What Is Dispensationalism?

Dispensationalism is an approach to understanding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments that sees more discontinuity than continuity between them. The church and Israel are strictly distinct peoples of God and do not mix any more than oil and water. Dispensationalism views redemptive history in seven stages: innocence (Adam to fall), conscience (fall to flood), human government (flood to Abraham), promise (Abraham to Moses), law (Moses to Christ), grace (Christ to his second coming), and the millennial kingdom. Each period involves a time of testing where man fails God’s test to which God responds by beginning a new dispensation. Adam failed, the people in Noah’s day failed, the people at Babel failed, Israel failed in the desert, Israel failed again leading to the exile to Babylon, the church fails leading to the rapture, and the rebels at the end of the millennium fail to obey God and are destroyed.

Dispensationalism is best known for its system of eschatology as popularized by C. I. Scofield’s Study Bible, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series. This view is known as pretribulational premillennialism, first promoted by John Nelson Darby, which teaches that the church will be raptured from the earth seven years before the second coming of Christ. The church is a parenthesis in God’s plans for Israel and the rapture of the church is a necessary step before God can fulfill his promises to Israel. After the second coming, Israel will enter the millennium with unresurrected bodies and return to observing the Mosaic law in accordance with Ezekiel 40-48. At the end of the millennium, some of the descendants of those who enter the millennium will rebel against Christ before being destroyed in accordance with the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20.

The dispensational approach to Old Testament laws is that every Old Testament law has been abrogated and done away with in the church age so that only the laws of the New Testament are binding on Christians today. Old Testament laws are only applicable to Christians if they are repeated in the New Testament. But the result of this hermeneutic is that the entire Old Testament is now irrelevant for the study of Christian ethics since anything it says must be repeated in the New Testament for it to be binding on us. They also reject the threefold division of the law into moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws. This is why Charles Spurgeon opposed dispensationalism as a form of antinomianism. As one of my professors said, it’s difficult to find Old Testament scholars who are dispensationalists. Why would you want to become a scholar of books whose ethical teachings are only binding on Christians today if they are repeated in the New Testament? The opposite approach is that of covenant theology which states that every law in the Old Testament is binding on Christians today except for those which are abrogated by the New Testament or those which can be clearly shown to be ways Israel was to distinguish themselves from the nations around them and are not related to any of the Ten Commandments which is a summary of the moral law.

Dispensationalism should not be confused with hyper-dispensationalism which is the application of the dispensational hermeneutic concerning the Old Testament to the teachings of Jesus and much of the book of Acts. Hyper-dispensationalists argue that unless a command in the Gospels or the first half of Acts is repeated in the letters of the New Testament, it is not binding on Christians today because Jesus’ teachings were specifically for the Jews and not the church. They argue that the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not directly relevant for Christians today, only for Israel and those living in the millennium since Jesus was not addressing the church since it didn’t exist then. Some hyper-dispensationalists even argue that baptism is not for the church today because it is rooted in Jewish customs and not part of the church age. Other beliefs associated with hyper-dispensationalism include the teaching that repentance is not necessary for salvation, Sandemanianism, antinomianism, the belief that Israelites before Christ were saved by works, and neglecting to teach on God’s holiness, justice, and wrath.

Hyper-dispensationalism is essentially a return to Marcionism without the polytheistic dualism. The heretic Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the Gospels as canonical and only considered the writings of Paul and an edited version of Luke to be authoritative. While hyper-dispensationalists do not claim to reject these writings as canonical, they are functionally non-canonical because what they teach can only be true for the church today if the letters of the New Testament affirm what they teach. Hence, hyper-dispensationalism is a reductio ad absurdum which God ordained to expose the dispensational approach to the laws of the Old Testament since, according to dispensationalism, the church was not in existence while Jesus was on earth. Therefore, how could his teachings be directly relevant to a group that did not exist then if they are going to use the same argument with regard to Old Testament laws since the church did not exist then either?

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