Monday, 27 August 2007
Where is the Proof?
I use quotes on the word because, contrary to claims of dispensationalists, there is not a single verse in the Bible that uses this word - in the sense that they intend. If this is true then the case for dispensationalism is seriously damaged, seeing that their usage of that word is not based on Scripture. First we will list all eight verses that contain the word sometimes translated "dispensation", and then we will see if any of these can support the modern concept.
"Dispensation" is from the Greek word "OIKONOMIA". It is translated in the KJV as either "dispensation" (four times), "stewardship" (three times), and once as the noun in the phrase "godly edifying" (1st Tim. 1:4). A related word is "OIKONOMOS", translated "steward", "chamberlain" or "governor".
Here are the verses for "OIKONOMIA" with that word in ALLCAPS. Let's see where we can find this modern notion of the word as describing successive periods of time of God's dealing with mankind. The first three are from the same passage (Luke 16:2- 4):
1. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy STEWARDSHIP; for thou mayest be no longer steward.
2. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the STEWARDSHIP: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed.
3. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the STEWARDSHIP, they may receive me into their houses.
4. For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a DISPENSATION of the gospel is committed unto me. (1st Cor. 9:17)
5. That in the DISPENSATION of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: (Eph. 1:10)
6. If ye have heard of the DISPENSATION of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (Eph. 3:2- 3a)
7. Whereof I am made a minister, according to the DISPENSATION of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God; (Col. 1:25)
8. Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly EDIFYING which is in the faith; so do. (1st Tim. 1:4)
Those are the verses from which the concept of Dispensationalism must have some Biblical basis.
If the idea is not found in any of these then, at the very least, the claim must not be made that "dispensation" (in the modern sense) is a Biblical term.
So what is the modern definition of "dispensation"? Charles Ryrie ("Dispensationalism Today") defines it as "a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purpose". This definition is more subtle and careful than his later treatment of the actual divisions of time which he calls "dispensations". Paul Enns defines these periods as "different stewardships of man under God".
There is a certain circular caginess in both of these definitions.
Both draw on the actual meaning of the word ("economy", "stewardship"), but do not describe the modern use of the word in popular circles. It almost seems as if they realize that the Scriptural warrant for dispensations is not there. Anyhow, let's go through the verses and see where we can find justification for their use of the word.
Examples 1 through 3 are from the same passage, Luke 16:2- 4). To be fair to Ryrie and the rest, I don't think they would draw their definition from here. Here is person (the unwise steward) who was entrusted with property and proved unreliable. What he lost was not a period of time but that position of trust and responsibility.
Example 4 (1st Cor. 9:17) actually uses OIKONOMIA in a somewhat similar way than the Luke passage. Paul is entrusted with the gospel. He gets a reward for willing service, but even without the willingness he has the charge given him to preach the gospel. Either way this is no use of the word in the modern sense. It is a description of God's personal entrusting of Paul with a certain task.
Examples 6 and 7 (Eph. 3:2 and Col. 1:25) are similar to number 4 in at least one respect: they speak again of God's personally entrusting a mission to Paul on behalf of the saints. There is no evidence of God changing His general dealings with mankind on the whole.
Example 8 (1st Tim. 1:4) has an more complicated construction involving the word in question. But since it is not important for our present study, neither do dispensationalists use it as such, so we will pass this one by as well.
The Prime Dispensational Verse: Ephesians 1:10
This leaves us with example 5 (Eph. 1:10). This is the verse that seems the most serviceable for the dispensationalist's use, since it speaks more broadly about God's purposes, and is not just speaking of Paul's agency. Paul Enns seizes on the phrase "fullness of times" to find an end-times application, calling it "the summing up of all things in Christ". Here, he says, "is the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom".
Not so fast, Mr. Enns. The phrase "fullness of time" should ring a bell, especially for those who read their New Testaments in order. In the previous book of Galatians (4:4), Paul describes something that happened just a few year's prior to the time of his letter:
"But when the FULLNESS OF TIME was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law;"
Using the "literal exactness" that dispensationalists claim to use, they should interpret that phrase in the light of this cross-reference. The two phrases speak of the same time, the time of the incarnation and life of the Son.
Likewise, many see the "gather[ing] together in one all things in Christ" (Eph.1:10) as a future dispensation being described. However a consistent reading of Ephesians shows that this describes present beginnings of this gathering together. (See Eph. 3:5- 6; 13- 19).
So where is the scriptural proof of different dispensations? For the use of the word, at least, and for the claim that it is from the Bible, we find no proof at all. Yes, there were the former "times of ignorance" for the Gentiles (Acts 17), and Jesus spoke to His hearers of "this age" and "the age to come" (Luke 12:10), but these are nowhere called "dispensations".
My main point is that biblical concepts require biblical terms. If we are careful in this we are less likely, in our theology and in our life, to stray from the intent of God's Word. Also, if we are careful in our terms, we will be able to see through such elaborate and fanciful systems such as those devised by Doctors Scofield or Ryrie.
See also the related article: "Rightly dividing" examined biblically.