Dispensational Distortions – Don’t Know Much About History


Don’t Know Much ‘Bout History

My favorite subject in school was history. I loved learning about the Pilgrims, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and mad dash of the early settlers to claim land and start new communities in the West.

But I wasn’t ready for History as taught in my Freshman College class.

The general information was the same but the details I learned during Thanksgiving “recreation” plays in the third grade didn’t quite match up to what my most learned and distinguished professor was presenting.

The Pilgrims weren’t escaping religious persecution and fleeing to the New World of hopes of raising their families in the way they saw fit? The Pilgrims were really self-serving Anglos out to exploit the land, people and resources of the New World? The Pilgrim’s goal was to enslave the people of this new land with their Western Religion that was filled with hatred and white empowerment?

I was aghast!

Everything I learned in Kindergarten was a fantasy meant to exploit the unknowing, frail minds of children to continue the enslavement of minority peoples ad infinitum!

I was told this desire to rule and expand was based on the religious convictions of a world wide spread of the Gospel that the Pilgrims believed would usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. The Bible taught this to them I was told and that the religious conviction of the day in Europe was that the Kingdom of God would spread throughout the New World as the final frontier reached before the Kingdom would be established in every nation.

“Wait,” I interrupted, “I thought the world was going to get worse and that the Kingdom of God was only going to come after the return of Jesus Christ. Isn’t that what the Bible says?”

I didn’t know at the time that my professor was a former Southern Baptist minister turned atheist and had a history of using his classes as a bully pulpit against any Christian historical ideology.

“Well,” he responded, “that view is really popular, but it just goes to show…you don’t know much ‘bout history.”



The title of this section of the book is called Distinctions, Discussions and Distortions. The primary focus will be on the distinctions of the Dispensational Premillennial position. What is it about this view that sets it apart from the three other competing views in such radical ways? Topics to be discussed include its history, the Kingdom, Israel, the Church and the key to the uniqueness of the view, its hermeneutic.

Despite the fact that Dispensationalism’s unique hermeneutic is the lynch pin that determines the views beliefs we will start with the history of Dispensationalism since this too is unique and relatively unknown. The primary distinction of the history of Dispensationalism is that it is quite a recent view when measured up against the history of the Church.

This is not a criticism of the view, nor should the rather recent systematizing of the system be seen as a detriment to its validity. But it should serve as some sort of caution that a view and system would remain hidden from God’s faithful students for over 1,800 years. But again, it does not mean the system is neither Biblical nor accurate.

It should also be noted that some details below are debated within historical and theological circles. Those debated items will be noted as such and further research should be done by the student. Like much else in this book, this is not meant as an exhaustive history or timeline of events within the Dispensational history, but rather a thumbnail sketch to help the reader understand the system, its roots and its rise in popularity and influence.


The history of the Dispensational view is hotly debated as it remains true that many of the facets that pertain to Dispensationalism are quite historical while other facets are rather recent inventions. This makes the debate difficult as proponents and opponents greatly differ on the details surrounding the initiation of the view.

The goal here in our discussion will be to deal with those items which are not as debatable and then to discuss those areas of contention with grace and charity.

Dispensational proponents do contend that their view is historical and can be traced back to the first century. This is difficult to argue either for or against since it is those things within the Dispensational system that make it unique that are difficult to distinguish within Church history.

What do I mean by that?

First let us discover exactly what can be proven to have a long historical record within the Dispensational framework. Frankly, the attachment to history is almost exclusively limited to the Premillennial expectation. The Premillennial view which they share with the Classical Premillennialist is the only part of the system that can trace its roots back to the earliest Christian writers.

But those items that make Dispensationalism the unique system that it is are of a more recent conception. Though Dispensationalist will argue that the core teaching of the system is historical and can be traced to the first century it is important for the student to realize that it is primarily just the Premillennial return of Christ view that can account for the historicity of the system.

Those more unique distinctions like the Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church and two-fold return of Christ, the marked distinction between Israel and the Church, the distinctly Jewish nature of the Millennium and the Gap Theory in which the Kingdom is postponed until a future date are all areas in which the history of those points is quite recent.

So, on one hand the system is quite ancient and on the other it is quite recent. But just how recent and who are those that formulated the system and propagated its influence?


