What is Dispensationalism?

In Bible/Theology, Blog by David Levy32 Comments

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.

DEFINING DISPENSATION
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.”

DISTINCTIVE
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.

DISTINGUISHABLE DISPENSATIONS
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.

About the Author
David Levy

David Levy

David M. Levy is the Director of Worldwide Ministry Development, Education, and Ministry Relations, as well as being an author and Bible teacher for The Friends of Israel.

Comments 32

  1. Thank you so much for laying out so concisely what Dispensationalism is. I believed in this but didn’t know how to explain it. And at 73 years old it gets harder to explain to young people what I mean to say!! So thanks again!!

  2. Since all are one in Christ whether woman or man or Jew how does that fit into your thinking about the nation of Israel. Now, I believe that when Jesus comes back to the earth many Jews will be saved and Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem. And, how does you belief fit into Romans 2:28-28 and I think there are some other Scriptures also concerning the spiritual aspect of circumcision. The new birth is the spiritual meaning of circumcision, and thas means that all are jews at the new birth whether looked upon and Jew and gentile. I probably havn’t presented this very orderly but maybe you can understand what I am saying.

    1. “There is no Jew or Greek, free or slave…” this expression is for assurance that REDEMPTIVELY HE can save anyone, but there are still differences between Jews, Greeks, men, women, etc. These differences did not disappear.

      And spiritual birth is described by Savior in conversation with Nicodemus: One must be born of water and Spirit.

      Water is defined in DEUTERONOMY 32:2 and Spirit is in EZEKIEL 36:26-27 connected to JEREMIAH 31:33-33

      HIS Torah is actually “coming back” per ISAIAH 2:2-3 and ISAIAH 66:23.

  3. David, I very much liked your article and would consider myself a dispensationalist. But, I believe the mainstream church, FOI, and most traditional dispensationalists have made a very critical (and obvious) mistake. The “End of the (church) Age” is described in both (1) the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24) and then just four chapters later in (2) the Great Commission (Matthew 28). The most straightforward interpretation of these two passages is that Christians are to spread the gospel to all the (gentile) nations until the End of the (church) Age, which occurs when Jesus returns and raptures His church. Note that in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus keeps reminding us (while describing events leading up to His return) that we are not at the end yet. The only consistent timeline is that the End of the (church) Age occurs at the second coming (Matthew 24:29-31). The big mistake that everybody makes is to assume that the second coming occurs at the end of the seven-year period. But as you know, the pre-wrath position shows why that interpretation cannot possibly be correct. Undeniable key markers show that the second coming event coincides with the 6th seal in Revelation 6. The 7th seal occurs after the 6th seal, the 1st four trumpets occur after the 7th seal, and the 5th trumpet lasts for 5 months. Armageddon occurs during the 7th trumpet, which means that the second coming in Matthew 24:29-31 occurs at least 5 months before Armageddon. With this timeline fix, all of the prophetic scriptures suddenly fall into place. The End of the (Church) Age is when the rapture occurs and the Day of the Lord wrath of God begins. This wrath lasts for at least 5 months, culminating in the battle of Armageddon. Only after Armageddon does the millennium kingdom begin. FOI really needs to think through the second coming timeline more carefully. I published a book “The Second Coming of Jesus Christ” a couple of years ago that goes into much more detail on this subject (it’s available on Amazon). I would be happy to discuss my book with you and answer any questions you might have on pre-wrath if you are interested. I hope you will take me up on this offer…

  4. God bless you, David, for this clear, articulate setting forth of the dispensational framework for interpreting Scripture. It means a great deal to me that one whom I admire so much as yourself approaches the Bible as I do. I wish our paths could cross more often. Blessings to Beverly.

  5. Mr. Levy, I look forward to your theology blogs, such as this excellent overview on the subject of Dispensationalism. Today, some Messianic groups sadly misrepresent what the “church” is in the New Testament. FOI’s Victor Buksbazen had no such problem. He well understood the Church in the NT. The Complete Jewish Bible (NT), for example, is very difficult for me as a Gentile Christian to read and understand. Aside from the loose translation, the issue of Gentiles believers becoming practicing Jews seems to be its focus of it’s author (David H. Stern). What am I not understanding here???

  6. After I came to Christ I joined a Fundamental Baptist church that taught dispensational theology. Where does the Tribulation fit in? It’s not part of the Church Age, nor is it part of the Millennium?
    Later in my Christian life, I came to believe Reformed theology. Many reformed churches teach the Covenants of GOD and amillennium. Although my current church doesn’t teach either. The web site I’m providing is my Churches website.

