Darrell L. Bock

The theological approach to the Bible called dispensationalism has had a long and controversial history in the Christian church, and its impact on the global church over the last century and a half can hardly be denied (Bingham and Kreider 2015: 69–100; Blaising and Bock 1993: 9–56; Magnum 2007; Crutchfield 1992). The movement emerged in the nineteenth century and has captured the imagination of many since then, as it contends that the Bible’s storyline is set in an eschatological and apocalyptic frame revealing God’s plan to restore the creation to wholeness, at both individual and corporate levels. The roots of the movement reached back into the millennialism of the early church. Dispensationalism’s emphasis on Israel’s role in God’s plan throughout the eras to come has been a distinctive feature of the movement in all its expressions. Dispensationalism’s focus on the relationship between nations, with special attention to Israel as a people, means it highlights a corporate dimension of salvation (Vlach 2023). This emphasis has led many to see it as a way of seeing those relationships in current and future political realities. The way dispensationalism sees Israel in relationship to the church and these political dimensions has made the movement a topic for discussion and debate across Christianity. After defining what dispensationalism is, this entry examines the three basic forms within it, followed by the way the church outside of the tradition has interacted with the movement.

1 What is a dispensation and dispensationalism?

1.1 Dispensation

The term dispensation comes from the Greek word oikonomia, which came to be rendered in Latin as dispensatio. Its core image can be seen in Ephesians 3 as referring to an ‘administration’ or ‘stewardship’. It refers to a ‘distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose’ (Ryrie 2007: 33; Bingham and Kreider 2015: 21). One can think of an administrative structure or a distinguishable era. It also focuses on distinctions in the biblical account, where one distinguishes between Israel as a nation among nations and the church as a transnational structure (Blaising and Bock 1993: 49). One also can distinguish between the theological narratival focus of the Hebrew Bible and that of the New Testament. Yet all of this is a part of the unified program of redemption or salvation history, but, as that program progresses and more features of fulfilment arrive, its structures also change, forming new eras of administration for the promised work of God. A dispensation names and describes these changes. Three dispensations dominate the unified plan before its culmination in a new heaven and earth. They are the period of Israel, the period of the church, and the period of the millennium. These are three distinct structures in the divine program of salvation, and each structure points to a dispensation.

The picture is of a household, stewarded on God’s behalf by those within these structures where revelation and promise reside, as does relationship with God and a sharing in his program. Paul claimed to have a special understanding of the current era as a revealed mystery that included Gentiles in a program that had been mostly about Israel (Eph 3:1–14). The revelation of the mystery helped to signal a change in the way salvation was administered, since the promise now resided in Christ and the New Man that Paul described in Eph 2:11–22. This impacted how the law functioned, something Galatians 3–4 describes, with the arrival of the Spirit in a people made up of Jews and Gentiles now being at the centre of what God was doing through Christ. All of this looks forward to a fullness of time culminating in Christ’s work in his return, as Eph 1:10 suggests. Eventually creation will be restored to its fullness, and heaven and earth will be unified in their harmony and shalom before God in the eternal state (1 Cor 15:25–28).

1.2 What is dispensationalism?

Dispensationalism is simply an approach to reading the Bible that traces the connection and development of these periods and how they manage the redemptive program. Although it emerged formally in the post-Reformation period, the structures it focused on were recognized from the very beginning of Christianity as an earthly millennial hope. Millennialism, sometimes called chiliasm, was a much-discussed element of early church eschatology, until the influence of Origen, Eusebius, and Augustine led to an emphasis on a non-millennial or amillennial hope that came to dominate eschatology until dispensationalism arose (Ryrie 2007: 61–65; Blaising and Bock 1993: 116–117).

The debate around Israel in the final stages of the program of God, and whether an earthy millennial hope was a part of the divine eschatological promise with a believing Israel in the mix, has been a part of Christian discussion since dispensationalism began to emerge more formally in the mid-nineteenth century (Blaising and Bock 1993: 118–119). The discussions included Bible teachers such as John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), Benjamin Wills Newton (1807–1899), and William Trotter (1818–1865) in a British context, Carl Brockhaus (1822–1899) in a Germanic setting, and Émile Guers (1794–1882) in the French-speaking world. The movement grew through Bible conferences, such as those held at Niagara, starting in 1875, and the publication of the Scofield Bible in 1909 by Oxford University Press. Here the influence surfaced of C. I. Scofield (1843–1921) and of Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), one of the founders of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924. The influence of dispensationalism grew as it also became attached to the defence of scripture, as part of the conservative theological wing in the fundamentalist modernist controversies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bingham and Kreider 2015: 77–78). Another catalyst was the emergence of the state of Israel in 1948, something dispensationalists had said – since a time when it seemed an unlikely possibility – would occur.

There have been several recent attempts to define dispensationalism. Within the movement, discussion has rotated around the three sine qua non (essentials) proposed by Charles Ryrie (2007). These three elements were: the distinction between Israel and the church; literal hermeneutics; and the glory of God as the ultimate purpose of God in the world. Critics have suggested that some of these markers are not as distinctive (glory of God) or as consistently operative (literal hermeneutics) as Ryrie claimed, and that the omission of a discussion of administrative elements as key was significant (Sweetnam 2010; Blaising and Bock 1993). The question exists whether dispensationalism is a belief about future events, a philosophy of history, or a hermeneutic, since it reflects all of these concerns (Williams 2007). In short form, dispensationalism is a particular theological interpretive approach to the Bible, focused on the administrative relationships and covenant commitments God has made as a part of his plan to restore creation.

