What Is Dispensationalism? Part 3

The Classic Dispensationalism of Cyrus Ingerson Scofield and Lewis Sperry Chafer

Out of the Bible Conference Movement came the man to whom Church history can attribute the first thorough analysis and expression of classic dispensationalism as an interpretive paradigm for the biblical story—Cyrus Ingerson Scofield.

After Scofield’s conversion, he realized that he knew very little about the Bible. With his analytical mind-set, Scofield set out to read and study the Scriptures. After all, it was not nearly as long as many other books he had studied before. Cyrus decided to start with the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. The first verse of the first chapter of Matthew starts with  “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham . . . “Scofield had heard a little about David, but who was Abraham?  So he was forced to go back to Genesis and start at the beginning. Scofield was fortunate to have had James Brookes as a pastor and teacher in his early days as a believer, but Scofield was a man who had to study the Bible for himself in a way that made sense to him. Brookes had respected the teachings of James Darby, and Scofield found Darby’s age approach to dispensationalism helpful. Both Jonathan Edwards and Isaac Watts preached a prelude to dispensationalism. It is true that Scofield Memorial Church began as a Congregational Church with theology was  similar to that of the Presbyterian Church and John Calvin, but as Scofield grew in his knowledge of the Scriptures, he became convinced that a dispensational approach was the best way to teach the Scriptures and to help anyone understand the Bible.[1]

Scofield’s dispensational influence spread through two primary avenues. First, “[He] formed a board of Bible conference teachers and in 1909 produced through Oxford Press a reference Bible (second edition in 1917) which became famous throughout the United States and around the world. The Scofield Reference Bible was filled with expositional and theological annotations which put a ‘Bible Conference’ into the hands of thousands of evangelical Christians” [brackets mine].”[2] Here is a chart[3] that defines and describes Scofield’s classical dispensationalism according to his 1917 edition of the Scofield Reference Bible:

Dispensation Defined by Scofield: “The Dispensations are distinguished, exhibiting the majestic, progressive order of the divine dealings of God with humanity, ‘the increasing purpose’ which runs through and links together the ages, from the beginning of the life of man to the end in eternity. Augustine said: ‘Distinguish the ages, and the Scriptures harmonize’ . . . A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture.”[4]

Title of Each Dispensation

Description of Each Dispensation

Scripture Section of Scofield Reference Bible

Innocency “Man was created in innocency, placed in a perfect environment, subjected to an absolutely simple test, and warned of the consequence of disobedience. The woman fell through pride; the man, deliberately (1 Tim. 2:14). God restored His sinning creatures, but the dispensation of innocency ended in the judgment of the Expulsion (Gen. 3:24).”[5] Genesis 1:28–3:13
Conscience “By disobedience man came to a personal and experimental knowledge of good and evil—of good as obedience, of evil as disobedience to the known will of God. Through that knowledge conscience awoke. Expelled from Eden and placed under the second, or Adamic Covenant, man was responsible to do all known good, to abstain from all known evil, and to approach God through sacrifice. The result of this second testing of man is stated in Gen. 6:5, and the dispensation ended in the judgment of the Flood. Apparently ‘east of the garden’ (v. 24), where were the cherubims and the flame, remained the place of worship through this second dispensation.”[6] Genesis 3:22–7:23
Human Government “Under Conscience, as in Innocency, man utterly failed, and the judgment of the Flood marks the end of the second dispensation and the beginning of the third. The declaration of the Noahic Covenant subjects humanity to a new test. Its distinctive feature is the institution, for the first time, of human government—the government of man by man. The highest function of government is the judicial taking of life. All other governmental powers are implied in that. It follows that the third dispensation is distinctively that of human government. Man is responsible to govern the world for God. That responsibility rested upon the whole race, Jew and Gentile, until the failure of Israel under the Palestinian Covenant (Deut. 28:1–30:10) brought the judgment of the Captivities, when ‘the times of the Gentiles’ (see Lk. 21:24; Rev. 16:14) began, and the government of the world passed exclusively into Gentile hands (Dan. 2:36–45; Lk. 21:24; Acts 15:14–17). That both Israel and the Gentiles have governed for self, not God, is sadly apparent. The judgment of the confusion of tongues ended the racial testing; that of the captivities the Jewish; while the Gentile testing will end in the smiting of the Image (Dan. 2) and the judgment of the nations (Mat. 25:31–46).”[7] Genesis 8:20–11:9
Promise “For Abraham and his descendents it is evident that the Abraham Covenant (Gen. 15:18, note) made a great change. They became distinctively the heirs of promise. That covenant is wholly gracious and unconditional. The descendants of Abraham had but to abide in their own land to inherit every blessing. In Egypt they lost their blessings, but not their covenant. The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law (Ex. 19:8). Grace had prepared  a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage (Ex. 19:4).; but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law. The Dispensation of Promise extends from Gen. 12:1 to Ex. 19:8, and was exclusively Israelitish. The dispensation must be distinguished from the covenant. The former is a mode of testing; the latter is everlasting because unconditional. The law did not abrogate the Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3:15-18), but was an intermediate disciplinary dealing ‘till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made’ (Gal. 3:19–29; 4:1–7). Only the dispensation, as a testing of Israel, ended at the giving of the law.”[8] Genesis 12:1–Exodus 19:8
Law “This dispensation extends from Sinai to Calvary—from the Exodus to the Cross. The history of Israel in the wilderness and in the land is one long record of the violation of the law. The testing of the nation by law ended in the judgment of the Captivities; but the dispensation itself ended at the Cross. (1) Man’s state at the beginning (Ex. 19:1–4). (2) His responsibility (Ex. 19:5, 6; Rom. 10:5). (3) His failure (2 Ki. 17:7–17, 19; Acts 2:22, 23). (4) The judgment (2 Ki. 17:1–6, 20; 25:1–11; Lk. 21:20–24).”[9] Exodus 19:8–Matthew 27:35
Grace “As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 3:24–26; 4:24, 25). The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation (John 1:12, 13; 3:36; Mt. 21:37; 22:42; John 15:22, 25; Heb. 1:2; 1 John 5:10–12). The immediate result of this testing was the rejection of Christ by the Jews, and His crucifixion by Jew and Gentile (Acts 4:27). The predicted end of the testing of man under grace is the apostasy of the professing church (see ‘Apostasy,’ 2 Tim. 3:1–8, note), and the resultant apocalyptic judgments. Grace has a twofold manifestation: in salvation (Rom. 3:24 refs.), and in the walk and service of the saved (Rom. 6:15, refs.).”[10] John 1:17[–Revelation 20:3][11]
The Fulness of Times or The Kingdom “This, the seventh and last of the ordered ages which condition human life on the earth, is identical with the kingdom covenanted to David (2 Sam. 7:8–17; Zech. 12:8; Summary; Lk. 1:31–33; 1 Cor. 15:24;, Summary), and gathers into itself under Christ all past ‘times’: (1) The time of oppression and misrule ends by Christ taking His kingdom (Isa. 11:3, 4). (2) The time of testimony and divine forbearance ends in judgment (Mt. 25:31–46; Acts 17:30, 31; Rev. 20:7–15). (3) The time of toil ends in rest and reward (2 Thess. 1:6, 7). (4) The time of suffering ends in glory (Rom. 8:17, 18). (5) The time of Israel’s blindness and chastisement ends in restoration and conversion (Rom. 11:25–27). (6) The times of the Gentiles end in the smiting of the image and the setting up of the kingdom of the heavens (Dan. 2:34, 35; Rev. 19:15–21). (7) The time of creation’s thraldom ends in deliverance at the manifestation of the sons of God (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 11:6–8; Rom. 8:19-21).”[12] Revelation 20:4–22:21

