Upholding the Truth
Dispensationalism* and Replacement Theology* are not compatible. Many Christians today subscribe to Replacement Theology, which de-emphasizes prophecy and eschatology* in favor of promoting theological harmony and the solving of perceived personal, national, and global problems. Though we love our brothers in Christ, we must also pursue and uphold truth and correct doctrine.
Understanding why Replacement Theology is inadequate and why Dispensationalism provides the correct biblical viewpoint is extremely important. Dispensationalism provides the best understanding of God’s Word and His plan for His creation because it provides a superior hermeneutic,* harmonization of the Scriptures, and historiography.*
Dispensationalism Contrasted with Covenant Theology
There are three major forms of Replacement Theology: Covenant Amillennialism,* Covenant Postmillennialism,* and Covenant (also called Historic) Premillennialism.* All three are usually built on the foundation of Covenant Theology,* which views the church as replacing Israel in God’s overall plan for world history. Jewish circles call this doctrine Supersessionism. Covenant Theology is based on allegorical interpretation* of Scripture. It views human history as God’s redemptive relationship with mankind based on two (or three) major theological covenants, and it emphasizes the “continuity” between Israel and the church—with continuity usually meaning the church replaces Israel.
The covenants are works (Gen. 2), grace (Gen. 3), and redemption. All are implied in Scripture, rather than explicit. The covenant of grace governs human history from the Fall to the Consummation as the major unifying construct of the system, making mankind’s redemption the overarching theme and unifying factor of God’s relationship with mankind.
All three forms minimize Israel’s future. Amillennialism teaches there is no future, earthly Kingdom, Jewish or otherwise. Postmillennialism sees the church as Israel’s replacement, charged with bringing the Kingdom to this earth so Jesus can return and take over. Covenant Premillennialism teaches that the church is the promised Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus during His earthly ministry, sustained through the Tribulation, raptured, and established as some form of an earthly Kingdom that will admit many Jewish people in its latter stage.
In contrast, Dispensationalism is built on consistent, literal interpretation* of Scripture. It views the world as a household administered by God for His own glory through a series of progressive but distinct dispensations,* emphasizing the discontinuity between Israel and the church. The unifying theme is God’s plan to exemplify His love and glorify Himself through His creation as He answers Lucifer’s challenge lodged against His holiness (uniqueness): “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14).
The structural elements of Dispensationalism are the dispensations, which theologian Charles Ryrie defined best as distinguishable economies in the outworking of God’s purpose. Man’s redemption is only one way God manifests His love and glorifies Himself. His program of sanctification—administered through progressive, distinguishable working relationships—allows believers in every dispensation to glorify God by responding to His revelation in loving obedience.
Furthermore, Dispensationalism emphasizes the discontinuity between Israel and the church. It affirms that God had a plan all along (though hidden in the Old Testament) to secure a multitude of Gentiles for His glory. The apostle Paul wrote that God wanted to “make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles” (Rom. 9:23–24). Then Paul quoted the Old Testament:
As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved. And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God” (vv. 25–26).
Using the Greek term oikonomia exactly as it is used in Dispensationalism, Paul stated the point of his ministry:
To make all see what is the fellowship [oikonomia; administration, NASB] of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:9–11).
God’s eternal plan, unveiled on the heels of Israel’s rejection of its Messiah, does not replace Israel with the church but adds the church for a season.
Thus Dispensationalism sees human history as divinely revealed, distinguishable, progressive stewardships (much like stages in the development of one’s career) whereby people may glorify God by responding to His love with faithful obedience. Salvation is by grace through faith in every stage, but the sanctification stewardship changes.
Dispensationalism Superior to Covenant Theology
Although all theological systems are man-made and therefore limited, Dispensationalism is preferred for the following reasons at least:
A Superior Hermeneutic. Some falsely suggest the distinction between literal and allegorical interpretation of Scripture is no longer an issue because all conservative, evangelical theologians purpose to interpret literally. Allegorical interpretation is the method of interpreting a literary text by regarding its literal sense as a vehicle for a secondary, more “spiritual” meaning. Everyone acknowledges figures of speech; but whenever anyone takes figuratively any part of Scripture that the human and divine authors intended to be taken literally, allegorical interpretation occurs.
Although no interpreter is infallible, Replacement theologians are much more apt to interpret allegorically. The integrity of their theological system requires it. Dispensationalists are not always consistent, but they strive for literal interpretation of all passages. Obvious examples are the words wolf and the lamb and lion and ox of Isaiah 65:25 and the Revelation 20:4–6 passage about the resurrection.
