Here’s a 64-dollar theological word: Dispensationalism. Ever heard of it?
Some of you probably have. Can you describe it? Well, like a lot of theology,
that’s easier said than done. Yet, you have been influenced by its ideas far more than you think.
Dispensationalism is a cluster of theological ideas about 175 years old that originated with an Irish clergyman, John Nelson Darby and was popularized in America and Canada through Dwight L. Moody and other late-19th century
evangelists. The term, “Dispensationalism” as a name wasn’t coined until 1928, when one of its opponents, Philip Mauro, used this term to describe it.
Almost 100 years after Mauro coined the term comes a new book asking whether dispensationalism is still viable, despite its widespread popularity throughout the 20th century. Historian Daniel Hummel, who teaches at Upper House, a Christian study center housed near the University of Wisconsin, asks that provocative question in his new book The Rise and Fall of
Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a
Nation (Eerdmans, 2023). Hummel has given us probably the first
comprehensive history of dispensationalism and its impact on American
fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
So, is Hummel, right? Let’s take a look. Darby, according to Hummel, bundled
“three theological innovations into an interlocking set of teachings: a
new theology of the church, a new theology of the millennium, and a new dualism between heaven and earth that informed how he read the entire Bible” (21). This dualism led him to separate ancient Israel from the church, the Kingdom of God from the Kingdom of Heaven, and the people of God from any visible earthly citizenship.
Darby also insisted on premillennialism, the theological notion that the
return of Christ would be followed by the essential destruction of the visible
church and of society. Added to that are what Hummel terms “two key
novelties: that the prophetic timeline was stalled in a “parenthesis.”
period, with the kingdom (of God) postponed at Daniel’s sixth-ninth week
(leaving one “week” of seven years to completion); and that this
parenthesis would be concluded by the “rapture” of the church into
heaven, an event that other premillennialists placed at the end of the
prophesized ‘tribulations'” (22-23). Following the Anabaptists of the 16th
century, Darby believed that the visible church had become hopelessly corrupt
and that the only option for real Christians was to withdraw from the
established churches and denominations.
Darby’s schema emerged around the same time as William Miller claimed that
Christ would return “on or about the year 1843.” The Adventists (the
tradition through which I came to Christ) used what was called the
“year-day” method of interpretation, that in prophetic time, one day was equivalent to one year. The aftermath of Miller’s failed prediction did not
cool interest in biblical prophecy and hence Darby’s schema received widespread interest especially after the Civil War. Miller’s “historic” premillennialism was found wanting and the “new premillennialism” of Darby and his colleagues would find wide acceptance.
American Christian reception of Darby’s views was framed by the “Bible Reading method,” based on Scottish common-sense reasoning “that posited a common or “plain” correspondence between the words and their meaning that was accessible to all” (43). As Hummel describes it, “A person using the method most often took a keyword in the English Bible and marked as many occurrences of the term as could be found throughout the text. This inductive Bible reading created chains of verses assuming a biblical unity that was conveyed from expositors to audiences, from preachers to congregations” (44).
Acceptance of Darby was also tied to post-Civil War “sectional reconciliation,”
a political movement to promote reconciliation between Northern and Southern
whites. During the war, many northern whites especially in the border states of
Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware favored the Union and did not support emancipation of African American slaves. As Hummel writes, “By
1870, the outlines of a new radical subculture…combined the priority of
sectional reconciliation with key [Darby and] Brethren teachings about the
heavenly nature of the church and the premillennial arrival of the kingdom of
God” (51). And this posture narrowed Christian concern away from public and social matters. “The new premillennial teachings privileged civil peace over racial justice…White Christian unity, in other words, would more ably repair the damage wrought by the Civil War and empower the project of global missions” (52). Sadly, “sectional reconciliation” led to Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, and the marginalization of African Americans in American society. White fundamentalists, especially in the American South embraced Jim Crow, and this program for racial segregation was embraced throughout the country in the workplace, in housing, in transportation, and in the daily aspects of American life.
Since the late 19th century, Dispensationalism has evolved in four major
movements: Classical, Scholastic, Progressive, and Popular. The Scofield
Reference Bible (1909) with annotations by Darby disciple Cyrus I. Scofield articulated essential dispensationalism: The dualism between heaven and earth as separate spheres of God’s activity, the distinction between Israel and the Church as two separate peoples of God, the postponement of God’s Kingdom until after Christ’s return, seven dispensations of time where God subjected humanity to a unique test of faithfulness in each, the “rapture” of
the church before a seven-year great tribulation, and withdrawal from most
political and social concerns (what the writer David Moberg termed “the
great reversal”). “The Scofield Reference Bible became the definitive
articulation of fifty years of new-premillennial thinking and organizing,
solidifying the movement’s successes and delineating its theological
Scofield dispensationalism spread rapidly through American fundamentalism
and Pentecostalism. The Assemblies of God endorsed the theological system
articulated by Scofield (with the exception of its restrictive posture toward
speaking in tongues). And Scofield adherents were found in all of the major
Protestant denominations including Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and
even among some Lutherans and Methodists. The movement also faced opposition, especially among southern Presbyterians and others who embraced a Calvinistic “covenant theology”(192). At the same time dispensationalists became part of a fundamentalist coalition with those same Presbyterians in opposition to the modernist theology that had carried the day in major northern Protestant denominations.
