The Obituary of Dispensationalism
by Vic Reasoner
In 1830 Margaret MacDonald had a vision about the end of the world and when she came out from under her trance, she wrote it down. This account attracted the attention of Edward Irving and his church later claimed Margaret has one of their own prophetesses. Irving is regarded as the forerunner of the charismatic movement because of his emphasis on healing and tongues. Irving also had an interest in prophecy and held prophetic conferences. The historian of Irving’s church claimed that Margaret was the first person to teach a two stage second coming of Christ.
The Birth of Dispensationalism
John Darby traveled to Scotland to visit the MacDonald home. Darby was a lawyer until a year after his conversion when he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. Soon after entering the ministry he became disillusioned with the institutional church and started the Brethren movement in Plymouth, England. Darby became known as the father of dispensationalism, the first eschatology to incorporate the “prophecy” of Margaret MacDonald. Darby continued to develop this new view by becoming the first to make a radical distinction between Israel and the Church. Darby taught that God has two special groups of people (or two brides) and a separate plan for each of them. This meant Christ would have to return twice.
Darby had a pessimistic view of the Church, teaching that it would end in apostasy. Only a remnant would be secretly raptured out (namely those who followed Darby). Of course, this secret rapture was so secret that no one had ever heard of it for 1800 years! The Church was a parenthesis in God’s original plan because of the supposed failure of Christ to set up His kingdom while He was on earth. When He comes again to set up the kingdom, for some strange reason, the temple will be rebuilt and animal sacrifices re-instituted. By the time Darby had finished dividing the Word of Truth there were seven dispensations, five judgments, two brides, two new covenants, two kingdoms, two advents, two resurrections, a 2000 year gap in Daniel’s seventy weeks, and eight separate Plymouth Brethren denominations.
The Influence of Dispensationalism
Darby made eight trips to America to promote his new teaching. Daniel Steele interviewed him and was not impressed. As Darby tried to distinguish between all the judgments, Steele was so amused that he could hardly keep from laughing in his face. Steele wrote, “May I never see another man, manifestly of so great genius and learning, compelled to crawl through orifices so small.” It is an irony of history that the holiness movement canonized Daniel Steele, but adopted the teachings of John Darby!
While other dispensational scholars find as few as three dispensations or as many as eight, Scripture never uses the word “dispensation” to refer to a period of time. It is made up of two words: “house” and “law” meaning management or administration. When C. I. Scofield, a converted lawyer, visited at the prophetic conferences he did not have the theological background to properly evaluate Darby’s teaching. He was indoctrinated and in 1909 first published his reference Bible. This book did more than anything else to make Darby’s teachings popular in America.
Dispensationalism also infiltrated the American church through the rise of the Bible School movement. As early as the 1930′s dispensationalism was firmly established as a foundational doctrine in most of the new schools. In time a minister was not considered orthodox unless he adhered to this new doctrine. It is another irony of history that dispensationalists would be intolerant of anyone who held one of the major historic views taught for nearly 1900 years. No real Wesleyan scholar has ever subscribed to dispensationalism because they recognized that is was based on Darby’s own Calvinistic presuppositions. However, genuine calvinists also reject Darby’s conclusions as “watering down Biblical Calvinism.”
As early as 1887 Daniel Steele recognized that dispensationalism belittled the Christian agencies in operation by asserting that they were inadequate to convert the world. He feared the system would end in embarrassment just as it happened to William Miller and the Seventh Day Adventist movement who first said that the Lord would return in 1843, then 1844. Steele warned that the attention of the Church would be diverted from evangelism to speculation.
The rapture came to be anticipated as an escape from responsibility. At the turn of the 20th century there was a move to finish the task of world evangelism, but dispensationalism shifted the emphasis away from social responsibility to that of rescuing the souls of a few before they were out of time. Never in the history of the Church has so large a percentage of professed Christians had so little influence. The Roman Empire caved in to Christian influence when only 10% of the population was Christian. Today 34% claim to be born again.
The history of dispensationalism’s negative influence is traced in Less Than Conquerors with Douglas W. Frank concluding, “The appeal of dispensationalism might well wane, with post millennial optimism taking its place.” The Church has only recently gained some of the earlier momentum and emphasis on world evangelism. Of course, this, too, must be interpreted by dispensationalists as a delusion since the Church is in ruin. Darby declared that “the yearbooks of history are the yearbooks of hell.” Much later Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote in his eight volume magnum opus of dispensational theology that God gave us no commission to convert the world and “enterprises based on that sort of idealism are without His authority.”
