Monday, March 5, 2012

Dispensational Theology

"Dispensationalism rests on the view that God's dealings with men have proceeded through 'well-defined time-periods' ie 'dispensations', in each of which God reveals a particular purpose to be accomplished in that period, to which men respond in faith or unbelief. ... Dispensationalists differ in identification of the dispensations, but it is fairly general to distinguish those of innocency (Adam before the fall), conscience (Adam to Noah), promise (Araham to Moses), Mosaic law (Moses to Christ), grace (Pentecost to the rapture) and the millennium. The sharp distinction drawn between Israel and the church (except during the dispensation of grace) is crucial. ... The basic hermeneutical principle is literal interpretation, ... which insists that throughout, 'the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved' is determinative. ... Some details are in dispute among dispensationalists. These include the number and designations of the dispensations and the point at which the dispensation of grace began."
('Dispensational Theology' H.H. Rowden, New Dictionary of Theology, (IVP 1988) p200-201)

This describes my Grandmother's dispensationalism, is it what you have in mind when you hear the term? I've snipped only sections of the article, should the definition be wider or narrower? What is there to agree with or disagree with? 


Steve Isham said...

Just finished one of the most insightful and readable books to come my way . . . published last year: Those That Bless You, I Will Bless. (Paul Merkley) . . . on Christian Zionism. Toward the end he includes a helpful couple of paragraphs on dispensational theology. He says that while it is a "red-herring" to see dispensationalist views as necessary to Christian Zionism, "Some thoughtful insights can be garnered from the exercise of reading Scripture in light of these ..."

Andrew Bowles said...

I think that the Biblical Theology movement is doing the same kind of thing better (though finding 'patterns' in Scripture is always a bit questionable). The dispensations seem a bit rigid and arbitrary, and to me seem to minimise the importance of Jesus.

Still, they have excellent charts.

Luke Isham said...

Christian Zionism was one of the sections I left out because it didn't seem unique to Dispensationlism, although often associated with it.

"though finding 'patterns' in Scripture is always a bit questionable" I didn't think I'd go there, because theology is based on finding patterns in Scripture! For example we synthesise all the Scripture about a particular topic or we might find where a particular section fits in the grand narrative. I also don't think the dispensations are rigid, the movement, according this definition away, seems to allow for flexibility. (Although maybe historical dispensationalism would be a different beast.) I agree with you though about an emphasis on Jesus.

microsaurus said...

Luke - I think that your summary is an accurate description; though I am not sure if literal interpretation should be regarded as the 'basic hermeneutic principle'.

While 'literalism' is certainly a chief characteristic of dispensational hermeneutics, I think that there are probably a number of axioms which might possibly be regarded as even more fundamental (and thus determinative) to its hermeneutic.

By axioms (which is a somewhat clumsy term, sorry) I am thinking of principles such as the radical distinction between Israel and the Church. While some may argue that this distinction is a result of a more 'literal' reading, the principle itself arose out of the historical circumstances surrounding the ministry of J.N. Darby and the Plymouth Brethrens, and indeed continues to inform their hermeneutics at a global level; and thus (pre)determines the precise shape and content of their 'literal' readings.

Similarly, it could be argued that the fact that each dispensation ultimately ends in failure might indicate that 'historical pessimism' is an axiomatic hermeneutical principle which informs and directs the actual shape and content of their 'literal' reading.


Luke Isham said...

"Similarly, it could be argued that the fact that each dispensation ultimately ends in failure might indicate that 'historical pessimism' is an axiomatic hermeneutical principle which informs and directs the actual shape and content of their 'literal' reading."

Wow, I didn't see that.

BTW, what in your opinion is the difference between a covenant and dispensation? (And is there a third category?)

Andrew Bowles said...

'"though finding 'patterns' in Scripture is always a bit questionable" I didn't think I'd go there, because theology is based on finding patterns in Scripture!;

So take the syllogism to its conclusion - theology is always a bit questionable. The 'grand narrative' that suggests itself to us may be produced by faulty methods. Hooray for the hermeneutical spiral!

It seems rather rigid to me that God can only be doing one kind of thing at a time. The Mosaic law was an act of grace. The age of the Church is a time of promise waiting for the parousia. The lectionary on Sunday was from Romans 4, where Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith - in effect, participating in the 'dispensation of grace'.

microsaurus said...

