Diagnosing The Dispensational Malaise: An Opinion (Pt.3)

In this post I want to push the debate on a bit by examining various definitions of Dispensationalism and Dispensational Theology (DT) which dispensationalists themselves have put forward.  These definitions will be assessed in terms of their ability to describe what DT is really about.  I shall then comment on why I think these definitions are unsatisfactory and, in fact, may be detrimental to the movement itself.  In the final post I shall then offer a definition which, I believe, will better reflect the Biblical picture which dispensationalists have seen but have not ordered and prioritized.    This will set things up for some reflections about what I think DT ought to look like and how it ought to understand and describe itself.  These posts are to be interpreted as my personal views and suggestions.  I do not deceive myself into thinking that they rise above that level.

1. A Problem of Definition?

I should say that the problem of definition is not eased by the fact that some dispensationalists content themselves with defining a “dispensation” but do not go on to actually provide a definition of “Dispensational-ism.”  I shall occasionally employ the abbreviation (D) for Dispensationalism, continuing to use DT for Dispensational Theology, although these terms are more often than not synonymous.  None of the ensuing comments on the definitions should be construed as negative or critical.  I recommend all the books below.  I am simply analyzing them with a view to a diagnosis:

1. “that system of theology which sees the Bible as the unfolding of the distinguishable economies in the outworking of God’s purpose and which sees the ultimate purpose of God to bring glory to himself in all his relations with all his creatures.” – Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology, 240 n.22.

Comment: Lightner describes  (D) as a “system of theology.”  By this term Lightner probably does not mean that (D) is a way of doing  “Systematic Theology”; only that it is a theological pursuit.  He relates DT to “God’s purpose” especially “in all his relations with all his creatures.”  This purpose is to be observed in the “unfolding of the distinguishable economies” within the Scripture.  Thus, we are to be mainly concerned with the “unfolding of the distinguishable economies” (dispensations) and not with the purpose and function of the Biblical Covenants, which do not make it into the definition of this “system of theology.”

This definition points to DT as more of a biblical theology than a systematic theology.  This is fine.  But somewhere along the line we must be able to speak about God, His purposes, His glory, His creatures, the relationship between the two, and the way in which God creates and sustains these things.  This should lead us to a Dispensational Systematic Theology which properly represents and arranges the findings of (D) as biblical theology.  The question then becomes, does concentrating on the dispensations help us to construct a systematic theology?

2. “a system of theology which attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of the sovereign rule of God.  It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several dispensations of God’s rule.” – Renald E. Showers, There Really Is A Difference, 27.

Comment: Again we see the reference to viewing DT as “a system of theology.”  It is clear that systematic theology is not really in view in this definition because of the accent on the representation of Biblical history “covered by several dispensations of God’s rule.”  Thus a form of biblical theology centered around the “several dispensations” seems to be the big idea.  Thus, these dispensations are being treated as load-bearing walls for this approach.

3. “A system of theology which, among other things, believes that God varies His procedure in His dealings with man under the various dispensations, and that history and prophecy in the Scripture should be interpreted under this light, particularly under the distinction between Israel and the Church.” – Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, 364.

Comment: This definition again refers to DT as “a system of theology.”  This theology focuses on the “procedure” of God’s “dealings with man under various dispensations.”  Thus, if we track this procedure we shall be impressed with the dispensational relief of the Bible story.  This dispensational relief helps us to distinguish the prophetic content of Scripture especially with regard to a “distinction between Israel and the Church.”  Notice that Tan does not mention the role of God’s covenants in speaking of His “procedure” and His “dealings with man.”

4. “Dispensationalism, then, simply results from an investigation into the progress of God’s plan as revealed in the Scriptures.  It recognizes various administrations or economies in this outworking of God’s plan in history.” – Stanley D. Toussaint, “A Biblical Defense of Dispensationalism” in Walvoord: A Tribute, edited by Donald K. Campbell, 82-83.

Comment: In our “investigation into the progress of God’s plan…in the Scriptures” our attention is (it seems) primarily turned to the “various administrations or economies.”  Therefore, it is from the fruits of this focus that any systematic theology and Christian worldview must arise.

5. “A theological system that approaches the Scriptures by seeing distinguishable stewardships of man under the authority of God.  It is God who reveals His purposes to man and delegates responsibilities to him.” – Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy (revised & expanded), 374.

Comment: Benware’s definition follows suit in omitting any mention of the biblical covenants in what defines (D).  He prefers to speak of a “theological system” in preference to “a system of theology” but the upshot is the same.  Dispensationalism is all about studying God’s purposes in relation to the recognizable “stewardships of man under the authority of God.”

