Theology Thursday - Scofield's Dispensations

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.

  1. Man’s state at the beginning (Exodus 19:1-4).
  2. His responsibility (Exodus 19:5; Exodus 19:6; Romans 10:5).
  3. His failure (2 Kings 17:7-17; 2 Kings 17:19; Acts 2:22; Acts 2:23).
  4. 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. Summary:

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:”

  1. The time of oppression and misrule ends by Christ taking His kingdom. (Isaiah 11:3; Isaiah 11:4).
  2. The time of testimony and divine forbearance ends in judgment (Matthew 25:31-46; Acts 17:30; Acts 17:31; Revelation 20:7-15).
  3. The time of toil ends in rest and reward (2 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
  4. The time of suffering ends in glory (Romans 8:17; Romans 8:18).
  5. The time of Israel’s blindness and chastisement ends in restoration and conversion (Romans 11:25-27; Ezekiel 39:25-29).
  6. 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).
  7. 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).
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There are 15 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Much comes down to how you define "dispensation." If you broaden it to "a time when the situation between God and man was different in a lot of ways" you can easily come up with seven. If you define in more precisely -- well, either the number shrinks or the supporting arguments for some of the dispensations being dispensations gets dramatically thinner.

But I've rarely found -- in preaching and teaching ministry -- that it actually mattered whether the situation in the passage under study was a "dispensation" or not. What mattered was what the passage revealed about God, man, their natures, their relationship, and the unfolding of God's creation, fall, redemption agenda through Jesus Christ.

Probably too much energy goes into whether this or that era or phase or sequence of events is a "dispensation."

So my view boils down to this: maybe there are seven, maybe 5, maybe some other number. Does it matter?

Ron Bean's picture

Having grown up in a fundamentalist culture that considered Scofield's Bible and footnotes as authoritative to the point of banning the New Scofield, this is triggering my PSSD. For the last decade or so I've encountered brethren to whom dispensationalism is a sort of a test for close fellowship. When asked, they've responded that they are not talking about Scofield Dispensationalism but of a modified version, of which there are variations. Perhaps this is another term that needs to get a singular definition and be added to our dictionary.

BTW, is my wall-size Larkin's Chart still valid?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

RevJohnT's picture

According to Ryrie, a dispensationist is marked off by two characteristics:

1) He interprets the Scriptures using the literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and 2) He sees a difference between Israel and the church.  The number of dispensations is not significant.  What is significant, at least to me and it seems, to Paul is that in 586 B.C. Israel entered the times of the Gentiles (Romans 11:25).  Jesus was made "under the Law" and this time did not end until Christ fulfilled its demands. While that is certainly a change in God's stewardship, the Church age didn't start until Pentecost after the resurrection.  The number of dispensations seems to me to be a product of observation rather than Biblical interpretation.  God simply has more than one plan going on at the same time.

Larry's picture

Moderator

According to Ryrie, a dispensationist is marked off by two characteristics:

To be precise, I believe Ryrie was delineating the sine qua non of dispensationalism (not dispensationalists) and there were three, not two.

(1) The glory of God as the primary purpose of human history (vs. redemption);

(2) The consistent use of a literal hermeneutic;

(3) a fundamental distinction between Israel and the church.

Ron Bean's picture

Did Ryrie not consider the Rapture and essential part of dispensationalism?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

RevJohnT's picture

A Pretribulational Rapture is a byproduct of the consistent use of a literal hermeneutic and seeing a difference between Israel and the Church. 

RevJohnT's picture

You would never get a Reformed Theologian to admit to being redemptive rather than doxological.  I don't much see the difference between a dispensationalist and dispensationalism.  "Sine qua non" refers to the "essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary."

Larry's picture

Moderator

Did Ryrie not consider the Rapture and essential part of dispensationalism?

Not in the terms of was speaking of in that section.

Larry's picture

Moderator

You would never get a Reformed Theologian to admit to being redemptive rather than doxological.

Right, but a reformed theologian is typically going to say that the theme or overarching motif of human history is redemption, as in the redemptive-historical motif. 

I don't much see the difference between a dispensationalist and dispensationalism. 

One is a person and the other is a theological system.

The point is that dispensationalists (the people) may differ about certain things (such as the new covenant, the Holy Spirit in the OT, the nature of the invisible or universal church, the mystery form of the kingdom, etc.). Dispensationalism (the system) has room for dispensationalists to differ. But dispensationalism as a system hangs on those three things. It can be more, but not less.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Behold Scofield on Gen 12:1:

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.

... and on Jn 1:17:

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).

What think ye about the implications Scofield taught a works-based salvation under the Mosaic Covenant?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

RevJohnT's picture

One is a person and the other is a theological system -- And what followed both in my post and yours was essentially the same.  Ryrie's point is that what makes one a dispensationalist or a person with a dispensational theology are these "sin qua non" beliefs.  The number of dispensations arises out of observation and application arising out of these principles.

Ron Bean's picture

Tyler Posted:

Behold Scofield on Gen 12:1:

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.

... and on Jn 1:17:

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).

What think ye about the implications Scofield taught a works-based salvation under the Mosaic Covenant?

 

When I was being introduced (indoctrinated) into dispensationalism 40 years ago I encountered these footnotes in my Scofield Reference Bible and noticed that they were missing in my father-in-law's New Scofield. I asked my mentor and he assured me that my Old Scofield was correct. As far as my mentor was concerned this was part of dispensationalism. This began my retreat from the dispensational label while retaining the two/three Ryrie distinctives. Now I've been informed that those pesky Scofield footnotes no longer exist and that the number of dispensations is not a settled matter. It's no wonder I'm confused.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Paul Henebury's picture

Honestly I cannot agree that an essential component of dispensationalism is the glory of God.  The simple fact of the matter is that it is scarcely met with in dispensational books.  Moreover, men like Jonathan Edwards explicitly made it the center of their theology.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Ryrie's point is that what makes one a dispensationalist or a person with a dispensational theology are these "sin qua non" beliefs.

I think his point was that there are a great number of things that dispensationalists may disagree about because the position is not integral to dispensationalism.

But my actual point in posting was to point out that Ryrie had 3, not 2 and they were about a system, not about people.

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