A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part III


In our last post in this series on the historical overview of covenant theology, we examined the early development of dispensationalism (also called dispensational premillennialism) through the efforts of Lewis Way, Edward Irving, and John Nelson Darby.  Largely, these early seeds of dispensational thought were isolated to Europe, and England in particular.  As we will see in this post, Darby’s transatlantic trips would have an enormous effect on the spread of this teaching to America; the effects of which would be unrecoverable.

Recall that Darby, along with his association with the Plymouth Brethren, was becoming an influential voice among the churches in Great Britain.  Remember also that it was through the influence of Irving, and his influence from Way, that Darby began to synthesize views on the advancement of the Jewish return to Palestine and prominence given to Israel in prophecy, a futurist view of prophetic interpretation, the incipient doctrine of a secret rapture, an imminent return of Christ, a 2-stage return of Christ, and the sine qua non of dispensationalism, a rigid dichotomy between Israel and the Church.

Between 1862 and 1877 Darby made seven transatlantic trips to North America spreading his influence to Chicago, New York, Boston, and most notably St. Louis.  While his ecclesiological doctrines, central to the Brethren’s tenets, would struggle to find an ear in America, Darby’s dispensational beliefs, as they primarily related to prophecy, gained acceptance at the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, a church pastored by James H. Brookes.[1]

On the spread of dispensationalism in America, Weber writes,

“Among the first adopters of the new premillennialism was an impressive group of evangelical movers and shakers, mostly ‘second-tier’ pastors, Bible teachers, and revivalists with large constituencies.  This group contained evangelical entrepreneurs who knew how to promote dispensationalism, establish strong supporting institutions, and popularize it among evangelicals in the pew.  In this way, dispensationalism often flew under the radar of scholars and church leaders who were out of touch with rank-and-file believers.  By the time the elites noticed, dispensationlism was already well established among conservative evangelicals, with vibrant networks of its own.  What was the key to their success?  During a time of mounting crisis over the Bible’s reliability and acessibility to laypeople, dispensationalists were able to “out-Bible” everybody else in sight.” [2]

It should be noted that dispensationalism took root in the United States more on the basis of its eschatological teaching than on the basis of Darby’s concept of Israel and the church as two peoples of God, reasoning that it was an over-correction to the millennial hope put forth by postmillennialism.[3] In other words, premillennialism, and more specifically dispensational premillennialism, in America, was largely a reaction to certain “liberal brand[s] of postmillennialsm.”[4] Therefore the mid-19th century American mindset began to associate liberalism with postmillennialism and saw premillennialism, in its rising popular form, as a more conservative correction.

Allis notes that while Brookes’ dispensational views resembled Darby’s he neglected to associate or even give credit to Darby, a point at which he estimates that Brookes purposefully chose to distance himself from the more controversial, dissenting views of Darby and the Brethren.[5] In a nearly identical pattern the spread of dispensationalism in America, as in Great Britain, advanced through the organization of Bible conferences and the publication of prophetic literature.[6] The rise of these conferences began under the name “Believers’ Meetings for Bible Study,” attended by Brookes, soon evolving into the Niagara Bible Conference and the first of the national Prophetic Conferences, held in New York in 1878.[7] Several of the more prominent publications were periodicals such as The Prophetic Times, Waymarks in the Wilderness, Brookes’ Maranatha, Jesus is Coming, and the most prominent dispensational publication, The Scofield Reference Bible.[8]  With the rise and spread of these Bible conferences, entering on the scene will be the most significant figure for the spread of dispensationalism in American history, C.I. Scofield, author of the aforementioned reference Bible.

C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) born in Michigan, lived primarily in Tennessee and was discharged as a decorated soldier from Confederate Army having served during the Civil War.  Scofield studied law and was appointed U.S. Attorney to Kansas by President Grant.[9]  He was converted in 1879 and just three years later, with no formal theological education, was ordained as a Congregational minister.  At this time, he began his work on his study Bible in which his notes were placed directly in the text of Scripture, virtually indistinguishable from the King James text in which he wrote.[10]

If Darby synthesized the early concepts of dispensationalism, then certainly C.I. Scofield is the great systemizer of dispensationalism, having advanced the concepts now on the entirety of Scripture.  Despite the assertion of mostly orthodox, conservative theology, Cox notes the great fallacy of the study Bible was the presumption of Scofield to place his notes alongside Scripture.  He speaks to the difficulty of distinguishing the two by its readers in the following quote,

