This is a theological system that substantially prevails among most evangelical Bible schools and at least three major evangelical seminaries. The word “dispensation” means a period of time in which God governs man in differing ways from age to age. An example would be God’s dealing with man during Old Testament times in contrast to His dealing during New Testament times. Therefore, virtually every professing Christian believer is in at least two dispensations.
The word “dispensation” occurs in Ephesians 1:10 which reads, “the dispensation of the fullness of times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ”. In Ephesians 3:2, it speaks of “the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you”. It is called a mystery revealed through Paul. Obviously, it refers to “the church age” and the Gospel centered in Christ. The “mystery” message had been “hidden in God” from the beginning of the world” (Eph. 3:9). Obviously, there is a Biblical basis as seen previously. Although it was not formally brought together in a systematic way until the mid or late 19th century, it became full-fledged in the 20th century. The beginning is associated with J.N. Darby and the so-called Plymouth Brethren. It became popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, using Isaac Watt more than Darby. Prominent evangelical preachers proclaim it (Ironside, McGee, etc.). It was an early influence on Billy Graham.
It was and is strongly attacked, particularly by Amillennialists and highly placed academics. Liberals attached it because it championed literal meaning of Scriptures. This means its plain, normal sense, including figures of speech. It does not deny the facts stated; nor, is it a “woodened literalism” or “letterism”. It is objective, consistent and unifying for the totality of Scriptures. It did not “spiritualize” or allegorize” the stated truths, bring about, a complete change of meaning.
Objectors alleged the following items:
1. It taught two ways of salvation, by law and by grace. This is false. Dispensationalism simply noted the differences between the Old and New Testament governing principles of man by God. It also distinguished Israel from the church. There was grace in the Old Testament, but also commands to obey. There are rules of conduct in the New Testament “age of grace”. Man is not saved to live as he pleases. In both Testaments, forgiveness for sins came because of blood sacrifice. In the Old Testament, there were symbols of Christ’swork. In the New Testament, Jesus was revealed as the fulfillment, “the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world”
2. It is recent in discovery, therefore suspect. The answer is whether it rests on Biblical statements, whenever the date was widely discerned. In fact, elements are seen in writings of the church leaders (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria). Poriot listed seven dispensations in 1719 and Isaac Watts listed five (1674-1748).
3. It is a separatist movement and inherently divisive. Certainly, theological systems of ideas have always caused disagreements even divisions. The Protestant Reformation divided the Christian world but what believer would object to this movement in the light of Rome’s abuses (sale of indulgences, ect.). It is not using to separate from doctrinally liberal groups which deny the inspiration and authority of Scriptures, as well as major doctrines of faith.
Most of the criticisms of the system are really directed against ultra-dispensationalism, an extreme of the basic ideas of dispensationalism, a basis under the leadership of E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913). They thought the church only began with Paul’s revelation of “the mystery of the church”. Only what he wrote is to be considered definitive for us in the church. Though differing in ideas about when the church began (Acts 13:41), the key point may be when Paul “turned to the Gentiles”. The Scripture indicated that the church began at Pentecost (Acts 2, 11:15, I Cor. 12:13) and was functioning before Paul’s conversion. Before that he persecuted the church.
Most dispensationalists today recognize seven periods of time, in which God’s governing of man takes differing forms. These are:
1. Innocence - From Adam in his first state, having only one prohibition (Gen. 1:28-3:41).
2. Conscience of decisions as being right or wrong after the Fall of man (Gen. 4:1-8:14) See Romans 2:15.
3. Civil Government - from Noah’s time until the Patriarchs (Gen. 8:15-11:9).
4. Promise, the covenant with Abraham to the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai.
5. Mosaic law, God’s commands to Israel to show them the major areas on sin (613 commandments), to convict them, not save them (Exodus 18:28).
6. Grace, the age of the church in which Jews and Gentiles are equally welcomed into the Body of Christ (Eph. 3:16,Gal. 3:28), extending from Pentecost to the Rapture (I Thess. 4:16-17).
7. Millennium, from Christ’s coming in glory (the Revelation) until the final rebellion of man against God. Rev. 20:2-7 shows this as a historical period, not an allegorical symbol. The end is described in Rev. 19:17-21.
The end times theology (eschatology) of dispensationalists centered in the pre-tribulation, pre-millennial coming of Jesus to earth as Judge. It distinguishes His coming “for the saints” (the rapture) from the coming “with the saints” (the revelation). It explores Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27). It explains the Tribulation as “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7) and divides it into two parts (42 months, 1260 days and two and a half times) being the last part. Above all, it takes Scripture literally in its plain, normal, non-allegorical meaning.