Dispensationalism and Evangelical Hermeneutic and Culture

Maybe you have grown up in a Covenantal system, amillennial in orientation. Maybe your idea of Dispensationalism goes as far as what you’ve heard of Left Behind “eschatology,” or if you’re a little older; Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. Usually when Covenant theologians want to disparage Dispensationalism the first few words out of their mouth will have “Left Behind” or Hal Lindsey in them. But to me, if a theologian or biblical interpreter wants to “critically” engage something, he or she should go to the strongest point, the strongest voices available; it is here where a constructive criticism can take place. In that vein I thought it would be helpful, as we get started here, to take a look at the etymology of the word Dispensation; and further, to catch a glimpse at how this word works as definitive of the Dispensational system. To help us out, let me refer to one of those most prominent voices available, in the 20th century, in regards to articulating the tenets of Dispensational thought; here’s Charles Ryrie on the etymology of “Dispensation”:

The English word dispensation is an Anglicized form of the Latin dispensatio, which the Vulgate uses to translate the Greek word. The Latin verb is a compound, meaning “to weigh out or dispense.” Three principal ideas are connected to the meaning of the English word: (1) “The action of dealing out or distributing”; (2) “the action of administering, ordering, or managing: the system by which things are administered”; and (3) “the action of dispensing with some requirement.” In further defining the use of the word theologically, the same dictionary says that a dispensation is “a stage in a progressive revelation, expressly adapted to the needs of a particular nation or period of time. . . . Also, the age or period during which a system has prevailed. . . .”

The Greek word oikonomia comes from the verb that means to manage, regulate, administer, and plan. The word itself is a compound whose parts mean literally “to divide, apportion, administer or manage the affairs of an inhabited house.” In the papyri the officer (oikonomos) who administered a dispensation was referred to as a steward or manager of an estate, or as a treasurer. Thus the central idea in the word dispensation is that managing or administering the affairs of a household.

The Usage of the Word

The various forms of the word dispensation appear in the New Testament twenty times. The verb oikonomeo is used once in Luke 16:2, where it is translated “to be a steward.” The noun oikonomos appears ten times (Luke 12:42; 16:1, 3, 8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; Gal. 4:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) and is usually translated “steward” or “manager” (but “treasurer” in Rom. 16:23). The noun oikonomia is used nine times (Luke 16:2, 3, 4; 1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25; 1 Tim. 1:4). In these instances it is translated variously (“stewardship,” “dispensation,” “administration,” “job,” “commission”). (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 25)

And for a concise and too simple of a definition of Dispensationalism as a system of thought here is Ryrie quoting from the Scofield Reference Study Bible:

A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Seven such dispensations are distinguished in Scripture. (Charles Ryrie, “Dispensationalism,” 23)

This should provide a little more thickness of understanding for those who know nothing of dispensational theology. It has serious students who spent their whole lives in Evangelical seminaries in America (primarily) developing and articulating it for the masses. The basic idea of dispensationalism is that it is a “stewardship” and “testing” that God gives to man during a period of time in the progressive unfolding of salvation history; once man (like the Nation of Israel) fails at keeping the requirements of a specific dispensation, this triggers the start of a new dispensation provided by God for man to “steward.” This turns into 7 distinct cycles for the Classic and Revised Dispensationalist (and 4 cycles for the Progressive Dispensationalist — and for the PD there is actually a fluidity to the dispensations so that they build on each other like the Covenants in “Covenant Theology” — more on this later). We will, in the near future, outline the 7 dispensations that make-up Classic dispyism, and then also take a look at the 4 dispensations identified by Progressive Dispensationalists.

For most people, and American Evangelicals, who do not inhabit the environs of the bibliosphere; or who will never set foot in the hallowed halls of seminaries, like it or not, it is this kind of theology that still provides shape (interpretively) for most of them. Most Evangelicals don’t know a lick about N. T. Wright’s reification of Pauline Studies and New Testament Biblical Theology; they get dispensational premillennial pre-trib teaching Sunday in-Sunday out. In light of this I think it is important for theology and Bible students to still be sensitive to this reality (culturally), and understand the impact that this has had (and is having, less and less — simply because “self-help” sermons predominate Evangelical sermons nowadays more than back in the Ryrie days etc.).

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9 Responses to Dispensationalism and Evangelical Hermeneutic and Culture

  1. stevez says:

    Are you (or have you already?) going to also post an “evangelical Calvinism” for dummies? I am wading through your book but being long out of Bible College and seminary I am having to read with a Latin dictionary (as well as a theological dictionary – regular dictionary and Christian historical dictionary. I am enjoying the book however and look forward to reading your posts.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Stevez,

    I have a lot of posts on EC here at the blog; just go to my categories in the sidebar and click on the Evangelical Calvinism category. I don’t know that I have written EC stuff for dummies, yet; but maybe you’ll find something there that helps clarify things further. At some point folk have to do what you’re doing and appeal to dictionaries etc. and stretch; that’s what I did and am doing :-). Some ideas just cannot be reduced down to “popular” levels. But I would like to try and make this as accessible as possible; our book, though, is unapologetically academic in orientation (it was intentionally written that way).



