Dispensational theology is a systematic theology describing the outworking of God’s plans and processes to accomplish his purpose in creating. Dispensations are part of Dispensationalism, but do not comprise the entire system. Dispensationalism is a way of thinking about how God manages his household, a way to interpret the Bible, and a way to understand God’s basic purpose in his dealings with mankind.
Many people confuse a dispensation and Dispensationalism.
— “A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose [Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 28].
One might identify a dispensation in various ways. Erich Sauer provides several observations that help define how God changes his economies. He wrote, “a new period [dispensation] always begins only when from the side of God a change is introduced in the composition of the principles valid up to that time; that is, when from the side of God three things concur [Sauer, The Dawn of World Redemption, 194]:
— A continuance of certain ordinances valid until then;
— An annulment of other regulations until then valid;
— A fresh introduction of new principles not before valid.
There are several ways to name or number the dispensations. I identify the several dispensations with reference to the prominent persons and events with whom a dispensation began and ended. These are:
— Adam to Noah
— Noah to Abraham
— Abraham to Moses
— Moses to Christ’s resurrection
— Christ’s resurrection to rapture of the church
— Rapture to Christ’s second advent
— Christ’s Davidic-Messianic-Millennial reign to Christ the Judge at the Great White Throne Judgment (GWT)
— The eternal state (God eternally face-to-face with saved mankind) following the GWT
Certain dispensations might also be defined in terms of the covenants God made with mankind’s representatives.
—Adam to Noah (Adamic covenant)
—Noah to Abraham, (Post-Flood Noahic covenant)
—Abraham to Moses, (Abrahamic covenant)
—Moses to Christ’s resurrection (Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New covenants)
—Christ’s resurrection to rapture of the church (application of New covenant to individual Hebrews and Gentiles)
—Christ’s Davidic-Messianic-Millennial reign (fulfillment of Abrahamic, Davidic, Palestinian, and
—New covenants toward national ethnic Israel)
As may be seen from both lists, dispensations begin and end with a defining event that changes the economy of man’s stewardship responsibilities toward God’s revealed will.
Many people believe in dispensations and other parts of Dispensational theology, but cannot be described as Dispensationalists. Ryrie (Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 1995) states three absolutely indispensable parts of Dispensationalism. If a person does not hold to these three essentials, then he or she is not a Dispensationalist. These essentials are [Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39–40]:
— A Dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct.
— The distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics [interpretation] that is usually called literal interpretation.
— The underlying purpose of God in the world is the glory of God.
“The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain or historical-grammatical interpretation [the literal hermeneutic], and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all his dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well” [Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 41].
Any person identifying him or herself as a classical Dispensationalist should agree with the three distinctives that compose this definition.
Michael Vlach in his book, “Dispensationalism, Essential Beliefs and Common Myths,” presents “Six Essential Beliefs of Dispensationalism” (pp. 30–50, see for his very helpful discussion). These six are:
— The primary meaning of any Bible passage is found in that passage. The New Testament does not reinterpret of transcend Old Testament passages in a way that overrides of cancels the original authorial intent of the Old Testament writers.
— Types exist but national Israel is not an inferior type that is superseded by the church.
— Israel and the church are distinct; thus, the church cannot be identified as the new and/or true Israel.
— Spiritual unity in salvation between Jews and Gentiles is compatible with a future functional role for Israel as a nation.
— The nation Israel will be both saved and restored with a unique functional role in a future earthly millennial kingdom.
— There are multiple senses of “seed of Abraham,” thus the church’s identification as “seed of Abraham” does not cancel God’s promises to the believing Jewish “see of Abraham.”
Vlach’s later book “Has the Church Replaced Israel?” expands on these themes giving them greater clarity, scriptural explanation, and defence.
I highly recommend the books by Ryrie and Vlach. (Some information in this essay is from my book, James D. Quiggle, “Dispensational Eschatology, An Explanation and Defense of the Doctrine.”