On Dispensationalism

by Mark Sarver

Millennial Views Prior to the Rise of Dispensationalism


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.

PurposePeoplesPromisesSet up earthly, national theocracyIsrael earthlyLiteralSpiritual redemptionChurch heavenlySpiritual

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.


The Genesis and Development of Dispensationalism in Nineteenth-Century England

The Millenarian Revival

As the advent of the nineteenth century drew near, there was a great revival of prophetic concern. With the French Revolution came a violent uprooting of European political and social institutions, leading many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near. These events seemed to almost all students of apocalyptic literature to be the fulfillment of the end of the predicted 1260 days (years). With the rise of Napoleon came the destruction of papal power in France, especially when, in 1798 the French troops under Berthier marched on Rome, set up a republic, and banished the pope. Apocalyptic interpreters were quick to see in this event the ‘deadly wound’ received by the papacy explicitly described and dated in Revelation 13. Ernest Sandeen graphically portrays the result:

The identification of the events of the 1790’s with those prophesied in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 provided biblical commentators with a prophetic Rosetta stone. At last a key had been found with which to crack the code. There could now be general agreement upon one fixed point of correlation between prophecy and history. After 1799, in Egyptology as in prophecy, it seemed as though there were no limits to the possibility of discovery.10

None were so quick to make use of these events in prophetic interpretation as the premillennialists. As one examines the vast array of prophetic studies that were prompted by these events, one cannot escape the conclusion that a new and passionate interest in interpreting the prophetic Scriptures had burst upon the scene. These men were absolutely convinced that the return of Christ would certainly take place during the nineteenth century and that the millennium was about to appear.

This prophetic revival was joined to a renewal of interest in the condition of the Jews. Instrumental in the cause to bring Christianity to the Jews was Lewis Way. His interest in this cause was aroused when, in about 1811 while visiting Devonshire, he was told of a grove of trees concerning which the owner had left a will stipulating that ‘these oaks shall remain standing, and the hand of man shall not be raised against them till Israel returns and is restored to the Land of Promise.’ This stimulated Way to an intense investigation of the ancient prophecies regarding the restoration of the Jews and a search for any agencies devoted to reaching the Jews. He soon discovered the existence of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (L.S.P.C.J., founded in 1809).

Financially strapped as they were, Way was soon greatly ingratiated to them when he settled the obligations of the society at a cost of over twelve thousand pounds11. In 1816 Way published his Letters, which stressed the connection between the return of the Jews to Palestine and their national conversion just prior to the return of Christ. Puritan postmillennialists had looked eagerly for the salvation of the Jews according to Romans 11, but here was something very different. This new stress on the Jews was accompanied by a far greater literalism in the interpretation of Old Testament prophecies. The most important element of this literalism was insistence that when the prophets spoke predictively of Israel, they meant Israel and not the church. Thus the footings were poured for what would become one of the great pillars of dispensationalism.

This renewed interest in the conversion of the Jews is listed by Ian Rennie12 as one of the ‘signs’ that premillennialists considered be an indication of the nearness of the second coming. Though conversions were not large in number, the mood of anticipation that was born as a result of the endeavors of the L.S.P.C.J. and of its publications was enough. A second sign was the preaching of the gospel throughout the world, especially with the emergence of the modern missionary movement. Third, there were increasing signs of apostasy in the church, not only in the apostasy of Rome, but also in the rationalism of leading Protestant thinkers in Europe. The Restorationist Movement, with its concern for the rediscovery of New Testament patterns of church life, was a fourth sign of the times. Primarily, this found expression in Plymouth Brethrenism and the charismatic Catholic Apostolic Church. Fifth, the sense of societal upheaval in the post-Napoleonic World, with the Peterloo massacre, the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the never-ending eruptions in Ireland, and over in Europe the events leading to the Revolution of 1830 were more evidence to many that the ‘Lord was at the door.’13

Edward Irving

No figure in the early part of the nineteenth century illustrates the exuberant excitement and interest in prophecy more than Edward Irving. In his meteoric career both the attractions and weaknesses of the millennial movement are magnified. Irving’s first recommendation to the public came when he was accorded the opportunity to minister as an assistant to the great Thomas Chalmers, the most celebrated preacher in the whole of Scotland. In his fascinating biography of Irving, Arnold Dallimore gives this striking comparison of the two men:

Chalmers was the Christian statesman. Though his heart was ever evangelically warm, his mind was often absorbed with the problems of applying Christianity on a nationwide scale, and he could appear occupied and reserved. Irving, however, was uninhibited and open, and his nature had in it much that was childlike and uncomplicated.

Chalmers’ natural bent was for the solid, steady, well-proved things of life, whereas Irving had a flair for the spectacular, the sensational, and that which provoked excitement.

The older man was calm and cautious and came to decisions only after careful consideration. But Irving was often moved by impulse and soaring imagination and high idealism that could overrule for him the dictates of logic and reason.

Chalmers was also highly perceptive in his assessments of men. In that regard Irving was markedly different, for in the openness and generosity of his nature he could readily give ear to those who seemed likely to satisfy his penchant for things spectacular and exciting.14

It is not difficult to understand, then, why this relationship did not continue long. Chalmers was frequently concerned that Irving might do or say something erratic, and Irving did not like standing in Chalmers’ shadow. His mind was teeming with ideas, his brilliance as an orator demanded a broader scope for its expression, and his free spirit yearned for an opportunity to give vent to itself. This opportunity came when the Chalcedonian Chapel in London extended him a call to become their minister. After his arrival in London in 1822, his eloquence made him an overnight sensation; and his chapel was crowded every Sunday with the highborn and influential.

One such man of influence was Samuel Coleridge. Through his friendship with Coleridge, Irving became persuaded of a new and erroneous view of the person of Christ (later Irving was tried for heresy for preaching about the ‘sinful flesh’ of Christ). Coleridge also influenced Irving to reverse his eschatalogical expectations. Irving had taken it for granted that the world was moving towards greater gospel triumphs an era of universal blessing. But Coleridge convinced Irving that the world was only growing worse and that it was headed for judgment. Thirdly, Coleridge propounded a strange view of the preacher, that, in performing his work, he was virtually ‘the voice of the Holy Spirit.’ Irving’s preaching immediately changed. His sermons began to be filled with descriptions of the impending and terrible judgment, and yet the possibility of a new, direct, and powerful working of the Holy Spirit.

Caught up in the ferment of prophetic studies, Irving readily became the disciple of another man. James Hatley Frere, in 1825, led Irving into the premillennial fold. While Coleridge’s views of the future were based upon his assessment of world conditions, Frere’s were the product of his interpretation of Daniel and Revelation. In a letter to Frere, Irving related the manner in which he received Frere’s instruction:

I had no rest in my spirit until I waited upon you and offered myself as your pupil, to be instructed in prophecy according to your ideas thereof. . . . I am not willing that any should account of me as if I were worthy to have revealed to me the important truths . . . only the Lord accounted me worthy to receive the faith of these things which He first made known to you.15

Moved by these things now ‘revealed’ to him, Irving’s imaginative oratory, coupled with a readiness to state his views with dogmatic certainty, gave vent to itself in dramatic discourses on the ‘beasts,’ the ‘heads,’ or the ‘horns’ in Daniel and on similar symbolic themes found in the book of Revelation. For the next four years Irving poured his torrential abilities into the premillennial movement. As one historian put it, ‘Prophecy became the heart and soul of his ministry.’16

During this period (in 1826) Irving discovered a book written by a Chilean Jesuit, Manuel Lacunza: The Coming of Christ in Glory and Majesty (ca. 1791). In an amazingly short time, Irving learned Spanish and thereupon translated and published the book, along with a 203-page preface in which he set forth his own prophetic ideas as clearly as ever. As concerns the developments leading up to the emergence of dispensationalism, the primary significance of Lacunza’s work lay in its futurism with reference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation (not only regarding the millennium of chapter 20 but also the tribulation of chapters 6 to 19). Irving’s contribution to the subject was his discussion of the charismatic outpouring he expected to occur just prior to the Lord’s return a ‘latter rain.’

