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Dispensationalism: Part IV – Modern Developments and Modifications by Mark Sarver

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Dispensationalism

The Development and Spread of Dispensationalism in America

During the last fifty years dispensationalists have tended more and more to represent the more separatistic element of fundamentalism. George Marsden estimates that during the 1970’s perhaps only one-tenth of America’s forty million evangelicals belonged to such separatistic and dispensationalist churches that called themselves ‘fundamentalist.’45 But there are leaders such as Billy Graham, who are anything but in this separatistic mold, and yet who are dispensational in their thinking. Major dispensationalist schools, such as Dallas Theological Seminary, could also be cited as exceptions to this strict separatistic tendency. While most have remained intolerant even to evangelicals committed to a high view of Scripture, during the last decade a significant number of dispensationalists have joined with other evangelicals in order to do battle with a common enemy: secular humanism.

Denying Two Ways of Salvation Law-Keeping in the Old Testament and Faith in the New Testament

While to some degree the diversity described above sprang out of the more general societal and religious conditions in America, several modifications have taken place in the theology of a number of dispensationalists in response to various critiques of their system. Prominent among recent writers that have sought to modify the teaching of dispensationalism are Charles C. Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, and John F. Walvoord. These neo-dispensationalists have sought to distance themselves from classical dispensationalists by denying two ways of salvation law-keeping in the Old Testament and faith in the New Testament. One concerted attempt to refine the statements of dispensationalism concerning this matter was the publication in 1967 of the New Scofield Reference Bible.

The older concept of a salvation by law-keeping under the Mosaic dispensation is highlighted by Scofield’s contrast between the standing of Abraham under the Dispensation of Promise and the standing of Israel after the giving of the law:

The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law (Ex. 19:8). Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage (Ex. 19:4); but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.46

Lewis Sperry Chafer gave a similar explanation of what happened at Mount Sinai:

When the Law was proposed, the children of Israel deliberately forsook their position under the grace of God which had been their relationship to God until that day, and placed themselves under the Law.

While it is certain that Jehovah knew the choice that the people would make, it is equally certain that their choice was in no way required by Him. . . . The surrender of the blessings of grace should have been allowed by these people on no condition whatsoever. Had they said at the hearing of the impossible law, ‘None of these things can we do. We crave only to remain in that boundless mercy of God, who has loved us, and sought us, and saved us from all our enemies, and who will bring us to Himself,’ it is evident that such an appeal would have reached the very heart of God. And the surpassing glory of His grace would have been extended to them without bounds; for grace above all else is the delight of the heart of God. In place of the eagles’ wings by which they were carried unto God, they confidently chose a covenant of works when they said: ‘all that the Lord hath spoken we will do.’ They were called on to face a concrete choice between the mercy of God which had followed them, and a new and hopeless covenant of works. They fell from grace.

The children of Israel definitely chose the covenant of works, which is law, as their relationship to God.47

Chafer elsewhere contrasts salvation under the Old Testament with the New Testament:

A distinction must be observed here between just men of the Old Testament and those justified according to the New Testament. According to the Old Testament men were just because they were true and faithful in keeping the Mosaic Law. . . . men were therefore just because of their own works for God whereas New Testament justification is God’s work for man in answer to faith (Rom. 5:1).48

Correlated with this teaching is the assertion that the Old Testament saints will not be in the body and bride of Christ in eternity it is the church that is in Christ. Another factor in dispensationalism that militates against a unified basis of salvation in all ages is the distinction made between the conditional nature of the Mosaic covenant in contrast with the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic and New covenants. This same contrast is displayed by the distinction dispensationalists characteristically have made between the ‘gospel of the Kingdom’ (preached by John the Baptist and by Jesus) and the gospel Paul preached.

