by Larry R. Oats
This article first appeared in FrontLine • July/August 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
While many think of dispensationalism as a way to divide history into seven (give or take one or two) eras, it is really more about hermeneutics than history. Its focus is on how to properly interpret the Bible, with an emphasis on interpreting Scripture in a straightforward, plain sense. If we study the Bible, understand its teachings, and live our lives in accord with it, we do well. God desires obedience on the part of the believer, but obedience comes with the proper comprehension of the Scriptures.
There are three basic approaches to the systematic study of Scripture. Covenant theology sees the revelation of God and the history of mankind under the umbrella of the covenant of grace, which came into effect because of the Fall and continues to the end of time. Although this system uses the Biblical word “covenant,” it uses it in a different way than the Old or New Testaments do. It also uses a hermeneutic that is nonliteral when it interprets certain prophecies, which results in the uniting of the Israel of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament into one common entity. In traditional covenant theology, there is no room for a future Israel.
Others take a position that creates a divide between law and grace. This viewpoint sees a distinction between the Mosaic Law and the grace of the New Testament, but it still views Israel and the Church as a common entity and interprets prophecy in such a way as to reject a future for Israel. Dispensationalism is an approach to interpreting the Bible that is based on understanding the Bible literally. The dispensationalist and covenant theologian agree on the importance of the grace of God. The dispensationalist and those holding to grace as distinct from the law agree that the New Testament teaches such a distinction. Dispensationalism also argues that God’s primary purpose is to glorify Himself. In choosing to understand prophecies as they were written, dispensationalists make a clear distinction between Israel and the Church and understand that God has a plan for Israel that is still future.
The study of dispensationalism is not just an abstract hermeneutical exercise for the classroom. Any discipline that centers itself on the interpretation of the Bible has great implications. A dispensational hermeneutic affects every area of theology, but it especially affects two key doctrines that are intrinsically interwoven: eschatology (the study of prophecy and the end times) and ecclesiology (the study of the Church). It makes a difference if the Church is already in the Millennium, or if the Church’s task is to bring in the Kingdom by making the world and its governments Christian, or if the Church has the responsibility of evangelizing the lost with the understanding that the Church Age may come to a close at any moment.
Dr. Larry R. Oats has been at Maranatha Baptist Bible College for forty-two years. Currently he serves as the dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary. He and his wife, Colleen, have four children.