Dispensations: Definitions, Explanation, Summary

I. A Few Definitions

  1. Charles Ryrie: “A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose” (Dispensationalism. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995. Page 29).  “Thus, the central idea in the word dispensation is that of managing or administering the affairs of a household” (25).
  2. Lewis Sperry Chafer: “Translated from the word oikonomia, meaning primarily stewardship, a dispensation is a specific, divine economy, a commitment from God to man of a responsibility to discharge that which God has appointed him” (Systematic Theology, Volume VII, Doctrinal Summarization. 122).
  3. Robert B Thieme, Jr: “A dispensation is a period of time expressing the divine viewpoint of human history. In other words, dispensations are the categories of human history, the divine outline of history, the divine interpretation of human history” (Dispensations, R. B. Thieme, Jr. Houston: Berachah Church, 1974. 8).
  4. The word “dispensation” is the King James Version translation of the Greek word οικονομια  oikonomia, which means  1. management of a household, direction office (Luke 16.2-4; 1 Corinthians 9.17; Colossians 1.25; Ephesians 3.2; 2. arrangement, order, plan (Ephesians 1.10; 3.9) 3. training (1 Timothy 1.4). (BAGD 559) Another word that has been translated age, world, and dispensation is αιων aion (Matthew 13.39,40,49; 28.20; Hebrews 9.26; 11.3). (BAGD 27)
  5. Dispensations are God’s distinguishable and chronological economies or administrations of human history during which he progressively reveals (gives written new revelation—The Old and New Testament) and accomplishes his plan. God has divided human history into basic administrations or economies. These are called dispensations. God gives revelation, privilege, and responsibility for each administration, some of which is different from the previous economy or administration. Each dispensation has unique doctrine, people, administrators, and events. Eternal salvation in every dispensation is always by God’s grace and through faith (Ephesians 1.10; 3.1-12; Genesis 15.6; Galatians 3.6-9; Ephesians 2.8-9).

II. Explanation

  1. Dispensationalism does not center on any specific number of economies or dispensations. Nor does it center on time periods beyond the fact that God works chronologically in and through human history. At bottom, dispensationalism is simply the recognition that God administers his will and plan through particular groups of people at different stages of human history. All will agree that God works through believers differently than he works through unbelievers. We can also see that he worked through Israel a little differently than he works through the church. In the future he will again work through Israel. These plans for the future envision a new and different economy. With these different stages God gives additional revelation and privilege, some of which is different from the previous economy or administration.
  2. What really distinguishes dispensational theology from reformed and covenant theology? First, dispensational theology is based upon a normal or plain interpretation of the Bible. Normal or plain interpretation means to read the Bible as any other book; the author means what he says; the Bible uses figures of speech; it uses parables; it talks of ideas, people, places, and events; when the author names a person or group of people or promises something to a person or group of people or predicts a specific event, one using a normal or plain interpretation will take the people, places, events, and predictions at face value unless there is something in the context to indicate a different meaning. From a plain interpretation we see that God, throughout human history, distinguishes between Israel and the Church. This is the second hallmark of dispensational theology. Israel and the church are two prominent groups of people through whom God works. Since Pentecost, God has been working through the church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 1.22-23). After Christ removes the church, God will resume working through Israel. The third hallmark of dispensational theology is that the primary purpose of God is doxological, that is, to demonstrate God’s glory and to reestablish his authority that was rejected by the fall of Satan and mankind. The salvation of people is a means, but it is not the primary purpose of history.
  3. During this present church economy God recognizes three kinds of people: racial Jews, racial Gentiles, and the church. The church is made up of believing Jews and Gentiles. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” Paul, in Romans 9.6, distinguishes believing Israel from natural or racial Israel.
  4. Furthermore, dispensational theology recognizes that racial Jews who believe in Christ as savior during the time between Pentecost and the rapture of the church (church age or church dispensation) become part of the church and come under the promises and blessings of the church. Both believing Jews and Gentiles share in the “in Christ” relationship, something unique to the Church. Paul wrote of this in Galatians 3.26-29: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ (Spirit baptism) have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”  This of course, refers to spiritual relationship to Abraham, not national or physical relationship. Paul said in this passage that Jews and Gentiles did not change or lose their physical identify; slaves did not gain physical freedom; males did not become females and females did not become males, and neither became sexless. All did gain positional equality in relationship with Christ.
  5. Another question may arise: Does Abraham’s offspring or seed mean that all believers become spiritual Israelites, ones who will inherit the covenants promised in the Old Testament to the Jews? The answer is no.  Paul has already explained in the preceding verses, Galatians 3.6-9, that those who believe the gospel, like Abraham did, become sons of Abraham. Faith is the common denominator. We would be more accurate to say faith sons of Abraham or spiritual sons of Abraham because of faith. Faith in Christ does not make one a spiritual Israelite any more than it changes a male into a female. Abraham, in Paul’s argument, was the reference point for relationship with God by faith in God’s promise. Spiritual seed are those who believe God’s promise about eternal salvation by faith like Abraham did. They follow in the footsteps of Abraham and are therefore called (spiritual) sons of Abraham. We conclude that during the church economy believing Jews and Gentiles become members of the church economy or church dispensation. This does not affect Old Testament Jews, nor does it change God’s plan for the Jewish people who live after the church age.
  6. Yet, God continues to regard unbelieving Jews (natural or racial Jews) as a unique people whom he will, in the future, call back to himself, and bless. They will believe in their Messiah and inherit their promised kingdom. Paul, in Romans 11, explains that during the present church age God has not rejected his people (Romans 11:2); he has a remnant of believing Israel in the church (Romans 11.5); and after the “fullness of the Gentiles”—which will not conclude until after the church age—he will call racial Israel to eternal salvation and resume his promised blessings to them (Romans 11:25-36). This was what Jesus was talking about when he answered the disciples question, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1.6). He answered that the kingdom will come later (Acts 1.7-11).

Concluding Summary

  1. Let’s put all this together: We can say that dispensations are God’s economies or administrations of human history (which naturally includes some chronology), and that God gives revelation, privilege, and responsibility for each administration. We can distinguish each dispensation is by particular revelation, people, administrators, and events. Paul wrote to this effect in Ephesians 1.10; 3.1-12 and Colossians 1.24-27.
  2. How many dispensations are there? The Bible distinguished law from grace in John 1.17. This is not saying that there was no grace in the period of law, only that now God has more fully revealed grace through Jesus Christ. In Acts 1.6-7, Jesus answered the disciples’ question about when he was going to restore Israel’s anticipated kingdom spoken of by the prophets and him. He said that, for right now, it was not for them to know the specific time. Therefore, we have three clear economies or dispensations: Hebrew law and prophets with its roots in Abraham, Grace, and Israel’s future kingdom. The only part of human history not accounted for is the time prior to God calling Abraham and forming the Hebrew nation. During that time God worked through specific Gentiles who believed him. So, we could settle on four basic economies or administrations or dispensations: 1) Economy of the Gentiles (Genesis 1-11); 2) Economy of Israel (Genesis 12-the gospels and includes Revelation 4-19); 3) Economy of the Church  (Acts-Revelation 3); 4) Economy of Christ or the Millennium, the rule of Christ on earth (Select OT Scripture such as Isaiah 11; Psalm 72; Daniel 2.4-45; and Revelation 20). This fourth dispensation, the millennial economy or administration, then becomes the eternal kingdom after the creation of the new heaven and the new earth (1 Corinthians 15.24-28; Revelation 21-22).