Shawn Abigail, Ottawa, Canada [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Dispensationalism has always had its detractors. There are people who will speak out against dispensationalism, suggest that it is of little importance, or who will claim it is too difficult for the average believer to understand. But dispensationalism has been at the core of responsible Bible interpretation for centuries. Generations of believers have been blessed in their doctrine and Christian walk by an understanding of dispensationalism. And so it is fitting that another generation familiarize themselves with these basic principles. These are truths that the average believer can readily understand and be blessed by.
Rather than starting with a definition of dispensationalism, perhaps it is better to look at the natural divisions of scripture and see how they point to dispensational distinctives. The most basic division in scripture is the division between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Of course there are also natural divisions within the Old Testament. There are fundamental differences in the ways in which God dealt with man before the fall in the Garden of Eden and after the fall. Another fundamental difference occurs with Noah, and still another when God started dealing with one man and nation through Abraham. And, of course, when God gave Moses the Law on Mount Sinai, the way in which God dealt with man and revealed Himself had once again changed. There are also differences in how God deals with man in the New Testament. Though the New Testament is primarily the story of the church, literal Bible interpretation tells us that there is a future Millennium when Christ will rule on earth.
So, we see natural divisions in scripture. These different interactions have some features in common. For example, it is easy to see the importance of faith through the sweep of history. It is also easy to see that in each of these interactions between God and man, man fails. In whatever test of obedience God puts before man, man is incapable of obeying fully. So these interactions have some features in common. But in these interactions it is also clear that something is different. The ways in which God deals with mankind changes and God’s self-revelation increases in each of these interactions.
Now we need to think about the importance of literal Bible interpretation. In our everyday lives, we all need to be interpreters. We need to interpret each conversation we have, each letter we receive and each report we come across. To make sense of the everyday world, we employ literal interpretation. It’s the one system of interpretation that makes good sense. And so it is with Biblical interpretation. To interpret the Bible literally is the one system that makes good sense. The other main system of interpretation is that of allegorizing. Unfortunately, allegorizing can allow a person to make scripture say anything he wishes, and often goes against the ‘plain sense’ meaning of the Bible.
One of the most important implications of literal Bible interpretation is that we draw a distinction between the church and Israel. All Christians believe in literal Bible interpretation to some extent. This is why all Christians believe in the virgin birth and the deity of Christ. But where many Christians get confused is in the prophecies of the Old Testament which relate to Israel. Losing sight of literal Bible interpretation, some people confuse Israel with the church, and believe that the, as yet unfulfilled, prophecies and blessings about Israel must somehow apply to the church. But literal Bible interpretation makes good sense. For example in Ezekiel chapters 40 to 46 we read about a future temple in Israel. If we do not take the Bible literally, we are left with seven chapters of the Bible which never had any meaning and will never have any meaning.
So we see that literal Bible interpretation leads us to make a distinction between Israel and the church. The church does not replace Israel in God’s great eternal plans. However this distinction doesn’t just rest on the principle of literal Bible interpretation, but it is also the explicit statement of scripture. We read in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 32, ‘Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God’. Scripture is very clear; there is a distinction between Israel and the church. The church is not a spiritual Israel, does not appropriate the blessings promised to Israel in the Old Testament, and God still has plans for the nation of Israel.
But there is one more foundational concept that we must examine before we discuss dispensationalism in more detail. Some may think that God’s highest purpose is in the alleviating of human suffering. But while we are to follow our Master’s example in being merciful, Christians have a higher purpose. Others may think that God’s highest purpose is in saving mankind. But while the Gospel ministry is important, Christians have a higher purpose. Indeed, from scripture, we see that God’s highest purpose is that He alone must get the glory.
The definitive statement on God’s glory is Isaiah chapter 42 verse 8, ‘I am the Lord: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images’. We can reflect the glory of God. We can be instruments of the glory of God. But we have no glory of our own. In fact, God himself is our glory, as Isaiah chapter 60 verse 19b makes clear. This is a lesson Nebuchadnezzar needed to learn in Daniel chapter 4 verses 28-32. God’s glory is demonstrated in the salvation He provides, Rom. 9. 23. So, we can glorify God in His mercy. But we can also glorify God in His righteous judgement. An example of God being glorified in his righteous judgment is in Exodus chapter 14 verse 17, ‘I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen’ NIV. Note this well; God says that He will receive glory through the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. Because God will get the glory through His mercy and through His righteous judgement, God’s glory is a concept that transcends the salvation of man. And so it should be clear that God’s glory is more important than whether or not mankind is saved. So God’s glory is a concept that drives us to worship, Rev. 4. 10, 11.
What we have just examined is traditionally thought of as the three distinctives of dispensationalism. First, we follow the principle of consistently literal Bible interpretation. Second, there is a distinction made between the church and Israel. And third, God’s highest purpose is that He must get the glory. Having understood these foundational distinctives, we are now ready to think about dispensationalism proper. Dispensationalism is a theological system which rests on these distinctives and brings a unified order to the natural divisions we see within the Bible. By definition, a dispensation is ‘a distinguishable stewardship in the outworking of God’s purpose, where mankind or representatives of mankind are tested and found wanting in regards to God’s revelation’.
Dispensationalism is about stewardships. We can learn a great deal about the concept of stewardship from the parable of the unjust steward in Luke chapter 16. There we see two individuals; the master and the steward. The steward is entrusted by the master with specific responsibilities, to obey the master’s will and look after the master’s interests. If the steward does not adequately fulfill the requirements of the stewardship, the stewardship will be removed. It should also be pointed out that this concept of a stewardship is related to biblical mysteries, 1 Cor. 4. 1, 2. A mystery in a biblical sense is something that God has not previously revealed. So stewardships are related to God’s unfolding revelation of His will. Three specific stewardships are mentioned in the New Testament, using the English words ‘administration’, ‘stewardship’ or ‘dispensation’ to translate the Greek word oikonomia. Ephesians chapter 3 verses 2 and 3 makes it clear that in some sense God’s grace is currently a stewardship. We also see a future stewardship of the fullness of times, Eph. 1. 10, and at least one (and probably more than one) previous stewardship, Col. 1. 25, 26.
Now, let’s take everything we’ve learned and put it together. We see differences in the ways in which God deals with man, but how can we make sense of this as a single system? The answer is, through dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a theological system that understands the various ways in which God has dealt with man as a series of stewardships (or dispensations). Some of these dispensations are explicitly mentioned in Ephesians chapter 3 verses 2 and 3, Ephesians chapter 1 verse 10 and Colossians chapter 1 verses 25 and 26. Built upon the three principles of literal Bible interpretation, a distinction between Israel and the church, and a focus on God’s glory, dispensationalism brings an orderly understanding to our study of scripture. Most dispensationalists see seven dispensations in the Bible. In the next article we will examine the first three of these dispensations in detail.
To be continued
AUTHOR PROFILE: Shawn Abigail was saved while at university. He is married with three young children and fellowships at the Bridlewood assembly in Ottawa. He exercises a teaching and writing ministry in the area and is webmaster of www.brethrenonline.org