During November of this same year, Henry Drummond, moved by Irving’s zeal for prophecy, announced a conference to be held at his magnificent country estate, Albury Park. Repeated in 1827 and 1828, the Albury Conferences brought together almost every British millenarian scholar of note and, more than any other vehicle, gave structure to the British millenarian revival. In addition to Drummond and Irving, some of the most noted participants were Lewis Way, William Cuninghame and James Hatley Frere. In 1829 Drummond summarized the conclusions reached and agreed upon by all participants of the conferences.

  1. This ‘dispensation’ or age will not end ‘insensibly’ but cataclysmically in the judgment and destruction of the church in the same manner in which the Jewish dispensation ended.
  2. The Jews will be restored to Palestine during the time of judgment.
  3. The judgment to come will fall principally upon Christendom.
  4. When the judgment is past, the millennium will begin.
  5. The second advent of Christ will occur before the millennium.
  6. The 1260 years of Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 ought to be measured from the reign of Justinian to the French Revolution. The vials of wrath (Revelation 16) are now being poured out and the second advent is imminent.17

Though it is evident from the last point that historicist interpretation had not yet been finally shed, other portions of this millennial platform were marked by a tendency toward a futuristic interpretation of what later (in full blown dispensationalism) were identified as events of the ‘Great Tribulation.’ Also, Israel was accorded distinct attention in the prophetic timetable, though not (as in Darby’s more developed scheme) after the church is taken out of the way.

Another event during the time of Irving’s fame that was to contribute to the rise of dispensationalism was the outburst of the gifts of tongues, prophecy and healings in Scotland and then in London. In May of 1828 Irving, having long felt a burden to warn the people from his home country of the terrible judgment soon to overtake mankind, set out on a preaching tour of Scotland. On that trip he met A. J. Scott, a man whose views concerning the gifts greatly influenced Irving. Whereas Irving had believed that the miraculous apostolic gifts would be restored in the end times, Scott asserted that they had never been withdrawn and that they were still just as much available as they had been during the New Testament era.

Several incidents before and after this visit seemed to confirm Scott’s teaching. Two or three years earlier, Isabella Campbell, a young woman ill with the tuberculosis that took her life, Isabella Campbell, spontaneously burst forth in ecstatic speech in communion with God. After her death, her sister Mary began to look for the gifts of tongues and prophesy in order to equip her to do missionary work. In March of 1830 she spoke in tongues, and soon was added the gift of ‘automatic writing’ (writing in strange characters with amazing speed while in a trance-like condition). News of these things spread like wildfire. And others also received the gift. A few miles from the Campbell home in Gare Loch, in the town of Port Glasgow lived the Macdonald family. The influence of Scott and Irving, and of another, Mcleod Campbell, had stirred up their expectations for the gifts as well. Margaret Macdonald was reportedly healed upon the command of her brother James. But before this took place, according to her narrative, she had lengthy visions of the end times.

A record of these visions is given in Dave MacPherson’s, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin.18 The meaning of her recorded visions is at many points difficult to decipher because of the meandering style of her descriptions, but she seems to speak of a secret coming of the Lord for the saints that cannot be seen by the natural eye. She then speaks of the appearance of ‘THE WICKED’ (one individual) ‘with all power and signs and lying wonders, so that if it were possible the very elect will be deceived.’ It is difficult to determine whether this one is to appear before or after the Lord comes for His own. Therefore it seems that MacPherson’s thesis that this is the origin of the pre-trib rapture theory is surrounded by questions.

He records a letter written by Francis Sitwell to his sister Mary in which Sitwell says he writes ‘. . . because the time of the world’s doom draweth nigh . . . because the time of the sealing is come . . . because there is no safety where you are, because you cannot be sealed where you are, it is because if you are not sealed you must be left in tribulations, while those who have obeyed His voice shall be caught up to meet Him.’19 MacPherson deduces from this letter that Sitwell wrote under the influence of Margaret Macdonald. But the letter was written in 1834 and by then the Powerscourt Conferences had occurred (1831 and 1833) at which the doctrine of the secret rapture had been given a considerable measure of acceptance. It is true that Irving was present at these conferences and may have passed on impressions received from the Macdonald visions, but it is also true that it was J. N. Darby who introduced this topic into the discussions.

However, this is not the only theory that associates the beginning of the secret rapture theory with the charismatic revival of the early nineteenth century. In September of 1830 a party of Londoners was sent to examine the Gare Lock phenomena for themselves, and upon receiving their positive report, a number of people in Irving’s church began praying for the same. In April of 1831 the answer came, when Mrs. J. B. Cardale ‘spoke in tongues.’ Soon others were the ‘gifted ones.’ S. P. Tregelles, known for his scholarship in the history of the Greek text, and one of the early leaders in the Brethren movement, tells us in The Hope of Christ’s Second Coming (1864) that a secret coming of Christ had its origin in an ‘utterance’ in Irving’s church. He writes:

I am not aware that there was any definite teaching that there should be a Secret Rapture of the Church at a secret meeting coming until this was given forth as an ‘utterance’ in Mr. Irving’s church from what was then received as being the voice of the Spirit. But whether anyone ever asserted such a thing or not it was from that supposed revelation that the modern doctrine and the modern phraseology respecting it arose.20

We have seen that either through Edward Irving or his associates at the Albury Conferences there was:

  1. a move toward futurism
  2. increased prominence given to Israel in the prophetic timetable, and
  3. an expectation of charismatic gifts at the end time.

The first two of these were developments towards dispensationalism. It is also likely that a third feature began to make its appearance (later to emerge in fully systematized dispensationalism): the introduction of the pre-tribulation rapture through one or another ‘utterance’ when the supposed ‘gifts’ were received in Scotland and in London.

Another extraordinary pronouncement made by one of those attending upon Irving’s ministry, Robert Baxter, while ‘under the power,’ further contributed to the futurist movement. ‘Count the days,’ he proclaimed, ‘one thousand three score and two hundred 1260 the days appointed for a testimony, at the end of which the saints of the Lord should go up to meet the Lord in the air.’21 It was January 14, 1832 when this pronouncement was made, and so he was setting the date of Christ’s coming as June 27, 1835. Repeated on other occasions, this prophecy was accepted as being approximate only. Of course, their expectation did not materialize. But it is important for us to note in this prediction the concept of the 1260 days in Revelation standing for 1260 days, not years.

