3. A General Examination Of The
Presuppositions of Dispensationalism

Within a century from when John Nelson Darby started the idea of God's two separate purposes in history (1827). it had arisen to a place of common acceptance among the Bible-believing movement in America, which then centered in Fundamentalism.

There is an intense continuity of thought among dispensationalists. It is not difficult to ascertain the guiding presuppositions of this system. Dr. Charles Ryrie has pointedly faced the question. "What is the sine qua non of dispensationalism?" His answer has three parts.

1. ''A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct . . . a man who fails to distinguish Israel and the Church will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions.''

2. Dispensationalists employ "a consistently literal principle of interpretation.'' This principle "is at the heart of dispensational eschatology."

3. Dispensationalists assert that God's purposes center in His glory, rather than in the "single purpose of salvation'' (Dispensationalism Today [Moody 1965]. pp.44-48).

By examining these three pillars we will be able to understand the essence of dispensationalism, and thereby be in a position to justly consider this system in the light of the Bible.

3.1   Israel and the Church Separate.   In order to graphically see the continuity of agreement among proponents of dispensationalism, and to see the centrality of this pillar in their syste, I will list chronologically quotations concerning the two-purposes theory. We must start with John Darby, for the teaching found in these quotes was never enunciated at any time in history until 1827. Thus it is a perversion of history for Dr. Ernest Pickering to claim that "the principles of dispensationalism'' are not "theological novelties" ("Dispensational Theology,'' Central Conservative Baptist Quarterly. Spring, 1961. p.29). The dividing of redemptive history into several economies was surely done throughout church history. But the idea that God has "separate" purposes for Israel and the church (as defined in these quotes) is indeed novel, and not to be found from the pens of all post-apostolic writers. Yet this is the teaching on which dispensationalism stands or falls. It is the presupposition that guides their Biblical interpretation. If it is a wrong teaching, the whole system tumbles to the ground.

J.N. Darby - "The Church is in relationship with the Fathers, and the Jews with Jehovah .... The Jewish nation is never to enter the Church .... The Church is . . . a kind of heavenly economy, during the rejection of the earthly people'' (The Hopes of the Church of God, pp.11, 106, 156).

E. W. Bullinger - "It follows . . . that if we read those people and those principles into the present Dispensation, we are taking what God spoke by the prophets to the fathers (i.e., Israel), and reading them as though they were spoken to and about ourselves, in this present Dispensation. This procedure can result only in confusion'' (The Foundations of Dispensational Truth, p.21. Bullinger is recognized by all as an extreme dispensationalist, but he nevertheless illustrates the beginning principle).

J.H. Brookes - "If we forget the distinction between an earthly and a heavenly people, or in other words, if we lose sight of dispensational truth . . . we will be thrown into inextricable confusion in attempting to understand the Scriptures'' (Maranatha, pp. 522-52.3).

C. I. Scofield - "Comparing, then, what is said in Scripture concerning Israel and the Church, we find that in origin, calling, promise, worship, principles of conduct and future destiny all is contrast'' (Scofield Bible Correspondence Course, 19th Ed.. p.23).

L. S. Chafer - "The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages, God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved" (Dispensationalism, p.448).

John Walvoord - "Of prime importance to the premillennial interpretation of Scripture is the distinction provided in the New Testament between God's purpose for the Church and His purpose for the nation Israel'' (The Millennial Kingdom, p.vii).

J. Dwight Pentecost - "The Church and Israel are two distinct groups" (Things to Come, p. 193).

Ernest Pickering - ''Dispensationalism views them as two different bodies of saints each having its own promises. responsibilities, and expectations'' ("Dispensational Theology,'' p.35).

Charles Ryrie - "A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct .... The Church is a distinct body in this age having promises and a destiny different from Israel's" (The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, p. l 2).

Upon this foundation a great building has been erected. This first principle is central and constitutive. Other distinctives, such as the "rapture,'' stand or fall according to the accuracy of this guiding principle (cf. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, pp.15-16; Pentecost, Things To Come, p. 193).

