The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism
Part 6: The Conclusion: Evaluating the Content of Early Dispensational Concepts
Larry V. Crutchfield
Professor of Early Christian History & Culture
Columbia Evangelical Seminary, Longview, WA

Video Planned


    We began this study of the foundations of dispensationalism by noting that for decades nondispensationalists have claimed that there are no historical antecedents for this doctrine. As examples of this view we quoted Clarence B. Bass’ statement that, “No dispensational writer has ever been able to offer…a single point of continuity between what is today known as dispensationalism and the historic premillennial view,”[1] and Millard J. Erickson’s flat assertion that “No trace of this theology can be found in the early history of the church.”[2] Close on the heels of this criticism is the invariable insistence that modern dispensationalism had its birth with John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in the nineteenth century and was unknown before that time.
    Alexander Reese reflects this viewpoint when he says,

    "About 1830… a new school arose within the fold of Premillennialism that sought to overthrow what, since the Apostolic Age, have been considered by all pre-millennialists as established results, and to institute in their place a series of doctrines that had never been heard of before."[3]

    Previously, we noted too that even progressive dispensationalists agree with this assumption held by Bass, Erickson, and Reese. Walter A. Elwell says of progressive dispensationalists, Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock,

“Blaising and Bock maintain that dispensationalism is both recent and different from most of what went before it.”[4]

    This study, we trust, has shown these assertions and views to be patently untrue and untenable. Lewis Sperry Chafer is indeed correct in saying that the evidence found in the early fathers “establishes the fact that Chiliasm, with those dispensational divisions which belong to it, was the orthodox faith of the early church, and far from the heresy that some writers represent it to have been.”[5] We fully recognize that as a well defined system, dispensationalism did not come into its own until the nineteenth century. But we steadfastly reject the position that it had no historical or theological antecedents prior to Darby. Rather, we find agreement with John F. Walvoord’s conclusion that contemporary dispensational theology is but a refinement of the premillennialism held by the church’s earliest leaders and defenders of the faith.[6] With this in mind, we offer the following summary and evaluation of the rudimentary features of dispensationalism found in the apostolic fathers to the time of Irenaeus, specifically, but in the whole ante-Nicene age (to the Council of Nicea, ad 325), generally.

Literal Interpretation

    John Walvoord has said that, “The principles involved in dispensationalism are as old as the history of biblical interpretation. Of these the most important is literal interpretation of prophecy, which is, rightly considered, the guiding principle of dispensational premillennialism.”[7]     Walvoord goes on to say that the dispensationalist’s “distinctive doctrines result from the attempt to interpret prophecy with the same literal method as is used for other Scriptures.”[8]
    Ironically, in the premillenarian fathers the practice of interpretation was precisely the reverse of that found in covenant theology today. At times, many of these early fathers applied the allegorical method to the “other Scriptures,” the non-prophetic passages to which Walvoord refers, and were inconsistent in yielding them to literal interpretation. Prophetic passages, on the other hand, were surrendered quickly to the literal method so that it became what Walvoord calls “the guiding principle” of their premillennialism.
    Taken as a whole, the extant writings of the apostolic fathers make a very small collection. And the works available to us are neither systematic nor doctrinally specific. With regard to principles of hermeneutics, for example, there are no clear expressions of interpretive method. Some of these earliest fathers employed the allegorical approach a great deal, while others used it very little, if at all.
    Yet where prophecy is dealt with, there is a marked tendency toward literal interpretation. It was a tendency that, as in the Epistle of Barnabas, based future eschatological hope upon the reality of literally fulfilled prophecies of the past. Thus Papias looked forward with wide-eyed wonder to the unparalleled fertility of the coming kingdom. And Barnabas anticipated a literal fulfillment of covenant promises.[9]
While there is only brief notice of the importance of the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy in the writings of the apostolic fathers, the apologist Justin Martyr argued frequently and pointedly for the practice on the basis of the literal fulfillment of past prophecy. Irenaeus carried the principle even further by insisting that in the understanding of all of Scripture, not only prophecy, there is that which is “clear,” and “plain,” and “natural.”
    It is true of course that some of the fathers, like Barnabas and Justin, found it expedient to employ allegorical and topological interpretations of some Scripture in their efforts to Christianize the Old Testament in opposition to the Jews. Consequently, theirs was not the consistent literalism that has become the hallmark of contemporary dispensationalism. It is nevertheless true that where exegetical evidence is available, the fathers of this early period of church history held firmly to the important dispensational principle of literal interpretation of prophecy and placed their eschatological hopes upon it. In this, they clearly previewed a fundamental tenet of dispensational rather than covenant theology.

