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
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].
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,
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,
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
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
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,
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,