Core Characteristics of Dispensationalism
By Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D.
What is at the heart of dispensationalism? Dispensational theologians Charles C. Ryrie and John S. Feinberg have offered specific lists concerning what they believe to be the essential marks of dispensationalism. Ryrie presented three distinguishing marks or what he called the sine qua non of dispensationalism in his 1965 work, Dispensationalism Today.[i] Ryrie’s three distinguishing marks of dispensationalism are: (1) a distinction between Israel and the church, (2) an approach to hermeneutics called literal interpretation, and (3) the belief that the underlying purpose of God in the world is the glory of God.[ii]
Feinberg offered six “essentials of dispensationalism” in his article, “Systems of Discontinuity.”[iii] These essentials are: (1) belief that the Bible refers to multiple senses of terms like “Jew” and “seed of Abraham”; (2) an approach to hermeneutics that emphasizes that the Old Testament be taken on its own terms and not reinterpreted in light of the New Testament; (3) belief that Old Testament promises to Israel will find at least partial fulfillment with national Israel; (4) belief in a distinctive future for ethnic Israel; (5) belief that the church is a distinctive organism; and (6) a philosophy of history that emphasizes not just soteriological and spiritual issues but social, economic, and political issues as well.[iv]
Although not giving a list of “essentials” Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock have offered a list of “common features” of dispensationalism in their book, Progressive Dispensationalism. These features include belief in: (1) the authority of Scripture; (2) dispensations; (3) uniqueness of the church; (4) practical significance of the universal church; (5) significance of biblical prophecy; (6) futurist premillennialism; (7) imminent return of Christ; and (8) a future for national Israel.[v]
Not all the characteristics mentioned in these three lists are unique to dispensationalism. Many nondispensationalists, for instance, believe in the authority of Scripture, dispensations, the significance of biblical prophecy, and the importance of the glory of God. There are, though, three marks of dispensationalism that appear to be at the heart of the system.
First, the lists of Ryrie, Feinberg, and Blaising and Bock all list the uniqueness of the church as a characteristic of dispensationalism. Though disagreement may exist on some details of this distinction, dispensationalists are agreed that the church began with Pentecost and is not to be identified as Israel.[vi] All dispensationalists, thus, reject a supersessionist approach in which the church permanently replaces or supersedes national Israel as the people of God.
Second, Ryrie, Feinberg, and Blaising and Bock point out that dispensationalists believe in a future for national Israel. Dispensationalists assert that Old Testament promises and covenants made with national Israel will be fulfilled with national Israel in the future. Though dispensationalists may disagree as to how much the church also participates in the Old Testament promises and covenants, they are agreed that national Israel will experience a future salvation and will have distinct functional responsibilities in the coming millennium.
Both Ryrie and Feinberg mention a third area—a dispensational approach to hermeneutics—as somehow being distinctive to dispensationalism. For Ryrie, dispensationalists interpret the Bible in a consistently literal manner while non-dispensationalists do not.[vii] The matter, for him, then, is literal versus spiritual interpretation; dispensationalists interpret literally while nondispensationalists, at times, interpret portions of Scripture non-literally.
Feinberg believes Ryrie is being “too simplistic.”[viii] According to Feinberg, the issue of hermeneutics “is not an easy issue,” and he points out that many nondispensational theologians claim to interpret the Bible literally. Their literalism, though, differs at points from the literal approach of dispensationalists. Thus, for Feinberg, “The difference is not literalism v. non-literalism, but different understandings of what constitutes literal hermeneutics.”[ix]
According to Feinberg, the difference between dispensational and non-dispensational hermeneutics is found in three areas: (1) the relation of the progress of revelation to the priority of one Testament over the other; (2) the understanding and implications of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament; and (3) the understanding and implications of typology.[x] In sum, the main difference rests in how dispensationalists and nondispensationalists view the relationship between the testaments.
Feinberg’s analysis appears valid. The main difference between dispensationalists and nondispensationalists on the matter of hermeneutics is not literal versus spiritual interpretation, but how each camp views the relationship between the testaments. As Herbert Bateman puts it, the central issue is “testament priority.”[xi] Testament priority is “a presuppositional preference of one testament over the other that determines a person’s literal historical-grammatical hermeneutical starting point.”[xii] An interpreter’s testament priority assumptions are especially significant when interpreting how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. Dispensationalists usually want to keep a reference point in the Old Testament while nondispensationalists emphasize the New Testament as their reference point. Feinberg explains the difference:
Nondispensationalists begin with NT teaching as having priority and then go back to the OT. Dispensationalists often begin with the OT, but wherever they begin they demand that the OT be taken on its own terms rather than reinterpreted in the light of the NT.[xiii]
[i] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1965), 43-47. See also the update of this book by Ryrie called Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1995).
[ii] Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 43-47.
[iii] John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1988), 67-85.
[v] Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism: An Up-To-Date Handbook of Contemporary Dispensational Thought (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint, 1993), 13-21.
[vi] According to Blaising and Bock, “One of the striking differences between progressive and earlier dispensationalists, is that progressives to do not view the church as an anthropological category in the same class as terms like Israel, Gentile Nations, Jews, and Gentile people. . . . The church is precisely redeemed humanity itself (both Jews and Gentiles) as it exists in this dispensation prior to the coming of Christ.” Progressive Dispensationalism, 49.
[vii] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 84.
[viii] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 73.
[ix] Feinberg, 74. Saucy makes the same point: “An analysis of non-dispensational systems, however, reveals that their less-than-literal approach to Israel in the Old Testament prophecies does not really arise from an a priori spiritualistic or metaphorical hermeneutic. Rather, it is the result of their interpretation of the New Testament using the same grammatico-historical hermeneutic as that of dispensationalists.” Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational & Nondispensational Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 20.
[x] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 73-74.
[xi] Herbert W. Bateman IV, “Dispensationalism Yesterday and Today,” Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 38.
[xiii] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 75. See George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1977), 28.