3.2  A Consistently Literal Principle of Interpretation.   This principle arose in Darby's thinking out of his prior contemplation upon the church. When he read Isaiah 32 he saw a tension between the earthly Old Testament description and his heavenly position in Christ. Hence he concluded that there was ''an obvious change in dispensation."

Contemporary dispensationalists argue that the prophecies concerning Christ's birth, death and resurrection were literally fulfilled, and that therefore what they see as promises to Israel must be literally fulfilled. This reasoning, of course, is based on the presupposition of their Israel Church distinction. If the church and Israel ultimately have the same hope in Christ, then the question must be faced. ''Does the Bible teach a separate destiny for Israel apart from the church?" This in turn would have serious implications for the proper interpretation of prophecy.

Further, the question arises whether the ''historical-grammatical'' approach to the Old Testament (as conceived of by dispensationalists) was indeed used by Christ and His apostles. To impose a method that is not in harmony with infallible instructors is surely a dubious course. J. Dwight Pentecost submits that there is no question but that ''the literalism of the Jewish interpreters was identical with present day grammatical-historical interpretation'' (Things To Come, p.19). It would appear to me that this form of literalism present in the first century was rebuked and rejected by Christ (cf. John 2:19-22).

The dispensationalists contend that other methods of interpretation are guilty of ''imposing the New Testament on the Old'' (Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p.187). However, this offense arises solely because the central presupposition of this system has ruled out the possibility that the promises to the fathers have already been confirmed by Christ (Rom. 15:8). Israel's destiny must be kept separate from that of the church. I will seek to show that dispensationalists are guilty of taking the Old Testament out of the New. For example they assert that the Day of Pentecost was the ''beginning of a new thing in human history, the Church'' (Scofield Bible p.vi). However, on that day Peter said "this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.'' But dispensationalists must get around the strength of such assertions in the New Testament: ''the Church, corporately, is not in the vision of the Old Testament prophet [Joel]" (Scofield Bible, p.711: also compare Heb. 2:12 with his note on p.989).

Further, it must be questioned whether dispensationalists are indeed "consistently literal'' in their interpretations. There are sufficient examples to indicate that they are very selective in what is taken literally, and often take figuratively that which is historical. This points to a problem that must be faced honestly by despensationalists: ''What hermeneutical guidelines - apart from the purely subjective - determine what in the historical sections of Scripture can be taken figuratively, and what in the figurative (prophetic/apocalyptic) sections may be taken literally?" It remains for them to explain the Biblical basis for finding the church (topologically) in historical sections of the Old Testament, but ruling out the church in the prophetic sections (cf. Ryrie, Basis of Premillennial Faith, p.43).

3.3   God's Purposes Center in His Glory.   It would be superfluous to argue that covenant theology has always maintained that God's purposes center in His own glory. This is not to deny that dispensationalists may claim also to hold to the centrality of God's glory. But it is to deny Ryrie's claim that covenant theology limits God's purposes to the "single purpose of salvation.''

What seems to bother dispensationalists is that covenant theology views God's purpose as primarily soteriological (relating to salvation). This is to be expected because dispensationalists presuppose that "God is pursuing two distinct purposes . . . one related to earth . . . the other is related to heaven" (Chafer). The dispensationalist must produce Biblical evidences that, in light of the universal implications of Adam's fall, God is indeed pursuing any purposes that are not directly related to soteriology. After the fall, all of history was moving toward the fullness of time when the Son would be sent (Gen. 3:15 Gal. 4:4). Even with pointed reference to God's purpose for Israel, was not the manifestation of Messiah to the end that ''He will save His people from their sins,'' and "to you first God. having raised up His Son Jesus, sent Him to bless you in turning away every one of you from your iniquities" (Acts 3:26). Is this not primarily soteriological? If the Bible is to be regarded as a progressive history of redemption, would this not be a misnomer if from Gen.1:1 to Acts 2 the Bible is ''chiefly concerned" with God's "earthly purpose'' (Scofield Bible, p.vi )?

If what the Bible says about God's pre-temporal counsel is reviewed (1 Pet. 1:19-20 et al.), it appears that the salvation of men from sin by Christ is central. God is now working in a post-lapsarian world, and the fundamental purpose He is pursuing is redemptive, or soteriological.