Dispensationalism for Dummies | Three Simple Principles for Biblical Interpretation
A recent New York Times article focused on Bart Campolo (son of famed leftist Christian preacher Tony Campolo) as the Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California. Raised under the “Red Letter Christianity” taught by his dad, the younger Campolo tried and eventually rejected the social justice brand of Christianity that was all he ever knew. Campolo struggled with the fact that an almighty and benevolent God would allow sexual abuse and other evil social ills. He left the faith and is attempting to recreate the social environment of the church without a “god” element.
Bart Campolo has a Biblical interpretation problem.
On my own Facebook page, someone else recently ranted about the need for the modern church to abandon the “Sunday Sabbath” in favor of the very clear regulations from the Bible about a Saturday Sabbath. I think “Sunday Sabbath” is an oxymoron, first of all, and second, I believe that this person has the same problem as Bart Campolo: a Biblical interpretation issue.
In fact, I’m convinced that the evangelical, protestant, reformed, and Catholic churches are filled with bad Biblical interpretation. That’s why I’m writing this brief primer on dispensationalism. I’ll call it “Dispensationalism for Dummies.”
If you understand how to interpret the Bible correctly, you will know what to do with the problem of evil and suffering that caused Bart Campolo to leave the church. You’ll also know what to do with the Sabbath regulations of the Bible. Furthermore, you’ll know how to handle the contradictions of the Bible (yes, it does have contradictions). You will know how to respond to guilt-ridden preaching designed to draw more money out of your wallet. You will know how to spot well-meaning “social-justice” solutions that are built on a proof-text but lack any Biblical support for our world today.
What is Dispensationalism?
Dispensationalism is simple. Here it is in a nutshell. Dispensationalism is nothing more than a recognition that, at several times through history, God did something that fundamentally changed all the rules. For example-
- We don’t live in a paradise garden in which everything is provided for us (Gen. 2 vs. 3).
- We speak different languages and have different ethnicities (Gen 11).
- After Genesis 12, Abraham and his extended family are the only real focus of the narrative of the Bible.
- Beginning in Exodus 20, some 613 laws govern a right relationship with God.
- The Apostle Paul declares that these laws are no longer binding for Christians and that circumcision, Sabbath laws, unclean foods, and the other regulations of the Law are now a thing of the past.
This is just a quick sample of the clear evidence that, at several times through history, God did something that fundamentally altered the rules.
In the Greek, the word for dispensation is oikonomia. As you might imagine, our English word economy comes from this word. In the world of money, there are different economies. In one economy, the Euro is welcome. In another economy, only a Yen is acceptable. In the U.S. economy, the dollar is “legal tender for all debts public and private.” The Greek word, oikonomia, literally means “house law.” The house law for debts in the USA is that the dollar is sovereign. But if you go to another economy the dollar is just a piece of paper, and you will have to exchange your dollar because the “house law” is different.
In the same way, you cannot spend the currency of one Biblical economy (dispensation) in a different economy.
Three guiding principles
As you read and interpret your Bible, here are three guiding principles of dispensationalism. If you follow these three principles, you will save yourself from an incorrect application of Scripture.
Principle #1: Read the Bible Literally, Always
Don’t be too quick to dismiss this principle with the assumption that you always do this anyway. I put the word always on purpose, and want you to consider some of the implications.
If you take the Bible literally, always, then-
- Israel is the nation that descended from Abraham
- Gentiles are people who are not Jews
- A Kingdom is a physical realm of authority under the rule of a King
- A day that is bordered by an evening and a morning is 24 hours
- A giant is a man roughly 9 ½ feet tall.
These seem simple, but just a very quick search of very popular Christian preachers would reveal so many examples in which Israel means the church, gentiles means lost people, the Kingdom is something in your heart, a day is eons long, and a giant is a big problem you need to face. This kind of non-literal interpretation of the Bible is rampant in the church today, but not if you are a dispensationalist.
What about when the Bible speaks figuratively? That’s simple: When the Bible speaks figuratively, take it literally, just like you do when i talk figuratively.
Let me explain. When I write figuratively, you know it and you take it as literally figurative. Look at the paragraph above, for example. I wrote about when the Bible speaks figuratively. You read that in a literally figurative way without even thinking about it. Your mind said, “the Bible doesn’t actually speak because it is a written word, and when this author said the Bible speaks he was speaking figuratively saying, ‘the written word of the Bible has a message.’”
