R. C. Sproul who is a Covenant theologian charged dispensationalism with historical recency and therefore invalid as a theology: “Dispensationalism theology is a ‘Johnny come lately’ on the scene of historic Christian thought” (Theology Night with guest Dr. Sinclair Ferguson).
1. My first response to this statement is that it is true that Dispensationalism was not early as a system of theology. But there are evidences of early concepts that later developed into the system of dispensationalism. Charles Ryrie quotes these early truths of dispensationalism by Justin Martyr (110-165) and Irenaeus (130-200). Ryrie also quotes the theologian Covenant theologians usually reference, Augustine. Fifth century Augustine wrote: “The divine institution of sacrifice was suitable in the former dispensation, but is not suitable now. For the change suitable to the present age has been enjoined by God” (To Marcellinus, CXXXVIII, 5, 7). None of these men were dispensationalists, but held to some of the principles that later were part of the theology of dispensationalism. If that seems to be a weak defense listen to John Murray, who restricted the term covenant theology to “the more fully developed covenant theology of the seventeenth century” (The Covenant of Grace, London: Tyndale, 1954, 3).
Covenant theologians like George Ladd have falsely stated that dispensationalism originated with John Darby in the 1800’s: “Dispensationalism has had such wide influence that it must be called a movement—had its source with Darby” (Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952, 49).
There is evidence that dispensationalism as a system originated, like Covenant theology, in the seventeenth with Pierre Poiret. “The first person on record to develop a genuine dispensational scheme in a systematic fashion was the French philosopher Pierre Poiret (1646-1719)” (Renald Showers). Poiret published The Divine Economy in 1687. His view of the ages is both premillennial and dispensational.
Here is seven-fold schemes which Poiret referred each of which was made up of a “period or dispensation.”
I. Infancy—to the Deluge
II. Childhood—to Moses
III. Adolescence—-to the prophets
IV. Youth—to the coming of Christ
V. Manhood—“some time after that”
VI. Old Age—“the time of man’s decay”
VII. Renovation of all things—The Millennium
John Edwards (1637-1716) and Issac Watts (1674-1748) also had dispensational systems. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) did much to systematize and popularize dispensationalism. But dispensationalism as a system did not originate with Darby as is mostly argued.
Even if dispensationalism had originated with Darby that is not a valid argument to discredit the system. Neither was Covenant theology developed until the seventeenth century. Cornelius Van Til, who is a covenant theologian admitted: “The idea of covenant theology has only in modern times been broadly conceived” “(Covenant Theology” in Twentieth Century Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955, 1:306). Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) is usually credited with systematizing covenant theology in his published work in 1648. Westminster Confession in 1647 referred to a covenant of works and grace.
What is ironic is that the same recency of history argument was leveled against the Reformation doctrines (most of the opponents of dispensationalism are Reformed). Here is John Calvin’s rebuttal: “First, by calling it ‘new’ they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. . . .That it has lain long unknown and buried is the fault of man’s impiety. Now when it is restored to us by God’s goodness, its claims to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, London: Wolfe & Harison, 1561, 4).
History is not test of a doctrine’s validity but the Scripture. The question is not, “Is it historical, but is it Biblical?” James Bear, a covenant theologian agreed, “Doctrines may be new and yet not untrue” (Dispensationalism and the Covenant of Grace, Richmond: Union Seminary Review, 1938, 4).
2. My next response to Sproul’s statement is that the history of doctrine has been a process. Ryrie refers to James Orr’s The Progress of Dogma which shows that the major doctrines have chronologically developed. A study of the history of doctrinal disputes and church councils shows that these were responses to heresy:
1) Bibliology and Montanus in (170) who believed in additional revelations.
2) Modalism of Sabellius was the next doctrinal conflict in the early 200s.
3) The deity of Christ was settled at The Council of Nicea n 325. Arianism was rejected.
4) The deity of the Holy Spirit was determined at The Council of Constantinople in 381.
5) Original sin was correctly stated at The Council of Ephesus in 431. Pelagius’ false view of original sin condemned.
6) The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone was restored by the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s.
Ryrie observes that, “the systematizing of dispensationalism is recent should not be surprising. It would not be unexpected that a subject whose primary distinctions have to do with eschatology should not have been systematized until eschatology began to be refined seriously by the church. . . .Undoubtedly the recency of systematic eschatology partly accounts for the relative recency of systematic dispensationalism” (Dispensationalism, 80).