Dispensationalism must be wrong – Part One

A number of arguments are regularly used to try to discredit dispensationalism and conclude that it is flawed and must be wrong as a theological system. Interestingly, two frequent arguments against dispensationalism are based on the history of dispensationalism, having nothing to do with theology or exegesis. One argument attempts to discredit dispensationalism with the charge that it is a “young” theological system. The other attempts to discredit dispensationalism with the charge that its development is suspect. However, neither is actually a legitimate argument against dispensational theology and both are relatively easy to refute.

The Relative Youth of Dispensationalism

Those who oppose dispensational theology at least partly on the grounds that it is “young” tend hold to amillennialism in general and more specifically to covenant theology (which is arguably a subset of reformed theology.) That being the case, this charge in particular doesn’t seem like one they would want to use.

The modern development of dispensationalism is generally traced to the work of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) in the early nineteenth century – around 200 years ago.

Although covenant theology can be viewed as having its roots in the writings of Calvin (1509-1564) – and to some extent even in those of Augustine (354-430), Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) has been credited with providing the classical statement on covenant theology. Therefore, its beginning is approximately 400 years ago – making it about 200 years prior to Darby.

This being the case, wouldn’t it have been equally valid for John Nelson Darby to challenge covenant theology based on the fact that it was still so young as compared to the 1800 year history of the church?

Then go back to 1700. At that time, covenant theology was less than 100 years old. Does that mean that it was even less valid then than it was in Darby’s day? And does something become more valid simply due to the passage of time?

To be fair, the challenge against dispensationalism is usually framed more in terms of it being a new type of theology – a suspect theological innovation. In other words, the question(s) can be summarized as: “If dispensationalism is correct, does that mean biblical scholars and theologians had it all wrong for 1800 years – and how could that be true?”

However, this is a two-edged sword that would cut equally against reformed theology. The critical theological issues that sparked and defined the Protestant Reformation were delineated especially in the work of John Calvin and Martin Luther (1483-1546). Although we would vigorously maintain that these fundamental truths of biblical Christianity were simply recovered from centuries of obscurity in the organized church, not all would agree.

A Roman Catholic monk and theologian, Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517.  In 1545, largely in response to “heresies” of the Reformation, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent. This council continued for almost twenty years, while the Counter-Reformation that it spawned lasted almost 100 years.

The point is that the majority of Christianity, including virtually all of the pastors, scholars and theologians firmly believed that the innovative theology of the Reformation was nothing more than a new heresy. This “new” theological system was less than fifty years old when it was roundly condemned and its adherents were mercilessly persecuted – some to the point of martydom.

However, as we know, doctrines such as “salvation by faith alone” and “the authority of the Scriptures alone” were not new. They were recovered through a return to biblical exegesis. The validity of dispensational theology should only be judged on the same basis. Is it really a new theology – or simply a recovered or rediscovered theology? I would suggest it is the latter and furthermore that it was held and taught by Jesus and the apostles.

At the very least, it is a serious mistake on several counts to try to use the “it’s young” argument to say or support the idea that dispensationalism must be wrong.

In the next post, we will look at the argument against dispensationalism on the basis of its development.

14 Comments
  1. Right on, Dave! Well said.

  2. I am disappointed. Why fight about dispensationalism and covenant theology on a website called subtitled Standing for Biblical Truth and never reference a biblical support for the position. Holding up dispensationalism by attacking covenant theology proves nothing. There are flaws in both theologies because they men’s attempt to systematically explain God’s ways.

    There is are those of us has hold to neither systematic position…and with biblical support!

    Let’s concern ourselves with a lost world.

  3. A well-reasoned article, Dave. Thank you. How easy it is for Christians of all stripes to be dismissive toward those with whom they disagree based upon arguments not derived from Scripture.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Dave.

    I understand and share your concern for the lost. I wholeheartedly agree that we should concern ourselves with a lost world.

    On the other hand, the New Testament writers spent far more time in their writings to establish right doctrine among believers – because ultimately right doctrine has a direct impact on whether or not the gospel is presented and presented correctly. The gospel does not exist in a doctrinal vacuum – which is why I am concerned about the issues surrounding dispensational and covenant theology.

    Our responsibility is both evangelism and discipleship – and helping believers to deal with challenges to their faith is a part of discipleship.

    Concerning the lack of biblical support – my intent was not to demonstrate that dispensationalism is true, but only to deal with the logical problem of this one particular line of argument against dispensationalism – which doesn’t require the use of Scripture. I will be dealing with the overall subject later – and will definitely use Scripture.

    Again, thanks for taking time to read the blog and comment. I definitely want to be accountable to our readers.

    Dave

  5. Dave…enjoy reading your blogs. Let’s face it, anything but a strict Reformed position in today’s popular theological world is out of the acceptable theological loop. As one adherent said…”We have a much higher view of God.” I grieve over division in the Body of Christ with brothers..albeit brothers who differ…denouncing brothers. I’ve come to the place in my journey where I refuse to be tagged by a system name, or a man’s name, and consider myself a Scripturalist. Say more than Scripture says and I’ll challenge you. Say less, same result.
    That any theological system holds that God must operate and be defined by how that system defines God is assuming a right God limits to Himself. His ways are past finding out.

