Dispensationalism: the Key to Bible Prophecy (part 2)

by Cris D. Putnam
Traditional Seven Dispensations

Traditional Seven Dispensations

I affirm Ryrie’s second point the basic dispensational philosophy of history as well. A philosophy of history is a systematic understanding in which past events and major sequences are unified and explained in light of a future ultimate meaning.[i] While all Christians believe the ultimate meaning is found in Christ, they disagree in the form and function. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,” (Eph 3:8–9, underline added). “The plan” is a rendering of the Greek οἰκονομία meaning “a plan which involves a set of arrangements (referring in the NT to God’s plan for bringing salvation to mankind within the course of history)—‘purpose, scheme, plan, arrangement.’”[ii]

In the second century, Irenaeus wrote, “He who, by Moses, instituted the legal dispensation, by which giving of the law we know that He spake to the fathers.”[iii] He then divides biblical history based on “four principal (καθολικαί) covenants given to the human race.”[iv] In the third century, church father Tertullian used the Latin word dispensatio to translate οἰκονομία and from that the English word dispensation derives. Hence, used in this way, a dispensation refers to a distinctive way in which God administers His relationship with mankind. As one can see, this line of thinking was present in primitive Christianity. In this way, nineteenth century dispensationalists were actually recovering theology that had been lost under centuries of Roman Catholic oppression.

As a system, dispensationalism has the most coherent philosophy of history because it accounts for the whole range of predictive prophecy. For example, the Old Testament predicts an earthly kingdom of universal peace (Is 2:2-4, 11:6-9, 65:17-25; Mic 4:1-5). Accordingly, futurist premillennialism accounts for the biblical data affirming that Christ will return to earth and rule over it for 1,000 years (Rev 20:4). Even so, I am willing to allow that “χίλια ἔτη” could be an idiom for a long period of time rather than insisting on precisely one thousand years. I agree with earlier divisions including the Adamic and Noahic dispensations found in revised dispensationalism. I somewhat appreciate the simplicity of the simple four-part structure associated with progressive dispensationalism: 1) Patriarchal (creation to Sinai); 2) Mosaic (Moses to Jesus ascension); 3) Ecclesial (ascension to second coming), and 4) Zionic (the millennial kingdom and eternal new creation).[v] However, Ryrie argues that progressive dispensationalists make the goal atemporal by conflating eternity and the millennium.[vi] While progressives place the millennial reign prior to the eternal state within the Zionic dispensation, it seems to confuse the matter. Thus, I agree with the older school that posits the eternal state as a distinct unit. Hence, my position entails: 1) Adamic; 2) Noahic; 3) Patriarchal; 4) Mosaic; 5) Church; 6) Millennial; 7) Eternal. These offer more explanatory scope than the abridged scheme presented by progressives. Ultimately, the exact number and name of the dispensations is not as important as one’s hermeneutic.

On the third point, a literal interpretation of scripture, I think the work of progressive dispensationalists is helpful. Literal interpretation needs to be informed by literary understanding (e.g. genre). While the historical grammatical hermeneutic is best, biblical scholarship is certainly more informed today than the days of Darby and Scofield. The radical bifurcation of the church and Israel advocated in classic dispensationalism goes too far. Classic dispensationalists posited the Church and Israel as eternally separate. The Rose Guide to End Time Prophecy is helpful:

      • Classic dispensationalists see the church as God’s heavenly people and Israel as God’s earthly people. These two groups will remain separate even in eternity. The church will be in heaven. Israel will be on the earth. (John Nelson Darby, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Cyrus I. Scofield)
      • Revised dispensationalists still see the church and Israel as distinct. At the same time, they expect the saved from both groups to coexist in eternity in glorified and resurrected bodies. Ethnic Israel is the physical seed of Abraham; prior to the end of time, the nation of Israel will still receive the land that God promised. God temporarily set aside the unbelieving nation of Israel so that he could bring together believing Gentiles with a remnant of believing Jews in the church. The church is the spiritual seed of Abraham and includes believing Jews and Gentiles. (John Walvoord, Charles Caldwell Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost)
      • Progressive dispensationalists are similar in many ways to new covenantalists. According to progressive dispensationalists, God has had one plan that he has unfolded from the beginning of time to the present. Each dispensation has simply emphasized a different aspect of this one plan. Jesus inaugurated a kingdom during his earthly ministry, and he will bring this kingdom to fruition in a future millennium. The nation of Israel will still receive the land that God promised to Abraham, and Jesus will govern Jews and Gentiles according to their separate nationalities during the millennium. The plan of God will, however, ultimately culminate with one people, joined together in the presence of God for all eternity.(Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, Bruce Ware)[vii]

