A Critical Review of Thomas Ice’s A Short History of Dispensationalism

Hello Readers, I want to preface this article by saying that this was an assignment for a class I am taking to earn my MA in Biblical Studies at Piedmont International University. It may be a little boring and dry to someone not interested in the subject of Dispensationalism but for the theology geek it should be an informative read. Enjoy and God Bless, Julian Pace.

Noted theologian, Thomas Ice, seeks to help us better understand the history of the theological system known as Dispensationalism in his article A Short History Of Dispensationalism which can be found at the website www.pre-trib.org.

Ice, one of today’s greatest proponents of Dispensational theology, begins his short paper by quoting George Ladd who was actually a critic of Dispensationalism. Ladd is quoted as saying

It is doubtful if there has been any other circle of men [dispensationalists] who have done more by their influence in preaching, teaching and writing to promote a love for Bible study, a hunger for the deeper Christian life, a passion for evangelism and zeal for missions in the history of American Christianity.[1]

By including this quote in the very beginning of his article, we get the sense that Ice is doing his best to rehabilitate the image of Dispensationalism which has sustained a heated assault in recent years by pointing out that Dispensationalists have given much to the kingdom of God in their ministries and work.

Ice begins by mentioning J.N. Darby who was unquestionably the first Christian theologian to codify the theological system now known as Dispensationalism. Ice credits Darby with producing a system of theology that took the scriptures literally and consistently and rightly distinguished between the destinies of the Church and Israel. Very quickly, Ice tries to distinguish what can legitimately be called Dispensationalism and what truly lays outside the realm of this system of theology. He lists a couple of important features of this system. Firstly, Dispensationalism is a system that requires a literal interpretation of the Bible, specifically in regard to the days mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis and in Revelation. Secondly, one must not hold that the Church has replaced Israel. The nation of Israel and the Church are separate entities with different destinies.

After a brief introduction to what Dispensationalism is, Ice does his best to show that Pre-Darby, there were in fact influential figures in the church who taught ideas very similar to those now codified within the system now known as Dispensationalism. Ice points out, by referencing the work of fellow Dispensationalist Larry Crutchfield, that Justin Martyr, Irrenaeus, Tertullian and others taught that God’s work with humankind should be viewed in different “ages” or “dispensations”.[2] Although the early Church Father’s early schemes were not as sophisticated as Darby’s, Ice thinks their insights clearly prefigure the work of Darby.

Ice then admits that during the Middle Ages we see very little that could be called Dispensational theology. However, the Reformation opened the door for Dispensationalism to gain a firm footing in the church. Ice points out some Christians like Pierre Poiret and Isaac Watts may have held and taught views that were very near Darby’s Dispensationalism which would appear 150 years after these individuals lived.

No discussion of the history of Dispensationalism would be adequate without a discussion of the life and theology of J.N. Darby. Ice reports that Darby was originally planning on entering the legal field but after becoming a Christian he entered the ministry instead. He was originally a parish priest in the Anglican Communion, though he later left and joined the Plymouth Brethren after finding himself at odds with some of the doctrinal teachings of the official church. In matters of Biblical interpretation, Darby was a strict literalist. Darby feared that introducing anything other than a literal hermeneutic to the scriptures might allow for the infiltration of humanistic ideas upon the text. With this in mind, Darby could by no means be considered a “wooden literalist” as he took into account the fact that the Bible utilizes genres like allegory and poetry. Following the lead of his early mentor Robert Graves, Darby was convinced that one day the Jews would be converted to Christ and that they would be restored to their historic homeland. These two points are cornerstones to Dispensational theology. Darby also became one of the first proponents of a pre-tribulational rapture as well.

In large part due to the work of Darby and his followers in the Plymouth brethren, Dispensationalism spread to the United States and was embraced by many people there. Darby was a popular speaker in the United States and he convinced many of the truth of Dispensationalism through his preaching there. His work was aided by figures like James Hall Brookes, Adoniram Judson Gordon (whom Gordon college is named after) and William Blackstone. However, Dispensationalism probably received its’ greatest exposure through figures like C.I. Scofield and Lewis Sperrry Chafer who for the first time systematized the theological system of Dispensationalism. Indeed, Ice makes it clear to us in his Short History, that by the twentieth century Dispensationalism had a wide following in the United States.

Ice’s Short History is for the most part a very useful document, though I think it does have a few, non-fatal, weaknesses. I will deal with these presently. Firstly, I found at least one aspect of the work’s literary structure a little baffling. On the first page of the article, Ice goes into some detail describing the theology of J.N. Darby. This section feels a little out of place as the paper flows chronologically, beginning in the second century and moving forward, and Darby did not begin his ministry until the first half of the eighteen-hundreds. The information Ice provides about Darby is essentially repeated later on in the article and its’ place at the beginning of the article feel unnecessary.

Furthermore, while it is clear that Ice does his best to build the case that Dispensationalism is not a historical novelty and has foundation in the theological writings of the Church Fathers, I felt that Ice did not deal with this section as well as he could. He relies heavily on a chart by Dispensationalist Larry Crutchfield that presents the theological opinions of several Church Fathers within a roughly Dispensational formula. Due to a very cursory discussion of their actual opinions, and reliance on only once source in Larry Crutchfield’s book, one wonders if the data is being forced. Indeed, this paper could have included more and better notes and it would have been more convincing.

Fortunately, these shortcomings are not fatal to Ice’s work. This paper is a good introduction to the subject of Dispensationalism for both lay people and even scholars just beginning a study on the subject. The article leaves us with a good understanding of how Dispensationalism developed and what separates it from other theological systems. Ice does a fine job of defining what Dispensational theologians actually find important namely, an adherence to a literal hermeneutic, a premillennial eschatological framework, and an insistence on keeping the role and destinies of the Church and Israel separate. Ice also does the study of theology a great service by doing away with the misconception that Dispensationalism teaches two different gospels and is simply characterized by an obsession with Eschatology. Finally, this work is at its’ best when discussing the father of Dispensationalism J.N. Darby. After reading this article we have a good understanding of Darby’s theology and influences. Indeed, Ice’s A Short History of Dispensationalism is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about Dispensational theology and its’ influence on the wider Christian church.

[1] Thomas Ice, A Short History of Dispensationalism . Www.pre-trib.org .

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[2] Thomas Ice, A Short History of Dispensationalism . Www.pre-trib.org .

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