Distinction Between Israel and the Church

    The fundamental position of the premillenarian ante-Nicene fathers with regard to the relationship between Israel and the church has been discussed in several places in this series.[10] But precisely what is its correlation to the contemporary dispensational position on the subject? To recapitulate the father’s teaching: they believed that because of Israel’s disobedience and idolatry in the Old Testament and rejection and crucifixion of Christ in the New, that God had permanently cut that nation off as His people. They held that the faithful of the church age constitute the “new Israel” of God. As such, church-age believers (together with saints of all previous ages) will inherit the promises given to national (or natural) Israel in the millennial kingdom to come at the end of the world.
    The contemporary dispensational position on the relationship between Israel and the church is succinctly stated by Walvoord as follows:
As related to premillennial interpretation, normative dispensationalism tends to emphasize certain important distinctives. One of the most significant is the contrast provided between God’s program for Israel and God’s present program for the church. The church composed of Jew and Gentile is considered a separate program of God which does not advance nor fulfill any of the promises given to Israel. The present age is regarded as a period in which Israel is temporarily set aside as to its national program. When the Church is translated however, Israel’s program will then proceed to its consummation.[11]
    A superficial reading of the fathers on this point has led many to conclude that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the fathers’ position and that of the modern dispensationalist. However, a closer examination of the matter proves otherwise. In the practical outworking of their theology, though not always clearly articulated, the premillenarian fathers were much closer to the dispensational teaching on Israel and the church than often supposed.
    Relative to this subject, perhaps the single most important point in the fathers is the fact that they maintained distinctions among the people of God throughout the ages. While they certainly held that all people of every age are justified by faith through the blood of Christ, and in that sense there is a type of soteriological unity among all the faithful who have ever lived, they nevertheless maintained a working concept of “peoples of God,” not “a people of God.” Beginning with Barnabas, but especially in the theology of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, as well as others who followed, there was an understanding that the distinctions among the people of God include: 1) The righteous who lived prior to Abraham (a spiritual seed of Abraham?); 2) The righteous physical descendants of Abraham (a spiritual seed of Abraham); and 3) Those of the church age who are justified by faith after the fashion of Abraham (the spiritual seed of Abraham)[12] In addition to these three divisions of the faithful, there are of course the physical, unbelieving descendants of Abraham who comprise disinherited national Israel.
    In this, the fathers are in complete disagreement with covenant amillennialists, certain covenant (or “historic”) premillennialists, and progressive dispensationalists.[13] The church was never confused with national Israel nor was it assumed to have existed in the Old Testament.[14] The church, according to the fathers, began at Pentecost, not with Adam or Abraham.
    The primary difficulty with the fathers is not their concept of the origin of the church and whether or not it is distinct from Israel. There is little question that they were regarded as separate organic entities. The chief problem, rather, is with their concept of the church as one of the principle beneficiaries of covenant promises formerly intended for national Israel. This certainly seems to be a direct contradiction of modern dispensational teaching.[15]
    First of all, it is not surprising that the fathers were insistent that national Israel was cut off for her faithlessness and that the church was brought in as her replacement. These early leaders of a fledgling religion found it necessary to contend regularly with hostile Judaism, the proponents of which had crucified the Redeemer. In the early fathers’ view, how could these Christ-rejecters and opponents of the true faith expect anything of God? This belief, coupled with the lack of exegetical sophistication indigenous to the times, led to the erroneous conclusion that the church had supplanted Israel as the heir of Abraham.
    In reality, however, the concept of a remnant of Israel continued in the fathers thinking, though not so called. This is seen in the concept of the seed of Abraham. According to the fathers, the church is indeed a distinct entity and heir of covenant promise. But in almost every reference to receipt of inheritance in the millennial kingdom, the church is reckoned as only co-inheritor “together with” the physical, righteous descendants of Abraham, and the righteous who lived prior to the calling out of Israel.
    There is no doubt that the position of the fathers on the relationship between Israel and the church is problematic. But certain elements in their teaching on this subject place them close to, though not altogether within the dispensational camp. That the church was never called national Israel, nor national Israel the church is certain. The church was called the “new Israel” only in the sense that believers follow the analogy of Abraham’s faith and are thus his spiritual offspring, and therefore the people of God in the new dispensation. That the early fathers maintained distinctions among the peoples of God in various ages is also evident in their treatment of Abraham’s seed and in relation to the recipients of the inheritance which will be received in the millennial kingdom. That these fathers also held to the literal fulfillment of covenant promises in the coming kingdom, contrary to the covenant amillennial position, is beyond dispute. As Clarence E. Mason rightly observes,

