Dispensationalism has its roots in the teachings of John N. Darby (1800-1882), who left his law career in Dublin to become an Anglican clergyman. Dissatisfied with the established church he became a leader in the so-called Plymouth Brethren movement. A basic tenet in the dispensational system of interpretation is that God deals differently with men and women during the various eras of biblical history. According to C.I. Scofield who, among others (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Arno C. Gaebelein, and Harry A. Ironside), popularized dispensationalism in America, there are seven such dispensations: 1) innocence -- before the fall, 2) conscience -- from the fall to Noah, 3) human government -- from Noah to Abraham, 4) promise -- from Abraham to Moses, 5) law -- from Moses to Christ, 6) grace -- the church age, and 7) the kingdom--the millennium.
In this scheme the church is seen as an "interruption," a parenthesis in God's plan with Israel. Based on an overly literal interpretation of Old Testament promises, it asserts that Jesus came to establish the kingdom of Israel. The gospel preached by Jesus was a gospel of an earthly Jewish kingdom. Because this offer of the kingdom was rejected by Israel, its establishment was postponed, and the church age has now intervened. Another implication is that the teachings of Jesus (Sermon on the Mount, parables, the ethical teachings of Jesus, etc.) are "kingdom truths," and therefore do not apply directly to the church.
Dispensationalists hold that the present age comes to an end with a pre-tribulation rapture of the church, including both the living and the dead in Christ. Once the church is gone, Satan through his emissary, the antichrist, will oppress Israel and the nations. After seven years of great tribulation the church returns with Christ, and that sets the stage for the conversion of Israel and the world-wide millennial reign of Christ from Jerusalem. At the end of the millennium, Satan and his followers rally for a final revolt against God, but they will be utterly defeated. In the end all the people of God will find their eternal home in the city of God, the New Jerusalem, whereas the ungodly suffer eternal punishment.
There is considerable diversity among dispensationalists on the details of this system of interpretation, but in spite of its exegetical and theological weaknesses, dispensationalism represents a popular hermeneutical approach to the Bible for many conservative Christians. A number of theological schools, both in the United States and other countries, are committed to the teaching of this system of reading the Bible.
The weakness of dispensational hermeneutics is that it does not take seriously the continuity of God's saving purposes in history. It fails to see the fulfillment of the hopes and promises of the Old Testament in the New. its insistence on the cleavage between Israel and the church sets dispensationalism off from the historic faith of the church.
Dispensationalism was introduced into Mennonite communities in South Russia by some church leaders who had discovered the teachings of John Darby in Germany. Several outstanding preachers spread this system of interpretation not only in Russia but also, later, in North and South America. In North America dispensationalism made deep inroads on Mennonite churches through non-Mennonite literature and prophetic conferences, and through non-Mennonite Bible colleges and seminaries, leading to considerable dissension and controversy. Today relatively few Mennonite scholars espouse dispensationalism and it is advocated mainly by teachers and preachers who received their theological training in non-Mennonite schools.
Kraus, C. Norman. Dispensationalism in America: Its Rise and Development. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958.
Bass, Clarence B. Backgrounds to Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960; reissued Baker Book House, 1977.
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