Tag Archives: Dispensationalism

A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part IV


In the previous post from this series on an overview of covenant theology, its historical developments, including divergent and competing views, we examined the historical development of CT’s most ardent opponent, dispensationalism, particularly its expansion into the United States in the 19th Century.  Also, we saw the growth of dispensationalism into the 20th and 21st centuries, including a brief mention of progressive dispensationalism, as the movement continued to migrate toward a middle ground between classic dispensationalism and Westminster covenant theology, which we examined in PART 1.

With the explosion of dispensationalism in the United States in the 19th and 20th century, covenant theology did not die on the branch altogether.  We must at least give mention to mighty Princeton University as she began her run of staunch conservative, Reformed theology. Such notables as Jonathan Edwards, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and Geerhardos Vos to name a few, carried the banner of Reformed theological thought into the 19th Century.  While J. Gresham Machen, O.T. Allis, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and Ned Stonehouse among others helped to carry the banner of Princeton into the 20th Century until her eventual slide into liberalism.  At that point, a split occurred and J. Gresham Machen left Princeton to establish another seminary to carry on the Reformed Tradition in the vein of Old Princeton.  Westminster Seminary was founded in 1929.  Each of those men listed above eventually followed Machen and Allis to Westminster. Albeit representatives of the paedobaptist variety of covenant theology, their influence on Baptists would be noteworthy in the 20th Century.

Though perhaps not as notable or prolific as their Presbyterian brothers during this time, Baptists had some noteworthy developments of her own.  Men such as Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), William Carey (1761-1834), John L. Dagg (1794-1884), Basil Manly, Sr. (1798-1868), P.H. Mell (1814-1888), James P. Boyce (1827-1888), John Broadus (1827-1895), B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), and R.B.C. Howell (1801-1868) to name a few, made significant contributions in Baptist history.  Howell’s work, The Covenants, is representative of the continuation of Baptist covenant theology developed in the 17th Century and Boyce’s Systematic Theology was the Baptist go to (and should be still), reflecting both a reformed soteriology and a baptistic understanding of the covenants.  However, it would be the influence of the “Prince of Preachers”, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), from 19th Century Great Britain that would have its greatest impact on 20th Century America, particularly through the writings of Arthur W. Pink.

While a subscriptionist to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession himself and authoring sermons that reflected the historic Baptist position on covenant theology, Spurgeon’s influence on Pink must have been felt in his childhood home.  Born in Nottingham, England 1886, Murray suggests the likelihood that the Pink household must have at least in part if not altogether had been recipients of Spurgeon’s widely circulated Sword and Trowel magazine.[1]

A.W. Pink, whom God was delighted to save out of the cult of Theosophy (toward which he had drifted as a young man) in 1908 set sail to America just two years later in order to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Ill.  Recall that it was Moody who was one of the catalysts for the spread of dispensational premillennialism.  It was under this ministry that Pink would gain his first taste of dispensationalism, as well as the fundamentalist reaction toward the liberalism of the day.

However, Pink’s stay at Moody, like much of his other ministerial positions, would be short-lived.  After just 6-weeks he was compelled to enter the pulpit and would have no more of “wasting my time” at the Moody Bible Institute.[2] Pink’s first pastorate would be in the mountains of Colorado at the Congregational church at Silverton.[3]  He would remain here for less than two years having moved on to other ministerial duties in 1912.

While Pink’s life is perhaps a less than adequate model of faithful, consistent, and balanced ministerial life, his writing legacy lives on through such esteemed works as The Sovereignty of God, Hebrews commentary, and his series Studies in Scripture, among many, many others.  However, it is likely that Pink’s work Dispensationalism, a polemic against the movement, and Divine Covenants are the most relevant for furthering the development of Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology as it has existed since the 17th Century.  Pink’s volume on the covenants stands expressly downstream from those who formulated the 1689 Baptist confession and should be consulted by all those wishing to understand a clearly articulated Baptist understanding of the covenants.  Additionally, his commentary on Hebrews provides a Baptist understanding of typology and continuity/discontinuity of Scriptures and leans heavily on the substantial Hebrews commentary of John Owen.

Pink’s influence was not lost among his contemporaries, most notably the highly esteemed Martyn Lloyd-Jones, though himself a Presbyterian. Similarly, another significant Reformed Baptist would carry Pink’s influence into the middle and latter half of the 20th Century.  That man was Ernest Reisinger.

During one of Pink’s many nomadic wanderings, this time bringing him to Kentucky, he met a man from Swengel, PA named I.C. Herendeen.[4]  Herendeen would become the first publisher of Pink’s works, including The Sovereignty of God through his “one-man publishing house” called “The Bible Truth Depot”.[5]  As Herendeen sought a church near his home in Swengel, he found one pastored by the newly installed John Reisinger.

John, his older brother Ernie, their middle brother Donald and younger sister Grace Esther were born and raised by humble means in Carlisle, PA, largely a Presbyterian town influenced greatly by the newly formed Westminster Seminary, just north of Philadelphia, PA.  After the war (WW2), John and Ernie became construction partners in Carlisle, PA.  Having grown up under Presbyterian influence, their natural affinity was to join a Presbyterian church in their hometown, Second Presbyterian Church.  After leading multiple Bible studies, Ernie was commissioned as a “lay preacher” in 1946 by the Carlisle Presbytery.[6]  Given the slide into liberalism that the Presbyterian Church underwent in the first half of the 20th Century, Ernie Reisinger found it increasingly difficult to remain in the denomination.