A more comprehensive way to define the movement has been proposed by Mark S. Sweetnam. He proposed five elements, the full combination of which makes for dispensationalism: a commitment to evangelical doctrine; a commitment to a literal Biblical hermeneutic; a recognition of distinction in manifestations of divine dealing with mankind, which insists on the uniqueness and importance of both Israel and the church in the divine plan; an expectation of the imminent return of Christ in the rapture; and an emphasis on apocalyptic and millennial expectation (Sweetnam 2010: 198). This working definition of key dispensational elements provides a good basis for thinking about the movement, especially with the addition of the idea of different manifestations of divine dealings with humanity. That addition incorporates what a dispensation fundamentally is, and leads to a focus on how God’s program unfolds for Israel, for the nations, and for the church. One might wonder if the expression ‘literal hermeneutic’ is the best summary for how the movement handles scripture, given the variety of ways this has been done throughout dispensationalism’s history. However, what it connotes is that there is an aversion to spiritualizing textual referents coming out of the Hebrew Bible when it comes to Israel, so that the original recipients are lost in the process of such a reading, with Israel being read as representing the Christian church. This hermeneutical concern is part of what makes dispensationalism unique, as it keeps Israel as a people in view as a part of God’s ultimate work of salvation.

1.3 Themes of dispensationalism

Growing out of the above definition, dispensationalism is known for certain themes that have always belonged to its various forms (Blaising and Bock 1993: 14–21). These include (1) the authority of scripture, which drives dispensationalism’s commitment to the promises God makes in scripture and its comments about future events. This commitment to a high view of biblical inspiration meant that dispensationalism emerged in reaction to modernist tendencies and biblical criticism. The tradition also focused on (2) the unique position of the church as the place where the Spirit of God indwells believers in a new and fresh way. The church was seen as a new institution in the program of God, introducing a new era and tied to the mystery that was now revealed, as noted in Ephesians 3 and Col 1:26–27. Coming out of the nineteenth century, (3) dispensationalism has not been tied to a specific denomination but has functioned across traditions in a more ecumenical manner, contributing to the many cross-denominational networks that emerged in the evangelical movement. This trend developed from the Bible Conference movement of the late nineteenth century. This lack of denominational specificity helped to produce its impact across the evangelical spectrum of faith, as the movement was not tied to any particular group of believers.

Perhaps the most well-known feature of dispensationalism is (4) its focus on biblical prophecy and discussion of the future. The interest in dispensationalism grew, in part, as movement toward the establishment of the country of Israel solidified, from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, culminating in the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948. An ultimate redemption, tied not only to personal spiritual salvation but also to a deliverance and rule on a national level, became a focus for these discussions. (5) Also well-known is the fact that dispensationalism possesses a futurist premillennial perspective, in conversation with a Christian tradition that, since Augustine, was often amillennial. This has often included the idea that Christ’s return involves his gathering of the church as a precursor to the establishment of the millennium on earth, and the idea of that gathering occurring prior to an intense seven-year period of earthly conflict, often called the tribulation. Dispensationalists have therefore usually been pretribulational in calling that gathering the rapture of the church, but there have always been some dispensationalists who are not pretribulational in their approach (Bingham and Kreider 2015: 180–182). This means that (6) dispensationalists often discuss the imminent return of Jesus as the next event in the eschatological program of redemption. (7) Given this focus on the future, and a concern for the faithfulness of God’s promises, Israel has occupied a special place of attention in dispensational theology. This focus on Israel is not only about a concern for individual Jews but also for Israel as a people and a nation among nations. This national element is part of what makes dispensationalism’s discussion of Israel distinctive, in comparison to other Christian traditions. These last four themes mean that dispensationalism has often been very interested in eschatology and apocalyptic literature.

2 The role of covenants as promise and the dispensations

At the core of dispensationalism are promises tied to core biblical covenants, and a focus on how Israel functions in the plan of God (Blaising and Bock 1993: 128–173). Three features stand out in thinking about these promises as a whole (Bingham and Kreider 2015: 123–151). First, there is the formation of a national people of God, and what becomes the people of Israel in the midst of the nations. The story of the Pentateuch is of the formation and deliverance of this nation into a land God promised for them. Second, there is the idea that through this people, the seed of Abraham, the world would be blessed. These points stand in the centre of the initial covenant made with Abraham in Gen 12:1–3, to bring about restoration of a fallen world. Third, there is a concept important to all forms of dispensationalism; namely that God’s commitments to Israel will be eventually be realized, even as the promise of God takes on a global scope through the work of the Christ (the messiah), who is identified as the seed of Abraham. This came to be described as a defence of a literal hermeneutic, but what it really reflected was the idea that what God had promised to the original recipients of the covenant would not exclude them in the end, regardless of who else received the promises God made. As the promise expanded, God’s commitments to the original recipients remained.

There are three core covenants of promise: the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the new covenants. As just noted, the original promise came in the Abrahamic covenant in Gen 12:1–3. It promised a people, a land, and a divine blessing to the world through Abraham’s seed. The promise was reiterated several times in Genesis to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve sons of Israel as well as to others (to Abraham: Gen 15:5–7, 18–21; 17:1–8; to Isaac: Gen 26:2–5; to Jacob: Gen 28:3–4, 13–15; to the Twelve: Gen 50:24; to Moses: Exod 6:4, 8; even after disobedience: Deut 30:1–20; Ezek 20:40–41). The nation would grow in numbers, to be like the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky. The books of Genesis to Joshua narrate a movement towards liberating the people God had formed and securing the land God had promised to them.

The second covenant was the one made with David and his house in 2 Sam 7:8–16. In this passage, God commits to giving David a line of kings, and a kingdom. This king would have a special relationship to God as a son to a father, and the promise includes an eternal throne. It is out of this promise that a messianic hope emerged, focused on a son of David (Ps 2; 110; 118).

The third covenant is the new covenant of Jer 31:31–36. It promises forgiveness of sins and the writing of the law on the heart of Israel and Judah. The nation of Israel is not lost as the promise progresses. This is a covenant not like the one given as Sinai, as the law becomes internal rather than external. It was the failure of the nation over time that led to this promise. God’s commitment to Israel, and to the nations through it, remained.