6. “Dispensational theology is a system that embodies two essential concepts: (1) The church is distinct from Israel, and (2) God’s overall purpose is to bring glory to Himself.” – Charles C. Ryrie, “Dispensationalism”, in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology, edited by Mal Couch, 94.

Comment: Ryrie’s definition is close to that of Tan above.  Once again DT is “a system” but its main contribution is its distinction of Israel from the Church.  This is a sub-category of systematic theology (Fruchtenbaum calls it “Israelology”).  That is great.  But is there anything else?  The description about “God’s overall purpose…to bring glory to Himself”, while accurate, is too general to do much service.  It is worth noting though that Ryrie is not so concerned with dispensations as to include them in this definition.  Unfortunately, the Biblical Covenants fare no better.


These six representative definitions of DT all refer to it as “a system” of some sort.  It is clear though, from the prominence given to the outworking of the various dispensations that the main nerve center of DT in these definitions is the dispensations themselves and not the covenants.  The burning question is, “are ‘dispensations’ up to the task?”  Can a systematic theology (and hence a Biblical Worldview) be built on such a foundation?

2. Must the ‘Brief’ of Dispensationalism be Restricted?

When discussing DT with people it often happens that one will hear it confined to two particular areas of systematic theology; the doctrine of the Church, and the doctrine of The Last Things (e.g. Michael Vlach even inserts this limitation into his definition of DT).  Due to the debate over “Lordship Salvation” over the past twenty-five years many (though certainly not all) dispensationalists have thrown their hats into the soteriological ring as well.  But one is hard pressed to find a dispensationalist who advocates a full-orbed “dispensational” approach to every area of systematic theology.  On the contrary, it is common to encounter dispensationalists who think DT has no contribution to make and no work to do within theology beyond the categories of church, prophecy, the way of salvation, and, occasionally, sanctification (there has also been some good work on angels).  The doctrines of God, Revelation, Man, Sin, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have, by-and-large been neglected in favor of the prepackaged results of non-dispensationalist systematicians.

It is true that progressive dispensationalist (and pretribulationist) Craig Blaising observed (correctly) that, “since biblical eschatology is Christocentric and ultimately Patrocentric, dispensationalism should clearly articulate this focus in its system.” – Craig L. Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” in Vital Prophetic Issues, edited by Roy B. Zuck, 184.  But not much follow-up has been done since he said it.  Besides, many traditional dispensationalists (including myself) have not been won over by much of the work produced by PD’s.


It needs to be made clear that if one accepts a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of dogmatics, or, (which is much the same thing), if one is content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of  “dispensational premillennialism,” then one has admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete system of theology.  Restricting, as many dispensationalists tend to do, DT to ecclesiology and eschatology militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a system of theology.”  Clearly, any opinion which only opens its mouth when either the Church or the Last Things is being discussed does not qualify – neither does it deserve to be identified – as a system of theology.  And this for a very good reason: it cannot be systematized!

If dispensationalism is to be restricted in the realm of systematic theology then it has to be annexed to a fuller approach – a real system.  Though I may be wrong, I do not believe it harmonizes well with Reformed theology because Reformed theology is covenant theology and presupposes the main tenets of CT in its methodology (e.g. the NT interprets the OT; a focus on soteriology; the unity of the people of God; typological interpretation, etc.).  But if Reformed theology is an uneasy bedfellow where else do we look?  I humbly suggest we look inwardly!

CT’s themselves do not do a great job of defining CT, although their definitions of the theological covenants and their reducing them down to “the covenant” does provide them with lots of grist for their theological mill.  Because it views “the covenant” as a framework in which to read Scripture theologically CT readily avails itself to the production of Confessions and so systematics.

I have argued before that a focus on “dispensations” does not and cannot supply anything like the same theological yield.  In fact “dispensations” are hardly productive sponsors of even rudimentary theology.  To reflect on this a moment; all DT’s (whether CT’s acknowledge it or not) believe that man has always been justified by grace through faith regardless of whichever dispensation one examines.  That being the case, what do the dispensations contribute to our understanding of this great doctrine?  Likewise, anyone who lets the Bible mean what it says and studies it as such will come away with a distinction between Israel and the church.  And this job can easily be accomplished whether he pauses to notice any dispensations or not.  The dispensations are certainly there, but what can be accomplished by focusing on them theologically speaking?  Practically nothing as concerns systematic theology.

