What Dispensationalists Believe

Helping My Reformed Covenant Bros. Move Beyond the 1950s

I recently watched a spirited exchange take place among a group Reformed covenant folks on Facebook in response to a quackish, hamfisted, anti-Calvinist documentary that accuses the Reformation of Antisemitism. For the record, I agree with the Reformed folks over and against the documentary.

At any rate, during the course of that exchange, those of the Dispensational persuasion, like myself, were accused of denying the Gospel, being idolaters, following a false prophet (J.N. Darby), being in a cult akin to Mormonism, and denying the Scriptures.  I didn’t see all the comments, but I imagine Dispensationalists were also accused of shotgun blasting baby ducks in a pond and punching babies.

A lot of that rhetoric comes from former Dispensationalists; Reformed covenant converts who write vigorously against their Dispensationlist past. Honestly, I doubt any of them seriously adhered to Dispensationalism. They were merely exposed to it because they were saved in either a red state evangelical/Calvary Chapel-style church that was Dispensational by default, or perhaps given a John Hagee book to read as a new Christian. But they were no more a serious “Dispensationalist” as Ergun Caner was a “serious” Muslim.

Usually what happens is those folks come to embrace Calvinism, because that’s what the Bible teaches. Yet, because all their Calvinist heroes adhere to Covenant Theology and are either amillennial or postmillennial with their eschatological views, they also abandon Dispensationalism and premillennialism.  At some point they are moved by zeal to publicly confess how they were embarrassed by their Dispensational past and ridicule those they left behind (pun somewhat intended).  To their determent, they are often woefully misinformed with their criticisms. That is largely due to their exposure to only secondary, critical sources of Dispensationalism that are extremely dated or poorly argued. When I have engaged individuals like this and challenged them as to their sloppy research, they become agitated for some reason.

So, in order to pull my Reformed covenant friends out of the 1950s and show them that Dispensationalism is more than the fanciful diagrams of Clarence Larkin and is not a Gospel denying cult, I thought I would help clear up a misconception or two and then compile some resources for them.

First, the Reformed, internet masses tend to get Dispensationalism confused with eschatology. If you mention the word Dispensationalism, in no time someone is blasting away at the pre-tribulational rapture and complaining how the doctrine was developed by a crazy, charismatic girl.

While it is certainly true pre-tribulationists are Dispensationalists, Dispensationalism is not eschatology. Eschatology is a sub-set of theology proper, and Dispensationalism is a theological framework that distinguishes the outworking of God’s redemptive purposes through Scripture. Sure there are important nuances, say for instance the key distinction between Israel and the NT Church and the understanding that the redemptive purposes of God entail a restoration of Israel in a future, millennial kingdom. That would be a part of the eschatology of Dispensationalism.

Also, a lot of the modern Reformed folks are surprised to learn that Dispensationalism started among Presbyterians in the 1800s. The early founders of Dallas Theological Seminary were five point, Presbyterian ministers, and they founded the seminary primarily as a Presbyterian school. As Todd Magnum points out in his study of the history between the adherence of Dispensational and Covenant Theology, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift (See his paper summarizing his larger dissertation: HERE), Dispensationalism was a perfectly acceptable position within the Reformed, Presbyterian circles. It wasn’t until polarizing personalities among a few Covenantalists raised unnecessary charges against their Dispensationalists brothers that a rift formed and has sadly remained ever since.

For basic, available resources on the subject, one of the better places to begin is with Dr. Michael Vlach’s list of, 40 Recommended Resources for Understanding Dispensationalism (Click link for the PDF attachment with this article)

The list is mostly book length studies that one will have to find on Amazon or in a library. Highlighting just a few of those items he lists, I would recommend John Feinberg’s article on systems of discontinuity found in the compilation book, Continuity and Discontinuity. The entire book is worth the read, but that article lays down the essential points defining Dispensationalism.

