R-i-g-h-t… What’s a Dispensation?

What does Paul mean when he tells Timothy that he should “rightly divide” the Word of Truth?  (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)  Other translations say it differently: “handling accurately” (NASB), or “plowing a straight furrow” (Phillips).  The word in the Greek language is orthotomounta.  The first part of this word, ortho, is a Greek prefix used to indicate relative position.  Similar Greek prefixes are para (along side) and meta (with).  Ortho means upright, straight, or in a moral context, right or correct.

The second part of this Greek word is tomounta, which is derived from tomos, which is in turn derived from temnw.  All three describe the action of the edge of a razor-sharp knife.  Modern science has given us the ability to see what is inside the human body as if it were cut into many thin slices, known as a CAT scan.  CAT stands for Computer Assisted Tomography.

Recouple ortho and tomounta and you get the idea of doing to the Bible (at God’s direction, no less) what a CAT scan does to the human body.  The implication is that the Word of God is intended to be broken into clear divisions if it is to be understood rightly.  There are many different schools of thought on how this should be done.  Some look at the layout of the Bible and see testament, book, chapter and verse divisions already there, and leave it at that.  Others see places where God made promises (covenants) with certain individuals like Abraham and David.  Still others focus on specific portions of scripture, such as the Four Gospels, the Law of Moses, or even the Millennial Kingdom.  None of these are dispensations.  So what’s a dispensation?

The word comes from the KJV’s translation of Ephesians 3:2.  The NASB translates it as “stewardship”.  The Greek word is oikonomian, from which we get our English word “economy”.  The NASB choose stewardship because the verse indicates that God gave Paul the job of managing His gentile household, as a “steward” of the Gospel.  While the word “dispensation” used by the KJV is no longer in common use, it does, however indicate that something is being, well, dispensed – a part of the character of this Greek word that we must be careful to not lose.  One important facet of Paul’s stewardship was to freely distribute what God had put into his trust.

“Economy” is a pretty good substitute for the word “dispensation.”  Coupled with the notion of rightly dividing God’s word, it becomes apparent that God has interacted with mankind through several different economies down through the ages.  Bear in mind we don’t just mean financial economy.  We mean the entire scope of how God relates to and reveals himself to mankind.  Without further ado, here’s a list of the economies (dispensations) that are how I believe the Bible should be “rightly divided”:

  • Innocence (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before sinning)
  • Conscience (Adam and Eve after expulsion from the Garden of Eden)
  • Human Government (capital punishment introduced after the Noahic Flood)
  • Promise (God’s promise to Abraham to make him a mighty nation)
  • Law (Exodus from Egypt, Ten Commandments, Tabernacle, sacrifices, etc.)
  • Grace (the current dispensation where God patiently waits for both Jew and Gentile to return to Him)
  • Kingdom (a future time when Christ will return to the Earth to reign as King for 1,000 years)

There’s a lot of disagreement between dispensationalists about exactly where to place these divisions in Scripture, and the stickiest one of all is the one we’re going to address on this blog site — where in Scripture the Age of Grace actually began.  Failure to pay careful attention to what God wrote for our benefit can lead to all sorts of theological errors.  Where we put this starting point can lead us into the excesses of the Charismatic Movement, or into trying to apply principles of authority that God did not intend for us to practice.  It can lead to thinking that Paul was “just another apostle”, and that his message and plan was the same as the other apostles’ message, and thus denying the unique character and audience of his ministry.

What it comes down to is our desire for God’s approval.  Do we want it?  “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”  (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)

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