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Dispensationalism is a school of Bible interpretation that is associated with fundamentalist Christianity; the primary alternative within the evangelical community is covenant theology. It has been most influential in the United States, outside of which its influence is mostly limited to areas evangelized by dispensational missionaries. However, some political analysts have argued that dispensationalism has had large influence on American foreign policy and hence had a large indirect influence worldwide.
Dispensationalism seeks to address the apparent contradictions in doctrine and practice that arise from viewing both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament as Scripture. The dispensationalist approach to these issues is based on what they call "rightly dividing the word of truth" (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15). They do this by breaking sacred history up into several different "dispensations", (time periods) which mark separate covenants that God is thought to have made with humanity. The word dispensation is occasionally used in the King James Bible to translate the Greek word οικονομος (oikonomos), which refers originally to the government of a household, and is the origin of the English word economy.
The most common list includes seven such dispensations:
- Innocence - Adam
- Conscience - After man sinned, up to the flood
- Government - After the flood, man allowed to eat meat, death penalty instituted
- Promise - Abraham up to Moses and the giving of the Torah
- Law - Moses to the crucifixion of Jesus
- Grace - The cross to the Millennial Kingdom (also known as the Church Age)
- Millennial Kingdom - A 1000 year reign of Christ on earth centered in Jerusalem
Dispensationalism teaches that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will be a physical event, by which a world-wide kingdom will be established in human history, geographically centered in Jerusalem. Many, but not all, dispensationalists teach that the Second Coming will be a two step process. In the first step, Christ returns to resurrect the blessed dead and rapture the living believers from the Earth. After this, a seven year period of tribulation occurs, climaxing in the Battle of Armageddon. In the second step, Christ intervenes at the Battle of Armageddon and establishes his kingdom on earth. As such, dispensationalism is associated with the circulation of end times prophecy, which professes to read omens of the Second Coming in current events. Many of the distinctive features of dispensationalism were anticipated by the work of Pierre Poiret .
Dispensationalism in this form was proposed as a specific system by John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement. It was popularised in the United States by Cyrus I. Scofield through the vehicle of his widely circulated Scofield Reference Bible, an annotated study Bible that taught dispensationalism as a system. Through the Scofield Reference Bible Dispensationalism had significant influence on various American Protestant churches. In the Protestant countries of Europe, on the other hand, it has had very little influence. This fact is largely responsible for the very different "flavors" of American and European Protestantism that exist today.
Dispensationalism has had a number of effects on Protestantism, at least as it is practised in the United States of America. By consistently teaching that the Beast of Revelation, or the Antichrist, is a political leader, dispensationalism has weakened the traditional Reformation-era identification of that figure with the Pope, and the Roman Catholic Church with the Whore of Babylon. Dispensationalism has led many evangelical Christians of the USA to temper their traditional anti-Catholicism, at least a little.
Dispensationalism rejects the traditional Christian teaching of supersessionism. It tends to go hand-in-hand with a very protective attitude toward the Jewish people, and the modern State of Israel. John Nelson Darby taught, and most subsequent dispensationalists have consistently maintained, that God looks upon the Jews as his chosen people and continues to have a place for them in the dispensational, prophetic scheme of things. While virtually all traditions of Christianity teach that the Jews are a distinct people, irrevocably entitled to the promises of God (because "the gifts and calling of God are without repentance"), dispensationalism is unique in teaching that the covenant with the Church is only a provisional dispensation, until the Jews finally recognize Jesus as their promised Messiah during the trials that dispensationalists envision coming upon the Jews in the Great Tribulation. Darby's prophecies envision Judaism as continuing to enjoy God's protection, parallel to Christianity, literally to the End of Time, and teaches that God has a separate track in the prophecies for Jews, apart from the Church.
On the other hand, dispensationalists tend to be energetically evangelistic, with special interest in the Jews because they are "God's chosen people". Dispensationalist beliefs are widespread in many forms of Messianic Judaism, for example, which aggressively seeks the conversion of Jews to a form of Christianity mixed with Jewish ritual and Hebrew language. In some dispensationalist circles, the Jewish converts to Christianity are sometimes referred to as "completed Jews". Thus, while it is at odds with traditional supersessionism (which was formulated to discourage directly carrying over Jewish practice into the Christian Church), dispensationalism generally is markedly at odds with modern religious pluralism, which is typified by the view that proselytism of the Jews is a form of anti-semitism. Also, some dispensationalists, such as Jerry Falwell, have asserted that the Antichrist will be a Jew, based on a belief that the Antichrist will falsely seem to some Jews to fulfill prophesies of the Messiah more accurately than Jesus did. This belief is not essential to dispensationalism. At any rate, dispensationalists are typically, in practical terms, allies of the Jews and enthusiastic popularizers of Judaica, and foes of anti-semitism in the conventional sense.
