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.).