Dispensationalism Misunderstood

By Dr. Ken Blue

Dr. Ken Blue is pastor of Open Door Baptist Church, Lynnwood, WA USA, a community close to the metropolitan area of Seattle.

"Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15


Introduction

Before a child of God can move forward in serious Bible study, he must understand the different dispensations. Failure to understand the true teaching of dispensations has led many to make false applications of the Bible. Some, who do not understand the truth about dispensations, have attacked the teaching of dispensations and even refuse to believe they exist.

The purpose of this booklet is to answer these objections and to help the reader understand the true nature of dispensations. Perhaps a clear definition of the word at the beginning will help.

Definition: the act of dispensing or something dispensed; a specific arrangement or system by which something is dispensed. Moses dispensed the Law. The word dispensation does not mean a period of time. However, the dispensing of a particular message or ministry will usually have a beginning and an ending.

The steward of a household is given the responsibility of dispensing the affairs assigned by his master. Thus Moses was entrusted with the dispensing of the Law. He was God's steward of that dispensation. The gospel of the grace of God and the Church age was committed to Paul. It was his responsibility to dispense the good news to the Gentiles. He was God's steward for that dispensation.

With that understanding, it should be easy for us to identify the various dispensations within God's plan. We will know the difference between the Jew, the Gentile and the Church of God.

The History of Dispensationalism

As the decades come and go, so do the issues surrounding what the Bible actually teaches. One decade saw the battle over the virgin birth. The next witnessed a battle for the preservation of the King James Bible. The most recent debate is over the pre-tribulation rapture verses the "pre-wrath" or mid-tribulation rapture position.

Some critics assume that dispensationalism is a recent doctrine invented by Dr. C. I. Scofield, editor of the famous Scofield Reference Bible, and J. N. Darby; implying that dispensationalism is a doctrine of modern times and does not have Biblical authority. However, research will show that neither C. I. Scofield or J. N. Darby are the inventors of dispensationalism or the final authority on the subject.

From the first century, writers believed in different economies or administrations. Bible instructor Larry V. Crutchfield, of Baumholder, West Germany, has written an article titled Ages and Dispensations Of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. In it he points out that the Fathers of early church history believed in divisions of history based on God's dealings with man. He states, "Among those whose doctrine of ages and dispensations has survived from the Ante-Nicene period are Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and to a minor degree Victorinus of Petau."

Crutchfield says that "Barnabas' year-day tradition is the earliest budding of the dispensational understanding of God's dealings with man."

Justin Martyr (AD 100-165): according to Crutchfield, Justin believed in four phases of human history in God's program. The first was from Adam to Abraham; the second was from Abraham to Moses; the third was from Moses to Christ; and the fourth was from Christ to the eternal state.

Irenaeus (AD 120-202): The dispensational scheme of Irenaeus is four in number. They are: 1. From the Creation to the Flood. 2. From the Flood to the Law. 3. From the Law to the Gospel. 4. From the Gospel to the Eternal State. He taught that there were four zones of the world and of mankind. He saw a connection between these zones, the faces of the "four living creatures", the four gospels and the four dispensations.

"Some Fathers set forth only four such dispensations, others came very close to making nearly the same divisions modern dispensationalists do," says Crutchfield.

He continues, "Irenaeus, Victorinus of Petau, and Methodius' number of dispensations is artificially restricted to four ... the dispensations are most often spoken of the early fathers in terms of the prominent persons." He lists the persons as; Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ. "Dispensational divisions were customarily made along the boundaries of these five men's lives and times," concludes Crutchfield.

Scofield more closely follows this pattern. Dr. Scofield taught: 1. Innocence (Adam), 2. Government (Noah), 3. Promise (Abraham), 4. Law (Moses), 5. Grace (Christ).

It was John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) who first gave systematic form to the ages and dispensations. However, he was by no means the first to discover different ages and dispensations in God's Word.

We must thus accredit willful ignorance to those who reject the dispensational teaching of Scripture by ascribing the late date of the 1800 and 1900's.

The Scofield Reference Bible attempted to set in order the right divisions of God's purpose as Scofield understood it. There is very little similarity between the writings of Scofield and the writings of Darby.

We are obligated to search the Scriptures to see if the Bible teaches different administrations. If it does, we must embrace its teaching. If we find that the teaching of dispensations is not a Bible doctrine, then we are bound to reject that teaching.

OBJECTIONS TO DISPENSATIONALISM

1. It disregards the whole Bible

One major criticism of dispensationalism is that its adherents do not believe the whole Bible. It is assumed that when one divides the Word of God as instructed by Paul, he is to reject those divisions not specifically written for the Church age. For example, you will hear someone say, "those who believe in dispensations don't believe the book of James or 1 & 2 Peter. They don't even believe the Old Testament."

