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Dispensationalism is a Protestant evangelical tradition and theology based on a biblical hermeneutic that sees a series of chronologically successive "dispensations" or periods in history in which God relates to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants. As a system dispensationalism is rooted in the writings of John Nelson Darby and the Brethren Movement. The theology of dispensationalism consists of a distinctive eschatological "end times" perspective, as all dispensationalists hold to premillennialism and most hold to a pretribulation rapture. Dispensationalists believe that the nation of Israelmarker is distinct from the Church, and that God will fulfill His promises to national Israel. These promises include the land promises, which in the future result in a millennial kingdom where Christ, upon His return, will rule the world from Jerusalem for a thousand years. In other areas of theology, dispensationalists hold to a wide range of beliefs within the evangelical and fundamentalist spectrum.


One of the most important underlying theological concepts for dispensationalists is progressive revelation. While some nondispensationalists start with progressive revelation in the New Testament and refer this revelation back into the Old Testament, dispensationalists begin with progressive revelation in the Old Testament and read forward in a historical sense. Therefore there is an emphasis on a gradually developed unity as seen in the entirety of Scripture. Biblical covenants are intricately tied to the dispensations. When these Biblical covenants are compared and contrasted, the result is a historical ordering of different dispensations. Also with regard to the different Biblical covenant promises, dispensationalists place emphasis on to whom these promises were written, the original recipients. This has led to certain fundamental dispensational beliefs, such as a distinction between Israel and the church.

Historical-grammatical interpretation

Another important theological concept is the emphasis on what is referred to as the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. This is often popularly referred to as the "literal" interpretation of Scripture. Just as Israel literally experienced the curses spoken of in the Old Testament, dispensationalists believe that they will one day, literally, receive the blessings spoken of in the Old Testament. Just as it is with progressive revelation, the historical-grammatical method is not a concept or practice that is exclusive just to dispensationalists. However, a dispensational distinctive is created when the historical-grammatical method of interpretation is closely coupled with an emphasis on progressive revelation along with the historical development of the covenants in Scripture.

Distinction between Israel and the church

All dispensationalists hold to a clear distinction between Israel and the church. Israel is an ethnic nation consisting of Jews, beginning with Abraham and continuing in existence to the present. The church consists of all saved individuals in this present dispensation - i.e., from the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 until the time of the Rapture. The distinction between Israel and the church is not mutually exclusive, as there is a recognized overlap between the two. The overlap consists of Jewish Christians (such as Peter and Paul) who are ethnically Jewish and also have faith in Jesus Christ. Dispensationalists also believe that toward the end of the Tribulation, Israel as a nation will turn and embrace Jesus as their Messiah right before his second coming.


The label "dispensationalism" is derived from the idea that biblical history is best understood through division into a series of chronologically successive dispensations. The number of dispensations held are typically three, four, seven or eight. The three- and four-dispensation schemes are often referred to as minimalist, as they recognize the commonly held major breaks within Biblical history. The seven- and eight-dispensation schemes are often closely associated with the announcement or inauguration of certain Biblical covenants. Below is a table comparing the various dispensational schemes:

Range of Bible Chapters
Schemes Genesis 1-3 Genesis 3-8 Genesis 9-11 Genesis 12
to Exodus 19
Exodus 20 to
Acts 1
Acts 2 to
Revelation 20
Revelation 20:4-6 Revelation 20-22
7 or 8 Dispensational

or Edenic
or Antediluvian
Civil Government Patriarchal
or Promise
or Law
or Church
Millennial Kingdom Eternal State
or Final
4 Dispensational

