Dispensationalism as an Essentially Modern Heresy

Perhaps given the number of friends and acquaintances and genuinely descent Jesus loving people for whom I have the deepest respect who either knowingly or unknowingly fall into a dispensationalist camp, I should begin with what I don’t mean when I say that Dispensationalism is a modern heresy. In truth, I believe it is one of the worst modern heresies. A major doctrinal error which now beginning to bear bad fruit.  Still, I do not mean that all the people who hold to it are wicked or hell-bound or stupid. Most, quite frankly, are just inconsistent. Their lives, thanks to the active presence of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit-born instinct to value the words of scripture, are often more fully Christian than their doctrinal ideas. As Paul tells us, now we see a blurry image. Thankfully our salvation is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ the person, the Word made flesh. In fact, the best definition of salvation I have ever heard is simply loving as much as you know about Jesus with as much as you know about yourself. It is certainly not about a perfect knowledge or perfect doctrine, thankfully, or we would all be doomed. Yet, doctrine matters because we are called to truth by the One who is Truth…for it is truth that makes us free. So, given that various manifestations of dispensationalist doctrine tend to cripple the church by hindering effective discipleship, and (in the worst cases) promoting pharisaical powerlessness, we need to address the errors of dispensationalism in-order-to strengthen the broader church and prepare her for battle in this evil day.

Dispensationalism Defined

Dispensationalism was founded in the early 1800’s by John Darby and promoted by Scofield (of Scofield Bible fame). It is a specific hermeneutical approach to the Bible…that is, a lens for interpreting scripture. It argues that God has worked in the world in various and radically different ways, and furthermore that Israel is radically distinct from the church. One of the most extreme manifestations of this approach and its potential flaws came from John Hagee who several years back claimed that Jews need not come to Jesus to be saved. Most dispensationalists would disagree with Hagee. However, there are seeds in the understanding of this hermeneutic that could lead in that direction.

For a fuller definition, see the Gospel Coalition:

The two most recognized features of Dispensationalism involve belief in (1) seven dispensations and (2) a pre-tribulational rapture of the church in which the church will be snatched to heaven before a coming seven-year Tribulation Period.

First, while affirming that salvation has always been by grace through faith alone, Dispensationalism teaches that God has worked in different ways in different eras of history. Dispensationalism often taught that the various dispensations involved a test for mankind, a failure, and then a judgment. This then would be followed by another dispensation. These seven dispensations are (1) innocence; (2) conscience; (3) human government; (4) promise; (5) law; (6) grace; and (7) kingdom. Not all dispensationalists agree on how many dispensations there are and what they should be called. While belief in seven dispensations is held by many, others say there are anywhere from four to eight. Plus, some have differed on the criteria for determining a dispensation. (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/dispensational-theology/)

[As an aside I would recommend the “One for Israel” response to Hagee found here: https://youtu.be/ONGbCYq4kOw]

Modern Heresy?

Heresy in the most literal sense has to do with choosing of a party or school of thought. It is not merely the matter of a difference of doctrinal opinion, but the choosing and holding of opinions that divide. Any movement that drastically diverges from the broadly accepted core beliefs of the faith is in some sense heretical. Yet, the individual believer who has been wrongly or inadequately instructed in those beliefs is not necessarily a heretic in the sense that I use the words here.

By claiming that Dispensationalism is a modern heresy, I do not merely mean to point out that it first appeared in the early 1800’s, though that is a significant point. What is more important is to understand the way in which it is a Christian expression of a thoroughly modern philosophical mood. The fact that it came into being and gained popularity in an era when the earliest expressions of modern liberal theology were first sprouting in Europe and America is no mere coincidence. The fact that many dispensationalists are conservative fundamentalists does not discount that those modern conservatives often have more in common with their liberal adversaries than they have distinguishing them.

In what ways could that be?

Distrust of Present Supernatural Activity:

Consider that both often express strong aversion to the visible and active expression of the supernatural in the church. Rudolf Bultmann, a prominent liberal theologian, once said, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.” The modern conservative dispensationalist often relegates the uncomfortable aspects of the “spirit and wonder world of the New Testament” to another dispensation that we need not bother about now. Specifically, many dispensationalists are also cessationists who deny the active and working power of God in the present church in the form of spiritual gifts.

Disregard for the History of the Church:

Furthermore, both dispensationalism and modern liberal theologies regularly ignore the testimony of the church throughout history. Tradition is assumed to be dead and useless. The fact that no teacher in the history of the broader church taught what a given and preferred modern interpreter teaches seems to give no cause for hesitation on the part of either the dispensationalist or the liberal.

Use of Reductionist Methods in Interpretation:

Yet another modern tendency in both Liberal and Dispensational interpreters is the use of reductionist methods. Reductionism is the idea that the simplest method is always the best and furthermore that we come to understand a thing by breaking it down and dividing it up into its smallest parts. Reductionism relies heavily on the idea that the whole is merely the sum of its parts. This simply is not the case either spiritually or physically. But it is a deceptively enticing to think we can understand a thing by breaking it down.

