Are We Hyper-Dispensationalists?

by David M. Havard

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Many years ago, H. A. Ironside 1 published a booklet entitled Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth in which he threw Charles Baker and C. R. Stam into the same bucket as E. W. Bullinger. Ever since then, we have been labeled as having the same extreme views as Bullinger. Men who have never looked into what we really teach continue to spread the slander started by Ironside back in the 1930’s. Besides, it’s much easier to label us as “hyper” and dismiss us than it is to address us based on the Scriptures.

This was recently done again in the July/August 1999 issue of Uplook magazine (published by the Plymouth Brethren). In this their Dispensationalism Issues issue, they presented an excellent overview of dispensationalism. As a matter of fact, we would agree with the majority of what was written. But then, one writer had to add this statement:

“One final word. Like all good things, the study of dispensations can be abused. There are some Christians who carry dispensationalism to such an extreme that they accept only Paul’s Prison Epistles as applicable for the church today. As a result, they do not accept baptism or the Lord’s Supper, since these are not found in the Prison Epistles. They also teach that Peter’s gospel message was not the same as Paul’s….These people are sometimes called ultra-dispensationalists or Bullingerites (after a teacher named E. W. Bullinger). Their extreme view of dispensationalism should be rejected.” 2

This article was then followed by the following excerpt from Ironside’s book: 3

“What is Bullingerism or Ultra-dispensationalism? This system was first advocated some years ago by Dr. E. W. Bullinger (1837-1913), who was educated at King’s College, London, and was a clergyman in the Church of England. These views have been widely spread through the notes of the Companion Bible which he edited. Dr. Bullinger’s positions are glaringly opposed to what is generally accepted as orthodox teaching. This movement has been carried forth in our day by ardent proponents such as Cornelius Stam, J. C. O’Hair and Charles Baker. [emphasis mine]

“There are a number of outstanding tenets of Ultra-dispensationalism. First, it is insisted that the four Gospels are entirely Jewish and have no real message for the Church. Secondly, it is maintained that in the book of Acts we do not have the Church, the Body of Christ, but that the word ekklesia (church), as it is used in that book refers to a different Church altogether than that of Paul’s Prison Epistles. Thirdly, it is contended that Paul did not receive his special revelation of the mystery of the Body until his imprisonment in Rome, and that his Prison Epistles alone reveal this truth and are, strictly speaking, the only portion of the Holy Scriptures given to the members of His Body. All of the other epistles of Paul are relegated to an earlier dispensation and were for the instruction of the so-called Jewish Church of that time. Fourthly, the Christian ordinances, having been given before Paul, are supposed to have no real connection with the present economy, and therefore are relegated to the past, and may again have a place in the future Great Tribulation.

“Beside these points, there are many other unscriptural things which are advocated by Bullingerism. Many boldly advocate the sleep of the soul between death and resurrection, the annihilation of the wicked, the universal salvation of all men and demons, the denial of the eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the denial of the personality of the Holy Spirit. All these evil doctrines find congenial soil in Bullingerism or Ultra-dispensationalism.”

“But wait!” You’re thinking, “I don’t believe those things!” Well, neither do I, but these are their tactics. As far as most Acts 2 folks are concerned, we agree with Bullinger’s far out views regarding soul sleep, annihilation of the wicked, universalism, and that the Body of Christ did not start until Acts 28. You either believe in their interpretation of dispensationalism or you are an extremist like Bullinger. They do not recognize any middle ground. This is what we are up against.

In the above quote, Ironside lists some the “outstanding tenets” of what he calls “ultra-dispensationalism.” While this is a convenient label, it does not Biblically address the issues. Let us examine what Ironside said (and everyone else seems to repeat) and see if we agree or not.

“First, it is insisted that the four Gospels are entirely Jewish and have no real message for the Church”: We do not believe that the four gospels have no real message for the church—Paul says that ALL Scripture is profitable. However, we do believe (because we hold to a literal historical interpretation of the Bible) that Christ’s earthly ministry was in keeping with Israel’s prophetic kingdom program (Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24). We find application in the gospels to be sure, but to say that the basic message of the gospels is directed to the Body of Christ is not being consistent or literal. As Scofield says in his reference Bible, “The Epistles of the Apostle Paul have a very distinctive character….Through Paul alone we know that the church is not an organization, but an organism, the Body of Christ; instinct with His life, and heavenly in calling, promise, and destiny. Through him alone we know the nature, purpose, and form of organization of local churches, and the right conduct of such gatherings. Through him alone do we know that `we shall not all sleep,’ that `the dead in Christ shall rise first,’ and that living saints shall be `changed’ and caught up to meet the Lord in the air at His return. But to Paul was also committed the unfolding of the doctrines of grace…Paul, converted by the personal ministry of the Lord in glory, is distinctively the witness to a glorified Christ, Head over all things to the church which is His Body, as the Eleven were to Christ in the flesh.” And if, according to traditional dispensationalism, the Body of Christ started at Pentecost, how can it be found retroactively in the gospels? The message that Peter preached at Pentecost was an offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel (Acts 2:22) conditional upon their repentance and recognition of Jesus as their Messiah—something that we now know will not happen until after the tribulation.

