Someone wrote in to Jamin Hubner the following question:
In Ryrie's book he mentions the dispensational scheme that Jonathan Edwards [sic] (not that Edwards was necessarily a dispensationalist) put forth in his work "A Compleat History or Survey of All the Dispensations". Would this not pre-date Darby? As I have not read this work by Edwards, perhaps I am missing the context, but Edwards' dispensational scheme has some similarities to the seven dispensations espoused by modern day dispensationalists.
The author of the comment is referring to the discussion of John Edwards (not Jonathan Edwards) in Ryrie's book, "Dispensationalism." To answer the exact question, yes - it predates Darby. On the other hand, as Ryrie himself points out, Edwards didn't believe in a literal 1,000 year physical reign of Jesus on Earth. There may be some similarities.
There is an important answer to these questions: it is not the designation "dispensation" or the recognition that God has dealt with people differently in different epochs of time that is controversial about dispensationalism. So, whether or not Edwards' scheme of dispensations or dealings has some similarities to the schemes advocated by dispensationalists is a moot point.
Ryrie himself seems to recognize the mootness of such historical appeal.
Ryrie writes (shortly prior to his reference to John Edwards):
Dispensationalists recognize that as a system of theology it is recent in origin. But there are historical references to that which eventually was systematized into dispensationalism. There is evidence in the writings of men who lived long before Darby that the dispensational concept was part of their viewpoint.
After discussing some patristic and medieval authors, Ryrie explains:
It is not suggested, nor should it be inferred, that these early church fathers were dispensationalists in the later sense of the word. But it is true that some of them enunciated principles that later developed into dispensationalism, and it may be rightly said that they held to primitive or early dispensational-like concepts.
So, Jamin Hubner's own response to the question seems a little strange:
Dispensationalists typically play the pre-Darby card in an effort to justify their system, but is rarely an adequate appeal. The idea is to make associations and draw similarities between Darby and previous thinkers (e.g. Ireneaus, Edwards, some Reformers, etc.) to say Dispensationalism goes back (for some, they would say to the Apostles, while others would say back to the Reformers, etc.). But in reality, the thinkers are simply not teaching Darbyism. Resemblances, vague parallels and similarities are not enough to dismount Darby as essentially the Father of Dispensationalism (nor dismount Scofield as perhaps the chief popularizer). But that's not to say we shouldn't acknowledge that Darby had previous influences and that attempts have been made to try and systematize redemptive history, address the application of biblical law, and solve various hermeneutical issues. Certainly there have been such attempts.And again:
One could list countless other references. But, it's obviously absurd (and anachronistic) to say Calvin, Bavinck, or Spurgeon were Dispensationalists just because they speak of dispensations in redemptive history, and baseless to say from these facts that Darby's specific thought found its ultimate origins in these particular thinkers (since Christians from virtually every period have been talking about changes in redemptive history and various epochs; perhaps the author of the Hebrews was the first to put it so starkly). Even organizing such Dispensations into a structure does not add up to the profound and distinctive marks of Darby and Scofield's Dispensationalism (e.g. stark Israel/Church separation, hermeneutic regarding prophecy, premil pretrib eschatology including rapture of believers, etc.) - which is precisely what we mean by "Dispensationalism" today.
While there may be dispensationalists who make such claims, it seems pretty clear that Ryrie himself explicitly disavows such claims. Instead, Ryrie makes much softer claims about doctrinal development, claims that don't claim that the "profound and distinctive marks" of dispensationalism were present in the pre-Darby era.
Ryrie instead argues:
There is no question that the Plymouth Brethren, of which John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) was a leader, had much to do with the systematizing and promoting of dispensationalism. But neither Darby nor the Brethren originated the concepts involved in the system, and even if they had, that would not make them wrong if they can be shown to be biblical.
Indeed, under the title of "Straw Men," Ryrie explains:
In discussing the matter of the origins of dispensationalism, opponents of the teaching usually set up two straw men and then huff and puff until they are destroyed. The first straw man is to say that dispensationalists assert that the system was taught in postapostolic times. Informed dispensationalists do not claim that. They recognize that, as a system, dispensationalism was largely formulated by Darby, but that outlines of a dispensationalist approach to the Scriptures are found much earlier. They only maintain that certain features of what eventually developed into dispensationalism are found in the teachings of the early church.
Another typical example of the use of a straw man is this line of argument: pretribulationalism is not apostolic; pretribulationalism is dispensationalism; therefore, dispensationalism is not apostolic. But dispensationalists do not claim that the system was developed in the first century; nor is it necessary that they be able to do so.
So, in fact, folks like Ryrie (and I assume Fred Butler would fall in this camp) are not claiming that the early or even Reformation-era church held to a pre-mil, pre-trib rapture.
It may be useful in dealing with dispensationals, therefore, to be careful in distinguishing. On the one hand, we grant that the use of the term and even a difference in dealings (on some level) are concepts that pre-existed Darby. Indeed, using that same standard, it seems that we might be classified as "primitive dispensationalists" (using Ryrie's standards) if we hold to covenant theology. On the other hand, the more objectionable aspects of dispensationalism do not have the same noble lineage.
Ultimately, though, we agree with Ryrie that the test of history is not the ultimate test: the ultimate test is the test of Scripture. If the teachings of dispensationalism are the teachings of Scripture, then we ought to hold them regardless of whether anyone held them between the time of the apostles and now.