- Dispensationalism is one of the most popular schools of theology and biblical interpretation among conservative Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. It is grounded in the belief that Scripture and human history are divided into a number of successive periods, in each of which God acts in a special way with his covenant people. The theory is usually traced to John Nelson Darby (1800-82), one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren. It spread with the growth of the Brethren, in the British Isles and then in continental Europe and North America. It also spread beyond the Brethren, attracting such notables as evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Dispensational views underlay much of the discussions at the popular Prophetic conferences at the end of the 19th century and helped fuel the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s.The great exponent at the beginning of the 20th century was Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921). An associate of Moody, Scofield became a Congre-gationalist minister and in that capacity authored his first book on dispensationalism, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, in 1888. Between 1902 and 1908, Scofield prepared a reference Bible annotated from a dispensationalist viewpoint. He later edited a correspondence course that built on the notes.In the years after World War I, many Fundamentalists identified with dispensationalism, and it became integral to the curriculum of such places as Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, Philadelphia Bible College, and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). As Pente-costalism began to influence Baptists and Presbyterians, dispensationalism came along with it, especially teachings about future end-time events. Toward the end of the 20th century, dis-pensationalist writers such as Hal Lindsey (b. 1929) and Tim LaHaye (b. 1926) helped to extend its popularity.Dispensationlists make a sharp distinction between Israel and the church. Prior to the resurrection and ascension of Christ, God dealt primarily with the nation of Israel. Since that time, God has dealt with the church fellowship that includes both Jews and Gentiles united into one spiritual body. God gave language to humanity for the purpose of communication, and he reveals himself in language in its most understandable way. Hence, the Bible is to be interpreted literally, giving to each word of the text the meaning it would have in ordinary usage (with proper attention to different usages of language as symbols or in figures of speech).The group believes the Bible clearly designates seven dispensations. The first, Innocence, begins with the creation of Adam and Eve and continued until the Fall. The second, Conscience, when God ordained that humans follow the dictates of conscience, lasted until the time of Noah and the Flood. The third, Human Government, lasted from the Flood until the covenant with Abraham. With Abraham, a fourth dispensation began, that of Patriarchal Rule, and lasted until the giving of the law of Moses. The dispensation of Law covered the greater part of Israel's history up until the events culminating in Christ's crucifixion and the inauguration of the church.We currently live in the dispensation of Grace, when God offers salvation to all through his grace. When Christ returns, he will establish the last dispensation, the Millennium, his thousand-year reign, during which he will personally rule on Earth.Dispensationalists concerned with the future (especially those who believe that the end of the dispensation of Grace is near) have created detailed outlines of what will happen in the last days of the current dispensation. During the Rapture (I Thessalonians 4:13-18), believers will be caught up in the air with the returning Jesus Christ during a seven-year period of Tribulation (Revelation 20:7-9).Dispensationalists disagree over the relative placement of the Rapture and the Tribulation. Pre-tribulationists believe that the Rapture will come first, while post-tribulationists reverse the order. There are also a few mid-tribulationists who believe that the two will take place at the same time, and some who foretell a partial Rapture; a sanctified group of Christians, who are already living righteously, will be raptured immediately, while the rest go through the tribulation as a means of perfecting them.As the end of the second millennium c.e. passed without significant events, dispensationalists came in for criticism. Many of them had viewed the reestablishment of the state of Israel as an end-time event. Some, like Hal Lindsey, suggested that 1948 was the beginning of the last generation (40 years).The failure of dispensationalism to predict history has been the major argument against its biblical interpretation. Nevertheless, dispensationalists have continued into the 21st century riding the wave created by the very successful "Left Behind" fictional series of James Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.Further reading:■ Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Pre-millennial Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregal, 1996)■ Charles C. Rulie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995)■ Wesley R. Willis and John R. Master, eds., Issues in Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.