Dispensationalist theory starts with the premise that the Jews have rejected Jesus and thus upset God’s original plan as outlined in the Scriptures. Thus God had to postpone the theocratic kingdom promised in the Old Testament until the end and then establish the church, something not predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In this view the New Testament functions as a kind of plan B, put into effect because of the failure of the Old Testament’s plan A. For the Dispensationalist the Old Testament is the book of Israel, the book of the earthly kingdom and of the law, while the New Testament is the book of grace and the church. As a result, we find two peoples absolutely separated from each other: the one natural and earthly; the other spiritual and heavenly.
In fact, Dispensationalist theology inherited this view from traditional continental Protestantism in which the same Marcionite paradigm opposed law, the Old Testament, and earthly “carnal” Israel (the Jews). Instead it favored grace, the New Testament, and “spiritual” Israel (the church). But this “new” system2 no longer describes the contrast between the two economies in supersessionist terms. Instead God gave the law for the Jews and grace for the Christians. And each one is responsible before God within their particular dispensation.
The first criticism we can make against Dispensationalism concerns the method itself. The distinctions are often artificial and quite arbitrary. Frequently they overlap, for what characterizes one dispensation will also appear in another, and even the boundaries between them are unclear and often vary, depending on the great variety of Dispensationist positions.
This systematic classification into specific dispensations contradicts the Hebrew/biblical view of revelation. It not only breaks the unity of the Scriptures by setting the New Testament in opposition to the Old Testament, but also does not conform to God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible. God certainly did not reveal Himself through elaborate theological systems or philosophical categories. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well the God of Paul, John, and Peter, has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity through history. The events of Creation, Exodus, the giving of the law at Sinai, and the return from the Exile are examples. In addition, the person of Jesus Christ–His supernatural birth, extraordinary life, and resurrection–all carry theological lessons of God’s revelation. Within the biblical perspective, theology derives from events, not the other way around. This principle of Hebrew thinking3 is important, for it allows revelation to be universal, thus transcending various cultures. More important, it prevents human extrapolation about God that may lead us astray.
We see this last risk perfectly illustrated in Dispensationalist theology, in which the preconceived dualistic/Marcionite views that pit the law of the Old Testament against the grace of the New Testament, and flesh against Spirit have prevailed over the actual truth of the Bible. Indeed, grace itself appears in the Old Testament (Ps. 31:16; Hosea 2:19), and the New Testament promotes law (Rom. 7:22-25; James 2:10). The Old Testament presents the same ideal of internalization of the law, along with prophetic calls for a circumcision of the heart, that the New Testament does (Deut. 6:4-6; cf. Jer. 9:25, 26; Matt. 5:21, 22, 27, 28; Rom. 2:29). Jesus and His disciples never intended to create a new dispensation, much less a new religion. The affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah did not imply another dispensation distinct from the Old Testament and the law: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” says Jesus. “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). The Greek word plerosai means literally “to fill to the full.” Instead of implying the annulment of the law, Jesus testified that He would “uphold” the law and make it blossom and mature. Later Paul argued the same point: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). Even when Gentiles decided to join the Christian community, they submitted to the law. The passionate discussions reported in Acts 15 clearly testify to the importance of the law in their theological thinking. Even the conclusion of the debate, which might at first glance seem to suggest a liberation from the law, still remains within traditional Judaism. We find similar discussions among the rabbis, who adopted the same legal measures for Gentiles wanting to join the Jewish community.4
Along the same lines, early Christians understood the coming of Jesus the Messiah within the context of the Old Testament prophecies, an interpretation that incidentally contradicts the Dispensationalist presupposition that the Old Testament has no connection with the New Testament. The first Christians regarded the First Advent as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy. In fact, Jewish Christians used messianic prophecies as their main argument to prove to other Jews that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. For a Jew to become a Christian did not imply rejection or ignorance of the Old Testament. On the contrary, it was on the basis of the Old Testament that as a Jew someone could recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Early Christianity remained within the confines of Israel, even after others began calling them “Christians” (Acts 11:26), a name that they did not choose for themselves. This designation seems to have come from the outside, bestowed on them by pagan Greeks or Romans, perhaps as a derogatory nickname. The Christians preferred to use other names for themselves, such as “disciples,” “brothers,” or “saints.” The non-Christian Jews used the Hebrew name Notzrim, or Nazarenes (from Nazareth), to designate the early Christians, whom they considered to be a Jewish sect (Acts 24:5). It is only much later, around the fourth century, after the Jewish-Christian separation, that the word minim (“heretics”) came to be associated with the word notzrim (“Christians”) in a curse intended to distinguish Christians from Jews.5 The history of early Christianity contradicts, therefore, the Dispensationalist claim of the necessary distinction between Israel and the church. Only later, through political turmoil and at the expense of theological compromise, did the church become a distinct entity apart from Israel.
This distinction, which resulted from the church’s rejection of its Jewish roots, has become in Dispensationalism a theological doctrine with some clear racist overtones. It regards Israel and the church as two different peoples, with no theological or ethnic connection whatsoever. But such teaching stands in flagrant contradiction to the testimony of the Old Testament Scriptures, which describes the people of Israel as a “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38) and views eschatological Israel as an open community that will ultimately join “many” peoples from all nations (Isa. 56:5, 6). To be a part of physical Israel in the Old Testament meant simply recognizing the God of Israel as one’s personal God.
Dispensationalist teaching also ignores the New Testament principle that through Christ the Gentiles are no longer separated and distinct from Jews, for they have become a part of Israel not just “spiritually” but also historically and physically. As Paul states in Ephesians 2:12-15, the Gentile who was once “alien,” “far off,” is now “brought near by the blood of Christ,” for the wall that separated Jew and Gentile has now been broken down (see also Gal. 3:28, 29). The Dispensationalist dichotomy between Israel and the church and what these entities represent–namely, law and grace, Old Testament and New Testament–therefore blatantly contradicts the historical reality of Israel in the Old Testament, or the early church in the New Testament, as well as the theological teaching of all Scripture.
1Jacques B. Doukhan, The Mystery of Israel (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2004), pp. 51-55.
2For the history of the Dispensationalist idea, see Arnold D. Ehlert, comp., A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965).
3See Jacques Doukhan, Hebrew for Theologians: A Textbook for the Study of Biblical Hebrew in Relation to Hebrew
Thinking (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1993), pp. 192, 193.
4See Sanhedrin 56a; Hullin 92a.
5See especially David Flusser, “The Jewish-Christian Schism, Part II,” Immanuel 17 (Winter 1983/1984): 32-38.