Dispensationalism in Church History

I had an interesting conversation with a friend recently about the history of Dispensationalism as a system. His point was basically this:

Darby (sometimes referred to as the father of Dispensationalism) was, in fact, Covenantal in his theology at first. Covenantal folks claim that because he feared Christians could take the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works too far in either direction, Darby created Dispensationalism. At the same time however, modern dispensationalists claim that Dispensationalism was not created by Darby, but in fact that dispensational ideas and interpretations of Scripture had been around long before Darby systematized the various doctrines into what we now call Dispensationalism. What do you say to all this?

Here’s my extended response:

It’s a rather interesting question of interpreting someone’s motives. The question is: was it because Darby just totally made up an erroneous theology in order to safeguard against a possible error of taking correct theology too far? Or was it because he simply began to adjust his views to fit with what he thought he was seeing in Scripture?

Also, whether you want to call it dispensationalISM or not, if you go to primary sources, there have clearly been what we would now identify as “dispensational” perspectives in regard to certain areas of theology since the ante-nicene era. For example, church fathers and apologists such as Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all clearly held firmly to a premillennial kingdom hope.

In fact, here’s a list of church fathers from about 100–270 who were premillennialists: Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Pothinus, Justin Martyr, Melito, Heisippus, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Commodian, Coracion, Victorinus, and Lactantius.

Here are a few sample statements:

Papias (d. 155):  According to Eusebius’ “Fragments of Papias,” in ANF, I, 154:  “Amongst these he [Papias] says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth.”

Justin Martyr (d. 162):  “But I and whoever are on all points right-minded Christians know that there will be resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and the others declare” (“Dialogue with Trypho,” in ANF, I, 239).

Irenaeus:  “But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire, but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the rest, the inheritance, in which kingdom the lord declared, that ‘many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . .  The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionable to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead.”

Tertullian:  “But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after their resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem” (Against Marcion,” in ANF, 3, 343).

No father was an amillennialist until the third century, as far as we know (and there are no postmillennialists until Joachim of Floris, a twelfth century Roman Catholic, though sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between amillennialism and postmillennialism; Daniel Whitby [1638-1726] was the modern day founder of postmillennialism). The earliest example of an amillennialist is a presbyter in Rome in the third century, named Gaius, who also denied the canonicity of the book of Revelation. After that, the Alexandrian school gave rise to several amillennialists in the mid-third century, with its emphasis on allegorical and spiritual hermeneutics.

Covenant theology didn’t start to be systematized until the 4th or 5th century, when allegory became the primary hermeneutic, so I could easily say that Covenant Theology started “late” as well… Alright, not as a late as the systematizing of dispensationalism as we know it, but my point is simply that Covenant Theology is not the pure and eternal orthodoxy handed down to the first generation from the apostles themselves, as we sometimes can be led to believe.

The system of dispensationalism was dependent upon the reassertion of literal hermeneutics, premillennialism, futurism in the book of Revelation, and some difference between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the church, so it took time to form as a systematized theology. Dispensationalism as a system was “refounded” around 1830 when a group of Bible students (under the leadership of J.N. Darby) came to believe in a literal hermeneutic, which lead to taking the biblical covenants at face value, which lead to a distinction between programs for Israel and for the church, a pretribulational rapture, a literal future kingdom, etc.

Now, the fact is that just because dispensationalism wasn’t really systematized until Darby (and even then, primarily without the moniker of “dispensationalism”) does not mean there wasn’t anything in the theology of the early church that would line up with what we now refer to as dispensationalism. “Dispensational” understandings of different issues have been around all along, and all the way through history — including the Reformation, with the Dissenters preserving views that the Reformers rejected in their own systematizing of their theology.

Here are some thoughts from other writers on the subject:

“The most striking point in the eschatology of the ante-Nicene age is the prominent chiliasm, or millenarianism, that is the belief of a visible reign of Christ in glory on 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” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II, 614).

“The early church was distinctly premillennialist in her cherished expectations of Christ’s second advent.  His coming and Kingdom were her constant hope.  The Apostolic Fathers anticipated a future Kingdom in connection with the Redeemer’s Advent” (Leroy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, I, 207).

“What must we conclude?  (1) That the common faith of the Church was Chiliastic, and (2) that such a generality and unity of belief could only have been introduced by the founders of the Christian Church and the Elders appointed by them” (G. N. H. Peters, Theocratic Kingdom I, 496).

What happened then? What gave rise to the amillennial predominance? Here are several explanatory factors Dr. Larry Pettegrew offers in response:

The increasing influence of the allegorical method of interpretation.

  1. The influence of Gnosticism’s doctrine that matter was ultimately evil.
  2. The antagonism between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
  3. The union of church and state under Constantine
    1. The supremacy of Christianity in the Roman empire was seen as a fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
    2. Magnificent church buildings began to be built throughout the empire, “fulfilling” Isaiah 35.
    3. Constantine rebuilt Jerusalem and called it the New Jerusalem.
    4. Feast for Bishops, foreshadowed the kingdom, specifically the marriage supper of the lamb.
  4. The influence of Augustine (the father of dualism in hermeneutics)
    1. The stone of Daniel which rolls down the hill has already become a mountain and is presently filling the earth.
    2. “I cannot overemphasize Augustine’s impact; and after him, the church in the main was amillennial through the middle ages.”

On Gaining Wisdom from the Past

Quite frankly, while it’s certainly helpful to be able to look to and to lean on the tradition of the church, even Covenant theologians can’t point to all of church history and say, “our theology, as it stands today, has been the reigning theological system throughout church history — therefore you should accept it.” The truth is that aspects from both dispensational and covenantal systems have always been held to, often intermixing and being held by the same person — in a way that would make it hard for us to put each person in a “camp” today.

But the fact of the matter is, I really don’t have to be able to point to church history and say, “my understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this issue has been the traditional view upheld by all the famous church fathers (who are often famous, not because they were leaders in overall orthodoxy, but rather simply because they made a big impact, or we have their writings still) and that gives undeniable credence to my position.” The fact is, there are many things we (Dispensationalists, Covenantalists, Arminians, Calvinists, etc) would disagree with the church fathers on — as well as things to which they held that we would agree with… That doesn’t really make our position untenable or totally unworthy of being heard. If it can be shown you that something really does seem to be what Scripture is teaching on a subject, then that doesn’t really change depending on whether I can or cannot find some influential people in history that agree with me.

That being said, I do think it’s true that on these important issues, the biblical view will have been found and held by someone in the past. My point is simply that that argument can’t really be used against dispensationalists, because the truth is that whether it can be called dispensationalism, or whether it was systematized before Darby or not, the views that are held by what we now call dispensationalists have been held by Christians throughout all of church history.

It is also really important to remember that dispensationalism is a theological system, and that system, or we could say certain aspects of that system, will inevitably result from a particular hermeneutic. So the issue looking at history really is, were they using a grammatical-historical interpretation, or were they (as many clearly were) using a more allegorical and spiritualizing hermeneutic. Depending on which view of Scripture and interpretation you use, you will naturally arrive at various positions on certain issues. The location of discussion then should not really be at the symptom alone (the theological view on an issue), but on the root of the theological outworkings — the hermeneutical foundation (see here for further discussion of the import of hermeneutics on this theological issue).

For further study into the history of dispensational though, I would encourage you to start here…

Calvinism, Prophecy, and Premillennialism — MacArthur

The Early Witness to Premillennialism — Vlach

Jesus and the Millenium — MacArthur

The History of Dispensational Theology — Ice

…and then look over this big list of resources if you’re really serious about it. Good studying!

virtus et honos

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