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An Examination of Dispensationalism by William E. Cox (1)


This message is rather lengthy so it will be broken up into at least 2-3 posts, possibly more.

The author, William E. Cox, who also wrote the earlier posted message (Why I Left Scofieldism) does an excellent and fair job of explaining Dispensationalism; it’s origin, beliefs, impact, etc. in the message below. The main reason I want to share this is it’s come to me over the years that there is a rather large segment of believers who claim to be dispensationalists, who don’t really know what (all) dispensationalism entails. To be frank, all the years (over 25) I went around stating, when asked, “why yes, I’m a dispensationalist”, my knowledge of what that really meant was very limited.  It wasn’t until a few people began posting a number of dispensationalist beliefs at a discussion forum I frequented that I realized how little I really knew about it. And as most of you already know, once digging into many of the hard-core beliefs the more appalled I became, for the Word didn’t agree with many of the doctrines within this theology, at all. 

Even if you don’t think this may interest you, my hope is you will still check it out: If for no other reason then Dispensationalism has and does (still) play a huge role in Church history, especially in the West (Great Britain and The United States).

Lastly and more importantly we’re to test all things against the Word of God,  1 Thess 5:21-22 as did the noble Bereans,  Acts 17:11

 An Examination of Dispensationalism

This book is sent forth, prayerfully, in the scriptural attitude of “Come, let us reason together.” It is written by one who, for a number of years was a dispensationalist. My entire background, from the time of my conversion at age sixteen until long after my call to the ministry, was one in which the Notes of the Scofield Reference Bible were looked on as being the final authority in any theological discussion. It was only after much doubt and searching of the Scriptures that I was constrained to leave such a fascinating school of interpretation.

Nor is this written in order to attack any person or group. Rather, it is written to enlighten, and to encourage a study of the Bible on a subject which demands the attention of every interested Christian. I have many close friends who remain in the dispensational school, friends whom I respect and love in the Lord. These friends know me as a very conservative evangelical preacher….  I believe very definitely in predictive prophecy, and accept the entire Bible, without apology, as the infallible Word of God.

In my book, The New-Covenant Israel, futurism and dispensationalism were treated as though they were synonymous terms. The scope of that book would not have permitted a more detailed distinction. While futurism is restricted for the most part to national Israel, dispensationalism covers a much broader field. Therefore, it seems important that a separate book be devoted to dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism holds many beliefs in common with both futurism and premillennialism. Each of the three schools, however, hold some beliefs distinctive to itself. To discuss every teaching held by the different groups of dispensationalists would require a book within itself, because of the many ramifications of dispensational teachings. For example, Jesse Wilson Hodges (Christ’s Kingdom and Coming, pp. 34-39) lists twenty-seven distinct dispensational teachings, and by no means covers the field. It shall be our purpose to deal with the more cardinal doctrines of dispensationalism. Many of their minor points will be covered under the larger headings.

Dispensationalism, although a comparatively new doctrine, is put forth arrogantly as the only true approach to Bible study and interpretation. And, while this belief is that of only a small minority of Christians, those who do not go along with it are often castigated as liberals. Although no major denomination, to my knowledge, sanctions either dispensationalism or the Scofield Reference Bible, serious divisions have been caused in just about every major denomination by both. An Examination of Dispensationalism is sent forth, not as an attack against dispensationalists, but rather as a defense of the beliefs and integrity of the great majority of Christians on this particular subject. The beliefs defended in this book are sincerely looked upon by this writer as being the faith once delivered to the saints and recorded in the New Testament. Our paramount concern throughout the book is: “What saith the scripture?” (Romans 4:3)

The book is written for laymen and ministers alike. Technical theological language has been kept to a minimum. Scholarliness is claimed neither for the writer nor for the book. It is hoped that the work will serve a useful purpose in view of the increased theological interest among laymen. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture passages are from the American Standard Version of the Bible published in 1901 by Thomas Nelson & Sons.

I – DISPENSATIONALISM

Dispensationalism, as we know it today, had its beginning with the Brethren movement, which became prominent around 1830. This group came to be known as “Plymouth Brethren,” because their publications centered in Plymouth, England. Ever since the days of John Nelson Darby, dispensationalists have been prolific writers, and their works are in abundance today.

