Modern Dispensationalism and the Unity of Scripture

Volume 15, Number 15, April 7 to April 13, 2013

By

Oswald T. Allis

The rejection of the Old Testament, in part or in whole, was one of the numerous errors of the Gnostics This article was first published in The Evangelical Quarterly, January 1936.No doctrine concerning Scripture is of more practical importance to the Bible student than that which affirms its unity and harmony. Obviously, the trustworthiness, perspicuity and plenary inspiration of Scripture cannot be maintained aside from the belief that the Bible is a thoroughly self-consistent whole. The Westminster Confession of Faith in enumerating some of the “incomparable excellencies” of Scripture, mentions “the consent of all the parts”. And it is on the basis of a recognition of this essential feature that the Westminster divines laid down this “infallible rule” for the interpretation of Scripture? The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

1

This rule has been called the “analogy of Scripture” or the “analogy of faith”. Its meaning and importance has been well stated by Hodge:If the Scriptures be what they claim to be, the word of God, they are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture. If a passage admits of different interpretations, that only can be the true one which agrees with what the Bible teaches elsewhere on the same subject.

2

This great doctrine has been recognized and accepted, more or less clearly and consistently, by the Christian Church throughout its history. It has been a sign of heresy to reject or ignore any part or portion of Holy Writ. Thus the rejection of the Old Testament, in part or in whole, was one of the numerous errors of the Gnostics. Within comparatively recent times-a century or more-this doctrine has been challenged by two quite different groups, both claiming a place within the Christian Church.The so-called “Higher Criticism” has as one of its most characteristic and fundamental assumptions the denial of the unity and harmony of the Scriptures. In place of the doctrine of the “consent of all the parts”, it posits the doctrine of the dissent of all or many of the parts. It divides the Pentateuch, for example, into documents which differ from and even contradict one another; and it is not too much to say that these documents are constructed on the basis of, and with a view to establishing and illustrating, the alleged differences. Thus, the opening chapters of Genesis are alleged to evidence two different and contradictory traditions as to the antiquity of the covenant name LORD (JHWH). According to one tradition (the J account) the name was known and used from the earliest times; according to the other (the P account) it was first used in the days of Moses. So considered the Higher Criticism may be described as a quest of contradictions. Document is pitted against document; and it is simply astonishing the number of differences and contradictions which the enterprising critic can find in narratives which to the uninitiated show remarkable evidence of unity, continuity and harmony. The Higher Criticism is justly entitled to the name” divisive”, because it divides up Scripture into documents which have no existence except in the imagination of the critics. The Higher Criticism is also rightly called “destructive” because the divisive method which it employs is destructive of the ordered and organically progressive unity of the Bible and tends to disintegrate it into a meaningless mass of contradictions. One of the most dangerous of the contradictions introduced into Scripture by the critics is the recognition of two distinct types of religion in the Bible, the priestly and the prophetic, “prophetic” religion being the true one and finding its fruition in Christianity. This leads logically to the rejection of the vicarious atonement of Christ, of which the “priestly” religion of the Old Testament was directly typical. The Higher Criticism in short is the error of the Bible disbeliever.

II

The second” divisive” tendency within Christendom today is one which we hesitate to place in the same category with the one just mentioned because while it clearly belongs there it differs from the Higher Criticism in many important respects. If Higher Criticism is the error of the Bible-disbeliever, “Dispensationalism”, as it is called, is the error of many a Bible-believer. The Higher Criticism is naturalistic and is largely dominated by the theory of evolution. Dispensationalism is intensely super-naturalistic and even catastrophic in its view of human history and destiny. Higher Criticism reduces Scripture to a merely human book, inspired if at all only as Shakespeare is inspired. Dispensationalism holds a high view of Scripture and assigns to it a unique inspiration and authority as the very Word of God. Higher Criticism, at least in its consistent forms, finds in the Cross a stumbling block or foolishness.Dispensationalism, with an important exception to be noted later, exalts the Cross as the only hope of hell-deserving sinners. But, despite these and other differences that might be mentioned, Dispensationalism shares with Higher Criticism its fundamental error. It is divisive and holds a doctrine of Scripture which tends to be and is in many respects as destructive of that high view of Scripture which its advocates assert as it is disastrous to some of the doctrines most precious to the hearts of those that hold it. In a word, despite all their differences Higher Criticism and Dispensationalism are in this one respect strikingly similar. Higher Criticism divides Scripture up into Documents which differ from or contradict one another. Dispensationalism divides the Bible up into dispensations which differ from or even contradict one another; and so radical is this difference as viewed by the extremist that the Christian of today who accepts the Dispensational view finds his Bible (the part directly intended for him) shrunk to the compass of the Imprisonment Epistles.The divisive tendency inherent in Dispensationalism appears clearly in the definition of a “dispensation” as given, for example, in the widely used Scofield Bible: A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect to obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished inScripture.

