Understanding Dispensationalism

Tom_Nelson_Dispensationalism Video is available here: http://dbcmedia.org/sermons/dispensationalism-key-to-the-whole-story-of-god/

The sermon above is by Tommy Nelson of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas. First let me say that Tommy Nelson is an excellent preacher who is knowledgeable and passionate about God’s Word. His study on Song of Solomon is worth the price and his sermon on Romans 9 is par excellence. However, for as much respect as I have for Pastor Nelson’s preaching, in this particular message on dispensationalism I must disagree.

As a hermeneutic (system or “science” of interpretation), dispensationalism has migrated quite a bit from its inception by Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and the reference Bible of C.I. Scofield (1843 – 1921). From the work of these early dispensationalists or what might best be called Classic Dispensationalism the system moved to something called Revised Dispensationalism and really began to grow under the influence of Lewis Sperry Chafer, who founded Dallas Theological Seminary. This revised system (which was a gradual shift) is what most people, at least in this country, have been exposed to. So it’s likely that you are familiar with the interpretation of the Bible from the dispensational perspective, but are simply unfamiliar (as I was) with its major tenets and general view of Scripture.

Using the overwhelming popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible, the volumes of systematic theology published by Chafer, and the development of pastors from Dallas Theological Seminary, dispensationalism flourished in the 1900’s and rightly so. It offered a corrective to the liberalism that was taking over the seminary at Princeton, which eventually led to a split and the formation of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. More current works, such as those by Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, and perhaps the most well-known modern dispensationalist (though self-described as a “leaky” dispensationalist), John MacArthur[1], have led to the continuation of these beliefs. Today however, another shift has been taking place from this revised dispensationalism to what is called Progressive Dispensationalism. It’s a lot to digest, but I think Church history is extremely important in understanding doctrinal development. It’s also important to be able to understand and recognize what you may hear or read and be able to understand how it fits the larger scope of biblical interpretation.

Below are some key distinctives[2] for dispensationalism:

  1. A distinction between Israel and the Church. As you will hear Pastor Nelson say, this is the sine qua non of dispensationalism. This is probably their most recognizable distinction, but also where I probably have the most disagreement. Some classic dispensationalists went so far as to declare 2 ways of salvation, one for Jew and one for Gentile (a belief that has been alive and well in every Bible study I’ve ever taught). Revised dispy’s moved off of this position, but still maintained a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church in the plan of God. It often necessarily followed that the Church would be removed or “raptured” from the earth while the Jews would remain, allowing for Christ to establish His earthly kingdom and take His rightful place on the Davidic throne. Note how this division necessarily forces a premillennial view of the end times.
  2. A literal interpretation of Scripture. If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times (and you’ll hear it also in Pastor Nelson’s sermon), only dispensationalist take the Bible literally, at face value for what it is saying. All others spiritualize or allegorize or flatten their interpretation. This is the nailing Jello to the wall argument. This has been the consistent view from classic to progressive dispensationalism (though the latter has backed away some and now rightly prefers the phrase grammatical-historical interpretation)[3]. The problem is that I don’t know anyone who truly desires to be faithful to Scripture who doesn’t take the Bible literally. The difference is that hard-line dispensationalists say the Bible says what it means and means what it says and therefore must be taken at its plain, face-value meaning or what has been termed “literal”. The non-dispy agrees with the sentiments that the Bible means what it says and is the literal Word of God, but understands that the Bible uses genre, figures of speech, types, and shadows and therefore must be understood narrowly in context and broadly in God’s plan of redemption as revealed in the entire Bible not forced into external guidelines. Does Revelation 12:3 refer to a literal “enormous red dragon with seven heads ten horns and seven crowns” or is the Apostle John using a figure of speech to represent an idea. Does God own the “cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), while someone else owns the cattle on hill #1001? Or is this a figure of speech used to convey a significantly large number of hills, i.e. all of them? Using the phrase literal or plain meaning is not helpful. As Vern Poythress has pointed out, the term is vague and “is a useful watchword…precisely because it can become a vehicle for sliding into a flat interpretation or plain interpretation when it is convenient to do so”.[4]
  3. The glory of God as the primary goal of history. Similar to the literal interpretation statement, this one seems to imply that dispy’s are the only one’s seeking the glory of God, though I’m quite sure that Soli Deo Gloria was around centuries before the development of dispensationalism. As a non-dispensationalist, I see the glory of God as a primary goal of history as well and that doesn’t align me with dispy, it aligns me with the Bible. This really isn’t a good distinction for dispy’s to claim and though I do not want to speculate on motive, one has to wonder if it was expressed with the hopes of creating a (false) paradigm that dispy’s hold to the glory of God and non-dispy’s do not.
  4. Interpreting the NT in light of the OT. Up to this point, the distinctives mentioned are those outlined by Charles Ryrie in his book Dispensationalism (see footnote 2). But there is a fourth distinction that I must include, because as will be shown in the review of Herman Hoyt’s dispensational premillennialism, it, perhaps more than any above, is the chief difference between dispy and non-dispy. If we were to examine the 3 characteristics listed above, #1 would be a matter of trading Bible verses on both sides, #2 would be a matter of clarifying terms, and there would be virtually no disagreement on #3, so dispensationalism would really have no cause to rethink their position, nor would the non-dispy be given any real reason to change their own. However, if it is a matter of hermeneutics, the basics behind all biblical interpretation, then it will either have to be an “agree to disagree” or a very real challenge to the interpretation of either side. The black and white distinctions would be drawn more clearly.

