Dispensationalism is not only exegetically tenuous, but systemically flawed and philosophically absurd. At the very foundation of dispensationalism lies circularity and confusion. Indeed, the very definition and function of a "dispensation" in the system actually undermines the system. Let me explain.
In this blog I will employ Charles C. Ryrie’s respected and authoritative book, titled Dispensationalism (Moody, 1995). Page numbers below will refer to this work. This is the revised and updated version of his definitive 1966 Dispensationalism Today. This work is approvingly cited and affirmed in The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy.
The problem I will be reflecting on is one of many systemic problems that explains why so many leave dispensationalism. Bruce Waltke, a former dispensationalist, stated in 1991 that dispensationalism has "no future as a system" (cited in Ryrie, p. 15). He is correct. That is why we are witnessing the unraveling of dispensationalism — at the academic level. (Admittedly, it may take four or five hundred more years for the average dispensationalist-in-the-pew to catch on, though.)
Let’s consider three foundational absurdities.
First absurdity: dispensationalists claim that dispensations are fundamental to understanding Scripture. But then they declare that dispensations are not necessary to understanding dispensationalism!
While studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh, Ryrie became convinced "that dispensational premillennialism was the only way to understand the Bible" (p. 10). Furthermore, he writes that "in relation to understanding the Scriptures [they must be] interpreted plainly and thus dispensationally."
Yet, Ryrie presents a three-fold sine qua non of dispensationalism, which omits any reference to dispensations! He writes: "Theoretically, the sine qua non ought to lie in the recognition of the fact that God has distinguishably different economies in governing the affairs of the world." But they do not! Indeed, he then asks: "Is the essence of dispensationalism in the number of dispensations? No, for this is in no way a major issue in the system" (p. 38). One would think a "dispensation" would be crucial to a system called "dispensationalism," but it is not.
Second absurdity: dispensations are God-ordained, distinguishable economies in the outworking of redemptive and world history. Yet dispensationalists disagree over the number of dispensations, allegedly without affecting the system!
Note that dispensations are supposedly God-ordained and "distinguishable":
"Dispensations are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace but are God’s distinctive and different administrations in directing the affairs of the world" (p. 17).
"The particular manifestations of the will of God in each dispensation are given their full, yet distinctive, place in the progress of the Revelation of God throughout the ages" (p. 19).
"A concise definition of a dispensation is this: A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose." He adds that a full description of a dispensation should include "the ideas of distinctive revelation, responsibility, testing, failure, and judgment" (p. 28).
Over and over again, on p. 29 he highlights the distinctive, distinguishable character of each of the specific dispensations. Dispensations are: "distinguishably different," "the word distinguishable in the definition points out that some features are distinctive to each dispensation and mark them off from each other as different dispensations"; "distinguishing the dispensations is God’s, not man’s" work; "the distinguishing features are introduced by God"; and "these various stages mark off the distinguishably different economies."
On p. 32 he writes that "dispensational theology" recognizes "distinguishable distinctions." On p. 33 he asks: "what marks off the various economies in the outworking of God’s purpose and distinguished each from the other?" He answers: "(1) the different governing relationship with the world into God enters in each economy; and (2) the resulting responsibility on mankind in each of these different relationships." On p. 34 he speaks of a particular dispensation as "a distinguishable and different way of running the affairs of the world."
This matter is so important that on p. 37 he argues: "The distinguishable yet progressive character of dispensational distinctions prohibits that they should be intermingled or confused as they are chronologically successive."
Yet, despite all of these asseverations he states: "It makes little difference at this point in the discussion whether there are seven dispensations or not; the point is that dispensations answer the need for distinctions" (p. 17). Later on p. 45 he writes: "The number of dispensations in a dispensational scheme . . . are relatively minor matters. Presumably one could have four, five, seven, or eight dispensations and be a consistent dispensationalist." On p. 46: "Occasionally a dispensationalist may hold as few as four, and some hold as many as eight" dispensations.
But if dispensations are God-ordained and distinguishable, how can the system allow for a fluctuating number of dispensations? Would not a four dispensation system be considered intermingling and confusing chronologically successive dispensations from the seven dispensation system (despite Ryrie, see above quote from p. 37)?
Ryrie believes he has explained this complication by stating: "the difference of opinion as to number is not due to a defect in the dispensational scheme but rather is due to lack of detailed revelation concerning the earliest periods of biblical history. . . . (p. 47). What happened to "distinguishable differences" ordained by God in Scripture? On p. 29 he states that "distinguishing the dispensations is God’s, not man’s" work and "the distinguishing features are introduced by God."
Third absurdity: dispensationalism is viciously circular. p. 29: "The understanding of God’s differing economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within those various economies." This leads to the bizarre conclusion that you cannot understand the revelation without the feature, but you cannot find the feature without the revelation! The PEBP (p. 82) approvingly quotes and affirms this statement.
This "plain and simple" system of theological is downright complicated and confusing.