The neo-dispensationalists have sought to re-state the matter by clearly teaching an Old Testament salvation by faith. Charles Ryrie states his view in this manner:

The basis for salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations. It is this last point, of course, which distinguishes dispensationalism from covenant theology, but it is not a point to which the charge of teaching two ways of salvation can be attested. It simply recognizes the obvious fact of progressive revelation. When Adam looked on the coats of skins with which God had clothed him and his wife, he did not see what the believer today sees looking back on the cross of Calvary. And neither did other Old Testament saints see what we can see today.49

Ryrie goes on to cite the Dallas Theological Seminary doctrinal statement, which denies that Christ is the object of faith of Old Testament believers. Here dispensationalism still re-asserts itself. The unity of the promise and of the covenants (Eph. 2:12) is overlooked. But presuppositions that lead to such a confusion regarding Old Testament salvation only the church being in Christ; the Mosaic covenant being conditional are corrected.50

Denial of Seperation Between Israel and the Church in the Eternal State

A second neo-dispensational revision is the denial of a separation between Israel and the church in the eternal state (Israel on earth and the church in heaven). This newer attempt to reverse the concept of a separation between Israel and the church throughout eternity is also fraught with difficulties. No longer is the land inherited as the peculiar possession of Abraham (personally) and of his seed forever. If the millennial Kingdom is given only to those Jews who survive the Tribulation (as Walvoord in his Millennial Kingdom maintains),51 then Abraham is excluded. Where, then, is the fulfillment of the ‘unconditional covenant’ made with Abraham? And, how is 1000 years equivalent to ‘forever.’ If the land-promise to Abraham guarantees that it is for an ‘everlasting’ possession, and if we must never spiritualize promises made to God’s earthly people, how is it consistent to allow 1000 years to be an adequate fulfillment of a promise of an ‘everlasting possession’? Neo-dispensational modifications are a welcome change, but they are made at the expense of the most basic hermeneutics of dispensationalism.

Secondary Applications of Old Testament Precepts and Prophecies

A third neo-dispensational tendency is an increasing willingness to speak of secondary applications or fulfillments of Old Testament precepts and prophecies to the New Testament church. In the thinking of Darby and Scofield, law (not only as taught by Moses and the prophets but also by Christ, as in the Sermon on the Mount) cannot in any way bind the conscience of the Christian, lest the principle of salvation by grace operative in the present dispensation be compromised. And, according to classic dispensationalism, Old Testament prophecy can be fulfilled only in a literal manner by a future earthly Israel. It has nothing to do with the church. But many contemporary dispensationalists read the Old Testament as a document that speaks directly to themselves. They do not think it to be a pilfering of Israel’s property to appropriate the comfort of Ezekiel 34:24-31, Joel 2:23 and other such promises for themselves (even if they are convinced that the primary reference of such prophecies is to the millennium). Again, while the Sermon on the Mount will never be fully implemented until the millennium, it has much to say to the church.

How did this hermeneutical transition take place? Perhaps in many cases it is simply that the Spirit has so powerfully brought portions of the law and prophets home to the conscience of the Christian that the hermeneutics he has embraced intellectually, at least in part, is laid on the shelf. But with others the change has been more theoretical. The earlier dispensationalism of the Scofield type allowed a twofold interpretation of Old Testament history (literal for Israel and allegorical for the church) but disallowed a spiritual or typical interpretation of prophecy. But, as Vern Poythress asks, ‘Why was an extra dimension allowed for history (which on the surface contained fewer figurative elements) and disallowed for prophecy (which on the surface contained more figurative elements)?’52 Recognizing the inherent contradiction between the way Scofield interpreted history and prophecy, many modern dispensationalists have begun to allow for the possibility that in certain instances prophecy, like history, may contain an extra dimension of meaning. Just as the actual historicity of an account is not jeopardized by the recognition of a typological dimension adumbrating Christ and the church, the primary and literal fulfillment of a given prophecy in the millennial Kingdom of Israel may be preserved while secondary and spiritual anticipations of the church may be recognized within the same prophecy. Usually such dispensationalists are very careful to distinguish between the complete and literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in God’s future dealings with Israel and the ‘foreshadowings’ of and limited applications to the church. Paul Tan writes:

It is possible of course to see present foreshadowings of certain yet-future prophecies and to make applications to the Christian church. But we are here in the area of ‘expanded typology.’ Premillennial interpreters may see a lot of types in Old Testament events and institutions, but they see them as applications and foreshadowments not as actual fulfillments.53

