What is “Dispensational Theology” (and should we care)?

For many believers, interpreting the Scriptures according to Covenant Theology or according to Dispensational Theology is of very little concern.  After all, Jesus will love me whatever system I adhere to. But it actually does matter which system of theology we get on board with.  It will determine where we end up on many important biblical and practical issues. We should care. Imagine being in the gate area at the airport.  Gate 16 and 18 are right next to one another with a plane at each gate. Should we really care which plane we get on? After all they seem so close to one another.  Now, if we want to do some surfing or deep sea fishing, we might want to board the plane to San Diego at gate 16 and not the plane at gate 18 which is headed for Bismarck, North Dakota. And so it is with these two theological systems. They are not going to take you to the same place and it is good to know what these systems are saying. Just a few days ago, one who had been a believer for many years did ask me, “Just what is dispensationalism?”  So I will answer that believer and you can listen in if you wish.

(1) WHAT IS A DISPENSATION?  Dispensation is a word that comes from the Greek word oikonomia, and is used in several places in the N.T. (e.g. Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 3; 1 Tim. 1:4; Col. 1:25).  Oikonomia comes from two Greek words: oikos (which means “house”), and nemo (which means “to manage”).  The word dispensation (oikonomia) communicates the idea of a stewardship where someone who has authority delegates duties to another who is a subordinate.  We who are parents have experienced this with our children.  As the authority, we set the rules (and the consequences) for our children. They understood what they could or could not do and the benefits of obedience and the negative consequences for disobedience.  As they grew from being infants to toddlers to young children to teenagers, the rules and regulations changed to fit the situation.  And, if we were good parents, we clearly spelled out those changes in the rules and the consequences to our children.

In this world, God is the authority and He is the One who sets the rules and regulations for humans.  Depending on the era of human history, the rules God has established has different.  God never changes, but what He requires of people does, and He lets mankind know what those changes are.

(2) WHAT A DISPENSATION IS NOT.  Sometimes it is thought that a dispensation is, at its core, a period of time.  It is not.  Although a period of time is obviously involved, a dispensation is a stewardship or a way in which God administers His will in this world. So what He required of Adam is different from Abraham which is different from Moses which is different from Peter and Paul.

Also, dispensations are not different ways of salvation.  Probably due to some unclear statements made in the past by some dispensational theologians, it has been concluded that dispensational theology teaches different ways of being saved. That is not the case.  Salvation has always been by faith based on the finished work of Christ on the cross.

(3) HOW MANY DISPENSATIONS ARE THERE?  The number of dispensations in human history is usually thought to be seven; with six bringing us up to the present and one yet to come.  There have been slight differences among theologians based on whether they see enough differences and changes in God’s administration.  But generally, the number is seen as seven.

(4) ARE DISPENSATIONS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FROM ONE ANOTHER? No, there are often carry overs from one dispensation to the next.  For example, the right of capital punishment was given in the dispensation of human government (dispensation #4) but was also carried over into the next dispensation of the Mosaic Law (dispensation #5).  That is to be expected, since God’s truth does not cease to be truth. But each dispensation will have features that are unique to it.

(5) HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN THERE IS A CHANGE IN DISPENSATIONS? Each dispensation does have unique aspects to it that are clearly revealed by God.  The requirements, responsibilities, blessings and disciplines are spelled out by revelation from God.  New responsibilities are spelled out by new revelation.  Everyone observes that the requirements and responsibilities for mankind before the Fall of man, and after the Fall, are distinctly different.  The age before the giving of the Mosaic Law and the age after the Law are obviously not the same.  And, so it is with all the dispensations.

(6) WHAT ARE THE “NON-NEGOTIABLE” ELEMENTS OF DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGY?  Many years ago, Dr. Charles Ryrie set forth three indispensable elements of dispensational theology. These three elements have proven to be an accurate assessment of dispensationalism.

  • A consistent literal approach to interpreting the Scriptures.  All who approach the Scriptures with a literal (normal) hermeneutic end up believing certain doctrinal truths.  For example, conservative theologians all believe in the Trinity because they take the Bible at face value on what it teaches about the Godhead. When the basic interpretive approach of taking the words of Scripture in their historical, grammatical, normal sense is taken, then the various dispensations are sitting there in the Scriptures and can be easily seen.  When this approach is taken in all of the Scriptures, and allegorization is avoided, then the various dispensations emerge out of our reading of Scripture. The dispensations are not forced on the text of scripture but rather emerge from the scripture.
  • A clear distinction is made between the nation of Israel and the church of Jesus Christ.  When the student of the Bible observes the biblical differences (starting with the Abrahamic Covenant) between Israel and the Church, they will almost always end up in the dispensational camp.  To try and make the Church the “new Israel” is simply not supported by the Scriptures, and it ignores the nature of God’s covenant commitments to Israel.  (Past studies have looked at the distinction between Israel and the Church.  Under the Prophecy Articles menu of this website in sub-section Interpreting Bible Prophecy there are 5 articles on the subject of Israel and the Church).
  • God’s glory is the ultimate purpose of history. In Covenant Theology, it is normally said that the purpose of history is the salvation of the elect.  As we have noted before, in other studies, that is far too narrow.  Everything that was lost in Eden is going to be restored by God and He is moving through history to bring about the restoration of man’s unique role of ruling the planet (starting with the Son of Man); the restoring of the physical paradise that man was originally placed in (thus a new heaven and earth); and the restoration of believing people back into full fellowship with God (we will see His face and He will dwell among men).

Dispensational theology does a good job in bringing clarity and unity to our understanding of the Bible.  It does so by approaching the Scriptures from a normal interpretation of language.  Sometimes non-dispensationalists scoff at dispensational theology as being simplistic and somewhat naïve. It is okay for simple folks, but if one wants to understand the “deep things” of the Bible, then dispensational theology will not take you to the deep and profound things.  But we must remember that God communicated His truth through the written Word, and He intended for His Word to be grasped by ordinary believers.  There does seem to be more than a little arrogance in some who “trash” dispensational theology.  If it is naïve to simply take God’s Word at face value, then let us strive to be naïve.