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Dispensational Theology


A system of eschatology characterized by three central ideas. First, history is divided into time frames or dispensations. Each dispensation represents a specific form of revelation given by God to humanity, with a corresponding covenant delineating God's expectations of humans and God's judgments when humans inevitably fail. The most widely held divisions of history are those of C. I. scofield (18431921), who outlined seven dispensations between creation and the millennium. Second, with few exceptions dispensationalism insists on a literal interpretation of Scripture. This literalism is grounded in a commitment to biblical inerrancy and a belief that prophecy is prewritten history. Third, dispensationalism draws a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church. Since all prophecy must be fulfilled literally, the 1948 establishment of Israel as a nation is considered by dispensationalists to be the fulfillment of prophecy concerning the regathering of God's people. Thus, when Christ returns he will set up an actual kingdom in Jerusalem and reign for 1,000 years. For dispensationalism the restored nation of Israel is the staging ground for the impending eschatological events.

The following features are typical of the dispensational system: the rapture of the church, a seven-year tribulation period, the battle of Armageddon, the rise of the antichrist, the imposition of the mark of the beast, the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity in the end times, the return of Christ, the establishing of the millennial kingdom on earth, the defeat of Satan, and the last judg ment with rewards in heaven and punishments in hell.

Though belief in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth can be found in several pre-Augustinian church fathers, dispensationalism as a system of theology has its origins in the nineteenth century with John Nelson darby (18001882). Darby, an Irish cleric in the Church of England, broke with Anglicanism in 1827. Darby made several trips to Canada and the United States between 1862 and 1877 and found eager audiences for his dispensational system. The dissemination of dispensational thought was greatly aided by the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. in the 1920s Clarence Larkin (18501924), an engineer turned Baptist minister, visually depicted the dispensational system through his hand-drawn and intricately detailed charts, which were published in books and in wall-sized reproductions. in 1924 Lewis Sperry Chafer (18711952), a student of Scofield, founded Dallas Theological Seminary, the theological center of dispensationalism and the teaching post for two of the most important dispensational theologians of the latter half of the twentieth century, John F. Walvoord (b. 1910) and Charles C. Ryrie (b. 1925). A newer generation of dispensational theologians has advocated a "progressive dispensationalism," a modified and more mainstream system of eschatology. Traditional dispensationalism continues to be a force for shaping popular views on eschatology.

Bibliography: c. bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids 1960). c. a. blaising and d. l. bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, Ill. 1993). l. s. chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 v. (Dallas 1948). n. c. kraus, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond 1958). c. c. ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago 1965).

[w. t. stancil]

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