“Secondly, it is maintained that in the book of Acts we do not have the Church, the Body of Christ, but that the word ekklesia (church), as it is used in that book, refers to a different Church altogether than that of Paul’s Prison Epistles”: You’d think they would at least understand this! Regarding the assembly in the book of Acts, we have both “churches” mentioned, depending on the context. If you see the Body of Christ in the gospels, you are closer to a covenant position than a dispensational one. If the Body is found in the gospels, then to be consistent, it also has to be found in the Old Testament prophetic program as well. It was Bullinger (with whom we do not agree) who said that the Body of Christ did not start until the close of the book of Acts and that only Paul’s prison epistles are for us today.

“Thirdly, it is contended that Paul did not receive his special revelation of the mystery of the Body until his imprisonment in Rome, and that his Prison Epistles alone reveal this truth and are, strictly speaking, the only portion of the Holy Scriptures given to the members of His Body”: We do not agree with Bullinger on this point either. We do say that Paul received a special revelation (Gal. 1:11-12), but we do not agree that only his prison epistles are applicable to us today. Paul began to receive his special revelation of the mystery upon his conversion in Acts 9.

“Fourthly, the Christian ordinances, having been given before Paul, are supposed to have no real connection with the present economy, and therefore are relegated to the past, and may again have a place in the future Great Tribulation”: Regarding the “ordinances” of the church, there is no place in Scripture where water baptism and the Lord’s supper are linked. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial that we are instructed in I Corinthians 11 to keep “until He come.” However, we do feel that water baptism is a Jewish ordinance and is something that was phased out during the transition period. It is also rarely pointed out that we are not unique in understanding that water baptism is not for today. Other groups throughout church history, such as the Quakers, have also come to this same conclusion.

“Many boldly advocate the sleep of the soul between death and resurrection, the annihilation of the wicked, the universal salvation of all men and demons, the denial of the eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the denial of the personality of the Holy Spirit. All these evil doctrines find congenial soil in Bullingerism or Ultra-dispensationalism”: This is the worst sort of guilt by association, but I’m sure you see the implication. If you believe in a mid-Acts position, then, according to them, you also believe in these extreme and unscriptural viewpoints as well. By associating us with these cult-like beliefs we can be discredited without ever having to answer our Biblical arguments.

This is what we are up against. These are the same battles, misunderstandings, and deliberate misrepresentations that Pastor Stam has had to fight against for over 60 years—and we must continue to do so today if the gospel of the grace of God is going to continue to go forward.

Yet rather than discourage us, these things should motivate us. We know what we have found. We know how confused we used to be. We can honestly say that this is a more consistent and literal approach to Scripture. We no longer have to explain away what the Bible clearly says in verses such as Acts 2:38. We know that by reading the Body of Christ back into the gospels, we rob them of their distinctive kingdom character. By not understanding the difference we either have to make the clear statements in the gospels (such as a distinction between Jew and Gentile and water baptism) conform to Paul’s epistles (where he says there is no difference between Jew and Greek, and that he is the apostle to the Gentiles) by explaining them away or we have to read the gospels into Paul’s epistles and make them conform to the message in the gospels (which is what John MacArthur has done with “Lordship Salvation”).

We are not the wild-eyed radicals that the theological media tries to portray us as. We are in agreement with the overwhelming majority of traditional dispensationalism. Our two primary points of disagreement are that we see the Body of Christ starting with the conversion and call of the Apostle Paul and that water baptism is not a requirement for this dispensation.

Let us stand firm in proclaiming the unique message revealed to and through the Apostle Paul. It is like telling others about our faith in Christ. We know what it has done for us. We know that it has cleared away our confusion. Let us graciously and boldly share with others what this message has done for us.

Notes:

  1. If you’d like to order a copy of Holding Fast the Faithful Word, you can read more about Ironside’s history as related to the Grace Movement. Just visit the BBS Bookstore.
  2. William MacDonald, “Distinguishing things that differ,” Up-look, July/August 1999, pp. 11-12.
  3. Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, H. A. Ironside, Loizeaux Brothers, New York, 1938.