Dispensationalism: The Answer that doesn’t Answer All your Nagging Questions
It occurs to me that I might be able to shed a bit of light on some of the dark and impenetrable mysteries that occasionally issue from the febrile minds of Christian fundamentalists. The reason I’m in a position to do so is that I was once just like them: a Bible-totin,’ Scripture-quotin’ True Believer™.
I had the grotesque misfortune of being spawned by impoverished, uneducated teenage parents whose families had always “belonged to” the Missionary Baptist Church. That church was their default position both socially and intellectually, and they inflicted it on their children. (Actually, they would scold me for misrepresenting them; Missionary Baptists harbor the novel idea that there is no “Church” – there are only “churches.” I won’t bother to try to explain the significance of that abstruse theological notion here.) That’s as bedrock fundamentalist as it gets. Missionary Baptists pride themselves on an absolutely unalloyed, never-to-be-examined-or-questioned embrace of the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible, our operator’s manual for life, every word of which is absolutely, unfailingly true from cover to cover.
My embrace of the Bible was as ardent as anyone’s: I was as convinced as any fundamentalist you’ve ever met on Facebook or on Main Street that the Holy Bible – preferably the King James Version – is the very Word of the Almighty. I therefore saw atheists as just as dangerous and hellbound – and homosexuals as just as disgusting and abominable – as they do: children necessarily adopt the attitudes of the authority figures in their lives. If they’re lucky – as I was – they later outgrow those attitudes. For those cursed with a modicum of native curiosity, such a belief eventually becomes a powerful incentive to actually read the damn thing, and that’s where some people get into trouble and end up losing their faith. Most either don’t read it, or read it with a special kind of selectivity backed by a scheme of interpretation that I want to talk about here. (NonStampCollector’s excellent “Context!!!!!!” barely scratches the surface: what follows is what lies beneath.)
It’s obvious to those of you who read this blog that as a treatise in philosophy or systematic theology the Bible makes absolutely no sense – but according to fundamentalists, that’s because you don’t know how to “rightly divide” it (to quote St. Paul). Many will tell you that you don’t understand Scripture because the Holy Spirit is not directing you to a proper understanding of God’s Word. What they mean (even without fully admitting it to themselves) is that you haven’t learned the right interpretive scheme.
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Christian fundamentalists are all of them – every last one, whether or not they’ve ever heard the word I’m about to use – dispensationalists. In Dispensationalism, we have a Theory of God’s Word: Dispensationalism is to the Bible what Darwin’s theory is to biological evolution. Like Kabbalah before it, Dispensationalism is an attempt to bring order out of apparent chaos; to reconcile the Bible’s grandiose but contradictory claims and teachings and weld them into a grand unified theory of “Biblical truth.”
Dispensationalism was mostly the brainchild of a 19th-century Irish evangelist named John Nelson Darby, whose outlandish ideas and persuasive rhetoric garnered him a large following of “subscribers.” Dispensationalist notions took root in several Protestant bodies during the last quarter of that century, especially in North America. Early in the 20th century the idea found a champion in a Baptist preacher from Pennsylvania named Clarence Larkin, who had been trained as a draftsman and decided to use his training to the greater glory of God by illustrating his magnum opus, Dispensational Truth, with drawings that are much cooler than those you see in Gospel tracts by Jack. T. Chick.
Here’s the way the Darby/Larkin scheme works: God’s PLAN (I capitalize to indicate its supremacy over all things save God himself) is designed to unfold in “Ages” or “Dispensations,” each of which is unlike the others, and each of which reveals a different facet of the character of God as he deals with fallen man. Ever since the Crucifixion we have been living in the Age of Grace (with Luke’s repentant thief, unmentioned by the other Gospel writers, apparently being the first beneficiary); the Age of Grace was preceded by the Age of Law, and will be succeeded by the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, usually known as the Millennium.
There was a time when Larkin’s Dispensational Truth could be found in the home libraries of most “serious” true believers: I myself owned a copy which disappeared many decades ago, and I kind of wish I had it back. Those seven-headed, ten-horned beasts were really something to behold. Larkin’s pictorial exegesis of Nebuchadnezzar’s nocturnal visions was a Biblical literalist’s wet dream.
Early in the 20th century, a fundamentalist preacher named Cyrus Scofield annotated a King James Bible with lots of scholarly-looking notes and cross-references, and Oxford University Press did us the great disservice of publishing it. This quickly became the Cadillac of Bibles for the Bible-bangers, the industry standard for fundamentalist orthodoxy. Scofield bought Dispensationalism wholesale and promulgated it eagerly, larding his notes with references to Darby’s exegesis. It is because of the Scofield Reference Bible that Christian fundamentalists are invariably dispensationalists, whether or not they actually own such a publication: their preacher-man cut his teeth on it. Their understanding of the Bible is not that of a Catholic or a liberal Christian, nor that of a literary critic. When they look at the Bible, they don’t see 66 books – they see one, and they consider God its author. Darby’s dispensationalist scheme enables them to imagine that they detect a deep unity (and a largely encrypted teaching) in a book that any fool can see is riddled with contradictions of the most fundamental sort (pun perhaps a little bit intended).
