Skip to main content

Theology: Method and the Essence of Dispensationalism (Part 1 of 4)

As Greg posted in his “Introduction to Christianity and Culture” we’re getting started on organizing and publishing this blog. We want you involved! I’m in charge of the theology section of the blog. If you have input, want to write something, or whatever, please e-mail me at In starting this off and with the national conference primarily about dispensationalism, I thought I’d post (in sections) a paper by Dr. Stallard, dean at Baptist Bible Seminary. I learned a lot from his class on dispensational premillennialism! It was originally written in 1995 but still has a lot of relevance for the current debates in dispensationalism. At the end I’ll post a few questions, if you care to comment.


by Dr. Stallard

As one evaluates the current debate between dispensationalism and nondispensationalism, the pervading notion seems to be that dispensationalism is in the midst of an identity crisis. While as a whole the evangelical community is seeking for some common ground in eschatology, certainly a worthy aim, this paper seeks to contribute some understanding to the essence of dispensationalism in a day when the very term has been brought into question by those within dispensational circles. [1. I presented this paper in its original form during the doctoral seminar on dispensationalism taught by Craig Blaising at Dallas Theological Seminary in the spring of 1988. I was responding to his claim in class that “literal” interpretation was no longer an issue in the debate between dispensational and nondispensational systems of theology. In particular, I was attempting to synthesize all of the issues coming to the forefront with the rise of progressive dispensationalism and present them in a simple format. To Blaising’s credit he gave me a good grade on the paper and maintained an irenic spirit of dialogue throughout the discussion in spite of my disagreement with him. It was at the Dispensational Study Group at ETS in November of 1986 where the issue was raised concerning whether or not the label “dispensationalist” should be retained.]

In particular this paper will attempt to articulate the essence of dispensationalism in hermeneutical terms. Earl Radmacher noted that “literal interpretation is the ‘bottom-line’ of dispensationalism. [2. Earl Radmacher, “The Current Status of Dispensationalism and its Eschatology,” Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, edited by Kenneth S. Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 171.] This “bottom-line” expresses itself in its consistent application to prophetic portions of Scripture. [3. Ibid. 168.] Thus, the essence of dispensationalism for Radmacher is the literal interpretation of prophecy. Eschatology must be derived from such an approach to the Bible. What follows is a defense of this position with the goal of added precision. The added precision will come by viewing literal hermeneutics through the eyes of sound, theological method. The result is a refinement of Charles Ryrie’s famous sine qua non of dispensationalism. [4. Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 43ff.]

A Brief Sketch of the Debate Concerning Literal Interpretation

One of the arguments used by progressive dispensationalists against more traditional approaches is that the history of dispensationalism is discontinuous. [5. This seems to be Craig Blaising’s major contribution to the rise of progressive dispensationalism. See Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), 9-56 and Craig Blaising, “Dispensationalism: The Search for Definition,” in Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church, ed. by Blaising and Darrell Bock, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 13-34. Also in a recent workshop at the Evangelical Theological Society (Nov. 1995), Blaising read a paper entitled “On Defining Dispensationalism: A Historical Response to Ryrie’s Dispensationalism.” It seems that Blaising believes that the historical discontinuity within the dispensational tradition warrants the conclusion that a sine qua non does not exist for dispensationalism. The best one can achieve is a descriptive list of concerns which make up the tradition.]

Therefore, the reasoning goes, it is erroneous to posit that there is a sine qua non that is true for all dispensationalists for all times. I would agree that the level of understanding concerning the discontinuous areas in the history of dispensationalism needs more study. However, there are a few cautions that I want to put forward as this issue is discussed:

First, little discussion has taken place concerning how continuity and discontinuity in the tradition are to be measured. Historical methodology should be targeted for study to a far greater degree before any pronouncements are made in this area.

