There are three main theological camps on the issues of law, gospel, and the structuring of God’s redemptive relationship with humankind: dispensationalism, covenant theology, and new covenant theology. Many have written to us asking about the differences between these three views, and so before discussing John Piper’s perspective we will give an overview of each.
It can be hard to summarize dispensational theology as a whole because in recent years multiple forms of it have developed. In general, there are three main distinctives.
First, dispensationalism sees God as structuring His relationship with mankind through several stages of revelation which mark off different dispensations, or stewardship arrangements. Each dispensation is a “test” of mankind to be faithful to the particular revelation given at the time. Generally, seven dispensations are distinguished: innocence (before the fall), conscience (Adam to Noah), government (Noah to Babel), promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), grace (Pentecost to the rapture), and the millennium.
Second, dispensationalism holds to a literal interpretation of Scripture. This does not deny the existence of figures of speech and non-literal language in the Bible, but rather means that there is a literal meaning behind the figurative passages.
Third, as a result of this literal interpretation of Scripture, dispensationalism holds to a distinction between Israel (even believing Israel) and the church. On this view, the promises made to Israel in the OT were not intended as prophecies about what God would do spiritually for the church, but will literally be fulfilled by Israel itself (largely in the millennium). For example, the promise of the land is interpreted to mean that God will one day fully restore Israel to Palestine. In contrast, non-dispensationalists typically see the land promise as intended by God to prophesy, in shadowy Old-covenant-form, the greater reality that He would one day make the entire church, Jews and Gentiles, heirs of the whole renewed world (cf. Romans 4:13).
Question: “Who was John Nelson Darby?”
Answer: John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was a founder of the Plymouth Brethren Church, an author, and an influential proponent of a dispensational view of Scripture.
Darby was born in 1800 to a prominent family in London. He received his education from London’s Westminster School and Dublin’s Trinity College. He initially became a lawyer, but that career only lasted four years before he became a priest in the Church of Ireland in the diocese of Dublin, Ireland. Darby attributed the career change to his desire to devote himself entirely to the work of God. Following his decision, Darby became concerned over the prevailing condition of the church, which he saw as deadened by formality, and he left the Church of Ireland in 1827, just over two years after being installed as a priest. “The style of work,” he wrote, “was not in agreement with what I read in the Bible concerning the church and Christianity; nor did it correspond with the effects of the action of the Spirit of God” (Letters of J. N. Darby, Oak Park, IL: Bible Truth Publishers, 1971, III, 297–298).
Darby joined Edward Cronin, John Bellett, and Francis Hutchinson to form a non-denominational group they called the Brethren. The first meeting was held in Dublin, and other meetings followed. Soon there were assemblies gathering in several locations. The most well-known group was in Plymouth, England, and the name “Plymouth Brethren” has since become a default name. One of Darby’s goals was to restore simple church practices in which every member was serving as a minister.
Source: Who was John Nelson Darby?