"…the millennial hope, undeniably prominent in the early church centuries, is based upon a true interpretation of the covenants of God with Abraham, affecting a land and a seed, and with David, affecting a kingly house in perpetuity. These are at once the core principles of interpretation for both premillennialism and dispensationalism."[16]

    We stand in agreement, then, with the fathers concerning: 1) The distinction maintained between the church and national Israel; 2) The recognition of distinctions among the differing peoples of God throughout biblical history; and 3) The literal fulfillment of covenant promises in the earthly kingdom. We find it unfortunate, however, that the ante-Nicene fathers relegated believers between Jacob and Pentecost to the sidelines as bit players in the drama of redemption, and especially in its final glorious earthly act—the millennial kingdom. They obviously were not placed among the number of church age believers, but neither were they classified as believing Israel.
    The early fathers overlooked the multitude of Scripture references that unmistakable speak of the faithful remnant of Israel and require the restoration of that nation in order that the promises to Abraham might be fulfilled. While the church will indeed share in the blessings of covenant promise as a seed, but not the seed of Abraham, the primary recipients of promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, on the basis of careful exegesis of Scripture, can only be the restored believing remnant of Israel—a remnant which has existed throughout Israel’s history.[17] Nevertheless, difficulties not withstanding and from the standpoint of progress in doctrine, we view the contemporary dispensational position on Israel and the church as primarily a refinement and not a contradiction of the position of the ante-Nicene church.

Year-Day Tradition and Dispensational Distinctions

    In Barnabas we have in the year-day tradition and in other pronouncements, the earliest budding of the dispensational understanding of God’s dealings with man. Barnabas indicated that boundaries have been set for the times of man, the kingdom rest, and the beginning of eternity. Furthermore, within the time of man’s allotted 6, 000 years, God has had His special people Israel, who failed. Therefore, He established a new people with whom He deals on the basis of newly revealed principles. While sacrifices, burnt offerings, and oblations were the acceptable means of approach to God in the old era, Christ Himself is the “human oblation” in the present age. This latter age, according to Ignatius, is “a dispensation founded on faith in [Jesus Christ] and love for Him, on His Passion and Resurrection.”[18] It is distinct from what Clement termed “every age that has passed,”[19] and as Hermas implied, from “the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell …”[20]
    However, not until Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others who followed, do we encounter a rather detailed understanding of God’s dispensational program for humankind. It is not merely an arbitrary division of human history into predetermined chronological segments of time. But in various times and in various ways the method of God’s dealing with people and the content of the divine revelation to them underwent change. Each change was designed to counteract individual failure and to facilitate a personal approach in obedience to God. Yet as the early church fathers viewed human history, they saw but one basis for man’s justification before God. That basis is individual righteousness which rests squarely upon faith in the One whose Son secured salvation on the cross.
    Although it is true that there is but one way of salvation in presented in teaching of the fathers, the charge that for them “there is only one basic dispensational division,”[21] is completely unfounded. It was of course true then, as now, that the basic division between the Old and New Testaments—God’s programs before and after Christ—were recognized. But it is also true that several of the fathers held to the concept of a multi-staged (or dispensational) dealing of God with humanity based loosely upon a cycle of failure and the consequent need for new revelation which aided an individual’s endeavor to please God in obedient faith. Some fathers set forth at least four such dispensations while others come very close to making nearly the same divisions proposed by modern dispensationalists. In the writings of Irenaeus, Victorinus of Petau, and Methodius, the number of dispensations is artificially restricted to four because of the quadriplex types adduced from both nature and Scripture which they felt required it. Without such an artificially self-imposed constraint, the result is more nearly like that found in Tertullian.[22]
    While it makes little essential difference whether the fathers held to four or more than four dispensations, it is nonetheless instructive to determine how they arrived at the number of dispensations to which they held. It is also of interest to observe how their dispensations correlate to those enumerated by contemporary dispensationalists. The dispensations are most often spoken of in the early fathers in terms of the prominent men with whom God dealt individually, and to whom He imparted new revelation for the collective good of His people. The names that repeatedly come to the fore are: 1. Adam; 2. Noah; 3. Abraham; 4. Moses; and 5. Christ. Quite often the name of Abel is associated with that of Adam, while Enoch is connected with Noah. The dispensational divisions delineated by the fathers were customarily made along the boundaries of these five men’s lives and times.
    Among the fathers who held to only four dispensations, there was frequently confusion as to where to draw the boundaries for the first two. The dispensationalist fathers all seemed to recognize the distinctive part that Adam, Noah, and Abraham played in God’s dispensational arrangements. But if there could only be four dispensations and the Law under Moses and Gospel under Christ are assumed,[23] then the first two economies had to be manipulated to fit the predetermined number. Often the dilemma was solved by allowing one of the three patriarchs (Adam, Noah, or Abraham) absorbed into one of the others in order to delineate four dispensations. In general discussions of God’s economies, however, the fivefold division continued to be observed. Those five dispensations are roughly equivalent to Scofield’s dispensations of Innocence (Adam), Government (Noah), Promise (Abraham), Law (Moses), and Grace (Christ).[24]
    But how did the fathers deal with what the modern dispensationalist calls the dispensation of conscience (from the fall to the flood) and the millennial dispensation (second coming of Christ to the eternal state)? Since the fathers tended to think of the dispensations in terms of prominent men, it is easy to see how Abel and Enoch (two of the prominent men of the dispensation of conscience)[25] could be absorbed into the economies under their more illustrious contemporaries (Abel under Adam and Enoch under Noah); men to whom greater portions of the biblical narrative is devoted. In the case of the millennium, the fathers alternated between calling it a “new” dispensation or the “future” dispensation, and simply regarding the whole period from the first incarnation to the eternal state under Christ, the most prominent figure throughout that time frame.
    Regardless of the number of economies to which the fathers held, the fact remains that they set forth what can only be considered a doctrine of ages and dispensations. And their dispensational systems foreshadowed that held by dispensationalists today. It is certainly less well defined and less sophisticated. But that the early fathers viewed God’s dealings with His people in dispensational terms is evident. We repeat the earlier quotation of Mason that is distinctly on target. He says,