Even given classic’s extremes, they served as a needed corrective. Theology Professor at LBTS, Dan Mitchell cogently qualifies the final point, “It’s not so much the idea of a literal interpretation that marks the distinction, but it is the approach, do you approach the text inductively from Genesis forward or deductively from the fulfillment backward. If you have already decided that everything is fulfilled in Christ, then there really isn’t much to talk about in terms of future eschatology.”[viii] For these reasons, I believe the dispensationalism is superior to covenant theology and I find myself somewhere in the tension between the progressive and revised schools of thought.

This essay offered an analysis of dispensationalism. It sought to illustrate the value of the system by examining three defining points: the distinction between the church and Israel, the philosophy of history and a literal hermeneutic. The relationship between these points was shown. In the end, it seems that these points support the idea that dispensationalism is the key to biblical prophecy.

[i] Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference! : A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990). 22.

[ii] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 357.
[iii] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus Against Heresies” In , in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 424.
[iv] Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” 429.

[v] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 123.

[vi] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 22.
[vii] Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy, Kindle Edition (2012-03-06). Kindle Locations 5406-5417.
[viii] Dan Mitchell, “Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Prophecy,” LBTS: Theo 630 lecture video, 3:32-3:57.

Dispensationalism: the Key to Bible Prophecy (part 1)

By Cris D. Putnam
DISPENSTION-History-chartArguably from the inception of the church (although lost under Romanism), dispensationalism has been and still is the key to biblical prophecy. Since its recovery in the nineteenth century there have been three major versions: classic (Darby, Larkin and Scofield), revised (Walvoord, Pentecost, Chafer, and Towns), and progressive (Bock, Blaising, Feinberg and Saucy) dispensationalism. All divide history based on God’s covenants as successive revelations in the progression of God’s redemptive program and sustain a premillennial futurist interpretation of prophecy. As a founding member of the revised school, Charles Ryrie emphasized three elements: 1) Distinction between church and Israel;[i] 2) Philosophy of History;[ii] 3) Literal interpretation of scripture.[iii] He offers strong and compelling arguments against covenant theology which is the system of theology that centers on two contrived covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.[iv] It typically dismisses God’s actual covenant promises to Israel and argues that most all of prophecy is fulfilled in Christ. While I’m largely in agreement with Ryrie that covenant theology is an artificial system lacking biblical support, I do think progressive dispensationalists make some good points.

Concerning point one, I strongly disagree with supercessionism (that the church has entirely superseded Israel or replacement theology). I believe God will fulfill His Old Testament promises as they were understood, not in the decontextualized manner applied to the Church found in Roman Catholicism and unfortunately most of evangelical covenant theology. In this sense, the reformers stopped short. God made specific promises to the descendants of Jacob and David concerning their ancestral line, the land and political sovereignty. Only the Mosaic covenant was conditional. The Abrahamic (Gen 12) and Davidic (2 Sam. 7) were unconditional and everlasting. The Davidic is often overlooked:

“And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’(2 Sa 7:10–17 cf. 1 Chron. 17)

Like the Abrahamic covenant, the Davidic covenant was irrevocable—“established forever” and despite innumerable acts of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, God will be absolutely faithful. The Davidic covenant promises to Israel a political, religious, visible earthly kingdom, and God personally guaranteed that it would endure forever and that all nations would be blessed through it, based on His faithfulness.

“I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah( Ps 89:20–37)

God spoke through the original inspired author who certainly did not have an ethereal metaphorical Israel in mind when he composed those words. David understood the promises in a matter of fact manner. I have never read a supercessionist reply to these passages that did not cast God in the role of a prankster who deceived David.

