Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Straw Men of Dispensationalism's Critics

As some know, I am Dispensationalist in my view of theology, history and eschatology. There exists today both misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the theology of Dispensationalism. In a forum I frequent earlier today, I ran across a poster who is just such a critic. Whether he is truly ignorant of the bedrock principles of Dispensationalism, or he purposefully misrepresents the view to bolster his own viewpoint, I do not know. Of course, there is always the possibility that he has read someone who claims to be "dispensational," but who in actuality is hyper-dispensational, or just a complete nut. In any case, the critic shall remain anonymous, but I will use his "straw men" to answer some of these common mischaracterizations of the theological system known as Dispensationalism:


Actually, theological dispensationalism teaches a way of salvation for each so-called dispensation.

For instance, Chafer taught that salvation in the kingdom dispensation (era) will be by obedience to the Law of Moses. (Dispensationalism, 416; The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, 70.) He also taught that the future of believing Jews is different than the future of believing Gentiles. (Systematic Theology IV, 12, 47-53, 248)

I am glad if Ryrie denies some distinct and main doctrines of dispensationalism. However, if he does, then what he believes is not the same as historic dispensationalism.

A second shot from the Critic:

Following are some major perils of dispensationalism:

a different gospel - In contrast to the Biblical truth that salvation has always been completely by grace, historic/classic dispensationalism teaches that there have been different ways to salvation.

racial disunity - In contrast to Scripture (such as Ephesians), dispensationalism teaches that Jewish believers and Gentile believers will be separated for eternity.

hermeneutics - Dispensationalism is based on isegesis; it determines in advance how Scriptures are to be understood. The dispensational hermeneutic taints how the reader is to view all parts of the Bible.

origin - The origin of dispensationalism is not the Bible, its origin is a dream of a woman.

novelty - Dispensationalism does not have historical support; it is a relatively new theological system.

My Response to the Critic:

As is common with critics of Dispensationalism, [this critic] has thrown out five straw men that are simply not true of Biblical Dispensationalism.

First, as to the charge that Dispensationalists teach "that there are different ways to salvation":


(1) "Let it be said up-front that normative dispensationalism has never taught anything other than a single way of salvation" (Anthony C. Garland, "Does Dispensationalism Teach Two Ways of Salvation?" March 2003, 1)

(2) "Are there two ways by which one may be saved? In reply to this question it may be stated that salvation of whatever specific character is always the work of God in behalf of man and never a work of man in behalf of God. This is to assert that God never saved any one person or group of persons on any other ground than that righteous freedom to do so which the Cross of Christ secured. There is, therefore, but one way to be saved and that is by the power of God made possible through the sacrifice of Christ" (Lewis Sperry Chafer, "Editorial," Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 102, No. 405 (1945); 1).

THe Gospel of the Dispensationalist is the Gospel of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To charge ALL dispensationalists with preaching a "false gospel" is to cause unnecessary dissention in the Body of Christ.

Second, you charge that Dispensationalists teach "that Jewish Believers and Gentile Believers will be separated for eternity."


(1) "Dispensationalism recognizes differences within the company of the redeemed...Among the redeemed there are different roles which are played out in God's program leading to His Kingdom. These role distinctions [e.g. Israel and the Church] are akin to the role distinctions between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free among the elect. They do not reflect different standing or value, but rather differences in purpose according to God's unfolding plan" (Garland, 7).

(2) "One might expect that since Israel is in unbelief, and that so stubbornly, this branch [Romans 11:17ff] will remain cut off forever...Or ...that since this is the apostle to the Gentiles who is writing, and since he stresses so the unity of the Body of Christ, we are about to read of [a] hybrid tree developing. But this is precisely what we do not read. God's purpose is defined otherwise. There is distinction within unity" (Fred G. Zaspel, "Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History," Interdisciplinary Bible Research Institute, 1995, 19).

There is no "racial disunity." Within the Body of the Redeemed, God has a distinct purpose for Israel and for the Church. They are no less redeemed, and they are not redeemed in a different way -- only through Jesus. But their roles, and the timing in God's unfolding plan is different.

Third, you state that "Dispensationalism is based on isegesis [sic]; it determines in advance how Scriptures are to be understood. The Dispensational hermeneutic taints how the reader is to view all parts of the Bible."


(1) "Consistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scriptures....[Literalism] does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation" (Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 1965, 86).

(2) "The historical-grammatical method, also referred to as grammatico-historical or grammatical-critical, is a component of Biblical Hermeneutics that strives to find the intended original meaning in the text" (Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984).

(3) "The text is drawn out through examination of the passage in light of the grammatical and syntactical aspects, the historical background, the literary genre as well as theological (canonical) considerations" (Elliot Johnson, Expository hermeneutics: an Introduction, Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1990)

Finally, you charge that “Dispensationalism does not have historic support; it is a relatively new theological system,” and another charge that goes hand-in-hand with it: “Dispensationalism does not have historical support; it is a relatively new theological system.”


“The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the second coming of Christ….The Assurance of such a Millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of the [Early Church] fathers from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostle, down to Lactantius, who was the preceptor of the son of Constantine” (Edward Gibbon [1737-1794] noted English historian, in History of Christianity, New York: Peter Eckler Publishing Co., 1916, 141-142).

"Chiliasm [the name initially given to Premillennialism] was entertained in the second century not only by the Ebionites, and by writers who, like Cerinthus, mixed with their Gnosticism a large element of Judaism, but by many (very likely the majority) of the Catholic [meaning universal] Church” (Henry C. Sheldon, History of Christian Doctrine, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886, 145).

“The most striking point in eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers, such as Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius” (Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973, 614)

The ideas that form the basis of Dispensationalism were present in the earliest times of the Church, among many if not most of the Early Church Fathers. That dispensationalism did not appear throughout Church History, and in its fullest and developed form, is not an argument that it never existed, or that it is “a relatively new theological system.” I would point to the fact that the concept of Salvation by Grace through Faith was practically lost to a millennium of Church history in the medieval age, yet was rediscovered and more fully developed by Martin Luther and the Reformation saints who followed in his wake!

These charges made by critics of Dispensationalism are straw men that they knock down, often to justify their own views and/or demonstrate contempt for those who do not agree with them. Such ought not to be the case on the part of true followers of Jesus – even when they honestly disagree.

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