J N Darby is sometimes referred to as the father of dispensational theology. Whilst the thought was not new, and it is clear from scripture, there was in his time (and still is) a lot on muddled thinking amongst believers. Many teach that we are part of a steady continuum, with for example the church replacing Israel, and that Christ’s kingdom is present, and that the interpretation of periods is purely spiritual or figurative – sometimes called ‘covenant theology’.
In view of this, A Day of Small Things is presenting a short outline of what we mean by the term ‘dispensation’, and where we fit in now.
J N Darby’s teaching, and also that of many servants of the Lord, has been based on the understanding that Biblical history is divided by God into dispensations, defined periods or ages to which God has allotted distinctive administrative principles. Dispensationalists’ presuppositions start with the harmony of history as focusing on the glory of God and put God at its centre – as opposed to a central focus on humanity and their need for salvation[*].
The Word ‘Dispensation’
The word, οἰκονομία/oikonomia/Strong 3622— (Eph. 1:10), and translated “dispensation” there — is a compound word “house” and “law – the rules or administration, of a household, as in our word “economy. In the phrase, “dispensational truth,” it looks at the world as a great household, in which God is dispensing, or administering, according to rule of His own establishing, and in whose order He has from time to time introduced certain changes, the understanding of which is consequently needful, both to the intelligent interpretation of His word and to intelligent action under Him[†]
List of Dispensations
There are several lists of dispensations, and to my knowledge, Darby did not produce a formal list, but the classic view lists the following, each associated with a covenant between God and man[‡]:
Innocence– Adam under probation prior to the Fall. Ends with expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Some refer to this period as the Adamic period or the dispensation of the Adamic covenant or Adamic law. (Gen 1:28)
Conscience– From the Fall to the Great Flood. Ends with the worldwide deluge. (Gen 3:7)
Human Government– After the Great Flood, humanity responsible to enact the death penalty. Ends with the dispersion at the Tower of Babel. Some use the term Noahide law in reference to this period of dispensation. (Gen 8:15)
Promise – From Abraham to Moses. Ends with the refusal to enter Canaan and the 40 years of unbelief in the wilderness. Some use the terms Abrahamic law or Abrahamic covenant in reference to this period of dispensation. (Gen 12:1)
Law– From Moses to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Ends with the scattering of Israel in AD70. Some use the term Mosaic law in reference to this period of dispensation. (Ex 19:1)
Grace– From the cross to the rapture of the church. The rapture is followed by the wrath of God comprising the Great Tribulation. Some use the term Age of Grace or the Church Age for this dispensation. (Acts 2:1)
Millennial Kingdom– The 1000 year reign of Christ on earth centred in Jerusalem. Ends with God’s judgment on the final rebellion. (Rev 20:4)
[†]From Edward Dennet The Christian Friend, pp. 67-69, 1876, referenced by Huebner above.