Last year I spent a fair amount of time answering emails sent to the outreach department at newchurch.org, and out of necessity I learned about current Christian beliefs in America – and in the process discovered dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is HUGE in American Christianity (although less so internationally, as far as I know) – and it didn’t exist in Swedenborg’s time.
The basic idea of dispensationalism is that there were several unique “dispensations” to the human race. The divisions vary, but all dispensationalists agree that there was one dispensation for the Jews, one dispensation for Christians, and a final dispensation for “the Kingdom” (Christ’s reign after His second coming). Of course, most Christians agree that Jesus gave a new revelation that in some ways changed the Law of the Old Testament (e.g. no more need for sacrifices) – but dispensationalists believe that there are still separate dispensations for Israel and for everyone else. From Wikipedia:
The relationship between the ancient nations of Israel and Judah (sometimes collectively referred to as Israel or the Jewish people) and the church as the people of God is the key discriminator between Dispensationalism and other views. In the dispensational view, the time in which the church operates, known as the church age or the Christian dispensation, represents a “parenthesis”. That is, it is an interruption in God’s dealings with the Jewish people as a nation as described in the Old Testament, and it is the time when the Gospel was preached and salvation in the present age is offered to the Gentiles and Jews alike. During the present dispensation a small Jewish remnant along with a large Gentile number are to be saved and become part of the Church. Israel as a nation is partially blinded until the fullness of the Gentiles has come. Afterwards however, God’s continued care for the Jewish people as a nation will be revealed after the end of the church age when Israel will be restored to their land and will accept Jesus as their messiah (compare Zech 12:8-10) and therefore “all Israel shall be saved.”
The Christians who want to support Israel at all costs are by and large dispensationalists – they believe that Israel is still God’s chosen people.
The “Left Behind” series of books are all written from a dispensational perspective. The idea of “the Rapture,” and event where Jesus will call all believers to heaven before the “great tribulation” promised in Revelation is a dispensationalist concept.
To me, though, the biggest (and most harmful) innovation of dispensationalism is where they divide the dispensations. They argue that all of Jesus’s words about good works were for the Jewish dispensation, or for the Kingdom that was to come – Jesus’s commands to do good could not be for Christians, since that would be contrary to salvation by grace. It is faith alone taken to the extreme.
Dispensationalism also took Biblical literalism to a level that it had never before been. Even the prophecies of the Old Testament that seem to be figurative are supposed to be taken literally. For example, dispensationalists believe that although John the Baptist is described as fulfilling the prophecy that Elijah would come before the Messiah, he was really only prefiguring the time when Elijah himself will come before Christ’s return.
You can read about the history of dispensationalism on Wikipedia. It was developed in the early 1800’s and popularized in North America primarily by Dwight Moody and John Scofield, whose Scofield Study Bible become a standard text in many theological schools. Today, Dallas Theological Seminary and Biola University are two of the major dispensational schools of theology.
Last fall I bought a book called “Understanding Dispensationalists” by Calvinist scholar Vern S. Poythress, who argues against dispensationalism but presents it fairly. One key thing that the book made clear was just how hyper-literal dispensationalist interpretation of the Bible is.
But there are different degrees of dispensationalism. Poythress writes:
“Many contemporary dispensationalists read the Bible as a book that speaks directly to themselves. … They apply the sermon on the mount to themselves. They do this even if they believe that the primary reference of such prophecies and commands is to the Millenium. …
There are, however, some dispensationalists who refuse to do this kind of application. They engage in ‘rightly dividing the word of truth.’ That is, they carefully separate the parts of the Bible that address the different dispensations. People following this route learn the Sermon on the Mount is ‘legal ground.’ It is kingdom ethics, not ethics for the Christian. Christians are not supposed to pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), or use it as a model, because of the supposed antithesis to grace in 6:12.”
It’s hard to get a sense of how many dispensationalists are “applicators” and how many are “hard-line” – although I think even the “applicators” are in serious error. It’s also hard to get a sense of how widespread dispensationlism is at all. New Testament scholar Scot McKnight wrote in his blog,
“I don’t know how to measure the impact, but the Scofield Bible and its form of dispensationalism has probably shaped American conservative, populist evangelicalism more than any other set of ideas”.
While in Bryn Athyn I looked around to see how many of the churches professed dispensational theology. The most popular Protestant church in the immediate vicinity, Calvary Chapel, is dispensational, as is Philadelphia Biblical University (See point VII on their statement of doctrine). That still doesn’t answer a lot of questions about how widespread or widely acknowledged this doctrine is.
There are big implications for what we can expect when we try to tell people about the New Church if they have a dispensational background. For one thing, references to the Gospels will not convince a dispensationalist that a good life is a requirement of salvation, since they see the Gospels as revelation for the Jews. And using the fact that the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah were not fulfilled literally won’t work as an argument for not expecting a literal fulfillment of the prophecies in the book of Revelation, since dispensationalists believe that they will be fulfilled literally in the future.
So what are the positives? Well, I think that dispensationalism is the logical outcome of believing in faith alone. The gospels clearly do not support the idea of faith alone as being “just believe and you’ll be saved” – so the only way to make the theology work, if that’s your interpretation of Paul, is to say that the gospels don’t actually apply to Christians. It makes it clearer that faith alone is not what the Lord taught.
It’s not actually what Paul, taught, either – and to effectively talk to dispensationalists, we need to really get to know the epistles, because those are really the only things they consider authoritative for Christians. Even then, they’re used to the standard arguments against dispensationalism – Poythress says there’s no simple way to show them where they may be in error, because the approach has internal consistency. I suppose all we can do is try to express that there are other ways to read the Bible that have internal consistency – that the dispensational framework is not the only one that “works.”