    Thank you for raising issues with a non-denigrating attitude. Refreshing.

    We were with you at WOL in Hungary a few years ago.

    Mickey Park

    • Thanks, Mickey. So good to hear from you. I fondly remember your time in Hungary – and the day we spent with you in Budapest. (Do I remember correctly that it was a cold, snowy day? For some reason that picture is in my mind.)

      Thank you for the kind words. I like the term “Scripturalist” – and “Biblicist.” If that would be one of the things people know me as, I would be quite satisfied.

      Dave

  6. I agree with David Crichlow, first you make the assumption that anyone that is in disagreement with this teaching of dispensationalism is of a certain theological thought.
    My theology as is David C. is not determined by what some other theologian has developed but rather what biblical scripture reveals. As Wyrie states in “Basic Theology” “We are all theologians good or bad.” I do not fit into either theological system that you have alluded to. The theology that I have and think by is the revelation and understanding that I have from the Holy Scripture with no man’s name on it but the LORD Jesus Christ.

    Workman Gene
    Gene Eberhardy Th.D.

    • Dear Gene,

      Thank you for your comments. I think perhaps you read more into my post than I wrote – or even implied. I was not challenging any other theological system at all. My only point was that any theological system must be judged by whether or not it is biblical, not by how new or old it is as compared to another theological system.

      Besides that, I don’t think we all have completely independent theological systems. We can and do learn from other theologians who have done good, solid exegetical work to come to thoroughly biblical conclusions. This is the biblical pattern.

      Ultimately we are personally responsible for our own theology – but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 4 concerning the Lord giving pastors/teachers, evangelists for the building up of the body of Christ.

      Dave

  7. Hey, Dave interesting post.
    I agree in a sense that older does not necessarily mean better or more correct. There were religions around before the birth of Christ. Buddha for example lived 500 years BC. Now admittedly Christ predates the world but, for the sake of discussion I am referring to Christ in the Physical earthly manifestation. It could also be said that the new Covenant is inexorably linked to the Old Covenant (no argument here). I believe most people could agree at least that the new Covenant was in many important ways distinct from the Old. And very much a new thing (which also would be evidence that older isn’t necessarily better).
    In the sense of theological ideas however, I think it is acceptable to be a little dubious of newer ideas. Saying that something is “more valid after time has passed” is at least partially true. False religions that are long lasting usually pass the test of time because they have elements of truth in them. Buddha for example taught that the middle of the road is the ideal (not asceticism or lavishness). Boy, that sounds like a lesson from Ecclesiastes. The principle of “give us this day our daily bread”. Don’t give me too much least I forget you, don’t abandon me least I curse you. Yet fads and cults based on just lies fade quickly away. Buddhism is a false religion and the passing of time will not make it Valid. It is however, “more valid” then a religion that is forgotten in ten years time. After all a lie mixed with truth is a more deceptive lie. But true wisdom can glean the truth and reject artifice.

    IVAN FARMER

    • Ivan,

      Good to hear from you. Hope you’re doing well.

      Trying to beat the dead horse of my post points all along – the actually validity of a theological system can only be judged on the basis of its faithfulness to the biblical text. Again, the Reformation doctrines themselves were seen as innovative and new at the time – but when they are repeatedly scrutinized in the light of the Word, they are found to be true. This was true 10 years after the reformation and 100 years after the Reformation. I don’t think they were inherently dubious – but rather they were approached that way by those whose whole theological system was being challenged.
      Dave

  8. For those of you who are eschatologically expert, I invite you to comment specifically on a Google article entitled “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” a photographic version of which is on the “Powered by Christ Ministries” site. Since some have given the impression that that article is full of errors, I would very much like to be informed as to which particular item in it is in fact erroneous. Thanks in advance. Karl

    • Karl,

      I have read this article several times over the last year as it is frequently cited across the internet. And I have looked at Dave MacPherson’s work and his website on several occasions.

      I have not done extensive research on Darby’s life myself, so I cannot comment on those specifics. However, I did hear a very well-researched paper on Darby at the annual Pre-Trib Study Group Conference in Dallas, in 2005, which dispelled many myths, misconceptions and results of poor and biased research. I think I still have the paper somewhere on my computer that I will look for.

      In the meantime, I will briefly comment on the major charge of dishonesty that forms the basis for the article – which is focused almost exclusively on the issue of plagiarism.

      Perhaps the main factor in whole the issue of plagiarism in general relates to the character and integrity of the person who is charged with plagiarizing. I have met several of the men mentioned in the article (including John Walvoord) and am familiar with their work. For all those I whom I haven’t met but who are living, I’m almost positive there is only “one-degree of separation” between us – meaning I personally know men who know them fairly well. The reason this is important is because I have personal knowledge of the character and integrity of them or those who know them – and I am as certain as possible that there aren’t character or integrity issues. Rather, I would stake my own reputation on the fact that these men are quite sincere and extremely committed in their lives and ministries for the Lord and to others.