The Brethren movement constituted a radical change from the historic teachings of Christianity. This group claimed to have “rediscovered truths” which had been lost sight of since the days of the apostles. Although the Plymouth Brethren are a very small sect, their “rediscovered truths” are to be found in nearly every Christian denomination. This is mostly because of the great influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, which was written to perpetuate these views after Scofield had come under the influence of Darby. Over two million copies of the “Bible” have been sold since its publication in 1909.

According to Oswald T. Allis (Prophecy and the Church), W.E. Blackstone’s book, Jesus is Coming, also did much to spread the Brethren views among Christians in America. Several hundred thousand copies of this book were mailed out gratis to Christian workers during the early part of this century.

The Brethren boasted, from their very beginning in the nineteenth century, that their teachings represented a wide departure from the doctrines of their predecessors and contemporaries. According to them, all the prominent commentaries, all the church fathers, and even the Reformers, were deluded by “man-made doctrines,” while only the Brethren were subject to and submissive to the Bible as the Word of God. That this superior attitude has not changed in our day is evident from the following quotations from dispensationalists.

In a recent book (When the King Comes Back, pp. 13, 14) Oswald J. Smith, in one sweeping statement, attempts to discredit all major commentaries because these commentaries are not in agreement with his views:

I know very few of the old commentaries that are trustworthy when it comes to prophecy. Nearly all of them spiritualize the predictions of the Old Testament prophets and confuse the kingdom with the Church. Hence their interpretations are worthless.

Having quoted Isaiah 11:1-13; 12:1-6 (on page 63 of the same book), Smith says of these passages:

None of it was fulfilled at the first advent, and none of it can be spiritualized, for it has no fulfillment in the Church, in spite of what the great commentators say. God did not see fit to enlighten them .

The Scofield Bible also cautions its readers that its teachings are the opposite of those of historic Christianity, those historic teachings being untrustworthy. The reader is told that as he studies the Gospels he must free his mind from the beliefs that the church is the true Israel, and that the Old Testament foreview of the kingdom is fulfilled in the church. Scofield admitted that this belief was “a legacy of Protestant thought” (p. 989).

In speaking of the dispensational teaching that the church was not prophesied in the Old Testament, Harry A. Ironside (Mysteries of God, p. 50) boasts of the fact that this teaching was non-existent until introduced by John Darby in the nineteenth century.

In fact, until brought to the fore, through the writings and preaching of a distinguished ex-clergyman, Mr. J. N. Darby, in the early part of the last century, it is scarcely to be found in a single book or sermon through a period of 1600 years! If any doubt this statement, let them search, as the writer has in a measure done, the remarks of the so-called Fathers, both pre and post-Nicene, the theological treatises of the scholastic divines, Roman Catholic writers of all shades of thought; the literature of the Reformation; the sermons and expositions of the Puritans; and the general theological works of the day. He will find the “mystery” conspicuous by its absence.

Writing in the introduction of a book by Lewis Sperry Chafer (The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, p. 5) Scofield said:

Protestant theology has very generally taught that all the kingdom promise, and ever the great Davidic covenant itself, are to be fulfilled in and through the Church. The confusion thus created has been still further darkened by the failure to distinguish the different phases of the kingdom truth indicated by the expression “kingdom of Heaven,” and “kingdom of God.”

John Walvoord, in an article in Bibliotheca Sacra (Jan.-Mar., 1951 p. 11) points up the fact that his millennial thinking is a departure from that of the great Reformation theologians.

Reformed-eschatology has been predominantly Amillennial. Most if not all the leaders of the Protestant Reformation were Amillennial in their eschatology, following the teachings of Augustine.

These quotations serve to prove at least two things concerning dispensational theologians:

(1) their actual contempt for the thinking of historic Christian theologians, and

(2) the fact that dispensational doctrines (note especially their teaching that the church is separate from Israel) are of comparatively recent origin.

Present-day dispensationalists are of necessity premillennialists. The doctrine of premillennialsim, however, is much older than the doctrine dispensationalism. Historic premillennialism can be traced back to the early post-apostolic history of the church, while, as stated before, modern dispensationalism originated in the early nineteenth century. Historic premillennialsim had no teaching whatsoever of a future hope for Israel outside the church; such a separate future hope for Israel is the main teaching in modern dispensationalism. Oswald T. Allis (Prophecy and the Church, pp. 8-9) lists nine features of dispensationalism and goes on to state correctly that not more than two of these were held by historic premillennialsim.

Historic premillennialsim could be defined simply as the belief, based on an interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10, that there will be an earthly reign of Christ following his second coming. This was believed to be a perfect peaceful reign, during which time perfect laws, justice, and tranquility were to prevail because Satan would be bound and therefore unable to lead people into sinful pursuits. This school of thought held that there would be two resurrections, which were to be separated by a period of one thousand years. At the first resurrection all saints would be rewarded; at the second all the unsaved would be judged and punished. Every believer of every age was to be resurrected at the first resurrection, and every believer (having been made a part of the church) would take part in the earthly reign of Christ.

So it is unfair and untrue for modern dispensationalists to claim to be the champions of premillennialsim. While all dispensationalists are of necessity premillennialists and futurists, it does not follow that all premillennialists, nor even all futurists, are dispensationalists. Both dispensationalism and futurism are merely recent additions (and foreign elements at that) to historic premillennialism. Both new theories seem to have originated during the nineteenth century.

Before examining the beliefs of the dispensationalists, which differ so radically from the historic Christian teachings, let us satisfy our curiosity as to how these radical changes in doctrine could gain such wide influence, even breaking across denominational lines and flying in the face of accepted creeds. I believe the answer to this dilemma can be gained by taking the spiritual pulse of Darby’s generation.

A study of the early nineteenth century reveals that doctrinal preaching was all but unheard of, and any emphasis on the second coming of our Lord was held up to ridicule by the clergy. Liberalism was in vogue, and lethargy had crept into the churches. The pulpits were filled with “professional” clergymen, and the people were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Lay-people were being spiritually starved. They longed for some sure word of prophecy, but heard only horns without certain sounds from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. In a climate such as this a natural by-product would be almost total ignorance with reference to things taught in the Bible. It was into such an incubator as this that Brethrenism was born.

It is not surprising that into such a spiritual vacuum there should arise, not only Darbyism, but all sorts of innovations. The Mormons were teaching chiliasm (millennialism) about the time of John Darby. Joseph Smith put out a book (Book of Mormon) in 1830; the same year which is recognized as marking the recognition of Darby as a leader among the Brethren. Smith, like Darby, taught a regathering of Israel. In 1831 William Miller (the founder of Adventism) began proclaiming his “findings.” Miller set 1843 as the time the world would come to an end. Many of his followers sold their possessions and put on their robes to await the Lord’s return. Judge Rutherford wrote a book entitled Comfort for the Jews. Rutherford was the successor to Charles Taze Russell, who founded Millennial Dawnism around 1880. Russell published his works beginning in 1881, the year before Darby’s death. Rutherford’s group has been known as “International Bible Students,” “Russellites,” and is best known to us today as “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Their fantastic millennial theories are well known and need no elaboration here.

The spiritual climate not only accounts for the ready acceptance of Darbyism, but it also lends insight into the direction taken by these “rediscovered truths.”

The Brethren teachings, with their emphasis on prophecy and the second coming of Christ, met a need in the lives of the spiritually-starved people of that generation. It is not difficult to replace a vacuum! If we should not be surprised that Darbyism met with a ready response in such surroundings, neither should we be surprised if the people of that generation, with their lack of biblical teaching, passed all of Darby’s spiritual “legislation” even though many of the bills in his legislation contained “riders” (strange innovations). Darby not only returned to the faith once delivered to the saints, which admittedly had been discarded and needed to be recovered, but he went far beyond that faith, bringing in many teachings of his own, which were never heard of until he brought them forth. The words of Lewis Sperry Chafer, himself an outstanding dispensationalist, would seem to be very appropriate at this point (The Kingdom in History and Prophecy, p.14): “Satan’s lies are always garnished with truth and how much more attractive they seem to be when that garnishing is a neglected truth!”

II – JOHN DARBY

It is impossible to understand fully the dispensational view of eschatology apart from some history of its origin and main spokesmen. Biographers of John Darby refer to him as the father of modern dispensationalism.

Around 1825 many dissenting groups were beginning to pull away from the established churches in different parts of Europe. The three paramount centers seem to have been Dublin, Ireland, and Plymouth and Bristol in England. The leaders of this movement recognized the pen as being “mightier than the sword,” and turned out an abundance of literature publicizing their new beliefs. Darby referred to the church as “the Brethren.” The headquarters for the printing of the Brethren was in Plymouth. Thus, it followed naturally for this new denomination to be called Plymouth Brethren, and the name stuck.

Darby was not the founder of the Brethren movement, although he became its dominant leader and shaped its history. Even though there were many great names associated with the movement, they all were dwarfed, and his name continues in the minds of friend and foe alike. By 1830 he was in complete control of the movement and definitely shaped its dispensational doctrines. That his leadership was unshakable is evident from the fact that, although he made many bitter enemies among the founders of the movement, no man was able to unseat him. Many indeed tried, but themselves were forced either to buckle to Darby or leave the group.

The “father of modern dispensationalism” was born John Nelson Darby in Ireland, in the year 1800, and died in 1882. He was an honor student in Westminster and Trinity college, where he studied law. He was a successful lawyer until the age of twenty-seven, at which time he gave up his law practice to become a curate in the Church of England. He followed this profession until the time he joined the Brethren movement about 1827.

Darby’s biographers say he was eccentric, homely, crippled, and had a deformed face, yet that he possessed a magnetic personality and a keen organizing ability. The man was indefatigable, having been known to travel, it is said, for days while living on acorns. He came from a family background of education, culture, and social standing. He apparently was blessed with a keen mind. William Blair Neatby, who was critical of the movement headed by Darby, described him (A History of the Plymouth Brethren, p. 192) as follows:

No doubt Darby had many perfectly intelligible titles to success. His attainments were great and varied, apart from his classical and theological scholarship. He could write and speak in several modern languages, and translated the whole Bible into French and German.

While convalescing from injuries received when his horse threw him, Darby was convinced of the authority of Scripture and the importance of prophetic teachings. He was especially impressed by the thirty-second chapter of Isaiah, which he referred to as describing, “a state of things in no way established as yet.”

In spite of his belief in the authority of the Scriptures, Darby retained some of his old Anglican beliefs. For example, Neatby says of him, (ibid., p. 63) “. . . Darby alone among the earlier Brethren remained a pedobaptist.”

Darby wrote into the doctrinal platform of the Brethren one innovation which still marks the dispensational school today. We refer to his disregard of and actual contempt for history. In his book, Prophecy and the Church, p. 26, Allis quotes Darby as having said:

I do not want history to tell me Nineveh or Babylon is ruined or Jerusalem in the hands of the Gentiles. I do not admit history to be, in any sense, necessary to the understanding of prophecy.

The Plymouth Brethren, when first organized, had two main distinctive:

(1) theirs was an ecumenical movement, and

(2) they sought to do away with an ordained clergy and anything which even resembled organization within the local church.

They were opposed to music or any type of ritual in the church service. Darby’s watchword, according to his biographers, was “the union of the children of God.” The Brethren frowned on ordination as constituting a man-made ministry, and the very word “Brethren” was an attempt to get away from denominationalism.

While the subject of the Lord’s second coming soon came to dominate the dispensation school, it scarcely entered into their thinking at the very first. Their two main starting aims; ecumenicity, and looseness of organization, may be seen from the following quotations.

– We should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any pulpit or ministry, but trusting that the Lord would edify us together, by ministering as He pleased, and saw good from the midst of ourselves (Thomas S. Veitch, The Brethren Movement, p. 19).

– That ordination of any kind to preach the Gospel is no requirement of Scripture (Neatby, op. cit., p. 26).

– Without any rules, desiring to act only as the Lord should be pleased to give light through His Word.

Following his break with the Church of England and his joining the Brethren movement, Darby, along with rest of the Brethren, claimed to have been given many “rediscovered truths.” These alleged truths supposedly had been taught by the apostles, then lost sight of. Even the great Reformers had not known of these doctrines. These ‘rediscovered truths” were, in fact, the direct opposite of all historic Christian teachings proclaimed by the Reformers and extant commentaries.

