What Dispensationalism Is

Posted by Matt Postiff June 14, 2008 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Dispensationalism 

Our first order of business is to understand what Dispensationalism is. A good starting point in matters of definition is Charles C. Ryrie's book Dispensationalism. My discussion will largely reflect his text but will expand on it somewhat. There are four issues which are essential to the Dispensational view of the Scriptures. They are:

1. Consistent Literal Interpretation. In Dispensationalism, the Bible is interpreted according to the plain meaning of its text. Dispensationalism does not allegorize or spiritualize Old Testament prophecies that are, as yet, unfulfilled. It is not strictly literal in the sense that it allows for poetry, metaphors, similes, parables, hyperbole, other figures of speech, types and anti-types, and the like. A better term might be normal or plain. It is the basic historical/grammatical/theological approach to interpretation. The key point is that this hermeneutic is practiced consistently, insofar as humanly possible.

2. Progressive Revelation. This tenet points out that God gave revelation at various points throughout history. He did not give it all at once. Therefore, because man is unable to know God's mind apart from revelation (1 Corinthians 2:9-16), there are some things later in the Bible that earlier saints simply did not and could not know. For instance, they did not know the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth. Their gospel proclamation did not include the facts of the death, burial, and resurrection of this Man. They did not know of the new institution called the Church. They also knew some things less clearly than we can now--the second coming of Christ, for instance, or the deity of Christ. Ryrie does not raise this point to a sine qua non but as a concept it seems so important to the system that it cannot be omitted.

3. Distinction between Israel and the Church. Dispensationalism makes clear that the Church does not replace Israel. Promises made to Israel that have not yet been fulfilled will still be fulfilled, in the manner portrayed in the Bible. We could treat this as a secondary point, since it is derived from the first point (literal hermeneutic). But it is such a point of distinction between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology that it is helpful to raise it to the level of a primary point to make sure there is no confusion. Ryrie writes that this issue is the most basic test to determine if one is a Dispensationalist (p. 39). It helps to define the meaning of the literal hermeneutic tenet mentioned earlier.

4. Purpose of God in History is His Own Glory. This is to say that everything else is subservient to that larger purpose. Some theologians object that this point of Dispensational thought is simply a reaction against the Covenant notion of the redemption of mankind being the ultimate purpose of history. But despite such an objection, the dispensational view here is not simply a denial cloaked in terms of an affirmation. Texts such as Ephesians 1:6, 12, and 14 make it clear that even salvation is intended to the end of bringing praise to the glory of God's grace (see also 2 Corinthians 4:15). Indeed, all Dispensationalists recognize that the redemption of man is a very important purpose of God, but it is only a part of the whole picture.

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