This question arose again recently on social media. Let us start by defining our terms. The adjective Dispensational and the noun Dispensationalism have become somewhat slippery in recent decades. Daniel G. Hummel traces the word Dispensationalism to 1918. It was coined by Philip Mauro, a critic of the movement.1 Mauro first published the term in 1927.2 There are multiple varieties of Dispensationalism, that of the Founders of the movement (e.g., John Nelson Darby, 1800–1882), of Codifiers of the movement (e.g., C. I. Scofield, 1843–1921), of the Modifiers (e.g., Lewis Sperry Chafer, 1871–1952), and finally of the Progressive Dispensationalists (e.g., Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock). Diversity is the essence of the movement. The earliest Christian understanding of redemptive history responded to the Gnostics and the Marcionites by stressing the unity of the history of salvation. They stressed it so strongly that they routinely described all of Scripture as law: the old law (i.e., the Old Testament) and the new law (i.e., the New Testament). All forms of Dispensationalism stress the diversity of the administrations (dispensations) in redemptive history. The core conviction that binds them all together is that there are two peoples of God. Craig Blaising sounds these themes in his definition of Dispensationalism:
Dispensationalism reads OT Israel and the NT church as successive institutions in biblical history revealing irreducible aspects of a multidimensional divine plan, which includes political, national blessings to physical descendants of Israel as well as personal and spiritual blessings without ethnic distinction to all who are in Christ. Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism especially known for its pretribulational rapture separate from the posttribulational second advent of Christ.3
He observes that Dispensationalism is marked by a “strong rejection of certain forms of supersessionism or replacement theology—that is, rejection of the belief that the church fulfills and replaces Israel in the divine plan.”4 Blaising does not refer to Reformed theology as supercessionist or as replacement theology, but this caricature of Reformed theology does appear regularly in Dispensational literature. They do not seem to understand that the Reformed view—indeed, the ancient Christian view, the medieval view, the Reformation view, and the post-Reformation view—has been that there has always been one people of God. That people of God was administered from about the sixteenth century BC (depending upon when one dates the Exodus; some scholars date it to the thirteenth century BC) until the death of Christ, through an earthly, national people (Israel), but that New Testament church is not, in our view, a “replacement” or a “supercession” of Israel. The very category assumes what it has to prove—that is, that national Israel, and not Christ, is at the center of God’s redemptive plan and promises.
H. H. Rowden adds,
The basic hermeneutical principle is literal interpretation, which does not rule out symbols, figures of speech and typology, but does insist that, throughout, ‘the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved’ is determinative (Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 87). Consequently, the promises of an earthly kingdom given to Israel as a nation must be fulfilled literally in a future, millennial kingdom (on the analogy of the literal fulfilment of the messianic promises relating to Jesus). Dispensationalists accept that believing Jews—as individuals—find their place in the church during the dispensation of grace, but the promises made to the natural seed of Abraham await the premillennial return of Christ with his church for their fulfilment. Then will be initiated the dispensation during which the material blessings promised to Israel will be bestowed—and will be characteristic, though not to the exclusion of the spiritual dimension.5
Given these, is there any reasonable way that one could speak of “Reformed Dispensationalism”? One might perhaps speak of reforming Dispensationalism, in the sense of reorganizing it or changing it internally, but if by “Reformed Dispensationalism,” one intends to indicate a synthesis of Dispensational theology with Reformed theology, it is impossible. It is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. This would be true even of the latest version of Dispensationalism, Progressive Dispensationalism. Blaising characterizes this movement thus:
Progressive dispensationalism is a further modification of dispensational thought that began to appear in the early 1990s from Robert Saucy, Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, and others. Progressive dispensationalists emphasize multidimensional holistic unity rather than radical dualism in its understanding of the divine purpose. They believe that the features of different dispensations reveal different aspects of one eschatological salvation in which social, political, and ethnic promises will be fulfilled along with equal participation in the blessings of the Holy Spirit for all the redeemed. Progressive dispensationalists stress the relatedness as well as the difference of dispensations, especially as seen in the covenantal and typological structures of Scripture. They teach the relevance of Jesus’s teachings for the church today, stress a consistent historical-literary hermeneutic, and see both inaugurated and futurist eschatology in the NT.6
This account is heavily coded, but I take “multidimensional holistic unity” (vs. “radical dualism”) to signal that they want to ratchet back the more Marcionite characteristics of the earlier versions of Dispensationalism, and I take “multidimensional” to signal continuing resistance to the historic Christian view of the unity of salvation, what Reformed theology calls the unity of the covenant of grace.
The tendency in the post-World War II era has been to use the adjective Reformed rather differently and more loosely than was traditionally the case. From the point of view of the Reformed churches–who have confessed their understanding of Scripture in official documents, with binding authority on their members and ministers–the word Reformed signifies what the Reformed churches confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards. To these, we might also add the Second Helvetic Confession and other similar documents (e.g., the French Confession).
In his account of Dispensationalism, what Blaising does not say is notable, but even a brief summary of the Reformed understanding of redemptive history would have to say at least two things: 1) there has always been one central promise that unites all of redemptive history, the seed of the woman will strike the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15)—that is to say, Christ is the center of redemptive history, and 2) there is one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. The Westminster Divines (WCF 7.5–6) articulated well the Reformed (and ancient Christian) consensus on the unity of the covenant of grace and the diversity of administrations:
5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.
6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations (emphasis added).
The Heidelberg Catechism puts it even more simply:
18. But who now is that Mediator, who in one person is true God and also a true and righteous man?
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is freely given unto us for complete redemption and righteousness.
19. From where do you know this?
From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.
The Reformed understanding of the history of redemption has much more in common with that of the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 120), Irenaeus (c. AD 180), Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed orthodox than it does with the Dispensational understanding of redemptive history. Remember, Heinrich Bullinger published the first Reformed treatise on covenant theology, c. 1535, to defend the substantial unity of the covenant of grace. In 1585, Caspar Olevianus published a volume entitled, On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect. The structure of the book is twofold: substance and administration. From the 1520s forward, Reformed theology was covenantal at its core. To speak anachronistically, it was always anti-Dispensational. Bullinger, Olevianus, et al. opposed the Anabaptists and taught the unity of the covenant grace for essentially the same reasons the Southern Presbyterians warned their people in 1944 contra Dispensationalism: it destroys the unity of the covenant of grace. By the 1560s the Reformed had not only a covenant of grace but also a covenant of nature (later covenant of works) before the fall and not long after that (as early as 1567 in substance) they had a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son (the pactum salutis). Reformed theology has always been irreducibly covenantal in its reading of redemptive history, which is the bedrock and source of his systematic and practical theology.
Any attempt at synthesizing Reformed theology with Dispensationalism must come at the expense of Reformed theology. It begins with a truncated account of Reformed theology, as though the only thing that matters to us is the doctrine of predestination. Any such minimalist account of Reformed theology is contrary to the confession of the churches and the history of the tradition.
In part 2 of this essay, we will consider what Scripture says regarding Dispensationalism.
- Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2023), 2.
- Hummel, ibid., 3.
- Craig A. Blaising, S.v., “Dispensation, Dispensationalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017), 248.
- Blaising, ibid..
- H. H. Rowdon, s.v., “Dispensationalism” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, ed. New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 201.
- Blaising, ibid.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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