On December 9, 1951 a small group of 23 people met in the Carlisle High School Band Hall constituting the first meeting of what would become Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle.[7]  Ernie Reisinger’s doctrinal development would be owed, at least in part, to his younger brother John’s embrace of the Doctrines of Grace while at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania.  He became convinced of the truths of “Calvinism”, not from his coursework, but from a Bible study on the Gospel of John taught by a farmer “in a small country church in Lancaster County”.[8]  The summary lesson may be found in Geoffrey Thomas’ biography of Reisinger and is an excellent explanation of God’s electing grace.

While John Reisinger began working out his own understanding and applications of these truths, in 1953 the aforementioned I.C. Herendeen began sitting under his ministry.  Having heard Reisinger quote Charles Spurgeon, Herendeen gave him copies of Spurgeon’s sermons and autobiographical materials on the doctrines of grace, thereby helping to rectify any final theological difficulties he was having.

On return trips to Carlisle, PA, the younger Reisinger began to share with his brother Ernie the truths that he had encountered.  This eventual return of Baptists to their roots in the Doctrines of Grace is not insignificant but is in fact intimately linked with the resurgence of Reformed Baptists in the 20th century.  Additionally, John introduced Ernie to the publications of Banner of Truth, which, as we will see, would forever alter the publication and distribution of reformed material in the United States.

Ernest Reisinger, now exposed to the doctrines of grace, began to wrestle with his own theological understandings, namely dispensationalism in general and Victorious Christian Living in particular.  The newly formed Grace Chapel, through the influence of Heerenden and the younger Reisinger, developed a voracious appetite for reformed theology and sought to increase their understanding through well-known, historically significant books.  “Grace Baptist’s book table ministry began to purchase select titles from Baker Book House, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Presbyterian & Reformed, Reiner Publications, Sovereign Grace Publishers, Zondervan Publishers, and others.  In one year $10,000 worth of Christian books were sold.”[8]  Thomas notes that none of the congregants were so generous to give out books as Ernie Reisinger, “he developed the widest literature ministry to students, preachers and missionaries.”[9]

As providence would have it, their congregants became exposed to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession and in 1958 the church adopted the confession and formally became Grace Baptist Church.[10]  Here then in rural Pennsylvania can be found the roots of 20th Century reformed Baptists in America with a tiny, confessionally reformed Baptist church.

As the small church struggled to develop her identity as the lone confessionally reformed Baptist church, Ernie Reisinger sought the help of Ian Murray, from the aforementioned Banner of Truth publishers and a favorite of book ministry of Grace Baptist.  In Murray, he sought help to find resources that would solidify their understanding of Baptist polity.  Though himself a Presbyterian, Reisinger’s personal letter to Murray reflected well their struggle for identity

” I am writing for some guidance concerning a discussion in our local church (independent Calvinist Baptist).  We all seem to lean to the Presbyterian idea of elders and deacons and yet we do not go so far as to outrule all local autonomy.  My reason for writing is to inquire, is there some book or article or source of information that you could recommend that may be helpful.  What I’m trying to say is this.  We are a congregation of Baptists that is almost Presbyterian.  We do not see a strictly congregational rule and yet we do not see the extreme hierarchy type of government.  Would be grateful for any suggestion or help you may have.”[11]

As a result of the correspondence and massive increase in sales of Banner of Truth publications, “in August 1966 Humphrey Mildred, Banner of Truth’s assistant manager from London, visited Carlisle to find out what was happening in this small town that had caused more Banner of Truth books to be sold there than anywhere else outside the British Isles.”[12]  Eventually, Carlisle Pennsylvania would become the center of operations for Banner of Truth in America owing its source to a continually reforming 1950’s reformed Baptist congregation and her generous book loving reformer, Ernest Reisinger.

Reisinger’s circle of influence would soon broaden and help expand the cause of the rejuvenated Reformed Baptist movement.  It’s on this point, the Rise of Reformed Baptists in 20th Century America, that we will pick up the 5th and final post in this series that gives an overview to the history and developments of covenant theology.

[1] Murray, Ian. The Life of Arthur W. Pink, Banner of Truth Trust, 2004, p. 2-3.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] Ibid, 18.

[4] Chantry, Tom and David Dykstra, Holding Communion Together. Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014,   p. 15.

[5] Ibid, 16.

[6] Thomas, Geoff. Ernest C. Reisinger: A Biography, Banner of Truth Trust, 2002, p. 52.

[7] Ibid, 54

[8] Ibid, 62

[9] Ibid, 104

[10] Ibid, 104

[11] Chantry,  18.

[12] Thomas, 104-105.

[13] Ibid, 105.





Video: Covenant Distinctions Dispensationalism vs. LBC


Following up the previous post on the history of Covenant Theology, where the development of dispensational theology in America was described, the video below gives a helpful overview of the theological distinctions between dispensationalism and Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology, also  called 1689 Federalism, as outlined in the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession.


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.