What is dispensationalism?

Dispensationalism is an approach to biblical interpretation which states that God uses different means of working with people (Israel and the Church) during different periods of history, usually seven chronologically successive periods.  A Dispensation is, basically, a period of time that is distinguished from another period of time. However, the dispensational division of history varies among its adherents from three periods, to four, seven, and eight dispensations.  Seven is the most common.

  1. Innocence (Genesis 1 -3) - Adam and Eve before they sinned
  2. Conscience (Genesis 3-8) - First sin to the flood
  3. Civil Government (Genesis 9-11) - After the flood, government
  4. Promise (Genesis 12-Ex. 19) - Abraham to Moses, the Law is given
  5. Law (Exodus 20 - Acts 2:4) - Moses to the cross
  6. Grace (Acts 2:4 - Revelation 20:3) - Cross to the millennial kingdom
  7. Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:4-6) – The rule of Christ on earth in the millennial kingdom

Though dispensationalists share common opinions about interpreting scripture, there are different types of dispensationalist positions.

  1. Classical Dispensationalism
    1. God has different purposes at different times
    2. The Church is a parenthesis in history between the times of God dealing with Israel
    3. There will be a literal Kingdom in heaven and also a Kingdom on earth during the millennial period
  2. Modified Dispensationalism
    1. Two peoples of God: Israel and the Church
    2. Different roles
    3. Salvation is the same for both groups
    4. Church and Israel exist together during the millennium
  3. Progressive Dispensationalism
    1. Israel and the Church are both the people of God
    2. It relies more on covenantal interpretations
    3. Old Testament promises expanded to include the Church
    4. There are still distinctions between Israel and the Church
    5. Israel is still God’s chosen people with a plan from God
    6. Pre-trib rapture is generally held, but not necessary

Dispensationalists, as a whole, seek to interpret the scripture as literally as possible.  The positions hold that salvation has always been by faith, but it is manifested differently between Old and New Testaments (Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4; Rom. 4:1-5; John 3:16).  It accepts God’s covenants as vital parts of dispensational activity, but the primary unit of division is the dispensation (i.e., period of time).  There are promises to Israel that are yet to be fulfilled.  Israel will be completely restored and be prominent in the world as it carries out God’s promises.  The Church may replace Israel to some extent, but not fully.  The Church did not exist in O.T. times.  Premillennial held by all dispensationalists.  Pre-tribulation rapture held by almost all dispensationalists.

Dispensationalism summary

  • Literal interpretation of the Bible
  • God works via different arrangements in distinct periods of history
  • Israel is the literal descendants of Abraham, not spiritual ones
  • Israel is the heir to the promises made to Abraham about the seed being blessed
  • Participation in the Abrahamic Covenant is “mainly” by physical birth in Jewish lineage
  • Two distinct people groups:  Israel and the Church
  • Church began at Pentecost
  • Salvation is by faith in accordance to the revelation given in a particular dispensation
  • The Holy Spirit did not indwell people in all dispensations, only during the dispensation of the Church Age
  • Christ will reign in the future 1000 year period which occurs after the rapture

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.