When I first began attending Dallas Theological Seminary I often heard the word “dispensationalism” but did not know what the word meant. However, I have began to learn about dispensationalism and how it assists Bible students in correctly observing and interpreting the Bible. Even though I am not an expert in biblical studies or theologies, I would like to share with you what I believe to be a beginner’s biblical view of dispensationalsim.
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A Brief Biblical Basis for Dispensationalism
The word “dispensation” comes from the usage of the word, oikonomia, which is commonly used in the New Testament. But what is a dispensation? Stanley Toussaint describes a dispensation as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.”[ref]The Scofield Reference Bible, ed. C.I. Scofield (New York: Oxford U., 1945), 5 quoted in Stanley Toussaint, “A Biblical Defense of Dispensationalism” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald Campbell and John Walvoord (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982), 90.[/ref] These periods of times include seven distinct dispensations.
I. The Seven Dispensations
Stanley Toussaint provides an abbreviated description of the seven different dispensations of God. Each of these dispensations throughout history show different ways God interacted with His people in how they were to worship Him, the way in which He expected them to obey Him, as well as well as His punishment for disobedience.
- The first was the dealing with Adam before the fall.
- The second is the way in which God deals with Adam after the fall.
- The third was after the flood based on human government and capital punishment being enabled.
- The fourth was after the Tower of Babel which is when God began to mediate His blessings to people through one man: Abraham.
- The fifth was the Mosaic Law.
- The sixth is the age of grace and the church (as one with Jews and Gentiles).
- The seventh is the Millennial Kingdom which precedes the eternal state.[ref]Stanley Toussaint, “A Biblical Defense of Dispensationalism” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald Campbell and John Walvoord (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982), 89-90.[/ref]
II. The Dispensations in Light of Covenants in the Bible
Another presentation of the basis for dispensationalism is from Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock in their book, Progressive Dispensationalism. who explain the six different covenants in the Bible as evidences of God working in different ways during different periods of time.
- The Noahic Covenant was the first appearance of covenants in the Bible. God uses covenant language to promise to preserve Noah’s life and every creature taken into the ark (Gen. 6:18) as well as to promise to never again destroy life on the earth through a flood (Gen. 9:9-17).
- Another is the Abrahamic Covenant which clarified the way God kept his original covenant to Noah. The Abrahamic Covenant also revealed a foundation for a relationship between God, humanity, and life on the earth. Since the Abrahamic Covenant did not fully reveal God’s plans for humanity, further revelation was needed.
- Another covenant was the Mosaic Covenant which focused on the concrete and present relationship between Israel and God. Based on the lifestyle of each generation, God presented a blessing or curse. Latter prophets living under the Mosaic Covenant predicted that a new covenant would come and in turn fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant.
- The New Covenant was a new arrangement for the patriarchal blessing. This was a new dispensation of the Spirit that occurred after the Mosaic Covenant as a way to expand and bring greater revelation to God’s meaning of “I will bless you.”
- The Davidic Covenant was another covenant which was given to bring an everlasting fulfillment to the Abrahamic Covenant and blessing. Through the Davidic Covenant, blessings would come under a Davidic king. Through the mediation of that Davidic king, blessings would come to an Israel of faith was well as all other nations that trust in Him.
- Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic king as well as the fulfillment of the biblical covenants as He is a descendant of David who will mediate the blessings to Israel. In Jesus, the Mosaic Covenant was also fulfilled. In one act, Jesus brought the Mosaic Covenant to an end (through His death) while also providing the sacrifice necessary for a new covenant which provides redemption, renewal, and resurrection. Stretching back further than David, Jesus is the heir to Abraham and mediates those blessings to Israel and other nations.
However, with these covenants and dispensations, it is clear that this present dispensation is not the end. This present dispensation looks forward. The next dispensation will have the new covenant fulfilled and fully received. When will this occur? At the descent of Jesus from heaven which is when a new covenant blessing will be extended as Jesus rules the nations.
III. An Exegetical Basis for Dispensationalism
The primary basis for dispensationalism comes from the use of the word oikonomia by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:9, 10 as well as Ephesians 3:9-11 the word is used to describe how God works. Senior Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, Elliott Johnson supports this claim, “The exegetical basis for dispensationalism is derived partially from Paul’s three references to the term oikonomia within the book of Ephesians (1:10; 3:2,9).”[ref]Elliott Johnson, “Hermeneutics and Dispensationalism,” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald Campbell and John Walvoord (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982), 241.[/ref]
With such a large system of thought being derived from the use of a word in one book a closer examination is needed. For this sake, first the root meaning of the word “dispensation” will be examined, then its use in Ephesians as well its other uses in the New Testament, then observations and interpretations of how the word is used within the Ephesian passages will be made.
A. Meaning of the Word
Charles Ryrie tells that in the ancient Greek culture, “an oikonomos was a servant in charge of a household. Oikonomia referred to his office or activity of managing the house.” Another appropriate definition of oikonomia is “stewardship, manager” and can sometimes refer to a “grand plan” (see the NLT Study Bible, Word Study System). Over time these words began to be used more broadly and began to encompass the management activity involving financial transactions. Therefore the English words “steward” and “stewardship” are derived from the words oikonomos and oikonomia.
According to Ryrie, within the New Testament Paul uses the terminology of oikonomos and oikonomia to “distinguish at least two and possibly three successive dispensations.” Ryrie further elaborates that “Jesus’ teaching that the coming kingdom of God would involve stewardship changes also shows the appropriateness of dispensational theology to characterize his view of present and future.
B. Other Uses in the New Testament
The word oikonomia is used more than ten times throughout the New Testament in various forms. However, the following verses and their observations include the word used in the same or a similar way as in Ephesians.
