On The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism

Hummel’s treatment of dispensationalism’s role in the politicization and formation of a distinct and commercially successful American evangelical subculture, along with its impact upon American culture and politics in general is a familiar but well-told story. Hummel contends that the rise of “pop” dispensationalism—that variety of dispensationalism which he describes as “shifting from the seminary to the sales chart” (256)—has had as much to do with the decline of scholarly dispensational as the myriad of other factors which have contributed to the “fall” of the movement now “on its last legs.” Pop dispensationalism is built on the assumptions of scholarly dispensationalism, but in making appeal to mass markets and media, especially in regard to the “pre-trib” rapture and the events in the Middle East in which the nation of Israel and its original geographical boundaries are threatened, pop dispensationalism had become fully autonomous (326). Hummel contends that “dispensational theology was treated as a source book or an inherited cultural language rather than an active theological tradition requiring methods of self-perpetuation” (257-258). In making this point, Hummel is undoubtedly correct. I will return to this matter momentarily.

But among the other factors mentioned by Hummel which contributed to the fall of scholarly dispensationalism (especially at DTS), was the establishment of Fuller Theological Seminary (FTS) in Pasadena, CA in 1947 (with evangelical luminaries such as E. J. Carnell, George Ladd, and Carl Henry joining the faculty). In the first several decades of its existence, Fuller could rival DTS’s opposition to progressive theology (an evangelical requirement of this period), yet still be able to interact with a broader range of biblical scholarship without the dispensational baggage which would eventually marginalize DTS (203-211). Furthermore, the continued critique of the dispensational system from confessional institutions such as WTS and then Westminster Seminary California (established in 1980) along with the defection of DTS trained scholars such as G. K. Beale and Bruce Waltke to WTS, certainly weakened DTS’s reputation as the dispensational citadel (307). And then there was the defection of popular author and pastor Sam Storms, who produced his withering insider critique of the dispensational system in his 2013 book, Kingdom Come (308). Even the most prominent contemporary dispensationalist, John MacArthur, identifies himself as a ”leaky” dispensationalist, although he still maintains significant dispensationalist distinctives (309-312). MacArthur just may be the last of his kind.

Yet another factor during this period was the rise of “progressive dispensationalism” championed by a younger generation of dispensational scholars operating within dispensational or dispensational-adjacent institutions. These men, notes Hummel, were “able to find continuity where traditionalists emphasized discontinuity” (314). Chafer’s hard and fast distinctions between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, the church and Israel, along with the delay of the kingdom until the millennial age and issues of law and grace, were increasingly seen through the lens of continuity (314). Among those on the side of increasing emphasis upon continuity were DTS professors Darrell Bock and Craig Blaising, and Talbot Seminary Professor, Robert Saucy. Hummel identifies the guiding principle in this shift away from Chafer’s stress upon discontinuity as George Ladd’s “inaugurated eschatology” (316), which Ladd, in part, drew from Geerhardus Vos (see Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, 1959, in which Ladd, on page 42, incorporates Vos’s two age chart from page 38 of the Pauline Eschatology with but slight modification).

The factors identified by Hummel certainly contributed to the fall of scholarly dispensationalism: the rise of FTS, the changes taking place within American evangelicalism, on-going theological critique from outside and the defections from within, along with the rise of progressive dispensationalism, which is very much like the “old” or historic premillennialism in which dispensationalism originally took root (7). But the critical factor in dispensationalism’s fall is the second type, “pop” dispensationalism. Hummel characterizes it, “with rapidly depleting stores of historical resources,” and with “little institutional support, the prospects for their replenishment were bleak. Pop dispensational culture, which is what overwhelmingly shaped evangelical churches and media, was poor sustenance for anything but populist and commercial folk religion” (319). Hummel goes on to note that “with the crack-up of fundamentalist theology after the 1970s, dispensationalism was the clear loser. Forged in a moment of heightened introspection about the failures of fundamentalist activism in the 1920s, dispensationalism would never escape its fractious origins” (319). Hummel’s postmortem report tells us that “there were no gatekeepers for pop dispensationalism, but there remained a uniformity of political and cultural prescriptions curated by a new Christian right that continued to exhibit a pop dispensational sensibility” (324).

If scholarly dispensationalism has fallen (and no longer plays a gate-keeping role), where does pop dispensationalism go next? “By the 2010’s, pop dispensationalism was feeding into a resurgent Christian nationalist movement that continued to see itself as rightful stewards of American culture” (332). Hummel doesn’t say so, but I will. A politicized movement tied closely to pop culture and trendy media has long since lost its focus upon Christ crucified for sinners and at some point will go the way of all flesh. I lament the loss of scholarly dispensationalism, not because I think it “biblical” but because the old guard kept pop dispensationalism in check. That is no longer the case. Hummel ends his account with the Trump era, but with the uncertainty generated by Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and the threat of war with China, political tribalism, the rise of woke ideology and the push back against it, pop dispensationalists are once again hard at work cranking out new end-times scenarios with DTS no longer able or willing to police them. But Hummel does point out that “the energy and content production of covenantal critics” and their “on-line hubs” may serve such a function (330-331). Let’s hear it for on-line covenantal hubs!

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Kim Riddlebarger | “A Review: The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism”


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Posted by Kim Riddlebarger | Thursday, July 27, 2023 | Categorized in Dispensationalism, Eschatology, HeidelQuotes. Kim Riddlebarger. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kim Riddlebarger

Kim is a graduate of Simon Greenleaf School of Law (M.A.), Westminster Seminary California (M.A., M. Div.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). From 1995–2020 he was senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Anaheim. He was a long-time co-host of the White Horse Inn radio show and is currently Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Follow his work at The Riddleblog.