Principles of Interpretation
This is the third article in J. Boyd Nicholson’s series on Principles of Interpretation. In it he deals instructively with the dispensations. The next installment in brother Nicholson’s helpful series will be on “The Principles of Prophetic Terminology.”
There is another word often used in prophetic discourses. It is “dispensation.” Some have called this word “a prickly irritant,” no doubt because of its careless and extravagant use by others. Augustine, the great theologian, said: “Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures are plain. An apprehension of the dispensations is vital to a clear grasp of God’s Word. Where these dispensations are not distinguished, there is only confusion in very important areas of God’s revelation.
However, this system of interpretation which has been called “Dispensationalism,” has had, and still has, some bitter opponents. Phillip Mauro called it “the leaven of dispensationalism” and stated that it “is modernistic in the strictest sense.” Daniel Fuller says dispensationalism is “inconsistent and unable to harmonize itself with Biblical data.” Many others have attached both it and the men who have held this view.
We can see that it is important then to settle in our minds the validity of this approach to the Scriptures. What then is a “dispensation”? The word appears in some form in the New Testament about 19 times and is variously translated, “stewardship,” “dispensation,” “chamberlain,” “governors.” The word itself, “oikonomia,” is a compound word from “oikos,” a house, and “nomos,” a law, and conveys the idea of the administration of a household on behalf of the owner. So the word “stewardship” readily comes to mind, and indeed in the A.V. the word is related to stewardship 11 times. What then are the characteristics of this arrangement?
There are two parties. One who delegates and one who discharges the responsibilities. There are specific responsibilities. There is a definite accountability as to how the duties were discharged. Changes may be made if there is unfaithfulness, and a stewardship may be ended by the owner, or changed.
We Might say, then, that a dispensation, in Scripture, is a Divinely established stewardship of a particular revelation of God’s mind and will, in which, those delegated are accountable to respond to God, during that period in which that stewardship is in force. A dispensation is not simply a time period, though of course it will be operative within certain bounds of time.
Can we then distinguish such dispensations in the Bible? Obviously, there are two main parts to the Bible, the Old and New Testament, or Covenant. These two covenants are in marked contrast. There are two distinct partnerships. In the Old, it is a Nation. In the New, it is the Church. There are two differing progeny. In the Old it is earthly, springing from Abraham. In the New, it is heavenly, proceeding from Christ. There are two diverse principles. In the Old, it is Law. In the New, it is Grace (John 1:17).
We can thus see from a superficial view of Scripture that there are at least two dispensations. However, a careful study will show that God dealt with men differently at different times and expected a specific response according to the stewardship of specific revelations of Himself.
The first, we notice, is that God dealt with man in INNOCENCY, and was given the stewardship, as regent, of “every living thing” (Genesis 1:28). He was accountable to God to rule and tend his charge with but one restriction. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not to be eaten of. So long as this stewardship was discharged faithfully, there was open communion with God. The rest we know.
After the “fall” (the spirit of man fell into the realm of the soul and became subject to its emotions; the soul fell under the domination of the body and its lusts; the body fell under the dominion of sin and its laws in the members; so the “fall” was complete), came exclusion from God and a new way of approach based on blood sacrifice and a new stewardship of MORAL RESPONSIBILITY. This dispensation climaxed in unrestrained evil (Genesis 6:5), which God dealt with by the judgement of the flood.
After the “flood,” God placed a new stewardship on man, that of HUMAN GOVERNMENT. The previous restraint had been internal; now came an added restraint, external civil government. This dispensation culminated in Babel and the scattering of the race, (Genesis 11).
After the “failure” of man to Govern under God, God did a new thing and began to form a nation through which He would bless the race. He called Abraham to father this nation and gave him an unconditional promise. Thus was entered upon the dispensation of PROMISE.
After the “forming” of the nation, the dispensation of Promise was superceded by the giving of the LAW at Sinai. However, this only added to man’s responsibility. It did not abrogate the principles of government: Conscience, that is restraint from within, or self-government; Human Government, that is restraint from without, that is Civil Government; Law, that is restraint from above, or Divine Government, all laid a burden of responsibility on man.
The history of Israel, as we know is a record of the continual violation of the law. They utterly failed to see that the law was not given to MAKE man righteous, but to show that man was unrighteous and to manifest the righteousness of God.
After the “futility” of the law to impart righteousness was demonstrated, God sent His own Son. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His Own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
How God is going to deal with man in GRACE. That is; apart from man’s vaunted merits or multiplied demerits, God is going to provide freely for man what no other system could provide, and that is, a complete salvation from sin, and unhindered entrance into the Holy Presence of God, and the realization of the fulness of life and the fulfilment of the purpose of existence.
This dispensation of the grace of God is where we are now, historically. God is calling a people out of all nations. These are known as the “ekklesia,” the “called out ones” or the “assembly,” commonly called “the Church.” The stewardship to which men are now responsible is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This age and dispensation will be brought to a close by a series of prophetic events beginning with the catching up of the Church. The raising of those “that sleep in Jesus” will unite, visibly, the whole Body for the first time in history.
This will bring about the onset of a series of events which will culminate in the “Day of the Lord” — namely the appearing of the Lord in power and glory to set up His rule on the earth and thus usher in the dispensation of THE KINGDOM. This will be the final stewardship of men on earth, when man at last will be given the privilege of perfect government and all its attendant benefits. Even in this, man will reveal the utter depravity of the human heart by rebellion under the leadership of Satan, for a brief spell. This glorious kingdom will ultimately be delivered up to God even the Father… that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). This is called “the end” in verse 24. Not the “finish,” but the ultimate goal, the consummation.
To fail to distinguish the difference in the dispensations, and God’s dealings with men in these various stewardships, is to confuse Law and Grace, Israel and the Church, the Coming of Christ for the Church and the Appearing of the Lord with the Church in power and great glory.
Sound principles of interpretation will enable the student to move from the Scriptures to his beliefs and convictions and not run into the folly of the reverse by moving from our convictions to the Scriptures, making them fit our pre-concieved notions.
Next - the Principles of Prophetic Terminology.