In regards to the specific points that make the system of Dispensationalism unique it is not possible to trace those distinctions to any earlier time in Church history than the early 1800’s. Admittedly, this comes as a shock to many sitting in the pews as this popular teaching is presented with such a forceful and confident panache that one would assume this view has been the part and parcel of Church history. Not only do many assume the view is without question the correct view, since they have never been introduced to any competing views it is assumed that Dispensationalism is the ONLY view in Church history.

But this problem stems not only from a general lack of Biblical knowledge but from a severe lack of any knowledge regarding history, especially Church history. Douglas Wilson has often joked that the problem with the church today is that they person sitting in the pews believes that Church History began when their Pastor graduated from “Buffalo Breath Bible College.” Here Pastor Wilson appears to be correct. The average Church person has a very limited view of Church history and, in fact, has trepidation regarding Church history because of its connection to the Roman Catholic Church.

This fear of Church history has caused many to accept one of two great fallacies. The first is that there really wasn’t any true Church for one thousand years since that was the time when there was pretty much only the “apostate” Roman Catholic Church. Even the Reformers and the early Protestant are stained with the connection to the Church in Rome as they were truly unable to break away from her clean without retaining troubling doctrines like infant baptism and “catechism.”

Many today simply are afraid to reach too far back into history as it may stain their belief that the Gospel they know embrace and teach is somehow uniquely different than the Gospel of the Reformers of Middle Age Church.

The second fallacy is that we today are somehow more privileged to the truths of Scripture and are wiser and more learned than those of yesteryear.

Both fallacies are dangerous and simply incorrect. These fallacies though have caused many to miss out on the rich and plentiful truths discovered and expounded upon by great and wonderful men of God. This lack of knowledge of Church history though has the impact of keeping many in the pews in the dark regarding popular and accepted theological positions and the competing propositions.

But what are we to make of the history of Dispensationalism’s unique positions and their placement within Church history?

Primarily we will deal only with a brief timeline and those names which are most important and recognizable who have been instrumental in propagating and popularizing the view. Obviously, this is not exhaustive and only serves the purpose of trying to show where the view came from and how it became so popular. I have also tried to avoid legends and hearsay but have included some sidebar stories that may prove fruitful in the discussion.


Now, as discussed above, many will claim that the Dispensational view can trace it’s roots back to the first and second century and the rise of chiliasm. Chiliasm is the historical name for Premillennialism and a student of the subject should familiarize themselves with the term since most early Church writers would use the term Chiliasm rather than Premillennialism. But, as also discussed above, this is only true of the Premillennial distinction that they share with Classical Premillennialism. Classical Premillennialism can and does trace its roots back to the earliest Church fathers (like Amillennialism and Postmillennialism) but there can be found no evidence of the other Dispensational characteristics having early Church proponents. Those distinctions again include: the Israel/Church Distinction, Old Testament Salvation, Literal Hermeneutic, Pre-Tribulation Rapture, Gap Theory etc. All of these distinctions will be covered in great detail in future chapters and are mentioned here to show how these views are unique to Dispensationalism exclusively.

Also, the term “Dispensations” is a common term found in Church history and many early Church father’s and theologians used the term but in radically different ways. This is true of Irenaeus in the 2nd century and Augustine in the 4th century. Reformers and others in Church history also created systems and schemes of Biblical interpretation that used differing dispensations of God’s activity with men. But the distinction connected to the Dispensational system (which will be outlined in a future chapter) is that during these different dispensations God demanded a different form of task, expectation, rules and responsibility relating to man and how man could relate to God.

These differing economies are distinct and unique and supersede the previous dispensation’s requirements. This differs greatly from the other usages of the term “dispensation” as presented by the theologians listed above as they saw an increasing revelation in which a dispensation added to the previous revelation rather than eliminate, supersede and conflict with the previous dispensations. This is the crux of the debate between Dispensationalism and Covenantalism and will be the focus of an entire upcoming chapter.

Understanding the above let us continue with our discussion of the history of the systematizing of Dispensationalism. The common history thread runs through the writings and teaching of Plymouth Brethren founder, and former Anglican teacher, John Nelson Darby. Though obviously influenced by others preceding him, Darby is credited with making Dispensationalism a system of theology, especially promoting the idea of an imminent secret rapture of the Church, the two-stage Second Coming of Christ and the proposition that God deals with man in different ways throughout different times in history known as “economies of time.”

The Plymouth Brethren is a loosely held together denomination divided into two factions known as Open and Exclusive Brethren. There is not enough time or space to adequately deal with a discussion on Plymouth Brethrenism other than to state they are primarily Dispensational, Premillennial and Cessationist. By cessationist it is meant that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased after the time of the Apostles. That being considered they would be seen as a conservative evangelical denomination, though there is no official denomination tie between individual churches.

Their history is one in which many Anglicans in England and Scotland has grown weary and wary of the Church of England and left to meet as small individual groups to share, teach and fellowship. There is no hierarchy or pastorate and no paid positions. There are deacons who do the labor of the Church but no Elders in the traditional sense though there are those men who have leadership roles and carry the majority of the teaching duties.

John Nelson Darby would be a considered a founding member of the Plymouth Brethren who gained their name by the continuing practice of referring to one another using the term “brother” and began meeting in Plymouth England. It was during these meetings that the ideas that would later become known as Dispensationalism were formulated.

Darby was convinced – against 1,800 years of Church history – that the Kingdom of God was not, as he himself had been taught, the Church. Rather the Kingdom had been postponed and the Church was parenthesis in the original plan of God to establish the Kingdom at the first coming of Christ. This was a truly unique proposition and this unique view led to the distinction between Israel and the Church and the need for a Pre-Tribulation Rapture.

There have been many detailed accounts of what led Darby to this view that are available in other resources on line as well as in print and would take too much time to deal with here. I would recommend a quick google of Gregory Boyd and his work in dismissing the claims of Dispensationalist that the distinctions of the system are of historical origins. Mr. Boyd’s work is powerful and uniquely poignant given the fact that he, himself, is a Dispensationalist.

Some scholars maintain that Darby’s new understanding of the pre-tribulation rapture was the product of a prophetic vision given to a young Scottish girl, Margaret MacDonald, in 1830. She claimed special insight into the second coming and began to share her views with others. Her ecstatic conduct and apocalyptic teaching led to a charismatic renewal in Scotland. Impressed by the accounts of a new Pentecost, Darby visited the scene of the revival. According to his own testimony in later years he met Margaret MacDonald, but rejected her claims of a new outpouring of the Spirit. Despite his opposition to MacDonald’s general approach some writers believe that he accepted her view of the rapture and worked it into his own system.

Darby’s influence reached the heart and mind of Cyrus I Scofield, author of the now imminently famous Scofield Reference Bible. Scofield was influenced by Darby, D L Moody and a prominent Dispensational pastor named James Brookes. Scofield at one time Pastored Dr. Moody’s church in Massachusetts, but moved to Dallas to work full time on his reference Bible. An entire book could be written about the life CI Scofield – and many have – as his life is a contradiction and an enigma. He was both brilliant and interesting while being also disturbing and sad.

Scofield was a brilliant lawyer and public servant who also abandoned his wife and children due to alcoholism and served time for forgery and was accused of accepting bribes while being a US District Attorney in Kansas. The dichotomies notwithstanding, it is not inaccurate to state that he may be the single most important person in the history of Dispensationalism.

Scofield created a correspondence course on Biblical interpretation that later would become the famed Scofield Reference Bible. The Scofield Reference Bible was released in 1909 through traditionally conservative and Reformed Cambridge Publishing and quickly became a publishing juggernaut. With notes promoting the Dispensational system on the same page with the actual text of the Bible, students, pastors and lay people began merging the two together and quickly the concepts and ideology that populated the notes and margins of the page became as trusted as the text on the top of the page. The influence of the Scofield reference Bible cannot be understated as for years it was the best selling Bible in the world! In fact, consider the words of former Dallas Theological Seminary President and famous Premillennial author John Walvoord.

“This edition of the Bible, which has had unprecedented circulation, has popularized Premillennial teachings and provided ready helps of interpretation. It has probably done more to extend Premillennialism in the last half century than any other volume. This accounts for the many attempts to discredit this work…”

Scofield, though, would have the greatest influence on a young pastor, teacher, and theologian named Lewis Sperry Chafer. Chafer worked with Scofield in Philadelphia and helped the ailing theologian found the Philadelphia School of the Bible. Like Scofield, Chafer moved to Dallas and, with the aid of friends, founded the Evangelical Theological College in Dallas. He was founder and professor of systematic theology at the Bible School for nearly 30 years.