Here’s my point: figurative language is used all the time in every human language. We have absolutely no problem literally interpreting the figurative language. Furthermore, when the Bible speaks figuratively, the text is very clear. In Revelation 12:1, for example, there is a great wonder that appeared in heaven. This wonder (literally, “sign”), was a woman clothed with the sun. What do you do with this passage? You take it literally figurative. There was a sign that was a woman. This woman is a sign of something, and by reading the text, you begin to search for the clues of what she means. The text itself makes it clear that this woman is not to be interpreted as a woman but as a sign of something. Take that literally and look for her meaning. The problem comes when people begin to interpret the literal as figurative, and, therefore, end up with giants representing their personal challenges and a nation representing the church and the Kingdom representing good works done out of a good heart.
Principle #2: Take the audience literally.
This principle is as important as #1. As you read a passage, make sure you know the identity of the person or group to whom the promise or instruction is given, and then take it literally as to them, not to you.
Here’s an example. In Joshua 1:8 there is a promise of prosperity and success. Many people latch on to this promise and take it literally (or at least parts of it…the parts that fit their narrative), but they ignore the fact that the promise is directed to Joshua.
If it helps you not misapply a promise or obligation, just keep your driver’s license handy when you read the Bible. When you see a promise to Joshua, son of Nun, just check your driver’s license. If your name is Joshua Ben-Nun, then “name it and claim it.” If not, then slow down!
This simple fact will help you interpret the Bible: You are not Joshua, Moses, David, Jesus, Israel, or even Jezebel. Promises, curses, and instructions to these people or groups are nothing but promises, curses, and instructions to these individuals or groups. You claim their promises and carry their curses or instructions at the peril of huge disappointment or unnecessary burden.
If you are a dispensationalist, you will recognize that Joshua 1:8 was a very accurate and literal promise to Joshua, son of Nun. You will not claim it nor apply it to others. You will never be disappointed that God was not faithful to this “promise” in your life. You will never be perplexed when others (like John the Baptist) are obedient to the commands of the promise but ended up in poverty and failure rather than prosperity and success. In short, your faith will begin to make sense.
Principle #3: Ask whether the person or group that is the recipient of a promise, curse, or instruction is under the same dispensation as you are.
This one is a little more difficult but equally important.
I remember preaching a rousing sermon on tithing many years ago, and I based it on Matthew 23:23, “… ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin…these ought ye to have done….” (Matthew 23:23, KJV 1900). My premise was that if Jesus told the Pharisees they ought to meticulously tithe, then we should meticulously tithe as well. Sermons like this work well if you use a lot of ellipses that skip major portions of the verse and bigger portions of context.
My premise had a major problem. Whereas Jesus did tell the Pharisees to tithe meticulously (on their agricultural products, as the Scripture consistently taught), the fact remains that Jesus was talking to a group of people who were living under the Law. In my sermon, I failed to account for the fact that there had been a dispensational change between Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and the world of grace in which I live. Had I been cornered, I would have had a problem reconciling Jesus’ teaching with Paul’s instruction of 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (KJV). How can individual freedom of choice in giving be reconciled with meticulous tithing? The fact is, these two do not reconcile. The only thing that brings harmony between these two scriptures (and so many more) is the recognition of a dispensational change between the two.
So, you should apply principle #3, when a promise, instruction, or curse is not directed toward you (as in #2) but might apply to others (including you). Since the Corinthians were living under grace, not the Law, then they are in the same dispensation as I am. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were clearly living under the Law, before the grace of God had been accomplished through the death and resurrection of our Savior. Therefore, Jesus’ instructions to the Pharisees is not a command for you or me.
When you follow these three principles, the Scripture will come together in a dispensational harmony. The Bible never contradicts itself within a dispensation. But to compare two scriptures in two different dispensations, one will often find a contradiction, especially in instructions to men concerning what we would call the “Christian life.”
The instruction given to Timothy (who lived under the same economy or dispensation that we live under) was to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Since the division of the Word is a commandment, our job is to figure out where to divide. Dispensationalism is the practice of dividing Scripture in the right places, namely, those places where God’s activity was so fundamental that it changed the rules of engagement. How does a dispensationalist find these spots? He applies the three principles above: literal reading, literal audience, and application only when the direct audience was living in the same dispensation.
If you will follow these three rules, dividing the dispensations, you’ll find that Scripture comes together in a perfect dispensational harmony. It will give you some crisis moments since you will have to let go of some promises that are not yours. You will have other crisis moments as you let go of obligations that you’ve put yourself under, the obligations also not being yours. In the end, you will live in freedom, grace, and the blessing of understanding the Word.
Dr. Randy White Need dispensational resources? Click here.