The Essentials of Dispensationalism

Theological labels can be very helpful, and yet also very frustrating. Helpful in how they so quickly communicate where you stand on a given theological issue, and yet frustrating in how often they don’t do so very accurately. Misrepresentations abound, and when you say that you are a such-and-such, that label may communicate all kinds of baggage you don’t intend. For this reason, when someone would ask me if I were a Calvinist, I used to respond, “Yes, but I reserve the right to explain what I mean by that!” (By the way, to find out whether you are a true Calvinist, read this.)


This brings me to the label “dispensationalist.” As you can tell from the opening paragraphs of an essay I wrote several years ago, I’m never sure exactly how to categorize myself. Yes, broadly speaking, I do fall into the dispensational camp, and yet based on the way that many covenantalists characterize dispensationalism, I often find myself wondering how helpful that label really is, at least for me.


The other night I was rereading parts of Kim Riddlebarger’s book, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, which is widely regarded as the definitive treatment of the millennial debate from an amillennial perspective. On page 24, Riddlebarger begins his explanation of dispensationalism, writing this in his second paragraph:  


Dispensationalists argue for literal interpretation of all prophetic portions of Scripture. This means that all of the covenantal promises made to David and Abraham in the Old Testament are to be fulfilled literally in a future millennial age. Israel will regain the land promised by God, a prophecy which dispensationalists believe was fulfilled when the modern nation of Israel was born in 1948. 


Let’s go down Riddlebarger’s checklist of dispensational distinctives: Literal interpretation of prophecy? Yep. Covenant promises fulfilled in a future millennial kingdom? Absolutely. Land promise to Abraham fulfilled in 1948? Whaaaaaaaat???


Now in one sense, I can certainly understand why Dr. Riddlebarger would write this, because some dispensationalists do indeed believe it, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. But why tuck it in there among some of the major distinctives of dispensationalism as if it were also part of the system itself? I find this very unhelpful in furthering the discussion. Incidentally, Riddlebarger could have avoided this misrepresentation by simply adding the word “some,” as in: “Israel will regain the land promised by God, a prophecy which some dispensationalists believe was fulfilled when the modern nation of Israel was born in 1948.” This would allow poor souls like me to say that yes, I am dispensationalist, but no, I do not believe that Ezekiel 36 was fulfilled 60 years ago.


Part of the frustration in reading this description of dispensationalism is that the second and third sentences in the excerpt from Riddlebarger contradict each other. Riddlebarger says that dispensationalists believe that all of the promises made to Abraham will be fulfilled in a future millennial age, and yet in the very next sentence he says that dispensationalists believe that one of the main promises that God made to Abraham was fulfilled in 1948. See the problem here? And don’t even get me started on the exegetical difficulties with the fulfillment-in-1948 view!


Anyway, perhaps Riddlebarger would respond by saying that he is just reporting the facts of what dispensationalists believe, and if those facts are inconsistent, then your problem is with the dispies and not with him. And while that is certainly true for any dispensationalists who do affirm these two contradictory views (and again, I am told they are out there), why not work a little harder to set forth accurately the core elements of your opponents’ position? Why take an inconsistent and unnecessary application of dispensationalism—an application which is rejected by many (most?) dispensationalists—and make it sound like one of the essentials of dispensationalism itself?


In fairness to Riddlebarger, I do think he did a fairly good job overall of avoiding the kind of straw man arguments that are so characteristic of many covenantalists who critique dispensationalism. In other words, the misrepresentation on page 24 is the exception and not the rule in Riddlebarger’s book (although I have found other, more significant ones), and I am sure that he was not intentionally misrepresenting dispensationalism. In fact, if he ever revises the book, perhaps he will add the word “some” to that sentence in the interest of being fair.


All of this brings me to my main point, which isn’t about Riddlebarger’s book at all. My main point is this: Regardless of where you land on the spectrum of continuity and discontinuity—and regardless of whether you consider yourself a dispensationalist, a covenantalist, or something in between—I have a recommendation. If you want to understand the core essentials of dispensationalism, read John Feinberg’s “Systems of Discontinuity,” which is chapter 3 in the book Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. (For a brief discussion of Feinberg’s chapter, see “Core Characteristics of Dispensationalism” by Dr. Michael J. Vlach, but don’t let it be a substitute for reading Feinberg himself.)