This period and the promises tied to it involved the administration of hope through Israel. It set the stage for two key dispensations to come that involved the arrival of the promise with the Christ: the period of the church and the period of an earthly millennium. The first period brought the arrival of promise while the second looks to the consummation of it. With the arrival of the fulfilment of the promise, through Jesus the promised Messiah, it became clearer how Israel and its seed would be a source of blessing for the world: it would come through an individual seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16).

The combination of the promise to Abraham to bless the world; a never-ending kingdom tied to the Davidic house; an offer of forgiveness of sin; and an internal presence of divine will in the new covenant came to focus on the coming of Jesus Christ. He was believed to be the seed of David, and his death and resurrection showed he was also a sent-one of God, a Son in the fullest sense, sharing divine prerogatives and rule, forming a people who made up the people of God. This people, also called the seed of Abraham, came from every tribe and nation as, through the seed, the world received access to divine blessing. This new people formed what became the church, the body of Christ, in the midst of Jesus’ rule at God’s side, a new administrative arrangement of God’s deliverance. Eph 2:15–17 calls the church the New Man. This new structure formed the dispensation of the church. The Mosaic covenant that had helped to administer the dispensation of Israel had met its goal or end in the Christ (Rom 10:3). Now a new arrangement was in place, with forgiveness and divine presence seen in Jesus’ promise that the Spirit would dwell in believers, as opposed to an external form of law (2 Cor 3). Only the full peace to come was left to be realized; this was the inauguration of the kingdom program of God, and only the consummation in a millennial kingdom remained.

The church exists in a period between arrival and consummation, yet one of the challenges in the progress of salvation has been that only a remnant in Israel responded positively to the promise that was originally for them. The church became largely made up of other nations. What happened to Israel? Paul discussed this in Romans 9–11, and held out hope that, at the consummation, Israel would come to embrace what God had done, making it a candidate to be reintegrated in the realization of promise. This hope was expressed in the image of natural branches that would be grafted back into a tree one day, making it clear that Paul’s primary subject for discussion was those in Israel who currently did not believe in Jesus as the Christ. Paul looked forward to a day when that rejection would be reversed.

The consummation remains to be realized. Dispensationalists argue that, with the return of Christ to come, this will take place in two further stages, also distinct administrative structures or dispensations. There will be a thousand-year earthly reign of the returning Christ – what has also been called the millennium – as dispensationalism has a premillennial point of view about the future. In this return, not only will peace come to the earth, but Jesus will be visibly present, making the structure distinct from the church today where Jesus rules from above. That represents a change of administrative structure, a dispensation. This hope gets defined in Revelation 20, with events noted before and after these thousand years. However, it looks back to many Old Testament texts that look to an end time shalom of redemption and justice (e.g. Isa 2:1–4; 65–66). In this period there also appears one last burst of unrighteousness, where evil is decisively and permanently defeated, judgment comes, and a final era of the new heaven and earth becomes the final consummation (Rev 20–22). It is also during this period that a huge portion of Israel comes to faith (Rev 7:1–8). Jesus returns in the way he ascended and, as the prophets pictured, there is peace among the nations (Isa 2:1–4; 19:19–25; Acts 1:6–11; 3:18–22). In this way, the original promises are also realized for the original recipients. God keeps his word as he brings peace and restoration to the world. In summary, there are the dispensations of the consummated kingdom, also known as the millennium, followed by that of the new heaven and earth, where peace is established for eternity – yet another structure and era. In the promise of God, dispensations and covenants coexist to describe how peace and promise came in the reconciling work of Christ.

3 Three types of dispensationalism: traditional, revised, and progressive dispensationalism

Over the history of dispensationalism there have been three core versions, though another version, sometimes called ultra-dispensationalism, also exists in pockets of the USA (Baker 1971 defends a mid-Acts view). Ultra-dispensationalism subdivides the period of the church in various ways within the book of Acts, based in part on how distinct the church became from its Jewish members and associated practices. Depending on the type of view present, the beginning of the church as we know it – and the dispensation of the church – emerges either in Acts 13 (mid-Acts) or Acts 28. In these ultra-dispensational views, the church is not fully formed or present until Gentiles are present in numbers and influence, with the church having left its original Jewish roots. Therefore, the new era does not fully a with the distribution of the Spirit in Acts 2, but later, either in the middle or at the end of Acts when Israel has been left behind and Gentiles have been fully embraced as God’s people. This ultra-dispensationalist subgrouping should be noted but will not be covered it in detail in this overview, as these approaches have not had as much influence on the movement as a whole.

As these types are noted it is important to observe that, although they developed in a sequence over time, all three forms still exist. The point is significant, because sometimes dispensationalism is treated as if it were a monolith and generalizations are made about the movement that may only fit one of these types without applying across the board to all expressions of dispensationalism.

3.1 Traditional (or classic) dispensationalism

The nineteenth-century form of dispensationalism made a comprehensive distinction between Israel and the church as two totally distinct peoples of God, one occupying an earthly hope (Israel) and the other a more heavenly-focused existence (church). This meant that God’s plan had two distinct purposes, one for Israel and the other for the church (Newton 1846: 116; Darby 1867: 56, 278–279, [vol. 1]; Trotter 1854: 7; Scofield 1947: 6). The covenants of promise (Abrahamic, Davidic, and New, and often a Palestinian covenant for Israel, regarding the land) applied strictly to Israel and her consummation, in a millennium that focused on the earth. The result was a view of redemption in which there was one people who operated in two distinct spheres. Any covenant benefits to the church came indirectly to it, awaiting their complete realization in the age to come. A dispensation often involved a test of obedience in this period, in relationship to what had been revealed up to that point (Scofield 1947: 13). However, the heavenly dimension of the church, born at Pentecost, meant the heavenly dimensions of these promises were not present at its birth. The church was not to confuse its ultimate heavenly purpose with earthly things. Christendom was seen as distinct from the genuine universal church, and some distance also emerged between theology and political-social engagement (Scofield 1947: ch. 10). Salvation was described in very individualistic terms. This made the church a parenthesis or intercalation in the earthly program of God. The break would be resumed in full and move to fulfilment and consummation with Jesus’ return, Israel’s future renewal under the Christ, and the establishment of a millennium with Jerusalem as its centre.

