Problems with dispensationalist theology

  • Question 198, from Peter, Switzerland

    Several of your answers refer to Dispensationalism and give some of the history of the term, and the influence it has had on Christian Culture and Politics, particularly in the USA. You also seem to suggest it is theologically deficient. Can you outline succinctly the main theological positions of this view, where they are derived from and why you find them unsatisfactory?

    Dispensationalism is the idea that God’s relationship with human beings is different throughout the different eras of human history as recorded in the Bible. The eras are called ‘dispensations’ as they depend on the way God’s grace is dispensed during those times, for example, through a covenant with the Hebrew people, through the ministry of Jesus, through the church, and so on.

    As a theological system it first achieved popularity after the publication of C.I. Scofield’s ‘Reference Bible’ in 1909, and a second edition in 1917. Scofield believed that history was divided into seven historical eras, based on the way God revealed himself to human beings, with this current era being the sixth one, ‘age of the Church’. The seventh is yet to come and will begin when Jesus Christ returns to Earth in the second coming.

    The question asked in what ways dispensationalism could be considered ‘unsatisfactory’ as a theological system. Here are some difficulties in dispensationalist theology, summarised succinctly:

    Dividing the Bible up into ‘dispensations’ is poor scholarship.

    In 1888, Scofield published a book called Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. He quoted 2 Timothy chapter two, verse 15 where, in the Authorised Version, Paul instructs Timothy to “rightly divide the word of truth“. Scofield took that to mean that the Bible must have ‘right divisions’, which need to be followed in order to understand the course of human history.

    However, the Greek verb translated as ‘rightly dividing’ only appears in this verse and while literally it means cutting something straight, figuratively it means to handle something correctly or to do the right thing. Paul is using the word to tell Timothy to use ‘the word of truth’ properly.

    Even if Scofield’s interpretation of Paul’s statement was right, it would only apply to the Old Testament anyway. It would be at least two centuries before the whole Bible as we have it now, was considered the Word of God. It is unproven (and unprovable) whether Paul considered the words he wrote as Scripture.

    It is dependent on a particular translation.

    In Ephesians chapter 3, verse 2 in the Authorised Version of the Bible (often called the King James Version) the word ‘dispensation’ is used to describe the grace the apostle Paul has experienced. The word ‘dispensation’ is the Greek word ‘oikonomion’ which can be translated a number of different ways – often as ‘stewardship’, for example.

    There is a big difference between the meaning of ‘dispensation’ and ‘stewardship’ in English and this highlights the danger of basing any theology on one or two particular words found in one translation.

    Dispensationalism is often linked to a rigid use of the Authorised Version in the contentious belief that the Authorised Version is a more accurate translation. It has to do that, otherwise one of its central proof texts fall flat.

    The Scofield Bible was published with interpolations that change the original meaning of Scripture.

    In his translation of the Bible, Scofield marked out his dispensationalist theology in the text. For example, in Isaiah chapter 11 Scofield added six headings breaking up the first ten verses to turn it into a dispensational ‘proof-text’.

    It is effectively a ‘pick-and-choose’ theology.

    Scofield had a highly selective attitude towards the Bible, believing that because the gospels dealt with what happened in the fifth dispensation, ‘the age of the law’, they only applied to Jews, not to Christians. Therefore, anything in the Gospels can be discounted as no longer applicable to Christians and can be ignored.

    It separates God’s relationship with Israel and the Jewish people from the Christian Church.

    This is in direct contradiction to numerous Bible texts. For example, the apostle Paul’s analogy of the gentiles being grafted into the same tree as Israel (Romans chapter 11, verse 11-24). Paul is writing in the ‘age of the church’, which we are still in. So, unlike the gospels, dispensationalists cannot just ignore this comment. Some critics have gone so far to say that dispensationalism teaches two means of salvation – the covenant for Jews and Christian redemption at the same time.

    It is relatively novel.

    Despite being over a century old, Dispensationalism is still young compared to many other theological views. While there is always scope for new understanding and appreciation of the truths of Christianity, caution needs to be applied when a new viewpoint dismisses all previous theology.

    Every sub-Christian sect or cult claims its ‘new’ interpretation or revelation supercedes the old understanding. In some ways dispensationalism is no different to those cults in promoting novel ways of interpreting and applying Scripture that contradict the established teaching of the church that preceded it.

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  • 1 comment

    1. Ted Sep 11

      Yes dispensational understanding has had a mixes understanding of the administrations or dispensations but I appreciate your last remark as it need better clarification. Please read and examine some of the understanding of dispensation on the studies on Read the book – Where is God? Lexie discovers God’s plan to save the world.
      Thank you for your time
      Ted Romans 8

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