That school eventually changed it’s name to Dallas Theological seminary and remains one of the most popular and influential seminaries in the world. Students and administration have included; Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life (as well as many of Young Life’s first staff members), Ken Taylor, author of The Living Bible translation, and numerous future Christian educators and pastors, including Howard Hendricks, J. Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, R. B. Thieme, Jr. and John Walvoord, who succeeded Mr. Chafer as president of Dallas Theological Seminary. The list above reads like a who’s who of Dispensationalism and the influence of the school should not be underestimated.

Dispensationalism did not reach the mainstream of American and evangelical thought until the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the publishing of Dallas Theological student Hal Lindsey’s “Late, Great Planet Earth.” The impact of that book and the movie that was released to the general market promoting the ideas contained within the book became the focal point of all things prophetic in the 1970’s.

Other students and faculty like Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, John Walvoord, Thomas Ice and others and have continued to promote the view. These men have continued to promote and defend the system over the years with some of the most popular writings and even Study Bibles.

One of the most powerful tools in the disseminating of the Dispensational doctrine was the creation of Bible Colleges throughout the United States. Dispensational Birthed Colleges and Seminaries include: Philadelphia Biblical Institute, Dallas Theological Seminar, BIOLA University, Moody Bible Institute and many more. By the training of Pastors in the system during their Biblical training the system became an integral part of the overall preaching method of Pastors trained within the system. This obviously spread to the layperson in the pew and quickly became the default position of modern evangelicalism.

Most recently, though, the fictionalized series of Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins has been a unprecedented publishing success and has continued to promote and propagate the system as the accepted and exclusive position within Christendom despite its relative youth and questionable beginnings.

Another note to consider when asking how did this view gain such a foothold in America especially is to realize this did not take place in a vacuum. Its rise coincided with the rise of Fundamentalism in the early 20th century and the connection between the two should not be missed.

As a result of attacks by liberal theologians within mainline Christian denominations against many basic tenets of the Christian faith including the reliability and inerrancy of the Scriptures a group of conservative evangelical scholars and pastors responded with a call to return to a more literal approach to Biblical interpretation. This call to a more literal, non-figurative Biblical interpretive method coincided with Dispensationalism’s “wooden literal” approach and the two forces, though differing on many issues, seemed to gravitate toward one another. The two groups found an ecumenical center and together published a large amount of written material that was consumed by the laity en masse.

It is quite possibly fair to state that without the publishing arms of the Fundamentalist movement the propagation of the Dispensational system may have been stymied. When prolific publishing is coupled with a strong and forceful training of the faithful (including Pastors) the juggernaut that is now modern Dispensationalism was unstoppable. It was a perfect storm of sorts.

There is one last oddity of history for consideration. The rise of apocalyptic teaching within several cults also developed at the same time. Both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons were birthed at generally the same time with some very common influences. History is replete with many false predictions of the end of the world by these groups and unfortunately, Dispensationalism’s history suffers in that comparison. Though there appears to be no theological commonalities when discussing essential aspects of the faith amongst these groups it should be noted that they do share some common influences and results.

Over the next several chapters we will look at those theological underpinnings that separate Dispensationalism from the rest of Christian thought. They include; Wooden Literalism, Parenthesis Theory, Israel/Church distinction, Kingdom Distinctions, the Secret Rapture and a concept called The Second Humiliation of Christ.

We will begin this discussion with the single most important facet of the system and that is the Hermeneutic that leads to all of the other distinctions. That hermeneutic is known as wooden literalism.


2 Responses to “Dispensational Distortions – Don’t Know Much About History”

  1. 1 ted patterson

    A book called “A Blessed Hope” challenges these themes as well. At the moment, I can’t remember the name of the author. George something…

    • 2 low5point

      Hi Ted

      The book is by George Eldon Ladd and he does a very good job critiquing the Dispensational perspective but still tries to maintain the futurist view. He is what is called a “Classic Premillennialist” … or Post-Tribber

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