The Israel/Church Distinction is the Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism
As Dispensationalists cannot agree upon a unified agreement as to what “literal interpretation” is, Progressive Dispensationalists have proposed a returned to the first sine qua non (i.e. the distinction between
and the church) as its “distinguishing factor.” Israel
Blaising, a progressive dispensationalist, observes that “among contemporary dispensationalists a general consensus exists that a distinction between
and the church is the essential distinguishing factor of dispensationalism.”
saying that “the key distinctive of dispensational theology . . . is the
recognition of Israel
as a nation set apart from other nations by God for the service of universal
salvation for all peoples.” Israel
The recognition of the Israel/Church distinction as the sine qua non of Dispensational theology is consistent with the observations of Non-dispensationalists. For example, Poythress perceives that this distinction is more fundamental than a literal hermeneutics. He writes, “Their [the Dispensationalists’] approaches toward strict literalness seem to be subordinated to the more fundamental principle of dual destinations for
Mathison, a Non-dispensationalist, likewise reaches the following conclusion:
“The only one of Ryrie’s three distinctives of dispensationalism that has always been acknowledged as true is the distinction between
and the church. The particular dispensationalist understanding of this
distinction is the heart of that system of theology. Dispensationalism may,
therefore, be defined as that system of theology which sees a fundamental
distinction between Israel
and the church. This distinction is the cornerstone of dispensational theology.” Israel
Coming from a historical-theological approach, it is notable that Clarence Bass identifies the Israel/Church distinction as a novel theological innovation within Christendom:
“It is not that exegetes prior to his [John N. Darby’s] time did not see a covenant between God and Israel, or a future relation of Israel to the millennial reign, but they always viewed the church as a continuation of God’s single program of redemption begun in Israel. It is dispensationalism’s rigid insistence on a distinct cleavage between
and the church, and its
belief in a later unconditional fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, that
sets it off from the historic faith of the church.” Israel
As a previous Dispensationalist himself, Bass agrees that the distinctive of Dispensationalism is, indeed, the dichotomy between
and the Church. Israel
Likewise, Charles Ryrie makes the following observations:
“The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain or historical-grammatical interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well.”
In this definition of Dispensationalism, Ryrie is making three assertions. First and foremost, the essence of Dispensationalism is the distinction between
and the church. This distinction is the result of an alleged, consistently
literal hermeneutics. Furthermore, this distinction reflects the understanding
that God’s fundamental purpose is to glorify Himself. Israel
Robert Lightner, a Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, reinforces the fact that a Dispensationalist is not merely one who adheres to a certain number of “distinguishable economies.” He further reaffirms that premillennialism cannot be equated with dispensationalism. Lightner writes:
“Granted, there are differences among dispensationalists over the number of dispensations and, as already stated, over the time when the church began. The question then becomes, What is the least common denominator? What must one believe to be classified legitimately as a dispensationalist? It certainly is not the number of distinguishable economies one holds to. “It is not the fact that Scofield taught seven dispensations and Hodge only four that makes the former a dispensationalist and the latter not.” Since some committed premillennialists reject dispensationalism, premillennialism is not determinative either. One must look elsewhere for the sine qua non of dispensationalism.”
Lightner subsequently concludes that the “all-determinative” sine qua non of Dispensationalism is the distinction between
and the Church: Israel
“Friends and foes of dispensationalism must agree that the all-determinative conviction without which one cannot be a dispensationalist is the distinction between God’s program for
and His program for the
church. This distinction is based solidly on the literal (or as many
dispensationalists prefer to call it, the normal) interpretation of Scripture.
A consistently literal or normal hermeneutic brings one to see distinctions in
God’s program with Israel and His program with the church, and that underscores
the theological rather than the soteriological nature of God’s primary purpose
in the world.” Israel
Bateman, in his concluding essay in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, documents the general consensus amongst Dispensationalists. This consensus, that “
is not the church,”
is what distinguishes a Dispensationalist from a Non-dispensationalist. Bateman
“What, then, unites one dispensationalist to another? Simply put, the basic unifying issue for all dispensationalists is that
is not the church. In fact,
[Charles] Ryrie maintains that such a distinction is “the most basic
theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist.” What is
contended among dispensationalists, as we have seen in these essays, is how to
define the nature of the Israel/church distinction. . . . Dispensationalists
are, however, agreed and like-minded in their stress on the uniqueness of the
church and their confidence that a future exists for national Israel .” Israel
In this section, we have seen that it has been unanimously agreed upon that the sine qua non of Dispensationalism is, indeed, the Israel/Church distinction. We can logically deduce that a Dispensationalist is inevitably one who embraces the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, i.e. the distinction between
and the Church. Israel
We saw in earlier blog posts that Khoo, the Academic Dean of Far Eastern Bible College, agrees that “God has two programmes in His salvation plan: one for Israel, and another for the Church.” He also admits that Far Eastern Bible College embraces the sine qua non of Dispensationalism.
