What Is Dispensationalism? Part 1

In the past, I have not been great about sequential blogging . . . just haven’t developed the discipline yet I suppose. However, this series is already written! So, all I have to do is copy and past each week. The following posts have their origin in a paper that I wrote to assist a publication effort at Scofield Memorial Church in Dallas, TX. In 2012, we celebrate 135 years as a local church in Dallas, TX. There were several contributors to the work, including professors from Dallas Theological Seminary, former and present pastors of Scofield Memorial Church, and congregation members, especially Peggy Rosenlund. This paper is a very, very small part of the above mentioned publication. I enjoyed writing it, and I hope it will inform your understanding of dispensational theology.

Scofield Memorial Church Worship Center

C. I. Scofield’s Pulpit with Stained Glass Missions Window in Background

Introduction

Dispensationalism is a distinctive feature in the doctrinal statement of Scofield Memorial Church,[1] as should be expected considering that the man whose name the church continues to bear to this day—Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843–1921)[2]—was perhaps the most influential promulgator of dispensational thought. The goal of this brief article is to inform the reader by answering the question, “What Is Dispensationalism?” In order to answer this question, the article will attempt to provide a biblical context for understanding the term dispensation, to broadly describe the theological viewpoints within dispensationalism, and to trace unique nuances and significant developments in dispensationalism from its origin to the present day conversation.

Defining the Term Dispensation

The English term dispensation communicates the idea of “a management order, arrangement, or administration.”[3] The Greek substantives οἰκονόμος and οἰκονομία and their verbal counterpart οἰκονομέω are three terms found in the Bible, which are of interest to us. Οἰκονόμος, designates the manager himself as opposed to the act or duty of managing or administrating.  This term is employed by Paul in Galatians 4:2 and Titus 1:7 and by Peter in 1 Peter 4:10. The second substantive, οἰκονομία, may distinctly refer to the “responsibility of management” (e.g., management of a household, estate, or a divine office).[4] “Paul applies the idea of administration to the office of an apostle” (1 Cor. 9:17).[5] Similarly, the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah employs the term in 22:19–21 to speak of both a formal office or position as well as the authority that accompanies the office. It may also designate a “state of being arranged,” ordered, or planned (e.g., as “God’s unique plan” to arrange for the redemption of humans, Eph. 3:9).[6] Lastly, the substantive may refer to a ”program of instruction” or “training” as seems to be demonstrated in 1 Timothy 1:4.[7] The verbal expression of the word group, οἰκονομέω, is employed in Luke 16:2 to describe the act of managing or administrating a household for an owner or master, in the Greek Septuagint at Psalm 111:5 [112:5] for one who conducts his affairs with justice.

We must not commit the exegetical fallacy that the presence of a certain word in the Bible necessitates the presence of a certain theology in the Bible; that is, the presence of the terms related to dispensation does not necessarily a dispensational theology make! Further, the theological idea of dispensationalism may be present in the Scriptures even when the specific terminology is not. Therefore, the purpose of the above word study is to gain an understanding of the concepts behind these key words that will serve us in the theological development that is ahead.


[1] Scofield Memorial Church, “Scofield Church Doctrinal Statement” (Scofield Memorial Church, 2006), http://www.scofield.org/publications.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 455.

[3] Craig A. Blaising, “Dispensation, Dispensationalism,” ed. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).

[4] W.F. Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, ed. Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, and Viktor Reichmann, 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 697.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 698.

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