Dispensationalism

The following article was written for the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, a project of the Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln. There are two versions of the article included here, both are first drafts and have not yet passed through the editorial process. The final published article is an editorial “redaction” of these two articles.

David J. Wishart, editor. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

The shorter version (about 300 words); there is a longer version included below.

Dispensationalism

Among evangelical churches on the Plains, dispensationalism is an influential hermeneutical framework intended to make sense of the varied literature of the Bible. The system assumes the existence of a personal God who created the world and humankind; an historical, grammatical interpretation of the Bible; and a premillennial understanding of eschatology. God’s providential plan for human history is seen to include distinguishable phases (including law, church, and kingdom) with differing purposes. The institutions of each phase are distinct: Israel and the church are discontinuous agencies through whom God accomplishes his purposes.

Plains churches known for dispensationalism include the Berean Fellowship of Churches (centered in Nebraska), Independent Fundamental Churches of America (Kansas, Colorado), General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana), Baptist Bible Fellowship (centered in Missouri), and World Baptist Fellowship (Texas). The American Sunday School Union and Rural Home Missionary Association have also been active in ministry in the Plains states. Dispensationalism in mainline denominations has been minimal.

Dispensational Bible colleges and institutes on the Great Plains include the Rocky Mountain Bible Institute (Denver; now part of Colorado Christian University), Midwest Bible and Missionary Institute (Salina, Kansas; now part of Calvary Bible College, Kansas City), Prairie Bible Institute (Three Hills, Alberta), Montana Bible Institute (Lewiston, Montana), and Frontier School of the Bible (LaGrange, Wyoming). Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute have been significant dispensational influences on these churches by training many of their pastors and teachers.

The two best-known popularizers of dispensationalism on the Plains have been, in the United States, C. I. Scofield (attorney and politician from Kansas before ordination to the Congregational ministry in 1882, editor of the dispensational Scofield Reference Bible) and, in Canada, William Aberhart (Baptist radio preacher and founder of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute, later active in Alberta’s Social-Credit government as premier, 1935–43).


The longer version (about 650 words):

Dispensationalism

Among evangelical Christian churches in the Great Plains, dispensationalism is an influential hermeneutical system or framework intended to make sense of the vast and varied literature of the Bible which was written over a period of two thousand years and which describes events over an even larger historical span. What is the unity that holds it all together? What is God doing in the world and how have his plans and purposes changed throughout history? Dispensational hermeneutics attempts to answer questions such as these.

The system assumes the existence of a personal God who created the world and humankind; an historical, grammatical interpretation of the Bible (which describes both his work and his providential plan for human history); and a premillennial understanding of eschatology. This plan is seen to include distinguishable phases with differing purposes. Although the number of “dispensations” is sometimes thought to be the distinctive feature of dispensationalism, other hermeneutical systems (such as covenant theology) also describe biblical history in terms of such phases. The major periods include the patriarchal, Mosaic, church, millennial kingdom, and eternal kingdom. Dispensationalism relates these to one another as distinct outworkings of God’s purposes. For example, God’s purposes during the Mosaic dispensation are different from his purposes during the dispensation of the church. Likewise the relevant entities are distinct: during the Mosaic economy people related to God through the nation Israel and the covenants that God made with that nation. Following the death of Jesus Christ, however, God instituted a new entity, the church, as the vehicle through which he would accomplish his purposes for the present dispensation. These two, Israel and the church, are seen by dispensationalists to be distinct, discontinuous groups. This highlights one of the differences with covenant theology which views the relationship between the two as essentially one of continuity. This has significant ramifications when attempting to understand the relevance of the Old Testament scriptures to the Christian church.

Churches on the plains that are best known for their dispensational approach to the Bible include the Berean Fellowship of Churches (centered in Nebraska, started by Ivan Olsen), Independent Fundamental Churches of America (Kansas and Colorado), General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana), Baptist Bible Fellowship (centered in Missouri), and World Baptist Fellowship (strongest in Texas). There has been some dispensational influence in the mainline denominations, though it is not extensive. W. A. Criswell has been the best known dispensationalist in Southern Baptist circles; both Lewis Sperry Chafer and John F. Walvoord (both associated with Dallas Theological Seminary) were Presbyterian. The American Sunday School Union has also been influential in beginning Sunday Schools in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Colorado. The Rural Home Missionary Association, headquartered in Illinois, is active in ministry in the Plains states.

Dispensational Bible colleges and institutes which are located on the Great Plains include the Rocky Mountain Bible Institute in Denver (now part of Colorado Christian University), Midwest Bible and Missionary Institute in Salina, Kansas (Nye J. Langmaid and F. W. May; now part of Calvary Bible College and Seminary in Kansas City), Prairie Bible Institute (L. E. Maxwell; Three Hills, Alberta), Montana Bible Institute (Harold Longenecker; Lewiston, Montana), and Frontier School of the Bible (LaGrange, Wyoming). The most significant dispensational influences on churches of the Great Plains have been Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute (Chicago) which have trained many of the pastors and teachers for ministry in these institutions.

The two best-known popularizers of dispensationalism on the Plains have been, in the United States, C. I. Scofield (attorney and politician from Kansas before ordination to the Congregational ministry in 1882, editor of the dispensational Scofield Reference Bible) and, in Canada, William Aberhart (Baptist radio preacher in Calgary and founder of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute, later active in the Alberta Social-Credit government as premier, 1935–43).

Rodney J. Decker
Baptist Bible Seminary
Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania

Bibliography. G. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism 1870–1925. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980. C. Ryrie. Dispensationalism. 2d ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995. E. Sandeen. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978.