Dispensationalism before Darby?

Derek Ouellette —  August 5, 2013

16343359_116197170751In his chapter on the origins of Dispensationalism Charles Ryrie states that “the fact that something was not taught until the nineteenth century does not make it wrong.”(Dispensationalism, p.70). Near the end of the chapter he makes another affirmative statement that even if Dispensationalism were relatively new, that does not, by default, discredit it. I agree. But between those two statements he goes to great length to show that “Dispensational-like concepts” predate John Nelson Darby (1830) and go back as far as some of the Fathers of the Church.

It seems to me – and I’m preempting my argument – that Ryrie knows how frail his argument for the historicity of Dispensationalism is, which is why he made sure to emphasize his two affirmative statements I just quoted. No scholar would be fooled by his “in-between” arguments. But perhaps seeking lay Christians may. And that, I think, is Ryrie’s hope. To get his readers to say “ah ha! Dispensational-like concepts did predate Darby and go back to the Church Fathers.” Ryrie himself knows this isn’t true. He says as much earlier in the book.

He begins by quoting Justin Martyr in a passage where Justin talks about how God managed his people before Abraham and later where Justin mentions the “present dispensation and it’s gifts of power.” (p.72). The second Father which Ryrie quotes is Irenaeus who wrote about the “four principle covenants given to the human race” (the first being under Adam, the second under Noah, the third under Moses and the fourth under the Gospel). The astute reader will notice that both of these statements align in perfect parallel with the covenants. In fact, Irenaeus explicitly refers to these periods of time as “covenants.” But they are also dispensations because a dispensation is understood as a period of time in which God governed humanity in a particular way. This is Ryrie’s justification for claiming that these (and other) Church Fathers affirmed “dispensational-like concepts.” He goes on to quote Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Joachim of Fiore, Pierre Poiret, Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Watts all in the same vein.

All of these writers either explicitly used the word “dispensation” or spoke of how God uniquely governed humanity at different stages of time. Yet keep in mind that no one denies that God governs humanity in different ways under the different covenants. And if we are defining a dispensation as “a way in which God governs his creation during a particular period of time” then it is no coincidence that the different dispensations would correspond precisely with the covenants. Yet Ryries argument has effectively made all of us “dispensationalists” in a “dispensational-like” sort of way.

Ryrie seems to be implying that if someone uses the word “dispensation,” they are somehow affirming “dispensational-like concepts” which, he claims, Darby simply systemized.

What’s wrong with this argument? Why is it so misleading and why should Ryrie be taken to task for it?

Earlier in the book he mentions two recent covenant theologians, Hodge and Berkhof, who affirm four or five dispensations within their covenantal schema and remarks, “This points to the fact that recognizing dispensations does not automatically make a person a dispensationalist.” (p.51)

So acknowledging “dispensational-like concepts” before Darby can be used as an argument in favour of dispensationalism which Darby merely systemized. But acknowledging “dispensational-like concepts” after Darby “points to the fact that recognizing dispensations does not automatically make a person a dispensationalist.”

So what does?

The essence of dispensationalism, says Ryrie, are three-fold (p.51):

1. The recognition of a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church.

2. A consistent and regular use of a literal principle of interpretation.

3. A basic and primary concept of the purpose of God as His own glory rather than the salvation of mankind.

So it’s important to make a distinction between a word in regular usage on one hand, and a word as it has been endowed with special theological meaning on the other. By Ryrie’s definition just bulleted, no Christian writer prior to John Nelson Darby affirmed “dispensational-like concepts” because none of them made the kind of distinction between Israel and the Church which Dispensationalism does; none of them applied the word “literal” to interpretation the way Dispensationalism does; and all one has to do is point to John Piper to recognize that Ryrie’s #3 is not a Dispensational distinctive.

If Justin, Clement, Augustine and Edwards were told that Darby “systemized” their dispensational-like concepts,” a look of horror would have no doubt appeared on their faces. Especially on the amillennial face of Augustine and the postmillennial face of Edwards.