  3. stevez says:

    Thanks, I will continue to plow through!



  4. Bobby Grow says:


    Let me know of any specific questions that come up as you work through it. That would help shape some of my posts in the future.


  5. stevez says:

    Just some background on what led me here. I have been a pastor for the last 5 years. I preach expositionaly through books of the bible. I have always held to the inerrancy of Scripture, in the original manuscripts of course, so that has always troubled me. I suspect that I was one of those conservative reformists who had elevated Scripture to the point of divinity. Last year I began preaching though the book of Matthew and when I got to the Lord’s prayer I had a bit of a meltdown, I got to the word “Father” in the Lord’s prayer and literally could not preach it. I have been out of the pulpit on sabbatical for 3 months now while I sort out what my problem is.

    The issue was that I realized I resented God as my Father, He didn’t really seem to love me, (at least from my perspective). I had done just what you point out in your book, I had separated GOd as my Loving heavenly Father from His expectations of me in life. I was a failure as a son, I could not please God and even though I know there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, I was more than willing to condemn myself. I know I don’t “measure up” which of course I know nobody does.

    But I seem to have taken all of Scripture as law, As because we are x, y, and z in Christ, we should now start to behave like a, b, and c. This has left me being legalistic, while knowing that I can NOT be legalistic because nothing I do causes God to love me more or less.

    So your concept of analogia fidei or analogia entis seemed to hit me right between the eyes, I had separated Christ from the Father. I had come to view God as one who puts up with us because He created us and is stuck with us, Viewing God as relational in eternity, viewing Him entirely as He is revealed in the Son while not a new concept for me, has been woefully lacking in my life.

    I don;t know when or why I went so far off the rails, I suspect it was bible college and seminary when God became more of an object to be studied rather than a God to be known. I do feel that within the theological principles you expound I may find where my thinking has gone wrong. I am just struggling to understand it and the logic of it all and more than anything get back into the pulpit with a better understanding of God’s amazing love for us

    (not trying to turn you into my therapist but just hoping to understand more completely your concepts of God and our relationship to Him)


  6. Bobby Grow says:


    Thank you so much for sharing that; I really appreciate your openess!! To me this is what this is all about; it is pastoral, even if garbed in somewhat academic dress.

    We are just starting the process of contracting for a second volume of EC. This next volume will deal with the questions I think you are interested in; of “so what?” So what does all of this theology imply, and how does it affect Christian practice and real life. So the mood of the next volume will be much more pastoral. It won’t be available for a couple of years, but Lord willing I will be blogging on “so what” in the mean time right here.

    Thanks again for sharing, Steve. What kind (denomination) of church do you pastor?


  7. Bobby Grow says:


    My background sounds very similar to yours. Here is a post I once wrote that describes my approach to Scripture: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/my-thoughts-on-inerrancy-and-my-doctrine-of-scripture/

    A little book you want to get your hands on (which I quote from in my personal chapter in the book and part of it serves as the prologue to our book) is: Andrew Purves & Mark Achtemeier’s “Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church, A Commentary with Questions for Study and Reflection. You can get it for cheap (I think) on Amazon (used). It fits into the issues you are working through, and in the kind of accessible and pastoral way that you are looking for. I can’t recommend this book more highly for you! Here’s the link at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Union-Christ-Andrew-Purves-Achtemeier/dp/1571530193/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1361311741&sr=1-1&keywords=union+in+christ+purves


  8. stevez says:

    Just ordered the book, thanks, I am pastor at an EvFree Church. I became convinced at some point that some of my “theological” views had led me to the point I now find myself in. Somehow divorcing Christ from the Father (although I have never preached this to be the case)

    I just finished Purves’ chapter, and realized i need to actually read some Calvin. Julie Canlis’ chapter speaks right to some of my my theological issues – This so far has been an answer to prayer and one again I hope I can fully grasp.


  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Cool, Steve … I think you will enjoy this little book! My dad pastored an EVFree Church for awhile when I was a kid. It is easy to fall into the trap of divorcing the Son from the Father (or subordinating), and see the Son merely as an instrument instead of the person of God. Our piety often offers cover for our failed and informing theologies; theology that we absorbed while in Bible College and Seminary, in particular. Theology that gives us the god of the philosophers (https://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/god-of-the-philosophers/) and not the Triune Christian God revealed in his dearly beloved Son!

    You should check out Julie Canlis’ most awesome book on Calvin (her PhD diss published “Calvin’s Ladder”). This is one of my favorite books on Calvin of all time (not an overstatement!). I did a review of it here: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/book-review-calvins-ladder-a-spiritual-theology-of-ascent-and-ascension-2/.

    Again, if there is anything you would like further clarification on, just make a comment here asking; or email me, and I will respond via post (for the benefit of others too), and hopefully provide more clarity and accessibility to this all for you and others.

    You aren’t in the Pacific Northwest are you?


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