Discovering Dispensationalism, Tracing the Development of Dispensational Thought from the First to the Twenty-First Century

Discovering Dispensationalism seeks to correct the many misconceptions that some have of dispensational theology (p. 6) and present a clear and accurate understanding of its teachings. Editors Cory Marsh and James Fazio, both professors at Southern California Seminary, have formed a team of a dozen dispensational scholars who trace dispensational ideas from the first century and the New Testament to modern times. Ten eras of church history are examined to ferret out elements that are in alignment with dispensational thought, even if the system itself was absent. The authors insist that dispensationalism was not invented but was shaped by biblical ideas and concepts that ultimately led to its formation (pp. 9, 17). A working definition of a dispensation is supplied by James Fazio: “A dispensation is an administration of a household, whereby a steward is appointed to manage his master’s goods in order to yield a surplus, for which he will ultimately be judged according to his faithfulness as a steward.” (p. 45). Fazio then offers the following definition of dispensationalism: “Dispensationalism is that theological system which reflects God’s administration over His household, whereby a sovereignly appointed steward has administered a divinely apportioned measure of God’s grace: each of these administrations which have occurred throughout the successive ages has ended in judgment and will find its culmination in the coming Messianic Kingdom” (p. 45). 

The authors agree that, while dispensationalism as a formalized system did not exist until John Nelson Darby in the early 19th century (p. 201), threads that would eventually be pulled together to develop the approach can be traced throughout the last 2000 years and are found in the New Testament itself (pp. 13-45). Some of those threads include chiliasm, pretribulationism, the rapture of the church, a grammatical-historical hermeneutic applied consistently to Scripture, belief in the Antichrist, a kingdom set up on earth over which Christ will rule, a literal fulfillment of the covenants, and imminency. Many of these views fell out of favor due to: “the onset of allegorizing Scripture becoming the main hermeneutical approach in the Nicene era, [as a result] dispensational ideas resulting from a literal approach to Scriptures simply disappeared” (p. 88), although pockets of dispensational concepts continued. Driving the pivot to allegorical interpretation regarding eschatology seems to be a resistance to what some considered an undue focus upon the physical enjoyment of eating, drinking, marriage, child-bearing, future reconstruction of the temple, and reinstitution of blood sacrifices (p. 76). These promises seemed out of step with the rising asceticism of the early church. Coupled with this concern were the eschatological extremes of some heretical groups such as the Montanists, the infiltration of Greek philosophy, the peace of Constantine and Augustine’s rejection of chiliasm (p. 66). It would be the Reformation, with its return to a literal hermeneutics and emphasis on the perspicuity of Scripture, that began to lay the groundwork for the dispensational system (pp. 157-158). Darby’s later dissatisfaction with the spiritual condition of the established church led him to the Plymouth Brethren (p. 205) and to a fresh examination of Scripture. Darby insisted that he did not invent dispensationalism; he recovered it (p. 243), beginning with a careful reading of Isaiah 32 (p. 240).

Throughout the book, the authors examine the growth and spread of dispensational thought, beginning with Darby and continuing to the present. The influences of the mid-nineteenth century revival (p. 251-259), the Niagara Bible Conference of 1877-1900 (pp. 259-265), Arno Gaebelein and C. I. Scofield (pp. 270-272), and the Sea Cliff Bible Conference (pp. 273-276), all fueled the zenith of dispensational thought (p. 276). The birth and growth of American academic dispensationalism can be traced to C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Dallas Theological Seminary. Throughout much of the twentieth century, scholars like Harry Ironside, John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, and Charles Ryrie spread scholastic revised dispensational theology. But with the rise of popular types of dispensationalism, promoted by authors such as Hal Lindsey and his Late Great Planet Earth (1970) (p. 327) and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, coupled with the Jesus Movement Revival of the 1970s and the influence of pretribulation Pentecostals, much of the essence of the system was stripped away, leaving the eschatological features (the rapture, the tribulation, and the return of Christ) in the mind of most.

