Dispensationalism: A Definition

I grew up reading Clarence Larkin’s charts and C.I. Scofield’s study notes. Many preacher’s I knew introduced their text with the page numbers from the 1917 Scofield Reference Bible. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being exposed to a dispensational hermeneutic. I could not have defined it – and probably couldn’t have described it either! I think what I walked away with the most were two thoughts: “The church doesn’t go through the Tribulation…” and “Words have specific meanings (and I can’t change those meanings to suit my preferences).”

Having been in higher education for nearly 25 years, I can now say one of the classes I enjoy teaching the most is a class entitled Introduction to Dispensationalism. In this post, I want to provide a definition of dispensation – both negatively (what it is not) and positively (what it is).

What is it?

According to Renald Showers, “Dispensational Theology can be defined very simply as a system of theology which attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of the sovereign rule of God.  It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several dispensations of God’s rule.”

According to Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism views the world as a household run by God.” Many other definitions / descriptions could be added. Here is the one I give to my students:

Dispensationalism is a system of historical progression consisting of a series of stages in God’s self-revelation to man, anchored by a historical-grammatical hermeneutic which results in a distinction between Israel and the Church and which also unifies progressive revelation around a doxological purpose.

No definition is perfect. However, in agreement with Ryrie and others, a dispensationalist holds to three non-negotiables: 1) a normal, literal, historical-grammatical hermeneutic; 2) a distinction between Israel and the Church, and 3) a doxological purpose (it’s all for His glory) that unifies all of progressive revelation.

What is it not?

Dispensationalism does not view Scofield as its final authority. Scofield taught seven distinct dispensations – yet a belief in 3, 4, 8, or 10 doesn’t destroy one’s credentials as a dispensationalist. It is not the number of dispensations that matter – it is a firm and consistent adherence to the non-negotiables that determine whether one is a dispensationalist or not.

Dispensationalism does not teach two (or multiple) ways of salvation. Regardless of the dispensation, salvation is always been the same – by grace, through faith. Granted, the object of that faith may change, but it is always connected to the word of God (faith comes by hearing the word…). So, Abraham believed what God said about his descendants; God counted that to him for righteousness.

A dispensational hermeneutic (literalism) does not rule out metaphors and figures of speech. No dispensationalist believes that Jesus is literally the “door” or the “light.” Rather, the dispensationalist allows that in a passage’s historical / cultural setting, those figures of speech would have been normally understood by its hearers. [For example, it’s raining cats and dogs should not be construed as literal when someone says that!]


No single post can declare all the ins and outs of a theological system. However, this post provides a workable definition and removes some of the misconceptions surrounding this system. Stay tuned! I’ll be coming back to this topic…

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