As a school of theology, it’s in decline. As a cultural and political force, it’s more influential than ever.
My father traveled from Texas to Minnesota for my seminary graduation. At some pre-ceremony gathering, he was chatting with my adviser about the latter’s work in biblical hermeneutics. “But,” he asked, befuddled, “don’t you just sort of read the Bible and understand it? Doesn’t it just mean what it says?”
Seven years later, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley kicked off her campaign with a speech prefaced by televangelist, author, and activist John Hagee. Opening with a prayer, he praised Haley, who’s seeking to be commander-in-chief of the United States, as a “defender of Israel.”
And around the same time, I was working on an article about American evangelicals’ skepticism of human-caused climate change. The inevitable question I had to address: Do evangelicals think it’s okay to abuse the earth because we’re all just waiting around for the Rapture? As Fox News host Sean Hannity said in 2022, “If [the world] really [is] gonna end in 12 years, to hell with it all! Let’s have one big party for the last 10 years, and then we’ll all go home and see Jesus.”
The link between these three vignettes is the subject of Daniel G. Hummel’s astute new history, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation. Dispensationalism is commonly characterized as an eschatology, but as Hummel demonstrates in his two-century survey of its ecclesial, scholarly, political, and cultural development, “the end times are just one dimension of the theology of dispensationalism and its wider legacy.”
The ”plain meaning” model of biblical interpretation my father …