In no form whatsoever does Dispensationalism predate Darby. But this fact does not – in my opinion – discredit the view since the ultimate measuring rod for right doctrine must be scripture.

If Ryrie agrees with that – and he says he does – then why go so far out of his way to lead people to believe that “dispensational-like concepts” are found in the Early Church which Darby simply systemized?

I suspect it’s to win converts.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dan Valade

    great post Derek. I recently re-read Ryrie’s book and found it to be very defensive. I appreciate this detailed look at one of his loopholes…

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Well that’s just it. I would have respected his origins chapter a bit more if it embraced the historically accurate account from Darby on. And, it would have been interesting to discuss perhaps where Darby got some of his “Left Behind” musings from…

      Thanks Dan.

  • bobbygrow

    Hi Derek,

    We worked through Ryrie’s book (heck, Ryrie autographed his “Basic Theology” book for me in undergrad 😉 ) in my class in undergrad called “Dispensationalism” (along with Blaising’s and Bock’s Progressive Dispensationalism and O. Palmer Robertson’s classic “Christ of the Covenants), and you definitely characterize Ryrie to the point.

    But I don’t think Ryrie is actually as disingenuous as you seem to think; I think Ryrie really does believe that Dispyism has conceptual reality from the very beginning of the history of interpretation of the NT teaching and Apostolic Deposit. I really do think that Ryrie genuinely believes that Dispensational thought was latent and implicit as the inner logic, so to speak, of the NT, and that he thinks he has been able to uncover this conceptually in the teachings of some of the early Father’s and even within early Covenant theology itself. Of course, as you note, he does recognize that there is a difference between the way he is using it and the way these guys from the past used the language of dispensatio, but in the end, I do think that Ryrie is genuine and not just marketing or pandering to the popular. At least this is the impression I got from him when he visited my school (known as “mini-Dallas”–Multnomah University).

    Anyway, glad to see you engage with this book. I don’t think many younger Evangelicals really appreciate how deep down dispensational theology reaches, and how much impact it still has on the theology of so many people sitting in our pews and chairs.

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      You may very well be right. I got the impression that Darby knew better.

      Thanks for your insight.

  • Mj Robinson

    I just finished up a three-year stint at Dallas Theological Seminary, which was definitely a mixed bag of experiences and emotions. Dispensationalism (which I had no particular opinion of before attending DTS) is a mode of thought and interpretation that makes very little (to absolutely no) sense to me – the justification used for “dispensation” by highlighting the Greek word *oikonomia* in Paul, and the insistence that Israel and the Church are separate stories – well, methinks they doth protest too much in the efforts to save appearances.

    I noted the lack of historical support in my own objections there as well, and received a similar argument as you list your post. Cherry-picking words and arguing that there’s another, as-yet-undiscerned meaning behind it seems the very thing dispensationalists (and literalists) say we ought not to do in reading texts! Anyway, while I learned a great many wonderful things from the teachers at DTS, this hermeneutical grid was one that I eventually couldn’t work with. :)

    Thanks for sharing your readings and thoughts!

    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Hey Mj, thanks for sharing your story. I found it interesting.

  • butterlight.com


    Thank you for highlighting the confusion Dispensationalism makes between covenants and so called dispensations. I want to add that in their system “the dispensations” define what they believe about the covenants instead of the reverse. Actually Dispensationalists add another covenant into their system which is not in Scripture. They call it the Palestinian Covenant. The word “palestine” comes from the name Philistine. Dispensationalists say the Palestinian Covenant is basically the land promise made to Abraham.

    However, the Philistines did not exist at the time of Abraham. This, then, is a case of reading backwards into the Scripture what they want it to say.

    thanks for your analysis
    and I agree MJ’s story is very interesting.


    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Hey MarkO, that’s a point about how ” in their system “the dispensations define what they believe about the covenants instead of the reverse.” You put into words what I was thinking.


    • DrWWatson


  • DrWWatson

    I recommend you consider my new book, just published by Lampion Press, “Dispensationalism Before Darby”. The result of 7 years of research in the Archives of the British Library, and the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge.