Sunday, May 14, 2006

What Dispensationalism Can Teach Us

Like many of you who are reading this, I was raised a dispensationalist. I was taught from my earliest years to watch for the imminent return of Jesus Christ. "Perhaps Today!" was a popular expression among the Christians I knew, expressing the optimistic hope that soon life's troubles would be over (for us). The Rapture was exclusively for the Lord's saints of whom I was counted, based on the assurance of "eternal security" I had in Christ.

The dispensational ethos I was immersed in is characterized by two destructive tendencies. The first is a negative, pessimistic view of the future's possibilities. The world is getting darker and doomed to destruction, but Christians would escape this by the any-moment coming of Jesus. How could I, as a young person raised in such an atmosphere, be expected to maintain the creative energy necessary in order to make a life for myself?

The second destructive tendency is to arrogantly assume one's salvation based on the magic of decisional regeneration, not the grace of God in holy baptism. The inclination is to rely on a "salvation" which is utterly independent of one's moral transformation. This arises from a heavenly/earthly dualism that separates spirit from body and effectively limits redemption to the salvation of the soul. And even here, the old inward nature is not redeemed but is replaced by a new nature. For an old analysis of this error read B. B. Warfield's critique of Lewis Sperry Chafer's He That is Spiritual. For an up-to-date treatment of Dispensationalism's heavenly/earthly dualism, you might consider purchasing Ronald Henzel's Darby, Dualism, and the Demise of Dispensationalism.

All this said, in the larger scheme of things, Dispensationalism has served as a heuristic theory which has enabled the Church to rethink its understanding of eschatology. By approaching the Bible in a fresh way, John Darby (the originator of the Dispensationalism) was able to hit upon some of the central concerns of biblical revelation that were obscured in past ages of the Church.
I would like to briefly outline some of the areas where Dispensationalism has forced us reassess some of our traditional ideas.

1) Eschatology Matters

Long before Gerhardus Vos and Albert Schweitzer "discovered" eschatology, Darby and the Plymouth Brethren were telling the Protestant world that a whole area of biblical revelation was being neglected. Attempting to account for the real discontinuities between the Testaments, Darby taught that God had distinct purposes for Israel and the Church. These purposes variously oriented the way believers lived under different administrations of the kingdom of God. While falsely opposing Israel and the Church, Darby's work had the salutary effect of bringing to our attention the whole problem of rightly understanding the relation between the Old Testament people of God and the New, of the transition from the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant of Jesus Christ. An hundred and thirty years before the "New Perspective," Dispensationalists recognized the limitations of the "Lutheran" reading of Paul.

2) God Has Not Forsaken Israel

Subsumed under the general category of eschatology is the destiny of national Israel. On almost every page of the Old Testament God declares his unfailing faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham. This faithfulness, despite God's temporary judgment on Israel, is reaffirmed by St. Paul in Romans 9-11. The Dispensationalists, by separating the Church from Israel, have forced us to reconsider how we think of the Jews.

Richard Bledsoe has written a fascinating piece on "The 'Historical Jesus' and Israel." Bledsoe calls Dispensationalism a "fruitful error," that "has forced the Church to separate itself from every form of anti-semitism."

It was Dispensationalism in the later part of the 19th Century that generated the enthusiasm among British and American Evangelicals to support Zionism and the reestablishinghment of an Israeli state. And now that Israel exists, Evangelicals are the best friends that Jews have. It is now time for Evangelicals to outgrow their Dispensational immaturity and anticipate the redemptive role a converted Israel will play in the world's future. This is something we cannot force and that God will work in his own time.

3) The Problem of a "Fall" of the Church

Darby articulated a question that had never been adequately addressed by the Protestant world. If the Church had fallen, through compromise with the world and subsequent apostasy from the Gospel, how could her collective testimony be revived?

Darby's answer was simple: It couldn't be. Christ had established an original pristine order at the beginning of the Gospel age that had been entirely obliterated by later developments. As human inventions were added to the Church's polity and worship, the surviving "systems of men" began to persecute true believers who protested against the corruptions. Eventually, true believers were forced to separate from the apostate bodies. There can be no turning back of the clock, and any group that attempts to revive the original apostolic order of things is merely self-deceived. Christ has not granted anyone the authority to reestablish his Church.

This is a conundrum that any who posit an historic "fall" of the Church must face. If Catholic Christendom was not a genuine development of the Church's redemptive mission to the world, then the Church did fall. The world corrupted the Church and ruined its testimony as false practices and false brethren were admitted into the established Church.

It is this teaching that distinguishes the Plymouth Brethren from all other Protestant sectarians and makes their experiment worthy of study. The Brethren taught that the Christian testimony had been vitiated by ecclesiastical and moral evil. It was therefore necessary that true believers leave this apostasy and gather in Christ's name alone, both to witness against the apostasy and to the unity of Christ's body. These gatherings of Christians never claimed to be the Church only to carry on some kind of witness. The dismal history of the Brethren since their founding has continually demonstrated their inability to maintain purity and unity, as schism after schism dissolved the movement into irrelevancy.

The lesson of Plymouth Brethrenism remains as a witness of the failure of denominational and sectarian Christianity, all of which are based on a supposed fall of the Church. It was the Brethren experiment that forever demonstrated the unfruitfulness of supposing this fall, thus cutting us off from our Catholic heritage. As denomination after denomination rises and falls, one thing becomes clear: the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Churches alone have preserved Christian doctrine, sacraments, and polity to greater or lesser degrees. It is these churches that have maintained corporate, institutional continuity with the apostolic Church. And it is in their eventual reunion that we must hope for a revived collective testimony of the Church.


During the age of the decline of the Protestant state churches, the Brethren were calling Christians to a greater commitment to their heavenly calling, where Christ is seated above. There can be no doubt that worldliness was rampant in the established churches, and the Brethren, like the prophets of old, were sounding the alarm.

The widespread apostasy of western civilization has now continued unabated for the last 200 years, and it may be that Dispensationalism was a blessing in disguise for the Church. It may very well be that God's providential historic purpose was that Christians tactically withdraw from the cultural onslaught of the Enlightenment. But now, unbelievers are failing to reproduce, Islam is once again pressing in upon us, and the Enlightenment has run its course. Has God arranged for a revival of Christendom? Is the conversion of Israel imminent? Only time will tell. But now we should be hoping, praying, and preparing for these eventualities should God please to bless us and our children so.