3

Dispensationalists differ as to the number and extent of these dispensations. The seven recognized in the Scofield Bible are Innocency, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace, Kingdom. And since during each dispensation man is tested in respect of some special revelation of the will of God”, the tendency is to confine to or concentrate each of these specific features in its own proper period, and to set each period definitely and distinctly over against and even at odds with the others. This leads to strained exegesis and strong-arm methods of inclusion and exclusion which are dangerous in the extreme. For the purpose of the present discussion we shall confine ourselves to the last three of the dispensations: Law, Grace, Kingdom.One of the best known and at the same time most characteristic illustrations of the dispensational method and the dangers that beset it is the Lord’s Prayer. There are thousands of Christians today who do not use this prayer: there are many ministers who have eliminated it from the accustomed order of worship in their churches. Why is this? The reason is briefly stated in the comment which is found in the margin of the Scofield Bible on the Fifth Petition, “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”:“This is legal ground. Cf. Eph. iv. 32, which is grace. Under law forgiveness is conditioned upon a like spirit in us; under grace we are forgiven for Christ’s sake, and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven.See Matt. xviii. 32 xxvi. 28, note.”

4

“This is legal ground” is the indictment brought by Dispensationalism against this petition. Law, of course, belongs to the Dispensation of Law. We are today in the Church age, the Dispensation of Grace. Therefore this petition and by inference the whole prayer is legal and not for the Christian. Dr. Haldeman puts it bluntly when he says “…it does not belong to the Church, it is not for the Christian at all”. He calls it “a prayer that has no more place in the Christian church than the thunders of Sinai, or the offerings of Leviticus.”

5

It should hardly be necessary to call attention to the radical way in which Dispensationalism thus cuts itself off from historical Protestantism. Schaff in a brief comparison of “the typical Catechisms of Protestantism,”—Luther’s (1529), the Heidelberg (1563), the Anglican (1549), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) —says of them all: “They are essentially agreed in the fundamental doctrines of catholic and evangelical religion. They teach the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer; that is, all that is necessary for a man to believe and to do in order to be saved. They thus exhibit the harmony of the chief branches of orthodox Protestant Christendom.”

6

Three elements common to all —the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer! (7). Yet many Dispensationalists refuse to recite the Lord’s Prayer, mainly because the Fifth Petition is legal ground; and of course the inclusion of the Ten Commandments in these catechisms makes them doubly offensive to the thoroughgoing Dispensationalist. For what could be more legal than the Decalogue?

