I realize that the subtitle for this blog, combined with the above dispensational chart, puts me at a great disadvantage with most readers, since Dispensationalism has been so greatly criticized in recent years, not to mention the doctrine of a Universal Restoration. However, I believe that a balanced dispensational perspective reveals God’s plan for the ages, culminating in the final restoration of all, in a manner much more glorious, logical and consistent with the nature of divine revelation, than that of Covenant Theology or any other interpretive scheme developed thus far.
Covenant Theologians seek to discredit Dispensationalism based upon its recent origins. A fully developed dispensational interpretive system did not exist prior to 1830 when John Nelson Darby first developed it (perhaps overdeveloped it). However, Covenant Theology as we now know it wasn’t fully developed prior to the mid-17th century, less than two hundred years prior to Darby. Both schools of interpretation are of relatively recent development. New isn’t always bad. Often a more recent interpretive framework comes into existence because of the inadequacy of previous interpretive methods.
Most would acknowledge that the Reformation is still in progress and that we haven’t fully recovered all the truths lost to the Church during the Dark Ages. While a systematic theology wasn’t developed by the Early Church Fathers, Justin Martyr (110 – 165 A.D.), Irenaeus (130 – 200 A.D.) Clement of Alexandria (150 – 420 A.D.) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 A.D.) made some distinctions between different dispensations within the Scriptures. Early Post-Reformation scholars such as Jonathan Edwards (1637 – 1716), Pierre Poirot (1646 – 1710) and Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) also made dispensational distinctions.
Also, we easily forget that Dispensational Theology, Covenant Theology (or Replacement Theology) and New Covenant Theology, along with all their nuanced variations, are not infallible but simply interpretive frameworks formulated in order to assist us in rightly understanding the overall revelation of Scripture. Dispensationalists see the ages as being characterized by distinguishable dispensations or divine administrations, whereas Covenant Theologians deny dispensational distinctions, seeing God as relating to man based solely upon covenants. Their covenants are usually three in number: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.
Covenant Theologians would say that dispensations are not explicitly delineated in the Bible and therefore were imposed upon the Scriptures by Dispensationalists. However, in reality it is the covenants of redemption, works and grace which are not named in Scripture. Nevertheless, they would counter, saying that, while not mentioned by name, they are nonetheless implicit in the Scriptures.
However, it is not true that dispensations are not mentioned in the Scriptures. The word oikonomía, which is translated “dispensation” four times in the King James Version, appears in the New Testament nine times, and its cognates oikonomos and oikonoméo are used eleven times. The word oikonomos is a compound of oikos, “house,” and nomos “law or rule.” Strongs defines oikonomía as: “administration (of a household or estate); specifically, a (religious) ‘economy.’” What is confusing to some is that “dispensation,” being an old English word, is rendered “administration” or some other similar word. What Dispensationalists seek to emphasize by the use of the term is that God has been progressively revealing Himself to us through distinct administrations or dispensations in which God governs and relates to His people, or those of His household, in distinct manners through distinct progressive stages of development and revelation.
The dispensations of God are comparable to a father who has a different relationship and household rules for each of his children at distinct stages of their development. A parent does not relate to his adult son in the same manner as he did when he was a toddler, nor does he have the same house-rules for his son as a teenager that he did when he was eight years old. In the same manner, God’s dispensational government of humanity has been progressively changing according to our development from infancy in Eden to a mature man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).
I believe that even Covenant Theologians would acknowledge that God’s relationship with His people is distinct now from what it was, for example, in the days of Noah or in the days of Moses. However, they fail to recognize that God brought them from there to here in progressive stages or dispensations, as they incrementally learned and developed in revelational knowledge of Him and an understanding of the futility of a life lived independently from Him.
While it is true that not all dispensations are specifically named in the Bible, the two most significant ones are – the present Dispensation of Grace and the final Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times. We will be examining these with more detail later but here I would just like to point them out. Paul says concerning the great and final dispensation – the Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times:
“having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him.” (Eph 1:9-10)
To Paul the mystery was revealed that in the Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times God is going to reunite all in Christ, both which are in heaven and on the earth. While this will be looked at in more detail later, this is the greatest dispensation of all since it is the culmination of all dispensations. The truth of this mystery remains hidden even to most dispensationalists who tend to mistake this dispensation for the Millennium.
However, the Millennium, just as with all previous dispensations, ends in human failure and judgment. The mystery that was revealed to Paul is that it has always been God’s intention to reunite all in Christ – including all in heaven, on earth and even under the earth (cf. Acts 3:21; 1Cor 15:22,28; Php 2:10; Rev 5:13). I present the scriptural basis for the final restoration of all in my book, “The Triumph of Mercy.” This mystery remains hidden even to the Traditional Dispensationalist who teaches that the final dispensation will end with the vast majority of mankind eternally separated from Christ, rather than all being reunited under the headship of Christ.
In Ephesians we see concerning the present Dispensation of Grace that it was primarily Paul who was entrusted with its stewardship (oikonomía). He said:
“if indeed you have heard of the dispensation (oikonomía) of the grace of God which was given to me for you, 3 how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, 4 by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), 5 which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: 6 that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, 7 of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. 8 To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make all see what is the fellowship (oikonomía, “dispensation”) of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ” (Eph 3:2-9)
So, we see that Paul was entrusted with the new economy or Dispensation of Grace, also referred to as “the mystery of Christ” which was something unknown in prior ages. There was a change in the dispensation or economy of God. The previous Dispensation of the Law was given through Moses. It was a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, but now that we are in Christ we are no longer under the old schoolmaster or Dispensation of the Law (Gal 3:24-26; Rom 7:4,6). The Dispensation of the Law was administered through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ and Paul was entrusted with the stewardship of the Dispensation of Grace, which is nothing less than the life of Jesus, who is now our life, being lived out in and through us. The newly revealed mystery of this dispensation is “Christ in us,” and the stewardship of this mystery was given to Paul. He said:
“I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship (oikonomía) from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, 26 the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. 27 To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of THIS MYSTERY among the Gentiles: which is CHRIST IN YOU, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:24-27)
There is a great contrast between the prior administration or Dispensation of the Law and the Dispensation of Grace. The former brought death, whereas the latter gave life. The former ministered death to all hopes of self-salvation through the works of its Law, being called “the ministration of death” (2Cor 3:6-8). The latter Dispensation of Grace gives us the very life of Christ as our life (Gal 2:20-21; Col 3:4).
So, we have already seen that there are at least three distinct dispensations with each one progressively building upon the other until we finally all obtain to the fullness of Christ in the final Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times. Without discounting the fact that God also relates to His people through covenants, we can see that dispensations have an essential role to play in bringing to full fruition God’s glorious plan for the ages which culminates in Him being all in all in eternity (1 Cor 15:28).
The question remains as to how many dispensations or distinct administrations can be found in the Scriptures, and also what we can learn from them. Basically, a new dispensation is introduced when God establishes a distinct administration or new set of household rules in relationship to His people. Based upon this definition of oikonomía, Dispensationalists have generally seen seven dispensations from creation to the consummation. However, taking into account the Dispensation of the Fullness of the Times, which is the culmination of all dispensations – the first day of the new creation, I see eight distinguishable administrations in God’s plan for the ages. In the next blog we will seek to understand the eternal lessons which can be gleaned from each one of them.