So, for the Liberal theologian it is impossible to talk about one Christianity because to their thinking Paul is teaching something different than what Jesus taught. So, the Liberal dismisses those things in Paul that do not blend in our culture and interprets Jesus is some Marxist fashion as the true Gospel. Likewise, for many conservative dispensationalists, everything that Jesus said in the sermon on the mount is of little significance to present Church. Paul is our teacher of “the Gospel,” and Jesus was teaching things for people under the old covenant. And the old covenant is not our dispensation. For both parties, this does away with the challenging work of loving God with our mind and figuring out how to understand and live the depth and breadth and richness of the full Gospel of Jesus—the Word made flesh, the completion of Israel, the second Adam, the fulfillment of the Law—as foretold in the prophets, presented in the gospels, preached by the apostles, and explained (NOT explained away) in the Epistles.

The Slide into Powerless Forms of ‘Godliness’

Finally, dispensationalism is an essentially modern misunderstanding like liberal theology in that in its final and uncorrected practice it denies access to the Kingdom. Much like Jesus said to the Pharisees, many modern Christians forbid that others enter the Kingdom, like Jesus said in Matthew 23:13, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” This of course looks drastically different in the liberal than in the conservative expression; liberal theology denies the power of the gospel in many instances by denying mercy to the sinner. This may seem like a shocking statement but consider this: to be forgiven according to the Gospel, one needs to repent. But modern liberal theology denies the need for repentance. The way in which most manifestations of conservative dispensationalist theology deny entry into the kingdom will be fleshed out further below along with consideration of deeper ramifications of dispensational hermeneutic.  

Problems of Dispensationalism

Again, I would emphasize that the error of dispensationalism in any given manifestation may be more or less destructive. In the lives of many believers, it may have little impact on their effectiveness or fruitfulness in the short term or even over the course of a life. Yet, if an error with the significant weaknesses that denies full access to many of the gifts of God to His people persists for more than a generation of two, the fruit can go bad…or more likely, the hybridization process will likely eventually produce a generation of seeds that no longer have the power to bear fruit. Imagine a fruitful Christian life that bears sweet fruit like a seedless watermelon…the problem is not evident until the next generation. So what follows is a short list of the problems that are now coming to the forefront as problems born of dispensational theology.

Central to the teaching of dispensationalist doctrine is the idea that we are in the dispensation of grace. The law has no bearing of any significance on our lives. Furthermore, the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels such as the sermon on the mount are simply the intensification of the Law with the intent that everyone sees how absolutely impossible it was to keep. We need not really bother with that. The heart of the gospel is grace as taught by Paul in Galatians. As for the stories of Jesus acts told in the Gospels, they are basically there to show us that he was God.

Of course, this can look different in different dispensationalist people and communities. I’ve known some to say we need not take up our cross or pray the Lord’s prayer because that is the old covenant and part of the age of the law. Others would disagree on that. But the interesting thing is all of them will tell you that you are not under the law (which is true) but then fail to explain well what that means in ways that can work with the rest of the New Testament. This can play out in several ways.

Bait-and-Switch Evangelism:

Dispensationalist evangelism emphasizes a sort of escapist approach. We live in the age of grace. Judgement comes in the next dispensation. If you want to escape that then say the prayer and Jesus will take you to heaven and you will escape all of that judgment. In the process it is emphasized that obviously they cannot keep the law of God and that is why it is all by faith. It sounds like you just accept a set of facts about Jesus and you are good to go…until you accept it. Then, no matter how intense the understanding of the dispensations the evangelist has, something is going to come up for the newly saved person that sounds like law. Of course, no one expects you to turn the other cheek or effectively love your enemy. But wait, you can’t keep sleeping with your girlfriend or (nearly as likely these days) your gay lover. And suddenly this person who says we are not under the law seems to be dolling out a list of rules to follow.

Monergism Leaning into Antinomianism

In the younger generation, and in the interest of consistency, the kids of good conservative monergist dispensationalists are starting to live much like their liberal Christian counterparts. Monergism is the idea that Jesus did and does everything. “It is finished.” Again, just accept the facts and you are fine. Not only are you not expected to turn the other cheek, sleeping with your girlfriend or struggling with homosexuality are no big deal either. Christians aren’t perfect just forgiven. That is antinomianism—against law—not Christianity.

Cessationism and the Rejection of the Kingdom

One final note about the failures of Dispensationalism has to do with the denial of God’s power…specifically the power to enter the kingdom which is at hand in the power and presence of the spirit. Cessationists are those who claim that the gifts of the spirit ceased with the apostolic age. Their assumption is that the gifts were there until the Bible was given…meaning the New Testament. After that they are assumed to be useless and dangerous.

Of course the cessationist is required to do with passages in Acts and Corinthians and elsewhere what other dispensationalists do with the sermon on the mount. They emphasize Paul’s admonitions about abuses of gifts while avoiding verses such as I Corinthians 14:39 that instructs the church to desire prophecy and not forbid tongues. This frankly robs the church of gifts that God has offered in Christ. Such robbery is like what the Pharisees did in denying the kingdom because the power of the Spirit present in the church is the power to participate in the inaugurated Kingdom of God.

Introducing a better way:

If we can grasp the gospel in its depth and breadth as the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus intended to be carried on in the Spirit filled life of the church, we will begin to overcome the problems both doctrinal and practical that are currently plaguing the modern American Evangelical churches. Such a shift in our popular theology will require us to consider how to read the scriptures through the hermeneutic of Jesus the Messiah. But that is a subject for another post.