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Dispensationalism is a modern hermeneutical system of theology that exists as an alternative to historic Reformed covenant theology. Dispensationalism originated in the nineteenth century in the writings of John Nelson Darby. It has spread rapidly throughout the church in the Western world since in the second half of the nineteenth century. So widespread was its reception that the majority of evangelicals in the United States and Britain came to embrace some elements of it. The flourishing of dispensationalism in the twentieth century was due largely to the advent of “prophecy conferences,” the widespread use of the Scofield Study Bible, and the establishment of dispensational Bible institutes and colleges. There are three distinct characteristics of dispensationalism: a sharp distinction between Israel and the church, the division of the history of salvation into dispensations, and a woodenly literal hermeneutic regarding biblical prophecy and apocalyptic literature. At the end of the twentieth century, refinements made to classical dispensationalism resulted in the propagation of progressive dispensationalism, which makes many of the traditional dispensational distinctions but also sees greater continuity overall between the various dispensations and between old covenant Israel and the new covenant church.


In the mid-nineteenth century, John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), a founder of the Plymouth Brethren Church, formulated a new system of theology that stood in contrast to the historic covenant theology found in the Reformed tradition. Darby’s newly proposed hermeneutical system gained traction in both Britain and the United States on account of the publication of his articles and his 32-volume Collected Writings of J.N. Darby (1866­–81).

The popularity of this new system of theology grew with the publication of the Scofield Study Bible and its increasing reception by evangelicals in Britain and the United States. C.I. Scofield (1843–1921) was a lawyer turned pastor who was an assistant to the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody. In 1909, Scofield published a study Bible with notes that explained the major tenets of dispensational theology. In 1917, Oxford University Press published this Bible with expanded notes. More than two million copies sold in the early years of its publication.

The Scofield Study Bible convinced people that its notes provided the best exposition of the difficult parts of the Bible. So widespread was the influence of this study Bible that most ministers and congregants in Protestant churches throughout the United Kingdom and the United States came to embrace various elements of dispensational theology by the 1940s. Theologians who exposited the dispensational system of theology during the twentieth century include Lewis Sperry Chafer, Arno C. Gaebelein, Charles C. Ryrie, Charles L. Feinberg, J. Dwight Pentecost, and John F. Walvoord.

Classic dispensationalism consists of three primary principles of hermeneutics: a sharp distinction between Israel and the church, the division of the history of redemption into seven (or more) dispensations, and a woodenly literal reading of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Regarding the first of these, classic dispensationalism teaches that God has two different peoples: Israel and the church. It rejects the longstanding teaching that there is one church that consists of both old covenant saints and new covenant saints. In other words, classic dispensationalism rejects the teaching that old covenant Israel was the church and that, in the new covenant, God grafts believing gentiles into that same church (Rom. 11:17–24).

Related to this sharp distinction between Israel and the church is the belief in a widespread conversion of ethnic Israelites to faith in Jesus at the end of time. While many Protestant and Reformed theologians have concluded that Romans 11 holds forth the hope of a mass conversion of Jewish people, they do not draw as sharp a distinction between Israel and the church as classic dispensationalists do.

The difference between dispensationalists and covenant theologians primarily exists in explaining how God’s revelation is structured and how each relates to the others rather than in merely highlighting a variety of epochal dealings of God with humanity. The name dispensationalism stems from the system’s emphasis on the history of redemption as structured by seven dispensations rather than by covenants (i.e., the covenant of works and the covenant of grace) as taught in historic covenant theology. Dispensationalism often holds to the following seven dispensations:

  • Innocency (Eden)
  • Conscience (from the fall to the flood)
  • Human Government (from Noah to Babel)
  • Promise (from Abraham to God’s dealing with Israel in Egypt)
  • Law (from Moses to John the Baptist)
  • Grace (the church age)
  • Kingdom (the end-time millennial kingdom)

Regarding the seven proposed “dispensations,” covenant theologians recognize that God often engages with humanity in different ways. However, what makes classic dispensationalism different from historic covenant theology is not the idea that there are differences between ages in the history of redemption but that God’s plan of salvation differs according to the age in which people have lived. For instance, covenant theology says that all people are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone no matter when they lived, whereas classic dispensationalism would argue that in the age of law believers were saved, at least in part, by keeping the law of Moses and that believers in the age of grace are saved by trusting in Christ.

Additionally, most classical dispensationalists adhere to an Arminian understanding of salvation rather than the Calvinism of historic Reformed theology.