I have found Feinberg to be unsurpassed in terms of being a clear and concise treatment of a difficult issue, and one that frames up the discussion in a way that is fair to both sides. If you are studying dispensationalism for the first time—or revisiting it after studying it many years ago—this chapter will help you understand what it really means to be a dispensationalist. Which is a helpful and much-needed step in the process of clarifying the core essentials of dispensationalism and rediscovering the theology behind the label.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for this post. I too have been disappointed that many critiques on dispensationalism have been sloppy and inaccurate, and sound more like slander than they do scholarship. Of course, I should be used to such speech, as I not only lean in the disp. direction, but I’m also more Calvinistic in my worldview and I’m a Southern Baptist! So I’m used to shaking my head and sighing in disbelief when I read critiques.

    Anyway, I do like Feinberg’s take on dispensationalism. I also recommend listening to the 2007 EFCA Midwinter Ministerial, which had the topic “Hermeneutics and Eschatology”, which looked at the four main approaches to eschatology and the hermeneutics behind them. Of particular note is Dr. Elliott Johnson, who defended a classical dispensational theology. It is probably the best quick survey of a dispensational biblical theology that I’ve heard.

  2. Do you happen to have a link to the mp3s of those lectures?

    Just curious,

  3. Matt,

    I’m dropping in from vacation to say “Amen!” Both Drs. Feinberg and Vlach note that the wedge issue is the relationship between the Testaments. Rather than debate back and forth about which side uses a “literal” hermeneutic, it is clearer (to me anyway) when one defines himself in regards to OT or NT priority. This one nuance is revealing as to where an interpreter will go with a host of other issues.

    Now back to the pool. Cannonball !!!!

  4. Posted by Scott Christensen on June 12, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Would you agree that the ‘already/ not yet’ hermenuetic helps make sense of much of the NT treatment of OT themes (e.g. New Covenant & Kingdom of God) and therefore gives further clarity to the OT or NT priority issue?

  5. Hey everyone,
    How ironic I found this discussion today. I have sent a new book of mine to print on this very issue. It is titled: Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths. It should be ready in about three weeks. I am addressing six essential beliefs of dispensationalism and five myths. Basically, I am picking up with what John Feinberg offered but going even further in specificity. This book is not too long. It will be around 80 pages.

  6. […] the essentials of  dispensationalism […]

  7. […] The Essentials of Dispensationalism « Expository Thoughts […]

  8. Posted by Joe on June 30, 2008 at 7:16 am

    Having been in the dispensationalist’s camp, I moved to amillennialism primarily because in every generation (since 1830) the specifics of dispensationalism changes. It seems as though dispensationalists are agreed in two major things: Israel must be distinct from the church, and God did not fulfill his promises to physical Israel yet. (Though I expect even these specifics will be argued by some.) Amillennialism is found by exegeses of Scripture. According to the literal word in Joshua, God fulfilled the land promises a long time ago. According to Hebrews, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham spiritually in Jesus. (This is why I do not include “literal interpretation” as a specific of dispensationalists.) Dispensationalism did not ring true with scripture. I found that the dispensationalists with whom I discussed these next items were confident they could dispute them. They were disputing with some pretty significant Biblical characters! 1) Malachi 4:5-6 / Matthew 11:7-15; 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13, 2) Joel 2:27-Joel 3:2 / Acts 2:16-21, 3) Deuteronomy 18:15-22 / Acts 3: 17-26, 4) Isaiah 61:1-3 / Luke 4:16-21.

    I also have difficulty thinking of a literal physical temple in light of John 2:18-21, Acts 7:48-50, Acts 17:24-25, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 6:16, and Ephesians 2:19-22.

    Please do not accuse me of misrepresenting dispensationalism. I do not think it possible for anyone to represent an unstable – always varying – “docrine.”

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