Once the lens of dispensational theology is ground and polished, then all of history is seen through that lens. Scripture is reorganized and read exclusively through a dispensational view of history.
Such beliefs are directly related to dispensationalism, an early-19th-century theological development in England. In recent years and months, dispensationalism’s influences have become particularly ominous. Indeed, dispensationalism has become the most political of all American theologies, and maybe the most political of all theologies, Christian and otherwise, at the dawn of the 21st century.
What is dispensationalism? The primary focus of dispensational theology is a division of all history into seven eras, or “dispensations.” Such a division of history is rooted in a literal and imaginative reading of Scripture with special interest in “end times prophecy” found in Daniel, Ezekiel, Mark 13 (and parallels in Matthew and Luke), and the Revelation of John.
Once the lens of dispensational theology is ground and polished, then all of history is seen through that lens. Scripture is reorganized and read exclusively through a dispensational view of history. History and current events are constantly interpreted and reinterpreted according to the grand plan of the ages as drawn by dispensationalism’s proponents.
Since the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948, dispensationalism has had a ready stock of current events on which to focus. The daily trials of Israel and her neighbors are constantly scrutinized by dispensational theologians eager to be the first to announce evidence that the end times are here.
Where did dispensationalism arise? John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) is the father of dispensationalism. His roots were Irish Anglo-Catholicism. He studied and received honors at Trinity College in Dublin. Darby was also well-connected, at least in name, to the government. The “Nelson” in his name derived from the famous admiral, Lord Nelson, memorialized in London’s Trafalgar Square.
In the 1830s, Darby became involved with a group later known as the Plymouth Brethren. The Brethren were quite evangelical, insisting upon regeneration (being “born again”) as the only means of salvation. In addition to the evangelical emphases, the Brethren developed a distinct perspective on end times.
Darby was the singular force in articulating the Plymouth Brethren’s understanding of the end times. What began as an effort to read Scripture literally emerged as an eclectic reading of Scripture that allowed the reader to construct a clear vision of the end times as they were unfolding.
When did dispensationalism spread? At Darby’s death in 1882, his theological vision had crossed the Atlantic. Darby made six trips to the United States and Canada, and his theology had begun to take root in the New World. Darby’s clear and precise vision of “God’s plan in history” was especially appealing for some American theologians.
In 1909, Cyrus Ingersoll Scofield published the first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible, incorporating Darby’s view of the end times in his notes. The Bible was a huge success, largely because of the notes that claimed to clarify God’s plan to redeem and re-establish Israel before Christ’s return.
How has dispensationalism been sustained? Early in the 20th century, dispensational theology was institutionalized with the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary by Lewis Sperry Chafer. While other schools are associated with dispensationalism (such as the Moody Bible Institute), none carries the standard quite like Dallas. Chafer ardently accepted Scofield’s views of history and end times and committed his energies to establishing a school that would teach and promote dispensationalism.
Charles C. Ryrie, a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate and faculty member for 30 years (1953-1983), was heir to Scofield’s prominence among dispensational theologians. The Ryrie Study Bible and Dispensationalism make Charles Ryrie still the leading proponent of dispensationalism at the beginning of the 21st century.
In addition to institutional and academic support, dispensationalism has been sustained and promoted by popular television evangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and writers and lecturers such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.
Dispensationalism and Contemporary Politics. War with Iraq has broadened the apocalyptic proclivity among dispensationalists in the United States, even among those who have not seriously explored dispensationalism’s claims.
An amorphous sense of “destiny” seems to have gripped 40 percent of the American public. The question that must be asked—even of the President of the United States, who has demonstrated leanings toward dispensational theology—is whether a particular fascination with “biblical prophecy” has not become self-fulfilling.
Rick Wilson is the Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity in Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts in Macon, Ga.
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Mercer Commentary on the Bible
Rhythms: Sermons for a Community of Faith and Learning
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.