When it comes to branching out into systematic theology and its daughter products: apologetics, worldview, biblical counseling, CT has the clear advantage over DT if the specified foci are anything to go by (btw, Ryrie’s sine qua non, while helpful, does not help here).  We do not think that tracking the “dispensations” produces enough usable doctrine to work up a solid systematics or worldview.  If one is going to follow these definitions of (D) as a “system of theology” there will be slim pickings when it comes to forging a Dispensational Systematic Theology.  To face facts, it should be admitted that under the terms of the kinds of definitions we have looked at, such an enterprise is barely even conceivable.  It is time for a rethink.


Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise (4)

14 thoughts on “Diagnosing The Dispensational Malaise: An Opinion (Pt.3)”

  1. If I do agree with any kind of dispensationalist theology it is in ecclesiology and eschatology. I don’t believe in two different types of salvation. I don’t believe in two different covenants, or that there is a difference in the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. I believe that the Sermon on the Mount was written as much for us today as to those in a future age. I don’t believe that some N.T. books were written for the Church and then some for the Jewish people. I believe in a historical, grammatical, literal interpretation of the bible and I don’t believe all these dispensations are necessary for such an interpretation. However I did enjoy the article and try to keep an open mind. I look forward future articles.

  2. Thanks for posting Mike,

    Let me respond a little:

    Your comprehension of dispensationalism appears to be a caricature than the real deal. While it is no more monolithic than covenant theology it is fair to say that no major dispensationalist ever taught two ways of salvation. They have all taught salvation by grace through faith. (It is true that Scofield made a poorly worded statement about the law, but I could site CT’s who have also made poor statements).

    The two new covenants teaching is not held by anyone today and hasn’t had a footing in DT for over thirty years. Even then it was controversial within dispensationalism.

    The same can be said for the kingdom of God & the kingdom of heaven (Walvoord pushed for it but few agreed with him). Ditto the Sermon on the Mount. E.g. Ryrie recommends Lloyd-Jones’s exposition as the best (I agree).

    I fully agree that “all these dispensations [and they are not all clear cut] are necessary” for literal interpretation of Scripture.

    Hope this clarifies a few things. I appreciate your taking time to comment.


    1. Paul,
      I appreciate your clarification on the subject and I’m sure you’ll be more than happy to educate me further on DT in future postings. Also could you recommend some literature that closely aligns with your views on dispensational theology?

  3. Paul, excellent post. So much to ruminate over in this one.

    Here’s something. You said that the method of CT in NT interpreting the OT was inconsistent with DT.

    Perhaps, then DT or D can be seen merely as a corrective to this inconsistency of interpretation in CT. Since the NT priority over the OT heremenutically affects mainly prophecy and Israel, need we reinvent the wheel, so to speak, and start over with a new Systematic?

    Would not most Dispensationalists agree with Covenantalists about a great many things, e.g. : Sola Scriptura, Theology Proper, Bibliology, Christlogy, Pneumatology, etc? Both hold to the Gospel.

    You often hear or read Dispensationalists say “Well, we think our Reofrmed friends are great over here, they have a big view of God and the Bible, BUT on prophecy, Israel and the Church they err.”

    So, are we calling for a tweaking of sorts, or a whole theological makeover?

    I believe I can hold to the Doctriens of Grace(5 points) and have a dispensational (small d ) view of future Israel, the Church, prophecy, premillenialism, etc.

    But it would be nice to operate from one camp theologically.

    1. Thanks for a thoughtful comment Pierre.

      I want to save some of this for Part Four, but let me at least try to show you how I’m looking at things:

      1. When one insists on making the NT the interpreter of the OT this hands to the NT an authority over the WORDS-IN-CONTEXT of the OT writers. Thus, meaning no longer comes from the words themselves but from the supposed use made of them by the NT writers.

      I say “supposed” (and this shouldn’t be missed) because this methodology does not allow the OT to direct the interpretation of the interpreter of the NT in any normative way. This “frees” the interpreter to read into his/her interpretation of the NT their biases, including their theological-confessional allegiances.

      That sounds taxing but what I am saying can be put more straightforwardly. Allowing the NT to interpret the OT presupposes that ones interpretation of the NT is ACCURATE! If it is not then ones inaccurate interpretation of the NT, when used to interpret the OT will have unfortunate results. Do you see this?

      2. Now we might ask the question, “why interpret the OT by means of the NT?” And the answers that come back actually shows up that theologically driven assumptions are being employed to interpret the NT! These assumptions are then used as a grid by which to interpret the OT.

