Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Dispensationalist Outline of History

Leaving Dispensationalism Behind IV

At the heart of Dispensationlism is the teaching that there have been seven dispensations throughout human history. In my January 1st entry I mentioned some of the problems with this idea, but here I want to go into a little more detail. Each dispensation is initiated by the creation of a covenant between man and God. And each ends with the man failing to honour that covenant, and God judging us.

Dispensations one through four occur within the first twelve chapters of Genesis. The first, Innocence, finds us free of sin and in direct contact with God. We live in paradise and eat of the Tree of Life. The only stipulation is that we not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We do it anyway. God’s judgement is to expel us from paradise, make man to work for his living and to put woman in subjection to her husband. Sin and death reign.

The second, Conscience, finds us having to choose between good and evil. No longer living in innocency, we are now responsible for our own choices. We choose badly, and evil and violence are the result. In judgement God destroys all but eight people in a flood that covers the world.

The third, called the Noahic Covenant, or Human Government, follows the flood. God makes a covenant with Noah that provides the foundations for human government, including initiating capital punishment, and requires that the survivors repopulate the whole earth. Instead they settle together on the plains of Shinar and determine to build a tower to heaven. In judgement God brings division by creating a multitude of languages.

The fourth dispensation, Promise, is the call of Abraham. He is told that if he leaves his family and goes into the land of Canaan, God will “make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee and curse them that curseth thee: and in thee shall all the nations of the world be blessed.” (Genesis 12: 2-3) This dispensation is said to end with Abraham’s descendants being enslaved in Egypt.

The fifth and sixth dispensations are those of the Law and of Grace. Really, the rest of the Old Testament, beginning with Moses on Mount Sinai, and the New Testament, respectively. While the beginning of the dispensation of Law is clear, its ending isn’t – however, since the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost ushers in the dispensation of Grace, we should be able to mark it closed by then. The dispensation of Grace ends with the rapture, which gathers all true Christians to Jesus and leaves everyone else to suffer through a terrible tribulation. (Of course, some Dispensationalists don’t believe in a pretribulation rapture, but I am generalizing.)

The final dispensation is the Millennial Reign of Christ on earth. It lasts for a thousand years and ends with Satan being loosed again to try men’s hearts.

The idea that different covenants have governed our relationship with God at different times in history is nothing new. The idea is pretty much implicit in the Christian idea of a New Testament (or New Covenant!). Dispensationalism is defined both by the extent to which it works to break down history into little subcategories and the pessimism that it brings to our understanding of it.

The outline seems to hold up pretty well at the start. Everyone agrees that we began in a state of innocence, blew that and were forced to except responsibility for our actions. Still, we were given a lot of latitude. The rules set out for us were few. Adam was told to work for his living. Eve that she would have pain in childbirth and that she’d have to listen to her husband. One generation later Cain learned that murder was not going to go down to well. But apart from that, God seemed to have confidence we’d work things out. It turned out to be a confidence we didn’t deserve and things ended very badly. God decided to make a fresh start, saving only Noah and his next of kin.

From the time of Noah until Abraham, the Bible doesn’t tell of any new covenants. Dispensationalism says that the judgement at Babel marks the end of one, but it was years before Abram, the son of Terah, was even born. A better reading is that, rather than marking the end of a covenant, it simply shows God punishing disobedience and creating circumstances that would require man to act out His will.

When Abraham is finally called, the promises made are made specifically to him and his descendants. The Promise dispensation does not represent a covenant between God and man, but between God and one man. God promised Abraham that he would be a great nation, that his name would be great, and that “in thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” This covenant will be a blessing to all, but it wasn’t made with all of mankind. If you’re a Christian, this blessing is the gospel, which implies that God’s covenant with Abraham is alive today. Dispensationalists teach that it ended in judgement, with Abraham’s descendents being enslaved in Egypt. God told Abraham that this would happen. In Genesis 15:13-16 Abraham was told that they would be enslaved for four hundred years, but would then return to Canaan. The only explanation given being that “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” If it was meant to be a judgement, why would God punish the Israelites for the sins of the Amorites?

No one disputes the next covenant, the Law, though there is some dispute about its application. Jews still believe that the Noahic Covenant continues to hold for Gentiles, and that a non-Jew can still find favour in God’s eyes by honouring it. Also, while the beginnings of the Law can be found at Sinai, when did this dispensation end? Most studies I have seen use the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to mark its end. But that would mean that it continued past the beginnings of the Church!

Actually, there are a lot of gaps and overlaps when it comes to charting out the dispensations, between Babel and Abraham, between enslavement and Sinai, but these are only problems if you accept the doctrine in the first place. If you’re not a Dispensationalist, then the Law ended when the Church began. You needn’t look for a judgement to finish it off.

Another problem in dating the Law and Grace stems from an important, but less publicized Dispensationalist teaching: that God’s plan still lies primarily with the Jews and that the Church represents an interruption, an “intercalation” or “parenthesis” in God’s scheme. Many dispensationalists believe that once Jesus sets up his earthly kingdom, we will see a return to the Mosaic Law – blood sacrifices included! All this stems from a reading of a prophecy in Daniel, 9: 24-27. There are a lot interpretations of this passage, the most traditional being that it tells of the coming of Jesus and the destruction of the temple, but Dispensationalists teach that the weeks are periods of seven years, except for the seventieth, which represents the entire Church Age. To go into this in much detail would require a great deal of space. Maybe after I have moved in March I’ll give it a shot, but for the time being I just want to note that this idea plays further havoc with this outline. Why would God turn the clock back and re-establish the Law in the seventh dispensation, the Millennium? Some say that temple sacrifices will return as a memorial, but for what? In the Millennium Jesus will be right there! This idea represents a misunderstanding of grace.

Paul described the Law as a schoolmaster, Galatians 3:24, which brought us to grace and was now no longer needed. The writer of Hebrews taught – in fact, the whole message of Hebrews is – that we now have a better Covenant. The Old is now done away. Not abolished, but fulfilled, completed (Matthew 5:17). The Law was a shadow of something to come, and that something is the Gospel. It is hard to believe that anyone who reads the New Testament would think that it represented a pause in a greater plan – rather, it is the culmination of God’s plan.

That pretty much outlines the Dispensations and flags some important weaknesses. Next I will finish up by looking at the pessimism I have referred to and making a few personal observations.

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