When you hear the word “dispensation” in the evangelical world it can provoke much debate and questions.
How we all organize, systematize, and interpret God’s progressive revelation through the biblical history of mankind shapes more than many realize. Some have no idea how the subject of Dispensationalism relates to the Bible. Others are sent to a dictionary in order to define the meaning of the word, but find it provides little clarity as to the theological meaning. Still others know the meaning of dispensational teaching, but remain non-dispensational.
The New Testament Greek word for “dispensation” (Gr. oikonomia) comes from two words, “house” (oikos) “law” (nomos), and refers to the oversight, management, economy, administration over a house or others’ property. The word oikonomia is translated “dispensation” or “stewardship” in a number of verses in the New Testament (Luke 16:2–4; 1 Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 3:2; Colossians 1:25). It’s easy to want to simplify the meaning to simply a period in time but instead we should look at it as a mode of administration.
Dr. Renald Showers provides an insightful definition of Dispensational Theology when he writes, “Dispensational Theology can be defined very simply as a system of theology which attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of the sovereign rule of God. It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several dispensations of God’s rule . . . the term dispensation as it relates to Dispensational Theology could be defined as “a particular way of God’s administering His rule over the world as He progressively works out His purpose for world history.”
First, each dispensation mention in Scripture possesses certain features or characteristics that follow a pattern:
The dispensation is given as a direct revelation from God in each period, and the combined dispensations span the entire history of man. The Revelation in Scripture provides man with knowledge on the specific way in which God is administering world affairs for that period in history.
Each specific dispensation reveals God’s will, whereupon man is given certain requirements and responsibilities, and expected to order his conduct in obedience to God’s will.
Each specific dispensation reveals God’s will, whereupon man is given certain requirements and responsibilities, and expected to order his conduct in obedience to God’s will. Requirements and responsibilities given in one dispensation may or may not continue in the next dispensation. For example, the death penalty established in the Noahic Covenant by God (Genesis 9:5–6) under the dispensation of Human Government continued under the dispensation of the Law.
Each dispensation has ended in man’s failure to obey the proscribed rules set forth as the will of God for that particular dispensation.
Man’s failure to be obedient to rules set forth in specific dispensations resulted in God’s judgment(s) upon people living in that generation.
The dispensations revealed in Scripture are never to be thought as different means of salvation. God only has one way of providing salvation. Salvation is and always has been by grace through faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for sin (Eph. 2:8-9).
Second, Dispensational Theology applies the traditional interpretative rules of hermeneutics (science and art of Bible interpretation) with a literal interpretation of the biblical text. By literal is meant, “to study the text in its grammatical, historical, and cultural setting within the context of the passage in order to understand what the writer is teaching.” The non-dispensationalist often spiritualizes or allegorizes the Scripture text (especially prophetic passages), not providing the reader with the original meaning intended by the writer. This is especially true when it comes to prophecy dealing with the nation of Israel or prophecies referred to in eschatology (the study of end-times).
Third, the dispensationalist recognizes Israel and the church are to be identified as distinct or separate entities in the plan and program of God. Israel’s identity is definitely seen in the New Testament as an ethnic people that has remained intact over the centuries. Israel will see unfulfilled promises made to them in the Abrahamic, Land, Davidic, and New Covenants fulfilled at Christ’s return when He sets up His Kingdom rule on Earth and will take His seat on the throne of His father David, and reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:32–33).
Fourth, the church is not to be interpreted as replacing Israel as the people of God. Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus is coming to rule over nations of the world, and the nation of Israel will have a definite role in Christ’s reign (Isa. 2:2-4). The New Testament often refers to the literal, physical Israel after the church was established in Acts 2. Paul often mentioned the fulfillment of God’s program for the literal nation of Israel yet to come to fruition in Romans 9—11.
Dispensational Theology does not support the idea that Israel is only a shadow and type that become reinterpreted as to their literal fulfillment once Jesus provided new revelation that is recorded in the New Testament. New Testament revelation does not reinterpret, override, nor cancel the original meaning of Old Testament revelation. To the contrary, the New Testament continues the revelation on Israel and refines, reiterates, and affirms the literal fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Israel in both advents of Jesus Christ.
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In other words, the promises made to Israel are not fulfilled spiritually in the church nor does the church replace a literal, physical Israel as the people of God now or in Christ’s Kingdom rule. It should be noted that the church was never presented in the Old Testament, because its beginning was on the Day of Pentecost after Christ’s 40-day post resurrection ministry (Acts 2). The word church is never used interchangeably in the New Testament for Israel. The phrase, “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) in its context is not stating that the church in the New Testament is to be interpreted as the Israel of God.
Fifth, throughout the dispensations that are progressively revealed in Scripture, God’s ultimate purpose and goal is to glorify Himself, and to receive universal acknowledge and praise as supreme Sovereign Ruler.
Although dispensational teaching did not appear as a well thought-out doctrine in the early church, the basic beliefs in Biblical dispensations was taught by the Church Fathers. Such men as: Justin Martyr (110-165); Irenaeus (130-200); Clement of Alexandria (150-220); Pelagius (360-420); and Augustine (354-430) spoke of dispensations within the Bible. That said it should not be interpreted that the Church Fathers believed in dispensations in the same way the term is used today. The point made is that these men and others saw dispensational divisions within Scripture. Century’s later men such as Pierre Poiret (1646-1719), Jonathan Edwards (1637-1716), Issac Watts (1674-1748), John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), and C. I. Scofield (1843-1921), among many others, promoted the dispensational teaching of the Bible.
Traditionally most dispensationalist has taught that there are seven distinguishable dispensations revealed in the Bible from the inception of creation until Christ Second Coming to set up His kingdom rule on earth. The traditionally held dispensations are:
- Dispensation of Innocence. Man was created innocent in a perfect environment, provided a test given by God, but was disobedient resulting in judgment, curse and expulsion from the garden (Gen. 1:26-3:6).
- Dispensation of Conscience. Man disobeyed God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:8). His disobedience resulted in sin and man’s eventual death. Man’s wickedness became so great, making it necessary for God to destroy all of humanity on earth, except for Noah and his family (Gen. 3:7-8:19).
- Dispensation of Human Government. God established the Noahic Covenant, wherein He inaugurated the judicial rule within the society of mankind in order to control the wickedness of man (Gen. 8:20-11:32).
- Dispensation of Promise. Begins with the Abrahamic Covenant made exclusively with the family of Abraham and nation of Israel (Gen. 12:1-Ex. 18:27).
- Dispensation of Law. Instituted at Mount Sinai setting forth the Moral, Religious, and Civil laws to govern Israel under the Mosaic Covenant, and the Law of Moses as a way of life but was abrogated at Christ’s death and Resurrection (Ex. 19:1-Acts 1:26).
- Dispensation of Grace or Church Age. Begins after the Ascension of Christ on the Day of Pentecost with salvation of Jewish people and quickly spread throughout the Gentile world, and will be culminated with the Rapture of the church (Acts 2:1).
- Dispensation of the Kingdom Age. Jesus Christ returns to earth at His Second Coming to setup the Millennial Kingdom on earth. It will include the conversion and restoration of Israel along with the ultimate fulfillment of the unconditional covenants made with the nation (Rev. 20:4).
It is my conviction that the dispensational approach to the study of God’s Word is the only position one can hold in order to grasp the overall correct teaching of Scripture and the prophecy presented therein. Hopefully, this will give you new insights in comprehending the proper approach in studying God’s Word.
Your questions or comments on Dispensational Theology are welcomed.