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Dispensationalists distinguish Israel from the church and so look for a point in history at which God's redemptive program changed from the one form of administration to the other. The most common dispensationalism finds the beginning of the church in Acts 2 with the Spirit's coming at Pentecost. From the standpoint of Acts 2 dispensationalism two other views seem extreme, or "ultra." According to Acts 13 dispensationalism the church began when Paul started his mission to Jews and Gentiles (Acts 13:2). According to Acts 28 dispensationalism the church began toward the end of Paul's ministry with his reference to Israel's rejection of the kingdom of God and the sending of God's salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 28:26 - 28).

Acts 28 dispensationalism is sometimes called Bullingerism after its leading proponent, Ethelbert William Bullinger (1837 - 1913). Other writers holding this position include Charles H Welch, A E Knoch, Vladimir M Gelesnoff, and Otis R Sellers. Bullinger's analysis of the NT led to three dispensations where Acts 2 dispensationalism has two (Israel before Pentecost and the church after Pentecost). Bullinger's first administration encompassed the time of the Gospels when Christ offered the kingdom of Jews only and entrance was signified by water baptism. Second was the traditional period in Acts and the earlier NT epistles when the apostles offered the Jews participation in the "bride church" and practiced two baptisms, in water and in the Spirit. Third was the oneness of Jew and Gentile in the body of Christ addressed in Paul's prison epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy) and entered by Spirit baptism alone.

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Bullinger based some of his arguments upon dichotomies of words that did not refer to incompatible realities. For example, the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper had to do with the flesh only and so had no place in the body of Christ alleged to be of the Spirit only. Bullinger failed to understand that just as the inner and outer man can be one man, so the inner Spirit baptism and outer water baptism can constitute one baptism. The church, as many recent studies have indicated, is made up of tangible people in bodies meeting together in visible gatherings for the purposes of ministering to the whole person, both spirit and body. Christ's reference to baptism in the Great Commission need not exclude it from application to today's church.

Spokesmen for the Acts 13 dispensationalism are J C O'Hair, C R Stam, and Charles F Baker, author of a major textbook, A Dispensational Theology. Baker's name is associated with the Grand Rapids Grace Bible College, which prepares people for ministry in Grace Gospel Fellowship and the Worldwide Grace Testimony.

Answering the Acts 28 dispensationalism. Baker notes that Paul's statement (Acts 28:28) does not mark the beginning of the body of Christ but should be understood in the past tense, the gospel had been sent to the Gentiles (R S V , N I V , and others). Baker also argues effectively for the unity of all the Pauline epistles in their teaching about the church. In Paul's letters he finds support for the practice of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11) but not water baptism. Paul's transitional use of water baptism for Jews (he assumes) is not regarded as normative for Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:13 - 17). Baker interprets baptism in Rom. 6:3 - 4 as mere Spirit baptism, but as has been noted, it may best be understood as both inner Spirit baptism and outer water baptism.

In defense of Acts 2 dispensationalism Charles C Ryrie argues that the question is when God initially formed the church, not when it was first understood. Baker replies that God plainly stated what he was doing earlier, bringing in the consummation of all prophecy and offering the kingdom to Israel (Acts 2:16; 3:24). As late as Acts 11:16, he writes, the apostles preached only to Jews. However, Baker failed to quote Acts 3:25, which explains that through the Jews all people on earth will be blessed. Is the message in the early chapters of Acts to the Jews exclusively, or to the Jews first, in order that Samaritans and Gentiles also may be added to the church? Baker's attempt to divorce the Pentecostal reception of power from the Spirit's baptism cannot stand in the light of the total development in Acts. The church began when believers in the crucified and risen Christ were baptized by the Spirit into one body (Acts 2:38, 41, 44, 47; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13) to which the Spirit added Samaritans (Acts 8:17) and Gentiles (Acts 10:28, 34 - 35, 45 - 48; 11:18).

Baker's chief reason for objecting to Acts 2 dispensationalism is that what happened prior to Paul had been prophesied by the prophets, but nothing about the body of Christ was revealed before Paul. Such all or nothing reasoning is imposed upon Scripture, not drawn from it. The fact that Paul most fully understood, explained, and received the mystery of uniting Jew and Gentile in one body need not imply that Peter, Cornelius, and the Jerusalem church had grasped nothing of this truth (Acts 10:30 - 38; 11:1 - 18). Did not Jesus Christ lay the one foundation for the church and prepare the disciples to establish it? Robert L Saucy shows that the church is built upon the entire work of Christ's first coming and is sustained through his present leadership. But he also finds that the actual historical formation of the church occurred in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

G R Lewis
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

E W Bullinger, How to Enjoy the Bible; A H Freundt, Encyclopedia of Christianity, II; L S Chafer, "Bullingerism," BS 104; C F Baker, A Dispensational Theology; C C Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today; J B Graber, Ultradispensationalism; R L Saucy, The Church in God's Program.

Additional Note

Recently, a Minister who visited BELIEVE soundly criticized us for this author's presentation. The Minister felt that this author was consistently denigrating 'late Acts' Dispensationalism in preference for Acts 2 Dispensationalism. We do not see this bias, but we are now looking for a better overview article for our presentation. Unfortunately, it seems that the proponents for each of the possibilities tend to write articles that strongly support their own point while severely attacking the opposing positions. Normally, we would just include several articles, presenting each position, but there do not seem to be 'short' articles available, and having this presentation be a combination of three separate hundred-screen articles doesn't seem appropriate.

The Minister was not done with us (or this author)! He was also extremely irate that we did not present or discuss Acts 9 Dispenstionalism. Until his comment, we apparently had led sheltered lives, because we had been unaware that we had overlooked yet another alternative. He claims that that position has existed since at least 1950, but we do not know how generally that position is held, or any facts on the matter. We will look into it!

And finally, the visitor was incensed that the author of the above article stated that C R Stam supported Acts 13 Dispensationalism, when he knew for a fact that Stam supported Acts 9 Dispensationalism. Again, we have no way (yet) of confirming these potential shortcomings in this presentation. Until we can accumulate facts, we decided to let visitors to this page know about these claims.

Another Additional Note

It appears that the mid-Acts Dispensationalism, referred to above as Acts 13 Dispensationalism, has now split into at least four separate groups! They seem to be very closely related in concept, all essentially relying on Acts 13, but they see the actual process beginning in: Acts 8, Acts 9, Acts 11, or Acts 13. As witnessed by the passionate note just above from a visitor to BELIEVE, these various groups seem to have intense feelings regarding their specific positions as being correct and the others being wrong! However, with a "larger perspective" we still see value in the article at the beginning of this presentation, as distinguishing the broader categories of early-, mid- and late-Acts Dispensationalisms, as being substantially different. Where that article refers to Acts 13 Dispensationalism, we ask readers to realize that the author was apparently referring collectively to the four separate mid-Acts positions and groups.

The dialogue between the four mid-Acts groups is ongoing, and the positions seem to still be somewhat fluid. BELIEVE tries to never get tangled in ongoing controversies, so that's why we are still willing to lump the four together, even though it seems to upset all four groups! We suspect that in a few years, the specific positions and credibility of each of the four positions will be better established, and at that time, it will be appropriate for BELIEVE to add presentations of their separate positions.

Also, see:
Dispensation, Dispensationalism
Progressive Dispensationalism

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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