This focus on Israel picks up on Old Testament prophetic themes where Israel is at the centre of the restorative work of God. The role of Israel as a nation in a land was underscored by the Abrahamic and Palestinian covenants, and their promises about the permanence of the nation in the midst of a land that was its own. This also led to a distinction between the kingdom of God as a heavenly people and kingdom on one hand and the kingdom of heaven on the other, which functioned on the earth. This made Matthew’s Gospel particularly important as it was here that this distinction was most clearly visible, with Matthew’s focus on kingdom of heaven. This distinction focused on how the program of God on earth in the kingdom of God related to the law and the Jews. It also meant that, in the earthly kingdom to come, aspects of the Mosaic law would reappear. In perhaps its most unique feature, classical dispensationalism did not see much fulfilment of Old Testament promise in the period of Jesus or the church, because those promises belonged specifically to Israel and the earthly kingdom to come.

To illustrate the force of this dualism, note that views tied to this approach included the idea that the sermon on the mount was more about Israel’s hope in the earthly kingdom to come than about contemporary society (Chafer 1947: 102–114 [vol. 5]; Scofield 1917: 999–1000). There were two new covenants, one for the church and one for Israel and her program (Chafer 1947: 98–99 [vol. 7]). The way in which blessing came to the church was on analogy with, or as a type of, promises made in the Old Testament, rather than in fulfilment of those promises. Much of the ethics of the Old Testament prophets was not relevant to contemporary times but to the kingdom on earth to come. Much of this did meet with resistance from other Christian traditions (Magnum 2007). The distinction between kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven, along with how ethics came to be handled in two forms, became a problem for the movement in the view of most non-dispensationalists.

3.2 Revised dispensationalism

The tensions of such a strict dualism put pressure on dispensationalism as a theological viewpoint. This led to developments in the movement that eventually produced a revised version of the Scofield Bible in 1967. Though largely unexpressed, this was the response to critiques about classical dispensationalism from those outside the movement. That disagreement became so intense that, for example, dispensationalism was ruled out for those in the Presbyterian church in 1944 (Magnum 2007). Although the preface to the new Scofield Bible tried to minimize these developments, they were there. The result was a distinctive dispensational approach to many of the issues raised in its more classical form. This is why some historians of the movement as a whole have called this approach revised dispensationalism. Others claim that this approach is the traditional form of dispensationalism, and use various names for it, such as traditional, essentialist, or even normative dispensationalism. However, this claim of continuity ignores changes in the new type of dispensationalism, where the heavenly-earthly dualism was softened. Many revised dispensationalists saw the kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven as overlapping and not distinct, and the view of two new covenants was eventually abandoned. The teaching of Jesus and his ethic was not simply attributed to a future period but came to be seen as relevant for today, at least as an indirect application of what was to come. The names emphasizing continuity, such as traditional dispensationalism, obscure the real changes made to the movement which were reflected in the revised Scofield Bible. Many writers are associated with this form of dispensationalism, such as John Walvoord (1910–2002), Charles Ryrie (1925–2016), J. Dwight Pentecost (1915–2014), and Alva J. McClain (1888–1968).

This revisionist movement began to ask questions about the strict dualism of the earlier approach the dispensationalism. Various positions were taken in how to see these distinctions that were so foundational to the classic approach. These variations discussed the covenants, promises, and the nature of fulfilment. They also began to think more about the kingdom program itself across the dispensations. Many themes remained very similar to the past, such as the value of eschatology, a future for Israel, the distinction between Israel and the church, and the sense of an imminent return. However, there also were shifts in how the entire program was seen.

Examples of these key differences included the observation that a distinction between the kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven was hard to maintain. In fact, there was no agreement on where all the redeemed would end up (in heaven yet still distinguished from the church – Ryrie 1965: 147; Ryrie 2007: 147; on earth – Pentecost 1965: 561–562; in heaven – Walvoord 1988: 160). In addition, the idea that there were two new covenants, one for Israel and another for the church, was also hard to substantiate (Walvoord 1988: 55, leaves both options open, but later came to hold to one new covenant). Ryrie (2007: 170–174) assumes one new covenant in his discussion, where he debates with progressive dispensationalists whether it has been inaugurated in the present era. He says no, while progressives say yes. The way the book of Hebrews utilized that concept also put pressure on how to think hermeneutically about promise and fulfilment. Was it all future, as most revised dispensationalists held, or was there an element of inauguration now with consummation to come in Christ’s return, as progressives came to argue later? The result of these differences was that the firm dualism between Israel and the church or classical dispensationalism was reduced in its scope, as was discussion of a clear difference between a heavenly and earthly people. The idea of the original eternal heavenly-earthly dualism was basically abandoned. In its place came a recognition of two people groups involved in the total program, yet with distinction as redemption unfolded that shared in a single salvation program. A difference remained among revised dispensationalists as to where the resurrected and redeemed would spend eternity. Would it be on the new earth or in the new heaven? As noted above, both options existed for holders to this view.