III

Having noted how radical is the departure of Dispensationalism from traditional Protestant usage as to the Lord’s Prayer, let us examine the reasons given in the Scofield Bible in support of it. After describing the words of the “Fifth Petition” as “legal ground”, the comment goes on to say, “Cf. Eph. iv. 32, which is grace.” This verse which reads as follows, “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted,forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”, is interpreted to mean, “Under law forgiveness is conditioned upon a like spirit in us; under grace we are forgiven for Christ’s sake and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven”. We are then referred to “Matt. xviii. 32 and xxvi. 28, note.” Turning first to the latter passage where there is a marginal note which deals with the subject of “Forgiveness” we read, “Human forgiveness rests upon and results from the divine forgiveness. In many passages this is assumed rather than stated, but the principle is declared in Eph. iv. 32; Matt. xviii. 32, 33”. We have turned to this note first, because it indicates with perfect clearness that Matt. xviii. 32, 33, like Eph. iv. 32, states the principle of forgiveness under grace. This can be the only meaning of the placing of Eph. iv. 32 and Matt. xviii. 32, 33, together in the statement: “…the principle is declared in Eph. iv. 32; Matt. xviii. 32, 33”. Both passages referred to must illustrate the same thing, the principle of forgiveness under ‘grace’. Let us now turn to Matt. xviii. 32, 33. These verses are a part of the conclusion of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, a passage which sets forth the obligation of forgiveness with terrible impressiveness? 32. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt,because thou desiredst me 33. Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?”This according to the Scofield Bible is “grace” and is similar to Eph. iv. 32. But let us read on to the end of the chapter:34. And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”This separation between the Kingdom and the Church which is as unscriptural as it is dangerous leads to one of the most serious errors of Dispensationalism, the tendency to minimize the importance of the present Gospel age in the interest of the Kingdom age that is to come. This is the age of individual conversions, the snatching of a brand here and there from the burning. That is to bean age of mass conversions, nations born in a day. Yet this age as has been pointed out is, according to Dispensationalism, pre-eminently, we may even say exclusively, the age of the preaching of the Cross. We have said above that the Dispensationalist with an exception to be noted later, exalts the Cross as the only hope of hell-deserving sinners. Here we see clearly what the exception is. It is a very important exception. It is for the dispensation of grace, for the Church age and for this age only that he exalts the Cross. One of the most amazing statements to be found in the Scofield Bible concerns the meaning of the phrase “at hand” as used by Jesus in Matt. iv. 17: ‘At hand’ is never a positive affirmation that the person or thing said to be ‘at hand’ will immediately appear, but only that no known or predicted event must intervene. When Christ appeared to the Jewish people, the next thing, in the order of revelation as it then stood, should have been the setting up of the Davidic kingdom. In the knowledge of God, not yet disclosed, lay the rejection of the kingdom (and King), the long period of the mystery-form of the kingdom, the world-wide preaching of the cross, and the out-calling of the Church. But this wasas yet locked up in the secret counsels of God (Matt. xiii. 11, 17;Eph.iii.310).

(p.998 note).How such a statement can be reconciled as to the Old Testament with the 22nd and 110th Psalms and the 53rd of Isaiah, or as to the New Testament with the words with which the Baptist greeted our Lord, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world”, or with the words of the risen Lord to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” or with the whole grand argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews, is a mystery. They are simply irreconcilable. But what we are here concerned to point out is the terrible way in which this treatment of the Cross disparages it and minimizes its importance in the history of redemption. The “Gospel of the grace of God” is, according to the Scofield Bible, the Gospel for the Church age; and the Church age is a parenthesis of indeterminate length between the sixty- ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel ix. It is an interlude in the history of God’s people Israel. It is a time when the great prophetic clock is silent. It does not figure in prophetic history.It is “time out” in sacred chronology. Yet this parenthesis period is the Church age, the age of the Cross, of the preaching of the gospel of the grace of God. How could a “Bible Christian” minimize more seriously the value and centrality of the Cross in Biblical Revelation?

14

This will sound like a gross misrepresentation to many Dispensationalists. But we ask them simply to ponder the words: “When Christ appeared to the Jewish people, the next thing in the order of revelation as it then stood, should have been the setting up of the Davidic kingdom.” We ask them to read again the definition of the “Gospel of the kingdom” and then to face this question seriously and squarely, Where does the Cross come in? It is hard to see how any thoroughgoing dispensationalist can sing the lines of the familiar hymn, “In the Cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time; ‘All the light of sacred story Gathers round its head sublime’.” For, according to the logic of his position, the Cross belongs to the Church age, not to sacred story as a whole. And it is a parenthesis; we are tempted to say, merely a parenthesis, between the Kingdom age that is past and the Kingdom age that is yet to come. One of the most characteristic features of Dispensationalist is its pessimistic view of the present or Church age. The Bible teaches that this is the age or dispensation of the Spirit. Jesus said to his disciples before his Death, “It is expedient for you that I go away. For if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you.” The Bible also teaches that this is the age of the invisible reign of the Sovereign Lord who said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth.” Yet the Dispensationalist regards this age as demonstrably bankrupt and is looking to the Kingdom age to accomplish by a display of kingly power and through the binding of Satan what the preaching of the Cross has been unable to accomplish in nineteen Christian centuries. What is this if not to minimize the Cross? Yet it is the clear teaching of Scripture and the experience of every true Christian that it is the preaching of the Cross which is the power of God unto salvation, that it is by his Cross that the divine Saviour, has drawn, is drawing, and will draw all men unto Himself.