Dispensationalism is criticized for other reasons. It teaches that Christians should not expect spiritual good from earthly governments, and should expect social conditions to decline as the end times draw nearer. Dispensationalist readings of prophecies often teach that the Antichrist will appear to the world as a peacemaker. This makes some dispensationalists suspicious of all forms of power, religious and secular, and especially of human attempts to form international organisations for peace such as the United Nations. Almost all dispensationalists reject the idea that a lasting peace can be attained by human effort in the Middle East, and believe instead that "wars and rumors of wars" (cf. Matthew 24:6) will increase as the end times approach. Dispensationalists teach that churches that do not insist on Biblical literalism as they deem appropriate are in fact part of the Great Apostasy. This casts suspicion on attempts to create church organisations that cross denominational boundaries such as the World Council of Churches. (See also Ecumenism.)
Dispensationalism as a school of Biblical interpretation is associated with a number of fundamentalist institutions, of which the best known are the Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute.
Dispensationalism and United States politics
Some political analysts have argued that dispensationalism has had a major influence on the foreign policy of the United States because believers in dispensationalism have had large amounts of influence through the Republican Party. This influence has included strong support for the state of Israel. Some dispensationalist authors such as Hal Lindsey have explicitly identified the Antichrist with the Soviet Union or the European Union.
Dispensationalism and fiction
Dispensationalist themes form the basis of the Left Behind series of books.
Biblical arguments in favor of dispensationalism
- The Apostles determined at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) that it was not necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish in order to become Christians. Thus, the church is not a sect of Judaism but a separate entity.
- The term 'Israel' in the Bible refers to physical descendants of Jacob.
- Similarly, the terms 'church' and 'kingdom' are never used interchangeably in Scripture.
- Paul claims that Israel will be grafted in again (Romans 11).
- Abraham was saved by faith, 430 years before the Law was given to Moses. (See Galatians 3:6,16-19.)
- The Book of Galatians is understood to teach that the Law continues to have binding force for Jews, but not for Christians. Now that Christ has come, Christians are not under the supervision of the law (3:25), but Jews are still governed by the law (5:3) unless they are in Christ (3:28).
Biblical arguments opposed to dispensationalism
- "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4 NIV) "But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD's love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children's children — with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts." (Psalm 103:17-18) "I the LORD do not change." (Malachi 3:6) "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1:17)
- Dispensationalism portrays a God with changing covenants and requirements that may not be part of a single plan for salvation.
- "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)
- Dispensationalists de-emphasize (or even discourage) human efforts to achieve peace due to the belief that we are living in an epoch in which an increase of war and famine is inevitable. Some dispensationalists have taught that international peace institutions such as the United Nations may be paving the way for the reign of the Antichrist.
- "No one knows about the day and hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . . therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. . . because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Matthew 24:36, 42, 44) "It is not for you to know the dates or times which the Father has set by his own authority." (Acts 1:7)
- "Remember that at the time you were separated from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . ." (Ephesians 2:12-14)
- The Apostle Paul describes one plan of salvation open to Gentile and Jew alike.
- Covenant theology is one popular alternative to Dispensational belief.
- Boyer, Paul: When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Belknap, 1994) ISBN 0674951298
- Enns, Paul: The Moody Handbook of Theology (Moody, 1989) ISBN 0802434282
- Reymond, Robert L.: New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith (Nelson 2d ed., 1998) ISBN 0849913179
- Ryrie, Charles C.: Basic Theology (Moody, 1999) ISBN 0802427340
Critics of Dispensationalism
- http://www.startribune.com/stories/1519/5211218.html Bill Moyers: There is No Tomorrow
- http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2004/10/27/scherer-christian/ "The Godly Must Be Crazy" by Glenn Scherer
- http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/15221/ "When U.S. Foreign Policy Meets Biblical Prophecy" by Paul S. Boyer
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