    "The argument for dispensationalism is sustained by a multiple-age dealing of God with man in His progressive self-revelation. Men of the early church believed and wrote about these various eras. They spoke of various ages. That none of them codified these ages specifically as dispensationalists do today does not deny that they could have been so codified. It is simply not true that there are only two covenants and thus two ages."[26]


    From Justin and Irenaeus we learn that the doctrine of the premillennial reign of Christ on earth was regarded as the orthodox faith of the early church. The evidence indicates that millennialism (or chiliasm as it was originally called) was the predominant belief of the church of the first three centuries. “And to make few words of it,” as Thomas Burnet says, “we will lay down this Conclusion, That the Millennial kingdom of Christ was the general doctrine of the Primitive Church, from the times of the Apostles to the Nicene Council; inclusively.”[27] The truth of this fact, as Erich Sauer correctly observes, “can only be overlooked by want of care or insufficient acquaintance with the history of theology."[28]
    The substance of the premillennial doctrine of the early fathers is as follows:

  • Christ will return personally and visibly prior to the millennium.
  • The righteous dead will be raised (first resurrection)[29] and the saints will be raptured.
  • Antichrist and his followers will be destroyed, Satan bound,[30] and the earth renovated in preparation for the golden millennial age.
  • Christ will then reign on the throne of David, with the saints, from a restored Jerusalem.
  • The millennial age, of a thousand years duration, will bring in the promised Sabbath rest for the saints, literal fulfillment of covenant promises (including those concerning the land), and a time of uncommon fertility and peace. The millennium will serve as a prep school for eternity and provide a fitting conclusion to human history on earth.
  • At the conclusion of the millennial kingdom, the wicked dead will be raised (second or general resurrection) and judged.
  • “After these things God will renew the world, and transform the righteous into the forms of angels, that, being presented with the garment of immortality, they may serve God for ever; and this will be the kingdom of God, which shall have no end.”[31]

    These elements of the premillennialism of the early church are very near those found in contemporary dispensationalism. Compare, for example, John Walvoord’s statement on the “Literal earthly millennium.” He maintains that,

