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Dispensationalism And The Early Church Fathers


What is dispensationalism? That word draws different reactions from a variety of Christians. For some it is someone that interprets the Bible in a literal fashion. For some they may see a dispensationalist as confused.  However, there are many that say that dispensationalism has no place in the church.

Dispensationalism And The Early Church Fathers

There are many in the church who view dispensationalism as a historical, or even worse the invention of John Darby in the 19th century.

In this paper, I will show that dispensationalism was not the invention of a 19th-century Biblical scholar, but that it has roots in the earliest days of the Christian church. 

In this paper Papias and his chiliastic teachings will be examined. What was one of the ways that Irenaeus battled the Gnostics? One of his weapons in Against Heresies was premillennialism and the various ages that God used to bring about His plan.

Other church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Methodius will have their writings examined to show that they too have a doctrine of ages, or dispensations. Furthermore, other documents from church history will show how the idea of dispensationalism developed and that it is not a modern invention. It is not the intent of this paper to prove that dispensationalism is true, but to prove that it has historical merit and is worthy to be included in theology debate and study.


To begin the study of dispensationalism and the church fathers it is necessary to understand what dispensationalism is. Dispensationalism is a theological system of interpretation that sees the scriptures as its central focus. This system of interpretation consists of the following two principles: 1) The scriptures are interpreted in a literal manner, and 2) it makes a distinction between the church and the nation of Israel[1].

Dispensationalists believe that Jesus will return before his millennial reign on Earth. As a result, those who hold to dispensational theology are also premillennial. If one has ever heard of the rapture it is because of dispensationalism. Christ will come back for His people before the seven years of the great tribulation begin. After the seven years, Christ will reign on His millennial throne. In this view, God has several dispensations in which He has administered His divine plan with humanity. According to Dr. Timothy Jones dispensation “translates from a Greek term that can also be rendered as stewardship or administration[2].”

Within dispensationalism there are many notable figures. Among them are Lewis Sperry Chafer, C.I. Scofield, Charles Ryrie, and John Nelson Darby.  John Darby himself is known as the “godfather” of dispensationalism.  Though from the United Kingdom, he popularized the idea in the United Kingdom before coming to the United States in the 19th century. Lewis Shafer in his work Systematic Theology, makes mention of a dispensation being a period of time that is identified by its relation to God’s purpose[3]. C.I. Scofield is famously known for his study Bible The Scofield Reference Bible. 

In his Bible, he described a dispensation as a testing of the obedience of man in relation to the will of God. Charles Ryrie, who is a well-respected theologian in the modern era, describes a dispensation as “A distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose[4].” Opinions vary on just how many dispensations there are.  Easton’s Bible Dictionary lists the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian dispensations, but that is not the normal numbering[5]. The normal numbering is much higher, and can range from six to eight dispensations mentioned in Scripture.

With so many theologians in the modern era teaching dispensationalism, why has it come under fire? Why do so many hear the word “dispensationalism” and totally disregard it? The system is largely seen as a 19th century Scripture interpretation by John Darby, and subsequently popularized by C.I. Scofield. Scofield’s Scofield Reference Bible was the first book to claim One Million sales with its publisher Oxford University Press[6]. However, as previously mentioned, the idea that the doctrine has only come about in modern times is not wholly accurate[7].


Justin Martyr is an imposing figure in the days of the early church. He is one of the first of the fathers that are known as the apologists. Justin Martyr was a philosopher by trade, and very skilled in the art of rhetoric. Though the canon of scripture had not yet been compiled, the Old Testament was. Justin noticed “several different economies in the Old Testament[8]. In biblical terms, an “economy” is a divine order in which history is revealed. Though there are subtle difference, it is very similar to the meaning of dispensation.

