Understanding The Bible
SCRIPTURAL ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS
E. Mason, Jr.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Dr. Mason was a historic dispensationalist with a holistic, open, and questioning mind. His doctrine was deeply fundamental, but his teaching was pragmatic. All through his life, he continued to study, and was never afraid to challenge his own thinking and to change it if need be. To him, dispensationalism was not a sectarian monolith, but rather a way to view the scriptures holistically. His mantra was: "The Bible is all written FOR us, but not all TO us." He viewed dispensationalism as a theological method that helped the believer to navigate his Bible. God was an unchanging God and salvation was always by grace through faith, no matter when or where it was discussed in scripture.
This booklet, originally written in the early 1970's under the title Dispensationalism Made Simple, has been edited by Elizabeth Mason Givens (B.S. in Bible, Philadelphia Biblical University; M.A. in Communication, Temple University) and Tom Davis (B.S. in Bible, Lancaster Bible College; M.Div., Grace Theological Seminary; Ed.D., Nova Southeastern University) to update vocabulary, phrases, and illustrations into contemporary English. The booklet is used by permission of Elizabeth Mason Givens (see copyright information at end).
The Apostle Paul's mandate to young Timothy to rightly divide the word of truth is a vital principle that should be carried out by all serious students of the scriptures. This clear command in 2 Timothy 2:15 was one to keep it straight. This is what we are to do to keep our interpretation of the scriptures straight; right on course so all the pieces of God's revelation fit together as it was intended by the divine Author of scripture, the Holy Spirit of God.
This is impossible to do if we approach scripture from a subjective viewpoint without differentiating between God's distinct programs through the ages. The only school of Bible interpretation that will clearly guide the dedicated student of God's Word to the central truth of scripture and the different programs of God through the ages is dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism has been feared by some and falsely accused by others as being some sect, but as one studies dispensationalism and the men God used through the years to communicate its clear teachings, one easily comes to the conclusion that this is not the case. One of the men who made a deep impression upon my life with his clear, courageous, convincing teaching of God's Word in his defense of dispensationalism was Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr. As a student at Philadelphia Biblical University, at that time known as Philadelphia College of Bible, I came to deeply respect Dr. Mason for his unwavering stand on the proper interpretation of scripture. No student whoever met Dr. Mason could say that he lacked passion or preciseness in conveying his message.
During my time at Philadelphia College of Bible, Elizabeth M. Givens, who was Elizabeth Mason at that time, became a great friend of mine, along with her husband-to-be, David Givens. Both were excellent students and a tremendous example of the influence of this godly man.
I want to personally thank Elizabeth M. Givens for her permission to reprint the article and the wonderful editing work she did on Dispensationalism Explained. Also, I would like to thank Dr. Chuck Scheide for his undying commitment to dispensational teaching and his great desire to see this printing come to pass. I also would like to thank Dr. Tom Davis, Academic Dean of the Word of Life Bible Institute, whom I consider one of the brightest young theological scholars of our day, for his review of this work.
I know as you read through these pages God will help you come to understand how important it is to rightly divide the word of truth. God's greatest blessings be upon you as you travel in the greatest journey of all…the study of God's Word.
Abounding in His Grace,
Dr. Joe Jordan
Word of Life Fellowship
"Holding forth the Word of Life"
Our forefathers in the early church wrote much about a time of great tribulation, about satanic monsters-which they usually called antichrists-and about the personal return of our Lord Jesus Christ to this earth with attendant, marvelous results. But they did not codify their views. They had too much else on their minds, chiefly getting out the Gospel. In addition, they were too busy dying to draw dispensational charts!
One of the amazing situations in all church history is the stubborn persistence and almost frantic fear with which large groups of Christendom today view dispensationalism. This runs all the way from suspicion that something is wrong with dispensationalists, to extreme, unreasoned rejection of the position.