Decline of Dispensationalism
False prophets attempting to predict the outcome of both world wars hurt dispensationalism’s credibility. They were always confident that Bible prophecy was being fulfilled right before their eyes, but the subsequent events always forced them to continually re-evaluate what was being fulfilled. Bible scholars had either grown silent or abandoned the viewpoint after the mid 1960s. Then there was a revival of interest when Hal Lindsey published the best selling book of the 1970s: The Late Great Planet Earth. In it Lindsey declared that “no self-respecting scholar who looks at world conditions and the accelerating decline of Christian influence today is a post-millennialist.” Lindsey wold have saved himself much embarrassment if he had interpreted world conditions in light of Scripture, instead of trying to read into Scripture his understanding of current events. Lindsey helped bury dispensationalism with his unfulfilled predictions and there were plenty of post-millennialists around to attend the funeral!
The decade of the 1980s came and went without any armageddon despite Lindsey’s forecast in The 1980′s: Countdown to Armageddon. It was not The Terminal Generation. Getting married three times did not help his credibility either. Scofield also had to cover over the fact he had deserted his first wife and children.
With the establishment of Israel as a nation on May 14, 1948, dispensationalists taught that there would be only one more generation of the Church. God would rapture it out and the tribulation would begin, according to their view of Matthew 24:34. All this was to occur within one forty year “generation.” While dispensationalists have never agreed among themselves as to whether the rapture was to be partial, pre-tribulational, mid-trib, or post-trib, time has proven them all to be wrong. The year 1988 ended with an awkward silence from their scholars. If Israel is “God’s prophetic clock,” then dispensationalists do not know how to tell time.
Dispensationalists tried hard to hang on to life with such sensational attempts as UFO’s and the rapture, studies of Egyptian pyramids, the alignments of the planets, hidden messages in the Psalms, a revival of the old Roman Empire, 666 on Social Security checks, 666 on the Universal Products Code, or 666 on anything! Edgar Whisenant was the latest to play the dating game. He sold 4.5 million copies of a book proving the Lord would return between September 11-13, 1988. He later updated it to October 3, then January, 1989, and finally to September 1, 1989. He finally admitted, “I guess God doesn’t always do things the way man thinks he will.” Constance Cumbey had earlier given up a seven year effort to expose a conspiracy to introduce the Anti-Christ. At one point she claimed it might even be Pat Robertson. She return to practicing law (too bad Darby and Scofield didn’t). No wonder several dispensational seminaries moved away from their earlier positions altogether.
The Death of Dispensationalism
Although the Church was supposed to be in ruins, it experienced the greatest revival since Pentecost during the end of the 20th century. Peter Wagner declared, “We are in the springtime of missions.” In 1900 the ratio of non-Christians to Christians worldwide was 27:1. In 1989 that same ratio was 7:1. Although there were repeated attempts to connect the year 2000 with something cataclysmic, “wolf” had been cried too many times. Nothing could revive the old theory and it passed away leaving a host of red-faced prophecy expects and a huge surplus of obsolete books and charts.
1. The Collected Works of J. N. Darby, 1867-83, 32 vols.
2. Systematic Theology, Lewis Speery Chafer, 1947-8, 8 vols. (Out of print with a two volume abridgment schedules. Dallas Theological Seminary is embarrassed with their founder).
3. Scofield Reference Bible, 1909, Original Recipe.
4. The New Scofield Reference Bible, 1967, New and Unimproved.
5. Dispensational Truth, Clarence Larkin, 1918.
6. Red Terror and Bible Prophecy, Dan Gilbert, 1944.
7. When Your Money Fails, Mary S. Relfe, 1981 (But I still have checks left!)
8. Kissinger: Man of Peace? Salem Kirban, 1974. Gorbachev! Has the Real AntiChrist Come? Robert W. Raid, 1988.
9. The 1980′s: Countdown to Armageddon, Hal Lindsey, 1980. (Everything else by Hal Lindsey. Don’t feel sorry for Hal; he has his book royalties in long term real estate investments).
10. 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is in 1988, Edgar Whisenant.
11. Hidden Prophecies in the Psalms, J. R. Church, 1988.
12. Guardians of the Grail, J. R. Church, 1989. (What will he come up with this year?)
13. Peace, Prosperity, and the Coming Holocaust, Dave Hunt, 1983.
14. Everything by Constance Cumbey.
15. Contact: I. C. Betternow
Hurry, because the terms are Cheap!