Patriarchal Mosaic Ecclesial Zionic
3 Dispensational

Law Grace Kingdom

These different dispensations are not separate ways of salvation. During each of them man is reconciled to God in only one way, i.e. by God's grace through the work of Christ that was accomplished on the cross and vindicated in His resurrection. Before the cross, man was saved on the basis of Christ's atoning sacrifice to come, through believing the revelation thus far given him. Since the cross, man has been saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom revelation and redemption are consummated. On man's part the continuing requirement is obedience to revelation of God. This obedience is a stewardship of faith. Although the divine revelation unfolds progressively, the deposit of truth in earlier time-periods is not discarded, rather it is cumulative. Thus conscience (moral responsibility) is an abiding truth in human life (Ro. 2:15; 9:1; 2 Co. 1:12; 4:2), although it does not continue as a dispensation. Similarly, the saved of this present dispensation are "not under law" as a specific test of obedience to divine revelation (Gal. 5:18; cp. Gal 2:16; 3:11), yet the law remains an integral part of Dispensational teaching, which clarifies that, although Christ fulfilled the law for us, by it we have had the knowledge of sin(Rom 7:7), and it is an integral part of the Holy Scriptures, which, to the redeemed, are profitable for "training in righteousness" (2 Ti. 3:16-17; cp. Ro. 15:4). The purpose of each dispensation, then, is to place man under a specific rule of conduct, but such stewardship is not a condition of salvation. In every past dispensation unregenerate man has failed, and is failing in the present dispensation, and will fail in the future until Eternity arrives. But salvation has been and will continue to be available to him by God's grace through faith. (The New Scofield Study Bible, NIV 1984 Edition , pg. 3-4)

Israel and the Church

The relationship between the ancient nations of Israel and Judah (sometimes collectively referred to as Israel or the Jewish people) and the church as the people of God is the key discriminator between Dispensationalism and other views. In the dispensational view, the time in which the church operates, known as the church age or the Christian dispensation, represents a "parenthesis". That is, it is an interruption in God's dealings with the Jewish people as a nation as described in the Old Testament, and it is the time when the Gospel was preached and salvation in the present age is offered to the Gentiles and Jews alike. During the present dispensation a small Jewish remnant along with a large Gentile number are to be saved and become part of the Church. Israel as a nation is partially blinded until the fullness of the Gentiles has come. Afterwards however, God’s continued care for the Jewish people as a nation will be revealed after the end of the church age when Israel will be restored to their land and will accept Jesus as their messiah (compare ) and therefore "all Israel shall be saved" ( ). That is, those of Israel who come to faith in Jesus Christ and physically live through the Great Tribulation will be saved from the Beast and the false prophet, all who come to attack Israel will be defeated by the coming of Jesus Christ Himself with His church, and thus Israel will be brought to national salvation. Jesus Christ will then sit on the throne of David and will begin the Theocratic Davidic Kingdom which is promised in numerous places in the Old Testament, in which believers and Christ reign together on the earth from Israel( Isa. 9:6-7, Isa. 11, 65:17-25, 66:22-24, Zech. 14:9, Acts 1:6-7, Matt. 25:31-34, Rev. 5:10, 20:4-6 ) .

Contrasted with this view are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Covenant Theology, and New Covenant Theology. New Covenant Theology advocates supersessionism where the church replaces the Jews as God's chosen people. In Catholicism and Covenantalism, the church is not a replacement for the nation of Israel but an expansion of it where Gentiles are, in the words of , "grafted into" the existing covenant community.

All of these groups expect there will be an influx (or return, depending on which view one is considering) of Jews to the church before the second coming of Christ. However, dispensationalists object to Roman Catholicism and Covenant Theology because dispensationalists do not view the church as the promised covenanted kingdom in Old Testament prophecy. They believe such a kingdom is still promised to the Jews during the New Testament era (for instance, in ). Dispensationalists further believe that the promises regarding the throne of David will be fulfilled on the earth as Jesus reigns over the earth from Israel at his second coming.


Dispensationalists are premillenialists who affirm a future, literal 1,000 year reign of Jesus Christ which merges with and continues on to the eternal state in the "new heavens and the new earth" ( ), and they hold that the millennial kingdom will be theocratic in nature and not mainly soteriological, as it is viewed by George Ladd and others who hold to a non-dispensational form of premillennialism. Dispensationalism is known for its views respecting the nation of Israel during this millennial kingdom reign, in which Israel as a nation plays a major role and regains a king, a land, and an everlasting kingdom.