One such dispensation in which Justin Martyr firmly believed was in a literal one-thousand-year reign of Christ[9]. For Justin Martyr, there was a clear distinction between various ages in Scripture. There was an age prior to circumcision, an age prior to the law, and an age after the law.  In his Dialogue with Trypho Just writes, “But if so great a power is shown to have followed and to be still following the dispensation of His suffering, how great shall that be which shall follow His glorious advent! For He shall come on the clouds as the Son of Man, so Daniel foretold, and His angels shall come with Him[10].” In this very important passage he lays out the Dispensational Premillennial view of the end times.


Papias of Hierapolis lived from A.D. 60-130, and preceded Justin Martyr in his premillennial views. He wrote five books about the interpretation of Scripture, but large portions of the works are lost. However, the great early church historian, Eusebius, provides us with details about his teachings. The authority that Papias has should not be understated, as he was a disciple of John the Apostle and an associate with Polycarp[11].

In the writings of Papias we see the dispensational teaching of the literal millennial reign of Christ on Earth. One of the hallmarks of dispensationalism is the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was also the view of this great church father, but with a twist. Papias saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem as an essential element for the faithful to receive physical and spiritual blessings[12]. Papias also interpreted Scripture to say that there would be peace on Earth once Christ returned.

Regarding these things Eusebius writes of Papias, “In these he says there would be a certain millennium after the resurrection, and that there would be a corporeal reign of Christ on this very Earth; which things he appears to have imagined, as if they were authorized by the apostolic narrations, not understanding correctly those matters which they propounded mystically in their representations[13].” Though much is lost of the five works of Papias there is a wealth of information that shows dispensational markings[14].


Irenaeus is one of the most towering figures in the early church. He was a disciple of the church father Polycarp, and he died in A.D. 202, in what would eventually become known as France. He is best known for his work known as Against Heresies in which he took on the growing Gnostic movement.  Christians are also indebted to him because the defense he made for the Christian faiththe defense he made for the Christian faith is one that can still be used today.

Elements of dispensationalism are prominent in Irenaeus’s writing, and were part of his battle to prove that the Gnostics were heretics. In regards to Irenaeus and dispensationalism Peter Enns writes, “Irenaeus refers in his writings to four principle covenants given to the human race, particularly drawing a distinction between three covenants of the Old Testament and the gospel. This distinction is typical of dispensationalism[15].’ One of the tenants of Gnosticism was that matter was evil. Therefore, the way to eternal knowledge was secret and available to a chosen few. In Gnostic thought, He will not be coming again to judge the living and the dead.

Irenaeus firmly disagreed with this line of reasoning, and taught that Christ was indeed coming back, and that He will reign in the millennium. He taught what would become known as the rule of faith. The rule of faith taught the following three truths: 1) Jesus would come bodily to Earth. 2) The rule of faith affirms the bodily resurrection of believers, and 3) the rule of faith affirms a future judgment[16]. Regarding the various economies, or dispensations, that Irenaeus wrote about J.N.D. Kelly writes, “the fact that there are real distinctions in the immanent being of the unique, indivisible Father, and that while these were only fully manifested in the ‘economy’, they were actually there from all eternity[17].” This corresponds to the four ages in which God revealed His plan for His people.

To be more specific the four ages, or dispensations that Irenaeus saw in Scripture were the Adamic covenant, the covenant with Noah, the Mosaic covenant, and the new covenant[18]. In section seven of Against Heresies, Irenaeus explains that God has revealed Himself through many different dispensations. God did this so that man would see the glory of God and not fall away from Him. These dispensations were a way in which God nourished His precious creation. It was a way of teaching us valuable lessons along the way[19].


Tertullian is an early church figure who was brilliant in his theological treatises, but fell into the Montanist heresy in his later years. Though he wrote much, he is best known for a work titled Against Marcion. Marcion claimed that there were two gods. These gods were vastly different as one created the universe and the other sent Jesus to tell of a universal salvation[20].