     "Dispensational premillennialism tends to emphasize the governmental and political character of the millennium itself. Christ will reign on the throne of David on earth over restored Israel as will as the Gentile world. Spiritual qualities such as righteousness and peace, spiritual power, and the visible glory of God will be evident. It will fulfill literally the glowing expectation of Old Testament prophets for a kingdom of God on earth embracing all nations. Satan will be bound and inactive. The curse upon the earth will be lifted and the desert will blossom. All will know the Lord from the least to the greatest. This final dispensation before the creation of the new heavens and new earth will in many respects be climactic in blessing and a demonstration of divine sovereignty and glory. Christ’s reign on earth will gloriously fulfill Old Testament prophecy."[32]

    It is not surprising that the anti-dispensational Mennonite writer C. Norman Kraus attempts to define the millennial expectations of the early fathers in non-dispensational terms. He has no choice but to admit that “It is true that some [we would say most] of the early leaders taught that the Kingdom of God would be climaxed in history by the reign of Christ on earth for one thousand years (a millennium)…” However, Kraus insists that “it was without the ‘dispensational’ distinctions common today.” He cites Irenaeus as an example of a millenarian who held to the existence of a present spiritual kingdom of Christ. Thus Kraus concludes that “These early millennialists expected the Kingdom to be established in a fuller sense in the coming age, but this was not a different Kingdom than now exists. It was rather the triumph and fulfillment of the Kingdom now in existence.”[33]
    This is a clever attempt to drive a wedge between premillennialists of the past and present, but one which is doomed to failure. That Irenaeus[34] and others believed in the present spiritual dimension of the kingdom is evident. J. Lawson says of Irenaeus, for example, that he “frequently mentions the Kingdom of God, and shows that he thinks of it as both present and future. The coming Millennial Kingdom is the climax of that which is already at work in the world since the coming of Christ.” But Lawson goes on to say that “More commonly the Kingdom is the future Kingdom.”[35]
    There is no disagreement here with the position of dispensational premillennialism as taught today. As Ryrie points out, “Although dispensationalists insist that the kingdom Jesus preached was the Davidic kingdom and that the establishing of the Church is not the fulfillment of it, they do not fail to recognize the presence of the universal and spiritual kingdom or rule of God.”[36] The fathers indeed recognized the sovereign rule of God over His creation and that, as Ryrie puts it, there is a “spiritual rule of God in individual hearts today.”[37] But they had no notion that the church was in some sense the fulfillment of the promised kingdom. Rather they looked for a future literal fulfillment of the promise to David of an earthly kingdom.
    Indeed, as in modern dispensationalism, literalism was the wellspring from which the millennialism of the fathers issued forth. It was not until the allegorism of Alexandria began to take its toll that this doctrine entered its decline in early church history. As Shimeall rightly observes,

"…the literal interpretation of 'the teachings of Isaiah and St. John concerning the second coming of Christ,' was the only law of prophetical 'exegesis' known to the Church, Jewish and Christian, until it was supplanted by the new theory of allegorical exposition of the Scriptures, matured and propagated by the Platonico-philosophical speculations of Origen."[38]

    Note also that the premillenarian fathers not only interpreted the Apocalypse of John literally,[39] they invariably accepted the Book of Revelation as canonical Scripture. They also identified John the apostle as its author, not some other John as suggested by some anti-millenarian fathers like Dionysius of Alexandria.

