by Pete Garcia
Despite the mounting criticism, orthodox Christians are dispensational whether they admit it or not simply due to the very nature of our Scriptures. While many accept this reality and embrace it, many more deny it and vainly attempt theological work-arounds that end up failing on numerous levels. They fail because they are either overly complicated, or overly simplified and fail to grasp the enormity, simplistic intricacy, and beauty of our God’s grand design. Since the Bible in and of itself is Dispensational one thing must first be clarified; what defines Dispensationalism?
Dispensationalism, as defined by one of the foremost theologians on the subject, the late Dr. Charles Ryrie states; a dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose. Usually, when someone disagrees with your interpretation or doctrinal position on a given subject, the first thing they try and do is accuse one of adding non-Biblical ideas to the Bible. Except, you can’t do that with Dispensationalism. Dr. Ryrie continues:
The Greek word oikonomia comes from the verb that means to manage, regulate, administer, and plan. The word itself is a compound whose parts mean literally “to divide, apportion, administer or manage the affairs of an inhabited house.” In the papyri the officer (oikonomos) who administered a dispensation was referred to as a steward or manager of an estate, or as a treasurer. Thus, the central idea in the word dispensation is that of managing or administering the affairs of a household.
The various forms of the word dispensation appear in the New Testament twenty times. The verb oikonomeo is used once in Luke 16:2, where it is translated “to be a steward.” The noun oikonomos appears ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) and is usually translated “steward” or “manager” (but “treasurer” in Rom. 16:23). The noun oikonomia is used nine times (Luke 16:2, 3, 4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4). In these instances it is translated variously (“stewardship,” “dispensation,” “administration,” “job,” “commission”). (Link)
If one simply takes the Scripture at face value and uses the normal rules of interpretation i.e.…neither being overly literal, nor overly allegorical, but keeping the passage in context with the surrounding subjects, one cannot deny the differing eras and stages man’s had to progress from the Garden of Eden until today. Aside from the telescoping view we have of mankind’s history on earth from Genesis to Revelation, we can see the changes that Scripture clearly demonstrates how God administrates our affairs while at the same time, allowing for free will. At a minimum (and skipping a lot of divine details), a minimalist has to accept that there are at least two distinct periods of time man has existed in thus far;
1. The time before Christ came.
2. The time after His death, burial, and resurrection.
Given these two, if one were to take that logic one step further, then you would recognize that there is also a future eternal state. This now means that there are three distinct periods of time. But maintaining only three dispensations…grossly ignores and underrates the vast amounts of Scripture provided to us which says otherwise. A normal reading of Scripture demonstrably shows at least seven distinctive eras that are irrefutable if we simply take our Bible at face value:
1. Innocence: Adam and Eve physically walked with God in a state of innocence prior to their fall. (Gen. 1-3)
2. Conscience: Life after the fall of man, and up to the Flood was marked with unusually long life spans, no written Scripture, and abundance of human-angelic interactions. This same group also became so exceedingly wicked and corrupt, God had no choice but to destroy them by the Great Flood. (Gen. 4-6)
3. Promise: Hundreds of years after the flood, God created a nation by the calling of one man, Abram, from out of the land of the Ur of the Chaldeans, to the land of Canaan in which He made covenant with him (Abraham) and his offspring through his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob, of land, seed, and blessing. (Gen. 11:27-25:28)
4. Law: From the birth of a nation (Israel), to the rise of the Patriarchs, Exodus, and subjugation of Canaan (the Promised Land), lineage of the Messiah to Mary. (Gen. 8-Deuteronomy) From the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, up to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. (Matt. 27:51, John 19:30) This includes David, Solomon, the Prophets, Babylonian captivity, and lineage of the Messiah to Mary. (Exodus 19-Gospels)
5. The Church: The current age, beginning from that first Pentecost immediately after the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, until today. This is the time when Christ Himself is building the Church, which is a corporate, multi-membered, multi-generational, singular body, of which Christ Himself is the Head of. (1 Cor. 12:20, Eph. 5:23) This age ends with the Rapture of the Church. (Acts-Rev. 3:22, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, 1 Cor. 15:51-55)
6. The Kingdom: This is preceded by the conclusion of the 70th Week of Daniel, and is initiated at the Second Coming of Christ, when Israel becomes the head of all nations, with Christ at the head of Israel. Nations beat swords into plowshares, wolf and lamb lie together, and lions eat straw, there will be no more war, and all nations pay tribute to the Messiah in Israel. This ends with the Final Judgment of the damned, and then ushers in the Eternal State. (Isaiah 11, 65; Ezekiel 40-48, Dan. 9:24-27,Rev. 20-22)
7. The Eternal State: The Millennial Reign of Christ (1,000 years) is the front porch if you will, of the Eternal State. Scripture does not record much on this, but what we know, is that we will be in our immortal bodies and forever with Christ. (1John 3:1-3, Rev. 21-22)
Minimalists (Reformed/Covenant Theology, etc.) would have you believe that there are only two dispensations, (of course they’d never call it that)…the one before Christ came and the one after. Yet, this structurally has a number of fatal errors which ignore logic and make sweeping assumptions…as if all of the way things are just came to be accidentally.
