The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism, How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation

The direction of The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism is well expressed by its author:

The following pages make sense of these different trajectories and manifestations of dispensationalism through the study of its history. I do so by telling the story of ideas, institutions, and individuals that built dispensationalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the later generations who presided over its entrance into the mainstream of American popular culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (pp. xvi-xvii).

Dispensationalism, a term which first appeared in 1882 (p. xi), or was it 1927 (pp. 1, 3), rests on the plain, literal meaning of Scripture; the separation of the church from Israel; the world careening toward decline, ultimately climaxing in the rule of the antichrist during the Tribulation; and a pretribulation belief in the rapture (see p. xvii). Like many Christians historically, dispensationalists are premillennial in their eschatology, but, unlike those in the past, dispensationalists espouse a new premillennialism which sees the kingdom of God entirely in the future, established by Christ at His return (p. 1).

This understanding flows from the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and the Brethren movement he founded in the 1830s, which taught “a ‘literal’ or nonsymbolical interpretation of biblical prophesy to produce a new sect. The Brethren offered a new way to read Scripture, a new set of expectations for Christians, and a new vision of how God would ultimately redeem the world” (p. 6). Hummel, who is obviously not a dispensationalist (his bias is evident throughout the book), nevertheless, accurately describes what the system teaches (see pp. 9-15), and even as he seemingly distains dispensationalism, fairly admits its benefits as demonstrated in the following quote by anti-dispensationalist George Ladd:

[It is] doubtful if there has been any other circle of men [than dispensationalists] who have done more by their influence in preaching, teaching and writing to promote a love for Bible study, a hunger for the deeper Christian life, a passion for evangelism and zeal for missions in the history of American Christianity (p. 15).

Similar sentiments have been voiced in every decade since.

It is interesting to note that Darby and the early Brethren were deeply concerned about the anemic state of the Anglican church, of which they were a part, and in particular the low bar of teaching concerning salvation. Darby sought to lead the church toward greater maturity and holiness and preached a high barrier for salvation (p. 11). Later, dispensationalists influenced by revivalism of the 1800s reversed this emphasis, lowering the barrier to “little more than a onetime mental assert to the proposition that Jesus is Savior” (pp. 11, 19, 21). This “free grace” position was later solidified in the writing of C. I. Scofield, especially in the notes in his Reference Bible (1909), and later by L.S. Chafer and Dallas Theological Seminary. Darby, who was Reformed in his theology (p. 21), led early Brethren to embrace a clear “Lordship” soteriology, as well as Calvinistic leanings. Many later dispensationalists would depart from Lordship and most of the points of Calvinism. Another morphing in the system concerns reading of Scripture. Throughout the history of dispensationalism, literal, plain interpretation of the Bible has been prized. But the early promoters leaned heavily on allegory and typology, as is evident in the writings of the first couple of generations of dispensationalists and peppered throughout the original Scofield Reference Bible. But later theologians moved away from strong reliance on typology to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic emerging from Dallas. By the revised edition of the Scofield Bible (1967), most typological notes had been removed. However, all generations of dispensationalists have assumed absolute inerrancy of the Bible (see p. 11).

The Brethren placed emphasis on ecclesial revival and were opponents of revivalism, which was mostly postmillennial in theology and shallow in its results (pp. 25-27, 36, 39). They were fixated on holiness and taught what Hummel calls dualism, the idea that Christians are heavenly citizens living in a doomed, corrupted world. As a result, believers should not become too comfortable in their earthly pilgrimage and should rather focus on holy living and rescuing the lost from eternal destruction (p. 33). Darby viewed American Christianity as superficial, and despite the well-known quote by Alexis de Tocqueville about Americans being incredibly religious, Tocqueville later came to the same conclusion as Darby (pp. 35, 48-49).

It is easy to see how the Holiness Movement emerged from these observations, as Darby and the Brethren wanted to revitalize God’s people and call them to be a holy, heavenly-minded community. It would be D. L. Moody and the Moody Movement that popularized Brethren teaching, especially premillennialism, higher life, and its focus on fleeing the world and longing for heaven (pp. 88-95). Moody’s motto, “I look on the world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat, and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can’” (p. 97), became the agenda of the new premillennialists, who spread their theology through three organizations: Bible Institutes, Bible conferences, and mission agencies (pp. 98-107).

