by Tony Richie. Part 1 of 3. Read the whole article as a PDF here.
A surging crisis on the current global horizon centers on so-called “Christian Zionism.” The controversy surrounding Christian Zionism arises from its association with political practices in the unceasingly and increasingly unstable Middle East region involving Israelis and Palestinians. Though an oversimplification, Christian Zionism is generally speaking a theological position with political implications.
However, Christian Zionism is exceedingly difficult to address because it exists in variegated forms, ranging from individuals or groups who generally support the right of contemporary Israelis to exist in their ancient homeland to extensively organized political activists with agendas of varying degrees of radicalism.
The former usually cite biblical and humanitarian values in vindication of their support for Israel. Some of the latter tend to be completely uncritical of Israeli policies and practices, openly aggressive against their opponents, and either totally unaware of or unconcerned with the plight of Palestinians and religious others. Much of the basis for the latter position appears to be built upon a specific form of dispensationalist ideology.
As the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the USA’s War on Terror, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and possibly soon, in Iran, surely suggest, policies regarding the Mid East region can be volatile and even volcanic. The role of religion is of central significance. Investigating foundations of faith-based philosophies toward the regional and worldwide violence arising out of the current Mid East crisis seems appropriate. This paper focuses on one such philosophy, dispensationalism, and its role in the development of one movement, a major player on the world religious scene, Pentecostalism. My question is not whether some or even many Pentecostals are dispensationalists. That they are is an easily substantiated statistical fact. But I’m asking, more pointedly, whether Pentecostalism itself is dispensationalist. In other words, is there anything about Pentecostalism itself essentially, inevitably, or irretrievably entangled with dispensational ideas?
A Personal Testimony
My sudden introduction to dispensationalism came almost immediately after my conversion as a young adult. I was graciously given, by a devout Baptist deacon, a Scofield Reference Bible (C. I. Scofield, 1909), based on the dispensationalist teaching of John Nelson Darby (1800-82), and encouraged to digest its contents. Shortly thereafter, when visiting my Pentecostal preacher father in another state I took it with me to ask for advice on whether it was recommended reading. Dad wisely suggested I might profitably study it but that I needed to keep in mind that only the biblical text was divinely inspired and not the study notes and their interpretations. I devoured its contents.
Thus I discovered dispensationalism, a system of biblical interpretation that divides biblical history and revelation into airtight compartments sealed off not only from our contemporary era but even from each other. The dispensational approach was attractive to me because it seemed to make sense of some of the most complicated portions of Scripture, such as the Books of Daniel and Revelation, and to provide a pattern for understanding biblical prophecy, especially end-time events.
But though initially thrilled at insights it seemed to provide, I was eventually disappointed to discover it firmly invalidated any continuing activity of spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues, divine healing, or miraculous signs of any kind. This ran completely counter to my Pentecostal upbringing (cf. Acts 2, 10, 19:1-7; 1 Co 12-14). I also remember astonishment at being informed Jesus’ glorious Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) is inapplicable today because it falls into a different dispensation. I slowly used my Scofield less and less, finally discarding it altogether.
However, a few years later I was pleased to be told that the Dake Annotated Bible (Finis Dake, 1961, 1963) included all the insights of the Scofield Reference Bible and more but still affirmed Pentecostal experience and the spiritual gifts. It was especially noted for its dispensational insights on eschatology or biblical prophecy. At some (sacrificial!) expense this time, I managed to acquire a copy. Again, I devoured its contents avidly. Now a Pentecostal pastor myself I knew many colleagues who also used a Dake.
Nonetheless, and in spite of the almost encyclopedic knowledge of its author, I began to sense a somewhat inexplicable inner tension between its dispensationalist teachings, especially its proof text approach, and my own personal reading of the Bible. Again, I slowly used it less and less, finally discarding it altogether. In this case, however, the discarding was accompanied by guilt. After all, this was a Pentecostal study Bible. I wondered a bit about what was happening. I was therefore greatly relieved as a pastor-student going through our denominational seminary (Church of God Theological Seminary) to hear some of our professors (e.g., Hollis Gause and Steve Land) finally explaining that Pentecostalism and dispensationalism are inherently and unquestionably incompatible.
Dispensationalist ideas, however, die hard. Though I have had to process it slowly, personally I have come to understand the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of dispensationalism both as a biblical hermeneutic and for Pentecostalism. But while I reject “Darbyism”, or “fundamentalist dispensationalism,” I still seek to retain the authentic eschatological energy of my beloved Pentecostalism. I now realize that my personal push-pull experience with dispensationalism is an individual reenactment of the overall Pentecostal movement’s encounter with dispensationalism as well. As Pentecostal historian Dwight Wilson insightfully records, Pentecostal interpretation of history, admittedly heavily “influenced by their premillennialist belief that the restoration of Israel to Palestine is a sure sign of the imminent return of Christ”, has still struggled with applying dispensationalism to developments regarding the region, alternately embracing and eschewing significant aspects.
Both my personal testimony and Pentecostalism’s history imply an underlying and irreparable discontinuity between traditional Darbyite dispensationalism and contemporary Pentecostalism. And yet Pentecostals have displayed a peculiar fascination with dispensationalism. Over the years, I have sat in several Pentecostal “prophecy conferences” or “prophecy seminars,” not to mention local church Bible studies, with an amazing array of colorful charts spread before the group as a “prophecy teacher” enthusiastically explained the entire course of world events according to a dispensationalist paradigm.
Bishop Tony Richie (D. Min., Asbury Theological Seminary/D. Th. Candidate, UNISA), Senior Pastor, New Harvest Church of God in Knoxville, TN, is also a missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and does adjunct teaching at the Church of God Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). He serves the Society for Pentecostal Studies as liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission (IRC) of the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the IRC as liaison to christianzionism.org.
1 Components of the wide ranging and diverging views on Christian Zionism may be experienced by surfing the competing websites of http://christianzionism.org and http://christian-zionism.org. Also, an excellent source of fairly balanced information and overview may be found at http://enwikepedia.org/wiki/ChristianZionism.
2 I also remember a pivotal conversation with a fellow student and friend, now Dr. Robert Debelak of Lee University, Cleveland, TN, who insisted biblical revelation is characterized by continuity rather than the discontinuity so evident in dispensationalism. Recently, Rob pointed out that, while beyond the scope of this paper, the (now dated) text by Dave McPherson, The Incredible Cover-Up (Medford, OR: Omega Publications, 1975), sticks out as a critique of the Darby-Irving emphases in eschatology.
3 I still have positive appreciation for the motives of many dispensationalist teachers in attempting an in depth approach to Bible study, and I am aware of various more flexible versions of a more classic and historic dispensationalism in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Joachim of Fiore, John Fletcher, Jonathan Edwards, etc, that have valuable features.
4 D. J. Wilson, “Eschatology, Pentecostal Perspectives on”, The New International Dictionary of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (NIDPCM), ed. Stanley M. Burgess and assoc. ed. Eduard M. van der Mass (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 601-05.