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DISPENSATION (Gr. oikonomia, law or arrangement of a house). A word that appears in the Bible four times, all of them in the NT (1Cor.9.17; Eph.1.10; Eph.3.2; Col.1.25). The first, third, and fourth occurrence mean “stewardship,” “office,” or “commission”—words involving the idea of administration (see niv for each). In Eph.1.10 (kjv), a linguistically difficult passage, the reference is to God’s plan of salvation that he is bringing to reality through Christ in the fullness of times (so rendered in niv). The idea of administration is involved here, too, but it is considered from the divine side. The stewardship, or arrangement, for the redemption of human beings is God’s. The NT, therefore, uses the word in a twofold sense: (1) with respect to one in authority, it means an arrangement or plan, and (2) with respect to one under authority, it means a stewardship or administration.

The modern theological use of the term as a “period of time during which man is tested in respect to obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” (Scofield) is not found in Scripture. Nevertheless, the Scriptures do make a distinction between the way God manifested his grace in what may be called the “Old Covenant” and the way his grace has been manifested since the death of Christ in the “New Covenant,” and there are accompanying differences in the requirements that God has for believers. Paul has this in mind when he speaks of God’s dispensations in Ephesians and Colossians. In God’s redemptive plan the era of law prepared the way, by types and shadows, for the new era of salvation through Christ, which in the NT is regarded as the climax of history (Heb.1.2).——SB


Scriptural use.

The Gr. word tr. “dispensation” occurs in three forms in Scripture. As οἰκονομία, G3873, it occurs in Luke 16:2 where it is tr. to “be a steward.” The noun οἰκονόμος, G3874, occurs ten times and is usually tr. “steward,” an exception being Romans 16:23, where it is tr. “city treasurer.” The noun οἰκονομία, G3873, which is the direct source of the tr. “dispensation” is used nine times and is tr. in the RSV as noted above. In each of these cases the underlying thought is consistent with the lexical meaning of the word; i.e., the process of managing or supervising the affairs of another or of a house.

In four occurrences (Eph 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col 1:25) the word has the sense of a divine stewardship or administration that is being accomplished by God. In this use the word takes on the significance of “plan” as well as “administration,” and is the foundation for further definition.

In Dispensationalism Today, Ryrie sees the passage in Luke 16 as characteristic of the use of the word οἰκονομία, G3873. He observes four pertinent features: (1) There are two parties involved including one who delegates duties and one whose responsibility is to fulfill those duties. (2) There are specific responsibilities involved in the arrangement. (3) A steward may be called to account for his administration of his stewardship. (4) A change may be made if there is unfaithfulness in the arrangement (p. 26).

Therefore, there seems to be two different uses of the word in the NT: the first as illustrated in the parable of Luke 16, and the second as the word comes to be used by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians when he speaks of the divine administrations of God manifest in his program on earth, with some writers making the earlier use illustrative of the latter.

Theological definition.

Based on the above use of the word in Scripture, theologians have given further definition to the word in its use as describing the unfolding of God’s program on earth. With variations dependent upon the system of the theologian, God’s arrangement with man upon which He is working out His plan is called a dispensation.

At this point unity of perspective concerning the term seems to end. The major division is between those who are called covenant theologians and the dispensational theologians. The covenant theologian sees the Covenant of Grace as the overriding unity of Scripture and uses the concept of a dispensation to speak of the manifestations of that covenant. Charles Hodge, for example, asserts that there are four dispensations after the Fall—Adam to Abraham, Abraham to Moses, Moses to Christ, and Christ to the end. These dispensations are simply the outworking of the Covenant of Grace (Systematic Theology [1946], II, 373-77). Louis Berkhof more typically speaks of only two dispensations—the Old and the New.

An alternative approach for this concept in covenant theology is to speak of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant without recognizing either as a dispensation. This approach is demonstrated by Buswell in his A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion.

The common characteristic of the covenant approach is that any change of administration is seen only as an aspect of the unifying Covenant of Grace. Thus its emphasis is soteriological and the change is more that of anticipation in the Old and accomplishment in the New than it is an actual change of administration.

In contrast to this methodology, dispensationalism develops its understanding of the progress of revelation as a series of dispensations, or arrangements with man that God has set forth in the course of history. The Scofield Reference Bible has been the primary popularizer of this approach.

Scofield defines a dispensation as “A period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” (p. 5). Scofield then distinguishes seven such dispensations in the Scriptures.