Imminency / Pretribulationism

    The position of the early fathers on the tribulation and its relation to the saints and Christ’s return, is impossible to completely decipher. Many of them, especially in the first century, did indeed make explicit statements which indicated a belief in the imminent return of Christ.[40] The doctrine of imminency is especially prominent in the writings of the apostolic fathers. It is on the basis of Christ’s impending return (e.g., Didache) and on the strength of the literal fulfillment of past prophecy (e.g., Barnabas), that they exhorted the Christian to live a life of purity and faithfulness.
    In addition to direct statements on imminency, in some fathers language decidedly associated with the rapture is also found.[41] And still others maintained that the saints will escape the time of persecution under Antichrist in a manner reflective of Revelation 3:10.[42] But due to the circumstances of that period of church history, there was no exact correlation between tribulationism as held by the early fathers and views commonly held today.
    The Roman Empire of Daniel’s prophecies (the fourth beast of Dan. 7), for instance, was naturally understood by these fathers to already be in existence. The persecution to be suffered at the hands of Antichrist, who was often identified in some way with the Roman Empire, was seen by many early church leaders as merely an extension of the persecution then being suffered at the hands of Rome. From this perspective, many of the fathers believed all that remained was for Antichrist to appear suddenly to carry out the final stage of hostility against the saints. But coupled with the sense of the impending revelation of Antichrist was the attitude that Christ could come at any moment  to raise the righteous dead, rapture the saints, destroy Antichrist’s evil regime, and inaugurate the golden kingdom age.
    The fathers generally saw all persecutions as serving a purifying purpose. As gold is refined by fire, the saints must be purified by fiery trials. But the early fathers were sure that this purifying process had been underway since at least the time of Nero, beginning in ad 64. Any further purifying persecution at the hands of Antichrist was seen within the context of Roman rule.
    Concerning the time and duration of Antichrist’s reign and the final phase of persecution, as understood by the fathers, there is much that we cannot say for certain. Several of them associated the time of the end with the tenfold division of the Roman Empire spoken of in Daniel 7:7–8, 23–25 and Revelation 17:12, and Antichrist’s rise to power.[43] But the mere fact that this event was to precede Christ’s coming does not in itself negate the sense of expectancy among those fathers who held this view. In Barnabas, as we have shown, it cannot even be said for certain that the tenfold division of Rome was seen as yet future. And Irenaeus still spoke of Antichrist’s “sudden coming,” and the church “suddenly” being caught up.[44] Tertullian exulted, “But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One!”[45] And even though Lactantius maintained that there were signs to precede the end, he said of these, “It is permitted us to know respecting the signs, which are spoken by the prophets, for they foretold signs by which the consummation of the times is to be expected by us from day to day, and to be feared.”[46]
    In sum, with few exceptions,[47] the premillennial fathers of the early church believed that they were living in the last times. Thus they looked daily for the Lord’s return. Even most of those who looked for Antichrist’s appearance prior to the second advent, saw that event as occurring suddenly and just as suddenly being followed by the rescue and rapture of the saints by Christ. Furthermore, the fathers who expected the tenfold division of Rome, appear to have compressed that event into a very short period of time. This belief in the imminent return of Christ within the context of ongoing persecution has prompted us to broadly label the views of the earliest fathers, imminent intratribulationism.[48]
    There is little agreement among non-dispensationalists regarding pretribulationism and the views of the early church. Ladd’s position is extreme. He says, “We can find no trace of pretribulationism in the early church…”[49] Erickson on the other hand, who often follows Ladd, allows the possibility that “the premillennialism of the church’s first centuries may have included belief in a pretribulational rapture of the church.”[50] The cause of the confusion among modern scholars on this issue is no mystery. They are confused because the fathers, as we have seen, were confused about the subject themselves. Eschatology was in its infancy in those early centuries. Consequently, those who search the fathers for a fully detailed, systematic presentation of the doctrine of last things, search in vain.
    It should be noted that dispensationalists have neither said that the early church was clearly pretribulational nor that there are even clear individual statements of pretribulationism in the fathers. As Walvoord says, “the historical fact is that the early church fathers’ view on prophecy did not correspond to what is advanced by pretribulationists today except for the one important point that both subscribe to the imminency of the rapture.”[51] This view of the fathers on imminency and in some the references to escaping the time of the tribulation constitute what may be termed, to borrow a phrase from Erickson, “seeds from which the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture could be developed…”[52] Had it not been for the drought brought by Alexandrian allegorism and later by Augustine, one wonders what kind of crop those seeds might have yielded—before Darby and the nineteenth century.

A Closing Word

    John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was indeed the first to give systematic form to the doctrine of ages and dispensations. But he was by no means the first to set forth the principles from which it is derived. Arnold D. Ehlert’s valuable work, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism,[53] shows that this doctrine has a history almost as old as the church itself. In every major area of importance, one finds in the early church, rudimentary elements of dispensationalism that bear a striking resemblance to their contemporary offspring. But this is no doctrine that depends upon the historical consensus of human opinion—devout or otherwise—for its existence. We have one authority, and one authority only. As Charles L. Feinberg aptly puts it, “The final issue is, ‘What saith the Scripture?’”[54] And in our estimation, and we believe in that of the early church, with respect to the principles and concepts upon which our doctrine rests, the Scripture saith, “Amen.”

