Larry R. Oats
Maranatha Baptist Seminary
In the broad evangelical, there are three basic approaches to systematic Bible study, theology, and hermeneutics; each of these has multiple variations. They are the covenant, promise, and dispensational schools of thought. A controversy between their proponents exists because the approaches begin with different sets of presuppositions.
The covenant theologian sees God’s revelation and man’s history as an outworking of God’s redemptive purposes for mankind, especially through Israel. It adopts the word “covenant” from the Bible but uses it in a different time framework than those covenants recorded through the Old and New Testaments. It chooses, overall, a less literal approach to Scripture interpretation, especially prophecy, and makes no clear distinction between the Israel of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament. A modern modification is New Covenant Theology, which makes a complete disjunction between the old covenant and the new covenant. There is a modification of covenant theology based on the kingdom and its relationship to the covenants; this seeks to be a bridge between covenant and dispensational theology.
Promise Theology argues that the Old Testament is filled with promises about the Messiah and the New Testament is the fulfillment. It rejects the single covenant idea of covenant theology, but also rejects the multiple eras of dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism is an approach to theology and the Bible that is based on dividing history into “dispensations” or “economies,” which are seen as different phases of God’s progressive revelation. The word comes from the Greek oikonomeo and its derivatives, which are found about twenty times in the New Testament and refer to the management or regulation of a household. When used of God, the word means God’s sovereign plan for the world (see Lk 16:1-2; Eph 1:10, 3:2, 9; and Col 1:25).
The dispensational theologian sees God’s revelation and man’s history as a demonstration of God’s graciousness, with God’s main purpose being to glorify Himself rather than just redeem man. It chooses a much more literal interpretation of Scriptures, and makes the clearest of distinctions between Israel and the church.
This is not just an academic exercise carried out by obscure theologians. Some great practical implications are at stake. Both eschatology (study of prophecy) and ecclesiology (study of the church) are brought into question. Soteriology is affected. Theology Proper and Christology must be modified to reflect the purpose of God’s activity. Bibliology is affected. Hardly a doctrine of Scripture is beyond the reach of these contradictory views.
THE DEFINITION OF A DISPENSATION
“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.”
“A dispensation is a chapter of human history during which God deals with men in some particular distinctive manner according to the progressive unfolding of His will and His eternal purposes in grace.”
“A period of time, long or short, in which God is dealing with men in a different way than He has ever dealt with them before.”
“... a dispensation is a divinely established stewardship of a particular revelation of God’s mind and will which is instituted in the first instance with a new age, and which brings added responsibility to the whole race of men or that portion of the race to whom the revelation is particularly given by God.”
“A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose on the earth.”
For purposes of this syllabus, Ryrie’s definition will be adopted. It is to be understood that God’s purpose relates to the earth, the scene of His dispensational program. It is of some possible significance that the...