‘Dispensations’?

Though every Christian confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, it’s no secret that we disagree about many other things, some of which are trivial matters of practice (like the kinds of songs we like to sing), but also some things that can have important implications relative to our core beliefs.  One big area of diversity among modern Christians is a way of understanding the Bible that’s known as Dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism holds that God’s history of interaction with humanity is divided into separate ‘dispensations’ during each of which: (a) God establishes a specific ‘administration’ (set of rules) to be followed; (b) humanity messes up; (c) God pronounces judgement; and (d) God then moves on to a new plan.  Seven dispensations are typically spoken of: (1) Innocence: from the creation of man till Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden; (2) Conscience: from the Fall to the Great Flood; (3) Human Government: from the Flood till the tower of Babel; (4) Promise: from Abraham till Moses; (5) Law: from the giving of the law on Sinai to the destruction of the temple in AD 70; (6) Grace: from the crucifixion of Christ through the ‘rapture of the Church’ (followed by the Great Tribulation); and (7) Millennial Kingdom: Christ returns to earth to reign for a thousand years, at the end of which there is a final judgement of those who are still rebels.

This scheme for dividing up the Bible is largely the work of John Nelson Darby, who was a leader of a British fundamentalist group known as the Plymouth Brethren in the 1800s.  Dispensationalist ideas got wide exposure in the U.S. in the early 1900s when Oxford University Press was looking to publish a reference Bible for the American market and chose the American fundamentalist preacher C.I. Scofield to provide the reference materials that supplemented the standard King James text.  This Scofield Reference Bible became (and remains) a very popular Bible because of its then-innovative features that included notes in the margins and cross-references in the central column.  Since Scofield was a disciple of Darby, it was thus his theories of Biblical interpretation that were the framework within which millions of Protestants studied their Bibles.  Today such dispensational theories are widely held by fundamentalist Christians and provide the context for the popular Left Behind book series of the late 1990’s which made the idea of the Rapture familiar to a wider culture.

This is a highly simplified summary of a very complex (and confusing) subject with numerous variations.  Most dispensationalists hold views that aren’t significantly different from traditional Christian teachings — apart from a fascination with end-time prophecies and the like, they hold conventional understandings of the Gospel. However, at the extreme there are some who draw conclusions that distort biblical teaching: that Christ’s teachings in the Gospels do not apply to Gentile Christians, for example, and that Baptism and repentance aren’t commanded for us.

There is an undeniable appeal for Bible-believing Christians to develop mental frameworks that organize our understanding of Biblical truth, and this can be very helpful for our understanding.  In fact, that’s why we Lutherans like to quote Luther’s dictum: “The Bible is the cradle wherein the Christ child is laid” as a guiding principle for correctly understanding Holy Scripture as a single unified narrative about God’s one plan for human salvation. Rather than seeing the Bible as being divided into various ‘administrations’ with different expectations, we instead focus on the unity of God’s plan of salvation from the Fall of Man till Christ’s return – a unity in which both Law and Gospel point us to trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice as God’s sole means of redemption for sinful humans of all times.

When speaking to an audience of diligent Bible students, Jesus said this: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)  In these words, Jesus both affirmed the importance of studying the Bible, and also warned about the hazards of being distracted from its entire point: God’s promise of a Savior who would redeem all mankind that put their trust in Him, and how that promise is fully realized in Jesus Christ, God’s own Word of Truth for all mankind.

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