I have been accused of being many things, both by those who agree with me and those who disagree. I’ve mentioned many of these labels on previous posts, so I won’t bring them up again except to say that I usually feel uncomfortable with labels of any kind. However, I don’t feel uncomfortable with this one, even though it’s often misunderstood.
I was fed Dispensationalism as a young Christian and even before my conversion. The churches I attended held to the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible (THE Bible of Dispensationalists) with nearly the same reverence that was held for the text itself. As I grew, I read widely from the Bible and other theological sources and though I questioned many of the details and much of the legalism, I still found myself in agreement with the basic tenets of Dispensationalism. I attended Dallas Theological Seminary, the bastion of Dispensationalism at the time and didn’t find myself in too much disagreement.
So why then do I like this label? And what is Dispensationalism anyway? There are many definitions given in various theological tomes, each disagreeing slightly or greatly with the others. So here’s my own brief definition: Dispensationalism is a system of Bible interpretation that takes into account the fact that God has dealt differently with different people down through biblical history.
Some basics of Dispensationalism, which I believe are clearly taught in the Bible:
• God has made different covenants (contracts) with different persons or nations, each having its own stipulations that applied to those persons or peoples and or their descendants: Noah (Genesis 9:8ff); Abraham (Genesis 17:1ff; Israel as a people (Exodus 19:3-6); David (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89; 2 Chronicles 7:18); a New Covenant with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31ff).
• Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenants with Abraham, Israel and David, as well as the One who has inaugurated the New Covenant (Luke 1:31-35; Galatians 3:13, 29; Luke 22:20).
• We who have faith in Christ are partakers in the New Covenant.
• God still has a plan for Israel as promised in His Covenants (Romans 11:1, 25-27).
• Things are going to get worse before they get better, culminating in a Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21) in which the Antichrist will rule (2 Thessalonians 2:7-10).
• Jesus’ promised Kingdom is still in the future.
• Jesus is coming back to reign on the earth.
For many years I taught Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies. Some of the first questions I taught my students to ask were the “Who?” questions – “Who is speaking?” and “To whom is he speaking?” In a sense Dispensationalism is simply answering those questions. As I often reminded my students, contrary to an old Gospel chorus, not ”every promise in the Book is mine.”
Dispensationalism is widely criticized, sometimes unjustly, but sometimes justly. Often those who criticize do so because it is in disagreement with their own tightly held position(s). Some criticize from ignorance of what it really is, or from some exaggeration of or misunderstanding of some particular detail (and love details).
If I may, I’d like as a Dispensationalists (an insider) to offer my own criticism of Dispensationalism:
• We sensationalize. Though we would be the first to deny “date-setting” – claiming to know exactly when Jesus will return – we still do set dates, with our reading of major events (especially in the Middle East) as “signs of His coming.” This has been going on for hundreds of years. I can vouch for the last ½ century (cf. Matthew 24:36).
• We misread the news. While I believe that it’s true that (as Karl Barth is alleged to have said) we should preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, it should not be simply to find some correlation between particular current events and our scheme of prophecy. We need rather to read so that we will be able to speak to the religious, moral and philosophical trends of our culture.
• We are inconsistent in our “political” reactions to events in our world. Our political views are often shaped more by our eschatology (Doctrine of Last Things) than by our ethics.
Dispensationalists often fear events, or acts of our government which are perceived as moving toward “globalization” – which if course sets things up for the coming Antichrist.
Dispensationalists believe (correctly) that the Bible foretells that the nation of Israel will be situated in their land in the last days. So, many are active in promoting politics that support Israel, no matter what that nation does.
I am not here attempting to debate political positions. What I am asserting is that our political positions should be determined from a biblical ethical viewpoint and not by our eschatology.
We don’t need to worry. We know God has a plan and He’s working it out. God doesn’t need our help in fulfilling prophecy. He has given us an assignment: “Go … and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). We’re not finished with that assignment yet.