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To Be A Dispensationalist


Dispensationalism is one of those modern movements in Christianity that seems ubiquitous in the public sphere, from the gaudy Trinity Broadcasting Network, to the Left Behind book series, if you’ve ever encountered an evangelist who is concerned about the “End Times”, you’ve probably met a dispensationalist.

While not a specific denomination of Christianity, dispensationalism is a school of biblical interpretation that is the unique creation of 20th century England/United States whose history goes hand in hand with the rise of Christian Fundamentalism. When the modernist controversy broke out in the early 1900s, there was a near schism of Western Christianity between “liberal” denominations that accepted the innovations of German biblical criticism and the reactions of the more “conservative” Christians who felt that such criticism compromised the authority of scripture. What helped fuel the popularity of dispensationalist thinking was the tireless work of missionary minded people such as Dwight Lyman Moody, whose placement of “bible institutes” and layman friendly study bibles (a rarity then) made dispensationalism easy to import into just about any protestant church.

So what is dispensationalism exactly? Like I said before, it is a school if biblical interpretation that puts a specific emphasis on a literal interpretation of the biblical text. The term “dispensation” refers to different periods of human history that God deals with his creation in different flavors, so God dealt with Noah differently than he did with Moses whom was dealt with differently than Abraham, or David, or the Church itself today. I should point out that in every dispensation, there was always a constant unchanging moral law and faith was the only way to be in relationship with God, but how and why did things will be different and distinct from dispensation to dispensation.

One of the things that dispensationalists stress, is that Israel is to be understood in a very literal manner of a specific group of ethnic people which is different than the Church itself (which was established during Pentecost to normative dispensational understanding). Dispensationalists believe that God did not replace biblical Israel with the Church, so all of the promises made to Israel are to be fulfilled sometime here in the future (The Church has been grafted on to Israel, so to speak). This explains why those Evangelicals with a dispensational slant are often very pro-Israel when it comes to foreign policy.

The actual practice of literalism is selective of course, and how dispensationalists often read texts is so esoteric and foreign to the actual text itself will often mystify and confuse other Christians, much less a secular oriented person. A read through the Scofield Study Bible will give you one of the most outlandish understandings of the book of Ether that simply has no real basis in the original language nor history or context provided.

It is important to be aware of just what dispensationalism is, because any profitable interaction to be had with a Christian who subscribes to dispensational thought is going to have to be handled very different from your standard Catholic or Presbyterian. While there are many kinds of dispensationalists who disagree with one another over the particulars, they are generally unified over the particulars I’ve discussed, which should provide a good enough introduction that leads to a more productive dialogue.

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This is post 8/24 by SSA@SCSU for the SSA blogathon in support of the Secular Student Alliance! Go donate to them!

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-Patrick Mefford

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