Dispensationalism An Ancient Error

by Rev. R. C. Harbach

Historic Premillennialism distinguished
from Dispensational Premillennialism

The premillennial view is the doctrine of the visible and personal reign of Christ on the earth for one thousand years after the Antichrist, the False Prophet and apostate Christendom have been judged and condemned to the lake of fire. This view, in sharp contrast to Postmillennialism, teaches that Christ will not come into a perfect, converted world, but to one of mixed good and evil, with evil, largely, predominating. The slogan of premillennialism is “No millennium until Christ comes.” Premillennialists hold that at the Lord’s coming, all the elect, of both dispensations, shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, which is the rapture, to be immediately followed by His return with all the saints to the earth for the millennial reign.

We are not to confuse the above with Dispensationalism. The most popular form of Premillennialism is Dispensationalism. Its theme is, “Rightly dividing the Word of truth,” which means the dividing of Scripture according to seven periods of time, or, as so-called “ultra-dispensationalism” has it, according to ten periods. Usually these eras, ages or dispensations are distinguished in the following order: innocency, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace and the kingdom. The sixth dispensation, that of grace, is the dispensation of the Church. It is said to be distinguished from the other periods as a parenthesis in history. But if so, then we must understand the word underscored not to mean “to make eminent, illustrious and worthy of special regard,” but merely to separate or divide by some mark or quality. For a parenthesis indicates something of lesser regard, something not of the general trend or main connection. Accordingly, this view sees the Church age as having not only no connection with the preceding one of law, but as standing in sharp contrast to it. The same maybe said of the following kingdom age. Although no one has objection to the dividing of Scripture according to periods of time, as such, yet because so much is made of this “mystery parenthesis” as it is called, it ought to be referred to as Mystery-Parenthesis Dispensationalism. The term “dispensationalism” itself does not sufficiently indicate what is so offensive in the system. But to speak of Parenthesis Dispensationalism identifies it, on the face of it, as a system which puts the Church out of the main stream of God’s plan for the ages.

What we have attempted to do above is to set Dispensationalism aside from Premillennialism, historically considered. The latter does not go to the bizarre extremes of Dispensationalism. It does not view the second coming of Christ in two widely separated stages, with a rapture into the air and a coming down to the earth divided by a period of years. Nor is it so narrow as to hold that the “rapture” concerns the church only. For these and other reasons it should be understood that Premillennialism and Dispensationalism are not synonymous terms. All Dispensationalists are premillennial, but not all Premillennialists are dispensational. Therefore, it would be fairer and more clarifying to speak of “historic premillennialism” as over against “dispensational premillennialism” than to attribute dispensationalism as such flatly to the premillennial school. The following were notable historic premillennialists: Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Bengel, Alford, Bonar, Ellicott, W. J. Erdman, H. G. Guinness, W. G. Moorehead, George Muller of Bristol, B. W. Newton, Ryle, A. Saphir, Tregelles, R. C. H. Trench and Nathanael West. Some notable Bible expositors of this school were: Godet, Lange and Zahn. On the other hand, well-known Dispensationalists we have in J. N. Darby, Wm. Kelly, W. E. Blackstone, James M. Gray, A. C. Gaebelein, Wm. L. Pettingill and especially C. I. Scofield. These representatives should by no means be herded into the same corral. Staid pacers do not belong with wild broncos.

Dispensationalism and Modernism

The slogan of Dispensationalism is, “All Scripture is for us, but it is not all to us, or about us.” Explaining, they say, “Some parts of Scripture have particularly the Church in view. Other parts belong to the Jews. Therefore, certain sections of the Bible have nothing to do with this present age, but belong to the past and abrogated old dispensation, while other sections concern the future great tribulation, a period which occurs after the Church has departed the earthly scene. Still other portions apply only to the earthly millennial kingdom of Christ.” This hacking method of interpreting Scripture chops the Bible into such small fragments that the Christian is robbed of much of the promises of God. The inspired “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15) does not mean we are to dissect the Bible into pieces, making it a sort of crazy-quilt. Rather it means “to hew a straight line through the Word of truth.” But the line Dispensationalism. makes through Scripture is disjointed, slip-knotted, sheep-shanked, strained and broken with many gaps intervening along its shabby, ludicrous length.