[1] Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 14.
[2] Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 111.
[3] Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1937; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids International Publications, 1975), p. 19.
[4] Walter A. Elwell, review of Progressive Dispensationalism, by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, in Christianity Today, 12 September 1994, p. 28.
[5] Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 93 (October 1936):p. 393.
[6] John F. Walvoord, review of Backgrounds to Dispensationalism, by Clarence B. Bass, in Bibliotheca Sacra, 118 January 1961, p. 69.
[7] See John F. Walvoord, “Dispensational Premillennialism,” in Christianity Today, September 1958, pp. 11–12.
[8] Ibid, p. 13.
[9] For views on literal interpretation of prophecy in fathers not previously covered, see Hippolytus (Appendix to the Works of Hippolytus II; Treatise on Christ and Antichrist 5); Tertullian (Apology XX); and Lactantius (Divine Institutes VII, XXIV; IV, V)
[10] For a comprehensive presentation of this subject, see Larry V. Crutchfield, “Israel and the Church in the Ante-Nicene Fathers: Part 1 of Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period” Bibliotheca Sacra 146 (July-September 1987):pp. 254–276. Other views on the subject may be gleaned from Hippolytus (Ag. Her. of One Noetus 5); Tertullian (Ag. Marcion III, XXV); and Lactantius (Divine Institutes IV, XX; VII, I; and Epitome of Div. Instit. XLVIII-XLIX).
[11] Walvoord, “Dispensational Premillennialism,” in Christianity Today, p. 13.
[12] It is evident here that the fathers could not have agreed with Daniel P. Fuller’s belief that there is but a single physical seed of Abraham which includes the church. See Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 130–34.
[13] Ryrie states that “Progressives do not see the church as completely distinct from Israel as normative dispensationalists have maintained. Neither do they consider the mystery concept of the church to mean that the church was not revealed in the Old Testament, only that it was unrealized. A corollary of this new view erases the idea of two purposes of God—one for the church and one for Israel” (see Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, revised and expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), p. 174.
[14] See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), pp. 570f. Here Berkhof says, “the Church existed in the old dispensation as well as in the new, and was essentially the same in both, in spite of acknowledged institutional and administrative differences” (p. 571). Covenant premillennialist J. Barton Payne also sees the church in the Old Testament, which he assumes began with Abraham [see J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), p. 91].
[15] See the quotation from Walvoord above (“Dispensational Premillennialism,” in Christianity Today, p. 13).
[16] Clarence E. Mason, “A Review of ‘Dispensationalism’ by John Wick Bowman,” Bibliotheca Sacra 114 (January 1957):p. 15.
[17] For valuable treatments of themes related to Israel, e.g., status as a nation, restoration of, covenant promises to, etc., see John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959); J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958); and Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953).
[18] Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians XX in Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, eds., Ancient Christian Writers: The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, trans. James A. Kleist (New York; Ramsey, N.J.: Newman Press, 1946), 67.
[19] Clement of Rome I Clement VIII.
[20] Hermas’ The Shepherd: Visions IV, III.
[21] C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958), p. 23.
[22] For a “Comparison of Dispensational Systems of Fathers in the Ante-Nicene Age” see “Appendix A” in Larry V. Crutchfield’s “Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers: Part 2 of Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period” Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (October-December 1987), p. 400. We would point out that while the absence of this incentive for a fourfold dispensational system allows greater freedom for division along more naturally biblical lines, at least in Tertullian’s case, it also resulted in a system with less well defined boundaries than those set forth by some of the other fathers.
    The reader is reminded of our note 67 in the previous article. There the reference by the editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers series to what “seem[s] the complete system” of Irenaeus, is given. It is a sevenfold system which closely approximates that found in contemporary dispensationalism.
[23] Victorinus’ system, if it can even be called that, is the exception. He scarcely does more than name the divisions of mankind with no commentary. How these divisions may have been treated elsewhere in his non-extant works is of course past finding out, but stirs interest nonetheless.
[24] See C. I. Scofield, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (Fincastle, Va.: Scripture Truth Book Co., n.d.), pp. 12–16.
[25] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 53. Ryrie also names Noah.
[26] Mason, p. 16.
