I recognize that I have not really defined what a Dispensationalist is yet. That’s fine. Now is the time.
A Dispensationalist does not necessarily believe in seven dispensations, that is divisions, of how God interacts with man. It doesn’t require believing in three or four instead of seven or eight; the number is not the most important piece. Most people would agree, Covenantalists included, that things were different before and after Adam’s fall, that some things were different before and after God gave the Law to Israel, that other things were different before and after Christ’s coming and death and resurrection, and that certain things are different now than they will be in the future, whether or not you expect the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth or you expect to go directly into the eternal state. There are, then, different dispensations or ways of ordering history. All believers should be little “d” dispensationalists at least.
The key things we believe are non-negotiable for a capital “D” Dispensationalist are as follows.
1. A Dispensationalist believes that God’s promises in the Old Testament may be explained and added to in the New Testament but they cannot be canceled or even modified to mean something other than the original OT audience understood.
This is why Dispensationalism is a Bible-reading project. This is not to say that Covenantalists do not read their Bible. It is to say that there are different directions to read the Bible, and we think we should start at the beginning, in Genesis, not start from the back and work toward the front. We believe in starting in the front and reading the story until the finish.
It is a principle of Covenantal Theology to give priority to the New Testament over the Old. Is this a good thing? It depends on what we mean by “priority.” The New Testament surely explains things that were unknown in the Old. Isaiah did not know the name of the Suffering Servant, Matthew does. The prophets longed to look into the person and timing of the Christ, while Peter was able to tell his readers straight out.
The New Testament may, with progressive revelation, shine light on Old Testament passages, offer commentary, or add additional implications or referents, but the New Testament never overrides the original intent of the Old Testament writers.Michael Vlach, Dispensationalism, 18-19
When the NT is given priority over the OT in such a way as to “spiritualize” promises about offspring and land, going all the way back through David and to Abraham, we get close to accusing God of deceiving His people. Mystery exposed at a later time is one thing. Promises with small print not provided until centuries later is another.
John MacArthur is an interesting example, and he’s probably the Dispensationalist I’m most familiar with. I would put him in the Evangelical Epistolary club, a club that I believe needs to get out (of the Epistles) more. But he loves the New Testament and has clearly made it the focus of his teaching. Yet even though he gives the NT priority for sake of his teaching ministry he doesn’t think that the NT has priority over the OT for sake of its interpretation.
2. A Dispensationalist believes that Israel and the Church are not the same even though they share “every spiritual blessing” in Christ.
Much more needs to be said about this and the third point in coming posts, applying the reading principles mentioned in the first point. But one of the things that defines a Dispensationalist is that he is careful to preserve whatever revealed distinctions there are in Scripture, including distinctions between God’s chosen peoples, namely, the nation of Israel and the Church filled with Jews and Gentiles.
Recognizing where there is overlap and where there is difference is key for sake of understanding progressive revelation, it is key for sake of interpreting the book of Acts, it is key for interpreting our work on earth now, and it is key for our hope in what God has purposed to do.
3. A Dispensationalist believes that a future generation of Israelites will be saved and that Israel as a nation will be restored during Christ’s kingdom on earth.
This is a more specific application of the previous point, but one that defines a Dispensationalist. There are some, interestingly enough more these days, Covenantal teachers who have backed off of the word “replacement” in replacement theology, backed off of there being no distinctions whatever between the church and Israel. They would concede that Romans 11:25 says that “all Israel will be saved,” and so they make room for that, which is good, because it says it in the verse.
But a Dispensationalist is not only waiting for a generation of Jews to be saved, he is waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus reigning from the throne of David in Jerusalem, over the nations, as they submit to Him and bring Him their tribute. We believe this will happen before the new heavens and the new earth on the timeline of the end things.
Before We Go
I cannot recommend too highly a sixty-page book titled, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths by Michael Vlach. It is not overly technical, and my only complaint is that it is too short (which may make it more desirable for others). I would be eager for Vlach to say even more, which he does in other works. It is a great explanation of Dispensationalism and, whether you consider yourself one or not, it is a helpful affirmation, or at least a helpful corrective to some common, easy errors taught about the doctrine.
An accurate definition of Dispyness doesn’t require reforming Dispy doctrine, though the teaching does require reforming Dispy praxis. Fearful, fussy, fighty Dispies are no fun at eschatology parties.
My plan is, as mentioned above, to consider the New Covenant directly in order to understand how it relates to the original hearers as well as to all those who believe in Christ and eat and drink it at the Lord’s Supper.
Then we must consider Romans 9-11, not just some of the individual verses within the chapters, but why those chapters were necessary at all and why they are where they are in the epistle. It would be easy to go from the end of Romans 8 to the beginning of Romans 12 without anything in between. The intervening chapters demand a Dispensational approach or else our hope in the gospel is embarrassed.
Then once we’ve examined those two big pieces, and potentially answered other objections along the way, we’ll look at why the fruit of Kuyperian discipleship is the key to unlock the Dispensational door.
We are trying to cut it straight, and read straight to the end. We are very optimistic about how it’s going to turn out.