This pop-dispensationalism continues to be widespread at the expense of serious academic dispensational discourse; as a result, evangelical scholars from other disciplines tend to dismiss dispensationalism as a grass-roots movement devoid of serious arguments and unworthy of engagement. Few Christian publishing houses will accept scholarly books developing non-eschatological themes. Apparently, the editors of Discovering Dispensationalism blame some of this dismissal to even a few of the strongest promoters of the system such as Chafer and Ryrie. Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today (1965 revised in 2007) has long been considered the standard summary of dispensational theology. Yet, Fazio claimed Ryrie “reduced those quintessential elements which distinguish a dispensationalist to three features which he termed the sine qua non of dispensationalism” (p. 43): distinction between Israel and the church, consistent use of grammatical-historical hermeneutics, and a doxological purpose throughout history. Fazio deems the three features as adequate to describe a “partial dispensationalist” but far too reductionistic to represent the whole system. Expanded definitions are drawn from John Feinberg’s writings (p. 187), as well as throughout much of this book, and summarized by Darrell Bock (pp. 343-346).

There are numerous important insights found within the pages of this volume such as:

  • The year-day tradition which existed throughout much of church history leading to date-settings for the return of Christ (pp. 36, 62, 95). A popular theory based on this tradition was that the world would end by 500 AD (p. 96), although others, such as Luther, by necessity set different dates (p. 172).
  • The Reformers were rather unified over the view that the Pope was the antichrist (p. 173), while earlier teachers had identified the Roman Empire as the antichrist and thus, with its fall, strong anticipation of Christ’s return resulted (pp. 131-133, 152).
  • Many of the Church Fathers, such as Justin (p. 58), Tertullian (p. 59), and Augustine (pp. 63, 91), believed that only the souls of martyrs went immediately to heaven, with all other Christians sent to an “infernal repose during the intermediate state” (p. 63). This idea explains why some early Christians gravitated toward, even longed for, martyrdom.
  • Contrary to misinformation by some covenantalists, dispensationalists have always taught salvation is by means of the shed blood of Christ (p. 42, cf. p. 365).
  • Early dispensationalists were exclusively Reformed Calvinists and dominated dispensationalism from 1825-1925 (pp. 309-311). A significant shift away from Calvinism for some (not all) came when the Southern Presbyterians made a watershed decision in 1944 that dispensationalism was incompatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith (p. 316). Dallas Seminary, which had been sending graduates to Presbyterian and Reformed churches, turned its attention to Bible and independent churches.
  • The Mid-Acts Dispensational Movement or Grace Theology (sometimes referred to as ultra-dispensationalism) is detailed in a helpful chapter by Phillip Long (one of its adherents) (pp. 281-304). Since few outside of the movement are familiar with its teachings or teachers, which include Cornelius Stam and the Berean Bible Fellowship (pp. 295-298), this chapter is very informative.
  • Progressive dispensationalism is represented by one of its founders, Darrel Bock (pp. 333-351). Progressives try to add a third category between dispensational and covenantal theology (p. 336).

We live in a church age in which serious theological engagement is shunned by most Christians. The shift from evangelism and discipleship to church growth, pragmatism, and psychology has conditioned believers to consider theology as unnecessary and divisive (p. 328). Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Our theology will ultimately determine how we live and will shape the message and mission of the church. One of the great legacies of dispensationalism is not only was (is) it grounded in solid orthodox theology, but it has taught and reaffirmed the Reformers’ principle that the average believer could understand the Bible by means of grammatical-historical hermeneutics (pp. 320-321). Dispensational emphasis turned believers into Bible readers who had confidence that with careful study they could understand the Bible without needing a seminary education. It is no wonder that some have deemed Darby the fourth most influential figure in Protestantism—right after Luther, Calvin, and Wesley (p. 369).

Discovering Dispensationalism is an extremely valuable work that is not only informative but also persuasive. By studying this volume, the reader will know what dispensationalism teaches and why it is the accurate approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Contrary to recent books declaring that academic dispensationalism is basically dead, Discovering Dispensationalism proves that it is very much alive and vital to our understanding of Scripture. Highly recommended.

by Cory M. Marsh & James I. Fazio (El Cajon, CA: SCS Press, 2023), 383 pp., hard $29.95

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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