Marcion claimed that the demiurge, the false god who created the universe, was the author of the Mosaic dispensation. Tertullian set about to dispute this by saying that the Mosaic covenant was one of four dispensations that the true God had laid out. Tertullian saw God working in a dispensation with Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the millennial reign of Christ. In refutation of the made up deity of Marcion Tertullian writes, “if He has administered His dispensations, fulfilled His prophecies, promoted His laws, given reality to16 His promises, revived His mighty power, remoulded His determinations18 expressed His attributes, His properties. This law and this rule I earnestly request the reader to have ever in his mind, and so let him begin to investigate whether Christ be Marcion’s or the Creator’s[21].”

Being a docetist, Marcion did not believe that Christ had a physical body.  Tertullian, of course, believed that Christ was fully God and fully man. He also believed that Christ would physically come back and have a millennial reign. This is a strong theme in dispensationalism. Tertullian tells Marcion that Christ’s Kingdom is promised on Earth for one thousand years, and it will be after the resurrection of the dead[22].


Whether one is a Protestant or a Catholic Augustine has greatly influenced the theology of both[23]. One would not characterize him as a dispensationalist, but some of his teaching lean that way. Overall Augustine is amillennialistic towards his views of the end times. He does distinguish between different dispensations, such as when sacrifices were offered in the temple and that is no longer something that is done[24]. Regarding this Augustine writes, “though in the former period of the world’s history He enjoined one kind of offerings, and in the latter period another, therein ordering the symbolic actions pertaining to the blessed doctrine of true religion in harmony with the changes of successive epochs without any change in Himself[25].”


Up until this point the focus has been showing that concepts within dispensationalism were present from the earliest days of the church. It obviously developed much since then. So much so that it became widely popular in evangelical and fundamentalist circles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Pierre Poiret lived from 1646-1719, and published a massive six-volume systematic theology[26]. In his work titled L’Economie Divine, he details seven dispensations which range from infancy to the renovation of all things.

John Edwards was a pastor who published a work titled A Compleat History, or Survey of All the Dispensations. In this work, he seeks to show how God deals providentially with His creation in different stages of the world. The work itself is fairly short, and its listing of dispensations is quite interesting.  He lists three dispensations, but the third dispensation (which is titled Reconciliation), has four subcategories. These subcategories range all the way from the patriarchal economy to the evangelical economy[27].

Before John Darby, Isaac Watts wrote hymns and was a theologian that made great headway in defining dispensationalism. He noticed that in various stages God would have different expectations and made promises that were different than that of previous generations. To this effect Charles Ryrie writes of Watts, “The Public dispensations toward God towards men are those wise and holy constitutions of his will and government, revealed or some way manifested to them, in the several successive periods or ages of the world[28].” He saw six dispensations laid out in Scripture with the first being the dispensation of innocence, and the last being the Christian dispensation.

John Darby is the person most people think about when they hear about dispensationalism. He was a prolific scholar, and did a masterful job in systematizing dispensational thought[29]. He was ordained in the Church of England, but would eventually leave. He would move to Plymouth where he would lead a congregation that would eventually be called the “Plymouth Brethren’[30]. Darby saw seven dispensations contained within Scripture. 

His notion of dispensations was more advanced than the theologians previously mentioned as he noted that each dispensation comes with a condition for man. Man is unable to fulfill these conditions, and therefore it leads to failure. Darby’s systemization was popularized by C.I. Scofield and his very popular reference Bible.


The purpose of this paper is not to prove that dispensationalism is the way in which Bible prophecy should be interpreted. The goal is to show that the ideas of dispensationalism developed over time, and can be seen in the earliest days of the church. Many doctrines that we take for granted today started off as thoughts and ideas, but developed over time.

The argument that dispensationalism is a modern thought that was only developed in the 19th century lacks merit. In fact, the veracity of one who brings up such a notion should be called into question.  In this paper the works of Justin Martyr, Papias, Irenaeus, and Augustine were discussed.  There were other fathers not mentioned that held to primitive dispensational concepts such as Cyprian, Hippolytus, Commodian, Methodius, Melito, and Appolinaris. They all held views that would later develop into dispensationalism[31].  Any serious theologian or church historian would do well in not dismissing dispensationalism as something that is modern.  Though one may not agree with it, it is a system that should be respected and considered.