Luke - In terms of the differences between 'covenants' and 'dispensations', I think that dispensations tend to be regarded as more mutually exclusive and contained; such that successive dispensations do not so muainch develop the previous one, as break with it. [Hence the Church represents such a radical break with the former dispensation that it is not so much as even mentioned in the OT (except perhaps through the occasional and somewhat oblique positive reference to the gentiles)].

In contrast, covenants are often thought of as being developed and refined throughout succeeding epochs of history; such that OT promises to Israel are happily applied to the Church (as those 'in Christ').

Is there are third alternative? ... Sure. I guess it all depends on how you define 'dispensation'. After all, I have seen the odd reformed theologians use the term "dispensation" with reference to the "dispensations" of law and grace; but I don't think they were using it with one eye on the charts in their Scofield Reference Bibles.

Andrew - Yes ... they do have excellent charts. Which is one reason why I'm pinning my hopes on Luke to finally bring some satisfying visual representations of the faith to the reformed world.

Jon said...

Hi Luke, yes that pretty much sums up the way I've heard it taught, both through the blair side of the family and in our days in the Open Brethren in Maryborough. Probably two things to correct - although dispensationalists argue in general terms for a literal approach to bible reading, in fact they are very heavily into typology - the journey from Egypt to Canaan as a type of the Christian journey, Joseph as a type of Christ, the priest's robes symbolising various aspects of the Christian life, etc. The seminal Brethren work on church history (can't remember the writer's name off the top of my head) was based around an interpretation of the seven letters of Revelation as seven periods of church history, after which came the various events of the Apocalypse.

IMHO there are at least two key issues with dispensationalism. Although of course you're right about theology seeking patterns, dispensationalism doesn't seem to arise out of the scripture, it seems to be imposed on it. Secondly, the issue about the precise boundary between the dispensations in an important one. I have heard a number of Brethren argue that Jesus' teachings are not adressed to us because they are addressed to people under law, and the dispensation of grace was ushered in by either his resurrection or Pentecost.

Luke Isham said...

Andrew, I don't quite follow why identifying patterns in scripture is an invalid tool.

Mike, thanks.

Jon, thanks for chiming in both about their use of typology, history and their sometimes strict delineation between dispensations.

That would seem one of the biggest problems with Dispensationalism.

Andrew Bowles said...

I didn't say it wasn't a valid tool, just that it is a tool with limited use, and results depend on the skill of the craftsman using that particular tool.

As I use it, the word 'questionable' means that something can legitimately be questioned, not that it is necessarily wrong. I think the endeavour of attempting to fit all of the material of the Bible within a fixed schema is questionable, particularly because as others mentioned it risks subjecting the text to our theology rather than the other way around.

Steve Isham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Isham said...

The biggest problem with dispensationalism: The extreme use of typology ... or strict delineation between dispensations?

Jon said...

@ Steve - I know your question was for Luke but my thought is that typology is not anything really to worry about - it's just using the stories metaphorically, although some of the practitioners of the method insist that only their metaphor is correct, which seems a little silly. The strict boundary between dispensations worries me more because it enables some dispensationalists to ignore Jesus' moral teachings for instance. In some more extreme versions, like the Exclusive Brethren, many of Paul's writings can also be downgraded so you end up with a very legalistic version of Christianity based largely on Paul's pastoral epistles.

BTW I found the historian I was talking about. Andrew Miller wrote his "church history" in the 19th century. What it highlights more than anything is how strongly the early Brethren were an apocalyptic movement. Part of their motivation for leaving the mainstream churches was that the signs of the times indicated that the age of grace was about to end (as shown by the abject faithlessness of the churches)and Jesus was going to return. They wanted to seperate themselves out from those corrupt churches and wait faithfully for Jesus to come. Their divisions and bitterness arose over time when jesus return was delayed.

Steve Isham said...

Jon. Hmm. Sounds like a case of a log in the eye. Vigilance over faithlessness must start with my own eye and heart. Still living in the expectation of Christ's soon return is a Biblical posture, and a joy, but I like Luther's caveat. If I knew ... I would plant a tree today.
And yes I do agree with you about the 'metaphors' of typology. There is validity there but so belaboured.