Etymology and Impact of Dispensational Theology in American Evangelicalism

Maybe you have grown up in a Covenantal system, amillennial in orientation. Maybe your idea of Dispensationalism goes as far as what you’ve heard of Left Behind “eschatology,” or if you’re a little older; Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. Usually when Covenant theologians want to disparage Dispensationalism the first few words out of their mouth will have “Left Behind” or Hal Lindsey in them. But to me, if a theologian or biblical interpreter wants to “critically” engage something, he or she should go to the strongest point, the strongest voices available; it is here where a constructive criticism can take place (that’s part of the goal of this blog here, to provide the best of the dispensational voices for critical engagement). In that vein I thought it would be helpful, as we get started here, to take a look at the etymology of the word Dispensation; and further, to catch a glimpse at how this word works as definitive of the Dispensational system. To help us out, let me refer to one of those most prominent voices available, in the 20th century, in regards to articulating the tenets of Dispensational thought; here’s Charles Ryrie on the etymology of “Dispensation”:

The English word dispensation is an Anglicized form of the Latin dispensatio, which the Vulgate uses to translate the Greek word. The Latin verb is a compound, meaning “to weigh out or dispense.” Three principal ideas are connected to the meaning of the English word: (1) “The action of dealing out or distributing”; (2) “the action of adminstering, ordering, or managing: the system by which things are administered”; and (3) “the action of dispensing with some requirement.” In further defining the use of the word theologically, the same dictionary says that a dispensation is “a stage in a progressive revelation, expressly adapted to the needs of a particular nation or period of time. . . . Also, the age or period during which a system has prevailed. . . .”

The Greek word oikonomia comes from the verb that means to manage, regulate, administer, and plan. The word itself is a compound whose parts mean literally “to divide, apportion, administer or manage the affairs of an inhabited house.” In the papyri the officer (oikonomos) who administered a dispensation was referred to as a steward or manager of an estate, or as a treasurer. Thus the central idea in the word dispensation is that managing or administering the affairs of a household.

The Usage of the Word

The various forms of the word dispensation appear in the New Testament twenty times. The verb oikonomeo is used once in Luke 16:2, where it is translated “to be a steward.” The noun oikonomos appears ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) and is usually translated “steward” or “manager” (but “treasurer” in Rom. 16:23). The noun oikonomia is used nine times (Luke 16:2, 3, 4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4). In these instances it is translated variously (“stewardship,” “dispensation,” “administration,” “job,” “commission”). (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 25)

And for a concise and too simple of a definition of Dispensationalism as a system of thought here is Ryrie quoting from the Scofield Reference Study Bible:

A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture. (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 23)

This should provide a little more thickness of understanding for those who know nothing of dispensational theology. It has serious students who spent their whole lives in Evangelical seminaries in America (primarily) devleoping and articulating it for the masses. The basic idea of dispensationalism is that it is a “stewardship” and “testing” that God gives to man during a period of time in the progressive unfolding of salvation history; once man (like the Nation of Israel) fails at keeping the requirements of a specific dispensation, this triggers the start of a new dispensation provided by God for man to “steward.” This turns into 7 distinct cycles for the Classic and Revised Dispensationalist (and 4 cycles for the Progressive Dispensationalist — and for the PD there is actually a fluidity to the dispensations so that they build on each other like the Covenants in “Covenant Theology” — more on this later). We will, in the near future, outline the 7 dispensations that make-up Classic dispyism, and then also take a look at the 4 dispensations identified by Progressive Dispensationalists.

For most people, and American Evangelicals, who do not inhabit the environs of the bibliosphere; or who will never set foot in the hallowed halls of seminaries, like it or not, it is this kind of theology that still provides shape (interpretively) for most of them. Most Evangelicals don’t know a lick about N. T. Wright’s reification of Pauline Studies and New Testament Biblical Theology; they get dispensational premillennial pre-trib teaching Sunday in-Sunday out. In light of this I think it is important for theology and Bible students to still be sensitive to this reality (culturally), and understand the impact that this has had (and is having, less and less — simply because “self-help” sermons predominate Evangelical sermons nowadays more than back in the Ryrie days etc.). Again, that’s what is motivating me to write this blog in some ways. To try and be informative. To be critical of dispy, but also try to represent it fairly; especially for those who really know nothing of it. More to come . . .

