The origin of this doctrine is shown at the history of dispensationalism page. A number of sources of additional information can be downloaded from the references page.
There are two general theological systems used for understanding and interpreting the Scriptures; the Covenantal System and the Dispensational System. Covenant Theology is a product of the 17th century Reformation. Dispensational Theology is a product of the 19th century Plymouth Brethren renewal movement.
Each of these systems is associated with a number of distinct features. In recent years there has been a drift away from the traditional Dispensational System towards the Covenantal System. Many, including the Pembroke Bible Chapel, are concerned about the implications of this trend.
The Covenant System views God dealing with man on the basis of covenants, or contractual, arrangements. In this system the Old Testament is seen as defining the Old Covenant of works, and the New Testament is seen as defining the New Covenant of grace. Generally, this results in a blurring of the distinction between Israel and the church in this age and the one to come. Many obviously literal portions of Scripture must be treated figuratively. The end time events, specifically the Tribulation period and Millennium are treated spiritually. The bases for holy living for Christians are primarily the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and the Mosaic law of God. The purpose of God is seen as the salvation of mankind thus, to a large extent, the focus of the Scriptures is seen as man oriented.
Vital to any interpretation of Scripture is the recognition of the context in which the passage is found; both the immediate context, and the broader context. The Dispensational System does this and thus views God dealing with man in different ways during different ages of time. It is vital to recognize this fact. As noted by Dr. L.S. Chafer, founder and former President of Dallas theological Seminary:
"All Scripture is ... profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness"
(2 Tim. 3:16), but all Scripture is of primary application to a particular person or class of persons which the Bible designates as such. All Scripture is not for the angels, nor is it all for the Gentiles. In like manner, not all Scripture is addressed to the Jew, nor is it all addressed to the Christian” (Dispensationalism, p. 417).
Dr. Chafer went on to further delineate the problems with failing to make contextual distinctions:
“There is a dangerous and entirely baseless sentiment which assumes that every teaching of Jesus must be binding during this age simply because He said it. The fact is forgotten that the Lord Jesus, while living under, keeping, and applying the Law of Moses, also taught the principles of His future Kingdom, and, at the end of His ministry and in relation to His Cross, He also anticipated the teachings of grace. If this threefold division of the teachings of Jesus is not recognized, there can be nothing but confusion of mind and consequent contradiction of truth.”
The teachings of grace are perfect and sufficient in themselves. They provide for the instruction of the child of God in every situation which may arise. There is no need that they be supplemented, or augmented, by the addition of precepts from either the Law of Moses or the teachings of the Kingdom.”
The church is entirely unknown in the Old Testament and is not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. Its founding is described in the book of Acts and it's teaching is given in the Epistles. Dr. Ryrie expressed these sentiments as follows:
“The teachings of Jesus are possibly the most difficult part of the entire Bible to interpret accurately. Why is this so? Because in His humiliation He lived under the Mosaic Law and perfectly kept it; but He also presented Himself to Israel as their King; and when He was rejected as King, He introduced the new part of God's program, the Church, and gave some teaching about it. In other words, He lived and taught in relation to three different dispensations of God's program for this world - the Law, the Church, and the Kingdom. To keep these aspects of teaching distinct and - without confusion is not always easy.
There are those who consider the Sermon on the Mount a blueprint for Christian living today. To use it this way would require deliteralizing much of what is taught in order to be able to obey it in this unrighteous world. Further, if this is truth for the Church, then why did our Lord not mention the Holy Spirit, so vital for Christian living, or even the Church itself?
Others understand the Sermon's primary purpose to relate to Christ's kingdom message. The forerunner, John the Baptist, had announced the kingdom (Matt. 3:2); Jesus Himself began to preach that message (Matt. 4:17). The kingdom they preached and the kingdom the people expected was that messianic, Davidic, millennial kingdom promised in the OT.”
Dispensationalism is distinguished by several key principles. Click here for a chart of the dispensations.
- A clear distinction between God's program for Israel and God's program for the Church, and thus a clear distinction between law and grace.
- Covenant promises to Israel are unconditional and eternal.
- A consistent and regular use of the normal historical, geographical, literal principle of interpretation.
