Dispensationalism is a popular and widespread way of reading the Bible. It originated in the nineteenth century in the teaching of John Nelson Darby and was popularized in the United States through the Bible Conference movement. Its growth was spurred on even more through the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, which was published in 1909. Scofield’s Bible contributed to the spread of dispensationalism because it included study notes written from a distinctively dispensationalist perspective. The founding of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 by Lewis Sperry Chafer provided an academic institution for the training of pastors and missionaries in the dispensationalist tradition. Some of the most notable dispensationalist authors of the twentieth century, including John F. Walvoord, Charles C. Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost, taught at Dallas Seminary.
Dispensationalist theology is perhaps best known for its distinctive eschatological doctrines, particularly the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture of the church. According to this doctrine, this present church age will be followed by a seven-year period of tribulation. Before the tribulation begins (thus “pre-tribulation”), the church will be caught up to heaven where believers will be with Christ until the second coming, which occurs at the end of the tribulation. At that time, they will return with Christ, who will then inaugurate His millennial kingdom (dispensationalists are thus also premillennialists).
Although dispensationalism is best known for its eschatological doctrines, at its heart is the distinction between Israel and the church. Every other distinctively dispensationalist doctrine rests on this idea. What this distinction means for dispensationalists is that there are two peoples of God. Israel is one of these and consists of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The church is the other, and it consists of all those and only those (whether Jew or gentile) who are saved between the Day of Pentecost and the rapture. Part of the reason for the pre-tribulation rapture is to remove the church from earth so that God can begin dealing with national Israel again.
Dispensationalism differs from Reformed covenant theology in a number of ways, but the most significant is this idea of two peoples of God. Covenant theology affirms that there is one people of God and thus continuity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God in the New Testament. Covenant theology is not, as some dispensationalists assert, “replacement theology” because in covenant theology, the church is not technically replacing Israel. The church is the organic continuation of the Old Testament people of God. (For a helpful introduction to covenant theology, see Stephen Myers’ God to Us.) The oneness of the people of God is evident by an examination of several New Testament texts.
Consider first the olive tree analogy in Romans 11. In this passage, Paul is addressing gentile believers and urging them not to be arrogant toward Jewish believers. He uses the illustration of an olive tree to explain. Note that in the illustration there is one good olive tree. Paul explains that branches were broken off this olive tree and gentile “wild shoots” were grafted into it. The one olive tree represents the people of God that has long existed. Unbelieving Jewish branches (e.g., Pharisees) have been broken off this tree by God, leaving only believing branches (e.g., Jesus’ Apostles). Believing gentiles have been grafted into this one tree so that it now consists of believing Jews and gentiles. This tree is the church. If Paul were illustrating the dispensationalist doctrine, we would have numerous gentile trees and one Jewish tree (Israel). God would then plant a new tree (the church). He would take believing Jews from the Israel tree and believing gentiles from the gentile trees and graft them into this one new tree. Paul says nothing like this. The one tree that existed in the Old Testament continues, but now God has removed unbelieving Jews and grafted believing gentiles into it.
In this light, consider what Paul says to gentile believers in Ephesians 2:11–22. Paul first tells these gentile believers what they used to be: “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). If that’s what they used to be, the implication is that the opposite of each is true of these gentile believers now. They are now part of the commonwealth of Israel and partakers of the covenants precisely because they’ve been grafted into the one tree representing the one people of God. But there’s more than implication. Paul goes on to say explicitly in verses 19 and following that these gentiles are “no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”
Dispensationalists have a difficult time grasping this because of their idea that the seed of Abraham is only the physical offspring of Abraham. Again, Paul begs to differ. In Galatians 3:16, he explains that “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring.” He then explicitly identifies the offspring as Jesus Christ. But note what he then adds a few sentences later in verse 29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Paul defines Abraham’s seed in terms of Jesus Christ. Christ is a literal physical descendant of Abraham. However, because believers, whether Jew or gentile, are united to Christ, we too are Abraham’s offspring if we belong to Christ.
Does Paul continue to use the terms Israel, church, and gentile in the New Testament? Of course. But not in the way that these terms are used by dispensationalists. He continues to speak of ethnic Jews and ethnic gentiles, both inside and outside the church. But he does not do so in a way that results in two peoples of God. There is one tree in the Old Testament that consists primarily of ethnic Jews, although some gentiles (e.g., Ruth) are brought in. This is the one tree that exists when Christ comes. He doesn’t chop it down, and He doesn’t plant a new tree. He prunes the unbelieving Jewish branches off, leaving only the believing Jewish branches. He then begins to graft believing gentiles into this one tree. This tree with ingrafted gentile branches does not “replace” the old tree. These gentiles are now part of the old tree by faith in Jesus Christ.
If the biblical teaching regarding the one people of God is allowed to stand, all of the distinctive dispensationalist doctrines that rest on the doctrine of two peoples of God are left without any foundation.