Dispensationalism has close comparison to Modernism, despite the fact that the former vehemently repudiates the latter. For Dispensationalists claim the evangelical school, accepting the infallibility and divine authority of Scripture. But they become guilty of approaching the Bible according to modernistic methods. For both Dispensationalism and Modernism have a subjective theory of Bible structure. The latter reads the Book of Isaiah applying its subjective method and decides that chapters 40-66 could never have been written by the same prophet, but must have come from a later period. The former reads the Gospel According to Matthew applying its subjective hypothesis, and decides that the Sermon on the Mount is not intended for the Church today, but for a future age, after the Church has gone. These two methods are basically the same, yet the one comes from Modernism’s “critical school” and the other from Dispensationalism’s “prophetical school.”

Falsely Dividing God's Promises
A Serious Error

Although Dispensationalism is a questionable hermeneutical method relatively new, arising as it did in England and Ireland about 136 years ago, its ideas were in some places prevalent 280 years ago. For Puritan John Owen in his Doctrine of Saints’ Perseverance wrote,

“Some labour much to rob believers of the consolation intended for them in the evangelical promises of the Old Testament, though made in the general to the Church on this account, (affirming) that they were made to the Jews, and being to them peculiar, our concernment lieth not now in them” (ital. added).

But it is really no new teaching that God’s promises are divided, some to the Church, embracing a heavenly people, and some to the Jews, an earthly people. The Church of England in its Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion was correct when it over three hundred years ago denied this error. The Reformed Episcopal Church in its Article VI puts it thus:

“The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore they, are not to be heard, which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises...”

If any Jews had the faith of Abraham, they were not an earthly people, did not mind earthly things and did not expect earthly promises to be fulfilled to them, but heavenly promises, as Gen. 15: l and Heb. 11:13-16 clearly and convincingly show.

Over 400 hundred years ago John Calvin wrote in his Institutes a beautiful refutation of modern dispensationalism. Says he,

“From the preceding observations it may now be evident that all those persons, from the beginning of the world, whom God has adopted into the society of His people, have been federally connected with Him by the same law and the same doctrine which are in force among us: but because it is of no small importance that this point be established, I shall show, by way of appendix, since the fathers were partakers with us of the same inheritance, and hoped for the same salvation through the grace of our common Mediator, how far their condition in this connection was from ours. For though the testimonies we have collected from the law and the prophets in proof of this, render it sufficiently evident that the people of God have never had any other rule of religion and piety, yet because some writers have raised many disputes concerning the difference of the Old and New Testaments, which may occasion doubts in the minds of an undiscerning reader, we shall assign a particular chapter for the better and more accurate discussion of this subject. Moreover, what would otherwise have been very useful, has now been rendered necessary for us by Servetus and some madmen of the sect of the Anabaptists, who entertain no other ideas of the Israelitish nation, than a herd of swine, whom they pretend to have been pampered by the Lord in this world, without the least hope of a future immortality in heaven.” (From The Similarity of the Old and New Testaments, Bk. II, X, 1).

In the next paragraph Calvin says,

“The covenant of all the fathers is so far from differing substantially from ours, that it is the very same; it only varies in the administration.”

But dispensationalism has eight different covenants! Calvin further on adds,

“Carnal opulence and felicity were not proposed to the Jews as the mark towards which they should ultimately aspire, but that they were adopted to the hope of immortality, and that the truth of this adoption was certified to them by oracles, by the law, and by the prophets.”

This being so, the Old Testament brought to the Jews the same high spiritual truth of the New Testament, and proves that the chosen people of the old dispensation were not an earthly people with only material aims and seeking only “earthly blessings.” Indeed, “the end of the Old Testament was always in Christ and eternal life.”

“Then let us drive far away from us this absurd and pernicious notion, either that the Lord proposed nothing else to the Jews, or that the Jews sought nothing else, but an abundance of food, carnal delights, flourishing wealth, external power, a numerous offspring, and whatever is esteemed valuable by a natural man” (II, X, 23).

Calvin also points out where the Jews were wrong and are wrong today, namely, “in expecting an earthly kingdom of the Messiah.” He calls this expectation a stroke of blindness and also a keeping of “themselves in voluntary darkness.” Dispensationalism is then such a grave error that it is both a mark of the righteous judgment of God and the willful sin of man.