Articles

Dispensationalism

This article first appeared in the April 1, 1966 issue of The Standard Bearer, under the rubric "Trying the Spirits". It was written by Rev.Robert C. Harbach, a PRC minister.

The most popular, but not the only, form of Premillennialism is known as Dispensationalism. It is a pseudo-hermeneutical system which claims to be the only correct method of interpreting the Scriptures. Its motto is, "Rightly dividing the Word of truth." In the English-speaking world its origin may be traced back one hundred and thirty-five years to the Plymouth Brethren. It is called Brethrenism, Darbyism (after J.N. Darby) and, in this country, Scofieldianism. 

Because of the extremes of this system, we ought to distinguish between Premillennialism and Dispensationalism. For the former is a rather moderate, though erroneous, theory of Christ's return. The latter is a bizarre interpretative arrangement which not only segregates, but trichotomizes the contents of Scripture into sections, labeling them "exclusively for the Jews," or "for the Gentiles," or "for the church of God." We might call it partitioning dispensational-ism. The more reasonable Historical Premillennarians hold that there will be one final advent of Christ, at which He will judge and overthrow the Beast, the False Prophet and apostate Christendom, then set up His one thousand year reign, after which occurs the resurrection and judgment of the wicked dead, followed by the ushering in of eternity. But the more extreme Dispensationalists really have three final advents of Christ: one at the Rapture when He (it may be at any moment) comes into our atmosphere to take up the church; another about seven years later in the Revelation of Christ, who then actually comes to earth to reign; and then another after the millennium for the final judgment. Therefore Premillennialism and Dispensationalism are not synonymous terms. Every Dispensationalist is premillennial, but not every Premillennialist is dispensational. 

C.I. Scofield, who popularized Dispensationalism with his "Scofield Reference Bible," defines a dispensation as "a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God." Similarly, the Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary defines a dispensation as "the period during which a particular revelation of God's mind and will has been directly operative on mankind." Further, Scofield has seven dispensations which divide all time, from the creation to the new heaven and new earth. First, there is the Dispensation of Innocence, then Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace and Kingdom. There is no objection to this definition of a dispensation, nor to the dividing of history info seven periods, nor to the fact that each of these periods is marked off by a particular development of the divine purpose and revelation. But although Scofield speaks of the dispensations as revealing the "increasing purpose" of God, he does not make clear what that purpose is. It would appear, however, that it is an earthly kingdom-purpose. 

Dispensationalists need make no appeal for their contentions to the word translated dispensation in the Bible. For there it does not mean a period of time. In Luke 16:2, 3, 4, where the word first appears, it is renderedstewardship, which has nothing to do with an era. In I Cor. 9:17, Paul wrote, "a dispensation is committed unto me," which cannot mean that an age had been entrusted to him, but that a duty had been directed to him. He reminds that "ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me" (Eph. 3:2) and that "I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God" (Col. 1:25), which has reference not to a segment of history, but to the administration of the apostolic office. Then the words "that in the dispensation of the fulness of times cannot designate the name for the "last of the ordered ages." It simply means that the administration of the fulness of times is headed up in Christ. The King James Version in these places wrongly employs the word dispensation, for actually that word never appears in Scripture. The word is stewardship, administration (literally, economy) and signifies not an era, but the administration of the covenant and all things as given by divine commission. The covenant has always been the same, but the dispensation (administration) of the covenant has changed. Therefore it is wrong to speak of this Christian era as "the dispensation (age) of grace, wrong because misleading, seeing that every dispensation (administration) of the covenant was in pure grace. 

It is also faulty to speak of a dispensation "as a new test of the natural man," as though God in history deals primarily not with His covenant people, but with the unregenerate. Each separate dispensation reveals man's state of sin, his responsibility for it and his inevitable failure. It all begins with man and ends with man. Scripture reveals the dispensations of history severally beginning with man's misery, continuing with his deliverance and ending with his gratitude! 

Some of the partitions this system makes in Scripture are called parentheses. There is a parenthesis between the first two verses in Genesis, chapter one. This parenthetic age saw the universe in a catastrophic state, brought about by a supernatural cataclysmic change involving the fall of angels. The earth, then, for an unknown, indefinitely long period was chaotically waste and desolate. Then there is the "church parenthesis," which intervenes between Pentecost and the Rapture. History, from the time of Abraham at least, always moves along the line of the Jews. But with the baptism of the Spirit, a parenthetical period sets in, bringing "a wholly new thing—'the church, which is his (Christ's) body.'" This church interim had the effect of disannulling ancient Israel. But at the end of this church age there will follow "the regathering of Israel," after which the glorious Davidic, earthly world empire of the Jews will be restored to them. This idea is guilty of creating another parenthesis, namely, the interval of seven years between the rapture and the revelation of Christ coming to the earth. For in that period the nation of the Jews is to be regathered and restored. They had the kingdom once, but lost it in the captivities. Then just before the church-parenthesis set in the kingdom once more was offered to them, but they rejected it. So the kingdom-age was "postponed" to the closing era of the world. That short seven year period is hardly more than a parenthesis, for God's clock ticks only on kingdom time, not on church time. So because of all these rather disannulling intervals in the chronology of Dispensationalism, we might call it "gap theory" dispensationalism. 

