An Introduction to Dispensationalism

In this article, I propose to give an introduction to the study of Dispensational theology. I intend to start with the simple, work towards the hard, and finally to give practical application. I would like to do this for two reasons. First, I want to show that theological study can be understandable, interesting and relevant. Second, I want introduce you to a very important topic - dispensationalism.
 

Definition of Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism forms the background to how many Christians read and understand the Bible. And yet, most Christians have never heard the word "Dispensationalism", and if they have, would not be able to define it or describe it. So, what is Dispensationalism? Quite simply, Dispensationalism is a framework for understanding the Bible. It is a system of Bible interpretation. In essence, dispensationalism is a period of stewardship during which man is tested during Godís dealings with him. This is so important, I will repeat this: dispensationalism is a period of stewardship during which man is tested during Godís dealings with him. Needless to say, such a definition merely scratches the surface, but it will serve as a starting point.

So how did this doctrine or system of interpretation come about? It would seem that different people thought of this idea of dispensationalism at different times, all independently of each other. Some of these men expressed themselves clearer than others. For instance, dispensational thinking is present in the theological works of Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer. One of the men to express this system clearest in his writings was Mr Darby, and his thoughts were borrowed by a Presbyterian by the name of C.I. Scofield who included them in his study Bible. Another Presbyterian by the name of Lewis Sperry Chafer adopted dispensational thinking, and propagated it at Dallas Theological Seminary. Other notable dispensational teachers include H.A. Ironside, John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie.
 

The Development of Dispensational Thought

Why did the doctrine of dispensationalism come to be developed? Yes, we have seen a definition of dispensationalism. Yes, it was thought of by different men over the years. But what lead them to develop this theological system based on God dealing with different people at different times in different ways? Really, there were two factors. The first factor is a simple realisation that there are differences in Scripture. The biggest difference is between the OT and the NT, but there are also other differences. As Christians, if we have sinned, we donít have to sacrifice a lamb. Adam lived before the fall, and surely his life was different than ours in many ways. We read of a future Millennial kingdom in which Christ will reign on earth - surely things will be different during the Millennium. So the first factor that led to Dispensational thought is the realisation that at different periods, God has dealt with man in different ways.

The second factor that led to the development of dispensational thought were a couple of verses in Ephesians. Ephesians 1:9,10 says, "Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself:  That in the dispensation  of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him". Ephesians 3:2 says, "If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward". Now, I have quoted this in the King James Version, which I feel makes this a little clearer. Other translations may use the words "administration", "economy" or "stewardship" to replace the word "dispensation". These are all words used to translate the Greek word, oikonomia. This word can refer to the stewardship or administration of a household.

Now admittedly, just because the word "dispensation" is found in the King James Bible doesnít mean that the whole system of dispensational theology is proven. After all, some people take a verse in 1 Corinthians 15 about those who are baptized for the dead, and build a whole doctrine upon it. Just because a word was written in the Bible 2000 years ago, and translated a certain way almost 400 years ago, does not mean that a complete doctrinal system is Biblical. As far as I know, the translators of the King James Version had never heard of or never thought of dispensational doctrine. They were simply looking for a word to translate the Greek word "oikonomia". However, this word "oikonomia" is used in the Bible and so it must mean something! In some way, God says that there are at least 2 stewardships. These are the stewardship of grace and the stewardship of the fullness of time.
 

What is a Stewardship?

So Bible students saw differences in Godís dealings with mankind through the years. And we are faced with the fact that these two verses in Ephesians refer to a stewardship. This causes us to ask the question, what do we know about stewardships? To start, lets think about the dishonest steward of Luke 16. The first 2 verses of Luke 16 say, "Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer." There were two parties, the master and the steward. The steward had specific responsibilities, and was accountable for how he managed the household. And finally, the steward could be relieved of his responsibilities. None of this should be particularly shocking to us. If a wealthy person hires someone to manage his household for him, to act as a steward, there are two parties, there are specific responsibilities, there is accountability and the steward can be relieved from the position.
 

Are There Other Stewardships?

Now if we start thinking, we see that the idea of a difference between the present age and the future Millennium fits in quite nicely with the idea of the stewardship of grace and the stewardship of the fullness of time. But are there other stewardships in the Bible? The Scripture mentions two stewardships by name, but this doesnít necessarily limit us to two stewardships.