“The gist of the entire controversy at this point, it seems to me, lies in the fact that many of Scofield’s most devoted disciples equate his Notes with the inspired words of the writers of the New Testament.  The difficulty arises when they attempt to force this equation upon the minds and hearts of others.”[11]

Murray states that,

“Scofield’s notes made his master’s [Darby] teaching on prophecy an integral part of the Reference Bible first published in 1909 and thereafter wedded to Scofield’s name.  Within fifty years approximately three million copies of the Scofield Reference Bible were printed in America…making Darby’s prophetical beliefs the norm for evangelicals in the English-speaking world.”[12]

Armed with a textbook for dispensationalism, prophecy conferences that were still in full swing, and charismatic leadership, the ground was set for a dispensational explosion in 20th century America.  Significant for this advancement was the conference of 1914, held at the Moody Bible Institute and lead by James Gray, W.B. Riley, Scofield, and A.C. Gaebeline.  Sarver notes that in “no previous conference had the details of dispensationalism been laid out so explicitly and dogmatically.”[13]

Already a bastion for premillennial thought and defense against modernity, The Moody Bible Institute, founded in 1886 by D.L. Moody, became the first of many Bible Institutes that would serve well the cause of dispensationalism.  These Bible Institutes “were not seminaries; they were training schools for Christian lay workers.”[14]   At the heart of the early dispensational movement in America were not men steeped in the rigors of theological training, specifically biblical languages, but laymen whom Moody called “gapmen” trained more to be evangelists than exegetes.[15]

It should be noted that among Moody’s doctrinal novelties was Keswick teaching, which he imported from his many trips to Great Britain.  This doctrine of “higher life”, a second blessing or work of grace, would blend well with the distinctions of dispensationalism and ultimately lead to the carnal Christian doctrine that would become prominent among dispensational thought.

The influence of Moody on the spread of dispensationalism can be felt on a multitude of levels.  Though himself not an ardent propagator of the doctrine, he provided a platform for the spread of dispensationalism through conferences, influenced doctrinal development, as earlier noted, and lead the advance of premillennial and, more specifically, dispensational publications.  One parody of a gospel song highlights this well, “Our hope is built on nothing less/Than Scofield’s notes and Moody Press.”[16]  Yet perhaps Moody’s greatest influence would be felt indirectly through the founding of the first Bible institute.  This would lead to the founding of another major institution, Dallas Theological Seminary.

Following the non-denominational pattern outlined by Moody Bible Institute and other institutes, Dallas Theological Seminary was “founded in the mid 1920’s by premillennialist Presbyterians.”  This desire to abandon denominational distinctives significantly meant the abandonment of doctrinal creeds on which Protestantism had set her sails coming out of the Reformation.  Weber notes that the center of “institutional dispensationalism” was Dallas Theological Seminary and it quickly became the “academic and theological ‘Vatican’ of the movement.”[17]  It’s founder and first president was Lewis Sperry Chafer, whose voluminous systematic theology would outline and further define dispensational thought.  Though Chafer, himself a Presbyterian, had no formal theological training, his relationship with Scofield is well documented.  He was instrumental in helping Scofield found the Philadelphia School of the Bible and they participated together in the Northfield Bible Conferences.  Soon to become their president, Chafer began what would become a two-decade ministerial friendship with C.I. Scofield.  With seeds firmly planted and watered, the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary would produce the dispensational fruit necessary to propel the movement to the forefront of theological thought in 20th century America.  Leadership at Dallas has included such men as Dwight Pentecost, Norman Geisler, H.A. Ironside, and Dallas graudates, Charles C. Ryrie, John F. Walvoord, and Charles Swindoll.[18]

Most notable among the graduates of Dallas, whose impact is still felt today, is Hal Lindsey.  Weber notes that “no premillennialist was more successful at getting these ideas [pre-tribulational rapture] across” than Lindsey.[19]  The major publication of his dispensational thought with an eye towards prophecy was The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970.  In the 1970’s Lindsey’s book would go on to sell over 18 million copies, making him the bestselling author of the decade.  To date, it has sold more than 35 million copies[20] becoming the first major “religious” book to crossover to the secular market.

Another significant, more modern publication was the Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.  The first in this series Left Behind: A novel of the Earth’s Last Days, was published in 1997 and really served to bring dispensational doctrine once again into the mainstream view, particularly the teachings of a secret rapture and Great Tribulation which as we have seen can be traced in their origin to the mid to late 1700’s.  The series would go on to sell more than 65 million copies[21] and a lead to a movie production.

