Now I don't think it's unbiblical like liberal theology or the prosperity gospel. Dispensationalists are Christian brothers and sisters. They hold to the inerrancy of scripture and the basics of the gospel. The early founders believed in the sovereignty of God (e.g. John Nelson Darby), though I don't think that's as widespread now. In this series of posts I will try to answer the question of "What is Dispensationalism?" by discussing what I consider its most distinctive features, why I disagree with them, and what I see as the practical impact. In this post I'll simply give a brief historical introduction, but in future posts we'll look at the Dispensational view of:
- The Church and Israel
- Grace and law
- The Bible
- The end times
The historical roots of dispensationalism as a system can probably be most reasonably traced back to the early 1800's in the Plymouth Brethren movement and the aforementioned J.N. Darby. In the United States the movement gained steam with adherents such as D.L. Moody and C.I. Scofield. With the publishing of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, Dispensationalism found a wide audience in America.
Dispensationalism has institutional support at a number of major Bible colleges and seminaries, most notably Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), which is really the epicenter of Dispensational teaching in America (so if you're one of the many people who's told me to go there, this is one of the main reasons I won't). Other institutions include Biola University, Moody Bible Institute, Philadelphia Biblical University, Baptist Bible Seminary, Liberty University, and Word of Life Bible Institute. Influential dispensational Bible teachers other than those already mentioned include Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Chuck Swindoll, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, Darrel Bock, Daniel Wallace, and Norm Geisler. While denominational influence is harder to track it tends to have influence in some Baptist, E-Free, churches that end with "Bible church," and many pentecostal/charismatic circles (though hardcore dispensationalists tend to be cessationists as well).
So dispensationalism is alive and well in American Evangelicalism today. Though its proponents vary in a number of places, especially recently with the advent of Progressive Dispensationalism (e.g. Bock, Wallace, much of DTS today), there are a number of unifying features. I won't be dealing with all the variations, but I hope we can get a look at the things that tie them together in this series of blog posts.