What is dispensationalism?
In the study of a compilation of 66 books written by 40 different authors over the course of 1500 years, it is essential to determine a framework for interpretation. The last book of the Bible was written nearly 2000 years ago. Both Testaments were written in a drastically different culture and language. It is clear that much of the Bible was intended as history, but some is also allegory and symbolism, some poetry, and much of it prophecy. Determining how to consolidate several different literary forms and determine God's over-arching story almost requires a methodology as flexible as the scientific method—make a prediction, see how the evidence supports that prediction, refine the prediction until no further anomalies occur, then use the established framework to interpret the more ambiguous texts. The established framework adhered to by dispensationlists is that the text of the Bible should be taken literally wherever possible and that the church and the nation of Israel are two separate entities which God has managed via two distinct plans.
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Within the literal interpretation of dispensationalism is allowance for metaphor, figures of speech, and allegory. Jesus was fond of using allegory in His parables (Matthew 13:10-17). God often used imagery to reveal facets of His character whether it is His protective side (Matthew 23:37) or His power (Hosea 5:14). But the meaning behind the metaphor is taken literally. God makes it evident through His use of language which passages are literal and which are metaphorical. Even in such miraculous events as the creation of the world, He uses specific language to reveal His literal meaning. For instance, while many try to force the text to mean God created the world during a long expanse of time, the text specifically states "And there was evening and there was morning…" (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). In no other place in the Bible does the phrase "evening and morning" refer to a symbolic period of time; it always refers to a 24-hour day.
God also worked through the course of history to encourage a literal interpretation of the Bible. Those prophecies which have been fulfilled have all been fulfilled literally. Jesus was literally born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). God did not have to fulfill these prophecies literally, but because He did, it impels us to interpret other prophecies just as literally. It makes sense that He would want His word interpreted literally. To fill His word with symbolism and hidden mysteries would be to invite too much subjectivity into interpretation, something that can be readily witnessed in the church today, and throughout its history.
A literal interpretation of the Bible may have its greatest and most divisive effect in the interpretation of what will happen in the end times. Dispensationalism holds that the church and Israel are two different entities, with whom God interacts in two specific ways. Unlike Covenant theology, dispensationalism teaches that the church did not inherit the promises God made to Israel. Although both the church and Israel receive salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, the church is not a political/national entity and is not called to enforce God's standards on a nationwide or worldwide scale. With this distinction in mind, God's plan for Israel is yet to be fulfilled; Israel still has an essential part in the end times which will ultimately come to pass in the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20). God's attention is temporarily on the church, but will return to Israel when the church is raptured before the Tribulation.
"Dispensationalism" gets its name from the "dispensations" inferred in the Bible. They are innocence (Genesis 1:1–3:7), conscience (Genesis 3:8–8:22), human government (Genesis 9:1–11:32), promise (Genesis 12:1–Exodus 19:25), law (Exodus 20:1–Acts 2:4), grace (Acts 2:4–Revelation 20:3), and the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6). Perhaps ironically, these seven timeframes are not literally named in the text, but they do accurately describe the different ways in which God has interacted with His creation. A literal interpretation of the Bible shows that God has related to mankind in different ways over the course of history, and that Israel and the church are two separate entities. That is the essence of dispensationalism.
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