Most people would not only concede that unfallen Adam lived under different conditions than us, but also had a different stewardship. There were 2 parties - God and Adam. Adam was given dominion over the animals, and had certain responsibilities, including the responsibility to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And when Adam failed, the stewardship was taken from him and he was driven from the garden.

The Old Testament Law was certainly another stewardship. There were two parties - God and the Nation of Israel. There were certain responsibilities as listed in the Law of Moses. And the stewardship was taken away from them - perhaps at the point when the Lord Jesus began to go to the gentiles instead of just to the nation of Israel. Certainly this stewardship is different than the stewardship or dispensation of grace. Of course, grace has been at work through every stewardship or dispensation, but grace was not the primary element of the stewardship of the Law - Law was! We read about this in John 1:17, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ."

How many dispensations are there? Dispensational writers will vary the number. Some would say there are 5 dispensations:

Others would add divisions in with Noah and Abraham, and possibly make the coming 7 year tribulation into a dispensation. So, in these people's eyes, the following dispensations would exist: Part of the reason for suggesting these divisions are the various covenants that God made with man, such as the covenants with Noah and Abraham. In any case, it is not our purpose in this article to decide how many dispensations there are. In this article we are only trying to give an overview. But quite frankly, how many dispensations you think there are is not as important as approaching the study of the Bible with a dispensational framework. To have a dispensational approach to Bible study means we see God dealing with different people in different ways.
 

Dispensationalism and Salvation

But is dispensationalism teaching that there are multiple ways to be saved? No! Dispensationalism does not carry with it the idea of different ways of salvation. Dispensationalism has to do with Godís testing, not His redeeming. How did believers in the Old Testament get saved? This is another huge topic, and one we wonít enter into in this article. Suffice to say that dispensationalists believe John 14:6 where Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Throughout all times, all testings and all dispensations, salvation comes ultimately through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
 

Three Distinctives of Dispensationalism

As dispensational thought began to be developed, it was noticed that there are three distinctives about dispensationalism. These are three things which are more true of dispensationalism than they are about other theological systems. First, dispensationalism most consistently interprets the Bible literally. Other systems of understanding the Bible may interpret the Bible literally on occasion, or even most of the time. But dispensationalism is the system that most consistently interprets the Bible literally.

The second distinctive of dispensationalism is that it distinguishes between the church and Israel. This is really just an application of the first distinctive. But the other leading system of understanding the Bible, Covenant Theology, often blends the church and Israel together. A dispensational approach allows us to understand that at one time, God was dealing with Israel, He is now dealing with the church, and one day He will deal with Israel again.

The third distinctive of dispensational understanding has to do with Godís ultimate purpose. Covenant Theology is centred primarily around the idea of salvation. Godís saving of people throughout the Bible is what they base their understanding on. For the dispensationalist, salvation is important, but more important is Godís Glory. Dispensationalism does not focus on salvation. It focuses on Godís testing of man. In every test, man is found wanting, God is vindicated in his power and righteousness, and the glory goes to God.
 

Objections to Dispensationalism

Like any system of theology, some objections are raised to dispensationalism. First, there is an objection to terminology. We use the term Dispensation of Grace, and people complain, "but God has always shown grace." To this the dispensationalist replies, "Yes!  Of course God has. Whereís the problem?" Grace is the distinguishing characteristic of this dispensation, just as Law was the distinguishing characteristic of the previous dispensation. So really, this objection is a bit of a straw man. I always find objections based on terminology a bit weak. I remind myself that some people deny the doctrine of the Trinity just because the word "Trinity" is not found in the Bible.

Another objection sometimes raised is that dispensationalism is a modern doctrine. To this I have two answers. First of all, the age of a doctrine does not determine itís truthfulness. The same charge was levelled in Martin Lutherís time at salvation by grace through faith. My second answer is that dispensationalism was first suggested in the mid 1600ís while the competing doctrine, Covenant Theology, was first suggested about 50 years previous to that. In fact, both doctrines are relatively new.

