Understanding Dispensationalism

Guest Post by James D. Quiggle, ThM.

The concepts that make up dispensationalism are found in Scripture, and the core theological ideas that comprise dispensationalism have been around since apostolic days. The modern revival of dispensationalism began life as a prophecy movement in the late 1800s. Then, through the works of men such as Arno C. Gaebelein, C. I. Scofield, and later C. C. Ryrie, dispensationalism became a means of understanding the world as a household run by God. Dispensationalism is an organizing principle that gives a certain structure to the scriptures, and dispensationalism is the theology (study of God and Scripture) that derives from that certain structure.

Dispensational theology recognizes that God has worked out his purpose in the world in different ways at different times in the history of the world. This is not an unfamiliar concept. Hebrews 1:1–2, “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son” (CSB[1]). So we see that God worked in many different ways to reveal himself in Old Testament days, and in these New Testament days he has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ. So too has God used different ways at different times to work out his purpose in the world.

Dispensationalism identifies the different ways and times in which God is working in the world using the term dispensation. “A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose.”[2] An “economy,” in the sense the Bible uses the word “dispensation,” corresponds to the more archaic use of the word, i.e., the management of household affairs. “Dispensationalism views the world as a household run by God. In His household God is dispensing or administering its affairs according to his own will and in various stages of revelation in the passage of time.”[3] Restated a little differently, “A dispensation is from God’s viewpoint an economy; from man’s, a responsibility.”[4]

The difference between the days of Adam, the days of Noah, and the days of Abraham provide an example of three dispensations. During the days of Adam, before his sin, human beings were responsible to worship God and obey his commandments (1:3–3:6). After his sin God gave humans new responsibilities (Genesis 3:7–8:14), to “walk with God,” Genesis 5:22. But as human beings turned away from God, 5:5, God began to work out his purpose through one person, Noah, and his family. The responsibility of human beings during the time of Noah before the flood was to believe God’s warning of coming judgment and get in the ark to be saved.

After the flood God gave human beings new responsibilities, Genesis 8:15–11:9. Then, as the world began to be repopulated, God began to manage the world through his relationship with Abraham (Genesis 11:10–Exodus 18:27); and then through Moses (Exodus 19:1–John 14:30), dividing the world’s peoples into two groups, Hebrews and non-Hebrews (i.e., Gentiles). The Gentiles would continue under the responsibilities of the post-flood covenant God made with humanity through Noah. The Hebrews would develop under the covenants with Abraham and Moses to the time of Jesus Christ, when both groups became responsible to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, Acts 3:38; 10:44–48; 16:31; 17:31.

So, a new dispensation begins when God takes action to change the way in which he runs his household by changing the responsibilities required of human beings. As another has said, “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:[5]

  1. A continuance of certain ordinances valid until then;
  2. An annulment of other regulations until then valid;
  3. A fresh introduction of new principles not before valid.

We see this, for example, by comparing the change in mans’ pre- and post-flood responsibilities; and the change in Israel’s responsibilities toward the Law of Moses before Christ came and after Christ was crucified, resurrected, and ascended. Today, in the current dispensation, both Jews and Gentiles are required to believe on Jesus Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended for salvation from the penalty of due sin, and thereby receive eternal life.

There have been several dispensations in the history of the world since Adam was created. These are identified in various ways. I prefer to identify them by the prominent biblical person with which they began and ended. These are:[6]

Adam to Noah

Noah to Abraham

Abraham to Moses

Moses to Christ’s resurrection

Christ’s resurrection to rapture of the church

Rapture of the church to Christ’s second advent/Davidic-Messianic-Millennial reign

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)

Another way of identifying the dispensations looks like this:[7]

Name               Scripture                     Responsibilities                     Judgments

Innocency Genesis 1:3–3:6 Keep Garden

Do not eat one fruit

Fill, subdue earth

Fellowship with God

Curses, and physical and spiritual death
Conscience Genesis 3:7–8:14 Do good Flood
Civil Government Genesis 8:15–11:9 Fill earth

Capital punishment

Forced scattering by confusion of languages
Patriarchal Rule Genesis 11:10– Exodus 18:27 Stay in Promised Land

