Published on March 4, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Southern California Seminary Press, 2023 | 399 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Dr. Thomas Pittman


This book is essential for the modern discussion about Dispensationalism. It is especially important to answer the question as to whether Dispensationalism is a viable theological system and whether its core tenets can be found prior to J. N. Darby. Discovering Dispensationalism is thought-provoking and comprehensive. Its purpose is to trace the core ideas that formed independently through the centuries into what became the modern dispensational system (the division of history into distinct dispensations, the importance of the historical, grammatical, literal hermeneutic, the role of national Israel in God’s plan, the distinction between the church and Israel, premillennialism, the imminent return of Christ, the appearance of a future Antichrist followed by a 1,000-year messianic kingdom, and the pre-tribulation rapture). The authors of this book clearly demonstrate that the core elements of this theological system are not novel or new. The common accusation that J. N. Darby invented the system out of thin air is an utter fabrication and although such slights will never end, those who read this book will know enough of the history to not be swayed by such falsities. The book is clear in its definitions and distinguishes between “dispensational thought” (individual theological ideas later form the system) and the system known as “Dispensationalism.” 

The book is broken up into thirteen chapters. The first chapter sets the stage and helps to correct common misconceptions. This introductory chapter aptly refutes the common distortions and ignorant assumptions many use to discredit and ignore this theological system. After doing this Dr. Cory M. Marsh argues that the evidence is sufficient to understand modern Dispensationalism as a valid biblical theology with the same quality historicity that Covenant Theology claims for itself today. The next ten chapters follow a chronological and geographic order. First is the Ancient Mediterranean broken up into the New Testament Era, the Patristic Era, and the Nicene Era. Then it moves to Vintage Europe through the Medieval Era, Reformation Era, and the Pre-Darby Era. Finally, it moves to modern America. The book traces this transition across the Atlantic, the golden years, and the progressive movement. There is one chapter that seems out of place in this section tracing the Mid-Acts Movement between 1880 and 1930. The book closes with a retrospective of all that has been covered with thoughts on Dispensationalism’s future.

Each of the chapters is written by eminent scholars whose expertise is in the area and the historical/geographical period covered (James I. Fazio, Paul Hartog, Jeremiah Mutie, William C. Watson, Ron J. Bigalke, Mark A. Snoeberger, Max S. Weremchuk, Larry D. Pettegrew, Phillip J. Long, Thomas Ice, Darrell L. Bock, Cory M. Marsh) and most are professors at a variety of seminaries. Their approach is easy to understand. In each area, attention is given to the core ideas that can be connected to the Dispensational system.

The New Testament Era (AD 30-100) chapter by James Fazio focuses on how the Greek terms oikonomos / oikonomia were understood by those of the New Testament era. This use is primarily found in Luke’s gospel in the word of Jesus (Luke 12:42; 16:1-18) and by Paul (1 Cor 4:1-2; 9:17; Eph 1:10; 3:2; Col 1:25). Dr. Fazio shows that the socio-historical analysis of the word shows that the ordinary understanding of the term was a person as the household steward with management responsibilities for that household or the related theological use designating the dispensation as a unique steward over God’s household. His presentation is clear and accurate and helps argue for a legitimate rendering of the concept of a period of special management under a steward like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Since this timeframe is contemporaneous with the persons of the New Testament, the hermeneutic used to define terms is of vital importance here at the start. Much of the debate today is how to understand these terms.

The Patristic Era chapter (AD 100-250) by Paul A. Hartog recognizes that the early church fathers did not speak with a unified voice. This era is full of debates and a variety of opinions. The main purpose of this chapter is to cover chiliasm (premillennialism). This chapter is different from all the others in the book as it is a review of the work by Larry V. Crutchfield and Charles E. Hill. Crutchfield concluded that the Church Fathers 1) distinguished between the church and national Israel, 2) recognized distinctions among the differing peoples of God throughout biblical history, and 3) believed in the literal fulfillment of covenant promises in the earthly kingdom. He argued that the current dispensational position is a refinement of this position in the ante-Nicene church. Hill was an amillennialist who created a two-fold key. He held that those who believed in chiliasm also believed in a subterranean repose awaiting future resurrection. Whenever he was able to see one item in the writings of a church father, he would assume the other was present as well. This key is shortsighted and fails to account for a number of anomalies. In reality, the church fathers held a number of positions and were not unified in their interpretations of Scripture. This chapter does bring some ideas to the fore that are often missed. Many of the church fathers rejected chiliasm for being too materialistic and thought it to be Judaistic. There was also an early understanding that regardless of whether you held to the subterranean repose, a martyr for the faith was ushered immediately into the presence of Jesus. Both writers reviewed acknowledged that Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Commodianus, Victorinus, and Lactantius were all premillennialists. The disjointedness of this chapter which reviews these two authors is its biggest difficulty in presentation. 