Another distinct feature of dispensational theology is a woodenly literal hermeneutic, which affects one’s understanding of the biblical teaching about the end times. While covenant theology advances the idea that all the Old Testament prophetic literature was meant to be read spiritually in light of the coming of Christ and as referring to the church as the true Israel of God, classic dispensationalists read the messianic prophesies in a literalistic manner with regard to ethnic Israel. Scofield stated, “Prophecies may never be spiritualized, but are always literal.” This, however, did not mean that Scofield did not believe in a spiritual reading of Scripture. Rather, due to his emphasis on Israel and the church as two distinct peoples, Scofield made a distinction in the old covenant prophecies between the spiritual and the literal. The literal reading was that which concerned theocratic Israel, and the spiritual was that which was for the new covenant church. Thus, a prophecy that predicted the reign of Israel over the nations would have to be fulfilled by an ethnically Jewish nation-state ruling over the nations; it would be insufficient to say this is fulfilled by the church of believing Jews and gentiles ruling and reigning alongside Christ.

A literal reading of the old covenant prophecies in which “Israel” is mentioned and the sharp dichotomy between Israel and the church led early dispensational theologians to offer a highly refined understanding of the events that would occur at the end of time. Dispensational eschatology looked at New Testament teaching on the second coming of Christ, and the events leading up to it, in light of their recasting of our understanding of old covenant prophecies. The result was the formulation of several key components of dispensational premillennialism: a pretribulation rapture, a seven-year tribulation, a literal millennial reign of Christ, and a literal binding of Satan. Dispensationalists place heavy emphasis on their interpretation of the book of Revelation.

The pretribulational rapture involves two phases: the first phase in which Christ removes the church from the earth, but He does not appear visibly; the second phase after a seven-year tribulation, when Christ appears as visible judge of the world. In addition to a pretribulation rapture, classic dispensationalism advances the belief in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Cornelis Venema summarizes the classical dispensational beliefs about the events that occur during a seven-year period of tribulation when he writes:

During this seven-year period, God’s program and purpose for Israel will resume in earnest and issue in the one-thousand-year, or millennial, dispensation. At the return of Christ, the second phase of his coming after the seven-year period of tribulation, the Jews, many of them gathered to their ancient homeland, Palestine, will for the most part believe in him and be saved, fulfilling Old and New Testament prophecy (cf. Rom. 11:26). The devil will be literally bound and cast into the abyss for a literal period of one thousand years. Dispensationalism believes that the millennium will begin with the first of at least two resurrections, the resurrection of saints who died during the seven-year period of tribulation and the remaining Old Testament saints. These saints, together with the raptured church, will live and reign in heaven, while the Jewish saints on earth will begin to reign with Christ from Jerusalem for a period of one thousand years. Two judgements will also occur at this time: the judgement of the gentiles who persecuted the people of God during the seven-year period of tribulation (cf. Matt. 25:31–46) and the judgement upon Israel (cf. Ezek. 20:33–38). (Venema, The Promise of the Future, 215)

Toward the end of the twentieth century, certain figures made modifications to classic dispensationalism. These modifications resulted in the formulation of progressive dispensationalism, which is somewhat closer to historic covenant theology. Most progressive dispensationalists believe in a distinction between Israel and the church and the central elements of dispensational premillennialism. Many progressive dispensational scholars see more continuity between the old covenant and the new covenant while often dividing the new covenant into two covenants: one with promises for ethnic Israel and one for Jews and gentiles in Christ. Darrel Bock and Robert Saucy are among the more well-known progressive dispensationalists. Some progressive dispensationalists hold to all or some of the five points of Calvinism, in contrast to the Arminian soteriology of classic dispensationalism.


The dominant strands of theology that reign in current evangelical circles are dispensationalism and neo-Pentecostal charismatic thought. The phenomenal spread and growth of dispensational theology in America is a fascinating chapter in church history. Having its roots in British Plymouth Brethren suppositions, dispensationalism spread rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fueled by the Bible School movement, prophecy conferences, and the preaching of men like D.L. Moody, dispensationalism gathered enormous popular support.

The American version of dispensationalism got a great boost by the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. The Scofield Bible, with its study notes, served as a popular tool for the spread of dispensational theology. This theology was forged by men who had their roots predominately in Reformation thought. The themes of classical Reformed theology were modified significantly by this movement.

R.C. Sproul

The History of the Reformation

Tabletalk magazine

Scofield worked his dispensationalism into every text he could, promoting an unhealthy understanding of the gospel. . . . The joke went something like this: You read the English Bible from left to right, the Hebrew Bible from right to left, and the Scofield Bible from the bottom up. In other words, the notes controlled the text. While the joke is funny to a degree, the results are far from humorous. For most of the twentieth century, if you were to walk into a bookstore to purchase a study Bible, you would be hard-pressed to find any other option than the Scofield Bible.

Stephen J. Nichols

The History of Study Bibles

Tabletalk magazine

The dispensationalist version of premillennialism originated in the nineteenth century within the Brethren Movement. Its distinctives first appear in the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). Dispensational premillennialism caught on rapidly in the United States through the Bible Conference Movement. It was popularized by C.I. Scofield in the notes to his reference Bible and was systematized by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary and the author of an eight-volume dispensational systematic theology text. In the twentieth century, this view was taught on a more scholarly level by men such as John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost, and it was popularized by authors such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.

Keith A. Mathison

The Millennial Maze

Tabletalk magazine