As you listen to Tommy Nelson’s sermon, pay special attention to those 4 characteristics above and do not fail to be Berean-like and test the things he’s saying with Scripture.

I’ll close with a quote from Ernest Reisinger in the Founders Journal:

“This is a Southern Baptist journal, therefore, I must say something about Dispensationalism in Southern Baptist churches. Historically, the Southern Baptist churches were not Dispensational in theology. None of our leading seminaries or colleges ever taught Dispensationalism and to the present day they do not teach Dispensationalism.

I believe I am safe in saying that Dr. Wally Amos Criswell has been the most influential and articulate Southern Baptist Dispensationalists. Dr. Criswell is one of the great, esteemed and respected leaders of our denomination and every Southern Baptist is deeply indebted to him as a defender of the Bible and conservative Christianity. Where and how this great leader got his Dispensationalism I do not know. I do know that he did not get it at Baylor in his college days. He did not get it at Southern in his seminary days, and he did not get it from his great predecessor, George W. Truett, who pastored the First Baptist Church in Dallas, for 47 years before Dr. Criswell. George W. Truett was a postmillennialist.

There are other good men in the Southern Baptist Convention who have Dispensational views, but they did not get these views in our schools or seminaries. They did not get them from our Baptist fathers or from our Baptist historical roots.

We cannot overlook the accomplishments of Dispensationalism. It has given rise to Bible colleges and independent churches all over the land. It has spawned numerous independent missions, independent preachers and missionaries.

The issue before us is not a few minor differences or disagreements between those who hold basically the same position. It is not just a difference in eschatology. It is the whole system of theology that touches every major doctrine of Christianity. What is at stake is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and the sinner’s assurance that he is living according to God’s plan for history.”

For additional resources on the history of dispensationalism see:





[1] This is not to say that we all cannot read and learn from these men. Personally I have learned much from the ministry of Pastor MacArthur, both through his sermons and writings, including his study Bible.

[2] The first 3 distinctives are outlined by Charles Ryrie in his book Dispensationalism. You can see them summarized here: http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Bad-Theology/Dispensationalism/

[3] A consideration of the language as used by a text under investigation in its original, historical context. Grammatical-historical interpretation concentrates on the words, phrases, clauses, sentences, pericopes, book, genre, and historical context – author, recipients, place of writing and circumstances, destination, etc.

[4] http://www.the-highway.com/literal1_Poythress.html


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Christian saved by grace through faith.


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