- Assuming, by the way, that you know God gave me the special responsibility (oikonomia) of extending his grace to you Gentiles (Eph. 3:2).
- Jesus told this story to his disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a manager (oikonomos) handling his affairs. One day a report came that the manager was wasting his employer’s money” (Luke 16:1).
- So look at Apollos and me as mere servants of Christ who have been have been put in charge (oikonomos) of explaining God’s mysteries (1 Cor. 4:1).
- They have to obey their guardians (oikonomos) until they reach whatever age their father has set (Gal 4:2).
- God has given me the responsibility (oikonomia) of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you (Col. 1:25).
- An elder is a manager (oikonomos) of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick tempered; he must not be heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money (Tit 1:7).
Even though these verses use other examples to employ the use of the Greek word to describe a manager, steward, or grand plan, hopefully the meaning affirms the way dispensationalists use the same word in Ephesians.
1. Ephesians 1:9, 10
As discussed earlier, the roots of dispensationalism are grounded in Ephesians 1:9,10 as well as Ephesians 3:9-11. Paul, when writing to the church of Ephesus, explains that God used Jesus as the way to adopt everyone into His family. Through Jesus Christ He has brought new people into His family, which told about what had already happened in the past, but the two verses in Ephesians 1:9,10 focus on the future. Paul writes,
God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: at the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth (Eph. 1:9, 10).
Here are important observations and interpretations about these two verses:
- This passage is listed in Paul’s introductory remarks to the church of Ephesus and sets the stage for the rest of the book. Paul is talking about how God had showered (him and the people in the world at that time) with kindness, wisdom, and understanding as a result of Christ. He also explains that God used Christ to purchase the freedom of the readers of Ephesians with the blood of Jesus Christ. C. I. Scofield, one of the first dispensationalist theologians, defines the beginning of this section as well as chapter 3 of Ephesians as a “positional” passage, meaning that Paul is describing and defines the standing that believers have in “Christ” as well as “in the heavenlies” through pure grace.
- The plan was once mysterious. The plan existed from the beginning and was mysterious for a long time; therefore it was not known to people before it had been revealed. But it existed from the beginning. It was God’s plan for His own pleasure (as will be seen later in the verses).
- The plan has been revealed. God revealed the plan; Paul is merely attempting to explain it. The plan is about Christ. Christ is the focus of the revealing of the plan. And when Christ died the plan was revealed. Christ is the catalyst that has allowed His believers to understand the plan. Because of Christ and His work His believers are now allowed to know about God’s plan. And that plan has been revealed so that “believers are able to grasp something of the divine purpose of the ages.”[ref]Harold Hoehner, “Ephesians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 619.[/ref]
- This plan involves God’s pleasure. The plan was God’s plan from the beginning in which He desired to fulfill His good pleasure. It was for God’s benefit. Scofield believed the plan was according to “his [God’s] good pleasure which he hath purposed for himself.”
- The plan talked about in verse nine is revealed in verse ten. While verse nine states that the plan has “now” been revealed, verse 10 explains the plan and what will happen in the future.
- The plan is something that will happen in the future. In verse ten the tense is future. God says that He “will” bring everything together. This is evidence that it will be brought together in the future at the right time. The literal translation of this can be, “unto the dispensation of the fullness of times.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Another literal translation might be “that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together all things in Christ.” This dispensation of the fullness of times is defined by Scofield as the “seventh and last of the ordered ages which condition human life on earth, is identical with the kingdom covenant with David.”
- Just as Christ revealed the plan, everything will be brought together under Christ’s authority. Christ is the authority over everything as part of this plan. Bringing together the plan is done by Christ, and it is brought under the authority of Christ. Again, Christ is the key. This is referring to the dispensation of the Millennial Kingdom which is when “God’s purposes will be completed (fulfilled) and all things both spiritual and material will be under Christ and His rule.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]
- Words of location are used. Both heaven and earth are used as literal locations of where “everything” is going to come from. The verse uses the words “in heaven” and “on earth.” What is brought together “under” the authority of Christ will be “in” heaven and “on” earth. This will be “all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.”
2. Ephesians 3:9-11
In Ephesians 3:9-11 another emphasis is used as a way to develop the biblical view of a dispensational theology. Still writing in the “positional” type of context where Paul is defining a believer’s relation to Christ and describing things, Paul writes:
I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning. God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 3:9-11).
Similar to the Ephesians passage in chapter one, observations and interpretations of this passage will be made to show its dispensational theology:
- Again, a plan is described. This was a mysterious plan. The plan had been kept secret in the past, but now it has been revealed.
- The church is used to display God’s wisdom. The medium that God uses is the church. The church is how God explains his rich variety.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Scofield also agrees that the church is the method which God uses to display the revelations of the mystery of God. This is the new dispensation; the sixth and second to last dispensation.
- God’s wisdom is described as having “rich variety.” The adjective phrase “rich variety” in this verse does not refer to “the church” as some might interpret it that way. Instead, “rich variety” refers to God’s wisdom. Other Bible translations might better reflect this phrase such as the New American Standard Bible, “So that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10), or New Oxford Annotated Bible, “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). This rich variety of God’s wisdom is more specifically defined as the wholly new thing which was Christ’s body. Christ’s body formed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit was the rich variety. And Christ’s body through the baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the variety of the new relationship between Jews and Gentiles in one body.[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Through Christ’s baptism and the Holy Spirit’s work, this rich variety has resulted in the new relationship between Jews and Gentiles together in one body.
- The purpose of the mystery has been carried out through Christ. This new dispensation—the dispensation of grace—has been carried out through Christ. This is known because verse 11 says, “carried out” which is past tense and because the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles who believe was one of the results of Christ’s death.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]
Question: What do you think about dispensational theology? How has this blog post helped you better understand dispensationalism and how it is a biblical concept?