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.