In using these two terms together, I am speaking of the joining of two distinguishable concepts. Dispensationalism refers to an interpretative approach to the Bible that goes back to John Nelson Darby from the middle of the 19th century. Many are familiar with the distinctions of Dispensationalism. The classic statement of it was in the Schofield Reference Bible (1909) while the greatest work of Systematic Theology was by Luis Sperry Chafer the leader of Dallas Theological Seminary (the 1930s and 40s) This established the theology with great detail. These are key distinctions of classical dispensationalism and their problems.
- A rigid distinction between law and grace. The New Testament presents a covenant of grace contrary to the Old Testament as a dispensation of law. We are no longer under law but grace. One can be saved and continue to live in sin. Any other view is said to be adding works to salvation by grace. The dedicated life is a second but not required step. This has given rise to hyper-grace theologies and hyper-grace leaders with all its dangers. It abandons the applicability of the Torah.
- A rigid distinction between Israel and the Church. Like historic Pre-Millennialism (before Darby) Dispensationalism affirms the fulfillment of the prophecies made to Israel. But the catch is that when a Jew becomes a follower of Yeshua, his destiny is no longer with his ethnic nation, but is now with the Church. Therefore, continued Jewish life in the Messiah would not be fitting. This is why in my early days of leadership in the Messianic Jewish movement in the 1970s, we were attacked by people who believed this.
- The way they made the distinction of Israel and the Church (and there is a distinction rightly to be made) was part of what led to their view of the rapture. To keep Israel and God’s work with the Church separate, the Church needs to be removed before the 7 year Tribulation. In my youth, it was taught that giving up this view of the rapture was the beginning of the slide to liberalism. Then God again will work through Israel. The Church with Jewish believers will be out of here. This means that the Church will not be the instrument at the end to make Israel jealous. Nor will Jewish believers before the rapture. They are not seen as the “saved remnant” of Israel that is still part of the destiny of their nation. It also means that that Messianic Jews are not part of the irrevocable calling of Israel. (One can do a workaround so that the work of making Israel jealous is remembered seven years later when Israel comes to Yeshua. I have seen moderates assert this).
- The classical view was cessationist on the gifts of the Spirit. The supernatural gifts of I Cor. 12-14 were only for the transitional age in the first century before the New Testament was written down. There is no gift of prophecy. There is no gift of apostle or prophet today. It was anti-charismatic or non-charismatic.
- The Gospel is not the Gospel of the Kingdom and the Kingdom of God did not come even partially in the coming of Yeshua and Pentecost.
- They fear the idea of the unity of the Church (John 17:21) as only leading to a false ecumenicism and deception.
I could say much more but want to be brief. Today there is a new trend called Progressive Dispensationalist that questions many of these tenants, but most of these are still pre-Tribulation rapture people. Today Dallas Seminary accepts the Progressives and is a much different place. Progressives are moving closer to my view, historic pre-millennialism.
Classical Dispensationalism was also Fundamentalist. Fundamentalism describes a narrow orientation that is sometimes viciously critical of others that do not follow rigid ideas of separation and purity. Separation for purity is almost a badge of honor.
There is a fear of contamination. It tended to cause splits. When combined with Dispensationalism, it holds as suspect all who are not also like them as Dispensationalist Fundamentalists. It leads to a sectarian approach. It is a narrow Orthodoxy and not a broad Orthodoxy. It will split from and condemn those who do not tow the mark. One of the most glaring historical examples is the 1957 rejection of Billy Graham because he cooperated with the mainline Protestant Church leader whom the Fundamentalists consider suspect. The attack was vicious. An early example was the closed Plymouth Brethren who condemned taking communion with any other than closed brethren. The sectarian division is characteristic.
Dispensational Fundamentalism is a dying movement. It produces very little today in world missions which is now mostly growing by Pentecostals and new stream charismatic networks. So why take the time to deal with this? It is because we still fight aspects of this both in theology and the narrow spirit. For example, the roots of hyper-grace teaching are in this movement though hyper-grace teachers do not endorse the whole system. The opposition to the role of law is also still very common despite the role of law in classical Christian theology. In addition, there is a severe criticism of charismatic movements, even a vicious slander at times and misrepresentation. The idea of Jewish life in Yeshua is also rejected and opposed. So, what is to be done? Pray and proclaim a better presentation of Biblical truth. We have experienced this spirit of Dispensational Fundamentalism. The great scholar of yesteryear, Edward John Carnell, called it Orthodoxy gone cultic. Thankfully this is a dying movement.