This reversal from the historicist position to the futurist position is also found in another pamphlet of the same period: An Enquiry into the Grounds on which the Prophetic Period of Daniel and St. John Has Been Supposed to Consist of 1260 Years, by S. R. Maitland (1826). This attack on the year-day theory of the historical interpreters launched a ‘paper war’ with the historicists which lasted many years. Yet, with Maitland, as well as with those who continued to defend futurism (e.g., James H. Todd and William Burgh), pre-tribulationism was not part of their system.

John Nelson Darby

Though there were scattered developments towards dispensationalism during the time of Irving’s prominence, it was J. N. Darby who was to synthesize and systematize what came to be known as dispensationalism. Whereas the Catholic Apostolic Church which emerged from Irving’s ministry gradually played less and less of a role among millenarians, the Plymouth Brethren, for a time at least, virtually captured the movement. Though not its founder, Darby soon came to dominate the movement.

Like Irving, Darby was a man full of contrasts and even contradictions. Clarence Bass’ estimate of his character clearly draws this out:

The single motivation of Darby’s entire life was his love for Christ. . . . At the same time, this love for Christ caused him to strike relentlessly against any, even close friends, whom he thought to be subverting the truth of Christ’s gospel. . . . Simple in taste, benevolent in disposition, kind in temperament, considerate in his awareness of others, humble in spirit, sympathetic in nature, he was at the same time ruthless in controversy, belligerent to those who opposed him, jealous of his position of authority, and exacting in his demands.22

Though Darby was interested in prophecy from the start, his first tract upon entering the Brethren movement was ‘The Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ’ (1829), a powerful attack upon the deadness and formalism of the existing organized church and ordained ministry. Our concern, however, is to trace out the prophetic views propounded by Darby that soon came to take dispensationalist form. Of crucial significance were the Powerscourt Conferences, which first met in Dublin in 1831. Though Edward Irving seems to have visited and Robert Daly was chairman, the real creative force behind the conference was Darby. In this first conference there was a general acceptance of the literal-day theory (implying the rejection of historicism and reception of futurism) as well as the secret rapture theory. Whether or not this last named theory was merely passed on from the Irvingites (as seems probable from the statement of Tregelles cited on p. ), or now propounded for the first time is difficult to ascertain with absolute certainty. Whatever the case, the doctrine was now nailed down.

At the 1833 Powerscourt Conference, Darby continued his attack upon the apostasy of the churches and stressed the need for true believers to gather in the name of the Lord alone. More significantly, he then presented his view of the church as a parenthesis in the prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel. It was over this issue and over the issue of the rapture of the church prior to the Tribulation that conflict began to develop between Darby and another leader in the Brethren movement, Benjamin W. Newton. Newton refused to attend the 1834 conference and instead organized a competing conference at Plymouth, an act Darby regarded as schismatic.

It was not, however, until Darby began to make periodic visits to Switzerland for seven years beginning in 1838 that he began to synthesize his views more completely. During 1840 he delivered a series of eleven lectures at Lausanne, giving systematic exposition of his theology for the first time.

When Darby returned to England in 1845, he went to Plymouth where Newton had continued to minister since the inception of that particular group. The inevitable and bitter strife that ensued replaced the harmony that had once characterized the Plymouth group. Darby accused Newton of attempting to dominate the meeting, refusing to co-operate with other leaders, refusing to allow other leaders to challenge his teaching, and other such ecclesiastic transgressions. Later he added the charge of heresy in respect to the doctrine of Christ, and Newton retracted those things which were in error in his former statements. This did not satisfy Darby, however, and after Newton left, Darby began to excommunicate not only individuals but whole churches that maintained any fellowship with Newton and even those who fellowshipped with them.

It is important to note, however, that the initial rupture between Darby and Newton came over the issue concerning the status of the church during the Great Tribulation. Darby taught that the church was to be raptured and that the witness during the Tribulation would be carried on by a semi-Christian group that was not a part of the church. None of the events after the first few chapters in the book of Revelation had yet occurred nor could they be expected to occur until the rapture took place. Newton, on the other hand, believed that the persecuted ‘faithful’ were simply members of the church which would go through the Tribulation.

It must be emphasized that the crux of the debates that took place over the rapture was a more fundamental issue: the relationship between Old and New Testament saints. Darby made a radical separation between the two groups of saints, positing that the church (Pentecost to rapture) has a special glory and that the Old Testament saints had an inferior relationship to God. In his system, the difference between these groups was vertical (distinguishing heavenly and earthly peoples), not horizontal (portraying the historical and typological relationship between promise and fulfillment). Newton maintained that the Old Testament saints were an integral part of the church and shared in the same glory of post-Pentecostal saints.

It would not be accurate, however, to say that Darby’s views concerning a dichotomy between Old and New Testament saints were merely the result of his heated controversy with Newton. In Darby’s own thinking it seems that his view of this matter crystallized in the midst of a dual quest for personal and ecclesiastical purity. According to his own testimony, radical transition or ‘deliverance’ occurred during a time when he was laid up due to a leg injury:

When I came to understand that I was united to Christ in heaven [Eph. 2:6], and that, consequently, my place before God was represented by His own, I was forced to the conclusion that it was no longer a question with God of this wretched ‘I’ which had wearied me during six or seven years, in presence of the requirements of the law.23

Thus Darby came to lay hold of that righteousness which is apart from the law and is only to be found in Christ (Phil. 3:9). This dramatic discovery concerning personal holiness was accompanied by a new view of the church and of corporate purity:

It then became clear to me that the church of God, as His considers it, was composed only of those who were so united to Christ [Eph. 2:6], whereas Christendom, as seen externally, was really the world, and could not be considered as the ‘church.’24

The true church, according to Darby’s thinking, because it is united to Christ, is heavenly. It has nothing to do with the corrupt ecclesiastical system called the ‘church.’ Likewise, because of its union with Christ, its present and future heavenly glory has nothing to do with the earthly lot of Israel. Darby writes: ‘The consciousness of my union with Christ had given me the present heavenly portion of my glory, whereas this chapter [Isa. 32] clearly sets forth the corresponding earthly part.’25

It was Darby’s doctrine of the church that became the catalyst for the rest of his system. Looking about upon the ecclesiastical scene of his day, Darby declared that the church is in ruins, so much so that it is diametrically opposed to the purpose for which it was instituted. Why? It is because the church, as a dispensation has failed and must suffer the judgment of God, just as has happened in every other dispensation. His hope for the church was that, like Israel, a remnant might be saved. Any attempt to repair the church was doomed to failure, since it is in ruins and it is not God’s will that it be restored. Rather, believers are to forsake the existing church and assemble in the name of Christ. It is the Brethren who now have the Holy Spirit as one body and who are now the true representatives of Christ’s body on earth.

The church, according to Darby, did not come into existence until Pentecost. Even from the beginning it was never composed of ‘natural branches’ (as were the Jews). Moreover, the church was not even revealed in the Old Testament. Israel had been an earthly kingdom with material promises and blessings. Christ came to fulfill the promises and ideals of that earthly kingdom but was rejected by His people. When that happened, God stopped the prophetic clock and instituted the church. Not until the rapture of the church will this clock start again, at which time God again will resume His purposes for His earthly people, Israel. Because the church, as the body of Christ, is heavenly, it must be raptured out of the earth in order that God’s earthly program with Israel might be resumed. The fulfillment of God’s promises to His earthly people must be in literal terms their calling and nature are earthly, their promises are earthly, and therefore the fulfillment must be with the literalism that accords with the earthly nature of the people and promises.

