After defining dispensationalism, this article examines it along with its hermeneutic.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2013. 5 pages.

A Doctrine of Dispensations Dispensationalism Examined

Book - Left Behind

The best-selling series Left behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has made Christians all over the world feel quite uncomfortable. In these fictional novels, the secret rapture of the believers at the moment of Christ’s first return creates havoc in society.

Aeroplanes crash to the ground because the pilot, a Christian, suddenly disappears from the cockpit. Traffic turns into a dangerous chaos when traffic police disappear into thin air. Patients undergoing surgery bleed to death when the operation is abandoned. Men and women are suddenly missing from their families, and disappear from society. Governments accuse each other of subversive activities and even start wars. The films that were made by adapting this script also left a deep impression on the public, especially on Christians. The reality described is not a danger to believers, though, as they are safe. They are in the rapture, to be with the Lord.

Of course, the scenario does not end there. The conversion of many, including many from Israel, is also to be expected, and at the same time the great tribulation takes place on earth for a period of seven years. All the disasters described in Revelation 6-19 will happen in the time of the Antichrist. Believers will not be affected by that – they have been taken away.

We can imagine ideas like these having an impact on Christians, and certainly on young people. While it is not here possible to go into detail regarding the interpretation of Scripture that is behind all this, I would like to sketch the principal ideas that are at the root of this theory, as well as the hermeneutic, the way of reading the Bible, that is behind it. What we encounter here is

1. Orientation🔗


Apart from these fascinating novels and films, there are more ways in which the ideas of the rapture and all that surrounds it are being advocated on an international scale. Many magazines dealing with Israel and its future have a dispensationalist background. The Scofield Reference Bible has also been of great importance. It is clear that a premillennial conviction plays a role, with its expectation of Christ’s reign on the earth for a period of a thousand years. However, not all premillennialists are dispensationalists. And there are quite a few differences within Dispensationalism itself, for there is even such a phenomenon as ‘ultra-dispensationalism’, to name but one variation.

The origin of Dispensationalism can be traced to the 19th century and John N. Darby (1800-1882). He could be called the father of the Brethren. The reason why he separated himself from the Anglican Church concerned the fact that he found it unbearable that the church was subordinate to the state. His difficult character most likely played a part in his work, as also did his education as a lawyer. Yet his true inner motive was his love for Christ. His passionate nature made him a rather compelling leader, and was the cause of many conflicts. However, we concern ourselves with the manner of reading the Scriptures rather than personality issues.

John Darby

The System🔗

There is more to Dispensationalism than the doctrine of the rapture of the church at the start of the millennium. First and foremost, we should pay attention to the biased way of reading the Bible, the hermeneutic. There is a system of seven dispensations. Of course the term dispensation is not unfamiliar to Reformed or Presbyterian believers. We distinguish the Old and the New Dispensation, the Old and New Testament. We know that in the Old Testament the Law of God has a dominant position, and in the New Testament the gospel. How to define the relationship between these two is certainly an important topic. In Darby’s thinking, an antithesis or a contrast exists between the dispensation of the law (Israel, the OT) and the dispensation of grace (the Church, the NT).

In connection with this we could already consider an important question: Is the relationship between Old and New Testament, between law and gospel, one of contrast? Or is the relationship rather one of a continuing path of promise and fulfilment?

The principle upon which Darby bases the distinctions between the dispensations is remarkable and demands reflection. In his way of thinking, the Biblical testimony can be divided into seven dispensations in which the special relationship between God and man altered. Moreover, each dispensation ended or will end in failure. The ‘scheme’ of dispensations is as follows:

  1. Paradise.
    Man has to preserve his innocence. This is actually a preliminary period, leading up to the Fall.
  2. The period of conscience.
    The law has not been given yet. However, this period ends in judgment – the Great Flood.
  3. After the Great Flood.
    Capital punishment is established, and a government. However, by the time of Abraham, there are hardly any believers left.
  4. Abraham and his offspring.
    This is the dispensation of faith. This also went wrong and ended with persecution in Egypt.
  5. The Exodus and the covenant at Sinai: the law. This ends in the exile.
  6. Now, since Pentecost, it is the time of the church. This is the dispensation of grace, ending in the great apostasy.
  7. The last dispensation: the millennium.
    This also ends in misery when Satan is released against Jerusalem.
  8. The eternal destination, of course, being no dispensation, when all is made new: the new heavens and the new earth in eternity.

Looking at this scheme we realize that one dispensation is not always completed when a new one begins, in spite of the fact that it did not bring what was expected. For example, the conscience (2) is still valid for individual persons. Human government (3) is still a reality for the peoples of the earth. Regarding the dispensation of the law (5) it is important to acknowledge that the cross of Christ brought an end to the significance of the law. And of course here we do, in fact, still see two tracks: one for Israel and one for the congregation.

