For the last several years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching an Introduction to Dispensationalism course to college-aged, future ministry leaders. It has developed into one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taught in 26 years of college work. It’s not an “easy” class – but it is a class that stretches students.
Sometimes, I am asked something along the lines of “Why are you a dispensationalist?” An easy answer is to walk through Ryrie’s three non-negotiables that form the baseline for dispensationalism: 1) A commitment to a consistent use of the normal, historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture; 2) A distinction between Israel and the Church; and 3) A belief in a doxological purpose at the center of all that God does.
In this post, I want to take a different approach. Part of the reason I am a dispensationalist is connected to the value that I find in this system. I’d like to point the question in that direction: “What value does dispensationalism bring in understanding God’s Word?”
A Consistent Approach in Hermeneutics
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths in dispensationalism is its hermeneutical approach to the text. In previous generations, dispensational hermeneutics was described with the word literal. That particular word, however, has some embedded prejudices and weaknesses.
An example of a false understanding of “literal” would be to disallow any metaphors, similes, etc. So, when Jesus said, “I am the Door,” the opponent of dispensationalism could belittle a “literal” understanding of that phrase. However, a better description of a dispensational hermeneutic would be to label it as “normal, historical-grammatical interpretation.” How was that word normally understood? What is the grammatical and historical contexts here? How would that original audience have understood the message?
When this approach is taken, it greatly limits subjectivity in one’s understanding of the text. The mantra becomes, “The text cannot mean what it never meant.” When a historical-grammatical approach is taken, a distinction between OT Israel and the NT Church becomes apparent. Further, the belief in a pre-tribulational rapture and a pre-millennial return become standard eschatological conclusions that grow out of this method.
All things considered, I find great value in dispensationalism due to its consistent commitment to an interpretative model that takes the text at face-value.
A Clear Answer for History
For a non-dispensationalist, Feinberg states that history is basically a redemption history (Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, 85). Dispensationalism doesn’t ignore redemptive history, but its emphasis is the gradual implementation and outworking of the kingdom of God. Here’s Feinberg’s summation:
The more one stresses the multi-faceted aspects of God’s workings in history, the more his system becomes a discontinuity [Dispensationalism is discontinuous and Covenant Theology is continous] system, for God does not always work with and through the same peoples, nor does he have the same social and political program for each group.John Feinberg, Continuity and Discontinuity (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 85. [Explanatory brackets my own]
In simple terms, dispensationalism looks at progressive revelation (rather than cumulative revelation) and utilizes the Old Testament as the starting point for understanding God’s dealings with man. Within a dispensational understanding of history, a worldview is developed in which a believer lives in accordance to God’s will for that dispensation.
A Helpful Tool for Harmonization (of Scripture)
In Genesis 1-2, man is eating fruits and vegetables. In Genesis 9, he is allowed to eat meat. Under the Mosaic Law, the types of meat to be eaten is restricted (Clean and Unclean). During this present age, these restrictions are removed (Acts 10; 1 Timothy 4.4). So is eating a sausage biscuit right or wrong? Am I OK to enjoy my bbq pork sandwich or have I defiled God’s temple? Dispensationalism allows these seemingly contradictions to be harmonized by understanding how God has governed man during a specific time.
Concerning the treatment of one’s enemy, do we ask God to break them (Psalm 58.6) or do we pray for God to bless them? Both are mentioned in Scripture! How do we harmonize this? The dispensationalist utilizes progressive revelation and holds the OT saint accountable only to the light that has been revealed so far.
Dispensationalism is a popular system of Bible interpretation today. It’s not the only theological system to choose from, but it is the one that I have anchored myself to. I find value in dispensationalism based upon its understanding of hermeneutics, its philosophy of history, and its method of harmonization of biblical passages.
While we will never have 100% consensus in today’s theological world, hopefully these reasons will provoke thought and good discussions.