Next would be Alva McClain’s The Greatness of the Kingdom which is a comprehensive study of the Kingdom of God and probably one of the best works on the subject in print. I personally think non-dispensationalists would benefit greatly from this work.

I would also point folks to the theological writings of Paul Henebury, Dr. Reluctant, who shares his concerns and recommendations for refining Dispensationalism. Take a look at his Telos Theological Ministries where you will find a lot of good material, especially his article on Biblical Covenantalism and Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism.

Now, the biggest difference between the covenant theologian and the dispensationalist is the application of hermeneutics.  The way one interprets the Bible, particularly prophetic texts, is going to have a major impact on how one sees the progress of Divine revelation from the OT to the NT. Additionally, how one sees the OT fulfilled in the NT. Some helpful articles regarding hermeneutics:

Michael Vlach’s article, New Covenant Theology Compared with Covenantalism has an extended section detailing the matter of hermeneutics. In fact, the Master’s Seminary faculty devoted the entire fall 2007 journal to discussing New Covenant Theology and because NCT shares similar theological views with Covenant Theology, there are some helpful discussions. The issue is Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2007.

For a couple of book length study, see Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classic Evangelical Hermeneutics and James White’s Scripture Alone. Ironically, James is a Reformed Baptist who would have nothing to do with Dispensationalism, but he provides a study of hermeneutics and exegesis I find well done and when applied consistently, only confirmed my understanding of Dispensational principles.

Moving to some more readily available sources on the web,

The on-line teaching of S. Lewis Johnson is all excellent, but noting a couple of of his series,

The Divine Purpose of History and Prophecy

The Future of Ethnic Israel

also, this article from the TMS journal highlighting a specific passage in Galatians 6:19,
Paul and the “Israel of God” an Exegetical Case Study

Dan Phillips, Twenty-five Stupid Reasons for Dissing Dispensationalism

R. Bruce Compton, Dispensationalism, The Church, and The New Covenant

These are some good places to start. If folks have additional recommendations, note them in the comments and I’ll add them to the main list here.


To be balanced, I can point to some good works defending the Covenantal Reformed perspective.

I can think of the classic work (but a brutal read), The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius available online HERE.

And then the two work by O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants and The Israel of God. His lectures on Covenant Theology can be downloaded HERE.

And then one final work that I am told is an outstanding treatment from a Reformed Baptist perspective is Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptist Perspective on God.

12 thoughts on “What Dispensationalists Believe

  1. Thanks for doing this and showing balance in presenting source materials for both sides. I am a dispensationalist because that fits the plain meaning of Scripture. I didn’t come to believe in this from listening to sermons on it, but from studying the Bible. I only came to know the name of the system from reading articles and blogs and then from sermons and being taught about it, but I already believed in this just from reading the Bible.

    I think far too many people hold to both positions because somebody they follow has taught it. I also think that is the reason that so many people can’t put together a good argument against one or the other…they haven’t studied both thoroughly, but just hold to what their favorite theologian believes. And I think that many great theologians of our day only hold to CT because of what some of the great reformers believed. That doesn’t mean that when I get involved in these discussions on Facebook, Twitter, or a blog that I just point to that, though. I actually can’t remember a time when I have thrown that out in such discussions because it isn’t any more helpful than somebody telling me I am just getting my theology from a cheesy movie series from the 80’s.

    These are important conversations to have, though. It gets to the roots of how we interpret Scripture and trying to find everything that we can that is in Scripture. This isn’t an area where Scripture is silent…so it isn’t something we should say isn’t important for us to study, discuss, and know. It should serve to give us a greater love of God when we see the complexity of how He has worked all of history together to show His glory in redeeming wretched sinners and holding to His covenants.

  2. Agree, it is unfortunate that so many who leave dispensationalism end up rejecting everything of premillennialism and turn to amillennialism/postmillennialism. A few of them later reconsider and will join the historic/classic premillennialism group, wanting to know more about that type of premillennialism (which is post-trib, with future salvation and restoration of ethnic Israel) — but the majority do not. We see today a continuation of what classic/historic premillennialist Nathaniel West observed in the late 19th century, of premillennial history down through the ages, that many would reject “true chiliasm” because of the false forms of chiliasm.