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A Quick Sketch of the Variations Within Dispensationalism

A brief synopsis of the Dispensationalisms:

  • Classic Dispensationalism: This view was first articulated by John N. Darby, and popularized by C. I. Scofield through his “study bible.” The distinctives of this position (assuming that all dispensational thought is premil) is its emphasis upon two peoples of God — e.g. Yahweh’s earthly people the Jews, and His heavenly people the Church — its belief in “two ways of salvation,” one under the “Law,” and one under “Grace” (this is in its extreme forms, the original Scofield bible, as I recall, advocated this perspective until it was later revised); its emphasis upon heavy discontinuity between the Old Covenant and New Covenant; its belief in a literal earthly kingdom for the Jews (the 1000 year reign of Christ); and belief in more than one “New” Covenant. Its basic hermeneutic is so called “literalism.” This position also believes that the “Davidic kingdom” is only for ethnic Jews, and will not come to pass until the millennial dispensation.
  • Revised Dispensationalism: This school of “dispyism” is given its most ardent framing by Charles Ryrie; he basically adheres to much of “Classic” thought, but he begins to mitigate some of the extremisms represented by his forbears. He emphasizes “one way” of salvation, for Jews and Gentiles; he rejects the notion of God’s earthly people (the Jews) versus God’s heavenly people (the Church) — albeit he still sees a heavy distinction relative to promises made to national Israel; he basically moves Classic from extreme to a more moderate approach (underneath it though his approach still is akin to its classic roots — e.g. he still believes in more than one “New Covenant”). And the Davidic kingdom will not come to pass until the millennial period (so we are not experiencing the “kingdom” now).
  • Progressive Dispensationalism: Still relatively new movement within dispensationalism (the last twenty or so years), its most visible proponents and articulates are: Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, and Robert Saucy. This system of interpretation, contrary to the other two just mentioned, sees One People of God (not two — albeit there is still a functional difference between the two, relative to the promises made to the nation of Israel in various patriarchal covenants); believes that the “Davidic Kingdom” was inaugurated at the first coming of Christ, and will be fully realized at the second coming of Christ in the millennium; believes that the church is partaking in (now) the fulfillment of the New Covenant originally made with the nation of Israel; believes in one way of salvation for all. They hold to a “literalism” of interpretation, albeit nuanced differently from the other dispensationalisms.

Obviously, as evinced by my rough synopsis, there is movement and difference (even significant difference at points) among the various schools of dispensationalism. The primary thing that makes dispensationalism, dispensationalism is its distinction between Israel and the Church. Progressives mitigate this distinction the most, but they still do see a distinction relative to the particular promises made to the nation of Israel (that they would live in the “Land,” under the “Davidic king,” in the shalom of the “Messiah”). Progressives see the church coupled to the nation of Israel, thus partaking of the promises made to national Israel (the believing remnant).

Anyway this could definitely be developed further; hopefully this is at least helpful in drawing some distinctions, and illustrating the dynamic nature of the system known as Dispensationalism.

Introduction To The Blog, and a Bit About My Dispy Testimony

Hello, welcome! This blog is dedicated to discussing things eschatological, from primarily an American Evangelical perspective. I will describe and articulate the ins-and-outs of what has become known as Dispensational Theology. I am not actually an adherent of ‘Dispensational Theology’ any longer. But, I was once ardently so! I was born into an ordained Conservative Baptist pastor’s home, and was weaned on what I will call Classic Dispensational Theology (viz. Pre-Trib, Premillennial, etc.). I sat under this teaching in my very early formative years. I can remember looking at dispensational charts, like this one:

As I continued to grow older and mature I continued to be intrigued by this theological/hermeneutical system, and out of high school (a few years) I began really digging into this stuff much more heavily. I devoured old school dispensational preacher H. A. Ironside’s commentaries, dispensational biblical theologian Erich Sauer’s books; and then of course I read Charles Ryrie, purchased a C. I. Scofield study Bible, read J. Dwight Pentecost, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, J. Vernon McGhee, David Hocking, Hal Lindsey, et al. I also attended Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, CA. (for about 4 years, during this period), and also attended Calvary Chapel Bible College (which is staunchly Classic Dispensational in orientation). 1998 I matriculated (I graduated high school in 1992 just for point of reference) to Multnomah Bible College (which is also, in heritage, very indebted and shaped by the Classic Dispensational system), and it is here where I “converted” to what is called Progressive Dispensationalism (most of my profs were in fact PD at this point). I held this view up until probably about 3 years ago, at which time I “converted” out of the Dispensational system (which honestly was hard for me), and now claim what is called Historic Premillennialism as my own (I flirted with amillennialism for awhile, but could not bite that bullet).

So that is a bit of my dispy testimony. I wanted to start this blog because I sense that there is really a lot of questions out there about this stuff (esp. in American Evangelicalism), and I have lots of background and training in this area; so why not offer some of what I know for those who might be interested. I will discuss the intricacies related to Dispensationalism. I will try to provide sketches on its history of development, its hermeneutics, its various instantiations (like Classic, Revised, and Progressive). I will contrast Dispensationalism with my Historic Premillennialism, and then with Amillennialism. I will also discuss the various tribulational views here.

I think this is a timely blog, and one that should be of interest to those who sit under this kind of teaching day in and out in American Evangelicalism. I will not be hyper-critical of dispensationalism here; instead I want to constructively engage it, and in so doing provide “critical” resources for “Church folk” to be able to engage in thoughtful reflection upon a system of thought that is usually communicated in ways that assume it to be the only “Biblical” interpretation of the Text of Holy Scripture. It is not the only alternative.