Believe and obey God

Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings
Mosaic Law Exodus 19:1–   John 14:30 Keep the law

Walk with God

Captivities
Grace Acts 2:1– Revelation 19:21 Believe on Christ

Walk with Christ

Death

Loss of rewards

Millennium Revelation 20:1–15 Believe and obey Christ and His government Death

Great White Throne Judgment

 

Most dispensationalists see seven dispensations, more or less as described in the table, above. The number of dispensations and the names are minor matters. Above the table I identified seven dispensations using the names of prominent Bible characters, and six using the covenants in Scripture. The number or names are not essential to dispensationalism.

What is essential to dispensationalism? Put another way, what is the sine qua non (a Latin phrase literally meaning “without which nothing”), what are the essential beliefs that identify dispensationalism from other theologies? Charles Ryrie has identified three essentials.[8]

  1. A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct.
  2. The distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics [method of interpretation] that is usually called literal interpretation, or historical-grammatical interpretation.
  3. The underlying purpose of God in the world is the glory of God.

The first principle of dispensationalism is to maintain the distinction between Israel and the New Testament church. By this principle the dispensationalist means God has a distinct purpose for national ethnic Israel and a distinct purpose for the New Testament church. Some theologies believe the New Testament church has replaced Israel in the plan of God, or superseded Israel in the plan of God, or that the New Testament church is “the continuation of Israel” in a new phase of its existence (the church is Israel).[9] While there is some overlap in God’s purpose for national ethnic Israel and the New Testament church—both, for example, will be present in the Davidic-Millennial Kingdom—each is a distinct entity and each has a distinct purpose in God’s plans.

 

Dispensationalism derives its view of Israel and the church by a method of interpretation usually known as the literal hermeneutic or the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. By these terms is meant the dispensationalist interprets the Bible according to the plain and normal sense of words and uses of language. For example, if I type “dog” or “cat,” the animal named appears in your mind’s eye. If I type “it is raining cats and dogs,” you do not picture dogs and cats raining down from the sky, but a rain so heavy no dog or cat would be caught outside—nor no sensible human. That is understanding words and language in the plain and normal sense. So, too, with Bible interpretation. Fire, for example, has a literal meaning, and it has a figurative (actually two figurative) meanings. Fire burns, consumes most things it burns, but may be also used to refine (smelt) metals. So the figurative meaning is judgment (consumes) or purification (refines). The literal hermeneutic is really an analysis of the historical circumstances of when the word was written and the people/culture it was written to, analysis of the grammar and syntax of the language, an analysis of the context of the passage in which the word is used, an analysis of the literary genre of the writing in which the word is used, a theological and doctrinal analysis of the passage, and comparing one’s result with other reliable commentators. The literal interpretation is really the “historical-cultural, contextual, lexical-syntactical, theological, and literary analysis” method.[10] But that is too long to say or write, so we will call it historical-grammatical interpretation, or, literal interpretation.

 

Dispensationalism views God’s purpose in the world as his own glory. God’s plan to save sinners is not God’s only program in the world, but only one means by which God will glorify himself. All the events of the created world are designed to reveal the glory of God. God has plans for the saved, sinners, holy angels, fallen angels, Israel, the church, those saved during the Tribulation, and those persons and angels entering the eternal age after the Great White Throne judgment (see Revelation 20–22). “The basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind is that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes.”[11]

 

Some believe the dispensational arrangement of history teaches different ways of salvation in the several dispensational economies. I will address this criticism in a second article.

 

 

 

[1] Christian Standard Bible (Copyright, Lifeway Christian Resources, 2017).

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism  (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995, Rev. ed.), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 30.

[5] Erich Sauer, The Dawn of World Redemption (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 194

[6] James D. Quiggle, Dispensational Eschatology, (CreateSpace, 2013), 3–4.

[7] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 54.

[8] Ibid., 39–41.

[9] Samuel E. Waldron, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto, A Friendly Response (Owensburg, KY: RBAP, 2008), 7.

[10] Henry A. Virkler, Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 76

[11] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 41.

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