      3. What are some of these assumptions? The major one is that there can only be one people of God (the Church). It is from this first supposition that others are derived like typological interpretation and the flattening out of the biblical covenants by the rude imposition of the (supposed) covenants of grace and works.

      This is why DT cannot allow the OT to interpret the NT. There are other important reasons too, but this will do for now.

      You ask if DT’s need to “reinvent the wheel”. Here you reach the hub of the issue. I shall not answer that here. Although you may guess my answer is going to be “NO”! :-0

      You say you think you can hold to TULIP and be a dispensationalist. Well, you might be right. You certainly don’t have to agree with me! But from my studies I think this is impossible – at least if you insist upon keeping to the way TULIP is FORMULATED in Reformed dogmatics. I’ll try to clarify this statement next time.

      Finally, you will always find yourself feeling like a man with one foot in two canoes unless you (and I) build a (D) systematic theology based on a method consistent with that approach.

      God bless you and yours


      1. You say you think you can hold to TULIP and be a dispensationalist. Well, you might be right. You certainly don’t have to agree with me! But from my studies I think this is impossible – at least if you insist upon keeping to the way TULIP is FORMULATED in Reformed dogmatics. I’ll try to clarify this statement next time.

        Couldn’t disagree more with the implication. The same hermeneutic that made me a dispensationalist also made me a 4.98992-pointer, as I may have mentioned to you in the past.

        But you throw in “if you insist upon keeping to the way TULIP is FORMULATED in Reformed dogmatics,” and say you’ll develop your point. So, since I can’t respond to a point you haven’t yet made….


      2. Dan,

        You pinpoint hermeneutics as leading you to embrace 4.9 etc. Calvinism and I accept that. I wonder what restrains you from endorsing the full number. You will have to answer this, but is it perhaps a matter of formulation? If I am barking up the wrong tree so be it. When I try to explain my conclusions later I shall be saying quite a lot about the role of inference and the introduction of the analogy of faith.

        I fear, however, that this will entail me in another set of posts beyond what I had envisioned in Part Four. So while I will give some attention to this matter there (as I did in Part Two) I’m afraid I must ask you to be patient with me until I get around to a fuller explication.

        I have the second parts of two connected themes to post very soon. One is on the location of meaning and the other is a friendly critique of CT. These posts should also throw light on where I situate myself.

        I think you know I hold that God’s attributes as God demand that His decree is all-embracing. But I also hold to what I call “frayed edges” in theology (that there is a propositional limit beyond which mystery lies). Sometimes I think assertions are made which venture into this territory too confidently.

        I would benefit from any disagreement you may wish to express.

        Glad you dropped in.


      3. what restrains you from endorsing the full number…?

        Well, doc, 4.98992 rounds up to 5 pretty nicely. The remaining 0.01008 concerns L, which is not directly stated in Scripture. But I think the cumulative case is so strong that I think, write, and preach from that framework confidently, and have yet to find an alternative that makes nearly as good Biblical sense.

        I’ll look forward to your next installment.

  4. Interesting matters to ponder, and through this I’m learning about all that “Systematic Theology” entails. Just a few questions, from specific statements above … you mentioned that Reformed theology “presupposes the main tenets of CT… typological interpretation.”

    I’ve come across a few different definitions of typology and so am wondering what you are referring to. Specifically, I’ve learned the John MacArthur idea that types only apply to those illustrations from the OT that the NT explicitly mentions — as in contrast to a broader understanding (from S. Lewis Johnson, and apparently a similar framework used by 19th century preachers such as J.C. Ryle), that recognizes that “type” is really just another word for illustration or example, that they are not restricted to only explicit NT-referenced ones, but that the “type” must fit the definition including the specific points of comparison. It seems to me that the MacArthur view here (which I do not agree with) is perhaps more associated with Reformed Theology / progressive disp. — am I on the right track here?

    As to branching out into the daughter products of apologetics, worldview, and biblical counseling… I can definitely see the difference where worldview is concerned. CT / RT simply lacks explanation for the existence of Israel or its role throughout history and God’s purposes, and tends to ignore something that ought to be very obvious. But where or how does the difference between CT and disp. relate to apologetics, or (especially) biblical counseling? I guess I don’t know enough about those areas to know what the CT versus disp. treatments would be.

    1. Lynda,

      You give a good summary of the two main approaches advocated in evangelicalism. You are both right and wrong about what you call the “MacArthur idea.” I was taught at a Reformed Seminary just what you describe: that there must be explicit mention of OT types in the NT. However, (:)) …this is really not the way Reformed CT’s operate.