Paul writes in Romans that Gentiles are grafted into Israel. This implies God’s chosen people includes the church as well as a remnant of ethnic Israel, now and especially at the Second Coming (Rom 11:26-27, Zec 12:10). While the distinction applies in this current dispensation due to Israel’s supernatural blinding (Rom 11:25; 2 Cor 3:14; Mat 23:39), I believe we merge into one people at Christ’s return. Thus, I commend the holistic view described by Bock and Blaising, “God will save humankind in its ethnic and national plurality. But, He will bless it with the same salvation given to all without distinction; the same, not only in justification and regeneration, but also in sanctification by the indwelling Holy Spirit.”[v] It seems unlikely that ethnicity will much matter upon Christ’s return to rule from Jerusalem.


Next week part two picks up with the dispensational philosophy of history.

[i] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995), 148.

[ii] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 20.

[iii] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 102.

[iv] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 32.

[v] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 47.


The Glorious Future of Israel

There is a future for Israel. The OT points to a Messianic kingdom (Isaiah 9:6-7, Mic. 4:1; Isa. 2:2-3, 11:6-9) and temple on Mount Zion (Ezek. 40:48; Isa. 2:2; Hag. 2:7-9; Zech. 6:12-13; Joel 3:18). God made unconditional promises in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 13:14-17) that have never been fulfilled at any time in history. Even though Israel violated the Mosaic Covenant, Paul makes clear that it did not make void the Abrahamic (Gal 3:17). In a similar fashion, the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:11-16; cf. 1 Chron. 17) expanded God’s blessings to Israel and was irrevocable, stating that your throne will be established forever.” The New Covenant states explicitly that God will make it with “the house of Israel(Jer. 31:31-33).

In Acts 1:6 just before the ascension the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Did Jesus say, “Sorry, Israel forfeited?” No, instead he says “It is not for you to know times or seasons…” This infers a future time when God will restore the Kingdom to Israel. In Luke 22:30, Jesus makes clear that national Israel will not only be present in the future kingdom but that they will still retain tribal identity. Also, the 144,000 are chosen from the 12 tribes (Rev. 7:4).  The church does not have tribes. If the church has replaced national Israel as “spiritual Israel” this is incoherent. In Romans 9-11, Paul’s purpose was to explain Israel’s future. The gentile church is clearly described as “grafted into” not replacing Israel. God could not have been any clearer than their election being “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29). Robert Saucy argues that their restoration is a part of God’s continuing revelation to the world.

It would seem reasonable in the light of the prophetic Scriptures that we have noted concerning God’s revelation of himself to the nations through the judgment and restoration of Israel to believe that he has not completed that revelation through the realities of history and that he yet intends to display his redemptive power overtly in the restoration of his people as a people. [i]

In Isaiah 19:16-24 we read that Egypt will be attacked in the Day of the Lord and the result will be that Egypt will repent and convert to the worship of Yahweh. This is yet to occur. Clearly, Israel has a future in the spiritual leadership of the world (Zech. 8:23; cf. Zech. 14).

Israel’s literal national restoration is not captured any more explicitly than in Amos 9:11-15. Verses 11-12 speak of the political revival under the Davidic Messiah (cf. Ezek. 34). This is the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant and of the angel Gabriel’s promise to Mary that Jesus would sit on David’s throne – forever – which did not even exist during the first advent (Lk. 1:32-33). Verses 13-15 turn to the restoration of the fertility of the land and the return of the people. While this passage was a message of hope for the exiles, it is necessarily a case of the “already but not yet” paradigm at work in prophecy. God states categorically that they will return to “never again be uprooted” (v.15). While they were uprooted again in A.D. 70 by the Romans,  Isaiah foretold:

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. (Isa. 11:11)

We live in a time of active prophetic fulfillment because this began in 1948, when national Israel was reestablished and Jews returned from far and wide to the land. This is ongoing and is reflected in the present day turmoil in the Middle East over Jerusalem (Zech. 12:2-3).

