Describing the Theological Viewpoints within Dispensationalism
Many have contributed to the theological development of dispensationalism, and it is helpful to consider some of these contributions so that the reader gains a context in which to fit the nuances and peculiar developments of dispensational thought throughout Church history.
The Origin of Dispensational Thought: The Early Church and John Nelson Darby
Dispensationalism is not among those doctrines that received formal theological development in the days of the early Church. The doctrinal focus of the early Church largely grew out of reactions to the doctrinal controversies of its time and the necessity for doctrinal clarity regarding the apostles’ teaching. We find that those doctrines which are core to the Christian Church were hammered out in the early centuries, such as the Trinity, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and sinful humanity’s experience of God’s grace in salvation. While these doctrines received most of the formal attention of the Christian Church early on, it can be observed that other inquiries were made beyond these core doctrines at informal and indirect levels. For example, “Some early Christian writers (such as Irenaeus and Augustine) saw all of history as a series of dispensations which they identified with major structural units of the biblical narrative.”8 This is not to say that Irenaeus and Augustine were dispensationalists as we think of such a label today! However, let it suffice to say that these men made observations that later become reflected in dispensational thought.
Charles Ryrie writes in his work Dispensationalism, “There is no question that the Plymouth Brethren, of which John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was a leader, had much to do with the systematizing and promoting of dispensationalism.”9 While debates may rage about when exactly the formal system of dispensensationalism originated, most scholars attribute its origin to Darby. “The origin of the movement lie in England with John Nelson Darby (1800–82).”10 Ryrie proposes Darby’s dispensational scheme to appear as follows: the Paradisaical State to the Flood; Noah; Abraham; Israel (a) under the law, (b) under the priesthood, (c) under the kings; Gentiles; the Spirit; and the Millennium.11 Darby believed and taught key eschatological themes generally held by those who identify as dispensationalists, such as the pre-tribulational rapture of the Church, the coming of the Antichrist, the third temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, a time of Great Tribulation is approaching for both Israel and the nations, and the necessary distinction between Israel and the Church.12 Not only are Darby and the Brethren most likely the originators of dispensationalism as a formal system, but also their movement catalyzed an increasing desire among other evangelical Prostestants to “freely gather in Christ to worship and study the Scriptures”13 that would pave the way for dispensational thought to spread through the Bible Conference Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
8 Blaising, “Dispensation, Dispensationalism.” Also see especially, Charles C. Ryrie,
Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), 63–67. Ryrie provides the reader with a helpful section that
investigates “historical references to that which eventually was systematized into dispensationalism.” Here, he
discusses Justin Martyr (110–165), Irenaeus (130–200), Clement of Alexandria (150–220), Saint Augustine (354–
430), Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135–1202), Pierre Poiret (1646–1719), John Edwards (1637–1716), and Isaac Watts
9 Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 67.
10 McGrath, Christian Theology, 455.
11 Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 68–69. Ryrie comments that Scofield certainly did not primarily follow Darby in the development of his dispensational scheme, rather he seems to have been influenced more by the structure proposed by Isaac Watts. See 69–71.
12 Paul R. Wilkinson, “John Nelson Darby and His Views on Israel,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166, no. 661 (March 2009): 92–93.
13 Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 10.