However, a belief in dispensations does not in any way affect one's belief in the whole Bible. Believers in dispensations also believe what God said from Genesis to Revelations. They believe the account of the flood to be literal and the call of Abraham to be historically accurate. The exodus, the conquest and the dispersion are all true accounts of God's dealings with Israel. The cries of the prophets are believed by all who understand the true teaching of dispensations.

An understanding of Biblical dispensations will acknowledge that the laws and diets of the Old Testament were given exclusively to Israel. They do not question Scripture which deals with that subject. A belief in dispensations in no way conflicts with one's belief in the tabernacle, the law, the priesthood and the covenants. It simply acknowledges that they were given to Israel and not to the church of this dispensation.

The Apostle Paul makes it clear that the above items were for the Jews. "For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen." (Romans 9:3-5).

One must distinguish between "application" and "interpretation." All Scripture has a historical, doctrinal and practical teaching. This is where the major misunderstandings are found. When we interpret a text, we must be true to the rules of interpretation. The place where the passage is located must be considered. The context rule must be obeyed. Who was speaking and to whom is the passage directed?

Finally, all Scripture should be take literally unless it does violence to the text. This is the departure point between the teaching of dispensations and those who fail to see their importance.

Many confuse application with interpretation. All the Bible has application. For example, Abraham was commanded to offer Isaac, his son, as an offering. He understood the command to be literal; applied God's word to himself and proceeded accordingly. As a result, he was called "the friend of God."

No one in this age, we hope, would be so foolish he would take a knife and offer his first-born son just because Abraham was commanded to. Yet, there are many "lessons" in this story we may learn and apply to our lives. We learn that God must be obeyed even when we don't understand His plan.

Strong faith must be exercised in God's Word. Finally, we must not put anything before God, even if it is our only earthly hope. That is application and is always in order.

We are expected to learn from every story in the Bible. We are not expected to duplicate the actions of those involved. For example, the Passover is a wonderful story of God's salvation of the nation of Israel. We are moved to worship Him because of His love, wisdom and power as demonstrated in the Passover events. None of us believe God expects us to observe the literal Passover as He did Israel.

The difference between "interpretation" and "application" is where much of the misunderstanding lies. One must believe in dispensations and still believe the whole Bible. We are commanded to rightly divide it. To be scriptural, we must also let the Holy Spirit speak to our heart and make application as He chooses.

2. Dispensationalism is against equal inspiration of Scripture

Some may think belief in dispensations places one portion of Scripture on a higher level of inspiration than another. Those who understand and believe the dispensational teachings of the Bible teach that the Pauline epistles are specifically for the Church, the body of Christ. They make a clear distinction between these and the Hebrew epistles or the four Gospels.

However, let us leave no doubt here. Bible believers do not place any portion of Scripture or one word of it above another. We believe in plenary inspiration, which means it is complete in all respects; unlimited or full. The word inspiration means "God breathed." A Biblical teaching of dispensations never questions full inspiration. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16).

God breathed out His Words. In fact, this is the way all words are spoken. There is no such thing as "partial inspiration" in the Bible. Many of those in the Bible were wicked people. However, the Scripture's record of what they said is accurate. The words which came out of their mouths were not spoken by God. Yet the record of what they said is true.

One example is the lie told by Cain. When asked by God where his brother was, he said he did not know. His words were lies.

We should note that it is possible for God to overrule even the words uttered by the wicked. That is, the words of wicked men can be the words of God. For an illustration of this, see Numbers 24:15-25. God is not limited.

Inspiration extends to the recorded documents. The receiving and recording of the "words" in the Bible are inspired by God. Therefore, the events recorded therein are a complete and accurate record of what was said.

The teaching of dispensations does not teach that parts of the Bible are more or less inspired than others. God preserved His Word for the English-speaking world in the King James Version. Inspiration does not apply to the originals only. All Scripture is given by and is equally inspired by God.

3. Dispensationalism is a departure from God's principles

Dispensations have beginnings and endings; principles remain steadfast. For example, Moses and Israel found grace in the eyes of the Lord while under the Law. "Thus saith the LORD, The people which were left of the sword found grace in the wilderness; even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest" (Jeremiah 31:2).

Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord while under the dispensation of conscience. "But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD" (Genesis 6:8).

Even Lot experienced God's grace while in Sodom. "Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life" (Genesis 19:19).

Grace is a principle of God and is as eternal as God Himself. He always has and always will show grace to His creation. However, there is a "dispensation" or a "stewardship" of grace, which was committed to Paul. It had a beginning and will have an ending. We call it grace because it extends to all without works, without the Jews or the law.

