When I heard “dispensational theology” for the first time, I had no idea what it meant and decided to investigate for myself.
What is dispensational theology? Dispensational theology is the idea that the Bible is organized into seven dispensations of God’s commands to his people and sometimes his judgment on their failure to obey them. They believe ina strong distinction between Israel and the Church. This view affects how people interpret the Old and New Testament.
It is important to understand this view before following it. We should take the time to learn what dispensational theology is and how it affects our worldview.
What is Dispensational Theology?
Dispensational theology is a system of understanding Scripture and is essentially the contrasting view to covenantal theology. Each view understands covenants throughout Scripture in a different way, and this has a profound effect on the interpretation of the Old and New Testament covenants and on their views of eschatology.
In this post we will be focusing mostly on dispensational theology, however, if you are also interested in covenant theology you can check out our post on that topic here.
View of Scripture
Dispensationalists view Scripture as the inerrant Word of God the same as many other Christians, however, the way that they interpret that Scripture is through what they would call “consistent-literal” hermeneutics.
Dispensationalists also believe that while the New Testament and Old Testament do work off each other and build on each other, the New Testament does not in any way redefine the Old Testament. They believe that it is one continuous story of covenants being fulfilled over time.
One of the key components of this interpretation is its emphasis on the nation of Israel. There is a huge distinction between Israel as a nation in the Old Testament and the New Testament Church.
How They Understand Biblical Covenants
Because of dispensationalists unique view on how the Old and New Testament fit together, they also have some unique views on how covenants work throughout the whole of scripture.
If God made a covenant with Israel, then the covenant needs to be fulfilled through Israel in the literal interpretation of that covenant. They believe that all aspects of the promise, all of the covenants throughout the Bible, will be fulfilled literally.
For example, they do not believe that Jesus can symbolically fulfill these covenants, especially those with the nation of Israel. They would say that the covenant has to be fulfilled through Israel itself (not Jesus) because it needs to be fulfilled through the group that God made the covenant with in the Old Testament.
They believe that all promises and covenants will be fulfilled in this way. That all of the prophetic literature and promises throughout the Old and New Testament will have a literal fulfillment in a day to come, not a symbolic one.
As a result of this belief, they also believe that Israel will one day be restored and will have a role to play when Jesus comes to rule the nations at the second coming, at which point Israel will turn to believe in Jesus who fulfills their expectations of the covenant literally at his return.
As I said before, dispensationalists view the church and Israel as two distinct things. For them, the church is God’s people but specifically a creation of the New Testament and nonexistent in previous dispensations.
Israel in this theology is responsible for bringing blessings to the world, and the church cannot fulfill this role because this role was given to Israel.
One final important belief to note is that they do not believe that many of the prophetic statements have been fulfilled at this time. They think that a lot of these covenants and prophetic promises have yet to be fulfilled.
This is a result, once again, of their belief that all prophetic literature, promises, and covenants will have a literal fulfillment, not a symbolic one, nullifying the symbolic fulfillment of these things through Jesus.
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.Romans 11:25-29
This passage is one of the Scriptures that dispensationalists use to prove the literal fulfillment of the covenants and promises God made with Israel. They claim that this shows that Israel and the Church are distinct and that as such, there will be a literal fulfillment through Israel of God’s promises.
Dispensationalists believe in seven dispensations of covenant in which God holds people accountable and judges them for their sins. They each follow a similar pattern of God’s provision for his people, their rebellion, his judgement, and then beginning again with a new provision to help his people even more.
First Dispensation: Innocence
The first dispensation known as Innocence is the span of history before the fall. During this time, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with full access to the presence of God. They were able to maintain this unless they disobeyed God’s one command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
However, they disobeyed and in this way acted in rebellion against God. The first dispensation’s end is marked by God’s judgment when he casts them both out of the garden and they no longer have full access to his presence.
Second Dispensation: Conscience
The second dispensation known as Conscience, spanned from the fall, until the time of Noah. During this dispensation, God held his people accountable to himself through their conscience.
However, this era was marked by sins such as the murder between Cain and Able, among others, and God exacted his judgment on them through the global flood.
Third Dispensation: Government
The third dispensation, known as Government, spanned from the time of Noah to the time of Abraham. During this time, God provided the government for his people to keep them accountable in addition to conscience. This was to help keep sins like hatred and vengeance from causing the same problems as before.
However, people continued to rebel and God sent his judgment through the confusion of tongues and the scattering of mankind at the Tower of Babel.
Fourth Dispensation: Promise
The fourth dispensation, known as the Promise, spanned from the time of Abraham until the time of Moses. During this dispensation, God makes a very important promise to Abraham that would be the centerpiece for God’s unfolding plan through the rest of history.
In this promise, God makes a covenant with Abraham saying that he will make him a great nation, bless him, and make his name great, so that he would be a blessing. He also promises that those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed and that all of the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham.
This promise would be largely fulfilled in Jesus Christ, however, this dispensation comes to an end with the judgment for Israel’s rebellion taking shape through their slavery to Egypt.
