Dispensational theology is a method of interpreting the Bible, looking specifically at how God interacts with man. It stands in contrast to covenant theology. While covenant theology recognizes that God works in the Bible under two covenants – the covenant of works and the covenant of grace – dispensational theology sees numerous different dispensations or eras in which God works differently.
While some dispensational thought has been around since the time of the early church, dispensational theology has not been formalized as a concept until recently. While John Edwards and John Darby both espoused dispensational ideas, C.I. Scofield did the most in popularizing the idea. Scofield’s “Scofield Reference Bible” did much to push dispensational theology into the mainstream. It has since been promoted by notable theologians such as J. Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, and John Walvoord, along with many others, particularly those associated with Dallas Theological Seminary.
Dispensationalism breaks the Bible into different eras based on how God and man interact, most importantly how God’s grace is extended to humanity in each era. Although the number of dispensations are not important as much as just the recognition of different eras, there are seven commonly accepted dispensations that Scofield originally presented.
3. Human government
In the article “Dispensations and Covenants” each dispensation will be discussed more in depth. They will be linked to various covenants in the Bible as well. For the discussion on dispensationalism, it is simply important to recognize that different dispensations exist.
In each dispensation, man had certain requirements which, if met, would cause God to extend His grace to him. Meeting these requirements would, in effect, allow a person to be saved. In the age of innocence all Adam needed was to not sin and he would not die. In the era of conscience, man needed to follow his conscience, do what was right, and present blood sacrifices. Later when the law was given, the sacrificial system was better spelled out as were the laws that man was to follow.
In each dispensation, man has the option to follow God and approach Him by the grace that God extends. And in each dispensation, man fails and has no right to approach God. Some may obey God’s commands but as a whole, humanity fails and the next dispensation is ushered in. Finally in the church era grace is extended through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Faith in Jesus is required in order to be saved from sin.
Some argue that in each dispensation a person is saved in a different manner but this is not so. In each dispensation, grace is extended by God to humanity is order that salvation may be attained. Individuals are then required to act in faith to whatever revelation God has given man at the time. Adam only had the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and failed. Abraham was asked to leave his land and acted in faith and it was credited to him as righteousness as we are told in Genesis 15:6 and Paul repeats numerous times in Romans 4. This faith was a saving faith. It worked in the same way for those under the Mosaic law who followed the sacrifices that God had commanded but did not understand that they pointed to Jesus. They simply responded in faith to what God had revealed to them at the time. In the church era, we’re called to have faith in Jesus and this is what saves us. We have the benefit of fulfilled prophecies that the patriarchs before us did not. In the end though, it still came down to faith, regardless whether that faith was in anticipation of Jesus the Messiah or looking back to Him as we do today.
Biblical interpretation in Dispensationalism
Dispensational theologians hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is the approach taken by all conservative theologians but where they differ is in the area of prophecy. Covenant theologians and other nondispensationalists maintain that prophecy should not be interpreted literally because it was not written literally, often using figurative language.
Dispensationalists recognize the use of figurative language in the Bible however and interpret prophecy as figurative where it is obviously figurative but literal wherever they can. The support for a literal interpretation of prophecy is that prophecy has been fulfilled literally concerning Christ’s first coming. Dispensationalists believe that there is no reason that it should not be taken literally in reference to future prophecies concerning Christ’s second coming.
Dispensational theology and Israel
Because dispensational theology views prophecy as literal, the biggest difference between it and nondispensational theology concerns the nation of Israel. While covenant theology sees the promises concerning Israel to be passed on to the church, dispensational theology believes that God is not finished with Israel and thus prophecies to Israel will still be fulfilled in regard to Israel and not the church. Needless to say, Israel’s return as a nation in 1948 gives this view more credence than it had for centuries because most believed that the nation had been punished and God was through with it.
Because of the beliefs about Israel, dispensational theologians generally have a premillennial view of the Millennial Kingdom and believe in a pretribulation rapture.
Premillennialism and dispensational theology
Premillennialism holds that Jesus will return to earth at the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom and reign on earth. This is a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in which David is told in 1 Samuel 7:16 that his “kingdom will endure before Me forever, and your throne will be established forever.” In order for this prophecy to be fulfilled literally, Jesus must return to earth and establish an earthly kingdom as is described in Revelation 20. Other views of the Millennial Kingdom spiritualize this view. Likewise, if God is done working with Israel, these promises of God must be spiritualized because they cannot be fulfilled literally in the church.
Pretribulationism and dispensational theology
Belief in a pretrib rapture is not a requirement for belief in dispensational theology but follows in the same line of thinking as dispensationalism. The first and perhaps most important evidence for this is the fact that the church does not appear in the book of Revelation after chapter 3. The tribulation that falls upon the earth is never mentioned to strike the church, but Israel is a part of it. If the church is spiritual Israel, then we will endure the tribulation. If the two are separate, there is an argument from silence that the church is raptured because the church is not mentioned.
The second reason that dispensational theology and pretribulationism go together is that because of the promises to Israel that are yet to be fulfilled the church must be removed from the picture. This allows God to focus on calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the Millennial Kingdom. Romans 11 tells us that all Israel will be saved and this is the period in which God causes it to happen. The tribulation will cause Israel to open its eyes and realize that they have missed Jesus.