What is a “Dispensation”?
A dispensation is a historical era in which God has particular expectations of man. Each dispensation includes a test to see if man will fulfill the divine expectation. In each dispensation man fails due to his sinfulness. The dispensations are not means of salvation; rather, they are a means of blessing.
The New Testament writers were well aware of dispensations. On three occasions Paul made specific reference to particular dispensations (Gr. oikonomia = “economy,” cf. Eph. 1:10, 3:9, and 1 Tim. 1:4). The concept, however, is not limited to a particular vocabulary, and was expressed in various forms in many New Testament passages (e.g., Gal. 3:19; 4:1-5; Heb. 3:1-6; 7:11-25; 8:6-7; 9:15-28; 10:1-18; Rev. 20:4; 21:1-22:5). Some expectations apply to men in general, and some are specific to God’s people. For example, under the dispensation of the Law the Israelites were expected to observe the Law of Moses (the feasts, the priesthood, the sacrifices, etc.). The Gentiles were not under the Law, though they could voluntarily associate themselves with Israel if they wanted to participant in the blessings of the covenant, though this was not necessary for salvation. Under the present dispensation there is a different expectation: a new covenant is in force in which the burden of the Mosaic Law has been lifted (actually, fulfilled by Christ), and Gentiles have equal standing with saved Jews before God. To fully appreciate the difference, one must understand the dispensational characteristics of each era.
What is “Dispensationalism”?
Dispensationalism is a mode of biblical interpretation that gives appropriate consideration to dispensational context. After all, if we don’t know to which dispensation a passage applies, how can we properly understand what the passage means?
How Many Dispensations Are There?
Dispensational interpreters generally recognize seven dispensations in biblical history: They are:
Innocence -the creation of man to his fall
Conscience -the fall of man to the global flood
Human government -the global flood to the call of Abraham
Promise -the call of Abraham to the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai
Law –The giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai to the cross
Grace -the cross to the second coming of Christ
The millennium -the second coming to the dissolution of the present heavens and earth
Eternity (after the close of the millennium) is generally not regarded as a dispensation since the redeemed have been perfected and there is no dispensational test. It is, however, a distinct era both historically and theologically.
As can be seen from the list above, the natural breaking points in biblical history (creation, the fall of man into sin, the flood, the promise to Abraham, the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, the cross, the second coming) coincide with dispensational transitions. In other words, the dispensations are part of the very fabric of biblical history.
Misconceptions Concerning Dispensations
Misconception: What is true in one dispensation may not be true in another dispensation.
Some features introduced in one dispensation carry over to subsequent dispensations, some do not. Those features that do not carry over are valid only for the dispensation under which they were operative. For example, under the Law Israel was obligated to keep the Mosaic Law; however, in the subsequent dispensation (usually called “grace”), the church is not enjoined to keep the Mosaic Law (ceremonies, priesthood, sacrifices, etc.), in fact the point is explicitly made that we are not under the Law (Rom. 6:15; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 5:18). Of course, some features introduced in one dispensation do carry over to subsequent dispensations. For example, the principle of faith unto salvation, introduced after man’s fall, is still the only means of salvation. To know what features are active in each dispensation requires a careful study of each dispensation.
Misconception: Each dispensation involves a different way of salvation.
This is a common misconception; however, man can only be saved by faith in God’s promised Messiah (i.e., salvation by grace, through faith), so the means of salvation cannot differ from one dispensation to another. (The promise of a Messiah was made very early in human history, right after the fall, cf. Gen. 3:15.) The differences in dispensations are not about how man is to be saved, but about how he is to live, both individually and corporately, if he wants to experience God’s blessings.
Misconception: Some portions of the Bible aren’t applicable today.
It would be more accurate to say that some dispensational features are not applicable today, such as animal sacrifice. That does not mean that we cannot learn valuable lessons from how God dealt with man in past dispensations, or how he will deal with man in the future.
What Does it Mean to Interpret Dispensationally?
To interpret the Bible dispensationally means to give adequate consideration to the specific dispensational characteristics of a passage. This includes both the characteristics of the dispensation under which the passage was written, and the features of the dispensation concerning which the passage pertains. For example, a passage written under the Law might prophesy certain features of the kingdom age (the millennium), which is yet future. In order to understand the passage, the interpreter must understand the dispensational characteristics both at the time the passage was spoken (the Law) and concerning which the passage pertains (the millennium). To indiscriminately apply such statements to the present dispensation would be to take the passage out of its dispensational (historio-theological) context.
What Are the Key Features of Dispensational Interpretation?
- Dispensational interpretation maintains that the Bible must be understood in accordance with its normal/objective meaning.
- Dispensational interpretation rejects Replacement Theology (the idea that the Church replaces Israel in the divine program) and Realized Eschatology (the idea that the Church is presently living in the kingdom) as incompatible with a normal/objective understanding of the Bible.
- Dispensational interpretation recognizes that the plan of God accommodates more than one set of people, and that Israel and the Church are distinct entitles as is clearly set forth in scripture (cf. Rom. 11).
- Because dispensational interpretation follows a normal/objective understanding of the Bible, dispensational interpreters are invariably premillennial in their understanding of the return of Christ and the establishment of the millennial kingdom.
- Dispensational interpretation maintains that dispensational context is an integral part of the overall biblical context necessary to understand the Bible’s message. In other words, much of the Bible cannot be understood apart from its dispensational (i.e., its historio-theological) context.
- Dispensational interpretation follows the biblical scheme of history. For example, the Bible clearly states in numerous places that the kingdom of God on earth follows the second coming of Christ (Zech 14; Mt. 24-25; Rev. 19-20). Dispensationalism doesn’t adjust the interpretive process to get the order to come out differently, as does covenantal interpretation (i.e., covenant theology), which, except for the premillennial form, views the kingdom as occurring before the second coming.
Practical Steps in Dispensational Interpretation
The following steps presume that one has already applied the steps in grammatical and historical interpretation.
Steps one and two below presume a prior knowledge of dispensational history.
- Identify the dispensation under which the passage was composed.
- Identify the dispensation concerning which the passage pertains.
- Before arriving at a final interpretation consider how the above dispensational information bears on the meaning of the passage.
 An excellent introduction to dispensationalism and dispensational hermeneutics can be found in Dr. Chares Ryrie’s book, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded, Moody Publishers, 2007. See also: What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, by the author, (Chapter Three: “How Systems of Belief Affect Our View of the Future,” Biblical Reader Communications, 2011.
(Adapted from: How to Study the Bible: A Guide to Systematic, Exegetical Bible Study, by Sam A. Smith, 2016. For the print edition of the above book click of tap here. For the abridged PDF edition click or tap here. Also see: What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith, 2011. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged])