What Is Dispensationalism? 5 Core Beliefs of Dispensational Theology

Dispensationalism is a theological system which affirms that Israel and the church are distinct. There are 5 tenets in dispensational theology.

What Is Dispensationalism? 5 Core Beliefs of Dispensational Theology
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Updated June 18, 2023

What Is Dispensationalism?

A. Definition of Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism is a theological system which affirms that Israel and the church are distinct.

  • Israel refers to the physical descendants of Abraham.
  • The church refers to Christians from the Day of Pentecost until the rapture and second coming of Christ.

Dispensationalism hold to a more literal interpretation of biblical passages, especially the Old Testament prophecies that pertain to the nation of Israel.

The English word dispensation is used in Ephesians 1:10 in the King James Version.

That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ. (Eph 1:10 KJV)

B. Alternatives to Dispensationalism

  • Covenant theology, in contrast to dispensational theology, affirms there is more continuity between Israel and the church. The church does NOT replace Israel. Rather, the Gentiles (non-Jews) are "engrafted" into Israel. (Rom 9–11; Gal 3; Eph 2)
  • Replacement theology affirms that the church replaces Israel.

C. History of Dispensationalism

There have been traces of the doctrine of dispensationlism throughout church history.[1] Dispensational theology matured post-Reformation in the 19th and 20th century.

Covering the distinctions of classic, revised (modified), and progressive dispensationalism is beyond the scope of this article.

Dispensational theology remains popular in evangelical Christianity, particularly in the baptist circles. There is variability in the details of this system of thought (i.e. applicability of the Sermon on the Mount, fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to the church), but there are five essential beliefs that characterize dispensational theology.

Five Core Beliefs of Dispensational Theology

1. The New Testament cannot interpret Old Testament passages by violating the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers.

Evangelical Christians may interpret the Old Testament in two ways.

Old Testament Starting Point

  • Using the Old Testament passages as a starting point, dispensationalists interpret the Old Testament by looking at the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers using literal, grammatical, historial hermeneutics.
  • The New Testament may shed light on Old Testament passages and add additional applications, but the New Testament never overrides the original intent of the Old Testament writers.

New Testament Starting Point

  • Dispensationalists typically view non–dispensationalists gives a preference to the New Testament, using the New Testament as his starting point for understanding the Old Testament.
  • Covenant theologians do not believe that the New Testament writers were allegorizing Old Testament prophecy. Rather, covenant theologians believe that the New Testament writers correctly interpret Old Testament prophecy and make its interpretation more clear if there were any ambiguity or obscurity. The NT writers are "better interpreters of Old Testament prophecy than you and I are."

Dispensationalist denies the principle that the New Testament should be given “testament priority” over the Old Testament.

“Here is the basic watershed between a dispensational and a nondispensational theology. Dispensationalism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament.”[2]

“Nondispensationalists begin with NT teaching as having priority and then go back to the OT. Dispensationalists often begin with the OT, but wherever they begin they demand that the OT be taken on its own terms rather than reinterpreted in the light of the NT.”[3]

“By reading the NT meaning into the Abrahamic covenant, if it differs from the historical-grammatical OT meaning, one has breached the hermeneutical principle of single meaning. Proper interpretation of the Old Testament begins and ends with the Old Testament before going to the New Testament.”[4]

2. The church’s identification as “seed of Abraham” does not nullify God’s promises to the believing Jewish “seed of Abraham.”

The Bible uses “seed of Abraham” in four ways.

  • Biological descendants of Abraham.
  • Messiah, the unique seed of Abraham.
  • Righteous remnant of Israel.
  • Believing Jews and Gentiles in a spiritual sense.

Dispensationalists believe the church is the “seed of Abraham” in the spiritual sense of believing Jews and Gentiles. This does not negate the physical sense of the “seed of Abraham.”