Pentecostalism split the Moody Movement, as it embraced new premillennialism while ignoring other dispensational distinctives (pp. 118-121); however, Scofield and his Reference Bible standardized the teachings of dispensationalism and greatly increased Bible reading among Christians (pp. 130-138). The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume publication from 1910-1915 with a three million plus distribution, further solidified and spread the teachings of new premillennialists (pp. 146-151, 169). The Fundamentals also included a chapter by Scofield advocating “free grace” that went largely unopposed (pp. 148, 156). With this link, premillennialism became associated with Fundamentalism (p. 161), leading to fierce battles between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists (pp. 162-168). Eventually, a substantial parting of ways between the two contingencies led to the Fundamentalists leaving the liberal denominations and seminaries and forming their own.

Out of this division emerged L.S. Chafer and the birth of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1926 and, along with it, scholastic dispensationalism (pp. 179-203). Grace Theological Seminary, under the leadership of Alva McLain, began in 1937. Both schools emphasized their commitment to “consistently reading all Scripture literally, guided by historical and grammatical context rather than typologies or dualism” (p. 202). This literalism became the hallmark of scholastic dispensationalism. Dallas and Grace were joined by Talbot on the West coast in 1952. Under the leadership of these theological schools and men such as Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost, and Feinberg, dispensationalism was experiencing its golden era.

But challenges emerged that eroded scholastic, if not pop dispensationalism. Those challenges included in-fighting among Fundamentalists leading to major splits (pp. 184-196); the rise of neo-evangelicalism with its emphases on ecumenism and social action, under leaders such as Billy Graham and Carl Henry (pp 203-229); and new seminaries such as Fuller. George Ladd’s inaugurated eschatology, and the increasing popularity of covenantal theology, also challenged dispensational teaching, but most devastating of all to academic dispensationalism was the birth of pop dispensationalism. Pop dispensationalism kept the basic eschatology of the system—the Rapture, the Tribulation, and the coming antichrist—but largely ignored the other essential details. As the pop variety caught the world’s attention, beginning with Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (pp. 234-243) and later the fiction of Tim LaHaye, interest in the theology of dispensationalism unraveled and slowly drained away (pp. 233-250). Other undermining features included hyped and failed predictions of the return of Christ, lack of interest in prophecy and theology, increased interest in psychology and social concerns, criticism of its teachings by other evangelicals, and this disappearance of traditional dispensationalist professors from seminaries. As pop dispensationalism conquered the American culture, scholarly dispensationalism was in freefall (pp. 256-259).

The new Christian right emerged under Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Francis Schaeffer, Pat Robertson, Carl McIntire, and the Moral Majority, eclipsing attention on the finer points of dispensational theology while maintaining, if loosely, the end-time tenets of the system (pp. 287-296). Hummel summarizes the reason for the collapse of academic dispensationalism in chapter eighteen. Today, challenges come from rising interest in theonomy (p. 303), progressive dispensationalism (pp. 312-317), the Christian right (p. 332), and “holistic eschatology” championed by N. T. Wright, among others. Pop dispensationalism, in a variety of forms, is alive and has infiltrated the American culture and imagination, but it is a far cry from the dispensationalism of Darby, Scofield, and Ryrie. Scholastic dispensationalism, Hummel believes, is dead (reviewers comment: Scholastic Dispensationalism lives on but has been largely marginalized by the academy and major publishers), even as its pop version lives on. But he admits the final chapter has yet to be written on dispensationalism.

As a historical treatise on dispensationalism and new premillennialism, this work would be hard to beat. Hummel is obviously not a dispensationalist, and his bias is often obvious. Some of his conclusions are questionable and open to challenge, and, of course, trying to offer a comprehensive snapshot of 200 years of the history of anything will prove inadequate. But Hummel has done his research and anyone looking for a historical account of dispensationalism will learn much from this volume.

by Daniel G. Hummel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2023), 382 pp., hard $26.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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