Dispensationalism is a theological system that has been characterized by three essential elements: a consistently literal reading of the Bible, a separation between Israel and the Church, and that God’s overarching purpose is to glorify Himself. It is popularly known by certain doctrines such as the physical removal of the church to heaven (Rapture) before seven years of divine judgment on the earth (Tribulation), the restoration of Israel to it’s divinely promised homeland, the one-thousand year reign of Jesus on earth (millennium), and Christian Zionism.
As a system dispensationalism is often criticized and disparaged as being “too new to be true”. John Nelson Darby, the guy above, was an English pastor and theologian who lived from 1800—1882 is often cited as dispensationalism’s originator. But the fact is that Darby was systematizer not originator. He was the recipient and beneficiary of ideas that had been circulating in theological and pastoral writing for 200 years or longer.
In fact, concepts associated with dispensationalism such as Christian Zionism and the premillennial return of Jesus to the earth to reign for 1000 years did not originate with Darby. Instead these ideas had been in circulation among pastors and academics for hundreds of years before him. Darby’s contribution was to organize and systematize these ideas into a comprehensive system of theology now known as dispensationalism, a theologicial system that has continued to be refined ever since.
For example, the reformer and successor to John Calvin, Theodore Beza (1519—1605), the English protestant John Bale (1495—1563), John Foxe (1517—1587) all expected a restoration of the Jews to their homeland. Edmund Bunny (1540—1619) in perhaps the earliest instance of Christian Zionism called on Christians to love the Jews and hope for their restoration to the land. Similarly Cambridge fellow Frances Kett (1547—1589) called for a return of the Jews to their biblical homeland.
If you want to dig deeper into the history of dispensationalism I highly recommend Bill Watson’s book Dispensationalism Before Darby: Seventeenth-Century and Eighteenth-Century English Apocalypticism Paper, $24.95, Kindle 15:99. It is meticulously researched and will provide you with extensive material to defend dispensationalism against detractors who claim it is “too new to be true.”
But let’s push way back before Darby. Here is what the church historian Philip Schaff writes:
The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age [prior to 325 A.D.] is the prominent chiliasm, or millennarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on the earth with the risen saints for a thousand years, before the general resurrection and judgment. It was indeed not the doctrine of the church embodied in any creed or form of devotion, but a widely current opinion of distinguished teachers. (History of the Christian Church, II, 614).
So to accuse dispensationalism as ‘too new to be true’ is both silly and disingenuous. There is plenty of evidence that the key features associated with dispensationalism were in circulation long, long before Darby. Furthermore, this accusation is just a red herring used by critics of dispensationalism to confuse the real issue. What we should be discussing is not whether dispensationalism is new. Rather we should discuss whether dispensationalism is an exegetically derived theological system resulting from the use of a consistently literal hermenutic that acurately explains the Bible.