Oneness Pentecostalism and Dispensationalism

In response to a question about dispensationalism, I am posting a paper I wrote and presented at the Urshan Graduate School of Theology Symposium in 2008.

Oneness Pentecostals and Dispensationalism: Modification or Replacement?[1]

Daniel L. Segraves, PhD

Although the early twentieth century Pentecostal movement did not originally embrace dispensationalism,[2] the dispensational theory soon flourished in some segments of Pentecostalism among those who “shared the premillennial vision of the future” and who thus found that “dispensationalism with its intense emphasis on futuristic eschatology had a strong appeal to them.”[3]  It was immediately necessary, however, for Pentecostals to modify Scofieldian dispensationalism, because although the “system . . . provides a convenient method of organizing biblical history and teaches that it is possible to fit the full range of prophetic Scripture into something like a complicated puzzle,”[4] it also asserted “that the gifts of the Spirit, especially what has been called ‘the sensational gifts’ or ‘sign gifts’ (healing, faith, working of miracles, and tongues), were confined to the apostolic age.”[5]  Although cessationism was rejected by Pentecostals, “the dispensational understanding of the church, as well as its eschatology, has influenced pentecostal theology.”[6]

In his paper “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” David Bernard concluded that dispensationalism is right to emphasize “the literal interpretation of Scripture, progressive revelation, the existence of various ages in God’s dealings with humanity . . . , the uniqueness of the New Testament church, and the reality of the Millennium.”[7]  On the other hand, Bernard asserted that the “distinction between Israel and the church in prophecy is not absolute . . .” and that “[a]lthough national Israel still has a role in God’s plan and will still receive His promises by faith in Jesus, the church also enjoys the spiritual blessings of Abraham and participates in promises originally given to Israel.”[8]  Further, Bernard declares dispensationalists to be wrong if “they teach that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, that the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom of God, that Christ offered an earthly kingdom to the Jews at His first coming, that Gentile salvation . . . occurred only because the Jews rejected His offer, and that God will revert to the old covenant in the Millennium.”[9]

Dispensationalism’s weakest point, according to Bernard, is its doctrine of salvation, which does not understand the “obedience of faith.”[10]  Finally, Bernard asked,

Do the biblical doctrines of the new birth and of the church require a form of dispensationalism?  Is it logically possible to retain some aspects of dispensationalism and discard others, or does the whole system stand or fall together?  What dispensationalist assumptions have colored the interpretation of Scripture, particularly eschatology, and are they valid?

            . . . it appears that Oneness Pentecostals must significantly modify or replace traditional dispensationalism to maintain logically, consistently, and successfully the doctrines of the new birth and holiness of life.[11]

David Bernard is not alone in noticing the apparent problems inherent in Scofieldian dispensationalism.  In 1985, evangelical scholars formed the Dispensational Study Group to provide a forum not only for discussions among dispensationalists but also for dialogue with those from other evangelical traditions.[12]  The work of those involved in this study group eventually resulted in the development of a perspective now known as “progressive dispensationalism.”[13]  In response, Charles C. Ryrie, long a defender as well as a developer of dispensational thought, questioned whether progressive dispensationalism is a valid form of the system.[14]  In Ryrie’s view, there are seven basic tenets of progressive dispensationalism that are at odds with what he sees as “normative” dispensationalism:

  1. The kingdom of God is the unifying theme of biblical history.[15]
  2. Within biblical history there are four dispensational eras.[16]
  3. Christ has already inaugurated the Davidic reign in heaven at the right had of the Father, which equals the throne of David, though He not yet reigns as Davidic king on earth during the Millennium.[17]
  4. Likewise, the new covenant has already been inaugurated, though its blessings are not yet fully realized until the Millennium.[18]
  5. The concept of the church as completely distinct from Israel and as a mystery unrevealed in the Old Testament needs revising, making the idea of two purposes and two peoples of God invalid.[19]
  6. A complementary hermeneutic must be used alongside a literal hermeneutic. This means that the New Testament makes complementary changes to Old Testament promises without jettisoning those original promises.[20]
  7. The one divine plan of holistic redemption encompasses all people and all areas of human life—personal, societal, cultural, and political.[21],[22]

Perhaps those who suggest that progressive dispensationalism is not actually dispensationalism at all are right.  But for Oneness Pentecostals, whether or not the term “dispensationalism” is used may be irrelevant.  From a Oneness Pentecostal perspective, there are several problems with a dispensational approach to Scripture.  First, there is the problem of its non-Pentecostal origins.  The dispensational hermeneutic did not arise from the context of the Pentecostal experience with the Holy Spirit in the first decade of the 20th century.  It was, instead, C. I. Scofield’s adaptation of John Nelson Darby’s hermeneutic.  Even progressive dispensationalism is developing among non-Pentecostal evangelical scholars.  What are the ramifications for Oneness Pentecostals if they embrace a hermeneutic that arises from a non-Pentecostal, Trinitarian source?