    A few other observations, though, for what it’s worth: not all anti-disps hold to Covenant Theology. Many amills/postmills instead are really “Calvinist Baptists” and embrace NCT — which is a full rejection of CT, and which actually is similar to dispensationalism in its division of the law with the moral law only for OT and a “higher” “law of Christ” only for the church age. Just from my own observations, many of the more extreme anti-dispensationalists are of the NCT variety.

    Regarding Darby and early dispensationalism: the Brethren were a covenantal/reformed group, but it was some within that group that later left it and spoke out very strongly against Darby’s teachings, with solid scriptural arguments in answer to Darby’s ideas including his two-phase rapture coming. This was early on, and B.W. Newton and S.P. Tregelles wrote a considerable amount on this issue, at a time when Darby’s views were not that well-known (mid-19th century) and had not gained their later popularity. Charles Spurgeon, who held to baptist covenant theology, as early as the late 1860s and through the 1870s, was also teaching against Darby’s errors. See this Spurgeon sermon, from January 1869, in which he mentions those who were then teaching, that “We have even heard it asserted that those who lived before the coming of Christ do not belong to the Church of God! We never know what we shall hear next, and perhaps it is a mercy that these absurdities are revealed one at a time in order that we may be able to endure their stupidity without dying of amazement!” http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols13-15/chs848.pdf

    Also, as the late S. Lewis Johnson well observed in his later years, “the enemies of dispensationalism” did acknowledge “the benefits to the church of Dispensationalism.” He quoted some covenant theologians who wrote against the teachings of dispensationalism, who yet acknowledged that the men teaching it were godly men with sincere devotion to the Lord. Yet, as SLJ then pointed out: “in spite of that, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the system (dispensationalism) is a true system, because many of the same things can be said down through the centuries for those who have espoused covenantal theology. Both of these theological viewpoints exist within evangelicalism and so it’s not surprising that since they exist within Evangelicalism that there would be many godly men and women who stand within both of these traditions.”

    So to reiterate, just because Darby came from a CT and Calvinist background, does not mean that his teachings are correct; that must be determined from studying the scriptures. Perhaps it is true that within a certain group at one point in time, “dispensationalism was a perfectly acceptable position within the Reformed, Presbyterian circles.” But dispensationalism was opposed, early on, by many other Reformed, covenantal theologians starting in the mid-19th century through early 20th century.

  3. While I sympathize with you in such mischaracterizations of dispensationalism as you may have encountered, to be honest some dispensationalists are their own worse enemies. By placing what can only be described as an educated guess about the meaning of apocalyptic passages (for the record, I think EVERY eschatalogical position is an educated or uneducated guess) into a mark of orthodoxy, they presume their own speculative exegesis as a system within Scripture is given meaning rather than letting Scripture interpret itself. While other positions may do the same, 1) they tend not to place it at the center of their theology and 2) they seem more willing to think they might be wrong. If the rest of their theology is orthodox, I do not believe dispensationalists are heterodox, but I just happen to think they are wrong. I also happen to think somewhere in my eschataological beliefs, I must be wrong too or I would be God and I can assure you I am not. I think humility in these debates would go a long way and not be quite as divisive.

  4. “…denying the Gospel, being idolaters, following a false prophet (J.N. Darby), being in a cult akin to Mormonism, and denying the Scriptures”

    Well, yeah. That’s pretty much Dispensationalism 101.

  5. Hi Fred,

    Have you ever done the following: Inform the Reform Amillenialists or Reform Postmillienalists that you are a “Reform Dispensationalist”?

    If so, what is their response to you “mixing and matching” theological systems?

    Do they think you’re corrupting “Reform theology” or are they okay with you taking aspects of this with aspects of that to make your own comprehensive theology?