Chapter 4 covers the Nicene Era (AD 250-430) and was written by Jeremiah Mutie. Dr. Mutie does acknowledge that biblical hermeneutics had a major shift during this time. This is the period when the allegorical method of interpretation from the Alexandrian school began to dominate theological circles. Dr. Mutie covers those that are considered to have still held to a literal hermeneutic (Cyprian of Carthage, bishop Nepos of Egypt, Lactantius, Methodius, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, bishop Hesychius of Salona, and Sulpicius). Of these, the two most shocking inclusions are Jerome and Augustine. Jerome was an ardent follower of Origen until his later years. It is his later works that show a change towards literalism. His commentaries on Isaiah and Daniel are good examples of this. Augustine of Hippo is known as the father of amillennialism so to have him represent some aspect of Dispensationalism was new to me. Augustine rejects a literal interpretation of the Millennial Kingdom in Revelation 20 but seems to still see a dispensational framework of history. Covering the church fathers of this era that are easily identified as holding to some of the core tenets of Dispensationalism was helpful. A major advantage would have been to also cover the most important of the church fathers classifying the similarities and differences with the above list. The inclusion of Cyprian, Lactantius, and Jerome shows this is not just some splinter faction that holds such positions but respected leaders of theology. 

Chapters 5 through 9 and 11 are the true gold of this work. Each of these areas do a fantastic job of tracing the major ideas and personages that held to incipient Dispensationalism. Each includes the socio-historical framework of the culture and religious ideas of the time along with the pressures working against theological understanding. In this period many of the ideas that are foundational to Dispensationalism (successive dispensations, future and personal antichrist, church rapture, literal tribulation, Jewish restoration, biblical revelation as authoritative, premillennialism, and literal hermeneutics) can be seen in various groups. It was in this environment that J. N. Darby pulled together the first systematized understanding of Dispensationalism and through his travels to America set the stage for its move. Recognizable names like James Hall Brookes, Harry A. Ironside, Arnold C. Gaebelein, and C. I. Scofield helped this theological position sweep the United States through the Bible and Prophecy conferences. Chapter 11 covers the golden years of Dispensationalism. Here prominent names like Lewis Sperry Chafer, John F. Walvoord, Charles R. Ryrie, and Dallas Theological Seminary show up foremost. While many conclude that Dispensationalism is an Arminian tradition, Dr. Thomas Ice shows that the history of the system has been decidedly Calvinistic and Reformed. In America, its roots were primarily in Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational circles. 

Chapter 10 is an unusual inclusion. This covers Mid-Acts Dispensationalism. I assume this was done to try and connect all the major streams within Dispensational circles, but I found this inclusion forced and disconnected. This position does not seem to have the robust number of adherents as do the Classical, Revised, or Progressive camps. Most of the writings are not of an academic nature. I did not see any area where this position has helped to refine any of the theological positions all hold in common. It seems to just be the one that chose to go its own route, saying the church starts in Acts 9, 13, or 28 depending on which of these distinct groups you are in. That said it is a marginalized Dispensational tradition.

Chapter 12 has a different feeling as if it were written to other Academians familiar with its positions. Rather than a history of the progression of thought, Dr. Bock seemed to be defending Progressive Dispensationalism as a valid movement. More time is spent on how the previous generation of scholars rejected the new tensions rather than explaining Complementary Hermeneutics or the Already/Not Yet framework. 

The concluding chapter by Dr. Cory M. Marsh is an argument to show that Dispensationalism should rightly be regarded as a biblical theology. This chapter shows from whence the position has arisen. The chart on page 363 of the book is helpful in this regard. The core commitment of Dispensationalism is to a consistent grammatical, historical, literal hermeneutic understanding the Word of God to be divinely inspired and inerrant. As such, aspects of this system will always be found.

This book was an excellent read and worth the time. If I were to make any suggestions on what it could do to make it better, they would be few. The first is in Chapter 1 to identify, define, and list all the major aspects of the Dispensational system. Once done this should have been the themes each of the writers attempted to cover. If they were not present, that should be noted. This would have advanced the argument. Secondly, at times, it seems like a chapter was adapted from another project rather than written specifically with this project in mind. Since the purpose of this work was to trace the core themes the different focus by different authors did cause some disconnects between various chapters. Some of this is insurmountable by its very nature. Otherwise, this work is one of the most significant resource books about Dispensationalism.


Thomas Pittman

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Southern California Seminary Press, 2023 | 399 pages

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