This brings us to the crux of the matter. For dispensational error lies not in holding that there are dispensations of time in sacred history. The church has never denied that. The error lies in the fact that the Church is made a mere parenthesis in God's scheme of things, which temporarily obstructs and hinders the main thrust of His purpose. If there were any parenthesis at all in history, which we deny, it would not embrace the Church, but Israel, as Herman Bavinck neatly points out. From Creation to Abraham, "redemption had a universal" emphasis. But with him and especially through the Mosaic dispensation, "a parenthesis set in, which came to an end in Christ. Then redemptive history resumed the universal character which it had at the beginning." (Quoted inProphecy and the Church, O.T. Allis, p. 298).

Dr. Abraham Kuyper also had held the idea of this Israel-parenthesis, rather than the Church-parenthesis. He saw three dispensations, the first extending from Adam to Abraham, being for the most part one of "common grace." The second, from Abraham to Christ, was the parenthetical dispensation, and predominantly one of particular grace. The third, from Christ to the end, is a kind of mixture of special grace and "common grace" shown to man. But although Kuyper's view does save the Church from the Nirvana of a hiatus, it nevertheless makes the Cross of Christ not the center of the whole scheme of redemption, but an emergency measure. For, according to Kuyper, the main line that God took in the first dispensation was creational. The permanent, prevailing entity of the dispensations is the ordinance of Creation. In it, God administered His covenant, largely, according to "common grace." Then followed the temporary interruption of the second and parenthetical dispensation, in which, generally, He administered the covenant according to special grace. But this makes the dispensation of pure grace nothing more than an interlude. Also it implies that God's original creational purposes proved a failure, so that He took emergency measures in Christ, His Cross and the Church. The Cross is made an afterthought.

To introduce into biblical history parentheses, postponements or emergencies is to lose sight of the true development of the promise, which happens to be the main thread woven throughout all Scripture and all history. There is nothing wrong in speaking of an Adamic, an Abrahamic or a Christian dispensation. But it is wrong to imply, as Kuyper does, that neither the saints of the Adamic nor of the Abrahamic era were' looking for the heavenly city, nor for Christ as Redeemer, but were instead anticipating the restoration of the Adamic paradise. We see no parentheses in history. For history is the revelation and the realization of God's counsel in the midst of the world for the sake of the Church. This being so, God through all time moves steadily, directly; progressively and aggressively toward the final accomplishment of His ultimate goal, which is to dwell eternally with His people in the New Jerusalem. God's counsel never deviates, is never side-tracked nor postponed. 

Dispensationalism has yet another gap which appears right in the middle of the verse in Is. 61:2. Between the comma and the conjunction (!) there is the chasm of the ages extending from the first advent to the second advent. Jesus, when He read the passage to the Nazareth synagogue, stopped at the comma. The reason is said to be that although prophecy was fulfilled to "the acceptable year of the Lord," that "the day of vengeance" was still future, awaiting the day of judgment. This puts two fundamentally different dispensations in this text, the word "and" in the middle of it up to now covering a period of over nineteen centuries! But this is to ignore the remainder of the text, "to comfort all that mourn," which exactly characterizes the New Testament dispensation, as does also the expression "the day of vengeance" (the words Jesus omitted). For the latter was fulfilled in Matt. 11:21, 23Matt. 23:13-38Matt. 24:2 and Matt. 22:7. So Dispensationalists depart from the central line of the Counsel of God. Neither the Scriptures, the Reformed standards nor the Calvinistic churches support the flimsy, fanciful fantasies of these exegetical manipulators.

Last modified on 19 September 2014
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Harbach, Robert

Rev. Robert C. Harbach (1914-1996) was born in Riverdale, MD on July 27, 1914. He graduated from the Protestant Reformed Seminary in 1955 and was ordained in October of that year.  He served congregations in Lynden, Washington (1955-1963), Kalamazoo, Michigan (1963-1974), and as Home Missionary (1974-1979).  He retired from the active ministry in 1979.  He passed to glory on December 14, 1996.

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