Question: "Does the fact that dispensational theology is a recent development argue against its legitimacy?"
Answer: While certain aspects of dispensational theology have been present throughout church history, the system of dispensational theology was not formalized until John Nelson Darby began teaching it in the mid-1800s. Dispensational theology first became popular in the days of Cyrus Scofield with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in the early 1900s.
The better part of wisdom says that, if someone is the first person in 2,000 years of church history to think of something, it should be seriously questioned. After all, if it is a true and important doctrine, surely God would have revealed it to someone much earlier in church history. What are the implications of this principle for dispensational theology? Should dispensational theology be rejected because it is new?
There are two key points to consider. First, while a new doctrine should be viewed skeptically, newness alone is not a sufficient reason for rejection. Every system of theology was new when it was first understood and organized. The only true test of a doctrine is whether or not it is biblical. Is it taught in the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16–17)? Does it contradict any clear teaching of Scripture (Psalm 119:160; John 17:17)? Agreement with the Word of God is the only foolproof standard by which to evaluate a doctrine. Dispensational theology should stand or fall by comparing it with Scripture. Its newness should not be the determining factor in its evaluation.
Second, while dispensational theology as an organized system is new, the concepts that comprise dispensational theology are not. The teaching of a literal millennial kingdom can be found as early as “The Shepherd of Hermas,” written in the middle of the second century AD. Belief in there being a distinction between Israel and the church in God’s program for the ages did not become prominent until Israel became a nation again in 1948. After all, how can there be a distinction between Israel and the church if there is no such thing as Israel? But, even with that in mind, there were believers who rejected the idea that the church replaced Israel prior to Israel’s becoming a nation again.
The only significant aspect of dispensational theology that has little to no support in church history is the concept of the pretribulational rapture. While some see hints of a belief in a pretibulational rapture in “The Shepherd of Hermas,” there definitely was no one explicitly advocating the concept until the 1800s. This fact should cause all Bible interpreters, whether dispensational or non-dispensational, to examine the issue closely. But, again, the relative newness of a particular teaching is not the core issue. The question always has to be, is it biblical?
If dispensational theology is true, why did God wait so long before revealing it? Perhaps God wanted other more important doctrines to be developed first. Perhaps God chose to reveal dispensational theology in recent centuries due to the fact that the end times are approaching. The “why” cannot be explicitly answered, biblically. The key point is this—dispensational theology as a whole, and each of its core doctrines, should be evaluated using Scripture. It should be accepted or rejected based on whether or not it is in agreement with the Word of God.