The Essentials of Dispensationalism
What makes a dispensationalist? Dr. Charles Ryrie, former president of Philadelphia Biblical University, professor emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary, and author of more than 30 books, answers this question in a newly revised edition of his unparalleled classic, Dispensationalism, published by Moody Publishers, © 1995, 2007 by Charles C. Ryrie.
This outstanding work is available through The Friends of Israel. The following excerpt is used by permission.
What marks off a person as a dispensationalist? What is the sine qua non (the absolutely indispensable part) of the system? The answer is threefold.
1. A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct. This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.1
Though God’s purpose for Israel and God’s purpose for the church receive the most attention in Scripture, God has purposes for other groups as well. He has a purpose and plan for the angels, which in no way mixes with His purposes for Israel or the church (2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 4:11). He has a purpose for those who reject Him, which also is distinct from other purposes (Prov. 16:4). He has a plan for the nations, which continues into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:2), and those nations are distinct from the bride of Christ. God has more than two purposes even though He reveals more about His purposes for Israel and His purpose for the church than He does about the other groups.
Progressive dispensationalists seem to be blurring this distinction by saying that the concept is not in the same class as what is conveyed by the concepts of Gentiles, Israel, and Jews. What this means is not completely clear. However, it does seem to imply that the classic Israel/church distinction is less clear.
2. This distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation. Therefore, the second aspect of the sine qua non of Dispensationalism is the matter of historical-grammatical hermeneutics. The word literal is perhaps not as good as either the word normal or plain, but in any case it is interpretation that does not spiritualize or allegorize as nondispensational interpretation often does. The spiritualizing may be practiced to a lesser or greater degree, but its presence in a system of interpretation is indicative of a nondispensational approach.2
Consistently literal, or plain, interpretation indicates a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture. And it is this very consistency—the strength of dispensational interpretation—that seems to irk the nondispensationalist and becomes the object of his ridicule.3 To be sure, literal/historical/grammatical interpretation is not the sole possession or practice of dispensationalists, but the consistent use of it in all areas of biblical interpretation is. This does not preclude or exclude correct understanding of types, illustrations, apocalypses, and other genres within the basic framework of literal interpretation.
3. A third aspect of the sine qua non of Dispensationalism concerns the underlying purpose of God in the world. The covenant theologian, in practice, believes this purpose to be salvation (although covenant theologians strongly emphasize the glory of God in their theology), and the dispensationalist says the purpose is broader than that; namely, the glory of God. Progressives have a Christological center, apparently to undergird their emphasis on the Davidic covenant and on Christ as the already reigning Davidic ruler in heaven.
To the normative dispensationalist, the soteriological, or saving, program of God is not the only program but one of the means God is using in the total pro-gram of glorifying Himself. Scripture is not man-centered as though salvation were the main theme, but it is God-centered because His glory is the center. The Bible itself clearly teaches that salvation, important and wonderful as it is, is not an end in itself but is rather a means to the end of glorifying God (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). John F. Walvoord, [Lewis Sperry] Chafer’s successor at Dallas Theological Seminary, puts it this way: “The larger purpose of God is the manifestation of His own glory. To this end each dispensation, each successive revelation of God’s plan for the ages, His dealing with the non-elect as with the elect…combine to manifest divine glory.”4 In another place he says:
All the events of the created world are designed to manifest the glory of God. The error of covenant theologians is that they combine all the many facets of divine purpose in the one objective of the fulfillment of the covenant of grace. From a logical standpoint, this is the reductive error—the use of one aspect of the whole as the determining element.5
The essence of Dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain or historical-grammatical interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well.
- There can be rare exceptions, as with C. E.B. Cranfield (Commentary on Romans [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979], 448 n. 2), who rejects the teaching that Israel has been replaced by the church.
- George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 126–34. Even though Ladd believes in a future for the nation Israel (cf. “Is There a Future for Israel?” Eternity [May 1964], 25–28, 36), that does not mean that he is a dispensationalist, for he fails to meet the criterion concerning the consistent use of the literal principle of interpretation. In this same article (p. 27) he declares that “although the Church is spiritual Israel, the New Testament teaches that literal Israel is yet to be saved.” In other words, he distinguishes the church and Israel in the future millennial age, but he does not distinguish them in the present age. Since Israel and the church are not kept distinct throughout God’s program, Ladd fails to meet this test of Dispensationalism.
- Arnold B. Rhodes, ed., The Church Faces the Isms (New York: Abingdon, 1958), 95.
- John F. Walvoord, “Review of Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God, by George E. Ladd,” Bibliotheca Sacra 110 (January 1953): 3–4.
- John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, OH: Dunham, 1959), 92.