Therefore, the establishment of the millennial Kingdom is the hope of Israel. All of God’s actions with Israel have been directed towards that Kingdom. The nation will then occupy the land, the temple will be rebuilt (Ezek. 40-42), the sacrifices will be reinstituted (Ezek. 43, 44, 46), Christ will sit on David’s throne, the nations shall acknowledge Israel to be the favored people of God, and Israel shall recognize Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Once again the gospel of the Kingdom (first proclaimed in the Gospels) will be preached; only this time Israel shall believe it. All of this will happen in fulfillment of the covenants God has made with His people, especially His unconditional covenant made with Abraham.26

This bifurcation between Israel and the church in Darby’s theology goes hand in hand with his dichotomous approach to hermeneutics. Many dispensationalists go to great lengths to emphasize that literal interpretation lies at the foundation of their system. But one does not have to read far to discover that dispensationalists employ literal hermeneutics inconsistently. It is their Israel/church dichotomy that lies at the root of their literalistic hermeneutics and not vice versa. The following quotations from Darby’s Writings illustrate the point:

First, in prophecy, when the Jewish church or nation (exclusive of the Gentile parenthesis in their history) is concerned, i.e., when the address is directed to the Jews, there we may look for a plain and direct testimony, because earthly things were the Jews’ proper portion. And, on the contrary, where the address is to the Gentiles, i.e., when the Gentiles are concerned in it, there we may look for symbol, because earthly things were not their portion, and the system of revelation must to them be symbolical. When therefore facts are addressed to the Jewish church as a subsisting body, as to what concerns themselves, I look for a plain, common sense, literal statement, as to a people with whom God had direct dealing upon earth.27

Prophecy applies itself properly to the earth; its object is not heaven. It was about things that were to happen on the earth; and not seeing this has misled the church. We have thought that we ourselves had within us the accomplishment of these earthly blessings, whereas we are called to enjoy heavenly blessings. The privilege of the church is to have its portion in the heavenly places; and later blessings will be shed forth upon the earthly people. The church is something altogether apart a kind of heavenly economy, during the rejection of the earthy people, who are put aside on account of their sins, and driven out among the nations, out of the midst of which nations God chooses a people for the enjoyment of heavenly glory with Jesus Himself. The Lord, having been rejected by the Jewish people, is become wholly a heavenly person. This is the doctrine which we peculiarly find in the writings of the apostle Paul. It is no longer the Messiah of the Jews, but a Christ exalted, glorified; and it is for want of taking hold of this exhilarating truth, that the church has become so weak.28

In Darby’s dispensationalism intricately interwoven together are the following: 1) a sharp distinction between Israel and the church, between ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ peoples of God; 2) literal interpretation of prophecy whenever connected with the ‘earthly’ people, and the spiritual interpretation whenever the church is in view; 3) the parenthetic nature of the church; 4) the doctrine of the secret rapture of the church (the ‘catching away’ of the heavenly people that God might resume His prophetic timetable with His earthly people, the Jews); 5) the expectation of an earthly Jewish millennium; 6) a rigid dichotomy between law and grace; and 7) a negative separatistic evaluation of the existing institutional church. Later, some dispensationalists would modify the sixth of these distinctives, the dichotomy between law and grace. For example, whereas the notes of the original Scofield Reference Bible on ‘Grace’ contrast the dispensation of grace with that of law by declaring, ‘The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ,’ in the same place the New Scofield Reference Bible states: ‘Prior to the cross man’s salvation was through faith, being grounded on Christ’s atoning sacrifice, viewed anticipatively by God; now it is clearly revealed that salvation and righteousness are received by faith in the crucified and resurrected Savior.’29

Surely any that carefully compare these doctrines propagated by Darby with historic Christianity will be struck with the novelty of them. Even one of the proponents of dispensationalism, Harry A. Ironside, in speaking of the dispensational teaching that the church was not prophesied in the Old Testament plainly asserts that it was a non-existent teaching until introduced by Darby:

In fact, until brought to the fore, through the writings and preaching of a distinguished ex-clergyman, Mr. J. N. Darby, in the early part of the last century, it is scarcely to be found in a single book or sermon throughout a period of 1600 years! If any doubt this statement, let them search, as the writer has in a measure done, the remarks of the so-called Fathers, both pre and post-Nicene, the theological treatises of the scholastic divines, Roman Catholic writers of all shades of thought; the literature of the Reformation; the sermons and expositions of the Puritans; and the general theological works of the day. He will find the ‘mystery’ conspicuous by its absence.30

The Spread of Darby’s Teaching in England

The overwhelming devotion of Darby and the zeal of many of his followers were instrumental in gaining many converts to dispensationalism. But two external factors added to the impetus of the new movement in England in the years following 1843. One such factor was the collapse of historicist premillennialism. When news reached England that William Miller’s prediction that the second coming was to occur in 1843 had proven false, premillennialists suffered a setback. When Hatley Frere was bold enough to insist that the Jews would be back in Palestine with a rebuilt temple in 1865 and that Roman Catholicism would be destroyed by 1864, and that Napoleon was the Antichrist, he became a laughingstock and the ranks of the Darbyites swelled.

The other event that benefitted the early dispensational movement in England was the revival of 1859. Because it was led predominantly by laymen and because nowhere were laymen trained and accustomed to minister more than in the Brethren movement, the Brethren evangelists were at the heart of the revival. As a result, proportionately, no group in Britain benefitted more from this revival than did the Plymouth Brethren. Subsequently, as the interdenominational movement grew out of this revival, and even more so with D. L. Moody’s powerful ministry in Britain, dispensationalism found a haven in a movement uninhibited by denominational creeds and structures.31


The Development and Spread of Dispensationalism in America

The Rise of Millenarianism in Nineteenth-Century America

During the Great Awakening (1725-1760) in America, postmillennalism was given fresh impetus, especially by Jonathan Edwards. This optimistic expectation of future gospel triumphs, given new life due to the present gospel triumphs, fit in well with the American Puritan conviction that the colonists were a chosen people and their commonwealth a ‘city set upon a hill.’34 Optimism concerning America’s destiny was strengthened even more by the American Revolution, and therefore, postmillennialism became the prevalent view among American evangelicals between the Revolution and the Civil War. With the coming of the nineteenth century, whereas the papal and Islamic decline had been a stimulus to premillennialism in England, it served to strengthen the postmillennial cause in America. In the thinking of both of these eschatologies, some prophecies about the time immediately preceding the millennium were already being fulfilled in current events. To each, current events were harbingers of the millennium; their primary disagreement was whether Christ would come before or after the millennium.

Further on into the nineteenth century, significant changes took place in both of these camps. After the Civil War liberalism began to creep in among the evangelical postmillennialists, and gradually the supernatural aspects of the evangelical postmillennial view of history were replaced by a more naturalistic view. Rather than the Kingdom being gospel-oriented, future and otherworldly, it was ‘here and now’ a carrying out of the ideals of Jesus in society.