The revised version of dispensationalism and the more classical expression shared a continued recognition that Israel was still a part of God’s eschatological program. This shared belief held that Israel remaining a part of the program was the only way to make sense of the many Old Testament prophetic texts that discussed Israel as a nation in the midst of the nations. The only way this could work was if a redeemed nation of Israel remained a part of the events tied to that future. This approach also retained the past distinction of the focus of salvation being more individualistic than corporate. The result was that Jesus was head of the church but not king over it, since a king involved a political, national entity that was not what the church is. Kingship comes with the kingdom to come for Israel and the resumption of more corporate concerns in that future era.

The only community emphasis the movement possessed dealt with the community within the church, as issues tied to church life began to get pastoral treatment. This began a movement towards a less privatized perspective. As this pastoral concern surfaced, alongside the dispensational focus on Israel in the world, the revised approach began to walk into more public space with its theological engagement. This eventually became tied to moral concerns about where society was as a whole, which fed into some discussions about the Moral Majority in the USA.

The promises of God have always been a key concern for dispensationalism. Such concern included questions about what those promises are, how they progress, and how to make sense of the two testaments’ portrayal of that program with the resultant relationship of Israel, the church, and the kingdom. Even as revised dispensationalists continued to defend the literal hermeneutic of its predecessors, it also moved away from some forms of typological reading that formed the spiritualizing reading that the previous generations of dispensationalists possessed. Such spiritualizing readings meant the original referents become ciphers of current or past figures who did not belong to the original context. For example, oil in the Old Testament might be a ‘type’ for the Holy Spirit, and leaven would always be seen as denoting evil (Blaising and Bock 1993: 52). Such moves became less common among revised interpreters. This led to an emphasis on a consistent literal hermeneutic (Ryrie 2007: 80–85). This was taking place at the same time as discussions about hermeneutics in larger biblical studies were becoming more complex, as the ways of reading ancient texts were receiving more attention through discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls. These studies raised questions about how texts cited in new historical contexts were understood and functioned. A question remained whether all readings of a text were like the consistent literal reading that revised dispensationalists saw as the only way to read a text.

This tension is seen in the just-noted debate over whether two new covenants existed or whether there was some form of initial fulfilment in the contemporary church, even as Jeremiah had Israel as the original audience. The revised solution was to contend that this was realized spiritually in the church in limited ways, but that national and political inauguration and fulfilment awaited the return of Christ and the re-emergence of Israel in the program. The only way to get to this answer, however, was to acknowledge a covenantal connection between Israel and the church, evidence of change from classical dispensationalism, and the breakdown of the scope of the dualism that classical dispensationalists had affirmed.

Various ways of explaining this spiritual character emerged from revised dispensationalists. The views ranged from arguing there was no contemporary form of messianic mediatorial kingdom present (McClain 1968) to the idea that the Davidic kingdom was on hold as the mysterious form of the kingdom exists today while the completion of the Davidic program awaits Jesus’ return. This mystery kingdom is also spiritual in nature (Ryrie 1965; 2007). Walvoord also preferred to speak of the Davidic kingdom as postponed, awaiting its millennial fulfilment (Walvoord 1959). These views sound similar, but the starting point for Davidic hope was seen by McClain as being tied to Abraham and by Walvoord as tied to David. Walvoord also held a distinction between the kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven, with the kingdom of heaven being a sphere of profession and the kingdom of God being a spiritual kingdom. This allowed for a discussion of the true universal church, as opposed to a discussion of a defecting Christendom, as revised dispensationalists contended with modernists in the church. On this point, Walvoord had a foot in each of the first two types of dispensationalism. J. Dwight Pentecost argued for one theocratic kingdom program (Pentecost 1965) and, in contrast to McClain, he saw the present era of the church as a part of this program. What all these revised options shared was not attaching the current era to social and political realities as an expression of Jesus’ work as Davidic messiah.

The problem became a question of how one can argue for a limitation at the spiritual level, and in terms of Jesus’ role as messiah, when the historical starting point for all of this involved the work of Jesus as the Christ in his first coming. The idea that the church was a parenthesis in the program, as the classical view argued and as revised dispensationalists also retained, sat uncomfortably in this tension.

3.3 Progressive dispensationalism

In the 1980s, a third type of dispensationalism surfaced which looked at continuities, alongside the discontinuities that dispensationalism often discussed. Thinking through how the people of God were ultimately one, though made up of people from many nations, was a starting point. Another theme was thinking through how Old Testament promises were showing up in New Testament texts about the church. For example, the great commission in Matthew’s Gospel urged Jesus’ disciples to teach all that he had commanded them, an ethic which suggested that the discourse material of a message like the sermon on the mount applied to the church setting, and beyond. The pursuit of this continuity led to an emphasis on how the dispensations connected to and built on each other as the promise advanced. The name ‘progressive’ dispensationalism characterized this approach to the tradition, as it highlighted continuity alongside discontinuity and contended that each dispensation represented an advance or progress in the promise and its realization (Blaising and Bock 1992: 380). The adjective was not a political term, nor was it a criticism of other dispensational views as being less than progressive. It was simply a way to describe in shorthand the internal biblical emphasis on progress and association of promise as the dispensations unfolded across time. This movement meant that there was both an associative element to the dispensations as well as distinctions in administrative structure.

The pursuit of continuity had taken note of criticisms of dispensationalism from outside of the movement, by figures like George Ladd (1911–1982), but it did so while maintaining the overarching concern about how Israel, and the promises of God to it, fared in the program. Progressives also argued that such promises to Israel should not be swallowed up by the emergence of the church so that Israel lacked a future, and the possibility that one day the nation would respond to Jesus. However, progressives also acknowledged that fulfilment of promises came from the Christ, the individual seed who makes all believers one through the benefits of salvation he distributed. However, they also contended that Jesus Christ held out a future for Israel within the program, that saw a day when many in Israel would respond to what he had offered. Any declared judgment for rejection of Jesus could be reversed by a response to him, as a series of ‘until’ passages in Luke showed (Luke 13:34–35; 21:20–24; 3:18–22; other texts with a theme of hope for Israel: Acts 1:6–11; 3:18–22; Rom 9:1–11:36; Bock 2014).

