A dispensation is "a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God" (Darby). Another view of Dispensationalism says that God uses different means of administering His Will and Grace to His people in different times and people groups in the area of Conscience, Law, and Grace (Scofield). C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) said there are seven dispensations: innocence, conscience, civil government, promise, law, grace, and the coming kingdom. They claim that the 'Dispensations' are not ages, but stewardships. No matter what label you give it, they are rooted in specific periods. Dispensationalists interpret the Bible using these periods as their primary template and filter. Thus, they tend to skew Biblical principles and make their views by taking those principles out of context.
Dispensationalism is not necessarily heretical, nor does it move a Christian outside excepted Biblical Christianity or the "scope of orthodoxy." In addition, it is not essential for us to know or deny. It will, however, give misleading and wrong interpretations and promote a limited sovereignty view of God, such as He can only do certain things in certain times with only certain people. Of course, any Bible student must realize God is not limited and is totally sovereign! Sometimes Dispensationalism is compared to "Covenant Theology" and is divided by semantics. Other times it is divided by bad hermeneutics (bad interpretations).
Dispensationalism finds its popularity and modern roots in the Scofield Reference Bible of the late 19th century, which has been revised and is still very popular. There is an online version on our Bible Tools channel. This reference Bible has influenced the doctrinal beliefs of many churches, including the Baptist church, Fundamentalists, the Bible churches, and many non-denominational evangelical churches and seminaries including Dallas Seminary. Although Scofield did not come up with it, he built on what was founded, developed, and propagated by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) in his writings and commentary of the Bible. There is an online version of this on our Bible Tools channel also.
Dispensationalism also believes in a big distinction between God's plan for Israel and God's plan for the Church. Thus, the church did not start until Pentecost. And some say that the Jews have no role today. An honest reading of Hebrews and Revelation would clear that up! They also see and interpret any Scripture that would otherwise refute their view, as referring to another "division" of Scripture. As a result, Scripture is not interpreted in its context or as a whole, but as fragmented divisions that applied only to certain times and places. It is difficult to argue with them since their premise of Biblical interpretation is flawed, and they rule out any passage that disagrees with their position, stating that it does not apply.
A more proper Biblical understanding on what Dispensationalism is trying to communicate can be found in Covenant Theology. This is a system of theology that views God's dealings with man in reverence and reference to Covenants (contacts) rather than dispensations (periods of time). The two main covenants are between God and Adam (the start of the law, fully realized under Moses), and the "Covenant of Grace" between the Father and the Son (Heb. 13:20), where the Father gives to the Son the elect, and the Son must redeem us.Both of these covenants were made before the world and humanity began. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Covenants, according to the earliest Middle Eastern traditions, had five parts to them:
1. Stating and recognizing the parties involved.
2. A chronological introduction on why the contact was established.
3. The circumstances and principles of the contract.
4. The rewards and punishments in keeping or breaking the contract.
5. Distribution of the contract where each party receives a copy of the agreement (much the same as we have today).
The quintessential covenant in Scripture is the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments! The purpose of the covenants that God has made with us through time is to establish who He is, our responsibility toward Him and others around us, and to convey His promises, of which we are the ultimate beneficiaries. We receive eternal promises and blessings through His covenants of grace. (Gen. 2:16-17; 9:1-17; 15:18; 26:3-5; Gal. 3:16-18; Luke 1:68-79; Heb. 13:20) Other covenants can be found in Scripture between God and Noah, God and Abraham, and God and Moses.
All Biblical theologians will recognize that God works differently through the Law than through Grace. That is how Dispensationalism came in. Even Jonathan Edwards makes these distinctions. Many Dispensationalists see him as their father, but Edwards spoke of covenants, not Dispensationalism. The responsibilities given to humanity by God were different during the periods of Adam and Eve, the Law, and the Cross. The Jews were to show their faith by doing what God had commanded (Duet. 6). When they could not keep the Law, God allowed the sacrificial system for atonement. Salvation came to the Jews, not by keeping the law, because none of them could do it. Salvation came because they understood its true purpose of revealing sin, pointing toward the Cross to come, and their turning to God.
Unfortunately, many good Bible teachers, seminaries, and churches adhere to Dispensationalism out of ignorance, tradition, or bad mentoring. Most are just confused over the semantics of covenant verses dispensation, while others go overboard to the point of saying Spiritual Gifts are not for modern Christians and some even deny the role of Baptism, saying it was for the early church only. Again, as this is not essential salvation-based theological stuff, we can agree to disagree...
However, make sure you base your theology on what the Scriptures say, and not what you think they should say!
© 1998, 2002 R.J. Krejcir Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org/