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What Dispensationalism is Not, Part 1

Posted by Matt Postiff June 17, 2008 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Dispensationalism 

In this post, I want to convey what is not entailed by the interpretive system called Dispensationalism. When I use the verb entail, I mean that there are certain things that do not follow from Dispensationalism as a logical consequence. These things are not necessary accompaniments or results of holding to Dispensationalism.

The main point I am making is this: if you hold Dispensationalism, you need not hold these other beliefs. Some Dispensationalists may have held these beliefs in the past, or may hold them today, but that does not impugn the basic integrity of the system. In other words, we cannot impute guilt to the system based on some of its adherents also holding to these positions which are not inherent parts of the system. So--Dispensationalism does not entail...

1. Different ways of salvation. Perhaps the most serious and simultaneously tiresome of all arguments leveled against Dispensationalism is that it teaches two ways of salvation: salvation by works in the Old Testament and salvation by faith in the New Testament. This argument has long ago been debunked, but I have had it brought up to me in very recent arguments against Dispensationalism. I will probably say more about this point later, but suffice it to say that Dispensationalism teaches ONE way of salvation in all times of history--sourced in God's grace, through conscious faith, on the basis of the substitutionary atonement accomplished in the cross-work of Jesus Christ.

2. A particular view of Spirit Indwelling. Some Dispensationalists have taught that the Spirit's indwelling in a believer could be lost or removed in times of divine chastisement, or that not all regenerated people were necessarily indwelt in the OT. However, there are other Dispensationalists who teach that the Spirit indwells all believers permanently in every age. Some Dispensationalists make a distinction between the OT and NT ministries of indwelling as to their extent or the particular benefits involved, but neither basic view is entailed by the system. The Dispensational approach does note distinctions in God's working in various ages, so it may be "spring-loaded" to find differences in more places than are actually there.

3. Exactly 7 Dispensations. Many Dispensationalists hold to 7 Dispensations. This author does as well. However, whether there are 8, 6, 5, 4, etc. is not inherent in the system itself. Of course, if you get down to 2 (OT and NT) then you likely are not a Dispensationalist.

4. Wooden literalism. Another worn-out argument against Dispensationalists is that they can only interpret the Bible according to a very stiff kind of literalism. I don't have any personal experience with Dispensationalists who are this way. Many seem to be able to find a lot of meaning in parables and other figures of speech (many times, they find more meaning than is actually there!). The fact is that many Dispensationalists work diligently to properly understand the various figures of speech and poetic parts of the Bible. Dispensationalists do not ignore the various forms and genres of the Scripture. Wooden literalism is not entailed by the system.

5. Easy believism. Dispensationalism does not entail a watered down view of the transformative power of God's grace. Nor does it require one to accept that faith is not necessarily followed by works, or that justification is not inevitably followed by sanctification. Just because some Dispensationalists view the doctrine of salvation this way does not mean that others do.

6. A particular view of Calvinism. You do not have to be a three-point Calvinist (or less) to hold to Dispensationalism. There are plenty of four- and five-point Calvinists who are also Dispensational (believe it or not!).

7. A particular view of the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon on the mount is relegated by some D's (my new shorthand for Dispensationalists) to only the kingdom dispensation in the future. This beloved passage of Scripture does arouse some emotions, to be sure, and its interpretation is not trivial, coming as it does at the end of the Law dispensation, when the Lord genuinely offered the Kingdom to Israel, and at the beginning of the age of Grace. However, many traditional D's find a great deal of application of the passage to the modern era.

8. A hypothetical atonement. Since I mentioned the offer of the Kingdom, I might as well also say that Dispensationalism does not require you to believe that such an offer makes the cross of Christ only an afterthought, or that it hypothetically could have been avoided. Nope--it was necessary for Christ to suffer, and then be glorified, in accordance with the OT prophets. No D I know of suggests that the Cross could have been avoided.

9. A mutilated Bible. Dispensationalism recognizes a great deal of continuity between the Dispensations, so one is not required to "snip sections out of the Bible and throw them away!"

10. That salvation is unimportant. Since Covenant theology emphasizes that the program of history is centered around the salvation of man, it is easy to overlook that D's recognize a VERY IMPORTANT place for the salvation of man within God's eternal program. D's just want to remind us that the glory of God is the ultimate goal of all things--that all revolves around God, not ultimately around man.

11. That there are no covenants in the Bible. This is perhaps stating the case somewhat extremely, but Dispensationalists do believe the covenants--like the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. The idea of covenant is important in the Scriptures. Again, D's believe that there are other issues that rise to a higher level of importance.

12. Zionism. This is a hot-button issue. D's do not uniformly give tacit approval to everything Israel does. Neither do D's uniformly say that Israel should have complete possession of the land today, particularly in the face of their rejection of God and Christ. Not all D's believe that we need to continue to give money to Israel to maintain blessings under the Abrahamic covenant. In other words, a "Zionistic" type of Dispensationalism exists, but it is not entailed in the system.

13. Sensus plenior, equivocal use of language, or prophetic double reference. There are a good number of D's who are committed to a literal hermeneutic that is associated with a univocal use of language, namely that a word means only one thing in a given context. There are many others who believe that double-meaning or some kind of fuller sense is found by the NT authors in their understanding of OT Scripture.

Well, that was a long list. To the point of my series, if you believe Dispensationalism is dead, it may be because you see it as a narrower system than it really is. I have a thought that Reformed theology may not be the greatest threat to Dispensationalism, for the very reason that there are some D's who are thoroughly reformed in their soteriology.

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