Saturday, September 15, 2012

What I find mostly helpful about Dispensational theology

Colossians 1:25-27  25Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, 27to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Two days ago we considered what exactly frames the Bible's message - namely God's Administrative reign.  In Ephesians 3:1-10 we looked at the word translated "administration" or "dispensation", noting that a dispensation is a period, an age, an arrangement whereby God orchestrates history to progressively reveal His purposes to man.  Today I want to outline what I find mostly helpful about dispensational thought.  Like all theological systems - dispensationalism is not perfect (which is why I find it "mostly helpful").  As always, I believe we need to evaluate all our systems of belief, cherished or otherwise, by the only standard of faith and practice - the Bible.  In today's blog I have included some endnotes for those who may want more information and/or resources for further research.    

Viewing God's Creation and redemption as a house ran by the Owner
The word translated "stewardship" in Colossians is the same Greek word we find in Ephesians 3:9 by the term "administration".  A house in the Bible times was operated under the authority of a Master, with a person called a "steward" running the affairs of the house when the Master was out of town.  Joseph in Genesis 39:4 was made an "overseer", a "steward" of Potiphar's house.  We see this similar idea of a steward (albeit a very poor one) taking care of his master's estate in one of Jesus' parables of Luke 16.  In viewing the Bible as the Book of ages, dispensational teaching views creation as God's house, and man as His steward. 

God's plan of the ages - the hallmark theme of dispensational teaching
In the above passage of Colossians 1:25-27, we see key ideas that zero us in on the plan of God for the ages.  First, God administrates or "rules" over the "house" of His world.  A dispensation has to do with how He "dispenses" His providential reign throughout history.  Second, we see a particular "mystery", hidden in former ages but revealed in this present age.  I would classify this mystery as the church. (compare Ephesians 3:9-10; 5:23) Thirdly,  we see a progression of revelation from older ages to this age to the world to come.  Then finally, see see an ultimate purpose, namely the revelation of Christ in you - the hope of glory. 

How Bible teachers have communicated the Bible as the book of ages, the story of God running the house of creation and redemption
Early Church History
The idea of understanding God's progressive revelation of His word through successive ages is not a new idea.  A chief example of this is in the writings of the fourth century church father Augustine.  In his massive summary of redemptive history: "The City of God", Augustine closes out Book 22 with the following outline of Biblical history: 
1. From Adam to Noah = 10 generations
2. From Noah to Abraham = 10 generations
3. Matthew's Gospel begins with Abraham to David = 14 generations
4. From David to the Jews exile into Babylon = 14 generations
5. From the return from exile to Jesus' day = fourteen generations

1600's to 1700's
The idea of God running his world as a house is captured by the word "administration" or "dispensation".  In times past, Bible teachers used this term to describe God's administrative rule.  For instance, the Baptist Confession of Faith, written in 1689, describes God's providential rule as His governing history to accomplish His most wise and holy ends through successive ages or "dispensations".  Throughout the history of the church, viewing the Bible as the Book of Ages has aided God's people in better understanding the whole of scripture.

The 1800's saw the teaching of men like John Nelson Darby adding the features of the sharp distinction of Israel and the Church and dispensations as periods of testing for man to the DNA of dispensational theology.1  It at this point we see the more modern and recent development of dispensationalism as an interpretive system. In the early twentieth century, men like C.I Scofield produced the widely popular "Scofield Study Bible" - which built its study notes around a more developed concept of dispensations in the spirit of Darby's teachings.2

1800's to 1900's
Other teachers like Lewis Sperry Chafer had been influential in the founding of Dispensational schools like Dallas Theological seminary, influencing a whole generation of preachers who combatted liberalism in much of American's pulpits.  Chafer championed the idea of making sharp distinctions between Israel and the Church and major differences between the Old and New Testament revelation.  In the 1960's another influential and respected Bible Scholar, Charles Ryrie, produced His "Ryrie Study Bible" - building its notes around a modified form of dispensational understanding of the Bible.  Dr. Ryrie later on wrote a book called "Dispensationalism Today", which was revised in 1995 under the shorter title: "Dispensationalism". 3

Strengths and Weaknesses of Dispensational Teaching
Charles Ryrie in his book: "Dispensationalism", defines a dispensation as a distinguishable economy wherein we see the outworking of God's purpose.  An earlier teacher, Harry Ironside, stated that dispensational teaching views scripture as a succession of ages, where in each age we may see particular conditions or patterns prevailing more or in different forms than in other ages.  So far such an idea is undoubtedly biblical.  We obviously don't need to offer sacrifices anymore, since the Old Testament Age has passed, and the New Testament era was ushered in by Christ and the sending of His Spirit.  (compare Hebrews 8-10)

To keep things as simple as possible, I'll identify three essential points that are emphasized by both earlier and later forms of dispensational thought.  These three assumptions are ones that I find helpful in understanding the scope of scripture:

A. Distinction of three groups of people in the Bible - The Gentiles, the Church and Israel. (1 Corinthians 10:32)  Dispensational teachers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to make Israel and the Church two separate peoples of God (what they called Israel the earthly people and the church, the heavenly people) In recent years, dispensationalism as a Bible study movement has been in a process of revising and improving upon its earlier excesses.4  In working one's way through the Bible, I would advise folks to retain the distinctions between Israel, the Church and the Gentiles. 

B. Following, as much a possible, a literal reading of Bible prophecies and letting the Historical, Grammatical and literary  (or as some call it rhetorical) context of scripture govern our interpretation. I by and large advocate this approach to Bible interpretation.  I would also emphasize reading both Testaments in light of the Person and work of Christ.5

C. God's progress of revelation of His redemptive plan, with God's glory in Christ as being the goal of the Biblical message.  Men like Dr. Charles Ryrie has outlined these essentials in what I would term to be a mostly helpful book: "Dispensationalism". 6
With these agreements, I also find a couple of weaknesses, or at least areas where I would find small differences with Dispensational teaching. 

A. God's main means for forwarding history is heavily dependant upon God offering man His revelation, man's failure to obey that revelation, with the final part of the cycle being judgment.  Dr. Ryrie states that Dispensationalism on the one hand sees history forward through the dispensations or "ages" by the Divine purposes of God.  Yet so much of his dispensational system is (at times) heavily dependant upon the actions of man.  Though we do see judgment and man's failure in every age, yet God's forwarding of His purposes is due moreso to Christ's return and Revelation of Himself at the end of history. 

B. Dispensational theology by nature likes to divide and make distinctions.  If not regulated, dispensationalism can end up making too sharp of distinctions, failing to define the unity of scripture that it labors to achieve.7 

I clearly, by and large, find much help in viewing the Bible "dispensationally".  However, I do think that God's dealings with creation and mankind by way of Covenants needs to be also equally emphasized.  More on that in later blogs. 

End Notes:
1 John Nelson Darby was a Bible Teacher who came from the Plymouth Brethren movement.  It was by teachings such as his that Bible Conferences sprung up on American Soil in the late 1800's.  Whether or not readers may agree with what came out of those conferences, God used such movements to combat the deadly forces of liberalism that were threatening churches in the early twentieth century. 

2. C.I Scofield was the first Bible teacher to take the various strains of more modern dispensational teaching and put it together in a coherent system of notes in the widely read "Scofield Study Bible".  In the 1960's the notes were revised and later on at the end of the twentieth century "The Scofield III" Study Bible was produced.  Scofield popularized the notion of Israel being God's "earthly people" and the church being His "Heavenly people".

3. Dr. Charles Ryrie taught for many years at Dallas Theological Seminary.  His "Ryrie Study Bible" is a very good Study Bible.  I by and large have great respect for Dr. Ryrie as a Bible teacher, and by and large agree with him on major points. 

4. In the 1960's men such as Dr. Charles Ryrie and Dr. John Walvoord began to soften the distinctions between the Church and Israel and show the unity of redemptive thought running through the Bible.  In the 1990's a movement called "Progressive Dispensationalism", further softened the sharpened distinctions, saying that the church is distinguished from Israel in terms of the types of blessings received. Men such as Dr. Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock have been the chief proponents of this viewpoint.  The Church, in their view, has blessings flowing from its relationship to Christ post cross, whereas Israel, set aside for the moment, will receive blessings in the future (Christ's thousand year reign) that were promised Pre-cross. Both the Church and Israel in Eternity will then enjoy equal blessings. 

5. Older forms of dispensational teaching tended either to not emphasize or limited the reading of the Old Testament through the lense of Christ's Person and work.  Thankfully newer forms of dispensational thought have considered more seriously the centrality of Christ, especially as He fulfilled the promises to both Abraham and David.  As the fulfillment of those covenants, Christ dispenses those blessings spiritually via the New Covenant to the Church and will dispense the physical blessings to Israel when He returns to reign for 1,000 years. 

6. Charles Ryrie. "Dispensationalism". Moody Press. 1995

7. Scofield in the first editions of his study Bible made such a sharp distinction between the Old and New Testament that his study notes attached to John 1:17-18 unwittingly communicated two ways of salvation: by way of the law and by way of Christ. Extremes such as these were corrected in later editions. 

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