I got a little annoyed by a Babylon Bee article last week – not a lot, just a little. I get a little annoyed whenever people take cheap shots at Dispensationalism. And it happens a lot.
I realize that we are fair game. The spirit of the age is that Dispensationalism is a relic of our past, that we’ve evolved past such a view, that it is for rubes and rednecks, but that no serious student of the Bible would actually hold such a doctrine today. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone share how they used to be one of those dispensationalists, but then they “studied the Bible for themselves” and had seen the light and left such foolish things behind.
Here’s what annoys me – besides the disrespect and condescension constantly shown for a doctrine held by sincere Christians. It is that the criticisms are so often aimed at things that Dispensationalists, at least more scholarly and grounded Dispensationalists, don’t actually teach. I am more than aware that my camp has more than its fair share of wingnuts and wackadoodles, but Dispensationalism may be the only doctrine that people seem to think they have refuted simply by refuting the abuses of the doctrine.
Calvinists recoil when they are accused of “being against evangelism.” I’ve actually met Calvinists who thought evangelism was useless – why bother, they ask, when God has already settled it? But they are not the norm in Calvinism. Catholicism does not teach the worship of Mary and yet many Catholics, especially in third world countries, are more devoted to Mary than to her Son. I’m not wanting to open theological cans of worms, but to point out that most theological movements have been twisted, and we must deal with what the doctrine teaches in its purest form, not simply refute the twistings and the perversions.
Three Types of Dispensationalism
Actually, Dispensationalism has been through many forms. While the haters love to point out that it is a relatively recent innovation as a theological system, many of its key components can be traced back much earlier. Even after the organization of the doctrine there have been several iterations. C.I. Scofield is famous for his notes in the Scofield Study Bible, but when I attended Dallas Seminary in the 70s, Scofield Bibles were rarer than college degrees among SEC football players. In Bible study classes, we were forbidden from using them and heaven help the man who footnoted Scofield! The classic Dispensationalism of Walvoord, Ryrie, and Pentecost drew on but also rejected much of Scofield’s teaching. Today, progressive Dispensationalism has staked out a moderated position. Dispensationalism is hardly a monolithic view, any more than Calvinism or even the Baptist faith is. But I’m not talking about theological differentiations here. I’m talking about something more practical.
- There is populist Dispensationalism.
This is what you encountered in your church growing up and what many react to when they reject the doctrine. It views other eschatological systems not only as wrong but as evidence of theological drift. “If you ain’t pre-trib, you must be pre-Lib!” It tends to engage in reading back events into the Bible, is completely focused on Israel, and can be just as annoying as people admit.
I would caution, though, that you sheath your swords a little. I grew up around populist dispensationalists. They are loyal, Bible-loving, gospel-proclaiming Christians. Even if they are a bit annoying at times, they don’t deserve to be treated as if they are the crazy uncles of the church at the Thanksgiving dinner. They are the redeemed of Christ and perhaps they show imbalance and morbid fascination with end-times, but they are salt of the earth Christians.
- There is sensationalistic Dispensationalism.
The first was the fruit; this is the root. I remember the first Rapture fiction of the 60s and 70s. “Thief in the Night” (I have a friend who was in that). The books of Hal Lindsay and Salem Kirban. Of course, the “Left Behind” series of the 90s put sensationalistic Dispensationalism (or at least the pre-trib aspect of it) on the front pages. There were many radio and TV preachers like Jack and Rexella who saw prophetic portent in every headline.
Some of these were good men and women who got a little bit out of balance in their focus on the end times. Some, I’m convinced, are charlatans who saw the opportunity to cash in on the public’s fascination with populist eschatology.
Here’s the problem: when we studied eschatology at Dallas, a good part of our study was correcting misconceptions about what we believed as Dispensationalists.
We do not believe a lot of things people assume that we believe, because their exposure to Dispensationalism comes primarily from sensationalistic preachers and populist church members and Sunday School teachers.
- There is scholarly Dispensationalism.
I had a friend who was charismatic and a scholar, a Ph.D. His preferred Bible version was Nestle Aland. We used to joke about the oxymoron of “Charismatic scholar.” The same conundrum exists for many concerning dispensational doctrine. The assumption is that it is a foolish and childish doctrine for those who have not been enlightened. If you study and reach a level of maturity, you will abandon this foolishness.
But there exists a scholarly Dispensationalism carried on by serious scholars. Mecca for this academic view is Dallas Seminary, of course, but it is not the only place. I studied there under brilliant men who were true scholars of God’s word and did not abandon this doctrine when they achieved their degrees.
If you are going to refute Dispensationalism, you need to refute academic dispensationalism, not just demean Jack and Rexella or reject the populist versions you have encountered. You need to read Pentecosts’ “Things to Come” to ground yourself in Classic Dispensationalism, then read some of the Progressive Dispensationalists to see how the doctrine has developed.
But now, to my point. I’d like to share some things that we Dispensationalists DON’T actually believe. If you believe we believe these things, you’ve been getting your viewpoint from the sensationalists or the populists.