Scholastic and progressive dispensationalism
Opposition to Scofield dispensationalism led to a more scholastic approach by advocates. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the first president of Dallas Theological
Seminary had a much different agenda than many of the fundamentalists who embraced dispensational ideas. Chafer saw the future not in continued culture wars with modernists, but in biblical and theological education that would train pastors and spread dispensationalist theology into churches and pulpits across North America. “The conflict between dispensationalists and
covenantalists spurred the most frenzied period of scholarly output and
institution building among conservative Protestants since the late nineteenth century” (198). And “dispensationalism grew into a full-fledged
theological culture” anchored at Dallas Theological Seminary and other schools like it.
Chafer completed his eight-volume systematic theology with the help of John
Walvoord (who would succeed Chafer as president of Dallas Seminary). Along with Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, John Fineberg and others, dispensationalism enjoyed a burst of scholarship that permeated schools and congregations in an ever-expanding network. This scholastic dispensationalism was reflected in numerous works, the most important being the New Scofield Reference Bible released by Oxford University Press in 1967. New Scofield conformed C.I. Scofield’s notes “to the most up-to-date dispensational thinking, which inevitably meant thousands of small, and few major, alterations”(252). Coupled with Charles Ryrie’s 1965 work Dispensationalism Today, scholastic dispensationalism gave the movement an academic feel that appealed to many thoughtful Christians, especially those who trained for the ministry.
For Ryrie, “the essence of dispensationalism is the distinction between
Israel and the Church” (252). From this flowed two more distinctives,
“plain hermeneutics, applied to every book of the Bible, and an argument that the overall point of history was to glorify God” (252). Scholastic
dispensationalism was less dogmatic about the number of dispensations but
adamant about the pre-tribulation rapture and the postponement of the kingdom of God until after the return of Christ to earth.
The latter two were emphasized as part of an ongoing conflict not only with
covenant theologians, but with the new-evangelical biblical scholars at places
like Fuller Theological Seminary. By the early 1960s, Fuller New Testament
Scholar George Eldon Ladd had staked out what he called “historic premillennialism” and argued that the kingdom of God was not postponed but
actually “already but not yet.” Based on Mark 1:14-15, Ladd and others argued that the kingdom of God had both this-world and next-world components, meaning that the Kingdom was not only future but present in the sense that Christians should engage the bleakness of culture with the light of the gospel, and should be concerned not only with evangelism but with social injustice especially racism, exploitation, and so on.
The Ladd critique aligned with other evangelical movements that emerged in
the 1950s-60s, and by 1990 it led to revision proposals within Dallas Seminary
and among dispensationalists themselves. Called “progressive dispensationalism,” Dallas theologians like Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock,
and others offered controversial proposals that aligned with Ladd’s understanding and those of Reformed theologians. (One joke that I heard was
that Dallas 2000 = Fuller 1957). Hummel describes it this way, “In the
1990s, a younger generation of dispensational scholars openly broke with the
older generation and joined a broader neo-evangelical consensus on issues of
covenants, eschatology, and salvation…Instead of the traditional view that
the current dispensation represented a “parenthesis” in God’s redemptive history that postponed the kingdom, progressives asserted a fundamental continuity, or progression, from one dispensation to the next. This
seemingly minor shift forced a reevaluation of a vast scope of once-settled dispensational theology, from the tradition’s literal biblical hermeneutics to
the nature of the kingdom, the church-Israel distinction, and the purpose of
God’s covenants” (314). Today, the progressives are probably the majority voice in within scholastic dispensationalism. But that shift is minor compared to the “pop-dispensationalism” birthed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is the dispensationalist form that has seeped into much of American culture and evidenced through pop-dispensational literature like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Series.
Hummel argues that as pop-dispensationalism became dominant both in church and society, it caused the collapse of any serious scholastic dispensationalism as the theological rails established by dispensational theologians were discarded for popular categories. While I think that claims of
dispensationalism’s collapse at the hands of popularizers may be questioned based on the evidence (Dallas Seminary continues to grow in terms of students
and progressive dispensationalism in my view is an important conversation partner), there is little doubt that pop-dispensationalism has had an outsize
impact on many evangelical congregations especially those that are Baptist and
Pop-dispensationalism exploded with the 1970 release of The Late Great
Planet Earth. The title riffed on Curt Gentry’s 1968 The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a fictional account of a massive California earthquake that dropped half the state into the Pacific Ocean. But its author, Hal Lindsey, went ever larger. It wasn’t just California that would crash and burn, but the whole world, something like the Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012. Dispensational ideas like the rapture, the Great Tribulation, the division between Israel and the Church were shorn from the scholastic and later progressive dispensationalism taught at places like Dallas Seminary and dropped into what Hummel describes as a “genre-bending and
genre-creating–blend of prophecy, spirituality, and entertainment that landed in readers hands at the very moment these dispensational interests were
combining in the real world in new ways” (237).