VII

In what has been said above the writer has been speaking of consistent Dispensationalism and its implications, and has appealed especially to the express statements of the Scofield Bible. Fortunately the Dispensationalists are not thoroughly consistent. Doubtless many of the Dispensationalists who read this article, if they do read it, will say that they do not draw these conclusions. The reason the Scofield Bible is such an extremely difficult book to understand is because the attempt to avoid the logical implications of a consistent dispensationalism makes it at many points a jumble of inconsistencies and contradictions. But if we are to have the distinct dispensations of law, grace and the kingdom, and if the dispensation of grace, or the Church age, is to be regarded as merely an interlude in God’s dealings with Israel, a parenthesis in the history of redemption, the inferences and conclusions which we have stated are logical and inevitable.The fundamental error of Dispensationalism is, as was stated at the outset, that its attitude toward Scripture is divisive, and consequently destructive of its essential unity and harmony. What is needed to day is a return to and a hearty recognition of the fundamental importance of that great doctrine regarding Scripture of the “consent of all the parts”. The slogan of Dispensationalism, “rightly dividing the word of truth”, is itself a Misinterpretation. This exhortation does not mean to divide up Scripture into dispensations and set each one at variance with the others, but so to interpret it that by a study of each and every part, the glorious unity and harmony of the whole shall be exhibited and the correctness of the exposition of the one part be established by its perfect agreement with every other part of Scripture as the God-inspired Word.

 

Notes

1.chap. I, 9.

2.Systematic Theology, Vol. I, 187

3.p. 5, note 4

4.p. 1002, note 1

5.How to Study the Bible, pp. 135, 140.

6.History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI, p. 555.

7.In the Westminster Shorter catechism there are 107 questions and answers of which about forty deal with the Ten commandments and nine with the Lord’s Prayer.

8.The word “freely” is especially noteworthy.This is not unwarranted exegesis. It is simply the application of the principle that Scripture, which so clearly teaches that salvation is of grace, must interpret this passage in harmony, not in conflict with itself.

9.According to the Scofield Bible Matt.xviii. belongs to the period after “the kingdom of heaven …has been morally rejected” and “the new message “ of “rest and service” or “discipleship has been substituted (cf. Scofield Bible, p. 1011). Since according to the Scofield Bible the “final rejection” did not take place till Matt. xxi. (Bullinger puts it at Acts xxviii.), the attempt might be made to explain the alleged contradiction between “law” and “grace” in Matt. xviii. 32-35 as due to the period being “transitional”. But there is no excuse for ignoring verse 35, however it may be explained.

10.In justice to Dr. Scofield it should be stated here that he not only recognizes but stresses the fact that the Old Testament ritual of sacrifice plainly sets forth in type Christ in his atoning work as Saviour. But the form of statement here must be admitted to be both unfortunate and dangerous.

11.The antithesis between these different “forms” of the Gospel appears especially clearly in a statement in the definition of the “ everlasting Gospel” which is mentioned third in the list (p. 1343). There we are told definitely, “It is neither the Gospel of the kingdom, nor of grace.”

12.In the comment on Zech. vi. 51, there is definite reference to the priesthood of Christ. But this note is itself an anomaly because according to the definite teaching of the Scofield Bible, the “rejection of the king”, which led directly to the Cross , “was as yet locked up in the secret counsels of God” (p.998). How then could it be revealed in Zech. vi. 11f?

13.p. 999, note 2. It is not expressly stated here that perfect obedience will constitute “righteousness” in the Kingdom age. But the inference is a natural one. It is instructive to note in this connection that the “exposition of the Davidic Covenant by the prophets” (p.977) makes no mention of “atonement”. Yet we are told that this Covenant “has not been abrogated but is yet to be fulfilled.” Furthermore we are told elsewhere (p.1226) that this promise “enters the New Testament absolutely unchanged” and the sections under this head which describe the future kingdom say nothing of salvation but speak in terms of royal rule and authority. Chafer (‘The Kingdom is, History and Prophecy’, p.49) tells us: “It should be borne in mind that the legal kingdom requirements as stated in the Sermon on the Mount are meant to prepare the way for, and condition life in, the earthly Davidic kingdom when it shall be set up upon the earth…”

14.The “parenthesis” view of the Church which is taught in the Scofield Bible sheds important light upon the distinction drawn there between the Gospel of the grace of God and the Gospel of the

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