Psalms of Solomon, and Baruch, all writings which neither Jews nor Christians regarded as canonical. This Jewish chilaism has been well documented and discussed in Geerhardus Vos’ The Pauline Eschatology.3

Another method used by dispensationalists to lend historical respectability to their doctrine is to go to the Fathers and find examples of those who divided redemptive history into various epochs. Dispensationalists using this means of support are Arnold H. Ehlert4 and Charles C. Ryrie5. What these writers have failed to do, however, is to demonstrate that any of the works produced by the early church Fathers possess unmistakable evidences of promulgating those things essential to dispensationalism. Ryrie quotes Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine6, as those who had the dispensational concept as part of their viewpoint. However, none of those to whom he appeals gives evidence of making a radical distinction between Israel and the church as two separate peoples of God. Yet this is at the very heart of dispensationalism and is included by Ryrie himself as one of the sine qua non of dispensationalism7. In fact, one of those cited by Ryrie, Justin Martyr, clearly indicates in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ his regard for the church as being the true Israel (chapters 123, 124, 125, 135).

It is difficult to assess the extent to which the early church held the premillennial view. But the emphasis that many of its advocates placed upon earthly rewards and carnal delights aroused widespread opposition to it, and it was soon replaced to a large extent by the ‘spiritual’ view of Augustine. He saw the millennium being fulfilled spiritually in the Christian church, the binding of Satan having taken place during the earthly ministry of our Lord. The new birth of the believer, according to Augustine, was the first resurrection in Rev. 20. He interpreted Rev. 20:1-6 as a ‘recapitulation’ of the preceding chapters, instead of describing a new age following chronologically the events of chapter 19. The 1000 years he took to be literal years, and he expected Christ’s return at the end of that period. This spiritual interpretation of the millennium has been influential to a great degree on into the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Middle Ages

Up to the close of the tenth century it was still possible, and quite natural, for adherents to the Augustinian view to regard the 1000 years as, at least approximately, delineating the actual time between the first and second comings of Christ. Since this coming was identified with the last judgment, multitudes were struck with terror as the year 1000 drew near. But when it became evident that this period must be longer than 1000 years, the advocates of this interpretation were compelled to make adjustments in their interpretation. The simplest solution was to regard the 1000 years as a symbolic number, not to be taken literally. Others dated the millennium from the time of Constantine. As 1000 years lay between the conversion of Constantine and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, this view became especially attractive to those who saw in the papacy the rise of the Antichrist and the persecutions spoken of in the Apocalypse. Thus emerged the ‘historical’ interpretation of the book of Revelation, by which the book was thought to give in symbolic form an outline of the history of the church.

Premillennialism made occasional appearances during the Middle Ages. In times of calamity it had a special appeal to those concerned with the widespread declension in the church and to those oppressed with the medieval system, especially with its hope of a millennial period of earthly vindication for the righteous. Once again, we find no evidence of dispensationalism during this period.

The Reformation and Puritan Era

The Augustinian spiritual view of the millennium of the historicist type (that in the Apocalypse we find the history of the church) continued to be dominant in the thinking of the Reformers and in writings of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course the Reformers and the Romanists diverged drastically in the interpretation of the particular symbols of the Apocalypse. The Catholic Church contended that, ‘Satan was bound by the first coming of Christ, that the millennium began either then or at the time of Constantine, and that the Devil was loosed at the time of the assaults by Wyclif or Luther.’8 The Reformers, however, found in the papacy the fulfillment of the predicted Antichrist. Luther, for example, understood Revelation 11 and 12 to be a prediction of the papacy, as well as the second beast of chapter 13. To him, the number 666 stood for the period of papal domination. The historicist interpretation with its identification of the Antichrist with the papacy so dominated Protestant thinking for three centuries that it has frequently been called ‘the Protestant’ interpretation.

Some Protestants, though they were also historicists differed with the spiritual-historical view of Augustinian heritage and continued in the premillennial tradition. They also saw the history of the church symbolized in the seals, vials, and trumpets of the book of Revelation, but to them the second coming of Christ was predicted in Revelation 10 (prior to what they saw as the millennium of Revelation 20). Many such interpreters, though quite literalistic in their interpretation of the millennium of Revelation 20, were less literalistic in their understanding of the Antichrist. They did not expect a personal Antichrist to appear at the end of the age to persecute the saints during a three-and-a-half-year period. Nor did they look for what has often been called ‘the Great Tribulation,’ but were convinced that the tribulation extended throughout the history of the church. The three and a half years, or 1260 days, were often interpreted to mean 1260 years of church history prior to the end times.

Examples of premillennialists of this historicist type are Joseph Mede (1586-1638), Isaac Newton (1642-1717), William Whiston (1667-1752), J. A. Bengel (1687-1752) and Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638). Premillennial views continued to have special appeal in times of calamity and war, sometimes sharing a revolutionary character (e.g., the Peasant Wars that accompanied the Continental Reformation and the Thirty Years War in Europe between 1618 and 1648). For this reason responsible premillennialism sought to dissociate itself from this radical element. Johann Alsted wrote his Diatribe de mille annis Apocalypticis (1627) during this period. This work had a major impact on some seventeenth-century English Puritans as they faced a government intransigently opposed to their views of the church and state. Yet the extremists among these once again contributed towards making many reluctant to embrace premillennial views.

Whatever the variations were among premillennialists of the Reformation and Puritan eras, it is obvious that none of them could have believed in a pre-tribulation rapture, as long as the pope was viewed as the Antichrist and the period of the tribulation was not 1260 days, but 1260 years (i.e., the church was still in the tribulation period).

During this period a significant variation of the Augustinian (spiritual) view emerged when Daniel Whitby in his Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament (1703) propounded a futuristic, yet spiritual view of the millennium. He rejected the Augustinian interpretation of the 1000 years of Revelation 20 as a recapitulation of the inter-adventual period described in the preceding chapters, regarding it instead as following Revelation 19 chronologically. He conceived of the millennium as being vastly different from anything the church had ever experienced. Yet, it was to be an integral part of the inter-adventual period, not a different age, but the climax of the Church Age9. This interpretation is now called postmillennialism.

Whitby was futuristic with reference to the millennium, historicist with reference to the tribulation. But another interpretation arose during this period that was futuristic with reference to the tribulation, but historicist regarding the millennium. In 1590 a Spanish Jesuit priest named Francisco Ribera published a commentary on the book of Revelation as a refutation of the prevailing view among the Protestants which identified the papacy with the Antichrist. He applied all but the earliest chapters of Revelation to the end time rather than to the history of the church. The Antichrist would be a single evil person who would be received by the Jews, rebuild Jerusalem, deny Christ, persecute the church and rule the world for three and a half years. The millennium, however, is the entire period between the cross and the appearance of the Antichrist, and the ‘first resurrection’ refers to the heavenly life of the martyrs reigning with Christ throughout this entire period.

Before we go on, let us sum up this period. With the exception of Francisco Ribera, the bulk of the Apocalypse was interpreted historically. Of these historicists, 1) the Reformers followed the Augustinian tradition of interpreting the millennium as spiritual and present, 2) a few Protestants looked for a millennium to follow the present age (the church is in the tribulation now) and to be preceded by the return of Christ, and 3) Whitby introduced the postmillennial interpretation. Up to this point even premillennialists were historicists with the bulk of the book of Revelation.