      For example, O. Palmer Robertson, Robert Reymond and others teach that the Garden of Eden (land) is a type of heaven. This land-typology continues in the Abraham saga where he and his seed are given “the land.” This land, though, is actually only a “foreshadowing” of the greater “land” inheritance, which is heaven.

      Likewise, all pedobaptists rely heavily on a certain typology for support of the practice.

      The Johnson/Ryle approach is more “honest” I think, but it still suffers from being wide open to the subjectivity of the user.

      Whatever, my approach to typology is that types are there – some are clearer than others – but typology must NEVER be used to formulate doctrines. Types may illustrate but they oughtn’t to direct.

      Your second question requires an answer longer than I can supply here. There is a bit of a misunderstanding here. My view is that CT/RT, because it is a fully worked out theology, can see its way to producing more biblical approaches to apologetics and counseling. Cornelius Van Til’s observation entails that good theology is to be applied to every area of life. If you see the worldview implications of Systematic Theology you will come to see how this might strongly influence the way one does counseling (and why one would reject integrationist approaches which downplay or ignore biblical teaching about man and sin). The same holds for graduating to presuppositional apologetics.

      Dispensationalists, because they borrow from others (particularly from the ‘scientific’ model of 19th Century theologians), are not on their guard against worldly wisdom in these disciplines. And, of course, they see no reason to develop alternatives.

      God bless you and yours.


  5. Hi Paul,

    I agree that there is a problem with common definitions of D. I think the problem may arise because of competing claims by CT and DT over what they both claim as the basis of their views: literal grammatical-historical hermeneutics. I’m my opinion, few actuall do it although everyone seems to claim it.

    It seems to me that this is the foundation of a true DT (indeed any truly Biblical theology) and the true sine qua non of DT.

    It is this that leads one to DT and also a serious grappling with the Biblical covenants rather than the inferred covenants of CT. It is this which results in recognizing distinctions in God’s program with time and peoples – resulting in a developed Israelology and ecclesiology which sees Israel as distinct from the body of Christ, beginning with Spirit baptism at Pentecost.

    I have personal experience with this. I was born-again at age 43 in the Pentecostal movement and the first tender 5 years of my Christian instruction was within a CT-oriented (but not Reformed) fellowship. The thing that brought me out of CT was not sitting at the feet of D teachers or a Scofield Bible (I didn’t even know of Scofield at the time), but a belief that the Scriptures should be read “normally” and that distinctions found in the text should be taken seriously rather than glossed over. With time, of course, I came to understand that my view of how to read the Bible and the understandings at resulted was called “Dispensationalism.”

    The problem in definition, it seems to me is that CT also (misleadingly, in my opinion) claims to utilize a literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic so merely for DT to make this claim as its foundational principle doesn’t seen to distinguish the two on the surface. Thus, D has been forced to shift its focus in relation to defining itself to distinctive results of it’s hermeneutics – especially in those areas with different conclusions than CT – namely, the dispensations, the nature of the relationship between Israel and the church, and areas of prophetic fulfillment. Hence the D “big three:” Israelology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

    I submit that we need to shift the focus downward from the big three to the basement where their support is derived. They are symptoms of a true normative hermeneutic – one which CT also misleadingly claims. Thus, it is this hermeneutic which prevents DT from reinterpreting the OT by imposing the NT over it – insisting that the original meaning given to the original recipients can only be extended or augmented by progressive revelation, but never subverted. Otherwise we face serious questions about the perspicuity of the OT, the nature of communication, and the character of and ability of the Communicator (God).

    In summary, part of the blame for D holding up secondary symptoms of the system in attempt to define itself stems from a need to distinguish itself from the same hermeneutical claims incorrectly made by CT.

    1. Tony,

      Very good thoughts. The “basement” is where I wish D’s would go! If they hung around there a bit they might start working on prolegomena and realize better what their task is. CT’s operate from a self-conscious cohesive outlook supported by the powerful idea of “the covenant.” We? Well we have dispensations 😦

      The issue is hermeneutical more than anything. This is where the rules of the game played by both camps need to be comprehended by both sets of interpreters. Often they are not.


      1. While I can appreciate and recognize some value which stems from recognizing dispensations, this has never been a major focus for me. Also, it isn’t infrequent that one will find dispensationalists teaching inferential ‘covenants’ like their CT brethren (witness Fruchtenbaum and the “Adamic Covenant”). So it really is about interpretive methods.

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