The first being that Jesus came to fulfill the Law, and He did so perfectly. Yet the law wasn’t given to mankind writ large but was given only to the nation of Israel as a conditional (if/then) covenant. But Israel first had to become a distinct people, thus necessitating their calling and separation from the pagan gentiles who surrounded them. Neither was Israel called all at once but through just one man and who through his immediate lineage would come to form the patriarchs of the nation Israel. Thus, we see a progression (or stages) by which God orchestrated His plan to be implemented upon mankind. In other words, there was a plan from the beginning.
The next false charge against Dispensationalism, is that no one ever taught it prior to John Nelson Darby in the 1830’s. Having already illustrated that the concept of Dispensationalism is clearly taught in Scripture, let us look and see if the concept of God working through different stages has any historical merit before Darby. Although the disagreed on a variety of things, to include the number of ages, many of the early church fathers also believed in distinct ages in varying degrees, with four dispensations being the most common. Dr. Thomas Ice in citing Larry Crutchfield, quotes in his extensive article A Short History of Dispensationalism:
Crude but clear, schemes of ages and dispensations are found in ante-Nicene fathers such as Justin Martyr (110-165), Irenaeus (130-200), Tertullian (c. 160-220), Methodius (d. 311), and Victorinus of Petau (d. 304). In every major area of importance in the early church one finds rudimentary features of dispensationalism that bear a striking resemblance to their contemporary offspring (” Ages and Dispensations,” 398).
Dr. Ice then continues to show how prevalent Dispensational thought was prior to J.N. Darby from the post-Nicene era onwards. Granted, the Middle (Dark) Ages lacked in abundant survivable teachings on the subject, but the Christian world then, was also under the iron fist of Roman Catholicism…and it wasn’t only Dispensationalism that suffered censorship, but also Pre-Millennialism, sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), owning your own Bible, etc. The point being, is that although J.N. Darby codified ‘Dispensationalism’, he didn’t invent it.
Although this topic has been covered numerous times, and the anti-Dispensational crowd continues to ignore history, I feel as though it’s still important to reiterate this from time to time. When one simply takes Scripture for what it actually says, rather than what we want it to say, one is forced to contend with the reality that God has orchestrated different parameters, given the differing circumstances man was under. The method of salvation has never changed (grace through faith), God has never changed, the only that did change was the conditions on the ground for man.
From Adam until Job, there was no written Scripture that we are aware of. Man lived for centuries prior to the Flood. Prior to Abraham, there was no Israel. Prior to Moses, the Law had not yet been given to the nation of Israel. Prior to Christ coming, faith was in the One who would come…although they didn’t fully understand who or when. We (the collective we), replete with full historical knowledge and a complete Bible, have become not only complacent but overly presumptuous about who and what we think we are.
Last week I laid out how the burgeoning gentile church began to assume the roles and promises of Israel, who since AD70 had been dispersed into diaspora courtesy of the Roman legions. And while it might have made sense to them back then, in the end, God proved faithful in keeping His promises to restore Israel back to the table of nations. (Isaiah 11:11; 46:9-10, Ezekiel 37, Amos 9:11-15, Luke 21:24, Romans 11:25-27)
Critics of Dispensationalism cite their hermeneutical approach as the more “scholarly” one. Evidently, it takes academic grooming to teach one how to completely disregard the literal meaning and redefine it so as to become relevant to their current conditions. Had the early church fathers, such as Justin Martyr or Irenaeus been able to see the rebirth of the nation of Israel some 17 centuries later, I doubt seriously they would have been as quick to conclude that the Church replaced Israel. More often than not, what we see doesn’t align itself with what Scriptures state will happen, and many are quick to make assumptions…yet despite the odds and despite the common wisdom of said day will offer, Scripture always comes through as promised.
In closing, I believe that we should model our understanding of Scripture in a literal manner. The prophet Daniel, for instance, understood literally, Jeremiah’s prophecy about their captivity being seventy years, and that their time was almost complete. (Daniel 9:1-2) He doesn’t attempt to apply some spiritualization or allegorization to the time frame, even though nothing in his current conditions would have led him to believe otherwise. His nation was conquered. Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple lay in ruins.
Yet, Scripture records only seventy years they would spend in captivity and seventy they stayed. When Cyrus the Medo-Persian king took over, he allowed the Jews to start going back, because his own name appeared in Isaiah’s prophecy (some 150 years earlier) and felt compelled to do so. (Isaiah 44:28) Dispensationalism is true, not because J.N. Darby deemed it so, but because that is the natural flow and outworking of God’s word…and no matter what, God’s word trumps everything else.
That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: Eph. 1:10