Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dispensationalism, Definition, Revelation, and Contradiction

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Dispensationalism is a new, innovative, naive, peculiar, cumbersome, complicated, contradictory, and incoherent system of theology. Other than these problems, however, it is apparently quite compelling. It is compelling to tens of millions of Christians who themselves are often "innovative, naive, peculiar, cumbersome, complicated, contradictory, and incoherent" and who are usually captured when they are "new" to the Christian faith as recent converts. I know that was true for me as a young convert to Christ — until I raptured out of the system so that it was "left behind."

Let me explain what I mean in declaring dispensationalism to be such.

The Significance of Definition

Dispensationalism is big on definitions. And rightly so. Complicated and convoluted systems require definitions in an attempt to explain them to the uninitiated.

In chapters 2 and 3 of Charles Ryrie’s important and classic work Dispensationalism (1995), he discusses at length the whole question of definition. In fact, he opens chapter 2 with this sentence: "There is no more primary problem in the whole matter of dispensationalism than that of definition" (p. 23). Unfortunately, he must admit in the first sentence of the very next paragraph: "To say that there is a great lack of clear thinking on this matter of definition is an understatement. Both dispensationalist and non-dispensationalists are often guilty of lack of clarity."

Even the Foreword by Frank E. Gaebelein agrees that oftentimes dispensationalism’s own followers are confused: "dispensationalism has at times been the victim of its adherent who have pressed unwisely certain of its features." If the system is confusing to its enthusiastic followers, this surely explains why it is even more so to its concerned opponents. Definition, then, is crucial.

Yet even while defining the issues, dispensationalism begins to stumble — showing that the system is indeed cumbersome, complicated, contradictory, and incoherent. In this blog I will note that even in its own definition dispensationalism involves the system in dialectical tension that causes it to collapse from within. I will show this by focusing on the leading advocate of normative dispensationalism, Dr. Charles C. Ryrie.

But first let me briefly note:

The Significance of Ryrie

Dr. Ryrie was formerly professor of systematic theology and dean of doctoral studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and is a very important figure in the most popular form of dispensationalism. The Twentieth-Century Dictionary of Christian Biography (1995, p. 300) calls Ryrie "one of the key theologians supporting dispensationalism." The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (p. 385) declares that "he has made an inestimable contribution to the Christian world," noting that his "writings have consistently been on the theological cutting edge." In a recent festschrift in Ryrie’s honor, titled Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond (2008, p. i), Dr. Christopher Cone presents him as "tremendously influential in the grounding of dispensational theology."

Ryrie published his most important and theologically influential book, Dispensationalism Today in 1966. This book was continuously in print in that edition until updated, revised, and given a new name in 1995: Dispensationalism. It has remained the standard for explaining and defending dispensationalism, being called a "classic text" in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (p. 385). Dr. Craig Blaising of Dallas Theological Seminary notes that "the importance of this work for the self-understanding of late twentieth-century dispensationalism cannot be overstated."

So then, my demonstrating Ryrie’s confusion in defining the system cannot be written off with a cavalier: "Oh, that’s just Jack Van Impe rambling away because he heard about an earthquake somewhere!" When its leading spokesman stumbles at the very level of definition, this is a serious problem for dispensationalism as a system.

(Please note: unless otherwise noted all page references below are to Ryrie’s Dispensationalism.)

The Significance of Errors

The very name "dispensationalism" raises the important question: "What is a ‘dispensation’?" If you are committed to a system called "dispensationalism," you certainly need to know what a "dispensation" is. Otherwise you would be as confused as a person who thinks he is a capitalist because he lives in the capital of Cuba.

Ryrie is no lightweight. He possesses great understanding of the system as such and exercises enormous influence as a proponent of it. According to him a "a concise definition of a dispensation is this: "A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose" (p. 28). This is a succinct and widely-held definition that no dispensationalist could reject and still remain a dispensationalist.

But before I move on, I must mention a second crucial matter of definition. According to dispensationalists theologians dispensational distinctions are God-revealed distinctions — thus, they are God-imposed historical realities. Ryrie notes that "distinguishing the dispensations is God’s, not man’s work" (p. 29). Regarding the relationship between two particular dispensations, Ryrie observes that "God himself through John make[s] these distinctions" (p. 36).

The revealed character of dispensations is extremely important. After all, it results in the elements defining each dispensation, which involve a "distinctive revelation, responsibility, testing, failure, and judgment" (p. 28). Note in this quotation that each dispensation involves a "distinctive revelation"— that is, a distinctive revelation from God. And this revelation obligates man to a particular "responsibility"during that specific dispensation — to God. And it results in a particular form of "testing" distinctive to that dispensation — which testing is designed by God for those people in their dispensational settings. Thus, the dispensational structure of history is revealed by God in his word, according to dispensationalists.

But as we can see in Ryrie’s attempt to explain dispensationalism serious problems arise. The claim to distinguishable dispensations as a revelation from God undermines the system as it is defined and presented.

It is crucial that we note the vital word "distinguishable." Each dispensation is distinguishable from the other. Therefore, however many dispensations there are, they must be distinguishable — by definition! The word "distinguishable" is important to Ryrie as we see how frequently it occurs in his discussion (29, 32, 34, 37, 38, etc.).