Second, progressive dispensationalists have tended to focus on discontinuity especially in the area of Ryrie’s sine qua non to the exclusion at times of any elements of continuity. For example, literal interpretation, in their view, cannot be part of any sine qua non when a sampling of earlier and later dispensationalists shows any use of nonliteral methods. As we will see later, this is just the tact that has been taken by covenantalists for years. That Ryrie’s sine qua non must be taken seriously on the historical level is proven by the fact that a Genevan pastor named Emile Guers, a disciple of Darby, gave his own version of an appropriate and extremely similar sine qua non in 1856 in a book entitled The Future of Israel. [6. Emile Guers, Israel aux Derniers Jours de L’Economie Actuelle ou Essai Sur La Restauration Prochaine de ce People, Suivi D’Un Fragment sur le Millenarisme, (Geneve: Emile Beroud, 1856), 22-28. A copy of the original French version can be found at Harvard University. For the English translation, see Israel in the Last Days of the Present Economy; or, An Essay on the Coming Restoration of this People. Also, a fragment on Millenarianism, trans. with a preface by Aubrey C. Price, (London: Wertheim, Macintosh, and Hunt, 1862). A copy of the English translation can be found at the Elkhart Library of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. A German edition of the book yields the short title, which is in English, The Future of Israel. This book had a prominent role in the conversion of Arno C. Gaebelein from postmillennialism to premillennialism. See Michael D. Stallard, “The Theological Method of Arno C. Gaebelein,” Dallas, Texas: Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1992, 83-100.] His sine qua non consists of the following:

1. The Principle of Literalism — Here Guers gives a rather sophisticated discussion of literal, figurative, metaphorical, and symbolic interpretation which would be at home in our modern debates. Guers’ approach agrees in substance with Ryrie’s insistence upon literal interpretation as the goal of grammatical-historical interpretation especially when dealing with prophecy.

2. The Principle of Diversity of Classes and Privileges in the Entire Body of the Redeemed — Here Guers agrees with Ryrie’s insistence upon the distinction between Israel and the Church. He also mirrors Ryrie by noting that such a distinction is the result of the application of his first principle of literalism.

3. The Literal Value of the Word Day in Prophecy — In this last part of Guers’ triadic formula, he returns to the special issue of literalism as it applies to the particular issue of the use of the word day in prophetic portions of the Bible. In such contexts the word must almost always mean a twenty-four hour day. This is a reaction to a common view debated in his day, especially at the Powerscourt Conferences beginning in 1831 (in which Darby took part), the view that the word day is to be taken symbolically as one year. There is no clear point in Guers corresponding to Ryrie’s last point (the doxological purpose of God in the world).

Third, progressive dispensationalism has failed to note that divergent views and practices within the history of dispensationalism do not eliminate a common thread that seems to be present when, in fact, that history is analyzed. So below we will discuss the development of the debate concerning literal interpretation in this century.

The Scofield-Gaebelein Era (early 20th century)
While Scofield’s notes are a bit sketchy and can lead to wrong generalizations on the part of a reader, Arno C. Gaebelein, one of the associate editors of the Scofield Bible, has left us, in the estimation of this writer, almost 20,000 pages of material in commentaries and magazine articles spanning over half a century. [7. For a fairly comprehensive listing, see my dissertation mentioned above.] It is in his writings and other similar dispensationalists of the period that one finds an enigma in Bible interpretation. There is simultaneously a claim that prophecy must be interpreted literally and a frequent practice of appealing to typological interpretations. The typology of Gaebelein is so extreme at times that it would, no doubt, embarrass most dispensational interpreters today. It is to these extremes that those who deny a valid place to literal interpretation in the debate appeal.

However, a close examination of Gaebelein’s writings and those like him reveals a measure of consistency. What drove his typological interpretations was the conviction that every verse in the Bible was prophetic. Consequently, when you come to a prophetic passage, you let it stand as is, i.e., literally, to get the intended prophetic character. However, in historical narratives in the Bible, one had to resort to a typological or spiritualizing approach to “find” any prophetic significance. In short, Gaebelein would not complain that the amillennialist or postmillennialist was allegorizing the Bible. He would tell the amillennialist that he was allegorizing the wrong part of the Bible! In Gaebelein’s mind, the approach was simple and consistent. What is important for our discussion is that literal interpretation of prophecy is kept intact among these kinds of dispensationalists, a point that may be lost among those who downplay the role of literal interpretation in the current debate! [8. I will deal with a technical definition of literal interpretation later in the paper. For my analysis of these salient points in Gaebelein, see my dissertation referenced earlier, 193-270.]

The Chafer-Pentecost Dialogue with Allis

In my original paper, I referred to this era of discussion as the “classical debate.” On the dispensational side would be Chafer, Walvoord, and Pentecost while one representative from the Covenant camp would be Oswald T. Allis. The dialogue of debate in this period was characterized by “literal” versus “allegorical” salvos. Pentecost begins Things to Come with four chapters on interpretation. He laments the problems of allegorical interpretation and defines the central issue at the outset as one of allegorical versus literal interpretation and considers himself in agreement with Allis on this point. [9. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (reprint ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1964), 1.]