Notice was given to the world at large that everyone should look on all previous post-apostolic teachings as false, and that only the “rediscovered truths” of the Brethren should be embraced.

The main teachings of dispensationalism, which will be dealt with in subsequent chapters, contrasted with the historic Christian beliefs. Perhaps a summary of their beliefs would be in order at this point. The following quotation (Arnold Black Rhodes, editor, The Church Faces the Isms, p. 95) is pertinent.

In brief, the teachings of dispensationalism are as follows:

1. The Jews are to be saved by repentance; they are to be left here on earth as God’s earthly people.

2. The Gentiles are to be saved by faith; they will be taken to heaven after the Rapture.

3. The church is a parenthesis in God’s plan and will end in apostasy.

4. The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are sharply differentiated, the first being the Davidic kingdom and the latter being God’s universal world-wide kingdom.

5. God deals with men according to seven dispensations.

Dispensationalists go on to teach that, after seven years, the church will be returned to earth, where it will take part in an earthly millennium. During the millennium, according to dispensationalists, the church will have a position inferior to that of Israel. They teach that, after the millennium, the church will be returned to heaven the second time, there to spend eternity while Israel remains forever on the earth. None of this, of course, is in agreement with historic Christian beliefs.

The Brethren divided into two distinct groups after Darby came into their midst. These groups came to be known as “exclusive assemblies” and “open assemblies.” Darby was the originator of the exclusive assemblies. In 1845 he returned to Plymouth from an extended stay in Switzerland. He and a Mr. Newton, who had been the pastor at Plymouth during Darby’s long absence, had doctrinal differences. This resulted in a war in both verbal and pamphlet forms. Newton’s strong following in that particular church prevailed, and Darby “quit the assembly” with fifty or sixty members. This, according to Veitch, was the beginning of “exclusivism.” Neatby said, concerning Darby’s visit to Plymouth: “From the moment he decided to come, Brethrenism was doomed.”

When Darby withdrew from the Plymouth assembly, he formed another assembly in the same town. This marked the beginning of the so-called exclusive assemblies. Exclusives claimed that their meeting in any place was the sole “expression of the church of God” there. It was divinely recognized, nothing else was! Darby wrote to a Mr. Spurr of Sheffield in 1854 regarding the case of a Mr. Goodall: “He is rejected in London . . . I take part in this act, and hold him to be outside the church of God on earth . . .”

The exclusives formed a federation of assemblies with a Central Meeting. This was, of course, contrary to the very founding principles of Brethrenism. Darby excused this by saying they had discovered that the New Testament favored an area church. This meant that although an area such as London might have many churches, they all composed one municipal Church. The Central Meeting was set up in London. This Central Meeting decided, for all the churches, all such questions as receiving members, cutting off assemblies, and so forth. Veitch says:

These decisions were binding upon the area, and from the prestige which the London Meeting held, far beyond it. In the strong hands of Mr. Darby, the Central Meeting proved an instrument by which he controlled and dominated the assemblies. (op. cit., pp. 60, 61).

Only Darby’s strong personality held the exclusive assemblies together. Neatby says: “When Darby’s fiat ceased to be law the party was broken. When Darby died it was scattered like dust.”

Darby, throughout his career as a religious leader, was an extremely controversial individualist. Once while debating with Dwight L. Moody, Darby angrily closed his Bible and refused to continue the public debate. He castigated Newton, even though Newton issued a pamphlet apologizing for doctrinal error. When Darby, on the other hand, was told that many of his teachings were looked upon as heresy and were causing grief to many, he threatened to leave the fellowship rather than retract the teachings.

He excommunicated George Müller because Müller received members whom Darby did not approve. This in spite of the fact that these members had first been questioned by many pastors and other members. This is known as the “Bethesda Incident” to Darby’s biographers. Darby wrote a circular from Leeds on August 26, 1848, cutting off fellowship, (of) not only all Bethesda members, but also all assemblies who received any who had ever been members of Bethesda! Neatby called this circular, “A decree that was to spread strife, misery, and shame like a conflagration to the remotest bounds of Christiandom.”

