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The Origins of Dispensationalism

Updated on August 20, 2018
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Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

Origins of Dispensationalism Part 1: The Catholic Counter Reformation

Dispensationalism is the belief that at the end of time will God will resurrect the New Testament church and restore His relationship with the nation of Israel to fulfil all the Old Testament promises that was made to them. Dispensationalists teach that there will be a secret resurrection of believers which will inaugurate a seven year period on the earth where Israel will be re-established. At the end of that period Jesus will return and rule in an earthly kingdom for 1000 years ( the Millennium). There are numerous variations of the specific details but these statements represent the basic tenets, in the broadest sense.

In subsequent articles we will look at the teaching of Dispensationalism in more detail. In these first few articles we will identify and discuss the origins of this belief. While the first recorded teachings of Dispensationalism are not found until the mid-1800s its roots go back another three hundred years. We find the foundation for Dispensationalism in the Counter Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was in some way an offshoot of the Reformation movement that had begun in the Catholic Church. As men like Martin Luther moved back to the Scripture for their basis for church and life the Protestant Reformation was born. The Roman Catholic Church sought to put an end to those who were breaking away from tradition and wanted to restore those who had already broken away. When the Roman Catholic Church instituted the Inquisition to persecute and kill the Protestants verses like Revelation 13:7 was used to charge the Church of being the beast predicted in the Scripture that would “make war with the saints.” The Protestant Reformers told people to “come out of her” (Rev. 18:4) referring to the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther wrote The Babylonian Captivity of the Church in which he referred to the true believers as the church and the Roman Church as Babylon. It natural followed that the Pope was accused of being the Antichrist.

“Oh Christ, my Lord, look down upon us and bring upon us the day

of judgment, and destroy the brood of Satan at Rome. There sits the Man, of whom the Apostle Paul wrote that he would oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God — the Man of Sin, the son of perdition . . . What is the Temple of God? Is it stones and wood? Did not Paul say, The Temple of God is holy, which Temple ye are? To sit — what is it but to reign, to teach and to judge. Who from the beginning of the church has dared to call himself master of the whole church but the Pope alone. None of the saints, none of the heretics ever uttered so horrible a word of pride.”[1]

“Antichrist is the pope and the Turk together; a beast full of life must have a body and soul; the spirit or soul of antichrist is the pope, his flesh or body the Turk. The latter wastes and assails and persecutes God's church corporally; the former spiritually and corporally too, with hanging, burning, murdering, &c. But, as in the apostle's time, the church had the victory over the Jews and Romans, so now will she keep the field firm and solid against the hypocrisy and idolatry of the pope, and the tyranny and devastations of the Turk and her other enemies.”[2]

The Roman Catholic Church called the Council of Trent to make reforms, to buttress her doctrines as well as to stop the Protestants from gaining more ground. This included responding to the charges of being "Babylon." It was the Jesuit Order that was assigned the task of bringing those who had broken away from the Church back.

Francisco Ribera

Francisco Ribera was a doctor of theology from Spain who had studied the prophecies of the Bible. He wrote a 500 page commentary on the book of Revelation entitled In Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli, & Evangelistiae Apocalypsin Commentarij. The book was published around 1590. He said that the Antichrist was not an apostate church or anything like that but rather referred to one man who would be revealed prior to the return of Jesus. He said that the first three chapters of the Book of Revelation referred to Rome and the rest of the book was mostly about the three and one half year reign of the Antichrist-man. He believed that up until the 6th seal the book of Revelation it is about pagan Rome but after that is referring to an event that is in the future. This Antichrist would rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and would be received by the Jews. He would be the “little horn” referred to by the book of Daniel (Daniel 7:8). Ribera said that there would be a time of apostasy (”falling away”) from the true church prior to the future event of the Antichrist. For Ribera, the true church was the Roman Catholic Church and it is obviously implied that the Protestants are those apostates who fell away.

[1] Martin Luther, Works, Vol. 2. p. 281).

[2] Table Talk of Saint Martin Luther, p. 193


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