In a typical day at seminary, it is nearly impossible to go through a class, walk through the library, or browse through the bookstore without seeing or hearing something that is tied to dispensational theology. This is closely related to the fact that Dallas Theological Seminary is the flagship school for dispensationalism in North America. I never considered myself a dispensationalist before I came to DTS, and nothing I have heard so far has persuaded me to alter my belief structure to accommodate dispensationalism.
The doctrinal statement of DTS says this: 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. Link
When I look at dispensational theology, the thing that strikes me the most about it is that I find it less useful as a theological basis for approaching Scripture and more useful as a broad outline of Scripture. Depending on who you talk to, they will usually say there are between three and seven dispensations:
1. The Age of Innocence, from the creation of Adam and Eve until they fell into sin.
2. The Age of Conscience, from the fall into sin to Noah’s flood.
3. The Age of Human Government, from Noah to Abraham.
4. The Age of Promise, from Abraham to Moses.
5. The Age of Law, from Moses to Christ.
6. The Age of Grace, from the death of Christ to the rapture of the Church.
7. The Age of Christ, His personal 1000 year reign, yet future.
I have two problems with dispensationalism as a way of understanding Scripture and the world. The first problem is the focus on the end times. Many of the biggest names associated with dispensationalism are people who have written numerous books on prophecy or the end times (John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsay). When their work is examined critically it rarely passes the litmus test of sound doctrine. They interpret most, if not all, of the book of Revelation as prophetic, ignoring that apocalyptic literature that was very popular in the late first century and was often used by the oppressed as a type of secret language to communicate their protests against their current situation and their hope for a better future. Much of the imagery in Revelation makes great sense when interpreted in light of the circumstances of first century Christians. This popularizing of theology has proven to be a great source of power, income, and prestige for many Christians. I wonder what makes them think they can better see prophecy being fulfilled before their eyes than the 12 apostles who failed to see Jesus as their spiritual savior instead of as their political savior. The moral of the story is that when we try to interpret prophecy we are consistently wrong. It has been that way since the apostles missed the true meaning of Old Testament prophecy even when the fulfillment was walking with them and it continues today. It was not until after Jesus died and the Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled that the apostles began to understand the significance of what those prophecies meant.
I will discuss the second problem along with Covenantalism.
· The New Covenant
Much of what I said about dispensationalism applies here as well. I think that both dispensationalism and covenant theology work well at outlining in Scripture. The problem lies in that both tend to over-complicate the overarching theme of Scripture. When I read and study Scripture I can certainly see where dispensational and covenant theology come from, and both of them make sense. However, I think there is a much simpler approach to theology that ties the whole of Scripture together and doesn’t create artificial outlines that can lead to many problems (like the relative abandonment of the Old Testament by many Christians and the disproportional obsession with the end times that pop-Christianity has).
I believe that when you look at Scriptures the overarching theme is the grace of God toward man. From the time of the fall to last pages of Revelation, the Bible is a story of how God continually offers grace to humanity. The stories of the Old Testament are full of times that God extended mercy to undeserving people. In the New Testament God became man and died in the ultimate act of grace; the ultimate extension of mercy. The remainder of the New Testament tells us how to live in light of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.
Sure, it is simple, but it makes perfect sense. From the first page of the Bible to the last it is a story of God’s grace. This is echoed in our lives, from our first breath to our last, they are stories of God’s grace. No matter what the covenant or dispensation of the time was/is, it has been and always will be about grace.