The vast majority of dispensationalists hold to the pretribulation rapture, with small minorities holding to either a mid-tribulation or post-tribulation rapture.

Comparison of Christian millennial interpretations


The concept of a dispensation - the arrangement of divisions in Biblical history - dates back to Irenaeus in the second century. Other Christian writers and leaders since then, such as Augustine of Hippo and Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), have also offered their own dispensation arrangements of history. Many Protestant and Calvinist writers, including Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, and Isaac Watts also developed dispensation schemes and divisions, in particular after the Westminster Confession of Faith noted "various dispensations." Other concepts such as premillennialism and the rapture also predated dispensationalism as a system.

As a system, dispensationalism is rooted in the Plymouth Brethren movement in the 1830s of Ireland and England, and in the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). Darby traveled extensively to continental Europe, New Zealand, Canada and the United States in an attempt to make converts to the Brethren movement. Over time, Darby's eschatological views grew in popularity in the United States, especially among Baptists and Old School Presbyterians.

North America

Dispensationalism was first introduced to North America by John Inglis (1813–1879), through a monthly magazine called Waymarks in the Wilderness (published intermittently between 1854 and 1872) . In 1866, Inglis organized the Believers' Meeting for Bible Study, which introduced dispensationalist ideas to a small but influential circle of American evangelicals. After Inglis’ death, James H. Brookes (1830–1898), a pastor in St. Louis, organized the Niagara Bible Conference to continue the dissemination of dispensationalist ideas. Dispensationalism was boosted after Dwight L. Moody (1837–1899) learned of “dispensational truth” from an unidentified member of the Brethren in 1872. Moody became close to Brookes and other dispensationalists, and encouraged the spread of dispensationalism, but apparently never learned the nuances of the dispensationalist system.

Dispensationalism began to evolve during this time, most significantly when a significant body of dispensationalists proposed the "pre-tribulation" Rapture. Dispensationalist leaders in Moody's circle include Reuben Archer Torrey (1856–1928), James M. Gray (1851–1925), Cyrus I. Scofield (1843–1921), William J. Erdman (1833–1923), A. C. Dixon (1854–1925), A. J. Gordon (1836–1895) and William Eugene Blackstone, author of the bestselling book of the 1800s titled, "Jesus is Coming" (Endorsed by Torrey and Erdman). These men were activist evangelists who promoted a host of Bible conferences and other missionary and evangelistic efforts. They also gave the dispensationalist movement institutional permanence by assuming leadership of the new independent Bible institutes such as the Moody Bible Institutemarker (1886), the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—now Biola Universitymarker (1908), and the Philadelphia College of the Bible—now Philadelphia Biblical Universitymarker (1913). The network of related institutes that soon sprang up became the nucleus for the spread of American dispensationalism.

The energetic efforts of C.I. Scofield and his associates introduced dispensationalism to a wider audience in America and bestowed a measure of respectability through his Scofield Reference Bible. The publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 by the Oxford University Press was something of an innovative literary coup for the movement, since for the first time, overtly dispensationalist notes were added to the pages of the biblical text. The Scofield Reference Bible became the leading Bible used by independent Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the U.S. for the next sixty years. Evangelist and Bible teacher Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), who was strongly influenced by C.I. Scofield, founded Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, which has become the flagship of Dispensationalism in America. More recently, the Baptist Bible Seminary in Clark Summit, Pennsylvaniamarker (USA), has become another center of dispensationalism.

The so-called "Grace Movement", which began in the 1930s with the teaching ministries of J.C. O’Hair, Cornelius R. Stam, Henry Hudson and Charles Baker has been mischaracterized as "ultra" or "hyper" dispensationalism (an actual misnomer according to the etymology of the Greek word base for "dispensation"). But the term still serves to distinguish a theological system that departs from the tenets of Dispensationlism.

The contrasts between law and grace, prophecy and mystery, Israel and the Church, the body of Christ were energized by Scofield, Barnhouse and Ironside in the hearts of these men and studied and proclaimed by O'Hair, Stam and a host of other "grace" teachers. It is however contended by dispensational teachers such as Charles C. Ryrie, Dwight J. Pentecost and Arnold Fruchtenbaum that ultradispensationalism (or the grace movement if you will) is far enough removed from dispensationalism to not any longer be dispensationalism at all. "Ultra" Dispensationalists hold to the belief that the Church wasn't started till the stoning of Stephen. The first reference to the church the body of Christ is in Romans and unlike most other dispensationalists they believe that the church started at Romans 1 rather than Acts 2 or Acts 28. Ultradispensationalists believe that the books of Paul (Romans through Philemon) are written for the church today and the books after (Hebrews through Revalation) are written for the Hebrew church of the tribulation. A large number of UD's believe that the church has access to the inspired Word of God and that God has perfectly preserved the Bible in the form of the King James Version. This teaching is propagated by organizations such as Grace School of the Bible, Grace Alive Ministries, RGMI, and pastors Thomas M. Bruscha, Richard Jordan, Mike Tiry, and Tracy Plessinger.

Dispensationalism has come to dominate the American Evangelical scene, especially among nondenominational Bible churches, many Baptists, and most Pentecostal and Charismatic groups, while mainline protestants generally continue to reject dispensationalism.


Dispensationalism rejects the notion of supersessionism, sees the Jewish people as the true people of God, and sees the modern State of Israelmarker as identical to the Israel of the Bible. John Nelson Darby taught, and most subsequent dispensationalists have consistently maintained, that God looks upon the Jews as his chosen people even as they remain in rejection of Jesus Christ, and God continues to have a place for them in the dispensational, prophetic scheme of things. Dispensationalists teach that a remnant within the nation of Israel will be born again, called of God, and by grace brought to realize they crucified their Messiah. Dispensationalism is unique in teaching that the Church is a provisional parenthesis, a "mystery" period, meaning that it was not revealed in the Old Testament, directly, which period will end with the rapture of the church and the Jewish remnant entering the Great Tribulation. Israel will finally recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah during the trials that come upon them in this Tribulation. Darby's teachings envision Judaism as continuing to enjoy God's protection literally to the End of Time, and teach that God has a separate 'program', to use J. Dwight Pentecost's term, for each Israel and the Church. Dispensationalists teach that God has not forgotten His eternal covenants with Israel.

While stressing that God has not forsaken those physically descended from Abraham through Isaac, dispensationalists do affirm the necessity for Jews to receive Jesus as Messiah. They hold that God made unconditional covenants with Israel as a people and nation in the Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic and the New Covenant. Dispensationalism has had a pronounced effect on Christians' attitude toward Israel; many thousands of Christians are presently lovers of Israel, and Zionists, because they believe that God has not rejected Israel as His people.


Christian Dispensationalists sometimes embrace what some critics have pejoratively called Judeophilia—ranging from support of the state of Israelmarker, to observing traditional Jewish holidays and practicing traditionally Jewish religious rituals. (See also Jewish Christians, Judaizers, and Messianic Judaism (below)). Dispensationalists typically support the modern state of Israel, recognize its existence as God revealing His Will for the Last Days, and reject anti-Semitism.

Messianic Judaism

Dispensationalists tend to have special interest in the Jews because the dispensationalist hermeneutic honors Biblical passages that list Jews as amongst God's chosen people (the others would be the Gentiles in the church, and proselytes to Judaism). Some Messianic Jews (Messianic Judaism), however, reject dispensationalism in favor of Olive Tree Theology. The name "Olive Tree Theology" refers to the passages of Romans 11:17-18: "If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive, were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, then don't boast as if you were better than the branches!" Jews who accept dispensationalism are instead called Hebrew Christians.


Some dispensationalists, such as the late fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, have asserted that the beast Antichrist will be a Jew, based on a belief that the Antichrist will falsely seem to some Jews to fulfill prophesies of the Messiah more accurately than Jesus did.

However, many dispensationalists do not accept this belief, and claim that a number of scriptures do not cite any evidence, such as Daniel 9:27.

Such dispensationalists claim that this "prince" will be of the same people that destroyed the Jewish city, i.e., of Roman origin and therefore will not be Jewish.

In turn, this "prince" will stand up "against the Prince of princes" and destroy many "by peace" (Dan 8:25); and will be responsible for the false "peace and safety" that will precede the destructive day of the Lord (1 Thess 5:2–3). Some believe this man will be a Jew, based in part on John 5:43, where the Lord stated that the unbelieving Jews would receive another who "shall come in his own name" (as opposed to the Lord Himself, who came in the Father's name). Further evidence is taken from Daniel 11:37, "Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all", although in a passage as late as Daniel, a better translation is probably, "He will reject the gods (Eloha) of his fathers." The prophet Daniel refers to this man as "a vile person", who will "obtain the kingdom by flatteries" (Dan 11:21). This belief is not essential to dispensationalism .

Darby himself taught the Antichrist will be a Jew, and the Beast, a separate person, will be the political leader of the revived Roman empire. .

World politics

Dispensationalism teaches that Christians should not rely on spiritual good from earthly governments (though they are to pray for peace in the state or country which they are in, and believe that government is ordained by God (Rom 13:1-7)), or success in any endeavor to be prominent in the present world, or start a church kingdom, since the Kingdom of God is seen as yet to come. Instead, people should expect social conditions to decline as the end times draw nearer. Dispensationalist readings of prophecies (such as Daniel 9:27, “And he [the Antichrist] will make a firm covenant [a peace contract] with the many [the nation of Israel along with the nations that oppose it] . . . ”) often teach that the Antichrist will appear to the world as a peacemaker. Dispensationalists are usually not inclined to look upon the actions of the United Nations with favor, because they view this entity as working toward ungodly goals, such as contributing to the erection of the superstructure for the coming government of the Antichrist. Almost all dispensationalists reject the idea that a lasting peace can be attained by human effort in the Middle East, and believe instead that "wars and rumors of wars" (Matt. 24:6) will increase as the end times approach. Dispensationalist beliefs often underlie the religious and political movement of Christian Zionism.

Dispensationalists teach that churches which do not insist on Biblical literalism set forth an inconsistent method of interpretation with respect to the area of Bible prophecy, and view it as a step towards theological liberalism which rejects Scripture being inerrant. They are averse to ecumenism and other attempts to create church organizations that cross denominational boundaries such as the World Council of Churchesmarker.

United States politics

Political analyst Richard Allen Greene has argued that dispensationalism has had a major influence on the foreign policy of the United States. This influence has included support for the state of Israelmarker.


Dispensationalist themes form the basis of the popular Left Behind series of books. However, not all dispensationalists agree with the theology of authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.


The following individuals are dispensationalists:

See also



  • Allis, Oswald T. Prophecy and the Church (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1945; reprint: Wipf & Stock, 2001). ISBN 1-57910-709-5
  • Bass, Clarence B. Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Baker Books, 1960) ISBN 0-8010-0535-3
  • Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Belknap, 1994) ISBN 0-674-95129-8
  • Clouse, Robert G., ed. The Millennium: Four Views (InterVarsity, 1977) ISBN 0-87784-794-0
  • Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology (Moody, 1989) ISBN 0-8024-3428-2
  • Grenz, Stanley. The Millennial Maze (InterVarsity, 1992) ISBN 0-8308-1757-3
  • LaHaye, Tim, and Jerry B. Jenkins. Are We Living in the End Times? (Tyndale House, 1999) ISBN 0-8423-0098-8
  • Poythress, Vern. Understanding Dispensationalists (P & R Publishing 2nd ed., 1993) ISBN 978-0875523743
  • Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism (Moody, 1995) ISBN 0-8024-2187-3
  • Ryrie, Charles C. Basic Theology (Moody, 1999) ISBN 0-8024-2734-0
  • Walvoord, John. The Millennial Kingdom (Zondervan, 1983) ISBN 0-310-34091-8
  • Walvoord, John F. Prophecy In The New Millennium (Kregel Publications, 2001) ISBN 0-8254-3967-1

External links

Dispensationalist Seminary

Biblical prophecy


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