In 1909, a Congregationalist minister named Cyrus Scofield published his study bible, which Carl Trueman has called the most influential book of the 20th century. The notes in this study bible popularized premillennial dispensationalism for millions of Christians, and it still exerts a wide influence. His notes are characteristic of so-called “classical dispensationalism,” and (among other things) they emphasize a very hard discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. Indeed, a reader could interpret Scofield (and, later, Lewis S. Chafer) as advocating a works-based salvation under the so-called “Dispensation of the Law.”
His notes describing each “dispensation” are below. Some controversial aspects are bolded for emphasis and reflection:
Genesis 1:28 - The First Dispensation
Innocency. Man was created in innocency, placed in a perfect environment, subjected to an absolutely simple test, and warned of the consequence of disobedience. The woman fell through pride; the man deliberately. 1 Timothy 2:14 God restored His sinning creatures, but the dispensation of innocency ended in the judgment of the Expulsion Genesis 3:24
Genesis 3:23 - The Second Dispensation
Conscience. By disobedience man came to a personal and experimental knowledge of good and evil—of good as obedience, of evil as disobedience to the known will of God. Through that knowledge conscience awoke. Expelled from Eden and placed under the second, or ADAMIC COVENANT, man was responsible to do all known good, to abstain from all known evil, and to approach God through sacrifice.
The result of this second testing of man is stated in Genesis 6:5 and the dispensation ended in the judgment of the Flood. Apparently “the east of the garden” Genesis 3:24 where were the cherubims and the flame, remained the place of worship through this second dispensation.
Genesis 8:21 - The Third Dispensation
Human Government. Under Conscience, as in Innocency, man utterly failed, and the judgment of the Flood marks the end of the second dispensation and the beginning of the third. The declaration of the Noahic Covenant subjects humanity to a new test. Its distinctive feature is the institution, for the first time, of human government—the government of man by man. The highest function of government is the judicial taking of life. All other governmental powers are implied in that.
It follows that the third dispensation is distinctively that of human government. Man is responsible to govern the world for God. That responsibility rested upon the whole race, Jew and Gentile, until the failure of Israel under the Palestinian Covenant (Deu 28.- 30:1-10) brought the judgment of the Captivities, when “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24; Revelation 16:14) began, and the government of the world passed exclusively into Gentile hands (Daniel 2:36-45; Luke 21:24; Acts 15:14-17).
That both Israel and the Gentiles have governed for self, not God, is sadly apparent. The judgment of the confusion of tongues ended the racial testing; that of the captivities the Jewish; while the Gentile testing will end in the smiting of the Image (Dan 2) and the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46)
Genesis 12:1 - The Fourth Dispensation
Promise. For Abraham, and his descendants it is evident that the Abrahamic Covenant (See Scofield “Genesis 15:18”) made a great change. They became distinctively the heirs of promise. That covenant is wholly gracious and unconditional. The descendants of Abraham had but to abide in their own land to inherit every blessing. In Egypt they lost their blessings, but not their covenant.
The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law Exodus 19:8. Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage Exodus 19:4 but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.
The Dispensation of Promise extends from Genesis 12:1 to Exodus 19:8, and was exclusively Israelitish. The dispensation must be distinguished from the covenant. The former is a mode of testing; the latter is everlasting because unconditional. The law did not abrogate the Abrahamic Covenant (Galatians 3:15-18), but was an intermediate disciplinary dealing “till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (Galatians 3:19-29; 4:1-7). Only the dispensation, as a testing of Israel, ended at the giving of the law.
Exodus 19:8 - The Fifth Dispensation
Law. This dispensation extends from Sinai to Calvary—from Exodus to the Cross. The history of Israel in the wilderness and in the land is one long record of the violation of the law. The testing of the nation by law ended in the judgment of the Captivities, but the dispensation itself ended at the Cross.
- Man’s state at the beginning (Exodus 19:1-4).
- His responsibility (Exodus 19:5; Exodus 19:6; Romans 10:5).
- His failure (2 Kings 17:7-17; 2 Kings 17:19; Acts 2:22; Acts 2:23).
- The judgment (2 Kings 17:1-6; 2 Kings 17:20; 25:1-11; Luke 21:20-24)
John 1:17 – The Sixth Dispensation
Grace is “the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man… not by works of righteousness which we have done,” (Titus 3:4; Titus 3:5).
It is, therefore, constantly set in contrast to law, under which God demands righteousness from man, as, under grace, he gives righteousness to man (Romans 3:21, Romans 3:22; 8:4; Philemon 3:9). Law is connected with Moses and works; grace with Christ and faith (John 1:17; Romans 10:4-10). Law blesses the good; grace saves the bad (Exodus 19:5; Ephesians 2:1-9). Law demands that blessings be earned; grace is a free gift (Deuteronomy 28:1-6; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 4:4; Romans 4:5).
As a dispensation, grace begins with the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 3:24-26; Romans 4:24; Romans 4:25). The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation (John 1:12; John 1:13; 3:36; Matthew 21:37; 22:24; John 15:22; John 15:25; Hebrews 1:2; 1 John 5:10-12). The immediate result of this testing was the rejection of Christ by the Jews, and His crucifixion by Jew and Gentile (Acts 4:27). The predicted end of the testing of man under grace is the apostasy of the professing church; See 2 Timothy 3:1-8 and the resultant apocalyptic judgments.
Grace has a twofold manifestation: in salvation (Romans 3:24) and in the walk and service of the saved (Romans 6:15).
Ephesians 1:10 – The Seventh Dispensation
The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. This, the seventh and last of the ordered ages which condition human life on the earth, is identical with the kingdom covenanted to David (2 Samuel 7:8-17; Zechariah 12:8; Luke 1:31-33; 1 Corinthians 15:24) and gathers into itself under Christ all past “times:”
- The time of oppression and misrule ends by Christ taking His kingdom. (Isaiah 11:3; Isaiah 11:4).
- The time of testimony and divine forbearance ends in judgment (Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 17:30; Acts 17:31; Revelation 20:7-15).
- The time of toil ends in rest and reward (2 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
- The time of suffering ends in glory (Romans 8:17; Romans 8:18).
- The time of Israel’s blindness and chastisement ends in restoration and conversion (Romans 11:25-27; Ezekiel 39:25-29).
- The times of the Gentiles end in the smiting of the image and the setting up of the kingdom of the heavens (Daniel 2:34; Daniel 2:35; Revelation 19:15-21).
- The time of creation’s thraldom ends in deliverance at the manifestation of the sons of God (Genesis 3:17; Isaiah 11:6-8; Romans 8:19-21).
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?