There was a precursor to this emphasis in the work of the German dispensationalist Erich Sauer (1898–1959). He referred to the progressive advancement of the dispensations by discussing the stair step character (Stufencharakter). Key names tied to this type of dispensationalism are Robert Saucy (1930–2015), Craig Blaising (1949–), and Darrell Bock (1953–).

Progressives noted the unity of God’s program more than the previous types of the tradition. This led to a more precise definition of where distinctions between Israel and the church existed, in a more limited way than the full dualism of classical types or the indirect claims of realization by revised dispensationalists. It was acknowledged that the church in the current era embodied the kingdom, whether called kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. This connection formed the inauguration of the kingdom program announced in the Old Testament, with a consummation to come in forms reflecting the descriptions of Old Testament prophetic hope (Bock 1994). This reading saw the salvation program as unfolding in stages of realization that did not lose particularly earthly elements of what ultimately was promised in the Old Testament as it advanced, nor did the original recipients in Israel drop out in the process. The kingdom was an already-but-not yet entity, that would realize at Christ’s return what was left for the program to accomplish. Some (Bock 1994) but not all progressives (Saucy 1993) argued that Christ’s work in his first coming inaugurated all of the covenants of promise, including the rule moving to peace promised to David within an eternal dynasty. Previously, only the Abrahamic (classical) or Abrahamic and New (revised) covenants were seen in this light. Now some progressives saw all the covenants inaugurated, as the observation was made that it was Jesus as the confessed Christ (a regal title) who accomplished all of this and actively distributed many salvation benefits now, even though some features of this rule awaited completion with his return. Some treated the inclusion of Davidic hope in this light as a departure from dispensationalism (Ryrie 1965: 167), but Erich Sauer made the argument as a dispensationalist (1947: 1951), long before the dispensational debates with George Ladd (1952).

The result of this type of dispensationalism is that the Gospels and Old Testament prophets are seen to contribute not only to the understanding of the eschatological era to come but also to the ethical dimensions of being a contemporary believer in God (Blaising and Bock 1993: 284–301). Redemption becomes more holistic, touching heaven and earth and all spheres of life. A goal of the gospel is the reconciliation of estranged people before God who embrace God’s work in Jesus (Jews and Gentiles as one in Christ). This outcome means that working for such reconciliation is not severed from what the gospel ultimately seeks to achieve at a corporate level. This cultural corporate dynamic allows for not only engagement in the contemporary public square but also for a tone and emphasis that seeks this reconciliation. This concern also allows space for a future of Israel among the nations in the era to come. This means that a key dispensational concern about the role of promise, and Israel’s position in future hope, receives full attention in this progressive focus on the unfolding of the promises. Salvation takes place with an ethnic and national plurality that will eventually bring together all who believe, to share in salvation’s benefits in the age to come. The church is transnational in makeup, and seeing it that way is important since it preserves the diversity that God created as the nations and people were formed and developed. Enmity is dealt with and is replaced by shalom, so this diversity of humanity can live in peace. Shalom, rooted in the Hebrew concept, involves the guiding hope of the establishment of total peace in all spheres of life one day.

Hermeneutically, this reading uses a combination of historical, typological, and eschatological lenses to unify the hope that avoided the either/or kinds of readings that produced tensions not only within dispensational types but also with some other Christian eschatological traditions (Blaising and Bock 1993: 57–105). It also read texts in a literary manner, more in line with the scope seen in some ancient forms of handling of the Old Testament (Bock 2008). It includes the kind of typology seen in concepts like creation/new creation, exodus/new exodus, Adam/second Adam, servant as nation and/or as individual, seed as singular and corporate, and the many iterations of the day of the Lord. These iterations allow for a direct application of promise in many eras across time and open up applications in a now/not yet form. The core idea is that God can add to the scope of his promises, but commitments made to specific people ultimately also remain. This becomes a reason Israel does not get lost as the promise reaches out to the nations of the world through Christ. Alongside a literal reading is a normal reading of texts that looks at canonically-established typological links between the old era and the new. In this kind of typology one is not dealing with spiritualizing the text, but rather is seeing a pattern where something in the past intentionally mirrors the present or what is to come. In some ways, because of the many ways typology is used, ‘pattern prophecy’ is a better descriptive term than typology.

All three of these types of dispensationalism exist in the twenty-first century. The progressive form is also present in many key dispensational institutions. Its presence has added emphases tied to public space, the workplace, and ethics of being in the world in a way that is distinctive versus other less-engaged classical and revised forms of dispensationalism. History shows that to speak as if dispensationalism is a monolithic belief is to oversimplify reality. However, what all the types share is a concern for the consistency and faithfulness of God’s promises (especially with regards to Israel); a respect for eschatology and the hope it provides; and a high regard for the truthfulness of these promises as contained in the covenants and kingdom program, a rule that unfolds in advancing stages and touches all aspects of human life.

Much popular dispensationalism is revised in orientation and is focused on events about the end-times and a concern for Israel. This popularizing element of dispensationalism will be discussed below, as it has been widespread in public reflection about the Bible.

4 Popular expressions of dispensationalism

In the nineteenth century, the influence of dispensational views impacted the rise of a hope that Israel would again become a nation in a homeland one day. This perspective received a boost when Israel became a nation in 1948 and with its victory in the Six Day War of 1967. As a result of the 1967 war, Israel’s presence in Jerusalem was enhanced. Scenarios dispensationalists had discussed for over a hundred years seemed to be coming together. This fuelled attention to the movement as writers popularized the theology and also began to speculate whether Christ’s return might be very near. Scenarios based on very literal interpretations surfaced in writings by the likes of Hal Lindsey and his Late Great Planet Earth, originally published in 1970, or Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, published in 1995–2007. Films of the Left Behind books were also made. Suddenly, dispensational views appeared in the public consciousness and Israel became a topic for political reflection throughout this period, based on dispensational perspectives.