Second, the First Congregational Church of Dallas was founded in 1877 by the American Home Missionary Society. Scofield became the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Dallas in 1883 and served in this capacity until 1895. After seven years, Scofield again returned to the pastorate of the church in 1903 and served until 1910. During this time, the work for the first edition of the Scofield Reference Bible was completed (1909). The First Congregational Church of Dallas was later renamed Scofield Memorial Church in 1923. Scofield Memorial Church served as an avenue through which C. I. Scofield was able to develop his dispensational system in written form as well as a central location for dispensational teaching.[13]

Lewis S. Chafer was also a former pastor of Scofield Memorial Church (1923–1926) and a classical dispensationalist. In 1924, the boards of Scofield Memorial Church and First Presbyterian Church joined Chafer in organizing the Evangelical Theological College, which later became Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS).[14] The importance of dispensationalism to Chafer as a hermeneutical blueprint is set forth in the preface of his Systematic Theology, “God’s program is as important to the theologian as the blueprint to the builder or the chart to the mariner. Without the knowledge of it, the preacher must drift aimlessly in doctrine and fail to a large degree in his attempts to harmonize and utilize the Scriptures.”[15]

“L. S. Chafer did not emphasize the time aspect of a dispensation,”[16] rather he understood a dispensation to primarily be a stewardship. Today, Dallas Theological Seminary continues to be engaged in the articulation and development of dispensationalism. Article V of The Doctrinal Statement of DTS clearly communicates the school’s position on The Dispensations[17]:

We believe that the dispensations are stewardships by which God administers His purpose on the earth through man under varying responsibilities. We believe that the changes in the dispensational dealings of God with man depend on changed conditions or situations in which man is successively found with relation to God, and that these changes are the result of the failures of man and the judgments of God. We believe that different administrative responsibilities of this character are manifest in the biblical record, that they span the entire history of mankind, and that each ends in the failure of man under the respective test and in an ensuing judgment from God. We believe that three of these dispensations or rules of life are the subject of extended revelation in the Scriptures, viz., the dispensation of the Mosaic Law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom. We believe that these are distinct and are not to be intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive . . .[18]


[1] Peggy Rosenlund, “An Overview of Dispensationalism”, May 16, 2012, (accessed May 22, 2012).

[2] Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 10–11.

[3] For several helpful charts and descriptions of a variety of dispensational viewpoints, see Ibid., 31–56.

[4] C. I. Scofield, ed., Scofield Reference Bible, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1917), iii, 5.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] Ibid., 20.

[9] Ibid., 94.

[10] Ibid., 1115.

[11] Ibid., 1250, 1349; C. I. Scofield and E. Schuyler English, eds., Scofield Reference Bible, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1967), 1273, 1373. The 1967 revision had to be consulted here because of a lack of clarity in the 1917 edition.

[12] Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, 1250; Scofield and English, Scofield Reference Bible, 1373–74.

[13] The information in this paragraph was provided by Lolana Thompson, ed., “Guide to Scofield Memorial Church Selected Records”, October 2005, (accessed May 19, 2012).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 & 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1976), xiii.

[16] Rosenlund, “An Overview of Dispensationalism.”

[17] It should be noted that this article on The Dispensations is identical to the doctrinal statement of Scofield Memorial Church.

[18] See the Scofield Memorial Church or Dallas Theological Seminary Doctrinal Statement for the full articulation of the doctrine of The Dispensations.

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