The Late Great Planet Earth entered the apocalyptic world of the
1960s and early 1970s and sold over ten million copies It joined a host of
Christian and secular appeals in the Age of Aquarius, from the futurist Alvin
Toffler to pop-dispensationalist writes like Salem Kirbin and Jack Chick (he of
the infamous “Chick Tracts,” little cartoon books that trafficked in
pop-dispensational themes and apocalyptic anti-Catholic conspiracy theories).
Even Dallas Seminary President John Walvoord in 1984 distanced scholastic
dispensationalism and Dallas Seminary from Lindsey’s dark schema by claiming that The Late Great Planet Earth “goes beyond our teaching” (301). Lindsey’s accommodation of things like “modern military technology” in his
fantastic interpretation went far beyond the “strictly literal approach” that Walvoord, Ryrie, and other scholastic dispensationalists taught.
In 2004, the religion scholar Amy Frykholm wrote Rapture Culture: Left
Behind in Evangelical America, and argued that pop-dispensational writers like Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and their many allies “brought dispensationalist premillennialism from the margins of culture into the mainstream.” But as Hummel writes, books like the Left Behind series, taught readers that dispensational theology was not monolithic, but “a multiple, dynamic, contradictory system with ‘cracks and fissures’ that illustrated ‘just how broad and diffuse evangelicalism is in American culture'”(322). In other words, pop-dispensationalism had gone postmodern.
Space does not allow me to explore the Left Behind series in depth but given its sales that easily surpassed The Late Great Planet Earth, it’s clear that its authors, LaHaye and Jenkins “had done a little more than toss a fictional account of dispensational eschatology into the ocean of American popular culture” (322).
In 1984, Neil Postman’s profound little book Amusing Ourselves to Death
described how television had shifted our lives to the prism of entertainment.
Art, politics, government, law, even religion are processed through an
entertainment lens, a theme that Postman amplifies in his 1991 work Technolopy and by writers like Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart. This shift
has driven the monetization of almost everything in American society meaning that the value of anything is not measured by its reason or its logical
consistency, but by how much money it can make its owners. Religion becomes a commodity, and pop-dispensationalists (and others in places like the Christian entertainment industry) have commoditized a 19th century theological tradition and disconnected its key elements from that tradition. They’re not the only ones to do that in postmodern America, and other evangelical traditions have tried it.
But the ultimate result of Religion as a commodity is cynicism,
marginalization, and division as seen by the growing trend of younger generations to reject the forms of Christianity that have historically done
well in America. To use a phrase from C.S. Lewis, we have replaced the
“true myth” of Christianity with untrue myths that appeal to our postmodern lives. For the sake of coming generations, we must do better.
While not a pure book review, I’ve tried to use Hummel’s The Rise
and Fall of Dispensationalism as a map describing how a 19th century
Anglo-American tradition born of the restorationist impulse in American
Christianity has seeped not only into congregations but has impacted the way we
live and how we perceive the Christian faith. My intent is not to debate the
merits of dispensationalism. While my own premillennialism is framed by N.T.
Wright and Eckerd Schnabel, I find progressive dispensationalism a worthy
theological conversation partner.
I must also confess that in my early college years, like many young
evangelicals of my generation, I was enamored with Hal Lindsey and The
Late Great Planet Earth. I even attended a college retreat at Mt. Hermon,
CA just south of where I grew up, where Lindsey was the featured speaker, and the
weekend was marked by lecture and discussion of all things prophetic. However,
by my early twenties I had concluded that what Lindsey was peddling was
profoundly unbiblical and my thinking gravitated more towards the Reformed theology of G.C. Berkhouwer, the biblical theology of George Ladd and Glen
Barker, and the ethics of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jacques Ellul.
For those of you interested in this subject, Hummel’s book is a
groundbreaking work that covers all the nooks and crannies in a way that I have
not seen. Still, I have two criticisms. Despite all of his excellent analysis,
I’m not sure that we can pronounce the death of scholastic dispensationalism.
Instead, I see progressive dispensationalism as an important renewal of that scholastic tradition, especially in their more biblical understanding of the
Kingdom of God. Perhaps, the progressives will renew the movement to the point where future dispensationalists will care not only about evangelism and
missions, but addressing our long American stain of treating African Americans
and other minorities unjustly and caring about the social needs of our communities in ways that will cause human beings to flourish.
I also think that Hummel’s last chapter, Surveying the Aftermath, is too disjointed. Like all of us who write history, when we move from past to present it is harder to grasp what is truly significant from what is merely popular. That is why reflections on contemporary life must always be provisional. We will never know the significance of the times in which we live.
Still, Hummel has written one of the most satisfying books about American Christian history that I have read, and he does it from the vantage point of the burgeoning Christian study center movement on major American campuses like UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Florida, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I see this vital movement as perhaps the most important vehicle today to carry on the Christian conviction that the life of the mind is deeply important to both church and society. On a scale of 1-5, this book definitely gets five stars.