Indeed, Ryrie even notes that dispensations are "distinguishably different" (p. 29) because they involve "distinguishing features" (p. 29). Every dispensations’ features "are distinctive to each dispensation and mark them off from each other as different dispensations" (p. 29). Thus, they result in "definite and distinguishable distinctions" (p. 32), each of which individually "distinguishes each [dispensation] from the other" (p. 33). Ryrie notes of certain dispensations that "here is unquestionably a distinguishable and different way of running the affairs of the world" (p. 34). Do you get the impression that the quality of distinguishableness is significant?

With these words in his chapters on definition, Ryrie has just shot himself in the foot. And all dispensationalism is limping because of it. But how so? Let me point out the following destructive tendencies in these definitional issues which (necessarily) involve "distinguishable" distinctions.

First, though the dispensations involve a "distinctive revelation" (p. 28), Ryrie admits of his own (and the majority view) that "a sevenfold scheme of dispensations is neither inspired nor nonnegotiable" (p. 51). How can this be if dispensations are: (1) "distinguishable" and (2) God-revealed? Why are not the distinct dispensations God-revealed if each has a "distinctive revelation"?

Second, Ryrie notes that the number of dispensations is not even a crucial matter in the debate: "Is the essence of dispensationalism the number of dispensations? No, for this is in no way a major issue in the system" (p. 38). Well, why not if God reveals distinguishable dispensations? This is like saying the number of persons in the Trinity is not crucial to the concept of the Trinity. If the dispensations are distinguishable, they ought then to be countable — and their number ought to be known and secure.

Third, Ryrie goes even further when he states: "the number of dispensations in a dispensational scheme and even the names of the dispensations are relatively minor matters. Presumably one could have four, five, seven, or eight dispensations and be a consistent dispensationalist" (p. 45). And in the final analysis he can say that his view of the number of dispensations is only "likely seven in number" (p. 56).

But now: what happens to their God-revealed character as distinguishable economies? And what of the obligations within each distinctive dispensation which devolve upon those living within their particular dispensation (rather than in another dispensation)? And what of dispensations being defined by particular testings from God peculiar to that and only that dispensation? This does not make sense. The number of dispensations, by the very nature of the case, must be significant, set, and secure — if the definition and God-revealed character of dispensationalism is true.

Fourth, Ryrie confesses that "most dispensationalists see seven dispensations in God’s plan (though throughout the history of dispensationalism they have not always been the same seven). Occasionally a dispensationalist may hold as few as four, and some hold as many as eight" (p. 46). How can this be? If there are four dispensations, then the revelation of God and the tests upon man will be different from a situation in which there are seven dispensations.

In fact, in a festschrift in honor of Ryrie, the editor himself argues for twelve dispensations! Christopher Cone in Dispensationalism Tomorrow & Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie (2008): "A synthetic overview accounting for God’s doxological purpose seems to unveil no less than 12 dispensational divisions in Scripture" (Cone, p. 150). This is incredible! Did God "reveal" four, seven, or twelve distinguishable dispensations? Dispensationalists are not sure!

Fifth, Ryrie argues all of this in the same book in which he warns: "the distinguishable yet progressive character of dispensational distinctions prohibits that they should be intermingled or confused as they are chronologically successive" (p. 37). He is quite logical when he demands that since the dispensations are "distinguishable" they cannot be "intermingled or confused" — otherwise they would not be distinguishable.

Yet, Ryrie admits that the number of dispensations remains uncertain — which means that some dispensationalists are intermingling or confusing the matter despite their own definition. And Ryrie himself even allows the prospect of various numbers of dispensations — despite his claim that they cannot be mingled or confused. I am confused!

Sixth, we find that, having gotten into his own hand-crafted coffin, Ryrie deftly drives in the final nail carefully securing it shut. And he does not use a thin-shank finish nail: this is one of those nails known as a HurriQuake Disaster Resistant Fastener. It cannot be pulled out once driven in. Here Ryrie commits a huge self-destructive error when he states: "The understanding of God’s differing economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within each of those various economies." This is a significant enough statement that is also cited on p. 82 of The Popular Encyclopedia of the Bible. But where is the problem?

This statement introduces dialectical tension into Ryrie’s whole argument: If we must understand God’s differing economies in order to properly interpret the revelation within each of those economies, should we not know exactly what each of those economies is? Should we not have a clear understanding that there are in fact seven — or four or twelve — specific dispensations? How can the system allow any number of dispensations if you must interpret the revelation within those economies?

Furthermore, Ryrie’s statement requires you to presuppose dispensationalism as a system before you can interpret the Scripture. We should think, though, that you must understand Scripture first, then draw out Scripture’s system. But this is not the case with dispensationalism, for Ryrie clearly states: "The understanding of God’s differing economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within each of those various economies."


Somehow dispensationalism keeps surviving one failed Antichrist prediction after another. It endures one failed rapture date after another. And what is worse, its best theologians have created an unduly complex system that is so burdensome that it incorporates internal contradictions. I don’t know how they do it and continue on. That is why I am "against Dispensationalism" (as per our blogsite name).

(By the way, to increase my books sales: I believe the Antichrist is a guy named Larry Cleveland and that the rapture will be on March 4 [(but I am not sure in what year].)