Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Dispensations: What's the Difference?

Many times when a dispensationalist and covenantal theologian get together there can tend to be a bit of a confusing discussion that takes place around the term dispensations. The dispensationalist will say something like, “the idea of dispensations is in the scripture, how can you deny this?” The covenantal theologian will say something like, “we believe in dispensations, the idea of the old and new covenant is quite clear in scripture.” At this point the discussion will tend to get a bit sloppy unless the term dispensation is defined.

The term dispensation for the dispensationalists carries with it the meaning of “economy” or “house rules” by which God tests mankind. To the dispensationalist there are usually seven dispensations.

1. The Dispensation of Innocence. (From Creation to Adam’s fall)
2. The Dispensation of Conscience and Sacrifice. (fall of man until the flood)
3. The Dispensation of Human Government. (flood until the tower of Babel)
4. The Dispensation of Promises. (Babel until Moses)
5. The Dispensation of Law. (From Moses until Pentecost)
6. The Dispensation of Grace Abounding. (Pentecost until the rapture)
7. The Dispensation of The Kingdom. (the thousand year millennium)

In each of these dispensations God has different rules by which men are to live. The focus in all of this for the dispensationalist is the focus on the rules or laws set forth to test mankind. It looks at the different ways in which God expects men to live in each period.

For the Covenantal theologian (also known as Federal theology), the focus is the progressive revelation of the covenant of grace. Normally, as with Berkhoff and Charles Hodge, the dispensations are primarily broken down into the old covenant and the new covenant. But both theologians agree that the old covenant can be broken down into sub-divisions, as God reveals in different stages the covenant of Grace that he has made to save his people. Charles Hodge subdivides the old covenant into three different dispensations.

1. Adam to Abraham - the covenant is revealed through the promised seed that would come from mankind.
2. Abraham to Moses – God reveals further the covenant of grace by selecting Abraham as the head of a people from which the seed will come, as this progresses there is a clearer understanding through the type with the near sacrifice of Isaac.
3. Moses to Christ – Through the moral law God is further revealing our need for the covenant of redemption and through the Levitical law we see many types and shadows of how God was going fulfill this covenant of Grace.
4. Christ – the fulfillment of the covenant and the mystery revealed. This is also known as the new covenant.
(Hodge, by the way leaves, out the Noahic dispensation which earlier covenantal theologians held.)

So what is the difference? The dispensationalist tends to look at the law (God’s house rules for living during different dispensations), and the Covenantal theologian tends to look at the progressive revelation of the Gospel. So when both say they believe in dispensations they are thinking of completely different things.

I hope this is somewhat helpful. I'm currently going through a deeper study of these topic so I cannot say I have them completely worked out in my head. I'm sure there may be more to come.

God Bless,



At Wednesday, March 29, 2006 1:41:00 PM, Blogger Kim from Hiraeth said...

that was very helpful.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2006 4:43:00 PM, Blogger edwardseanist said...

Its a start Doug. I think that it is also helpful to know that dispensationalism has evolved over the years.

There are the Scoefieldish dispys, the "Revised" Ryrie/Pentecost dispys, and the "Progressive" dispys. One of the leading Progressive dispys is Darell Bock.

Of course, I believe Covenant Theology to be the Biblical answer. There are also those that hold to New Covenant theology (The Reformed Baptists: Dr. James White, Dr. Renihan etc.)

At Wednesday, March 29, 2006 4:55:00 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...


I agree! With the old-school dispensationalism of Scofield and Darby, the seven dispensations were actually seven different economies or ways in which God saved mankind. But this type of dispensationalism is rarely held today. Today we have a more progressive dispensationalism which tends to blur this point a bit. This is why theologians such as Lewis Sperry Chafer made statements to the effect that he really didn’t know how people in the Old Testament were actually saved. He had progressed away from Scofield’s interpretation, but where it lead him was to a somewhat unclear place. Many dispensationalists today have progressed even further from Chafer’s views. Where are they progressing to? It seems that many are progressing to re-description of covenantal theology.

At this point I am trying to get a really strong understanding of both systems before I make a strong stand for one of them, I obviously reject the old-school dispensationalism and lean more to covenant theology, but I'm still trying to get a good handle on some progressive dispy thought.

Any of your help is appreciated. That goes for people on both side of the discussion. I wasn't really familiar with the term "New Covenant theology" I'll have to look it up.

God Bless,


At Wednesday, March 29, 2006 7:19:00 PM, Blogger Gordon Cloud said...