Other dispensational writers have not emphasized the time period aspect in their definition and have placed their emphasis on the nature of the arrangement. For example, Ryrie defines a dispensation as “A distinguishable economy in the outworking of the plan of God” (op. cit. p. 29). H. A. Ironside has stated, “There are various economies running through the Word of God. A dispensation, an economy, then, is that particular order or condition of things prevailing in one special age which does not necessarily prevail in another” (H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies, p. 67).

Historical uses of the word.

The above distinctions made by theologians today are not necessarily characteristic of the use of the word down through church history. Since the above difference is relatively recent, it may be of value to note how the word has been used in times previous.

According to Ryrie the earliest use of the word is by Justin Martyr who distinguished the programs of God while noting the uniformity of God’s righteousness. He also speaks of the present dispensation (Dialogue with Trypho, XCII). Berkhof identifies Irenaeus’ three covenants as dispensations but Irenaeus himself does not refer to them as such. He does refer to dispensations, and speaks of the Christian dispensation.

Augustine uses the word with some frequency and states in one place: “The divine institution of sacrifice was suitable in the former dispensation but is not suitable now....There is no variableness with God, though in the former period of the world’s history He enjoined one kind of offerings, and in the latter period another, therein ordering the symbolical actions pertaining to the blessed doctrine of true religion in harmony with the changes of successive epochs without any change in Himself” (To Marcellinus, CXXXVIII, 5, 7).

Post-Reformation writers who used the term in developing their understanding of Scripture were men such as Pierre Poiret (1647-1719) who wrote The Divine Economy. He had seven dispensations which, although differing from the contemporary forms, include one before the Flood, one to Moses, etc., down to the millennium which is the final dispensation. Jonathan Edwards published a volume in 1699 entitled, “A Complete History or Survey of All the Dispensations.” He includes four dispensations since the Fall but considers the millennium to be a spiritual fulfillment in the Christian Dispensation (II, p. 720).

Isaac Watts identifies five dispensations and defines the terms as follows: “Each of these dispensations may be represented as different religion, or at least, as different forms of religions, appointed for men in several successive ages of the world” (Watts Works, II, 625).

There is, therefore, a variety of uses of the term down through the centuries, preceding the modern period. If there is a uniformity of description of the dispensations in this list, it would prob. have two common characteristics. (1) God has worked in varying ways with people and (2) these ways are identified with successive time periods in God’s sovereign plan.

The current debate.

The current discussion about the nature of a dispensation grows out of the development of systematic theology since the Reformation. With the return to the Word and to evangelical theological growth, theology became much more systematic. Luther’s and Calvin’s work became Lutheranism and Calvinism and were gradually organized into full-scale theologies.

Out of Calvinism developed covenant theology with its organization of the progress of revelation around the Covenants of Works and Grace. Within the Covenant of Grace, the change of administration was noted as the Old and New Covenants or sometimes dispensations. This concept was intended to help organize and explain the differences that are found in the Old and New Covenants with reference to the manifestations of salvation.

The Reformation also brought a return to prophetic study, and there is a rise of belief in premillennialism that is characterized by some post-Reformation groups. As was illustrated in Pierot and Watts above, this was sometimes organized into a dispensational scheme.

In the 19th cent. a member of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby, began the process of systematizing and organizing these dispensational approaches into a systematic theology. Dispensationalism which resulted from this has come to be a significant force in American Christianity.

Ryrie defines the system growing out of this mode of thinking. “Dispensationalism views the world as a household run by God. In this household God is dispensing or administering its affairs according to His own will and in various stages of revelation in the process of time. These various stages mark off the distinguishably different economies in the outworking of His total purpose and these economies are the dispensations. The understanding of God’s differing economies is essential to a proper interpretation of His revelation within those various economies” (Dispensationalism Today, p. 31).

Therefore, the current discussion revolves around the proper use of the term theologically. The dispensationalist does not object to the Covenant theologian’s use of the word, but believes that he has not done full justice to the differences and development of the various dispensations. The Covenant theologian usually objects strongly to using the concept of the dispensations as the foundation for the unity of the Scriptures.

The primary objection to this latter use is that dispensationalism teaches two ways of salvation. A footnote to John 1:17 from Scofield is usually cited at this point. “The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as a condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ with good works as a fruit of salvation.” While the clear implication is that salvation in the OT is by works, not faith, contradicting the principle of faith, Buswell has well pointed out that this approach is not unique to dispensationalism but is also inferred in Hodge and Calvin (Systematic Theology, I, 316). There is a sense in which the Covenant of Works faces the same problem. It implies that man at one time could merit salvation by his works.