Along with observations that seemingly connected to current events, there also were predictions that did not come to pass. This meant that the popular approach to dispensationalism became controversial, with some even raising the idea that the entire approach to reading apocalyptic literature in this very specific way is flawed (Akenson 2023; Frykholm 2004; Gribben 2009; Hummel 2023). This kind of focus on specific fulfilment scenarios is a recent development in the movement. It has raised questions about whether this produces the right kind of biblical balance to hopes that are expressed in the Bible but without such levels of specificity. One is reminded of the remarks of Jesus, when the disciples asked if this was the time the kingdom would be restored to Israel. Jesus did not reject the question of Israel’s coming inclusion in God’s kingdom, which was the premise of the apostles’ question, but he did say that the times and seasons are the Father’s business (Acts 1:6–7). To many in the tradition, this kind of specificity, tied to a specific period in some popular writing, distracts from the overall thrust of the tradition, which simply said that Jesus held out hope for Israel that the nation would exist in a home promised to her by God, that God would resolve sin and conflict in the world one day by Christ’s return, with many Jews recognizing him, and that peace coming to Israel and the nations would be the result of God keeping his promises made to the patriarchs on behalf of the nation.

Alongside the reaction and questions about this kind of detailed popularizing approach from some in dispensationalism, others have raised additional questions about the perspective emerging from a dispensational point of view that does not share all of the specifics that some popularizing has produced. The section below discusses how some have reacted to dispensationalism and how dispensationalists respond to such critiques.

5 Reactions to dispensationalism

5.1 Non-dispensational critiques and reactions to the core model

The response from amillennialism and other Christian traditions took on two basic forms (Blaising and Bock 1993: 347–359). First, the claim for many traditions was that there was no earthly millennium (Allis 1969). The numbers and structure of the book of Revelation, and Revelation 20 in particular, referred to a general range of time, not to 1,000 literal years. The consummation moved immediately into a new heaven and earth with Jesus’ return. Second, salvation was focused in what happened in Christ. He is and was the seed of Abraham, in whom fulfilment resides. This meant that the people of God were no longer limited to Israel, and that promises made to her belonged to the messiah who held the benefits of salvation in his hands. To not be connected to him was to be severed from the hope and promise. The institution through which Christ now works is the church, who represent the people of God. The reading of the Bible must take into account where promises reside and with whom benefits are tied. To maintain a distinction between Israel and the church fails to see the people of God as one in Christ.

Contemporary dispensational responses to these criticisms challenge the first critique, and argue that the second set of observations is not detailed or complete enough to see biblical nuances. The response to a claim of no earthly millennium has three elements to it. First, dispensationalism contends that salvation is holistic, dealing with heaven and earth in this history with an initial resolution tied to commitments made about the state of the earth. Most Old Testament prophecies have this framing, and address an earthly Israel-nations context. Second, Revelation 20 does not look like the invocation of a simple symbol. The number 1,000 appears six times in close proximity in that chapter, with things coming before it and after it. This occurs too often to simply point to a symbolic, non-specific number. In addition, the genre is apocalyptic, which contains a theodicy arguing that God has a plan, including a calendar of events that will unfold one day. Third, the earliest church was premillennial, with an earthly hope. It was only as the time of fulfilment was delayed that a more symbolic view emerged about the presence of an earthly millennium. It may also be that, as the church moved away from its more Jewish roots in the latter portions of the early period, the focus on Israel in such promises became more problematic to accept.

With regards to the second critique, dispensationalists would accept many of the points made about the centrality of the Christ in the promise. He is the fulfilment, and benefits clearly come only through him. Salvation has come to the gentiles, who are part of the people of God. The church does offer the message of the promise, hope, and revelation of God. Nevertheless, Israel has a place in the eschatological future that means it remains relevant to the promise. The key is the recognition that Israel’s place involves a mass turning of the nation to Christ in the future. Jesus held out such hope in Luke 13:34–35, when he declared that Israel’s house would be desolate until it confessed that the one who comes in the name of the Lord is blessed. Luke 20:20–24 has Jerusalem trampled on by the nations until the times of the gentiles is fulfilled. The contrast to ‘the nations’ in scripture is Israel, so this suggests a re-emergence of the nation of Israel in the program to come. In Acts 1:6–11, the disciples still hold out hope for a restoration of the kingdom to Israel in the future and ask about it. Jesus’ reply does not challenge the premise of the question but merely says that this is in the Father’s prerogative. With the ascension in v.11, the point is made that Jesus will return as he has departed. When Peter puts this together in Acts 3:18–22, he notes that heaven holds Jesus until the times of refreshing come, and he will return and do all that the prophets of old have promised. Those promises are framed with Israel in the mix. Finally, in Romans 11, Paul looks for to a time when branches that are currently cut off from the promise will be grafted back in so that all Israel can be saved. Whether Israel is seen as an ethnic term – as dispensationalists claim – or, as others claim, as a broader term, the original ‘branches’ must refer to people from Israel, and Paul sees them included in the future hope. In other words, scripture never gives up on an eschatological place for Israel in the promise. Even as the promise expands in execution of its broad scope, the original recipients are ultimately never lost in that move.

5.2 Mischaracterizations of dispensationalism

The following short list of misrepresentations of dispensationalism present other kinds of claims and critiques associated with the tradition that need discussion (Bingham and Kreider 2015: 17–20). Some of these claims come from inside the tradition, others from outside.

Dispensationalism is not a theological system, in the full sense of its approach touching all the core areas of doctrine. Rather, it embraces the core doctrines involved in theology proper, the Trinity, Christology, salvation by grace through faith, and the gospel. Its distinctive foci look at eschatology, ecclesiology, and Israel’s role in scripture.