      On the other hand, the implication throughout is that these men are inherently dishonest as reflected in their treatment of this subject. For someone to make this accusation who does not personally know them is to cross the line into judging the hearts and motives – because there are other explanations for the evidence besides intentional plagiarism and deception.

      As someone who has taught many courses over the years in the areas of Bible exposition and theology, I know that I have personally used what I have learned from the teaching, preaching and writing of others. And after 25 years, I have learned, synthesized and internalized so much of this material I couldn’t begin to remember where I got it all from. And this certainly isn’t unique to me – but is simply the nature of the process of teaching and learning. Once the material is internalized, it becomes your own – particularly if you have synthesized and combined it with your own thoughts. And when that happens, I may use something that is essentially a quote from a given teacher or a compiled quote from several teachers, with neither memory of the source nor any intent to plagiarize someone elses’ material. Yet, for both me and the listener, the results, seem like honestly passing on information as any teacher would.

      Another factor, is that these men do know one another personally and discuss these matters personally, sometime quite extensively – and then also write and teach extensively – yet often for fairly disparate audiences. Sometimes there are student-teacher relationships – where students take extensive notes in class – then the teacher decides to publish, which the student may also decide to publish using his own words. In these situations, there aren’t genuine cases of plagiarism at all. Just this evening I read a phrase or a way of describing something that was exactly the illustration I had used for years – even though I thought for sure it was original with me. Maybe we both copied it from someone else – maybe we both simply had the same thought. But in the end, it just doesn’t matter if there was not an intention to deceive or profit or gain power from such a process. It is just evidence of the learning process and the development of biblical and historical theology.

      So, there are completely legitimate potential explanations that are far less insidious explanations of apparent plagiarism The men mentioned simply represent a very dynamic process that follows the development of dispensational theology. It is quite normal that there would be “cross-pollination” of thought when dealing with exactly the same topics, biblical passages and collateral work as those who have gone before.

      These charges of plagiarism simply don’t prove that anything insidious was going on without far more personal investigation. Discussions need to occur with those who are charged, before they are charged, to try to genuinely discover why there are similar passages in some books. And furthermore, many of them simply indicate that a student / teacher process was underway and theology was being passed from generation to generation.

      The article would be more significant and demand more attention if Mr. MacPherson would spend his time dealing with the actual exegesis of the passages rather than engaging in straw-man and ad hominem argumentation – and then that working to demonstrate that there are exegetically problematic conclusions being drawn. However, whether or not one agrees with the theology and the underlying hermeneutics, there has been significant and strong biblical work to support pre-trib dispensationalism. The doctrine does not at all rise or fall on the fact of whether or not some men shared their common knowledge of the subject.

      In short, I find this article to be little more than a diversion tactic that will capture the attention and imagination of those who for whatever reason are predisposed against Pre-Trib Dispensationalism. For those of us who both know the theology, understand the process, this article is yet another interesting, but ultimately ineffectual attempt to discredit the theology of the Pre-Trib rapture.

      Beyond this, which is sufficient by itself to challenge the article, I’m sure there are those out there who do have the experience and research expertise and resources to adequately respond to each point on a case-by-case basis.

      To say the least, despite the sense by some that this is somehow the death-knell for Pre-trib dispensationalism – I believe it falls far short of anything approaching that. And furthermore, it does so with language and accusations and style that actually raises questions concerning the character of the author himself as he does cross the line of judging another brother. This is very serious indeed.

      Dave James
      The Alliance for Biblical Integrity

  9. I remember a book written by Charles Dyer; “The Rise of Babylon” at around the first Persian Gulf war in 1991; This is literalism taken to it’s extreme conclusion; That because Saddam Hussein was rebuilding Archeological sites to it’s former glory, that it pointed towards biblical prophecy being fulfilled the Rise of Babylon as a world super power some day, never mind that Iraq was being destroyed back to the stone age. This whole exegesis was laughable. Such literalism is the same applied to Dispensational theology, it violates the full understanding of God’s redemptive history as outlined in the Bible.

    • Rudy,

      Dire was and continues to be right. I don’t know if you’ve done any research into this before commenting – but the work on Babylon has been ongoing, as far as I know, and it is inhabited. The restoration is still going to take place – and nothing that has happened in the intervening years indicates a problem. The Bible was written to be understood literally unless the text makes it obvious that it is not. If we don’t take the passages concerning prophecies of future Babylon literally, then on what basis does on take literally those concerning the bodily resurrection of Christ – or his return to the earth. The picking and choosing that I’ve seen most people do is completely arbitrary.

      And in fact, it is Dispensationalism that actually recognizes and embraces the fullest understanding of God’s redemptive history throughout the Bible. We accept the text as written – and that lays out God’s redemptive program in very clear detail from Genesis to Revelation.

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