Premillennialism also took on significant alterations. In part, this took place in reaction to the infamous debacle of the Millerites. The largest early nineteenth-century premillennial group, the followers of William Miller (1792-1849) who predicted Christ’s return in 1843, came to unusual prominence due to their fanaticism. With the failure of Miller’s predictions came the collapse of the movement, but more important, was the reaction of other premillennialists. Ernest Sandeen portrays the reaction: ‘William Miller, like Edward Irving in the British movement, became a theological leper whose ceremonial denunciation was a part of the litany of millenarianism for the next century.’35 As his historicist presuppositions were remarkably similar to those of the historicists in Britain and America, and as he depended so much in his predictions on the 1260 year-day theory, his predictions were not unlike those of others in his day; and all premillennialists (especially historicist premillennialists) suffered a blow from which it took a generation to recover. This prepared the way, however, for the acceptance of the futurist eschatology so essential to dispensationalism.

Premillennialism in America also developed in reaction to the liberal brand of postmillennialism that had begun to be in vogue. Even in the early 40’s two prophetic magazines, The Literalist and The American Millenarian and Prophetic Review drew heavily upon such British writers as Bickersteth, Brooks, and Cuninghame, promoting premillennialism in response to postmillennialism. It was not, however, until post-Civil War liberalism had gained prominence among postmillennialists that the most significant changes took place. Those who had embraced Darby’s brand of premillennialism were in the best position to gain proselytes. Where liberalism appeared vague and abstract, dispensationalism was explicit and concrete. The more the century wore on the more clearly the battle lines were drawn and all the more recruits were added to each side.

The Emergence of Dispensationalism as a Significant Brand of Millenarianism

The events just chronicled were very significant as forerunners of the dispensational movement in America. By 1860, however, the liberal postmillennial/premillennial debates had not really warmed up, and premillennialism was still recovering from the Millerite debacle. Darby visited the United States and Canada seven times between 1862 and 1877. At first he had great difficulty convincing Americans of the whole of his theology, and even less success in persuading them that acceptance of his doctrine of the ruin of Christendom obligated believers to abandon their former denominational affiliations to meet with the Brethren ‘gathered only in the name of the Lord.’ He blamed the worldly state of the American churches for this disappointing response. But his persistence eventually paid off, and by the 70’s significant impact had been made in St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Boston. In St. Louis, James H. Brookes, pastor of the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church, soon became a leading teacher of dispensationalism.

In Chicago Darby had significant contact with Dwight L. Moody, and, though Moody never became an ardent promoter of dispensationalism, Darby was able to convince him of the place of the grace of God in conversion. In Boston, a notable Adventist, F. G. Brown, was converted to Brethrenism. By the time Darby visited America for the last time in 1877, there were eighty-eight Brethren meetings, none of them large. [It should be noted, however, that though the Plymouth Brethren have never been as significant a force in America as in Britain, by and large, dispensationalism has received a warmer reception in America.]

During this period, millenarian periodicals continued to proliferate, a number of them being futurist in their stance, and a few of them heading in the dispensationalist direction. The Prophetic Times, published between 1863 and 1881 under various editorships with wide denominational representation, and Waymarks in the Wilderness, published 1854-1857 and 1864-1872 under the editorship of James Inglis, are examples of periodicals lending support to the emerging dispensational cause. It is interesting to note in the writing of Inglis something characteristic of American dispensationalists: a distancing of himself from Darby’s sectarian tendencies as well as from the whole Brethren movement, while taking from his theological bag dispensational doctrines such as the secret rapture.36

The Prophecy and Bible Conference Movement

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, premillennialism began to organize and proselyte through a number of prophetic and Bible conferences. The Niagara Bible Conference, known at first as the Believers’ Meeting for Bible Study, was the mother of them all. It began in New York City in 1868 with men who had served as editors of Waymarks in the Wilderness, James Inglis, David Inglis, and Charles Campbell. From 1883 to 1897 the conference met at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario and thus acquired its name. Over 120 leaders and speakers virtually everyone of any significance in the premillennial movement attended the conference. Beginning in 1875, James H. Brookes, a dispensationalist, was sought out as the keynote speaker and for many years he served as its president. In 1875, Brookes also began to publish the Truth, a periodical, which served, along with another journal, as the official organ of the premillennial movement until his death in 1897. Adoniram J. Gordon, a historicist premillennialist, edited the other premillennial journal of that period, the Watchword, and also participated in the conference. Some of the other leaders were dispensationalists (as Arthur T. Pierson, George C. Needham, and L. W. Mundhall) and others were not (as Nathaniel West, H. W. Frost, and W. G. Moorehead). Others (as W. J. Erdman and Robert Cameron) who at first embraced the Darbyite doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture, later reversed themselves on this issue. Dispensationalism was prominent at the conferences, but, for the time being, premillennialists of various stripes worked together as a premillennial coalition.

It is helpful for us to remember that the Niagara conferences were started shortly after Henry Ward Beecher’s message had captured the hearts of so many. Beecher’s romanticism about such things as the ideals found in nature, the coming of the Kingdom of God through scientific and moral progress, and the blending of the supernatural with the natural (i.e., the supernatural only manifests itself in the natural as in evolution) softened the implications of traditional doctrines without overtly denying them altogether. Against this backdrop the leaders of the Niagara conference were concerned to defend the faith on all fronts. The 1878 Niagara Creed, therefore clearly stated the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible, the total depravity of man, the necessity of the new birth, substitutionary atonement, and the premillennial return of Christ among its fourteen points. In response to the various sects who were also premillennial (as the Adventists and Mormons), a clear stand was also taken against annihilationism and soul sleep. Perfectionism was also strenuously opposed. So, though dispensationalism was widely embraced among the leaders of the Niagara conference, the conference leaders taught their millenarian views as a part of a coherent theology rather than as a single-issue movement. Thus, it has a significant part in laying the foundations of fundamentalism.

Because these conferences came to be seen as bastions of orthodoxy over and against liberalism, and because dispensationalists had such a prominent place in the leadership and on the platform, dispensationalism was accorded more and more respect. Less and less was it associated with the sectarian tendencies of Darby, and more and more it was associated with those who had a high view of Scripture. We should be careful to observe, however, that dispensationalism did not make gains merely by virtue of its associations with others valiant for the truth, but also because its approach to the Scriptures was so antithetical to that of the liberals and postmillennialists of the day. Beecher’s romanticism was a subtle rejection of the literal and factual truth of many basic Christian doctrines; to many evangelicals dispensationalism’s literal approach to Biblical interpretation seemed to be the ideal antithesis. The same contrast is seen as we compare the eschatologies of liberal postmillennialism and dispensationalism. George Marsden elaborates:

Ironically, the dispensationalists were responding to some of the very same problems in Biblical interpretation that were troubling theological liberals in the nineteenth century. If Biblical statements were taken at face value and subjected to scientific analysis, major anomalies seemed to appear. Among these were that many Old Testament prophecies did not seem to refer precisely to the church, that Jesus and his disciples seemed to expect his return and the establishment of the kingdom very shortly, and that much of the teaching of Jesus seemed to conflict with the theology of Paul. Liberals resolved such problems by greatly broadening the standards for interpreting Biblical language. Dispensationalists did the opposite. They held more strictly than ever to a literal interpretation but introduced a new historical scheme whose key was the interpretation of the church age as a parenthesis. Once the key step was accepted, the rest of Scripture could be fit into the scheme, and aspects that others viewed as inconsistencies could be explained as simply referring to different dispensations.37

Furthermore, literalistic hermeneutics, more than an antidote to vague liberalism, increasingly became one of the hallmarks of dispensationalism. Prophecies must mean exactly what they say: Israel must mean the Jews; prophetic numbers refer to exact periods of time; and even symbols must refer to scientifically and historically identifiable persons and events. Interpretation is an exact science with precise conclusions. Even prophetic books can be interpreted with precision tribulation and millennial events may be mapped out with great chronological detail and certainty.