Aquilina, Mike. The Fathers of the Church:  An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers. 3rd ed. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2013.

Augustine. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 1, Letter 138. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887.

Ceasarea, Eusebius Of. An Ecclesiastical History to the 20th Year of the Reign of Constantine. London, UK: Samuel Bagster And Sons, 1847.

Chafer, Lewis S. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976.

Easton, M.G. Easton Bible Dictionary. New York, NY: Harper &​ Brothers, 1893.

Edwards, John. A Compleat History, or Survey of All Dispensations. London, UK: John Edwards, 1699.

Ehlert, Arnold D. A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1965.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014.

Eusebius. An Ecclesiastical History to the 20th Year of the Reign of Constantine. 142-143rd ed. London: Samuel Bagster &​ Sons, 1847.

Hall, Christopher A. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002.

Jones, Timothy P. Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy. Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2011.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. 5th ed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 1977.

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers:  An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007.

Lyons, Irenaeus Of. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Martyr, Justin. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Buffalo, NY: 1885.

McNaughton, Ian. Opening up 2 Thessalonians: Leominster, MA: Day One Publications, 2008.

Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism. Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007.

S, Mark, and Sweetnam. “Defining Dispensationalism:  A Cultural Studies Perspective.” Journal of Religious History. 34, no. 2 (2010, June 1).

Sandeen, Ernest. The Roots of Fundamentalism:  The Roots of British and American Millenariansim 1800-1930. Chicago: Il: University Of Chicago Press, 1970.

Sweetnam, Mark, and Crawford Gibbon. “J.n. Darby And The Irish Roots Of Dispensationalism.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 52, no. 3 (2009, September 1).

Tertullian. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Vol. 3, The Five Books Against Marcion. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.

Yeatts, John R. Revelation. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003.

[1] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 553.

[2] Timothy P. Jones, Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2011), 310.

[3] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976), 40.

[4] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 47.

[5] M.G. Easton, Easton Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Harper &​ Brothers, 1893), 286.

[6] Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism:  The Roots of British and American Millenariansim 1800-1930 (Chicago: Il: University Of Chicago Press, 1970), 224.

[7] Arnold D. Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1965), 25.

[8] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 553.

[9] Ian McNaughton, Opening up 2 Thessalonians: (Leominster, MA: Day One Publications, 2008), 78.

[10] Justin Martyr, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (Buffalo, NY: 1885), 209.

[11] Eusebius Of Ceasarea, An Ecclesiastical History to the 20th Year of the Reign of Constantine (London, UK: Samuel Bagster And Sons, 1847), 142.

[12] John R. Yeatts, Revelation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 389.

[13] Eusebius, An Ecclesiastical History to the 20th Year of the Reign of Constantine, 142-143rd ed (London: Samuel Bagster &​ Sons, 1847), 144.

[14] Mark S and Sweetnam, “Defining Dispensationalism:  A Cultural Studies Perspective,” Journal of Religious History 34, no. 2 (2010, June 1): 191-212.

[15] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 553.

[16] Timothy P. Jones, Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2011), 39.

[17] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th ed (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 1977), 108.

[18] Irenaeus Of Lyons, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 428.

[19] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 126.

[20] Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers:  An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 106.

[21] Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 3, The Five Books Against Marcion, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 302.

[22] Ibid, 343.

[23] Mike Aquilina, The Fathers of the Church:  An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers, 3rd ed (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2013), 245.

[24] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 553.

[25] Augustine, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 1, Letter 138, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 302.

[26] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 354.

[27] John Edwards, A Compleat History, or Survey of All Dispensations (London, UK: John Edwards, 1699), 17.

[28] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 73.

[29] Mark Sweetnam and Crawford Gibbon, “J.n. Darby And The Irish Roots Of Dispensationalism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 3 (2009, September 1): 569-577.

[30] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 556.

[31] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 554.

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