The Dispensations

I believe that the controversy surrounding dispensationalism is one created almost entirely by the choice of words employed by those that are dispensationalist. There are other doctrines associated with dispensationalists such as the millennium which are certainly more controversial. However the fundamental basis of dispensationalism; that God has revealed Himself progressively and that the deal or covenant He has offered man over time has changed is completely incontrovertible. The aim of this essay therefore is to present the traditional dispensationalist position but then to translate into a language which hopefully renders the position clearer and less controversial.

The first thing to notice is that dispensation actually is a biblical word; it occurs in 1Co 9:17, Eph 1:10, 3:2 and Col 1:25. Each time we get a dispensation of something; the gospel, the fullness of times, the grace and God respectively. Following through to look at the Greek word 'oikonomia' behind the translation we find that really the word means 'administration'. Therefore we should view the term dispensation in the same way we would administration in the political context. Thus we get the 'Reagan Administration' or the 'Bush Administration' which could be 'Reagan Dispensation' or 'Bush Dispensation'. It should also be noted that whilst an administration does typically take place over a period of time the dispensation primarily refers to the nature of the administration not the era.

In distinguishing the different dispensations we should therefore be looking for divine statements that alter or change the nature of the responsibilities of man and promised response of God towards those responsibilities. Regrettably we will find that whilst these dispensations are clearly delineated they are not named[1]; and the naming of them can be more provocative that the underlying facts. Further the revelation of God has been progressive over thousands of years; there have been subtle changes to the exact details of God's interaction with men throughout the pages of scripture. There is thus a degree of subjectivity involved in choosing when to name a new dispensation and when to note a modification of the existing one. However the most influential writer on this subject is Scofield and I will thus outline the seven dispensations that he defines.

  1. The dispensation of innocence. From creation to the fall man had only one rule to live by: don't eat the fruit or die.
  2. The dispensation of conscience. This dispensation is interesting in that, as far as we know, God did not state any requirements of man from the fall to the flood. Man therefore was left to follow his instincts or conscience in how to reach God. We know that Abel used a blood sacrifice; Cain tried fruit. We know that Noah knew to offer animals and that some were clean and unclean. But nothing was stated.
  3. The dispensation of government. Subsequent to the flood man was told to create government and that they would be collectively responsible for encouraging and even enforcing behavior. The ultimate penalty of death was even placed into human hands. Some would hold that this dispensation finished at the giving of the promises to Abraham or possibly at Babel. Personally I don't see the dispensation of government ending for everyone at either of those points; the following two dispensations were not, in my opinion, universal. Thus I see dispensations three, four and five as telescoping until the sixth.
  4. The dispensation of promise. This dispensation introduces a couple of new ideas. Firstly God was now selecting certain members of the human race for a closer relationship with Himself. Secondly whilst some of the features of God's behavior were to be conditional others were unconditional. Man's side was to love God and to obey Him. God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants.
  5. The dispensation of Law. This dispensation started at Mt Sinai and further restricted the dispensation of promise to the descendants of Jacob. The requirements placed upon man were extremely detailed and specific; as were the punishments threatened for disobedience.
  6. The dispensation of grace. It is the titling of this dispensation that probably renders this whole subject controversial which is particularly ironic as it is the one dispensation we actually know the name for[2]. If there is a dispensation of grace then what is the basis of salvation in the other dispensations? Grace of course! The primary distinction of this dispensation is that it looks backwards and understands the method of grace; the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Previous dispensations were still dependant upon His death for justification[3] but the people of that period were not required to know that the Messiah would be called Jesus or that he would rise from the dead because they had not explicitly been told. Today we have been told and it is a requirement that we believe it.
  7. The dispensation of the kingdom. This is the period of the millennium which is clearly controversial. However a literal reading of scripture tells us that there will be a time when Christ will rule the nations with a rod of iron[4]. Unless we believe that the current governments are as Christ would want them; or that Christ doesn't really know how to wield His rod of iron we have to state that this is not yet happening. That period, which must still be future, when He will rule with a 'rod of iron', is can be called the dispensation of the kingdom. During that time people will be expected to stick to the rules and will be instantly punished if they don't.

I believe that if the preceding seven administrations are stripped of their titles and simply looked at as different deals that were offered then there really can not be an argument as to whether they exist in scripture. It must be remembered that each deal was essentially the same: believe and obey the revelation of Myself that I have given to you thus far. The basis of salvation was the same: Christ's death.

In conclusion: I have essentially attempted to present dispensationalism stripped of its' theological cloak. I noted that a dispensation is really an administration or set of promises, rewards and punishments delineated by the self revelations and covenants that God has afforded mankind. I then discussed the seven most widely accepted dispensations and noted that there was an underlying method that covered them all. I hope that even is this subject is still as controversial the reader will now find it to be a little clearer than before.


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