In the 21st century, dispensationalism consists largely of an amalgamation of doctrinal positions with some proponents holding fast to the dispensationalism of Darby, i.e. that found in Ryrie, while others have migrated to a more progressive view of dispensationalism.  These differences may be found in such self-proclaimed “leaky dispensationlists” as John MacArthur and The Master’s Seminary, which hold more closely to  Ryrie dispensationalism while some Southern Baptist seminaries and the Southern Baptist Convention in general hold and propagate a wide range of dispensational beliefs, a development largely opposed by Reformed Baptist Earnest Reisinger in the 1990’s.[22]

Ryrie notes that this shift in dispensational thought occurred at the 1986 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and formally took the name “progressive dispensationalism” at the 1991 meeting.[23]  Interestingly, this movement has been led by Dallas Theological Seminary graduates, Darrell L. Bock and Craig A. Blaising, along with Robert Saucy.[24]  As Ryrie notes, this new stream of dispensationalism does not hold to the sine qua non which he had gathered from Chafer and Darby before him, specifically the strict distinction between the Church and Israel.[25]

Through the republication of Ryrie’s 1965 work Dispensationalism Today into the book Dispensationalism, he sought to address many of these shifts from classic to a more progressive forms of dispensationalism,[26] which one might readily conclude is really no dispensationalism at all because it lacks a firm distinction between Israel and the Church, one of the early doctrinal positions of the movement.  Interestingly, Ryrie is clear to point this out, this new breed of dispensationalism begins to move closer to the historic covenant theology while the later has remained true to her historic roots,[27] perhaps providing insight into the future sustainability of dispensationalism.

The development of dispensationalism cannot in any defendable way be traced to a time period before the late 18th century.  While early pieces of the puzzle were scattered abroad, the movement lacked any clear direction until the ministry of Edward Irving and more notably the synthesis of John Nelson Darby.  It would appear that societal climate, primarily the presence of wars, heightened prophetic fervor in Great Britain and America, paved the way for a renewed interest in the apocalyptic books of the Bible.  Aiding this was the development of dispensational publications which made the views easily accessible and widely disseminated.  Without question, had dispensationalism emerged in any early period of Church history, sans the power of print, its influence would have been minimal.  As it stands, dispensationalism used the means available in the 19th and 20th centuries leading to the most important publication of the Scofield Reference Bible.  Had this publication not have had the notes directly in the text of Scripture, creating difficulty for the reader to discern the Divine from the Scofield, it’s likely this too would have remained on the shelf.  As shown, its profound influence led to the spread of dispensationalism in America and eventually the foundation of Dallas Theological Seminary, where men would be trained in the theology of Darby and Chafer with limitless resources in a time where theological liberalism was rampant and the corrective was not Biblicism, but fundamental dispensationalism.

Dispensational progression from the early views of Darby, Chafer, and more recently Ryrie to historic covenant theology self-testifies to the quicksand upon which the system was founded.  The influence of dispensationalism, particularly in America, cannot be understated.  While the historical, even modern proponents of the system represent mostly faithful, God-fearing men, in many respects these men are better than the system they represent.


*Much of this post is derived, at least in part, from a paper submitted May 2014 to Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary titled “A Survey of the Historical Origins and Doctrinal Formulation of Modern Dispensationlism”

[1] Sarver, “Dispensationalism”.

[2] Weber, On the Road, 26

[3] Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 19.

[4] Sarver, “Dispensationalism”

[5] Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and The Church (Philadelphia, PA: P&R, 1947), 13.

[6] Poythress, Understanding, 19.

[7] Allis, Prophecy, 13.

[8] Allis, 13-14.

[9] Cox, Examination, 13.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cox, Examination, 16.

[12] Murray, Hope, 198.

[13] Sarver, “Dispensationalism”

[14] Timothy P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 33-34

[15] Weber, Second Coming, 34.

[16] Ibid, 174.

[17] Weber, Second Coming, 238.

[18] Weber, Second Coming, 238.

[19] Weber, Second Coming, 211.

[20] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books (Accessed May 3, 2014)

[21] Ibid.

[22] http://founders.org/fj09/the-history-of-dispensationalism-in-america/

[23] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 161.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, 164.

[26] Ibid, 12.

[27] Ibid, 162.

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