“The fact that the true seed of Abraham includes both Jews and Gentiles does not rule out a continuing distinction for Israel in the New Testament. Nor should the calling of the Gentiles as the seed of Abraham be construed as the formation of a ‘new spiritual Israel’ that supersedes the Old Testament nation of Israel.”[5]

“Abraham is going to have a seed (descendants) that will constitute a “great nation,” later identified as the nation of Israel. The initial promise refers only to the “great nation” (Gen 12:2), but the term “seed” takes precedence in subsequent statements to the patriarchs, beginning with the promise of a land for Abraham’s “seed” in Gen 12:7. Gentiles are later included as a spiritual “seed” through their relationship with Christ, but this does not preclude the literal, physical dimension present in the promise. In the initial fulfillment, God affirms to Abraham that his seed would “come forth from his own body” (Gen 15:3–4). From Isaac, the descendants of Abraham are traced by physical descent through Jacob and his sons until the Seed, Jesus Christ, appears and the Gentiles are included in him. It is therefore impossible to ignore this physical dimension and identify Abraham’s seed merely as anyone of faith.”[6]

“There can be no question of God’s having finally rejected the people of his choice — he would then have to reject his own election (Rom 11:29) — and of his then having sought out instead another people, the church. Israel’s promises remain Israel’s promises. They have not been transferred to the church. Nor does the church push Israel out of its place in the divine history. In the perspective of the gospel, Israel has by no means become “like all the nations.”[7]

3. The church is not the new or true Israel. Israel and the church are distinct.

Dispensationalism rejects the New Testament church as the replacement and fulfillment of the nation Israel.

“If a type is defined as a general historical and theological correspondence, then the many analogies between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament people of God may well be explained by seeing Israel as a type of the church. But the correspondence with God’s actions among Old Testament Israel would not in this understanding of typology deny the continued existence of that nation in the future.”[8]

“The unconditionality of the promises to Israel guarantees that the NT does not even implicitly remove those promises from Israel. OT civil and ceremonial laws and institutions are shadows and are explicitly removed in the NT. But unconditional promises are not shadows, nor are the peoples to whom they are given.”[9]

“Dispensationalists do acknowledge that believing Gentiles have been brought near to the covenants of Israel (see Eph 2:11-22), but they also point out that the New Testament distinguishes Israel and the church in such a way that rules out the idea that the church is now identified as Israel or that the church entirely inherits Israel’s promises and covenants to the exclusion of Israel.”[10]

“Paul, obviously referring to natural Israel as his ‘kinsmen according to the flesh,’ ascribes to them the covenants and the promises (Rom 9:3–4). That these words were written after the beginning of the church is proof that the church does not rob Israel of her blessings. The term Israel continues to be used for the natural (not spiritual) descendants of Abraham after the church was instituted, and it is not equated with the church.”[11]

Classic, revised, and progressive dispensationalism differ on how the church and Israel are distinct from each other, but one hallmark of dispensational theology is that Israel and the church are distinct.

Covenant theology teaches that Gentiles have been engrafted into Israel as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. (see Amos 9:11–15 and Acts 15:13–18) Therefore, covenant theologians do not preserve this distinction between Israel and the church.

4. Jews and Gentiles have spiritual unity in salvation through Christ alone, but God maintains a future role for the nation of Israel. God's relationship with the church differs in someway from His relationship with Israel.

The Bible clearly teaches that the means of salvation is the same for everyone: Jew and Gentile. Salvation is based wholly on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Salvation is received by faith alone in Christ alone.

Dispensationalists deny that there are multiple ways of salvation. The expression of faith might appear different between Old Testament and New Testament believers, but there has always been spiritual unity in salvation with Jews and Gentiles.

Although the means of salvation is the same for Jews and Gentiles, God preserves a future role and distinction for the nation of Israel.

“The union of Jew and Gentile in the church does not rule out the possibility of functional distinctions between Israel and the other nations in the future—in the same way that there are functional distinctions among believers in the church today amid spiritual equality.”[12]

“Paul’s comments in Ephesians, however, exclude any salvific priority for Israel in the ecclesiological structure of the new man... However, while there is no longer salvific advantage, there is still an ethnic distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Paul continues to speak of Jews and Gentiles as distinct ethnic groups in his letters (Rom. 1:16; 9:24; 1 Cor. 1:24; 12:13; Gal. 2:14,15).”[13]

5. God will save and restore Israel as a nation with a unique role and identity in the future millennial kingdom.

Many non–dispensationalists believe that God will bring about a future salvation of Israel. Dispensationalism’s distinction is the belief that God will bring about a future restoration of the nation of Israel. The Old Testament promises and prophecies (e.g. Amos 9:11–15) regarding the future of the nation of Israel are interpreted more "literally."