Second, if there is a disconnect between the church and the Old Testament, the value of the Old Testament for the church is minimized.  If this does not result in full-blown Marcionism, it may nevertheless reduce the relevance of the Old Testament to that of a source book for inspirational stories.  How are we to view the fact that the New Testament quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to the Old Testament nearly 800 times, especially when these references to the Old Testament are often in the category of fulfillment motifs?  In a textbook used in many Pentecostal Bible schools during the mid-20th century, the author claimed, “Except that blessing was promised to the Gentiles . . . the church was unknown to the prophets.”[23]  In view of Peter’s declaration that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was “what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16, NKJV), it is doubtful that the denial of any meaningful connection between Joel and Pentecost will be satisfying to Pentecostals.  The following are typical efforts from a dispensationalist perspective to come to grips with Peter’s use of Joel:  In its comments on Joel 2:28, the New Scofield Reference Bible disassociates Joel’s prophecy from any fulfillment on the Day of Pentecost:

Peter did not state that Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost.  The details of Joel 2:30-32 (cp. Acts 2:19-20) were not realized at that time.  Peter quoted Joel’s prediction as an illustration of what was taking place in his day, and as a guarantee that God would yet completely fulfill all that Joel had prophesied.  The time of that fulfillment is stated here (“afterward,” cp. Hos. 3:5), i.e. in the latter days when Israel turns to the Lord.[24]

In his comments on Joel 2:28-32, Charles Lee Feinberg wrote that Joel “cannot be fulfilled until Israel is returned to their own land.”[25]  Although Feinberg acknowledged Peter’s reference to Joel, he asserted that

that fact alone does not constitute a fulfillment.  In the first place, the customary formula for a fulfilled prophecy is entirely lacking in Acts 2:16.[26]  And even more telling is the fact that much of Joel’s prophecy, even as quoted in Acts 2:19-20, was not fulfilled at that time.  We cannot take the position that only a portion of the prophecy was meant to be fulfilled at all, because this would work havoc with Bible prophecy. . . . The best position to take is that Peter used Joel’s prophecy as an illustration of what was transpiring in his day and not as a fulfillment of this prediction.[27]

More recently, Graham S. Ogden similarly minimized the connection between Joel and Acts.

In Acts 2:16-18, Peter at Pentecost quotes Joel 2:28-29, giving the impression that what Joel had in mind was specifically the Pentecost event.  We can see that Joel himself spoke to his contemporaries who were in need of comfort during a national crisis.  Further, his vision was restricted to an event in Judah.  He does not envisage this event embracing Gentiles; Peter does (Acts 2:39).  From several points of view it is clear that Joel’s original intention and what the early Church understood it to be are not identical.  Therefore, to say that the latter “fulfils” the former, in the sense that it is the direct result of a word spoken earlier by Joel, is inappropriate.[28]

Is there, then, a meaningful connection between Joel and Acts?  Ogden limits the connection to the essential nature of the events: “Peter publicly proclaims thereby that the God who was active in Joel’s day was similarly active in his own time . . . .”[29]

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. comments that although Peter’s words in Acts 2:16 “may seem to indicate that he considered Joel’s prophecy as being completely fulfilled on that occasion . . . it is apparent that the events of that day . . . do not fully correspond to those predicted by Joel.”[30]  Chisholm sees the early chapters of Acts as offering the kingdom of God to Israel again.  Peter did not at that time understand “God’s program for the Gentiles in the present age,” and he apparently “believed that the kingdom was then being offered to Israel and that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit signaled the coming of the Millennium.”[31]  Instead, “the complete fulfillment of the prophecy . . . was delayed because of Jewish unbelief . . . .”[32]

The dispensationalist view of the connection between Joel and Acts focuses on the idea that Joel is about events that concern Israel primarily, if not exclusively, and that these events are tied to an as yet unfulfilled restoration of Israel to the Promised Land.  The strongest connection to be made is that Joel’s prophecy serves as an example of the kind of event that happened at Pentecost.[33]

Third, not only does dispensationalism disconnect the Old and New Testaments – at least as it relates to ecclesiology – but it also tends to minimize the ecclesiological connectedness of the New Testament.  Kenneth J. Archer explains:

            Not only did Dispensationalism make a permanent distinction between how God deals with Israel and the Church, it also de-emphasized the Gospels and emphasized the Epistles because the Epistles were written for the Church.  The Gospels were written to record Jesus’ ministry for the Jews and as a result of their rejection of the Messiah, God turned to the Gentiles.  Thus the Gospels (especially the Sermon on the Mount) were for the Jewish millennial kingdom that would come after the close of the Church age – the future millennium.  The Epistles were written for the present Church age . . . .