That Pentecost’s assessment of Allis is correct can be seen in Allis’ own words:

Literal interpretation has always been a marked feature of Premillennialism; in Dispensationalism it has been carried to an extreme. We have seen that this literalism found its most thoroughgoing expression in the claim that Israel must mean Israel, and that the Church was a mystery, unknown to the prophets and first made known to the apostle Paul. Now if the principle of interpretation is adopted that Israel always means Israel, that it does not mean the Church, then it follows of necessity that practically all of our information regarding the millennium will concern a Jewish or Israelitish age. [10. Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945), 244.]

Of course, in this statement, Allis was not writing favorably of dispensationalism. Much of his classical work is devoted to showing the necessity of what he believes to be nonliteral interpretation such as typical and figurative language and to demonstrate inconsistency on the part of dispensationalists in the application of their own hermeneutic. But he definitely sees the issue in hermeneutical terms. What is especially important is that during this era of argumentation, both sides agreed that literal interpretation was-the main issue dividing dispensationalism and nondispensationalism.

The Context of the More Recent Debate
However, later forms of the debate between the two groups seemed to shift to overall theological method rather than to hermeneutics. A representative summary comes from nondispensationalist George Ladd:

The main point . . . is that many Old Testament passages which applied in their historical setting to literal Israel have in the New Testament been applied to the church. What does all of this have to do with the question of millennium? Just this: The Old Testament did not clearly foresee how its own prophecies were to be fulfilled. They were fulfilled in ways quite unforeseen by the Old Testament itself and unexpected by the Jews. With regard to the first coming of Christ the Old Testament is interpreted by the New Testament.

Here is the basic watershed between a dispensational and a nondispensational theology. Dispensationalism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament. It confesses that it cannot be sure how the Old Testament prophecies of the end are to be fulfilled, for (a) the first corning of Christ was accomplished in terms not foreseen by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and (b) there are unavoidable indications that the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Christian church. [11. George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert Clouse, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 27.]

This comment characterized a shift in focus for the debate and gave a clarion call to the study of the New Testament use of the Old Testament which has dominated discussions in the debate for almost the last twenty years. Furthermore, the statement is revealing for the following reasons:

1. The significance of literal interpretation is still retained in the debate in some form.

2. Emphasis is placed upon the literal interpretation of the Old Testament rather than upon literal interpretation of “prophetic Scripture” in general.

3. The priority of the Testaments is raised as a major divisive issue in the discussion. The stage is set to pit “literal” interpretation of the Old Testament over against “literal” interpretation of the New Testament.

As a result of the newer forms of debate, it is no longer possible to simply argue “literal” versus “allegorical.” [12. It cannot be said that the earlier antagonists in the debate such as Pentecost and Allis did not see these same issues. The point is that the thrust of the debate was not formulated in those terms. For example, Allis shows keen perception as to the issue in his accusation that dispensationalists emphasize the Old Testament to the loss of the New Testament, Prophecy and the Church, 48-50.] The overall debate must take on a more sophisticated approach. However, it is this author’s contention that literal hermeneutics cannot be overlooked as a factor in this new phase of dialogue.



Dr. Stallard mentions that further research needs to be done in the area of continuity and discontinuity. What questions do you have in considering continuity and discontinuity?

Do you agree with George Ladd’s point about the watershed in covenant and dispensational theology being in regards to the priority of the Testaments? Why or why not?

What can we learn from Dr. Stallard’s gracious review of the historical debate?




  • Will,

    I too took Stallard’s Dispentational Premillennialism at BBS. I think it is interesting that many who wish to be less clear on eschatological issues fail to acknowledge the link between eschatology and hermeneutics. Clear eschatology statements are needed because they reveal so much about our hermeneutic approach.

    Perhaps Dr. Stallard would agree to contribute some more of his writings to this website. I think his voice would be a welcome and needed contribution.

  • whatfield says:


    I agree. I’ll pump him for more stuff. 🙂

  • Matt LaPine says:

    Do you agree with George Ladd’s point about the watershed in covenant and dispensational theology being in regards to the priority of the Testaments? Why or why not?

    This is the problem for us young guys. I do agree with Ladd. But when we’re deciding the question as to what approach to take dispensationalism seems to part company with the apostles. That’s why the use of the OT in the NT is such a big issue. You can’t just simply say the apostles could do that. You have to have a more sophisticated answer as to how they used the NT and why we should not side with those who give priority to the NT.

  • Will Hatfield says:


    After you read part 3, tell me what you think…


Leave a Reply