Israel’s glorious future is not captured any more beautifully than in Isaiah. This is revealed in poetry like “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1) and underneath the text within its form.  A chiasm is a literary device in which a pattern such as A-B-C-B´-A´ is employed to give special weight to the middle ‘C’ portion. Chapters 60-62 are given prominence as the center of a chiasm made up of chapters 56–66.[ii] This is an example of the “already but not yet” paradigm as well. The church is the figurative “already” part of the kingdom, but the messianic age awaits literal fulfillment.  Although much still anticipates future fulfillment, God’s light has reached the world through the gospel and many nations have come to Jerusalem in response.  Jesus’ message has gone out to the world as the church evangelizes the nations. Still yet, verses 60:19-22 clearly forecast the Edenic New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:23:

“The sun shall be no more your light by day,

nor for brightness shall the moon give you light;

but the Lord will be your everlasting light,

and your God will be your glory.

Your sun shall no more go down,

nor your moon withdraw itself;

for the Lord will be your everlasting light,

and your days of mourning shall be ended.

Your people shall all be righteous;

they shall possess the land forever,

the branch of my planting,

the work of my hands,

that I might be glorified.

The least one shall become a clan,

and the smallest one a mighty nation;

I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it.”

(Is 60:19-22)


[i] Robert L. Saucy. “A Rationale for the Future of Israel.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 1985: 438.

[ii]John Oswalt, The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2003), 641.

The Supreme Supersessionist Speaks

In Vatican City on October 10th 2010 the Pope Benedict XVI opened the Synod of Bishops’ Special Assembly for the Middle East at St. Peter’s Basilica. The synod is taking place at the Vatican from Oct. 10-24 under the theme: “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.”

Speaking for God, the Pope said of the Promised Land is “not of this world” that Israel is not an earthly kingdom. His words are not surprising as the Roman Catholic Church has led the way in promoting the supersessionsist (replacement theology) heresy and denying national Israel’s place in God’s plan. One unfortunate consequence of this error is that it has made it extremely difficult for Jews to take seriously the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah. The Pope’s eisegesis was recorded last Sunday:

He reveals Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf. Ex 3:6), who wants to lead his people to the “land” of freedom and peace. This “land” is not of this world; the whole of the divine plan goes beyond history, but the Lord wants to build it with men, for men and in men, beginning with the coordinates of space and time in which they live and which He Himself gave them.[1]

This is utter nonsense as the Biblical narrative is centered on a real material plot of land. Of course, this has political and theological overtones as the Vatican’s position has consistently been that Jerusalem cannot belong to just one state.[2] It is my view that the Pope’s theology blatantly files in the face of biblical revelation. Jesus in Luke 19:42 and Paul in Romans 11:25 explain that Israel is blinded nationally for the church age. Temporarily blinded not replaced.

In Romans 9, 10, & 11 Paul’s purpose was to explain Israel’s future. If you simply read that sequence of chapters, replacement theology is absurd. The gentile church is clearly described as “grafted into” not replacing Israel.  Paul makes this abundantly clear:

As regards the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.  (Rom. 11:28–29)

I wonder how Paul could have made it any clearer than irrevocable?

Furthermore, the Pope’s homily is a harbinger of the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7) otherwise known as the great tribulation (Mat. 24:21). Jesus said that Jerusalem would be occupied by gentiles until the times of the gentiles are fulfilled – just prior to his second coming.

“They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk 21:24)

  • This is a prophecy of the Diaspora, which occurred in AD 70. The Romans spread the Jews all over the known world, selling many as slaves. This is a matter of undisputed record.
  • When Jesus says “until” that clearly infers that one day Jerusalem will be back in Jewish hands.
  • Thus it is an inferred prophecy of the reformation of Israel in 1948 and the reclamation of Jerusalem in 1967. Jerusalem certainly was under Gentile control until 1967, the fact that is now largely under Jewish control and the far reaching spread of the gospel is sure sign that the times of Gentiles are nearly fulfilled.

So where does this leave the supreme replacement theologian Benedict XVI?  One wonders how the description of the Antichrist “dividing the land for a price” (Dan 11:39) escapes the attention of Catholic exegetes. Even more, the prophetic warnings about dividing God’s land in Joel 3:2. Note that “those days and that time” clearly refers to the “day of the Lord” that Christians understand as the second coming of Jesus Christ. It is also noteworthy that God refers to it as His land.

For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, (Joel 3:1–2)

I shudder to think how the Pope’s theology will stand on that day.

[1] http://www.speroforum.com/a/41366/The-Vatican-Synod-on-the-Middle-East-begins

[2] http://www.zenit.org/article-30628?l=english