A Dispensationalist is a Christian who sees in Scripture certain clear divisions in the progress of revelation in which God governs history. At its best this is done on the basis of the covenants revealed in the Bible. A “dispensation” (Greek, oikonomia) is an administration or economy, wherein, within a certain period of time (known to God, but afterwards revealed to man), God pursues His plan through the lives of men. The term oikonomia is made up of two other words: oikos, meaning house, and nemo, meaning to administer, manage, or dispense. Literally, an oikonomia is a house-management or household administration. In its theological usage it is well suited to describe what we might call a divine economy. This is much the way the word is used in Ephesians 1:10; 3:2, 9; Colossians 1:25-26, and 1 Timothy 1:4. These passages also show that Paul held to the reality of certain dispensations in the broad sense given above.
Not unsurprisingly therefore, even Covenant theologians often speak of dispensations. For example, both Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof employ the term much like Dispensationalists do. Willem VanGemeren speaks of “epochs.” The number of these administrations is open to debate. Though commonly held, the seven dispensations articulated by C. I. Scofield are not the requisite number in order to be admitted into the ranks of Dispensationalist thinkers. The present writer, for instance, questions the theological value of some of these “economies” except perhaps as markers helping one trace the flow of God’s acts in biblical history.
A characteristic of Dispensational theology is the consistent use of what is called the “grammatico-historical” method of interpretation. Here ‘consistent’ applies in principle, although not always in practice. Whether dealing with biblical narrative, or poetry, or prophetic literature, the Dispensationalist applies the same hermeneutics to each genre. This certainly does not mean that the genre is ignored; clearly, for example, so-called apocalyptic literature is not the same as historical writing or wisdom literature. But Dispensational scholars do not believe that one needs to change hermeneutical horses midstream when one passes, say, from Matthew 23, (Gospel narrative), to Matthew 24-25, (which many scholars would describe as apocalyptic or at least prophetic). They believe that exploring the grammatical sense of a passage within its context, and throwing whatever historical light they can upon a text, will yield the intended meaning. To drift away from this is to get caught up in the currents of the academic fads of the day; whatever is or is not in vogue should not dictate biblical interpretation.
The supposition of the Dispensationalist includes a belief in the full inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, together with a belief that the propositional nature of Scripture. Propositionalism is best adapted when a statement indicates a “literal” or plain sense. Thus, Dispensationalists are adherents of propositional revelation—a position that is being affirmed less and less within the conservative community, as scholars make biblical interpretation more the province of the specialist than the “common man.”
The Importance of the Covenants of Scripture
Essential to the theology of all classic Dispensationalists are the Covenants of Scripture. These are the explicit and clearly recognizable covenants defined in the pages of the Bible. They include the Noahic Covenant; the Abrahamic Covenant; the Land Covenant; the Mosaic Covenant (which has been terminated); the Priestly Covenant; the Davidic Covenant; and the New Covenant. The principal biblical covenant for most Dispensationalists is the Abrahamic, out of which come those which follow. Because most of these are unilateral in nature (i.e. they were promises made solely by God and given to men) they cannot be rescinded or altered, since God can always be counted on to do just what He promises. Still, they may, like treaties generally, be supplemented by additional though never contradictory statements. An example of this would be the additional clarifications of the Abrahamic Covenant that one notices when reading Genesis 15 through Genesis 22.
The consistent application of the grammatico-historical method to these biblical contracts made by God with men leads to certain specific and undeniable expectations. Among these expectations is the one which, perhaps more than any other, distinguishes Dispensationalism from its main evangelical alternative, Covenant Theology. This distinguishing feature is the belief that there remains a set of incontrovertible promises given to the physical seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (“the Fathers,” Rom. 11:26-29).
These promises, confirmed as they were by irrevocable Divine Covenant (see especially Gen. 15 and Jer. 33:15-26), must be brought to a literal fulfillment; a fulfillment which includes a physical land, and a king on a literal throne in earthly Jerusalem. As far as Israel’s inheritance of these promises is concerned, any future restoration of Israel to their land will not be apart from the new birth (Ezek. 36:21-28; Rom. 11:5, 25-29). But the Divine favor for this “remnant” of ethnic Israel is based on God’s gracious unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob mediated through Christ via the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).
The Name “Dispensationalism”
It is because of the significance of these biblical Covenants that “Dispensationalism” is a rather unfortunate name. If it were not for the fact that it might cause some confusion with what is called “Covenant Theology” Dispensationalism would be more accurately identified as “Biblical Covenantalism.” Indeed, pursuing that idea and its ramifications has been a preoccupation of the present writer for several years.
This covenantal aspect of Dispensational theology can lend to it a powerful eschatological and teleological force, but this has not always been placed under the correct theological or hermeneutical controls. One example of this is the popular success of writers like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, authors who concentrate only on a populist approach to eschatology and who do not do justice to the whole discipline which is (or at least could be) Dispensational systematic theology.
Sad to relate, but much of Dispensationalism over the past fifty years has been held captive to this type of non-technical eschatological treatment. This has meant that serious development of Dispensational theology at the levels of exegesis, theological method, and philosophical explication has suffered greatly. Perhaps the most detrimental outcome of all this in terms of the thinking of many Dispensationalists has been the lack of exploration of the worldview implications of a full-orbed Dispensational systematic theology. This will be treated in another post.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.