            Dispensationalism wed to Common Sense Realism perpetuated the notion that propositional truth is found in the Epistles rather than the narrative portions of Scripture.[34]

This idea removes not only the Old Testament from any useful doctrinal function, but also the narrative portions of the New Testament like the book of Acts.  It leaves the church with a very small canon-within-the-canon as far as any authoritative usefulness is concerned.

Fourth, although not all who embrace dispensationalism are cessationists, “It is true that many dispensationalists adopt a cessationist view . . . .”[35]  For example, J. Lanier Burns asserts that “if the sign gifts were for authentication of new revelation for Jewish unbelievers, then there is no possibility for their existence today unless the canon is open for new revelation for the same audience.”[36]  Ryrie agrees that Paul “is simply saying that the gifts are no longer given because the particular purpose for which they were originally given (i.e., to authenticate the oral message) has ceased to exist.”[37]  Undergirding this perspective seems to be the idea that the New Testament is radically new revelation disconnected so thoroughly from the Old Testament that it must be miraculously confirmed.  This idea minimizes or eradicates any meaningful connection between the two testaments.


Since dispensationalism did not originate in a Pentecostal milieu, since it eliminates ecclesiology from the Old Testament – and in some cases even from portions of the New Testament, and since it readily lends itself to cessationism, we are back to the question of dispensationalism’s usefulness for Oneness Pentecostal theology.  In the final analysis, dispensationalism is a hermeneutical system.  Is it compatible with Oneness Pentecostal theology?  In his work quoted at the outset of this paper, David Bernard wrote, “[I]t appears that Oneness Pentecostals must significantly modify or replace traditional dispensationalism to maintain logically, consistently, and successfully the doctrines of the new birth and holiness of life.”[38]  In a more recent work, Bernard declares that “traditional dispensationalism must be significantly modified to be compatible with Apostolic theology.”[39]  How significant must this modification be?  To what extent can dispensationalism be modified and still be accurately described as dispensationalism?  Is there any need for Oneness Pentecostal theology to retain the label of dispensationalism?  Is modification enough, or should dispensationalism be replaced altogether?  If so, with what?

From the perspective of this writer, it is time for Oneness Pentecostals to think seriously about the possibility of a hermeneutical methodology that arises from the first century apostolic use of Scripture.  The restorationist impulse of Oneness Pentecostals must extend beyond experience and even beyond recovery of selected texts to a full-orbed return to the hermeneutical methodology of our apostolic forbears.

[1] This title reflects the final paragraph in David K. Bernard’s article “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” in Symposium on Oneness Pentecostalism: 1988 and 1990 (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 1990), 88.

[2] Gerald T. Sheppard, “Pentecostals and the Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism: The Anatomy of an Uneasy Relationship,” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, Fall (1984): 5.

[3] F. L. Arrington, “Dispensationalism,” in The New Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (eds. Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. van der Maas; rev. and exp. ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Zondervan, 2002), 585.

[4] Arrington, “Dispensationalism,” 585.

[5] Arrington, “Dispensationalism,” 585.

[6] Arrington, “Dispensationalism,” 585.  Ryrie acknowledges that “ecclesiology . . . is the touchstone of dispensationalism” (Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today [Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1965], 132).  It has long been noted that dispensationalism sees the church as a parenthesis, bearing no relationship to what preceded it or to what will follow it in God’s plan.  (See Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1960], 26, 28, 43, 129.)

[7] Bernard, “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” 86.

[8] Bernard, “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” 86.

[9] Bernard, “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” 86-87.

[10] Bernard, “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” 87.

[11] Bernard, “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” 88.

[12] Gerry Breshears, “New Directions in Dispensationalism,” unpublished paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society, November 23, 1991.

[13] See Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992); Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1993); Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993); and Herbert W. Bateman IV, Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1999).

[14] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. and exp. (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1995), 162, 178.

[15] For normative dispensationalism, it is the glory of God that is biblical history’s unifying theme (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 94).