    Even a step before that, i’ve heard objections by some (R. Scott Clark for example) to the term Reform Baptist>

  6. What’s funny is that for many years in the mid 90’s, I called myself a “covenant theologian” (which was actually dispensationalism) and a “remnant theologian” (which was a term I made up for “Calvinism”…not actually knowing about the existence of Calvinism as a system). In Mennonite circles, I was never exposed to the reformers outside of hearing how they loved picking fights (which seems to be still true) and how they murdered all my distant relatives because we disagreed with them on baptism, among a few other “non-core” doctrines (Mennonites don’t exactly win awards for their fair and balanced representation of history and the Mennonites are the “new liberals” in North America).

    So when I was studying through the Bible in Bible College, I realized that there were multiple covenants (Noahic, Mosaic, Davidic, New, etc.) and basically though that covenant theology WAS dispensationalism (since I had never even heard the term “dispensationalism”). It wasn’t for several years that I learned exactly what covenant theology was, and then I started devouring all the stuff I could find…only to find out that all the stuff I was reading didn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with what I thought “covenant theology” was. I read whatever CT literature I could get my hands on but I didn’t know WHO to read and didn’t know anyone who could explain that stuff to me since I had never even met someone who held to reformed theology (the state of “reformed” circles in Canada is SOMEWHAT different than in the US).

    I kept looking up the scriptural references that the books I was reading appealed to and kept noticing a pattern: “Agreed…Agreed…Agreed…WAIT! Where in the world do they GET that?” It seemed like a whole lot of these guys would say a bunch of good stuff and then made connections that didn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense unless you simply abandoned the historical/grammatical reading of scripture and turned everything into some sort of allegory/typology. I also noticed how a whole bunch of the big guns didn’t agree on which parts of scripture were typological/allegorical and what the right interpretation of those passages was…which got me wondering whether or not they were just making stuff up in order to sound spiritual and find Jesus under every rock.

    As a Mennonite, I was certainly used to people making stuff up and claiming it was “deep” when, in reality, it was total pigswill. Also, at that point I hated MacArthur (I thought he was just another arrogant American megachurch pastor) and hadn’t yet encountered exegetically respectable Dispensationalism. Over the last 15+ years, I have grown a heap in my exposure to this stuff, but only in the last 8 or so years have I been exposed to the far more sophisticated “reformed” and “dispensational” circles. Since then, it’s been strange to see how angry and caustic people with actually “good” theology can be and I’ve been surprised at how quickly a number of “reformed” folks actually rebuke me for using the word “reformed” if I don’t define it with their own theologically meticulous definition, or wholeheartedly endorse whatever historic creed they think is best. It seems like many of us, in the age of the internet where information is more readibly accessible than ever before, embrace the doctrines of grace but are clueless about graciously embracing folks who aren’t mature at the level we are with regards to doctrine.

  7. Good point, (mennoknight) Lyndon, about how different it was learning theology in the pre-Internet days. It took a lot longer and didn’t go as far in depth, when we only had access to what we heard at a local church or word of mouth or the books available at the local bookstore or library.

    On the positive side, the Internet also provides great forums (at least a few such) that are moderated well enough, and with good resource links, so that people can more easily find out about different types and systems of theology. Like how I learned about the differences between the standard paedobaptist covenant theology and (1689) baptist covenant theology (they are quite different actually in certain points), plus of course access to many more old books available online, many even available as free audio recordings.

  8. Good post Fred, esp. with the links to resources!
    This quote stood out: “Usually what happens is those folks come to embrace Calvinism, because that’s what the Bible teaches. Yet, because all their Calvinist heroes adhere to Covenant Theology and are either amillennial or postmillennial with their eschatological views, they also abandon Dispensationalism and premillennialism. At some point they are moved by zeal to publicly confess how they were embarrassed by their Dispensational past and ridicule those they left behind”
    That was me when I first became a Calvinist Presuppositionalists.
    The Lord was gracious to me with the people that God surrounded me with who were Dispensationalists

Leave me a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s