2. The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism🔗

How do we read the Bible?🔗

Dispensationalists teach that the Bible must be taken literally. We can agree with that, especially in the sense that an allegorical exegesis of Scripture is to be rejected. That would, indeed, lead to all kinds of arbitrary explanations. The number three then might always point to the Trinity; the colour red always indicate the blood of Christ etc. Of course, dispensationalists too recognize that some passages are written in metaphorical or symbolic language, such as the parables of Christ. Nevertheless, this outline of dispensations is employed almost as something conjured out of a magician’s hat, giving a significance to texts and portions of Scripture that would never be discovered during normal Bible reading. An important example of this is the explanation of Paul’s words to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:15) where the command is given to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ (King James Version) or, literally, to ‘cut the Word straight’ (orthotomounta). According to these teachers, the assignment here is to divide the Word into pieces, in order to make the application of the words clear for different periods and for different people. Yet what Paul actually says is that one must do justice to the Word of God: ‘who correctly handles the Word of truth’ (NIV).


The Lord’s Prayer is likewise cut into pieces, and sections are made applicable for completely different times and groups.

The books of the Old Testament prophets, in turn, are often explained as a route map for the future. The way in which chapters like Ezekiel 40-48 are dealt with raises many questions. We find the vision of a new temple, with a special priesthood from the family of Zadok (Ez. 40: 45f; 44:15); there will be sacrifices (Ez. 40:39; 43:18f.). God comes into the temple (Ez. 43:1-5) and a fordable river streams out of the temple, etc. Such will be the temple of the future, in the millennium, so they claim. Quite literally. On a number of other occasions we must conclude that dispensationalists themselves do not escape spiritualization, in spite of the confessed necessity of taking everything literally.1

Such an approach to Ezekiel’s prophecies raises several questions, such as how there can still be sacrifices after the curtain of the temple has been torn in two from top to bottom (Mat.27:51). And where does the idea come from that this will be fulfilled in the millennium?

Another example of this cutting of the Word into periods is the division of the letters of the Lord Jesus to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2 and 3) to match periods in church history following the days of the apostles. Here the division does not follow the dispensations but is also an example of ‘cutting’ into periods. The letter to Philadelphia, for instance, is said to describe the period of church history from 1730-1900. It is directed at the spreading unbelief, and the revival of Christianity in Europe and in America, with missionary activities around the globe.

Perhaps it will be possible to find a church of each type in every age, and in this light Revelation 3:10 indicates the rapture of the church.2 The serious and encouraging message of these letters for the church of all ages is, in fact, distorted by such an approach.

The Bible Divided🔗

The necessity of dividing according to the dispensations is continuously pre-eminent as the background to the exegesis. The seven dispensations are not only related to historical periods; the corresponding chapters of God’s Word also only apply to a certain group. That idea is based upon 1 Corinthians 10:32 where Paul mentions the Jews, the Greeks, and the church of God. The general idea is that any part of Scripture can only be directed to one of these three categories, Jews, pagans or Christians. One author (Chafer) says that for Christians only the Gospel of John, Acts and the Letters apply. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is primarily to do with the kingdom of God and not with the church. It will only become relevant for the rest of the Jews after the rapture of the church. In this way, for the exegesis of each verse of the Bible we would need first to establish whether it is spoken to heathens or to Israel or to the church. This can differ from verse to verse. A certain dispensationalist author even remarked that an edition of the Bible in three sections might be more consistent.

It is clear that, in the list of dispensations, the fourth to the seventh are actually the most important to us. New Testament Christians have left the first three dispensations behind them. It is also obvious that the whole explanation of the Bible becomes critically important in regard to the relationship between Israel and the church, with important consequences for eschatology of course.

Israel and the Church🔗

Typical of Dispensationalism is that God has different plans for Israel and for the church. Israel’s future is a kingdom on this earth; for the church there will be heavenly bliss. The church will share her future blessing by faith in the finished work of Christ; for Israel the way of obedience to the law remains. When Jesus came to earth it was for the establishment of a kingdom of a thousand years with Israel. Only when Israel rejected him did he become the Crucified. And then God’s plan for a kingdom was postponed until Christ’s second coming. If Israel had not rejected the Messiah, then there would have been no need for a cross. This whole package of ideas has enormous consequences! God’s counsel embracing all (or as we might also say, the sovereignty of God in His controlling of the history of creation) is completely neglected. The glorious message clarified in the New Testament, how – in Christ – the promise to Abraham is being fulfilled so that in him all the generations of the earth will be blessed, is rejected. Dispensationalists refuse to do justice to the unity of God’s plan and his actions.