Fifth Dispensation: Need For A Savior
The fifth dispensation takes place from the time of Moses until the time of Christ and is known as the Mosaic Law. During this dispensation, God gives his people the law in order to provide better clarity and boundaries for sin, and also to reveal to his people the need for a Savior, Jesus Christ.
The judgement for this dispensation is yet to come. They will be judged at the tribulation for not believing in the Messiah when he came the first time, revealing their distinction from the Church.
Sixth Dispensation: Grace
The sixth dispensation, known as Grace, extends from the time of Christ, through the present, and until end times. In this dispensation, mankind is given the opportunity to repent of their sin, accept grace, and submit their lives to Jesus. This is the Church, the community of people who believe, separate from Israel.
It should be noted here that a person can be part of two dispensations in this case. Someone can be a biological descendent of Abraham, and be part of Israel’s Mosaic Law dispensation, and also a part of the Grace dispensation if they recognize Jesus as the Messiah and repent.
The judgment for this dispensation is also yet to come. During end times, the counterfeit church and all of the non-believers will be judged for their rebellion, while those who believe will be a part of the final dispensation, the Millennial Kingdom.
Seveth Dispensation: New Heaven and New Earth
In this final dispensation, all of the believers are able to be a part of the Millennial Kingdom. Here, people are to obey Jesus as he reigns on earth, ending with the White Throne Judgement, after which, those loyal to Jesus will become part of the “new heaven and new earth.”
These seven dispensations build on each other to create a continuous story. Within this story, the covenants that God makes are to be fulfilled within the context of that dispensation, and through the people whom God made the covenant with. This provides the grounds for their understanding of the timing of the rapture, especially considering the last three dispensations.
Most dispensationalists believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. Again, based on their more literal interpretation of Scripture, they believe that the church and Israel are distinct entities and therefore, the church will be exempt from the tribulation through a physical rescue from the tribulation.
Not all dispensationalists hold this view but it is the predominant belief of many dispensationalists.
Views on Dispensational Theology
There are essentially only two views on dispensational theology, those who support it, and those who don’t. Those who don’t would instead believe in a covenantal theology.
For Dispensational Theology
Those for dispensational theology essentially focus on a more literalistic interpretation of Scripture. Their beliefs are marked by a distinction between Israel and the Church, distinction between covenants throughout the Bible, continuous understanding of the Old and New Testament, and a generally pre-tribulation view on end times.
They believe that all of God’s promises, and all of the prophetic literature, will have a literal fulfillment, not a symbolic one (as through Jesus Christ).
This is where most of the theology about the distinction between the church and Israel comes from.
Against Dispensational Theology – Covenantal Theology
Those against dispensational theology generally fall into covenantal theology. Covenantal theology argues that there are essentially two major covenants, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of works. All the other covenants fall into one of those two camps.
They do believe that the Church is a new form of God’s people and that promises are fulfilled through the life of Jesus. They also believe that the New Testament reveals a new revelation of God’s plan, as part of the mystery of the kingdom which was initially hidden from Israel’s understanding.
The New Testament is a new revelation or understanding of what the Old Testament communicated.
As for Israel and the Church, they believe that both are God’s people, and, while distinct forms of that, the Church is an expansion of Israel, they do not remain separate entities as the people of God.
The church is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless everyone through him. Jesus, a descendent of Abraham, makes the ability to become part of God’s people, available to everyone.
Origins and History
Dispensationalism came about in the early 1800s through John Nelson Darby. Darby grew up in London but later moved to Ireland to go to Trinity College in Dublin.
Darby was very successful in college, won the Classics Prize, and later went on to help translate the Bible into other languages including German, Dutch, and French. He also founded the Plymouth Brethren Church.
His most notable achievement however, is his development of dispensationalism. He developed the four main points that drove the method and is considered the father of dispensationalism.
It was moderately successful at the time but picked up speed going into the nineteen hundreds. This was likely helped along with the growth of Bible Institutes such as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and also prophesy conventions which cropped up during this time.
Another contributor was the publishing of the Scofield Reference Bible which organized the Bible into the seven dispensations and used that hermeneutical perspective in its interpretation.
Why Is Dispensational Theology Important to Understand?
It is important to understand dispensational theology because we don’t want to blindly follow something without understanding it. Regardless of whether you take a dispensational theology perspective, or a covenantal theology perspective, taking the time to understand what you believe and why is essential.
Instead of following one or the other blindly, or because someone else says it’s correct, it is important to take the time to truly understand it, be in the Word, and discern what the Bible says.
Don’t allow your emotions to dictate your theology but allow yourself time to process through good hermeneutics, what the Scripture is saying.
It is also important to be able to recognize when one or the other is being taught. If you don’t understand the basis for this view, you won’t realize when it is being taught.
By taking the time to understand this, you will be better able to discern what you believe to be good teaching.
So take the time to understand these two views of theology. Don’t follow others blindly, expecting them to make the right decisions for you. Be in the Word, and pray for discernment from the Lord to know what is true, and then pursue that truth in your life.