Dispensationalism is not heterodox; it does not teach multiple ways of salvation. Changes in structures administering salvation do not equal changes in the means to, or benefits of, salvation.

As described above, dispensationalism is not a monolith, but exists in a variety of expressions. When critiques of the tradition come in a more monolithic form, it may be only criticizing a form of dispensationalism and not the entire movement.

Dispensationalism does not involve a hermeneutic imposed on scripture. It claims to be reading scripture in the way all literature should be read – in its literary, historical, and grammatical setting.

Dispensationalism is not sectarian. Dispensationalists are found in an array of denominations. What does characterize dispensationalists is a high view of scripture and an affirmation of the Bible’s divine inspiration. It reflects one expression of evangelical theology, as Sweetnam notes (2010).

Dispensationalism is not just about the end-times, nor is it about calendar setting. There is much discussion in dispensational history of the end and its scenarios. These are held with enough variety that the charge of date-setting may apply to some but not all dispensationalists, as was noted above (in the section on popularization). What the tradition does hold to is imminence: the next event on the biblical calendar of redemption is the return of Christ and the establishment of righteousness and peace in the world. However, dispensationalists have also played a major role in evangelism and missions, and more recently have been engaged in discussions about issues in the contemporary world, not just the future. Dispensationalists care about more than just eschatology. They have also been at the forefront of discussions on ecclesiology, discipleship, and spiritual formation.

Dispensationalism shares with other traditions the affirmation of a doxological purpose in that the program of God glorifies him and his ways. It affirms a salvation that emerges from that program as tied to grace and faith alone. It is not distinctive in terms of the ‘glory of God’ theme, as some within the tradition have claimed. It shares with that program a model of creation, fall, redemption, consummation, but is distinctive in how it sees the consummation.

Dispensationalism does not share a pessimistic view of history. It sees an outcome of shalom for this world, in fact, for the entire creation, heaven and earth. It does take the fall and its impact in history seriously, and notes that, outside the pursuit of a relationship with God, the negative impact of sin and the fall remains profound. That impact is so deep that humans all need God’s work within us through Christ to blunt its presence, as well as his coming work in the world to restore creation to its intended shalom.

6 Summary

Dispensationalism is a theological approach to the program of God that sees God as faithful to his covenant commitments, including those within Israel to whom God made the original promises. It pursues an understanding of human frailty that sees a need to preach the gospel to a needy world to reverse the effects of sin that plague us. It aspires to pursue an ethic that reflects love for God and neighbour, including a recognition of the accountability all humans have before God. It is this goal that makes eschatology matter. It presents the hope of shalom for a redeemed humanity, in a reconciliation between Israel and the nations, that has responded to God’s initiative. It sees Israel and the nations as reconciled through the redemptive work of Christ, in a response of faith in God’s work both in this world and in the ages to come. It is one of many expressions of Christian hope that seeks to reflect how God engages with his creation and engenders fruitful discussion about the hope for that creation.


Copyright Darrell L. Bock (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Bateman, Herbert W., IV (ed.). 1999. Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views. Grand Rapids: Kregel.
    • Blaising, Craig A., and Darrell L. Bock. 1993. Progressive Dispensationalism. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
    • Parker, Brent, and Richard Lucas (eds). 2022. Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
    • Pentecost, J. Dwight. 1965. Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
    • Ryrie, Charles C. 2007. Dispensationalism. Chicago: Moody. First published 1995.
    • Saucy, Robert L. 1993. The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
    • Sauer, Eric. 1947. Das Morgenrot Der Welterlösung: Ein Gang Durch Die Alttestamentliche Offenbarungsgeschichte. Gütersloh: Evangelischer Verlag. 4th edition.
    • Sweetnam, Mark S. 2010. ‘Defining Dispensationalism: A Cultural Studies Perspective’, Journal of Religious History 34: 191–212.
    • Vlach, Michael. 2017. Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths. Los Angeles: Theological Studies Press. 2nd edition.
    • Walvoord, John F. 1988. The Nations, Israel and the Church in Prophecy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Previously published in 1962, 1964, 1967.
  • Works cited

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    • Allis, Oswald. 1969. Prophecy and the Church. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed.
    • Baker, Charles F. 1971. A Dispensational Theology. Grand Rapids: Grace Bible College.
    • Bass, Clarence B. 2005. Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications. Grand Rapids: Baker. First published 1960.
    • Bateman, Herbert W., IV (ed.). 1999. Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views. Grand Rapids: Kregel.
    • Bingham, D. Jeffrey, and Glenn D. Kreider (eds). 2015. Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption: A Developing and Diverse Tradition. CHicago: Moody Publishers.
    • Blaising, Craig A., and Darrell L. Bock (eds). 1992. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
    • Blaising, Craig A., and Darrell L. Bock. 1993. Progressive Dispensationalism. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
    • Bock, Darrell L. 1989. ‘Review of V. Poythress “Understanding Dispensationalists”’, Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 32, no. 4: 542–544.
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    • Bock, Darrell L. 2008. ‘Single Meaning, Multiple Contexts and Referents: The New Testament’s Legitimate, Accurate, and Multifaceted Use of the Old’, in Three Views of the New Testament Use of the Old. Edited by Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 105–151.
    • Bock, Darrell L. 2014. ‘Israel in Luke-Acts’, in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel: Israel and the Jewish People in the Plan of God. Edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 103–115.
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    • Hummel, Daniel G. 2023. The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over End Times Shaped a Nation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
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    • Sauer, Eric. 1947. Das Morgenrot Der Welterlösung: Ein Gang Durch Die Alttestamentliche Offenbarungsgeschichte. Gütersloh: Evangelischer Verlag. 4th edition.
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