Another principle is that of the law. Although we are not under the dispensation of the law, we are not without law. Paul makes it clear that we are not only under law to Christ, we are also under the law of love and the law of the land. "Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10; see also Romans 13:1-6). We know of no one who teaches that transference from one administration to another absolves him of God's abiding principles.

The conscience should not be ignored just because we are under the administration of grace. Let no one assume that the move from the Old Testament to the New Testament is a move from abiding principles. However, there is a difference between dispensations and principles.

4. Dispensationalism is an abandonment of local church practices

Hyper-dispensationalism abandons many church practices. Some forsake the local church. They teach that the church started after Acts 28 and that Paul was not sent to baptize: therefore, baptism has no place in the Church age.

However, this abuse of a Bible truth is not a license to reject the true teaching about dispensations. Paul did baptize some of his converts. He, himself, was also baptized. He baptized the Philippian jailer. He gave a list of some whom he had baptized at Corinth. He confessed that there were others whose names he could not remember.

Paul's baptism has a different significance than that of John the Baptist. However, there is no scriptural grounds for rejecting water baptism today.

Hyper-dispensationalists also reject the Lord's Supper, assuming it to be a Jewish rite. Yet it is the Apostle Paul who gave instruction to a Gentile church at Corinth on its order and purpose. Water baptism and the Lord's Supper are local church ordinances and should be practiced as the Lord commanded.

Many who reject dispensations are guilty of the same mistake the "Hypers" make. The Hypers throw out the local church practices mentioned above. Others throw out all dispensations and make ship wreck.

5. Dispensationalism is in opposition to the scope of scripture

In order to arrive at some systematic conclusion about God's eternal plan, we must make some observations. We must first consider the structure of the Bible itself. It is the parts that make the whole. We believe the structure provided by J. Edwin Hartill in his Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics (page 9) will shed light on the importance of Biblical structure. Although this structure may not be 100% accurate, it is not artificial or forced.

A bird's eye view of the Bible will be a great help in the understanding of the Word.

History - God's history of the past

1. Heavens and earths were created.

2. Satan's first rebellion.

3. Earth prepared for man.

4. The headship of the first man.

5. Man's subjection to Satan.

6. Mankind dealt with as a whole.

7. Construction of Babylon.

8. Israel called and blessed.

9. Times of the Gentiles.

10. The first advent of Christ.

11. The ministry of Christ covers life and death.

12. Church called out.

12. Church called up.

11. The ministry of the AntiChrist.

10. The second advent of Christ.

9. The times of the Gentiles - close of Tribulation.

8. Israel recalled and given blessing.

7. Destruction of Babylon.

6. Mankind dealt with as a whole.

5. God's subjection of Satan.

4. The headship of the Second Man (Christ).

3. Earth perfected for man.

2. Satan's final rebellion.

1. The new heavens and new earth.

The reader will notice that the italicized numbers answer to the numbers above. Also, God's specific dealings at different times are clearly seen.

There are three things to keep in mind as we study dispensations. These are:

A. Keep Israel and the Church distinct. Failure to distinguish Israel from the Church shows one's inability to make right divisions in Bible study. The distinction between Israel and the Church is as clear as the distinction between the church and the nations.

One should never ignore this distinction. "Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God" (1 Corinthians 10:32). It is clear that there is a difference between the Jew, the body of Christ and the Gentiles.

B. Dispensationalists hold to the literal principles of interpretation of Scripture. Someone has said that men spiritualize because they have no 'spiritual eyes.' The most dangerous method of Bible interpretation is that of spiritualizing a text or making everything a type.

Illustration: God promised Adam and Eve that the Seed of the woman would come. He did. Noah was warned of a flood. It came. Abraham's seed were promised a land. They received it. Moses was promised victory in leading Israel from Egypt; he did it. Rebellious Israel was warned of their coming dispersion; it came. The prophets promised Israel that God would return them to their home-land. He is doing it as we write. The virgin birth was foretold. It came to pass. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was prophesied. It took place. The destruction of the temple and of the nation was prophesied. It happened.

If these and hundreds of prophecies like them were literal and proved to be so, why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church? One opens himself to serious error when the literal approach to the Bible is rejected. A study of dispensations demands a literal interpretation of Scripture.

C. Dispensationalists believe God's purpose is much bigger than the salvation of mankind. God's purpose centers in His glory. Thank God for the cross! It was at the cross we get in on God's blessings and purpose. However, the cross is not the center or the end of God's plan.

The Bible is about God's kingdom and His Son ruling over it. There is a place for the Jew, the Gentile and the church of God in this eternal purpose. Those saved in this age are in the church, the body of Christ.

However, there have been and will be saved Jews and Gentiles who are not part of the present body of Christ. There will be a thousand-year rule of Christ on earth. During that time Israel will be the head of nations and Jerusalem will be the center of government. "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered together unto thee, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister unto thee: they shall come up with acceptance on mine altar, and I will glorify the house of my glory. Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?" (Isaiah 60:1-8).