- The understanding of the ultimate purpose of God is of His own glory rather than the salvation of mankind. Thus the focus of dispensationalism is God oriented.
- The church is a distinctive organism. The church does not begin until the day of Pentecost, during the NT era. This also means that the church did not exist in any form in the OT.
Another feature that is integral with dispensationalism, though not so commonly recognized, is that all Christian growth is based on our identification with Christ's death and resurrection which effectively deals with our old nature. These growth truths are vital for every Christian and provide the following benefits:
- Our full assurance of salvation;
- Our complete acceptance by the Father in His beloved Son;
- Our deliverance from the reign of sin and the old man via Romans Six;
- Our freedom from the principle of law, via Romans Seven;
- Our position in the Lord Jesus at the Father's right hand via Ephesians 1 & 2;
- God's purpose to conform us to the image of His Son via Romans 8.
Relationships - Israel and the Church:
One of the main reasons for the drift away from the traditional Dispensational System towards the Covenantal System is the failure of Dispensation Theologians to clearly delineate the distinctions between Israel and the Church. This is seen primarily in applying Israel's prophetic promises of the New Covenant to the church in one degree or another.
Since God the Father has blessed the Church with all spiritual blessings in heaven in Christ, she has no need for earthly Israel's New Covenant or Kingdom? The blessings to church believers are far greater than those promised to Israel so there is no point in accepting the inferior for the superior. Dr. Chafer agrees:
“There is no scholarly reason for applying the Scriptures which bear upon the past, the present, or the future of Israel to any other people than that nation of which the Scriptures speak. The real unity of the Bible is preserved only by those who observe with care the divine program for Gentiles, for Jews, and for Christians in their individual and unchanging continuity.
With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the door of Gospel privilege was opened unto the Gentiles, and out of them God is now calling an elect company, the Church.
Their new proffered blessings in this dispensation do not consist in being permitted to share Israel's earthly covenant, which even Israel is not now enjoying; but rather, through the riches of grace in Christ Jesus, they are privileged to be partakers of a heavenly citizenship and glory.
Those who would intrude the Mosaic system of merit into the Church's heaven-high divine administration of super-abounding grace either have no conception of the character of that merit which the law required, or are lacking in the comprehension of the glories of divine grace (Systematic Theology IV:19).”
Relationships of the Dispensations and the Covenants
In the past, God has entered into several covenants with man on the earth. This is clearly recognized by Dispensationalism in that each of the several covenants described below is in reality a dispensation of God's administration and dealings with man during a specific period of time. Failure to recognize this fact results in great confusion in the interpretation of Scripture.
Two covenants were unconditional covenants between God and all mankind, one through Noah after the flood, and one through Abraham. The Noahic Covenant was an agreement never to destroy the earth again by flood. The Abrahamic Covenant was a promise to bring blessing to all the nations of the earth.
One covenant was conditional between God and Israel through Moses. This Mosaic Covenant is the only conditional covenant; conditioned on Israel keeping the law of Moses.
One covenant has yet to be fulfilled. It is an unconditional covenant between God and national Israel to be implemented in the future Millennial Kingdom. This New Covenant will be inaugurated and fulfilled at the second coming of Christ. It is strictly an earthly covenant. It will be God's absolute rule of law on earth under the King.
The above four covenants are exactly equated to the Dispensations of Human Government (Noahic), Promise (Abrahamic), Law (Mosaic), and Kingdom (Future Israelite Millennial Kingdom).
The believing Church, although now physically present on the earth, is seen by God as now positionally present with Christ in Heaven. This is a living relationship between Christ Himself and His heavenly people. The church, individually and collectively, is indwelt, directed, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Dispensationalism sees this current period as the Dispensation of Grace - God's distinct dealings with His heavenly church.
Some would list other covenants and dispensations. For example, some see an Adamic covenant, but the relationship between God and Adam in the garden is not described in covenant terms. Dispensationalism sees this as the dispensation of Innocence. The period between the Fall and the Covenant with Noah is usually described as the Dispensation of Conscience. In other words, God is dealing with the human race in this period in a manner different than before the Fall and different than after the institution of Human Government under Noah.
To view the relationship between the Church and the covenants see figure 1 on the theological page. To view the actual dispensations see figure 2 on the same page.