This approach to Scripture interpretation even made an impact on the style of public addresses at the Niagara Conference (and at other conferences): the ‘Bible reading.’ In preaching, rather than enter into a flowery oration (as in the pulpit exercises of Henry Ward Beecher, T. D. Talmadge, or Phillips Brooks), these dispensationalists preferred a plain exposition. George Needham, commenting on his own preaching, said, ‘By no means advertize me as being sensational, or magnetic, or eloquent, or scholarly, or smart, or any such thing, but only a plain man, telling a plain story, in a plain manner.’38 Though this approach displayed their reverence for the Word, yet it had its weaknesses. Francis L. Patton of Princeton Seminary warned his students ‘against supposing that you have given an adequate substitute for a sermon when, with the help of Cruden’s Concordance, you have chased a word through the Bible, making a comment or two on the passages as you go along.’39

These Bible readings and the literalism with which they were associated had great appeal with popular audiences. These preachers regarded their literalism as being the mode of ‘common sense’ that which would be understood and would appeal to the ‘common man.’ ‘Appeal to the common sense of any stranger,’ said Stephen H. Tyng, Jr., host of the first International Prophetic Conference in 1878. Common sense, he said, proved that ‘a literal rendering is always to be given in the reading of Scripture, unless the context makes it absurd.’40 We should expect no ‘mystical’ language with ‘secret or hidden meaning’ said Jerry Lummis in an address at the 1886 conference. Rather, he said, the prophetic teachings of Christ ‘are just as easily apprehended by the common sense of the common people as are His teachings in respect to duty.’41 In order that we might appreciate the significance of this approach, it is most helpful that we note that the philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism had been influential in America by this time for a century, and from about 1820 on had been the dominant philosophy taught in American colleges. It was the American philosophy. This philosophic approach held that God’s truth is a single unified order and that all that is necessary to apprehend that truth is common sense. To a great extent, then, the readiness of Americans to welcome dispensationalist literalism can be traced back to their philosophical heritage. To them the words of Reuben A. Torrey would ring true: ‘In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases the meaning that the plain man gets out of the Bible is the correct one.’42 Dispensationalist literalistic hermeneutics was ‘common sense’ par excellence!

As a paradigm for the manner in which dispensationalism benefitted, directly or indirectly, from the prophecy and Bible conference movement, we have used the Niagara conference. Before we move on, then, it is not necessary that we do more than mention the other prominent prophetic and Bible conferences of the late nineteenth century. In 1878 a group of eight premillennialists, predominantly made up of leaders at the Niagara conference, issued a call with the endorsement of 114 ‘Bishops, Professors, Ministers and Brethren’ for a conference to convene at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal; rector, Stephen H. Tyng, Jr.). Called the First American Bible and Prophetic Conference, its stated intention was the delivering of a series of papers on the premillennial advent of Christ, and its underlying rationale was the putting up of a united and public premillenial witness. The Second American Bible and Prophetic Conference was held in Chicago, November 16-20, 1886. At this conference many more speakers evidenced well-developed dispensational affinities. Subsequent conferences were held in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1895; in Boston in 1901; in Chicago again in 1914; and in Philadelphia and New York in 1918.

D. L. Moody and a Revivalist Alliance

Before we leave our survey of those factors that influenced and helped promote dispensationalism in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, we must give notice to the ministry of Dwight L. Moody and to the manner in which his evangelistic empire aided the cause of dispensationalism. During this period Moody was regarded as the most influential preacher in America. His message was the love of God. His theology, though basically orthodox, was eclectic and ambiguous Moody hated controversy. He had no formal denominational connections, choosing, rather, to build his evangelistic empire through extra-ecclesiastical organizations.

In 1873 Moody was invited to conduct some evangelistic services in the British isles. He took Ira Sankey along as song leader, and they succeeded beyond all expectations. The ‘revival’ that took place, especially in Scotland, gave them international renown, and after a similar tour in 1874 they returned to America as national heroes. The result was as may be expected: religious leaders across the country clamored for their services. Following his first round of campaigns in America, Moody turned to building structures that would perpetuate his evangelistic endeavors, such as Emma Dryer’s Bible training school in Chicago, designed to train laymen to meet the needs of urban evangelism. Beginning in 1880 and continuing until his death in 1899 he made his home in Northfield, Massachusetts. Summer conferences there attracted men of all persuasions. Growing out of these conferences was the immensely influential Student Volunteer Movement, instrumental over the course of a few years in stimulating thousands of students to dedicate themselves to serve as foreign missionaries, thus initiating the greatest display of missionary interest ever known in the United States.

Moody’s impact on dispensationalism was at least threefold: 1) he offered dispensationalists a prominent platform; 2) he, either directly or indirectly, founded institutions that would perpetuate dispensational teaching; 3) he was instrumental in introducing from England the new Keswick holiness teaching.

Though Moody himself was never a preacher of dispensationalism, he often included premillennialism in his preaching, and at Northfield gave premillennialists what was probably an unparalleled opportunity to make an impact upon evangelical Christianity. Moody never entirely tied himself to Darby’s theology, but was greatly influenced by Darby’s popularizer, C. H. Mackintoch, once writing of his books that he would rather part with his entire library excepting his Bible than these writings, and that ‘they have been to me a very key to the Scriptures.’43 We conclude, then, that Moody was sympathetic to the teaching of dispensationalism, and when we discover many dispensationalists (as George Needham, J. H. Brookes, A. T. Pierson, W. E. Blackstone, and James M. Gray) on the platform along with other leading premillennialists, we are not surprised. Furthermore, when we consider that the man who came closest to being Moody’s successor, Reuben A. Torrey, was a champion of dispensationalism, we are impressed with the fact that, intentionally or not, through his evangelical alliance Moody was one of the greatest aids to the dispensationalist cause that ever was.

Moody’s second contribution to dispensationalism was the founding of Bible institutes. During the late nineteenth century various evangelical leaders were persuaded that zealous laymen could effectively be trained for home and foreign missions with a minimum of Biblical and practical training. W. J. Erdman and W. G. Moorehead cooperated with Miss Emma Dryer (a dispensationalist) in initiating pilot sessions of the Bible Training Institute, and Moody lent his support in 1886. In October of 1889 the school opened full-time with R. A. Torrey serving as its first superintendent, and after Moody’s death came to be known as Moody Bible Institute. Northwestern Bible Training School was begun just after the turn of the century under the leadership of A. J. Frost and William Bell Riley. Soon to follow were the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, the Toronto Bible Training School, and Philadelphia Bible Institute. With few exceptions the Bible schools became bases for the dissemination of dispensationalism.