Things Dispensationalists Do Not Actually Believe
- The church should be all about Israel.
Of course, Israel has a special place in any Christian’s heart, but the populist and sensationalist Dispensationalist would tell us that we must support Israel no matter what they do, and almost give the idea that it is noble and godly to despise Arabs.
I remember a professor in seminary confronting that view. We believe we live in the “church age.” In the future, after the church is taken away, Israel will be restored as the primary people of God. But today, our orders are to go into ALL the world and preach the gospel. Yes, Israel is sacred ground. Frankly, I love it and would live there if I could.
But Jesus died for Palestinian refugees as much as he died for Jews in Jerusalem. Today, God is calling out a people for his Son from every tribe and language on earth and there is no preference for Jews. Read Romans 2 and 11.
The mistake populists and sensationalists make is confusing the future with the present. Yes, we believe that Israel – the physical nation – is in God’s future. We reject replacement theology. The church may be “spiritual Israel” but the promises God made to physical Israel will be given to them in the future.
Dispensationalism does not demand a virulent or unthinking pro-Israel or anti-Arab stance. If you meet a Dispensationalist, he will likely be pro-Israel. But if he is a careful Dispensationalist, he will balance that with the realization that he is commanded to make disciples among Muslims as well; that the gospel reaches all nations.
- Every event in the news is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Actually, we believe that is not true. Jesus could come back for the church at any moment – NOTHING has to happen first. The “signs of the times” that are predicted take place during the Tribulation. Are there things that are happening today that are interesting in terms of end times prophecy? To me, yes. But there’s not a single event today that is a direct fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Dispensationalists teach that the next event on God’s calendar is the sounding of the trumpet! Nothing has to take place between now and then.
As my dad used to say, “We are not looking for signs, we are listening for the Son.”
- Dispensationalists do not obsess about eschatology.
At Dallas, eschatology was a part of the systematic theology curriculum. Instead of one semester, you had four years of systematic theology, starting with Theology Proper your first year and going right through the major theological categories. Eschatology was one class in that 4 year track. And, of course, eschatology provided a framework for hermeneutics and study in other classes. But in my time at Dallas, we spent little time discussing eschatology.
The populists and sensationalists turn it into an obsession and everyone assumes that such is the norm. It is not. It is a theological and hermeneutical framework, but honestly, I think you could listen to my 11 years of preaching at Southern Hills and my Dispensationalist views would be in evidence only sometimes.
- Dispensationalists do not doubt the salvation of non-Dispensationalists.
Yes, I’ve heard it done. But it is not a view held by serious Dispensationalists. If someone in the church you grew up in claimed Amillennialists were liberals and probably hated Jesus and puppies, I can’t do anything about that, but be assured that is not the teaching of the scholarly version of Dispensationalism.
Do we believe our view is correct? Yes. Do we believe non-Dispensationalists make interpretational errors that cause them to make false conclusions in exegesis? Yes. But we do not question their faith, their love for Jesus, or the reality of their conversion.
What Do We Believe?
This is getting long, so let me just give a few categories of what we actually do thing matters.
- Revelation is futurist, not preterist.
We reject the arguments that Revelation is typically apocalyptic literature meant to describe the events of John’s day and believe it is futurist. This we hold in common with some other views.
- “Literal” hermeneutics are key.
Literal is probably not the best word, but it is the common one. We believe that a thousand years refers to a thousand years. We believe the 7 years is an actual 7 years. We accept that there are figures of speech in the Bible (no, Dispensationalists are not all idiots) but we think they should be taken in their most natural and plain meaning. It would take another post to argue this, of course. But the chief difference between eschatological views is actually hermeneutical.
- The distinction of Israel and the Church.
This is where Progressive Dispensationalism has done some interesting work, but we reject the idea that the promises of God to Abraham were taken from Israel and given to the church. We rely on Romans 11 which says that Israel was removed but will be re-grafted in after the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
- Salvation never changes, but its expression does.
This is way too complicated for a brief summary. But even those who reject Dispensationalism realize that things worked differently under the Law than they did after Pentecost. One is saved today by repenting of sins and putting faith in Jesus Christ. How did someone “get saved” in the Old Testament era? We have a lot of easy rubrics. “By looking forward to the death of Christ, just as we look back on it.” But is there evidence that anyone really understood that enough to have a conversion experience. Dispensationalism is a way of categorizing the changing expressions of faith during different epochs of God’s salvation history.
I’m not sure exactly what I’d like to accomplish with this post. I’d encourage some of my friends to understand that even those populist Dispensationalists are good people who love your Savior. Disrespect and disdain may feel good, but they are not helpful. On the other hand, if you are going to refute Dispensationalism, refute what we actually believe. Tearing down the teaching of the sensationalistic and obsessive Dispensationalists may be satisfying, but it is not sufficient.
You have to deal with what we really believe.
(Folks, the most devastating argument for my view is this – we have the best charts and graphs. If Amils can come up with a decent chart, I might give their view some credence. Show me the charts, guys!)