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.