A second aspect of Dispensationalism’s superior hermeneutic is the relationship between biblical theology* and systematic theology.* While most agree with Ryrie that “Biblical Theology is foundational to Systematic Theology,”1 Dispensationalism and Replacement Theology use different procedures. Replacement Theology develops New Testament biblical theology first and then proceeds to establish the Old Testament biblical theology in light of the New Testament.
Theologian Michael Stallard correctly indicated that this methodology causes the Old Testament to be interpreted through the lens of the New Testament, resulting in three problems: (1) the possibility of minimizing Old Testament backgrounds, (2) subordination of grammatical-historical interpretation to the conclusions of New Testament biblical theology, and (3) failure to incorporate correct Old Testament biblical theology into one’s systematic theology.2
Observing the progressive nature of revelation, dispensationalists are committed to developing their Old Testament biblical theology first, and in its own right. Such a reading under-stands the eternal nature of God’s choice of Israel and of His covenants with and promises to His people. The church is then understood as a previously planned, temporary program during the “blindness in part [which] has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins’” (Rom. 11:25–27).
The choice of one’s hermeneutic has far-reaching ramifications. Interpreting one passage allegorically opens the way to interpret others that way. Taking God at His Word, even when it is uncomfortable, is preferable to re-interpreting what He has said.
A Superior Harmonization. Dispensationalism also provides a superior harmonization of the Scriptures.
Replacement Theology struggles with how to utilize many Old Testament passages. Having a single governing covenant of grace for the entire Bible creates tension with the clearly cultural and ceremonial aspects of Old Testament revelation. The Mosaic Law is divided into moral, ceremonial, and civil categories. The difficulty of dealing with dietary laws and leprosy and their application to today, for example, tends to cause those passages to be ignored. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, with its emphasis on progressive, sanctifying relationships (dispensations), solves this problem by interpreting such passages in place.
While some are admittedly difficult for all (Genesis 38, for example), most passages can be interpreted in light of how they were intended to teach or reflect the process of glorifying our loving God through the believers’ obedience to their given revelation. Eternal principles of divine truth may then be extracted from what God saw in or expected from His people, without damaging the literal nature of the text. Leviticus 14 detailed God’s concern for the “cleanness” of His people. Instead of adhering to the meticulous and often physical laws of holiness in the Mosaic economy, believers today should exercise the same concern for cleanness through a more adult relationship with the Holy Spirit who indwells them (Gal. 4:1–7).
A Superior Historiography. Dispensationalism provides a superior historiography. Dispensationalism’s metanarrative* is superior because it more accurately reflects the biblical revelation of God’s plan and intention. The prophet Jeremiah’s promise of a New Covenant clearly contrasts the new one with the old one mediated by Moses. This New Covenant will eventually cause God’s Word to be written on the very hearts of His people Israel, who had caused Him so much grief.
This promise means nothing if it is fulfilled with an entirely different people; Israel would be deprived of hope, and God’s grace would be diminished. Clearly the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel understood the promise of an earthly Kingdom where God’s glory will fill the earth and His Chosen People will glorify Him voluntarily. None of these things happened at the Messiah’s First Coming.
Replacement Theology’s teaching that there is only a spiritual kingdom and/or that Jewish people are only minimally involved does not adequately reflect the historiography of God’s revelation. Jesus said He will return physically (Mt. 24:29–31) and assume His earthly throne (25:31–46), both teachings of which are tied directly to Daniel’s prophecy (24:15) and are Jewish in nature. If Jesus knew the Jewish Kingdom was going to be replaced, did He deliberately mislead His Jewish disciples by not telling them, a mere two days before His death?
Understanding that the Time of Jacob’s Trouble is still future—and that it will be followed by the Messiah’s visible return to establish His Jewish, earthly Kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital—is a superior historiography because it better reflects both Old and New Testament revelation. John clearly identified Jesus’ Kingdom as a Millennium (1,000 years) situated between the judgment of the Beast (Antichrist), False Prophet (Rev. 19:20), and Dragon (Satan; 20:1–3, 7–10) and between two resurrections (vv. 4–6, 11–15). If the second resurrection is physical and literal, then the first resurrection must be as well.
Dispensationalism’s literal interpretation sees God’s relationship with Abraham coming full circle as Jesus, the Second Adam and Son of David, fulfills the biblical covenants in Messiah’s earthly Millennial Kingdom.* After 1,000 years, this final earthly stewardship will be transferred to its ultimate, eternal form in the new heaven and earth.
* See glossary for definition.
- Charles C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1959), 12.
- Michael Stallard, “Literal Hermeneutics, Theological Method, and the Essence of Dispensationalism,” 1998 <www.pre-trib.org/article-view.php?id=196>.