Doug this was a good post. I am a dispensationalist. In response to edward I would say that all forms of theology have evolved over the years, not just the one he doesn't believe :).

You gave a good definition of a dispensation. The focus in this is more on how God deals with man than it is on the period of time itself. This is some of the progressiveness which you mentioned.

I believe that man has always been saved by the grace of God. Before the resurrection of Christ, those who died in faith went to Paradise as His blood had not yet been applied to the mercy seat of the "heavenly tabernacle". After His resurrection, he "led captivity captive".

I realize that this probably amounts to Cliff's Notes on Cliff's Notes on dispensationalism but this could turn into a really long comment if I go further.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2006 10:26:00 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...

Thanks Gordon,

Right now I am listening through 37 lectures on the divine purpose by S. Lewis. Johnson. He spent the first 5 lectures going over covenental theology now he is going to spend about 9 of them discussing dispensational theology. He speaks very favorably about covenental theology, but at one point he taught at Dallas Theological Seminary so his views seem to be somewhat progressive dispy. Although he is an outspoken Calvinist as many dispys at Dallas are. These lectures are free at if anyone is interested.

To be candid I've always been a bit skeptical over the idea of paradise vs. heaven in the O.T. But I see it as a very minor point that should not cause any division between believers. This is what is so confusing to me about dispensational theology, I seems to deal with so many different issues that most never really seem to get to it's essence. This is why I'm doing this study.

God Bless,


At Thursday, March 30, 2006 3:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug, I guess I am a dispensational guy. I, like Gordon, however, do believe that God has always saved by grace. For instance, "Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord", "Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness". Adam and Eve were certainly saved by grace. Samson, Jephthah mentioned in the faith chapter of the New Testament also most surely were saved by grace. All are saved by grace. There is not one who can save themselves. Covenant old or new does not save, nor does dispensational belief. It is all about Jesus. I agree with you that it is not something to break fellowship with fellow Christians.

At Thursday, March 30, 2006 5:56:00 AM, Blogger Simon said...

Hi Doug,
It seems you are on the same quest as I am.
Have you come across the idea of Biblical Theology which uses the progressive revelation idea but emphasises other patterns as well as covenant like kingdom.The Australian Evangelical Anglicans are very good on this, Graham Goldsworthy's writings are especially clear.

Will keep an eye on the development of your thoughts.

At Thursday, March 30, 2006 9:05:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Ritchie said...

Thanks Doug for this. Really. I have been meaning to study the differences between the two thoughts. One reason I wanted to study was becuase I was unfamiliar with the terminology and definitions so I wasn't sure which camp I fell under.

Anyway, clearning things up, I find that I fall under the Covenant Theology camp. You've provided me a little kick in the rear to move forward and study it on my own. Thanks.

At Thursday, March 30, 2006 10:45:00 AM, Blogger Doug E. said...


Thanks for your thoughts, they are always appreciated.


I've read a bit of Biblical theology. I read Herman Ridderbos and Gerhadis Vos (not sure If I've spelled his name correctly). I like the way they look to see primarily what the text meant to the readers of the day, but I also think it helpful to systemetize those truths once we understand the text. But in my opinion biblical theology comes first.


We seem to be on the same page, let me know of any of your discoveries if you do decide to dig into this topic.

God Bless,


At Thursday, March 30, 2006 7:58:00 PM, Blogger Rose~ said...

Good post, Doug.
I liked Gordon's comments. ;~)
It is great that you are trying to understand others. Todd (usernametodd) is doing the same thing. I respect you both for that.

At Monday, October 29, 2007 10:36:00 PM, Blogger Ephraim said...

This is a blessing to me...see some of the notes I found about dispensation. I totally agree that we are all save by grace through faith. The issue is FAITH...see notes below...

Doubtless the most frequently heard objection to dispensationalism is that it allegedly teaches several ways of salvation. This arises from wrongly considering each dispensation as a way of salvation (therefore, there are five, six, or seven ways) instead of inclusive administrative arrangements which included, among many other things, sufficient revelation so that a person could be right with God. It also comes from a misunderstanding of the use of "law" and "grace" as labels for two of the dispensations, as if to imply that these are two ways of salvation. However, dispensationalists have taught and do teach that salvation is always through God's grace.

The basis of salvation in every dispensation is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith is the true God; but the content of faith changes in the various dispensations. To affirm a sameness in the content of faith would of necessity deny progressiveness in revelation. Nondispensationalists may sometimes be guilty of reading the NT back into the OT in order to be able to achieve a uniformity in the content of faith.


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