While there are passages of Scripture that may be interpreted to imply the possibility of salvation by works (e.g., Luke 10:28; Rom 2:6; James 2:14-26) it is clearly taught in Scripture that salvation is by faith alone. Therefore, later dispensationalists have rejected the inference of Scofield and insist that the various arrangements of the dispensations include manifestations of the faith that saves rather than being the source of salvation.

A second major objection to the dispensationalist structure is that it makes dispensations into time periods rather than stewardship arrangements. While it is admitted that the word οἰκονομία, G3873, refers to the arrangement and the word αἰω̂ν speaks of time, there is a close connection between the arrangement and the time in which it is in effect. Most contemporary dispensationalists do not include the time factor in their definition.

A third major criticism of dispensationalists’ use of the term is that it divides the Bible into time periods and fails to see the unity of Scripture. Berkhof has stated, “Since the dispensations do not intermingle, it follows that in the dispensation of the law there is no revelation of the grace of God, and in the dispensation of Grace, there is no revelation of the law as binding on the New Testament people of God” (Systematic Theology, pp. 291, 292). While there may be a validity to this criticism in some statements made by dispensationalists, most theologians holding this position state that in the progress of revelation there is unfolded the will of God in various economies. Rather than being terminated as a principle they grow or evolve into the next economy. The resulting process is like stair steps with each arrangement building on the preceding one, sometimes borrowing from it and usually adding to it. Thus, while there is always a manifestation of the grace of God, the dispensationalist states that the contemporary age is characterized by grace while the previous one is better described by the term law.

Another criticism that is often raised is characterized by Clarence Bass in his book, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism. It is his contention that dispensationalism is recent in church history and divisive within the church and by implication then, in error. While there is some validity to this argument especially in the life of Darby (see Bass, pp. 48-99), the implications of such arguments are not necessarily valid. The Reformation in the sense of church history is both recent and divisive. The key is that theology must be evaluated for its Scriptural support in a primary sense and for its impact in a secondary sense.

The number of dispensations

Covenant theology.

In this position the number of dispensations is widely varied. Buswell accepts none while Berkhof and most others accept two, Hodge contends that there are four in the Old Covenant and one in the New. The actual number really does not significantly affect the system.

Dispensational theology.

From this perspective the number of dispensations varies somewhat, although the seven held by the Scofield Bible are the most usual. Some minimize the early ones and combine conscience and human government, while others make the tribulation a separate dispensation and then the total may be more than seven.

The crucial distinction that makes dispensationalism’s approach distinct is to distinguish between God’s program for Israel in the past, particularly the law, God’s present program for the Church, and the future manifestation which is the millennium. Usually this scheme is accompanied by a belief that the Church will be raptured before the tribulation, further distinguishing the church age.


There is a distinctive branch of dispensationalism that further distinguishes the dispensations which is sometimes called Bullingerism after one of its early leaders, E. W. Bullinger. It is sometimes called the Grace Gospel Fellowship or the Worldwide Grace Testimony. While there is considerable difference among the adherents, their consistent tenet dispensationally is that they distinguish at least two dispensations in the current church age. They identify a Jewish church early in the Book of Acts and then a separate Gentile church later on. They often reject water baptism, but usually observe the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper. Their definition of a dispensation usually includes a strong emphasis on the aspect of time as well as the emphasis on the stewardship or economy involved.


C. I. Scofield (ed.), The Scofield Reference Bible (1909); L. S. Chafer, Dispensationalism (1936); A. H. Ehlert, “A Bibliography of Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra (1944-1946); O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (1945); G. E. Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (1952); E. Sauer, From Eternity to Eternity (1954); C. Stam, Things That Differ (1959); C. B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (1960); J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come (1964); C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (1965).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

dis-pen-sa’-shun: The Greek word (oikonomia) so translated signifies primarily, a stewardship, the management or disposition of affairs entrusted to one. Thus 1Co 9:17, the King James Version "A dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me," the Revised Version (British and American) "I have stewardship entrusted to me." The idea is similar in Eph 3:2 parallel Col 1:25 (the Revised Version, margin "stewardship"). In Eph 1:10 God’s own working is spoken of as "dispensation."