To round out the thumbnail sketch of “Darbyism” that I began three paragraphs earlier: during the Age of Law, God dealt with his chosen people as lawgiver and executioner. When people failed to live up to the demands of his Law, he punished them. And since the demands of that Law are impossible to fulfill, the Israelites were always getting the shit kicked out of them by other nations whom God had not chosen but whom he toyed with anyway in order to “work his will.”
About 2,000 years after the “call” of the fictional Abraham, following two full millennia of the most draconian “tough love” imaginable, God’s PLAN called for a kind of paradigm shift. So he impregnated a Palestinian teenager and had their love-child crucified to satisfy his Law’s impossible demands (far be it from any fundamentalist to admit that Yahweh is simply bloodthirsty, as so many deities have been), thus inaugurating the Age of Grace. When fundamentalists tell you to stop bringing up the horrors of Leviticus and Deuteronomy because the Old Testament (itself a proto-dispensationalist term) no longer applies, they’re making reference to their dispensationalist understanding of “God’s PLAN.”
There is, however, a sticking point in the fundamentalists’ much-beloved Decalogue. According to Dispensationalism, the Law has been fulfilled and thus set aside (not abolished) as a standard against which the holiness of humans is to be judged. The perfect sacrifice of Christ inaugurates an age when the only commandments to which we are liable are those to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. Those who accept God’s grace are “saved,” and even though they will die just like everyone else, they will be raised at the beginning of the next dispensation, as the Rapture and Resurrection inaugurate the Millennium. But where does this leave the “Ten Commandments” that they’d like to see enshrined in every courthouse and school classroom in the country?
Needless to say, they’ve found ways to dance around this issue, one of which is to point out that unlike the rest of the Bible, this is the part written by the finger of God himself in tablets of stone. (Their fidelity to the Decalogue has its roots largely but unsuspectingly in the traditional liturgical use of the “Ten Commandments” in Anglican services – Anglicanism being the very “ism” that most of the fundamentalists’ spiritual forebears repudiated by founding breakaway congregations).
The Millennium is not to be the final Age, by the way: even it is destined to be succeeded by the never-ending New Heaven and New Earth described in the closing chapters of Revelation. That final Dispensation will be precipitated by the releasing of Satan from his chains for a brief time (and permitted to leave the Bottomless Pit – I’m not making any of this up!) only to be defeated in a final battle (not Armageddon – that already happened a thousand years earlier, shortly after the Rapture) and thrown into the Lake of Fire along with the Antichrist (a.k.a. the Beast) and the False Prophet, followed shortly thereafter by the likes of all us godless, baby-eating atheists and others whom the Lord our God hateth and hath finally judged (the list is in Revelation). Does all that make sense? It makes perfect sense to Christian fundamentalists.
That’s about it – the Cliff Notes version of Dispensationalism, so to say. Believe it or not, it’s a kind of theory of the whole Bible: you can hang all of the Bible’s disparate, incoherent books and teachings on one hook or another in the Dispensational scheme of things. If it weren’t for that, fundamentalists would no more know what to make of the Bible than any of the rest of us do. Because if you simply read it at face value, it’s as plain as the nose on your face that it’s just a lot of fairy tales and other stupid, barbarous, incredible crap that a bunch of woefully ignorant goatherds and sycophantic Bronze-Age priests made up to explain the inexplicable and keep the rest of us in line.
Dispensationalism is just as fabricated as the Bible it pretends to make sense of: a made-up tool for parsing a made-up book. And that’s the level at which fundamentalist Christians are operating. What they’ll tell you is that you don’t and can’t understand the Bible because you have no faith, or cannot (on account of your unsaved condition) be led by the Holy Spirit to comprehend its mysteries. What they actually mean – perhaps without even recognizing it – is that you can’t understand the Bible because you don’t understand Dispensationalism.
Looking back on my childhood indoctrination – a total immersion in Dispensationalism as much as anything – I find myself reluctantly impressed with its pretense of scholarship: True Christians™ are quite serious about their Bible study (guided always by their dispensationalist understanding of “God’s PLAN”) and have cobbled together a rickety scheme of interpretation which, from the inside, looks consistent. What most of them never realize is that circular reasoning always looks consistent from the inside and confirmation bias keeps that consistency secure; and that’s why so few of those who have been so indoctrinated escape from that prison: it’s like light trying to escape the irresistible pull of a black hole. I relish the company of those who, like me, have clawed their way out. I’ve found that the company is not a particularly large one, looked at as a percentage of the indoctrinated whole.
I know that some of you marvel at the fact that you hear the same tired claims and “arguments” over and over from fundamentalists, and probably wonder why. It’s because that’s all they’ve got – but that’s all they need because they know they’re right! That’s why they expect you to have a mind that is open to their dogma, but see no reason to be open to your arguments. In Dispensationalism, they have the ultimate fallback position; they have the argument that refutes all others without actually offering anything but circumstantial evidence.
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