When in the book of Acts, for example, the apostles cite Old Testament prophecies in connection with events presently taking place, according to neo-dispensationalists, they do not regard those prophecies as thereby fulfilled (which must be in literal and Israelitish terms), but merely draw from them preliminary applications. Some modern dispensationalists, however, are not so fastidious about the use of the word ‘fulfillment.’ As long as it is understood that the primary fulfillment of a prophecy must come with reference to a future Israel, other preliminary or partial fulfillments might be allowed. Erich Sauer speaks of a fourfold reference or fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies:

  1. Historical and contemporary, to the circumstances of the prophet himself;
  2. Spiritual and typical, to the period of the church;
  3. Literal, to the closing history of Israel and the nations in the coming kingdom of God on the old earth;
  4. External, to the new heavens and the new earth.54

Cumulative Character of Revealtion

In the fourth place, a number of dispensationalists have begun to stress the cumulative character of revelation. They have begun to back away from the more crass compartmentalization of dispensations so common in the classic dispensational systems. The new revelation said to accompany the introduction of a dispensation does not supersede, but adds to previous revelation. The New Scofield Reference Bible gives this explanation:

The dispensations are a progressive and connected revelation of God’s dealings with man, given sometimes to the whole race and at other times to a particular people, Israel. These different dispensations are not separate ways of salvation. During each of them man is reconciled to God in only one way, i.e., by God’s grace through the work of Christ that was accomplished on the cross and vindicated in His resurrection. Before the cross man was saved in prospect of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, through believing the revelation thus far given him. Since the cross man has been saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ in whom revelation and redemption are consummated.

On man’s part the continuing requirement is obedience to the revelation of God. This obedience is a stewardship of faith. Although the divine revelation unfolds progressively, the deposit of truth in the earlier time-periods is not discarded; rather it is cumulative. Thus conscience (moral responsibility) is an abiding truth in human life (Rom. 2:15; 9:1; II Cor. 1:12; 4:2), although it does not continue as a dispensation. Similarly, the saved of this present dispensation are ‘not under law’ as a specific test of obedience to divine revelation (Gal. 5:18; cp. Gal. 2:16; 3:11), yet the law remains an integral part of the Holy Scriptures which, to the redeemed, are profitable for ‘instruction in righteousness’ (II Tim. 3:16-17; cp. Rom. 15:4).55

Responding to the charge that dispensationalism destroys the unity of the Bible, Charles Ryrie, after admitting that dispensationalists have not always asserted this unity as they might have, writes:

Progressive revelation views the Bible not as a textbook on theology but as the continually unfolding revelation of God given by various means throughout the successive ages. In this unfolding there are distinguishable stages of revelation when God introduces new things for which man becomes responsible. These stages are the economies, stewardships, or dispensations in the unfolding of His purpose.56

Regarding the test, failure and judgment that are present in and characterize each dispensation Ryrie asks:

Do not these characteristics seem to dissect history and compartmentalize its eras? From one viewpoint dispensationalism does appear to do so. This cross-sectional perspective of the dispensational scheme is the view usually presented in dispensational charts. While there is nothing erroneous about it, it is not the whole story. There is also what may be called the longitudinal perspective in dispensationalism. This includes the continuing principles through all dispensations which give coherency to the whole course of history.57

Though Reformed theologians welcome such concessions, they cannot be satisfied by them. As they read on in the writings of these neo-dispensationalists they find that at crucial points the cumulative nature of progressive revelation has been jettisoned. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of ethics. Dispensationalists of every stripe consistently reject the abiding and complete authority of God’s most basic standard of righteousness, the ten commandments. It is hard to understand how one can say that the backbone of God’s ethical requirements can be rendered obsolete and then say that revelation is cumulative and progressive. Again, the whole concept of a Jewish millennium in which men will return to the standard now said to be abolished contradicts the idea of cumulative revelation.

People of God in All Ages as One

Fifthly, a small contingency of dispensationalists have begun to regard the people of God in all ages as being one. If prophecy is fulfilled in even a preliminary way in the church, in some way the church participates in the promises contained therein. Thus the church is not so alien to Israel’s prophetic heritage after all. Dr. Poythress (no dispensationalist himself) elaborates:

Christians participate now in the fulfillment of Abrahamic promises, because they are in union with Christ who is the heart of the fulfillment. The full realization of the promises, however, still comes in the future. Hence there are not two parallel sets of promises, one for Israel and one for the church. There are no longer parallel destinies, one for Israel and one for the church. Rather there are different historical phases (preliminary and final) of one set of promises and purposes. And therefore there is really only one people of God, which in latter days, after the time of Christ’s resurrection, incorporates both Jew and Gentile in one body (cf. the single olive tree in Rom. 11:16-32).58

This almost sounds identical with historic premillennialism. Premillennialists of this older kind, while expecting an earthly millennium, do not distinguish two peoples of God, each with separate destinies. But the dispensationalists described above, though they see God’s purposes for Israel and the church merging into one in the eternal state, still must be called dispensationalists because they continue to stress the abiding importance of national, ethnic Israel and look to the millennium as that period of time when once again God will fulfill many Old Testament prophecies by pouring out peculiar blessings upon Israel.

The extent to which modern dispensationalists reflect these five trends varies considerably. Moreover, differences among them go beyond the degree to which they embrace these modifications. For example, the interpretation of prophecy, supposedly easy to those who employ the principle ‘literal where possible,’ has led to a vast array of differing conclusions. For the sake of convenience, however, we will identify four major types of dispensationalists that are prominent at this present time.

The most consistent and thus extreme form of dispensationalism is what is commonly known as ultradispensationalism or ‘Bullingerism.’ This movement had its origins as a distinct movement in the work of Ethelbert W. Bullinger (1837-1913).59 Bullinger distinguished Israel and the church in an even more radical manner than Darby. He contended that because Paul did not receive his special revelation of the mystery of the body of Christ, the church, until his imprisonment in Rome, his prison epistles are, strictly speaking, the only portion of Scripture given to members of the body. All of his other epistles were written in a previous dispensation, during the transition period between the dispensations of law and grace. The historical description of that interim is given in the book of Acts. Hence, in the book of Acts we do not have the ekklesia (church) described by Paul as the body of Christ, but a different ekklesia altogether. This earlier church is simply an extension of the kingdom. Likewise, the seven churches of the book of Revelation have nothing to do with the present body of Christ, but are Jewish churches in the Great Tribulation.

In short, the entire New Testament, except the prison epistles of Paul, has no direct application to the present dispensation: the four Gospels, the book of Acts and the non-prison epistles pertain to the previous Jewish dispensation; the book of Revelation has to do with the coming Jewish dispensations (the Great Tribulation and the millennium). Even the instructions of the New Testament concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper are carnal Jewish ordinances not to be followed in the church. Bullinger also advocated the theory of soul sleep the notion that the soul is unconscious between death and the resurrection.

The main exponent of ultradispensationalism in America was J. C. O’Hair, pastor of the North Shore Church in Chicago and founder of the Milwaukee Bible College. Though he abandoned the extreme positions of Bullinger concerning soul sleep and the non-use of the Lord’s Supper during this present dispensation, he was a tireless champion of the main distinctives of ultradispensationalism.60 This system has been stridently denounced by prominent traditional dispensationalists. Harry Ironside unequivocally declared: ‘I have no hesitancy in saying it is an absolutely Satanic perversion of the truth.’61

A second group of dispensationalists might be labelled (in a non-pejorative sense) ‘hardline’ dispensationalists. In terms of consistency these dispensationalists are the closest to ultradispensationalism. They do not exclude the book of Acts and the non-prison epistles in toto from this present dispensation. But they rigorously seek to engage in ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ (II Tim. 2:15 KJV). That is, according to their interpretation of these words, they carefully separate the parts of the Bible that relate to the different dispensations. Like Scofield they regard the Sermon on the Mount as ‘legal ground’ (cf. Scofield on Matt. 6:12). It is Kingdom ethics (offered by Christ to the Jews of His day and to be fulfilled in the coming millennium). It has nothing to do with the body of Christ. Christians ought not pray ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’ because such language is legal in its orientation, conditioning forgiveness upon a like spirit in us instead of faith in the gracious promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake. While Scofield allows that the Sermon on the Mount contains ‘a beautiful moral application to the Christian’ even though its primary and literal application has to do with God’s earthly Kingdom,62 some hardline dispensationalists would insist that it has no application to the Christian. Likewise, in Jesus’ dealings with inquirers (e.g., the rich young ruler) He is functioning in terms of the old legal dispensation, and in his parabolic teaching He is generally propounding ethics appropriate only to the coming Jewish Kingdom. In similar fashion strict differentiation is made between those prophecies that relate to the first coming of Christ and those that are millennial in nature. Again, because the church is a mystery heretofore unrevealed, it is present in the Old Testament only in typical form. Hence, practical application of the Old Testament to Christians is legitimate only insofar as it is the outworking of the types contained therein.

The system just described should not be regarded merely as a curious approach to hermeneutics that is of interest only to theologians who love to debate about all things religious. If it is wrong, the damage it is doing is of tragic proportions. If the searching words of Christ concerning the nature and evidences of true conversion are excluded from the message the church is to proclaim, the gospel itself is under attack.63 Even true Christians who come under the sway of those who propagate this teaching are pervasively affected. Poythress writes:

They are depriving themselves of the nourishment and discipline that Christians ought to receive from many portions of the Bible. When they are in positions of prominence, they damage others also. They are distancing themselves from promises and commands that they ought to take very seriously. They are undercutting the ability of the Word of God to come home to people’s lives as God intended.64

The third type of dispensationalist is the modified dispensationalist or neo-dispensationalist. Those from this school of thought would generally embrace the first four of the five developments outlined above: the denial of two ways of salvation, the refusal to separate Israel and the church in eternity, the willingness to speak of secondary applications of Old Testament prophecy to the church, and the recognition of the cumulative and progressive character of revelation. They would deny that direct fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy ever takes place in the church, but would not hesitate to affirm that it is legitimate to recognize secondary applications of Old Testament prophecy with reference to the church. Some modified dispensationalists also go to considerable lengths to repudiate the easy-believism and antinomianism so prevalent in the ranks of hardline dispensationalists. The most effective recent attack on the antinomianism of hardliners has come from the pen of one we might classify as a modified dispensationalist, John MacArthur. MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus, with its thesis that if anyone does not take up Christ’s cross and follow Him he has no true saving faith and will perish in the day of judgment, dropped like a bombshell upon the dispensational landscape, and the controversy it engendered has not yet died down.

In the fourth place are what may be termed one-people-of-God dispensationalists. These interpreters would assent to all five of the developments presented above. In the thinking of these dispensationalists the church not only makes application of but also actually participates in the promises made to God’s ancient people even if only in a preliminary way. To begin with, Israel and the church are distinct. But ultimately their destiny is one. One-people-of-God dispensationalists are very close in their thinking to that of historic premillennialists. But they still look for a millennium in which God will fulfill his promise to national ethnic Israel. God’s people are not truly one until the eternal state.

Because of the variety that exists among dispensationalists it is not always easy to identify a particular dispensationalist with one of the four categories delineated above. But our purpose has not been to enable the reader to make such a decision in each case. Rather, we have sought to present the two extremes (ultradispensationalism on one end and one-people-of-God dispensationalism on the other) and the various positions on a sliding scale between. The two extremes represent the greatest and the least consistency (within dispensationalism) in the extent to which the church/Israel distinction is applied. Between these extremes are varying degrees of consistency in the application of the principle. Hence, some dispensationalists may indeed take a mediating position between two of the four positions just described.

The preserving factor in the thinking of many dispensationalists is that basically they are evangelical. And the more dominant true evangelicalism becomes in such a person’s thinking, the more his dispensationalist principles will begin to give way. Blessed inconsistency!