3. The Unity of God’s Work🔗

God is One🔗

When Reformed people try to discuss theology with dispensationalists the theme of God’s covenant is certain to form a stumble-block. This subject, of course, has to do with the unity of God’s work as opposed to the crumbling of salvation history as presented by dispensationalists.

Not only is the unity of history, and of God’s work in history, at stake, but also the deep conviction that God Himself is One. The God and Father of Jesus Christ who created heaven and earth is the God of Israel, and the God of David, and of Hezekiah etc. We must face the question: has God’s revelation moved along a path from one failure to another? This question gives rise to many more questions! Does the Old Testament, and for example the Law, no longer have a message for the church of today? Does Jesus as the Messiah and King of Israel have a completely different programme from what he is for the Church, the Saviour, the Bridegroom? Do we really have to lay aside all those passages as though they are meant for another category of readers? Is the great tribulation, of which the book of Revelation speaks, something of no concern for the majority of believing Christians, because they will – in the rapture – escape that fate?

Many of these questions become even more poignant when placed in the light of the description of the millennium. While it is not possible to go into that aspect now, the realization, according to the doctrine of dispensations, that many parts of the book of Revelation do not necessarily touch us is quite shocking.

In order to keep sight of the whole of God’s Word, I prefer now to outline some general biblical principles. The very first is that God is One (Deut. 6:4; Eph. 4:5-6). The Creator of heaven and earth comprises all ages in his divine sovereignty (cf. Acts 15:14-18). God is One in his purpose (Acts 2:23; Heb. 6:17).

One Revelation🔗

Through all the centuries, the church has been aware of the fact that the Bible contains the one history of God’s dealing with man. God is at the beginning, and Genesis 1 already shows that the creation is considered as a whole, and is entirely God’s. Immediately it is about us! In the ‘mother of all promises’ (Gen. 3:15) all ages are enclosed. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (Gen. 6:6), but the word ‘failure’ does not fit here in this shocking conclusion, for, in the next phase, he keeps his original plan with man and creation (Gen. 12:3). Israel is the narrowing down of God’s dealing with man, but it is with an aim to its widening. So we see God’s history with his world as a history of salvation.

In the New Testament we are taught how the Old Testament is involved with Christ (Luke 24:27, 32, 45; Acts 18:28 etc.). The unity of God’s revelation is closely connected with the unity of God’s work, right across human sin and rebellion and unbelief. The Gospel of Matthew, the letters to the Romans and the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation are characterized exactly by the insights to the Old Testament that they present. The old saying by Augustine, that the New Testament is hidden (latet) in the Old Testament and that the Old Testament is opened (patet) in the New Testament, describes this unity quite effectively.

Yet Dispensations Exist!🔗

The word dispensation is familiar enough. We know it from the biblical testimony regarding the covenant of grace. The outline of God’s covenant – throughout the Bible – is an important hermeneutical tool for interpreting the unity of God’s work in history. And there we find two dispensations, the old and the new covenant. These two, however, are not contrasted with each other because the first covenant had ‘failed’. We prefer to see both as characterized by the concepts of promise and fulfilment, rather than as opposed to each other. In Colossians 2:11-12 Paul deals with circumcision. He does not say that circumcision no longer has anything to say to the Christians in Colosse, but that those who by faith and baptism are connected to Christ share in his circumcision. A continuity and a difference are made clear simultaneously. There is one covenant, one history, but because of the new dispensation in Christ, the bloody sign that was part of circumcision is not necessary any more for us.

Nevertheless, we are still confronted with God’s judgment because we trespassed against his law. At the same time we realize that Israel was already dependent on God’s grace (see Ex. 34: 6-7!). We might even say that Old and New Testament overlap each other! How clear this is in 1 Peter 1:13-19. The apostle points to the demands of the law of holiness as a proper description of what, by grace, is actually given to us (v. 13). The believers are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ (vs. 18-19), and therefore they are urged to holy living. This illustrates both the connection and the difference between law and gospel! The law never existed without the gospel. And the gospel of grace never leaves the law behind. The standard of God remains. God is One.

And Israel?🔗

The place of Israel in God’s history also cannot be seen apart from the notion of fulfilment, and of course not apart from the one Messiah. The unity of the body of Christ, existing in Jews and Gentiles, is essential (Eph. 2 and 3). I cannot elaborate on that now. Let it suffice to notice that for too long Christians have taken refuge in a kind of ‘replacement theology’ in which Christians supposedly took the place of Jews in God’s salvation plan. In doing that, the word ‘together’ in Ephesians 3:6 is sold short, as is the metaphor of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24. God’s work is one.


  1. ^ See e.g. Is. 55:12; Mi. 6:1; Joel 3:18; Hos. 2:17)
  2. ^ See the Scofield Reference Bible

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