Is Dispensationalism Orthodox?
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Over the years of my journey through American evangelical Christianity of many types I have discerned that dispensationalism has become “taken for granted” as biblical and orthodox, perhaps even essential to a robust biblicism and orthodoxy, by many, many conservative Protestants.
I am aware of numerous conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist preachers, teachers, speakers, and writers who are extremely popular, who are influencers among conservative Protestant Christians, especially older ones (!), who “specialize” in themes related to dispensational biblical hermeneutics, especially with regard to eschatology “end times” and “biblical prophecy.”
I will refrain from mentioning their names here, but if you “in the know” about conservative American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, you probably know some of them. Their books crowd the shelves of Christian bookstores and church libraries. They are extremely popular on Youtube and Christian television.
What I am getting at is something like this. These people and their dispensational approach to the Bible and theology is for older conservative American Christians, evangelicals and fundamentalists, what the “new Calvinism” has been for younger conservative American Christians for several decades.
Some of these “Bible teachers’” books sell by the millions and they have millions of followers among especially older American Christian men of an especially conservative ideological and theological posture. Included in their messages are: Christian Zionism (rarely mentioned by that label), the pretribulational rapture, the Antichrist identified (or at least strongly hinted at), biblical apocalyptic literature literally interpreted (but sometimes imaginatively so!), emphasis on the “great tribulation,” the “mark of the beast,” the “battle of Armageddon,” etc.
There is very little that is new in these messages except some of the details such as that “the Antichrist will be European” or “Iran is prophesied in the Bible,” or “the mark of the beast is being prepared by the secretly emerging one world government.”
When I was a young man, one of these “Bible prophecy teachers” was named Willard Cantelon and I heard him speak several times and read some of his books such as “The Day the Dollar Died.” His popularity was relatively short-lived as far as I know, but he specialized in doom and gloom predications about the coming European Union and how the United States’ currency would be cancelled and replaced by something like what later came to be called the “Euro.” What all that had to do with Christianity I struggled to understand. But I was almost forced to listen to him and read him because of his popularity within “my Christian circles”—back then (1970s).
What I am discovering is that very few of the older conservative Christian men (and some women) who are almost obsessed with these wildly popular dispensational “Bible teachers” realize or know anything about the dispensational “iceberg” lying beneath the “tip” showing above the surface. Or they know about it but don’t really realize that it is relatively new in church history, having been either discovered or invented by men like John Nelson Darby in the mid-19th century.
Some of these popular “Bible teachers” seem to assume that the dispensationalism they were taught at institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary is part and parcel of biblical orthodoxy such that anyone who rejects it is at best ignorant and at worst “lacking in biblical fidelity” (the accusation hurled at me by a professor of dispensationalism when asked to endorse one of my books).
So what is the most debatable aspect of dispensationalism? It’s not the pre-tribulational rapture but the notion that the gentile church is a kind of “Plan B” in God’s overall plan of redemption with Israel having been and remaining “Plan A.” This is really the main reason for the “rapture”—the removal of the gentile church, true Christians, SO THAT God can redeem Israel, bringing her to accept her messiah Jesus—during the “great tribulation.” Then, when Jesus returns at the end of the great tribulation, he will rule and reign over the world from Jerusalem, possibly even from a restored temple.
Why is the gentile church secondary to Israel in God’s plan of redemption? Because God’s promises to Abraham have not yet been fulfilled and that partly because Israel rejected Jesus who was and is her true messiah. But, “in the end times,” God will return to saving Israel apart from the gentile church which will be removed in the rapture. Some dispensationalists even go so far as to believe that God has two plans of salvation, one for Jews and one for gentiles. Both “merge,” as it were, in Jesus Christ, but during the “age of the gentiles,” Jews do not have to accept Jesus to be saved if they live faithful to the covenant God established with them through Moses and the prophets.
My concern is that many conservative, evangelical Protestant Christians in America and perhaps around the world are buying into dispensationalism without being fully informed or fully understanding what it entails. What it entails differs, in certain details, from one “Bible prophecy teacher” to another one, but the basics remain the same—especially the pre-tribulational rapture and the non-supercessionist view of the church and Israel. Dispensationalists radically reject any idea of the church as “the new Israel.” The gentile church is almost a footnote or sidebar in God’s overall plan of redemption which centers around Israel, Abraham and his descendants.
Recently someone asked me if it is possible to be Reformed and dispensationalist. It certainly is—in a hybrid, some would say distortion—of Reformed theology. One such creative Reformed dispensationalist or dispensational Reformed “Bible teacher” was Donald Grey Barnhouse, long-time pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In spite of the fact that he was a Calvinist, because he was a dispensationalist, he was a huge influence in the Bible college I attended and from which I graduated; it was anything BUT Calvinist.
In my experience, dispensationalism has become so much a part of the fabric of conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant Christianity in America that it is hardly ever mentioned as such, as “dispensationalist.” When I am among them and I explain what dispensationalism is and why I’m not dispensational, the reaction I often get is that I might be in danger of denying the Bible. Dispensationalism is often considered “the doctrine of the Bible” even where it is not known by that name.