October 14, 2021

What Is Dispensationalism?

Nathan W. Bingham & W. Robert Godfrey
What Is Dispensationalism?

People often think of dispensationalism as a unique approach to the study of the end times. Today, W. Robert Godfrey reveals that this kind of theology actually involves a unique way of reading the whole Bible.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: This week, we're joined by one of our Teaching Fellows, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. Dr. Godfrey, what is dispensationalism?

DR. W. ROBERT GODFREY: That's a great question. And it's, in some ways, a big question, because dispensationalism actually has had different forms over the years. Probably at least three or four major different expressions of dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism starts really with John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century in England. It is usually thought of as being an approach to last things, an approach to the end times to questions about the return of Christ. But in fact, it's somewhat more fundamental than that. It's really a way reading the Bible. And Darby himself, interestingly enough, was a Calvinist who was very much motivated by a desire to protect the graciousness of grace at all times, which led him to conclude that all that the Bible says as law doesn't apply to the Christian at all. The Christian is guided only by grace. So why is there all that law in the Bible? Well, it's for Israel.

And so Darby argued that the church, in grace, is saved in a different way from the way in which Israel in the old covenant was to be saved. So, there are two dispensations of grace, two dispensations of God's work with His people. The church saved by grace and Israel saved by the law. Darby then expanded that"so he ended up with seven dispensations because we always liked to have seven of anything"but those were the two major dispensations. And that then was tied into the idea of the millennium. Darby was a pre-millennialist, Christ will return before the millennium. And the purpose of the millennium was to allow the Jews to fulfill the law that they never properly fulfilled in the old covenant.

So it's a way of reading the Scripture which divides parts of Scripture into what applies to Israel and what applies to the church in what I, as a covenant theologian, regard as problematic. The law and the gospel apply to Israel in the old covenant and to the church today, in my judgment. And then it gets tied in with the notion of Christ's glorious return before the millennium, and the purpose of the millennium, then, to fulfill the law and to fulfill all the literal earthly promises that were made to Israel.

Another important element of dispensationalism is its insistence that we have to read the Scripture literally. And so, if there were literal promises about the land to Israel in the Old Testament, those have to be fulfilled in the millennium or God is not true. I think the claims to literalness in dispensationalism are problematic, but we need more time to talk about that.

But that's the basic approach. It's a way of reading Scripture in terms of how God deals with His people in different dispensations for their salvation and what the end times will look like.