We may call the dispensations by different names; however, their existence is obvious to this writer.

A major change took place after the fall of Adam and Eve. They were driven from a perfect environment and from unhindered fellowship with God. This was followed by an account of the flood. Thus we have at least two different administrations.

The next obvious change is from the call of Abraham to Moses. After that, the Law came into effect. Now there are four divisions. Only a Seventh-Day Adventist or a Jew would question that the Law ended with the advent of Christ. All professing believers accept a change at some place during the ministry of Jesus. If a change did occur, there are at least five clearly defined administrations in the Bible.

Believers may not be in agreement as to how this present administration will end, yet all believe a radical change will take place. Most believe a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth will follow. If so, six different economies are identified.

One may find more divisions than we have listed here; others may argue for fewer. Nevertheless, these listed do exist.

The scope of Scripture is determined by its structure and it structure demands that a dispensational view be accepted. Views may be extreme or moderate, but no less than seven dispensations can be found in the body of Scripture.

6. Dispensationalism is to be ignored by God's people.

Is a rejection of the dispensations a rejection of God's Word? Some who teach dispensations go to the extreme and should be avoided.

Any form of dispensationalism that rejects the institution of the local church, water baptism and the Lord's Supper, is extreme and must be rejected. However, to ignore the Biblical teaching about dispensations is to err in the opposite direction. Paul said that a dispensation of the gospel was committed to him. (1 Corinthians 9:17). He refers to the future dispensation of the "fullness of times" (Ephesians 1:10). He said that the dispensation of the grace of God was committed to him (Ephesians 3:2).

Thus to ignore the dispensations of Bible makes it impossible for one to obey 2 Timothy 2:15, and forces one to ignore 1 Corinthians 10:32.

The practice of 2 Timothy 2:15 requires one to seek the divisions in Scripture and obey them. A proper division between the Jew, the Gentile and the church of God, and a knowledge of which group one is in, should lead to those parts of God's Word which are intended for us.

Therefore, the study of dispensations cannot be ignored by any believer who hopes to study God's Word. However, hyper-dispensationalism must be rejected.

7. Dispensationalism is dangerous to your church and ministry.

Another objection to the teaching of dispensations is the belief that it is dangerous to churches. This objection seems good because many dispensational ministries are mishandled. This happens when one goes too far with a good thing. A classic example of this is the teaching of the Missionary Baptists. This group has taken the doctrine of the local church to the extreme. They reason that the local church is the bride of Christ. Next they reason that the local church is their Baptist Church. Their conclusion is that their Baptist Church is the bride of Christ. All other churches are excluded.

Certainly we would not reject the doctrine of the local church because a few Baptists or Catholics have abused its teaching. Although their teaching is sectarian and divisive, we must not let it dampen our zeal for the local church. Likewise, there are some who have gone to extremes when teaching dispensations and have done harm to their local church. Still, we dare not reject this Bible teaching because of abuse by others.

The Bible talks about a good thing gone too far. The book of Proverbs says one should eat honey because it is good. Yet too much of this good thing causes one to vomit (Proverbs 25:16). Here is a good thing which, when mishandled, results in sickness.

Extreme views on any doctrine are dangerous and must be avoided. We have seen Calvin's abuse of the sovereignty of God. The Church of Christ's view on water baptism has led to a false plan of salvation. The extreme view on the Baptist church by some has led to the view that only a few Baptists constitute the bride of Christ.

Likewise, some (Bullinger, Stam, Baker, O'Hair, Welch) have taken the doctrine of dispensationalism to its extreme. Hyper-dispenastionalists are usually hyper-Calvinists. This is a deadly combination for any church.

A church must be about the Father's business of soul-winning, missions and Bible preaching. One should keep the pulpit hot and the saints under conviction of sin, service, soul-winning, stewardship and the second coming. Don't shy away from seeking to rightly divide the Word of God. However, extremes must be avoided.

CONCLUSION

One must not neglect the important study of dispensations. The Bible clearly teaches their existence. Church history reveals that the early fathers believed in different administrations and economies within the Scriptures and that belief in them does not have a late date.

The teaching of dispensations does not lead one to the conclusion that other parts of the Bible are unimportant or uninspired. Dispensationalism must not be ignored by God's people, neither will it harm any church if it is taught properly and extremes are avoided.

The local church is to baptize converts and observe the Lord's Supper. We believe that the winning of souls and sending missionaries into all the world with the gospel is the main business of the Church. We are to feed the flock of God, edify the Saints and preach the Word. However, the only way these can be biblically obeyed is to rightly divide the Word of Truth. Obedience to that one command forces one to teach dispensations.


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