Classic dispensationalism was born in England in the 1830s and popularized in America by William E. Blackstone’s book, Jesus IsComing Again (1878), and by the footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). Though dispensationalism is best known for its take on the Rapture and the Tribulation, we will look at some of its more basic foundations. Classic dispensationalism is built on at least three pillars:
- All prophecy should be interpreted literally.1
- Scripture makes a rigid distinction between Israel and the New Testament church.
- The church is a parenthesis in prophetic time, an interval of grace interrupting a dispensation of law.
These ideas flow easily together. The prophets often described the world to come in terms of Israel, the Promised Land, the priesthood, and the temple. They wrote of the Messianic future in terms of the present that Israel knew. If their words contain no imagery, type, or metaphor, then they describe a future that has little to do with the gospel or the New Covenant age.
Should we conclude, then, that the Old and New Covenants describe two different peoples with two different destinies? If so, the church is an intrusion into God’s original prophetic plan, and her removal from history is necessary if He is to complete it.2 So is the restoration of the Jewish economy — temple, blood sacrifice, and all — so that God can pick up where He left off. This is exactly what classic dispensationalism teaches. But is it Biblical?
What Does the Bible Say?
The final measure of what is Biblical is the Bible itself. In other words, to find out how we should read the Bible, we must actually read the Bible and let it shape our way of thinking.
The Bible begins in Genesis, and so should we. From there we should read through to Revelation, keeping each verse, each passage, each book, in its proper context. As we read, we should see how the Bible develops doctrines, themes, and imagery. What, for instance, does the Bible say about justification or sacrifice or gardens? For that matter, what does the Bible talk about? How does each book build on the last? What does each writer add to our understanding of this concept or that image?
Very quickly we find that the Bible is literature, the greatest literature imaginable. It appeals not only to man’s reason and volition, but also to his imagination and emotion. It contains both historical narrative and poetic hyperbole, both the unadorned genealogies of 1 Chronicles and the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. God has eyes and hands. Heaven has windows; the morning has wings. We must eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood (Jn. 6:53). We must be born again (Jn. 3:7). A simplistic literalism fails us quite early. Like all great literature, the Bible is not a simple book; reading it properly will often require close attention and a great deal of thought.
As we read we also find that Scripture interprets Scripture. The Bible gives us parallel discussions, synoptic accounts of the same event, and New Testament commentary on Old Testament passages. This last is particularly significant for our purposes, for the New Testament writers show us how to interpret Old Testament prophecy. And their interpretations are authoritative: we must accept both their conclusions and their methods.
Matthew on Prophecy
As an example, let’s consider Matthew’s approach to prophecy, particularly in chapter 2 of his gospel. There, he interprets four Old Testament prophecies. The first, taken from Micah 5, tells us literally enough that Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. But Micah goes on to involve Messiah in a military campaign against Assyria, a thing that didn’t happen and now can’t happen, for Assyria is long extinct. Those who look for some sort of revived Assyria are cheating: such a nation would not literally be Assyria.3 God, then, must have had something other than a literal fulfillment in mind for this part of Micah’s prophecy.
Then there’s Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” But Hosea was talking about Israel. Only by analogy and type can the words apply to Jesus. Matthew’s interpretation of Jeremiah 31:15 is even harder to follow. Jeremiah was talking about children carried captive to Babylon. Matthew had to draw together a number of facts and themes to tie those children to the innocents who died in Bethlehem.4 Yet he did so without apology. Finally, Matthew gives us, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” No prophet ever said that — at least, not literally.
The Spirit of Prophecy
There are, of course, other prophecies that were fulfilled literally. Jesus was born of a virgin. He ministered in Galilee. His hands and feet were pierced. But even predictions like these are often nestled side by side with others that found a different sort of fulfillment.
So how do we know what the prophets really meant? By what standard does the New Testament interpret the prophecies of the Old? As we read the New Testament and let the apostles speak for themselves, we find that their guiding principle is not “literalism everywhere” but “Jesus everywhere.” As far as the New Testament writers are concerned, the Old Testament is about Jesus Christ and Him crucified.5 “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10d).
For the apostles, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the continuity that overshadows and explains all the covenantal discontinuities.6 Covenant by covenant, type by type, Old Testament history is preparation for Christ, and the New Testament is the fulfillment and completion of the Old. Christ is now the Mediator of a new and everlasting covenant. Christ is our Priest, our Temple, and our Inheritance. He is the reality behind all the carnal types (Col. 2:10-17; Heb. 9-10). There can be no return to the Mosaic economy. All things have been made new.
Israel and the Church: Continuity and Succession
Then what of Israel? Paul argues that there has always been a believing remnant, and he holds out hope for the future conversion of the Jewish people (Rom. 11). But he also insists that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6); that is, Israel is not defined by genetic descent, but by faith in Jesus Christ. The whole New Testament rings with this message, and it often calls the Old as a witness.7 Those who trust in Jesus Christ are the circumcision, the seed of Abraham, and the true Israel of God (Phil. 3:3; Gal. 3:29, 6:16). The church is the covenantal successor to Old Testament Israel and the heir of the kingdom and the promises — the promise of the Spirit, the promise of Messiah, and in Him the promise of all things.8
The church is no intrusion. Though the nature of the New Testament church was a mystery largely hidden in earlier ages, the church itself was neither unplanned nor unprophesied. In fact, throughout the book of Acts the apostles appeal to the prophets to explain the events surrounding the birth and growth of the church.9
Redemptive history is not erratic. It develops and unfolds progressively, covenant renewal by covenant renewal; but it moves toward a consistent goal. There are no parentheses, no last-minute rewrites. God’s plan is coherent. As we pass from the Old Covenant to the New, shadows give way to substance, types and images to reality. From Eden to Calvary there is an underlying continuity that blossoms into the Spirit-filled New Testament church and the spread of the gospel to all nations.
Is classic dispensationalism Biblical? No. Its first principles are at odds with Scripture, and the system suffers from that foundational weakness. As today’s dispensational theologians rework that system, we can hope and pray that they will give careful attention to what the New Testament actually says about the Old, about Israel, and about the covenants. The fruit of their labors could be a tremendous blessing to the church.
1. Pop dispensationalism also demands literalism — and then turns falling stars into missiles and locusts into Cobra helicopters.
2. This is the basic dispensational argument for the pre-tribulation Rapture, a removal of the church from history seven years before the Second Coming. Aside from a few appeals to types, dispensationalism seriously lacks exegetical arguments for this popular doctrine. Where does the Bible teach it?
3. Dispensationalists regularly try this tactic with Rome: the European Union is the Roman Empire about to be reborn.
4. See Genesis 35:16-20; 1 Samuel10:2; Joshua18:25. Rachel’s loss at Rama points to her loss at Bethlehem, and the Restoration points to redemption and resurrection.
5. Luke 24:26-27, 44-48; John 5:39; Acts 3:22-25; Romans 16:25-27.
6. Those struggling with this idea should read the book of Hebrews carefully and thoroughly.
7. Matthew3:9; Romans 9:6-8; Galatians 3:7-9, 16, 26-29; 4:28-31; Ephesians 2:11-13, 19-20; Philippians 3:3; Hebrews 12:22-24; 1 Peter 2:9-10; etc.
8. Matthew 21:42-44; Acts 2:39; Galatians 3:7-14, 26-29; 4:21-31; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 21-22.
9. Acts 2:16-21; 3:24; 13:38-41, 46-48; 15:13-19; 24:14; 26:6, 22-23, 27-28.