Darby finally approached Müller to heal the breach over the Bethesda incident. Müller said at that time: “I have this moment only ten minutes time, having an important engagement before me, and as you have acted so wickedly in this matter I cannot now enter into it as I have no time.” These two former friends never saw each other again, and Darby continued to castigate Müller until his death.

Even some of Darby’s best friends hesitated at some of his doctrines. He was accused of heresy a number of times. One particular case was his teaching that Jesus was sometimes caused to suffer at the hand of God simply for the sake of being punished. These teachings were recorded by Darby in 1858, when he wrote on “The Suffering of Christ,” in which he stated the Lord suffered in a three-fold way. The third point was that Jesus endured sufferings at the hand of God which were non-atoning! When confronted with this teaching, Darby said it was not found in the New Testament, but in the Psalms. Darbyites today still claim to find things implied in the Old Testament which are not so much as mentioned in the New Testament.

Three things might be said in summary concerning this man with whom we differ so much:

1. He was able to do what he did only because there was a great need. One historian said of Darby: “His strength lay, now as ever, in the reality of the abuses he attacked.” The church was corrupt, the clergy unconcerned. Liberalism had all but taken over. Prophetic teachings and sermons about the second coming of Christ were almost unheard of. Multitudes of people were spiritually starved and longed for biblical preaching and a message of hope. Darby was a man of the hour, and so the people heard him gladly.

2. John Darby, and the Plymouth Brethren in general, did much good for the church of Jesus Christ. They stimulated a much-needed interest in Bible study. They exposed abuses in the church of their day. And, as time went on, they emphasized the second coming of our Lord.

3. The same thing could well be said about the Brethren and Darby that Paul said about the Judaizers of his day. They had a zeal for God, “but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). Many present-day evangelicals would agree with many of Darby’s emphases, and certainly all of us would welcome his zeal for the cause of Christ. His zealousness, however, was not always based on a knowledge of the Scriptures, and, like the Sadducees of Jesus’ day, he “erred, not knowing the Scriptures.” Yet Darby’s zeal plus his systematic legally-trained mind enabled him to carry the common people along with all he proposed. This was mostly because of the conditions that is, the lack of Bible training among the laymen, their hunger for change, the lethargic “professionalism” among the established clergy of that day, and the like.

In looking at John Nelson Darby, the “father of modern dispensationalism,” we have tried to paint the whole man, bringing out his many good points as well as what we sincerely considered to have been his many bad points as well as what we sincerely consider to have been his unscriptural teachings. The following caution (W. G. Turner, John Nelson Darby, p. 62) would seem to be an appropriate conclusion for this chapter. Darby, according to Turner:

… commands the reverence and admiration of those who recognized in him a spiritual guide. But there is always need for caution lest this admiration of a Christian leader’s intellect and spiritual qualities should be allowed to pass (unconsciously at first perhaps) into an unwarranted and dangerous deference to his authority, or even into peaceful acquiescence in all his teachings as though it were impossible for such a man to err in any point of faith or practice.

*In Part (2) we’ll look at Dispensationalist beliefs/teachings and Salvation 

One comment on “An Examination of Dispensationalism by William E. Cox (1)

  1. This was an interesting and revealing quote from Oswald J. Smith in the post above:

    “Having quoted Isaiah 11:1-13; 12:1-6 (on page 63 of the same book), Smith says of these passages:

    None of it was fulfilled at the first advent, and none of it can be spiritualized, for it has no fulfillment in the Church, in spite of what the great commentators say. God did not see fit to enlighten them.”

    It’s interesting because the apostle Paul quoted from this portion of Isaiah 11 in Romans 15, declaring it to be fulfilled in Christ, and in his (Paul’s) own outreach to the Gentiles as they put their hope in Christ. To be fair, Smith may not have been aware of what Paul said in Romans 15, or that he quoted from Isaiah 11 there.

    This quote from the post above is also quite informative:

    “Historic premillennialsim had no teaching whatsoever of a future hope for Israel outside the church; such a separate future hope for Israel is the main teaching in modern dispensationalism. Oswald T. Allis (Prophecy and the Church, pp. 8-9) lists nine features of dispensationalism and goes on to state correctly that not more than two of these were held by historic premillennialism.”

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