[16] These four dispensational eras are the Patriarchal (Adam to Sinai), Mosaic (Sinai to ascension of Messiah), Ecclesial (Ascension to Second Coming), and Zionic, which is divided into two parts (Millennium and Eternal State) (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 166).  This four dispensation scheme contrasts with the seven dispensation scheme of normative dispensationalism, typically represented as (1) the dispensation of innocence (creation to fall of mankind); (2) dispensation of conscience (fall of mankind to flood); (3) dispensation of human government (flood to Tower of Babel); (4) dispensation of promise (call of Abraham to Exodus from Egypt); (5) dispensation of law (from Sinai to Calvary); (6) dispensation of grace (Pentecost to Second Coming); and (7) dispensation of the Millennium (Second Coming to Great White Throne Judgment).

[17] The notion that Christ is already sitting on the throne of David contrasts with the normative dispensational view that the Davidic reign will not begin until the Millennium (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 167-70).

[18] For normative dispensationalism, the new covenant will not be inaugurated until the Millennium (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 170-74).

[19] For normative dispensationalism, the church and Israel are “completely distinct.”  The church “was not revealed in the Old Testament,” and God has two purposes, “one for the church and one for Israel” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 174).

[20] The hallmark of normative dispensationalism has been a grammatical-historical or literal hermeneutic which resists sensus plenior, spiritualization, or allegorization. The complementary hermeneutic of progressive dispensationalism sees the New Testament introducing change and advance, opening up, clarifying, expanding, and periodizing the Old Testament promises.  See Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 174-75.

[21] Ryrie declares that “kingdom righteousness in the present time is not the mandate of the church” and that “[h]olistic redemption can easily lead to placing unbalanced, if not wrong, priorities on political action, social agendas, and improving the structures of society” (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 176).

[22] These seven tenets are taken from Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 164.  All emphases are Ryrie’s.

[23] Frank M. Boyd, Ages and Dispensations (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1955), 53-54.  See also Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 134, n. 4, where Ryrie quotes James M. Stifler’s interpretation of Ephesians 3:5 as denying “that there was any revelation at all of the mystery in that former time . . . .”

[24] E. Schuyler English, ed., The New Scofield Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1967), 1045.

[25] Charles Lee Feinberg, The Major Messages of the Minor Prophets (New York: American Board of Missions to the Jews, 1948), 29.

[26] In response to Feinberg, Walter Kaiser remarks, “The truth of the matter is that there is no single [fulfillment] formula used consistently in Acts or elsewhere in the NT for that matter.”  Cited by Thomas J. Finley, Joel, Obadiah and Micah, Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1996), 60.

[27] Feinberg, The Major Messages of the Minor Prophets, 29.

[28] Graham S. Ogden and Richard R. Deutsch, A Promise of Hope—a Call to Obedience: A Commentary on the Books of Joel and Malachi (eds. George A. F. Knight and Frederick Carlson Holmgren; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 38.

[29] Ogden, A Promise of Hope, 38.

[30] Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, 2 vols. vol. 1 (eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck; Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1421.

[31] Chisholm, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1421.

[32] Chisholm, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1421.   In response, Thomas J. Finley points out that “more allowance needs to be made for the fact that Pentecost represents the inception of the church.  Thus, something more foundational must have happened than simply an offer which was ‘delayed because of Jewish unbelief’ ” (Finley, Joel, Obadiah and Micah, 61).

[33] As dispensationalism continues to develop, dispensational theologians are rethinking the relationship between Old Testament prophecies and the use of these prophecies in the New Testament.  For example, Kenneth L. Barker states “that several passages that other dispensationalists relegate solely to the future received a literal fulfillment in the New Testament period or are receiving such fulfillment in the continuing church age—in addition to a final, complete fulfillment in the future in the case of some of those passages.  Classic examples would be the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-21 and of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts 15:16-17—without denying a final, future stage to complete the fulfillment with respect to Israel . . . .  That is to say, these propositions are not either-or but both-and” (Kenneth L. Barker, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, 323).

[34] Kenneth J. Archer, A Pentecostal Hermeneutic for the Twenty-First Century: Spirit, Scripture and Community, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 28 (eds., John Christopher Thomas, Rickie D. Moore, and Steven J. Land; London and New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 57.

[35] Breshears, “New Directions,” 2.

[36] J. Lanier Burns, “A Reemphasis on the Purpose of the Sign Gifts,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (July 1975): 249.

[37] Charles C. Ryrie, The Holy Spirit (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1965), 87.

[38] Bernard, “Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology,” 88.

[39] David K. Bernard, Understanding God’s Word: An Apostolic Approach to Interpreting the Bible (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 2005), 64.[archive]