Despite his adherence to a Reformed soteriology i.e. the five points of Calvinism, famous pastor-teacher - John F. MacArthur Jr. - rightly describes himself as a Dispensationalist. In the following transcript from Bible Questions and Answers, MacArthur says:
“Here’s my dispensationalism - I’ll give it to you in one sentence: there’s a difference between the church and
- period! If you understand that, you
understand the essence of what I believe is a legitimate, biblical
dispensationalism. That permits a kingdom, that demands a kingdom, and that
makes you premillennial.” Israel
Although MacArthur rejects antinomianism and accepts Reformed soteriology, he does not call himself a Reformed theologian. He perceives that he is a Dispensationalist simply because he adopts the sine qua non of Dispensationalism.
Blaising, a Progressive Dispensationalist, similarly emphasizes that progressive dispensationalists are dispensational because they “clearly articulate (1) a future for ethnic
(2) distinguish between the Church and as functioning institutions
throughout the plan of God.” Israel
It becomes apparent that Bible Presbyterians may need to redefine their theological-hermeneutical grid, or perhaps even simpler, to rename their theological appellation. Since they embrace the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, is there, therefore, a need to drop the label “Reformed?” Otherwise, one would have to redefine the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, so as to preserve the “Reformed” designation.
Various Degrees of Distinction between
and the Church Israel
It is generally agreed that Dispensationalists of different varieties hold to various degrees of distinction or dichotomy between Israel and the Church. These range from a radical dichotomy adhered to by Classical Dispensationalists, to a more moderate Israel/Church distinction held by Progressive Dispensationalists.
By the term “Classical Dispensationalist,” I refer to theologians like Cyrus I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, A. C. Gaebelein, and Clarence Larkin. Classic Dispensationalists maintain a metaphysical distinction between
and the Church. They believe
and the Church will be forever distinguished even unto eternity. Israel
will inhabit the New Earth, and the Church heaven. Thus, there seems to be an
eternal separation between Israel
and the Church in this variety of Dispensationalism. Israel
“In the original form of Darby’s dispensationalism, the line drawn between
and the church was heavy, dark, and broad. According to Darby, the promises to
the church are spiritual and heavenly whereas those to Israel and the nations are earthly.
The Tribulation and the Millennium do not concern the church for those
prophecies are earthly.” Israel
Burns elucidates that according to Classical Dispensationalism, “the underlying premise was that national
as the physical seed of Abraham, was to be eternally bifurcated from the
church, a heavenly mystery that could not have been known in a dispensation of
earthly issues.” Israel
Hence, in the classical form of Dispensationalism, we see a radical dichotomy between
and the Church. Israel
As Dispensationalism developed, “the New Scofield Reference Bible, Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today, and other dispensationalists in the mid-twentieth century modified the heavenly/earthly dualistic language, diminished future distinctions between the peoples of God, and debated about how the new covenant should be applied in the present age.”
Revised Dispensationalists include John F. Walvoord, Charles C. Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost and Alva J. McClain. These Dispensationalists jettisoned the eternal metaphysical distinction between
and the Church. They allowed
a temporal, earthly distinction rooted in a difference between two
redemptive-historical purposes, rather than in two different programs extending
towards eternity. Israel
Campbell, a Dispensationalist and Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, elaborates:
“The distinction between
and the church extends
beyond the present age into the future. Some dispensationalists [i.e. Classical
Dispensationalists] make a sharp distinction between Israel as God’s earthly people and
the church as God’s heavenly people, both continuing as such throughout
eternity. Others [i.e. Normative Dispensationalists] favor a blurring of such
distinctions in eternity. Charles C. Ryrie states, “The redeemed in the Body of
Christ, the Church of this dispensation, are the continuation of the line of
redeemed from other ages, but they form a distinct group in the heavenly Israel (Heb. 12:22–24).’” Zion
Revised Dispensationalists perceive two groups of God’s redeemed humanity existing in and confined to redemptive history. The Church exists with its own principles and purposes differing from those of national
According to Israel , Campbell
glorious future. Her destiny includes being taken out of this world before the
Tribulation woes to be with Christ (John 14:1-3), being a part of the “ruling
aristocracy” on earth during Christ’s millennial reign, and serving God along
with other members of His family in the New Jerusalem for all eternity.” church
of Jesus Christ
Blaising summarizes the differences between the Classical and Revised/Normative varieties of Dispensationalism:
“It is amazing that in the writings of Walvoord, Pentecost, Ryrie, and McClain published in the 1950s and 1960s, the heavenly/earthly dualistic language is gone. A distinction between
and the church is vigorously
asserted and all the theological structures of distinction are present except
that the eternal destinies of the two peoples now share the same sphere.
Consequently the heavenly/ earthly descriptions are dropped. Thus is begun a
slow movement away from the scholastic, classic, absolute distinction [between Israel and the
Church] found from Darby to Chafer . . . .” Israel
Recent decades saw the rise of a new variety of Dispensationalism which has moved in a more covenantal direction, while maintaining the Israel/Church distinction, premillennialism, and emended dispensational distinctives. As will be discussed later, Progressive Dispensationalists allow an inaugurated phase of the Kingdom, while maintaining that the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic covenant lies in the earthly millennium. Revised Dispensationalists, on the other hand, insist that the Kingdom is still in the future.
Progressives also see Christ as sitting on the throne of David at this present age, albeit in a spiritual sense. Revised Dispensationalists dispute this view, saying that Jesus is currently exalted at the right hand of the Father, but not sitting on David’s throne in any sense. Unlike Progressives, Revised Dispensationalists do not accept the proposition that Christ’s messianic kingdom reign has begun.
“A more moderate dispensational position has arisen in recent years. On the basis of the New Testament’s use of crucial Old Testament texts, progressive dispensationalists acknowledge degrees of Old Testament content in the church, though complete fulfillment of
promises awaits the Millennium as an intermediate kingdom that exists with ’s
Messiah ruling in the midst of the nations. The progressives insist on
and the church, but they see both continuity and discontinuity in Israel/church
and Old/New testamental relationships. Thus, the fulfillments of messianic
promises relate to both present and future ages and both advents of Messiah, an
“already-not yet” mediating position.” Israel
Progressive dispensationalists are “progressive” in the sense that they view each successive dispensation as building upon and developing the principles of the preceding economy. This allows the progression of the one plan of God for His one redeemed people, rather than distinguishing two separate plans and peoples. However, Progressives maintain that the one divine purpose for redeemed humanity will only be ultimately realized in the earthly, Davidic Kingdom. The millennial phase of God’s redemptive-historical plan is necessary so as to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies for national
Progressive Dispensationalists, of all varieties of Dispensationalism, see the least radical dichotomy or distinction between
and the Church.
But as Blaising has asserted, Progressives are bona fide Dispensationalists because they see a future for ethnic Israel Israel, while distinguishing between the Church
as functioning institutions throughout God’s redemptive-historical plan. Israel
Craig A. Blaising, Darrell L. Bock, and Robert L. Saucy are all considered to be Progressive Dispensationalists.
 Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” 273.
 Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 221. Saucy is also a Progressive Dispensationalist.
 Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 78.
 Mathison, Dispensationalism, 8, emphasis mine.
 Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1960; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), 27.
 Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 41, emphasis mine.
 This is what Mathison observes. See Mathison, Dispensationalism, 5.
 Robert P. Lightner, “Theological Perspectives on Theonomy,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (1986): 34, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 44.
 Ibid., emphasis mine.
 Herbert W. Bateman IV, “Dispensationalism Tomorrow,” in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 308-309, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39.
 Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 32.
 See Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 11; idem, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 46.
 John MacArthur, Jr., Bible Questions and Answers (Panorama City, CA: Word of Grace, 1994), sound cassette GC 70-15. Transcribed by Tony Capoccia, Bible Bulletin Board [article on-line]; available from http://www.biblebb.com/files/macqa/70-15-12.htm; Internet; accessed 14 October 2005, emphasis mine.
 Blaising, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,’” 390.
 Toussaint, “
and the Church of a
Traditional Dispensationalist,” 228. Israel
 J. Lanier Burns, “
and the Church of a
Progressive Dispensationalist,” in Three Central Issues in Contemporary
Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert
W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI, MI: Kregel, 1999), 272. Israel
 Ibid., 273.
 Campbell, “The Church in God’s Prophetic Program,” 149-150, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 154, emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 161.
 Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” 276.
 Burns, “
and the Church of a
Progressive Dispensationalist,” 273. Israel
 Also see Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 131-135 for a succinct discussion of the Israel/Church distinction of Progressive Dispensationalists.
 See Blaising, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,’” 390.