Thirdly, Moody influenced many dispensationalists (and, more broadly, fundamentalists) by introducing them to the Keswick holiness teaching. When Moody brought Fredrick B. Meyer to Northfield (probably in 1891), a strenuous protest was raised. Many of the Niagara conference men, who were speakers at Northfield, had taken great pains to oppose the Oberlin perfectionism of Charles Finney and Asa Mahan, and Meyer had to distinguish his teaching from it. The Keswick movement, begun through meetings in Keswick, England in 1873, under the domination of H. W. Webb Peploe, clearly departed from Methodist perfectionism. While rejecting the Wesleyan doctrine of the eradication of the sinful nature, the Keswick teachers also rejected the traditional view that one’s sinful nature was merely suppressed by Christ’s righteousness. This, they felt, led to constant conflict with sin and even tolerance of it as normal. In its place, the Keswick teachers posited a two-stage concept of the Christian life: the ‘carnal Christian’ and the ‘spiritual Christian.’ Moving from one to the other required an act of faith, or ‘consecration.’ It was described as ‘absolute surrender’ or as ‘yielding’ and was always conceived of as a distinct crisis experience which brought in ‘the victorious life.’ Moody claimed to have undergone an intense second experience in 1871 and urged Torrey to ‘preach on the baptism with the Holy Ghost,’ and it appears Torrey took his advice. Other dispensationalists continued to promote the Keswick doctrines. In 1913 Charles Trumbull began an ‘American Keswick’ conference; in his biography of C. I. Scofield, Trumbull and the famous dispensationalist are pictured together as ‘Paul and Timothy,’ indicating the close relationship between the two movements. More importantly, Scofield more or less canonized these Keswick doctrines in his Reference Bible.44 To dispensationalists, who believe that the Church Age was the unique age of the Spirit, this teaching has a special attraction. Moreover, while premillennialism abandons an optimistic estimate of the conquering power of the Holy Spirit throughout society, this Keswick doctrine promises personal ‘victory’ in the Holy Spirit.

Dispensationalism and the Fragmentation of Millenarianism

Though the leading lights in the prophecy and Bible conference movement were dispensationalists, they were not overly strident with their dispensationalism because they were primarily concerned to combat liberalism. They did seek to commend their views, but carefully sought to avoid rocking the boat. Likewise, Moody had exercised great care to prevent controversy within the ranks of the fundamentalist and premillennial movement. But with the death of Moody in 1899 came the beginnings of a serious fragmentation within the movement. The ‘common sense’ literalism was expected to lead to unity of understanding among millenarians, but by this time such unity was even further from realization than when the Bible conference movement began. The most serious conflict came over the dispensationalist doctrine of a pre-tribulation rapture.

This crisis began in public when one of the Niagara leaders, Nathaniel West, began in 1893 to attack the theory of the pre-tribulation rapture in a series of pamphlets and articles. Siding with West was Robert Cameron and soon others (at least W. J. Erdman, James M. Stifler, William G. Moorehead, and H. W. Frost) became convinced that they had been mistaken and that for twenty years the Niagara conference had been teaching error. Yet, as long as dispensationalist J. W. Brookes lived (till 1897), reverence for the great leader had a dampening effect upon the controversy. After his death, divisions within the leadership became more apparent and the former ferver no longer characterized the meetings, and so after 1900 the Niagara conference no longer convened.

This controversy was continued through the vehicle of periodicals: Arno C. Gaebelein representing the pre-tribulationist position through Our Hope, and Robert Cameron in Watchword and Truth giving out why he had left the dispensational view and then attempting to pin the origin of the pre-tribulation view to fanatical utterances in Irving’s church. This heated exchange left the two sides irreversibly polarized. Cameron sought to heal these wounds and construct a united front for both post- and pretribulationists, but Gaebelein cut off his former allies and launched out upon a vigorous pre-tribulationist campaign. In 1901 he organized conferences in Boston, New York City, and at Sea Cliff, Long Island. In 1902 he expanded this conference ministry even further. As a result of these and other efforts, the dispensationalist party, more willing to continue the fight, emerged the stronger of the two. As the post-tribulationists died off, there were few new recruits to fill the gaps.

The Aggressive Expansion of Dispensationalism

Having asserted their independence as a movement, dispensationalists aggressively continued to propagate their views during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Several publications had an unusually great impact on evangelicalism. Of these it is hard to conceive of any that was more influential than the Scofield Reference Bible. The plan to write an annotated version of the Bible was first discussed by Scofield and Gaebelein at the Sea Cliff conference in 1901, and by 1909 the first edition had been released. Had Scofield decided to publish his notes in a separate volume rather than inserting them on the pages of the Bible itself, in all probability they would have soon been relatively forgotten. Instead, they have been devoured by hundreds of thousands many of whom are unaware of the distinction between the Biblical text and Scofield’s interpretation. While the notes include a defense of major Biblical doctrines over and against the higher critics and liberals of his day, and so have done much good, they have also proven dangerous to the novice. Novices have often begun to consider themselves experts in theology, merely because they have assimilated some of these notes. The Scofield Reference Bible was revised in 1917 and again in 1967 when an editorial committee of eight men (Frank E. Gaebelein, William Culbertson, Charles Feinberg, Allan MacRae, Clarence Mason, Jr., Alva J. McClain, Wilbur Smith, and John Walvoord) chaired by E. Schuyler English produced a much more extensive revision.

Two other publications were especially prominent in promoting dispensationalism during this period. W. E. Blackstone’s Jesus is Coming was actually first published in 1878, but it was not used very extensively until 1908 when a special ‘presentation edition’ was published and several hundred thousand copies were distributed free of charge to Christian workers throughout the world. In 1918 Clarence Larkin published his Dispensational Truth, a book full of elaborate charts depicting various ‘dispensations,’ judgments, eschatalogical events, apocalyptic books as Daniel and Revelation, etc. The book has gone through at least forty printings.

During this period, prophecy conferences continued as a major vehicle for promoting dispensationalism. On the eve of the first world war (February, 1914) a Bible and prophecy conference was held at Moody Bible Institute. James Gray, W. B. Riley, Scofield, and Gaebelein were the leaders. At no previous conference had the details of dispensationalism been laid out so explicitly and dogmatically.

World War I greatly stimulated interest in the study of prophecy, and, during the closing months of the war, the crowds swelled at such conferences in an unprecedented fashion. One such conference held at the Philadelphia Academy of Music May 28-30, 1918 was largely stimulated by the news of the British capture of Jerusalem by General Allenby, and to a great extent was a celebration of what was viewed as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

Throughout the fundamentalist/modernist battles of the 1920’s and 1930’s, dispensationalists continued as a major fundamentalist contingency, all the while maintaining their own specific identity as dispensationalists.

Even during the period of the fundamentalist/modernist debates, when many dispensationalists felt compelled to join with other evangelicals against a common foe, it became more and more evident that dispensationalism had become a homogeneous movement. Not only did it have its own Bible schools, but it began to have its own representative seminaries. Of these, none is so well known as Dallas Theological Seminary, founded in 1924. Its founder and first president was Lewis Sperry Chafer. In 1947 Chafer’s multi-volume Systematic Theology was published. In connection with this seminary a journal began to be published. Bibliotheca Sacra, featuring the best of dispensationalist scholars, continues to this day.

Before we leave our survey of the history of dispensationalism in this era, we should notice one of the distinctives of dispensationalism that is displayed in a prominent fashion in two of the works cited above (Scofield Reference Bible and Larkin’s Dispensational Truth). We here refer to the tendency of dispensationalism to divide and classify the details of the Bible. The classifications are almost endless: the Jew, the Gentile, and the church; the wife of Jehovah and the bride of the Lamb (earthly wife and heavenly bride); the various judgments (seven in all, according to Scofield see note on Rev. 20:12); the eight covenants; the ‘Day of Christ,’ the ‘Day of the Lord,’ and the ‘Day of Judgment;’ the ‘Kingdom of God’ and the ‘Kingdom of heaven;’ the differences of in, with, and upon as used in connection with the Holy Spirit. The charts in Larkin’s work are an amazing correlation of detailed prophecies, all co-ordinated according to the dispensational scheme. The Scriptures are treated as though they are an encyclopedic puzzle: each piece of history or prophecy meant to be sorted out and arranged. R. A. Torrey’s What the Bible Teaches is in the same mold: 500 pages of thousands of Biblical ‘propositions’ supported by proof texts. This dictionary-like work is defended as a serious attempt at inductive Bible study. Dispensationalism views the interpreter’s job to be much like that of the scientist: gather up the data, classify it and then come up with a conclusion. Each piece of data is considered in the same ‘common sense’ mode. Little attention is given to various types of literature, the progressive unity found in revelation, the precedence of the clear over the unclear (as it is all clear to be interpreted literally), or the precedence of New Testament methods of interpreting Old Testament prophecies.


Modern Developments and Modifications

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!


Dispensationalism: Endnotes by Mark Sarver



1. C. I. Scofield, The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 3.

2. Ibid.

3. This brief outline represents classic dispensationalism. Dispensationalists differ one from another in details. As we shall see, neo-dispensationalists have made significant modifications to the system. In the main, however, what we have just presented fairly depicts dispensationalism in its most widespread form.

4. Philip Mauro, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Boston: Hamilton Brothers, 1928), p. 6.

5. Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), pp. 228-235.

6. Arnold H.Ehlert, ‘A Bibliography of Dispensationalism,’ Bibliotheca Sacra, 101:95-101; 199-209; 319-28; 447-60; 102:84-92; 207-19; 322-34; 455-67; 103:57-67 (January, 1944 through January, 1946).

7. Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), pp. 67-70.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., pp. 44-45.

10. LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (Washington: Review and Herald), Vol. III, p. 304.

11. George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), pp. 37-38.

12. Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 7.

13. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

14. Ian Rennie, ‘Nineteenth Century Roots,’ in Handbook of Biblical Prophecy, Carl Amerding, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), pp. 46-48.

15. Ibid., p. 48.

16. Arnold Dallimore, Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 37-38.

17. Ibid., p. 73.

18. Rennie, op. cit., p. 50.

19. Sandeen, op. cit., pp. 21-22.

20. Dave MacPherson, The Unbelievable Pre-Trib Origin (Kansas City: Heart of America Bible Society, 1973), pp. 59-62, 105-108.

21.See Rennie, op. cit., p. 54 and Sandeen, op. cit., p. 38.

22. Froom, op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 1223.

23. Robert Baxter, Narrative of Facts, Characterizing the Supernatural Manifestations, in Members of Mr. Irving’s Congregation and other Individuals, in England, and Scotland, and Formerly in the Writer Himself (London: James Nisbet, 1833), p. 17.

24. Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), pp. 51-52.

25. John Nelson Darby, Letters of J. N. D. (Sunbury, PA: Believer’s Bookshelf, 1971), 3:298.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 3:299.

28. For a more thorough analysis of Darby’s theology, see Bass, op. cit., pp. 100-140.

29. John Nelson Darby, The Collected Writings, Ed. William Kelly (Oak Park, IL: Bible Truth Publishers, 1962), 2:35.

30. Ibid., 2:376.

31. Notes on John 1:17, The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1909), p. 1114; The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 1124.

32. Harry A. Ironside, Mysteries of God, p. 50, quoted by William E. Cox in An Examination of Dispensationalism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), p. 2.

33. Rennie, op. cit., pp. 54-55.

34. Sandeen, op. cit., p. 43.

35. Ibid., p. 42.

36. Ibid., pp. 100-102.

37. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 54.

38. George C. Needham, Preach the Word (New York: 1892), p. 15, quoted by Sandeen, op. cit., p. 137.

39. Presbyterian and Reformed Review 1 (1890): 36-37, quoted by Sandeen, op. cit., p. 137.

40. Stephen H. Tyng, ‘Christ’s Coming: Personal and Visible,’ Premillennial Essays, Nathaniel West, ed. (Chicago: 1879), pp. 25-26, cited by Marsden, op. cit., p. 61.

41. Jerry Lummis, ‘Christ’s Predictions and Their Interpretations,’ Prophetic Studies of the International Prophetic Conference (Chicago: 1886), p. 46, cited by Marsden, op. cit., p. 61.

42. Marsden, op. cit., p. 61. This statement hardly squares with I Cor. 2:14: ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged.’

43. Quoted from a book advertizement in Watchword and Truth 22 (1900): 255, quoted by Sandeen, op. cit., p. 173.

44. See, for example, Scofield’s notes on I Cor. 2:14 and Romans 7:9, 14, 15 The Scofield Reference Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1909), pp. 1213, 1214, 1199, 1200.

45. Marsden, op. cit., p. 228.

46. C. I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917), p. 20.

47. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 4:162-164.

48. Ibid., 7:219.

49. Ryrie, op. cit., pp. 123-124; cp. New Scofield Reference Bible on Gen. 1:28 (p. 3).

50. For a more thorough discussion of the historical transition from the classic dispensational doctrine of salvation by law-keeping for Israel and by faith for the church to the neo-dispensational doctrine of one way of salvation in all ages, see Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 34-46.

51. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), pp. 324-325.

52. Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), p. 34.

53. Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1974), p. 180.

54. Erich Sauer, From Eternity to Eternity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1954), p. 166; cp. pp. 162-178.

55. New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 3 (note on Genesis 1:28, heading).

56. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 35-36.

57. Ibid., pp. 39-40.

58. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, p. 37.

59. Because ultradispensationalism is not within the mainstream of dispensationalism we did not include treatment of Bullinger and his followers in our survey of the development of dispensationalism in the nineteenth century.

60. John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1991), pp. 55-56; H. A. Ironside, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Neptune, NJ: Luizeaux Brothers, Inc., 1938), pp. 9-11.

61. Ironside, op. cit., p. 11.

62. Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible (on Matt. 5:2), pp. 999-1000.

63. Among those who have denied the necessity of submission to Christ’s lordship as an evidence of true repentance and faith are Charles Ryrie (Balancing the Christian Life; So Great Salvation), Zane Hodges (The Gospel Under Siege; Absolutely Free), G. M. Cocoris (Lordship Salvation Is It Biblical; Evangelism: A Biblical Approach) and Livingston Blauvelt, Jr. (‘Does the Bible Teach Lordship Salvation,’ Bibliotheca Sacra 143:37-45).

64. Poythress, op. cit., p. 32.

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