[27] Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (London: J. McGowan, n.d.), p. 346 (Italics his). For a full listing of the premillenarian fathers of the early church see the table “Dispensational Features in the Patristic Period” at the end of this article.
[28] Erich Sauer, From Eternity to Eternity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), p. 141.
[29] Some like J. N. D. Kelly have suggested that the normal teaching of the early church was that there would be but one general resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous [e.g., Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 463]. But in the case of the premillenarian fathers this is certainly not the case. A thousand year millennium bounded by the first resurrection of the righteous and the second (or general) resurrection of the wicked is hinted at by the Didachist and expressly taught by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Commodian, and Lactantius (see the table “Dispensational Features in the Patristic Period” for documentation).
[30] Lactantius wrote that the “prince of the demons” shall be “bound with fiery chains … that the world may receive peace, and the earth, harassed through so many years, may rest” (Epitome of the Div. Instit. LXXII).
[31] Lactantius Epit. of the Div. Instit. LXXII.
[32] Walvoord, “Dispensational Premillennialism,” in Christianity Today, p. 13.
[33] Kraus, p. 24.
[34] See for example Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, XX, 10, where Irenaeus spoke of the “tranquil and peaceful times of His kingdom, in which the Spirit of God does, in the most gentle manner, vivify and increase mankind.”
[35] J. Lawson, The Biblical Theology of St. Irenaeus (No place of publication given: Epworth, 1949), p. 284.
[36] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 156.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Richard Cunningham Shimeall, Christ’s Second Coming: Is it Pre-Millennial or Post-Millennial? (New York: John F. Trow, 1865), pp. 44–45; (Italics his).
[39] See item 5 “View on the Book of Revelation” in the table at the end of this study. Revelation 20 is one of the key passages of Scripture on the coming millennial age. The only way to get around its plain statements, including the fact that Christ’s kingdom on earth will be a thousand years in duration, is to allegorize them away.
[40] See for example Clement of Rome (I Clement XXIII; XXXIV-XXXV); Ignatius (Epist. to Polycarp I and III); Didache (XVI, 1); Hermas (Shepherd: Similitudes IX, Chaps. V, VII and XXVI); Barnabas (XXI). For fathers of the second century see Tertullian (Apology XXI); and Cyprian (Treatises I, 27). There are expressions of imminency even in those who expected certain events to occur before the end, as in Hippolytus (Treat. On Christ and Antichrist 5); and Lactantius (Div. Instit. XXV).
[41] See the Didache (XVI); Irenaeus (Ag. Her. V, XXIX, 1); and Victorinus (Comm. on Apoc. 12, 1 and 15, 1).
[42] For examples of the language of escape, see Hermas (Shepherd: Visions IV, II-III); Hippolytus (Appendix to Works XXXII and XXXV); and Lactantius (Epit. of Div. Instit. LXXI).
[43] Among these are Barnabas (IV); Irenaeus (Ag. Her. V, XXX, 2); Hippolytus (Treat. on Christ and Antichrist 28–29); Tertullian (On Resurrection of the Flesh XXIV-XXV); and Lactantius (Div. Instit. VII, XXV).
[44] See Irenaeus Ag. Her. V, XXX, 2 and V, XXIX, 1 respectively.
[45] Tertullian The Shows, or De Spectaculis XXX.
[46] Lactantius Div. Instit. XXV.
[47] Obviously, chronology made the imminent return of Christ impossible in his day. By his reckoning, some 250 years remained before the allotted 6, 000 years of man were to expire (Frags. from Comm., On Daniel II, 4–6).
[48] Some of the fathers like Hippolytus, Tertullian, Lactantius, and others, clearly had posttribulational elements in their views concerning the end times. But we have been unable to find an instance of the unequivocal classic posttribulationism taught today. Walvoord’s assessment of the fathers’ views on the tribulation is essentially correct. He says, “The preponderance of evidence seems to support the concept that the early church did not clearly hold to a rapture as preceding the end time tribulation period. Most of the early church fathers who wrote on the subject at all considered themselves already in the great tribulation. Accordingly Payne, as well as most other posttribulationists, takes the position that it is self-evident that pretribulationism as it is taught today was unheard of in the early centuries of the church. Consequently the viewpoint of the early church fathers is regarded by practically all posttribulationists, whether adherents of the classic view or not, as a major argument in favor of posttribulationism. However, the fact that most posttribulationists today do not accept the doctrine of imminency as the early church held it diminishes the force of their argument against pretribulationism” [see John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 24.
[49] George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 31.
[50] Erickson, p. 112.
[51] Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, p. 25.
[52] Erickson, p. 131.
[53] Arnold D. Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966).
[54] Charles L. Feinberg, Millennialism: The Two Major Views (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 74.