A third objection is that the fruits of dispensationalism are division. A person who opposes dispensationalism will say that the "Plymouth Brethren" were dispensationalists, and look at all the divisions they had. This is a rather strange objection for two reasons. First, the Reformed theologians who follow covenant theology have just as many divisions within their ranks. Secondly, anyone who knows anything about the history of the "Plymouth Brethren" knows that none of the divisions they have had have been over dispensational doctrine.

The last objection I would like to mention concerns the number of dispensations. Covenant theologians will complain that different dispensational teachers teach different numbers of dispensations. This objection is true, but not relevant. One can get the benefits of a dispensational understanding of the Bible even if one doesnít know whether Abraham initiated a new dispensation or whether he was part of the old one. Again, we must point out that this is a rather strange objection since covenant theologians have at times debated whether God has made 2 or 3 great covenants with mankind.
 

Why is this Practical?

We have gone through a lot of difficult material in this article and we must ask ourselves, why is this practical? What practical effect will dispensational understanding have in my life? First, dispensationalism protects us from wrong doctrine and practice. Every once in a while we hear about some group of professing Christians who have decided they must start sacrificing animals. As dispensationalists, we understand that the system of animal sacrifices is not for the church. Less drastic perhaps is that dispensationalism reminds us that the church does not need to keep the Old Testament dietary restrictions or the Sabbath Day. If a person wishes to personally do these things, they are free to do so, but what was required in Israel is not meritorious to us.

Secondly, our understanding of dispensationalism helps us with our church practice. As dispensationalists, we understand that an ordained priesthood, special garments, ornate buildings, altars, incense and repeated sacrifices are not for the church today. So we have freedom to follow the New Testament pattern for the church.

Thirdly, consider our hymns. Parryís Jerusalem is set to some of the most beautiful music ever written, but the words are absolute heresy. As dispensationalists, we understand the distinction between the church and Israel. We donít sing about the New Jerusalem being established in England!

 Fourthly, consider our theology. We donít follow British-Israelism - a system that says that the English are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and thus are promised all the blessings of the Old Testament. We are spared from the heartache of trying to claim Old Testament promises for ourselves or to assume that if we are faithful to God, He will give us material blessings. These things were promised to Israel in the previous dispensation, but they are not promised to the church in the Dispensation of Grace.

Fifth, consider anti-Semitism. If one follows Covenant Theology, and believes that the church has replaced Israel, one is free to show respect to Jews or persecute the Jews as one sees fit. On the other hand, the dispensationalist sees that God was working with the Jews, is now working with the church, and will one day again work with the Jews. And so while many who hold to covenant theology have spoken out against anti-Semitism, the dispensationalist simply cannot be anti-Semitic.

For our last practical application, lets consider our worship. Our worship is likely to be very different if we assume Godís highest purpose is to save us, rather than assuming like a dispensationalist does, that Godís highest purpose is to Glorify Himself.
 

Conclusion

I know that this article has been a deep one. I have only scratched the surface of this topic. We have seen that dispensationalism is a period of stewardship during which man is tested during Godís dealings with him. We have seen how dispensationalism came to be discovered - through noticeable differences in how God dealt with man and through the use of the word "stewardship" in Ephesians. We have seen what a stewardship is, and considered other stewardships in the Bible, such as that with Adam. We have seen the 3 distinctives of dispensationalism.

We have answered some objections and we have shown that dispensational thinking is practical in our personal and corporate lives. But before we end this article, I would like to mention one last little thing. We must understand that dispensationalism represents the final vindication of Godís righteousness. When all is said and done, and the final person stands in judgement before God, what excuse will he give? "If only God was less theological" - well Adam only had one rule, donít eat from a certain tree, and he failed. "If only I could have followed my conscience" - men did this at the time of Noah, and failed for their thoughts were continually wicked. "If only I knew what all the rules were" - an Israelite could please God by following specific written regulations, but in this, mankind failed. "If only God was more personal" - Jesus Christ took on sinless humanity, but man ignored him and failed again. "If only I didnít have to worry about what to eat, and the repressive political conditions and so on" - well in the Millennium, perfect conditions will exist, and man will fail the test. Through these dispensations, Godís justice is vindicated. The failure was not with God - the failure was with man, and God is justified in judging that failure.
 


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