  7. Sure doesn’t leave any room for Replacement Theology. Very understandable article by David Levy. I guess I have always been a dispensationalist but never had quite the clear understanding of what it actually means. I was one that viewed it simply as a period in time, but it goes deeper than that. Thank you…

  8. Thank You David. It is so refreshing to see that in some places there are still people who believe in Literal interpretation of scripture. I find that most churches here on Australia consider dispensationalism to as outmoded and ridiculous. In fact recently my son was told by his minister that dispensationalism was for “whack jobs” ie idiots. I believe that the teaching of higher criticism is largely responsible for this attitude, however what is higher criticism other than mans wisdom, which is at best flawed and at worst evil.

  9. Excellent lesson on what can be a very complex subject, yet you have given us a simple and clear teaching that is well worth saving and sharing. Thank you & thank God for letting me find it.

  10. Thank you for your insightful teaching, it really helps me to understand my Bible in a more deeper understanding. Side note, I’m going with Bruce Scott again this year on the Hesed ,so excited can’t wait to go Shalom.

  11. Thank you for this thurough explanation.
    The 4th dispensation was often used as the replacement of the chosen people.
    As for the coming of the messiah or the 2nd coming of Yeshua, our sages had a very interesting assessment as to when that will happen: “R. Johanan also said: The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked.”
    I’d like to see the day

  12. Thank you for this most excellent article. I study under a gentleman Les Feldick. He has a wonderful ministry “Through The Bible with Les Feldick” out of Kinta, OK. He teaches these same things, with a focus on the Dispensation of grace, The Church. SO VERY GOOD! Thank you again for a great article.

  13. Amen. Rightly dividing the scriptures; dispensationalism is the way. Thank you for printing the true about our scriptures…The Bible.

  14. I love learning about God, how He thinks, what He taught & how His instruction & commands protect us. Thank you for this teaching.

  15. I appreciate your easy to read synopsis of Dispensational Theology and the emphasis on the grammatical-historical interpretation of scripture which makes God’s Word the controlling framework.

  16. Thank-you for this helpful explanation. I find myself increasingly baffled by the tensions between those who identify with the dispensationalists and those who do not, and quite frankly, I feel a burden to inquire of the Lord and ask for help! Of course, differences in perspectives create fertile ground for the enemy to take ground and plant divisiveness in the Body of Christ. I shall stick closely to my Lord and Savior Who’s Holy Spirit will guide me through this spiritual mine field…of which there are countless ones if we neglect both the logos and the rhema expression of the Living Word of God.

  17. Of the seven dispensations which one are we up to now? In your opinion how long before the 7th when Christ comes again?

  18. Thanks for your stand on dispensationalism! There seems to be a move away from it or downplaying it. And as a result a lot of confusion over the Scriptures. But, as you state, it’s the only way to take the Bible in the natural literal sense in which it was written. Because of the distinction between Israel and the church, and because Pentecost is all Jewish, I don’t see the church (body of Christ) beginning until later as God sends Paul to the Gentiles and revealed the body of Christ to him.
    However, I have always appreciated the FOI stand on dispensationalism and Showers’ book ‘There Really Is a Difference” Thank you!

  19. Dear David,
    Thank you for your article on Dispensationalism. I Thank the Lord that I heard about it when Dr. Showers visited the church I was attending back in the late 1970’s. I agree with your article 100% except for one thing, Recently, after reading a book from a professor at Dallas Theological seminary, Don Samdahl, called “God’s Programs” I have come to change my position concerning the beginning of the Church in Acts 2. I believe we are still on Jewish ground (kingdom of God gospel) until Acts 15:11. Paul began the Church after personally being instructed by the risen Lord. I was wondering if you knew if any others that hold to this position besides Samdahl and also Les Feldick. If you know of anyone who wrote a critique of the mid Acts dispensational view, could you let me know, I would love to read it. I am strongly convinced now that the Mid Acts view is the Biblical one. Thank you for your article. My wife is a Jewish believer and we love supporting FOI.

    1. The Berean Bible Society has a wealth of books and videos that defend the Mid-Acts beginning of the Body of Christ. I have reread Pastor Stam’s book “Things That Differ, the Fundamentals of Dispensationalism” several times. https://www.bereanbiblesociety.org/
      I have started my mornings for years with Les Feldick’s “Through the Bible” program and happen to be attending Don Samdahl’s Bible study on Sunday mornings. His book, “God’s Programs”, is excellent.

  20. Dear David,
    Sorry, I made a mistake in my Feb. 23rd comment to you. Don Samdahl is not a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, He graduated from there with an earned Th. M. degree.
    Sorry for the error.
    Jim Childs

  21. Dr Levy
    I have a question. I am a strong dispensationalist myself. In your section you write:
    “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.
    In order to help with my apologetic to even family members who are not dispensational – can you email me your documentation of where specificly in those early church father’s writings they demonstrate their dispensational view?
    As you know many on the opposite side of the fence try and say that it is new with Scofield. It would go a great deal to silence them if I had specific places to quote from. Thanks much

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