God will be faithful to His promise of a specific land to the nation of Israel. Israel will have a unique, functional role in the future millennial kingdom. God will save the nation Israel, and He will restore the nation Israel with a unique identity in the future.

“Revelation 21:10-14 is significant because of its reference to the “12 tribes of the sons of Israel” (v.12) in the eternal state. The 12 tribes of Israel are distinguished from the “Lamb’s 12 apostles” of verse 14. Thus, this passage shows that the Israel-church distinction is still maintained to some degree even in the eternal state. This passage also rules out any idea that the 12 tribes of Israel were only a temporary type that has been superseded by the 12 apostles. The 12 tribes of Israel, who are the foundation of national Israel, are viewed as distinct from the 12 apostles (see Eph 2:20).”[14]

“It is significant that John brings together the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles [in Revelation 21] and makes a distinction between them. Jesus did the same earlier (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30). This distinction shows the wrongness of identifying the 12 tribes in [Revelation] 7:4–8 with the church.”[15]

Beliefs Not Essential to Dispensational Theology

1. Seven dispensations

The Scofield Reference Bible divides biblical history into seven dispensations. This is not a core tenet of dispensationalism.

Dispensationalists and non–dispensationalists accept some dispensational differences in God’s history. Many agree there are differences before and after Adam’s fall. There are differences before and after the first Advent of Christ.

How we organize and label the dispensational differences is not a hallmark distinction of dispensationalism.

2. Pre-tribulational Rapture

Dispensationalism champions the future salvation and restoration of the nation Israel. It heralds the integrity of Old Testament passages of prophecy. It does not absolutely depend on a pre–tribulational view of the rapture. The pre–tribulational rapture view is not a necessary component of dispensationalism.

That being said, dispensationlists understand the millenium in Revelation 20 as a literal 1,000 year period. They will generally hold to premillennialism (view that the second coming of Jesus Christ precedes the literal 1,000 year future earthly kingdom of Revelation 20:1–6).

Summary of the Essential Beliefs of Dispensationalism

  1. Dispensationalism rejects the misuse of the New Testament to interpret Old Testament passages. They prioritize the original intent of the Old Testament writers as determined by literal historical-grammatical hermeneutics.
  2. Dispensationalism preserves God’s promises to the believing Jewish “seed of Abraham.”
  3. Dispensationalism teaches Israel and the church are distinct.
  4. Dispensationalism believes all Jews and Gentiles are saved by Christ alone, but they anticipate God has a unique future role for the nation of Israel.
  5. Dispensationalism trusts that God will save and restore Israel as a nation with a unique identity in the future millennial kingdom.

Further Resources on Understanding Dispensationalism

  1. Discovering Dispensationlism, ed. Cory M. Marsh & James I. Fazio, (SCS Press, 2023) ↩︎

  2. George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1977), 28. ↩︎

  3. John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1988), 75. ↩︎

  4. Robert L. Thomas, Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views (B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 218. ↩︎

  5. Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational & Nondispensational Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 50. ↩︎

  6. Robert Saucy, Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views (B&H Publishing Group, 2015),166-167. ↩︎

  7. J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. M. Kohl (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 35. ↩︎

  8. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 32. ↩︎

  9. John Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 76. ↩︎

  10. Michael Vlach, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths (Theological Studies Press, 2010), Kindle Locations 396-398. ↩︎

  11. Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 127. ↩︎

  12. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 167. ↩︎

  13. Carl B. Hoch, Jr., “The New Man of Ephesians 2,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, 118. ↩︎

  14. Michael Vlach, Has the Church Replaced Israel (B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 198. ↩︎

  15. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 463. ↩︎