In 1957, I reviewed the claim of professor John Wick Bowman that, of the many heresies confronting the church today, the most dangerous heresy was dispensationalism, more so than Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, or the occult-to name a few. The writer making these categorical accusations is not an obscure country pastor that one might pass off as being uninformed. Bowman had carefully studied the Scofield Reference Bible and eruditely rejected it. Typical is the following quote from another writer:
"It would have warmed the cockles of the heart of any Christian Reformed minister to hear how closely these candidates for ordination were questioned about two errors which are extremely prevalent among American fundamentalists, namely Arminianism and the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Reference Bible. The Assembly wanted to make sure that their prospective members were not tainted with such anti-reformed heresies."
This is not only regrettable. In the case of scholars it is inexcusable and untrue. Certainly each of us can and must answer to God for views of scripture, but to label Bible-exalting and Bible believing men as heretics is beyond the pale of legitimate debate.
Two Basic Principles
The fact that makes the rejection of dispensationalists strange is that every major doctrinal family of Christendom is on record in creed as believing in the two basic principles on which dispensationalism rests, namely:
A gradual revelation by God
A transition between eras of God's dealings with mankind.
As to the first of these, certainly no group is so foolish as to urge that all truth was put in Adam's stewardship, or announced through Abraham or even Moses. Indeed, even a superficial reading of the Gospels emphasized that our Lord Jesus Christ was very clear about the fact that he had added to, but by no means completed, the revelation of God. Witness Christ's own words on the night before the crucifixion, at the very close of His ministry, as recorded in John 16:12-15:
"I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself (as the Source); but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak (from Me, the risen Lord), and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you."
Plainly, our Lord is speaking about the same thing as Luke says by the Holy Spirit in Acts 1:1, in essence: "The Lord is not dead. He is very much alive. And, as I wrote in the Gospel bearing my name of all that Jesus began to do and to teach, I am now in this book (of Acts) going to tell you about what the Risen Lord has continued to do in those 'Doings of our Lord by the Holy Spirit through His apostles.' And I am alerting you that the Risen Lord, who began His expanded revelation during His earthly ministry, is continuing to teach by the Holy Spirit through the apostles in the epistles and the Book of Revelation, as He promised in the Upper Room Discourse in John 16:12-15."
Implicit in these words is our Lord's announcement and pre-authentication of a substantial body of truth that even He had not thus far revealed in His earthly career. Hence, truth is an expanding revelation from era to era until the scriptures are completed. This very fact establishes the second of these principles upon which dispensationalism and all the creeds of Christendom rest, namely, the eras vary precisely because there is an expanding revelation which requires the recognition that the body of truth is not static but dynamic, not a fountain sealed, but springs of water flowing out to a thirsty world! Consider this fact pragmatically. Let us draw the earth time line and observe God's expanded revelation. For a starter, does anyone believe that things were the same after Adam sinned as they were before He sinned?
Even the Westminster Confession, the 39 Articles of the Church of England, and the Lutheran Augsburg Confession labor this point. Are we not incontrovertibly observing a vast transition, which requires a new era of God's dealings with man? Dr. Alva J. McClain, one of the early teachers at Philadelphia Biblical University, and past president of Grace Seminary, has given the best explanation I have heard about this change of dispensations due to the fall. He writes: "Man sinned by entering the realm of moral experience by the wrong door, when he could have entered it by doing right. So man became as God through a personal experience of the difference between good and evil, but unlike God in gaining this experience by choosing the wrong instead of the right." Thus, this marked a major transition in the career of mankind, a transition from theoretical to experiential knowledge of good and evil. Man was never the same after that. A great pivot of history had occurred. Certainly no Bible believer could or would deny this. It is a fact-a fact that can be demonstrated. Man is now under a further and new stewardship of light with its attendant responsibility. Things are different-immensely different! Second, by the same token, look at the other end of the spectrum, as per this chart:
No one would deny that there is another major change, inherent in the transition from time to eternity, regardless of just which view he may hold as to the name of the era or the condition of man at the last era of time before the transition into eternity. Third, let us look at the flood:
Again, there is unquestionably a vast difference between the condition of man before the flood, when God put a mark on Cain lest any man should slay him, and the condition of things after the flood, when God categorically commanded that the sanctity of human life (as a gift from Him) must be guarded and defended by the dictum that "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man (i.e., society corporately) shall his blood be shed." Here we have an absolutely new thing: plainly the institution of capital punishment with man acting at God's command and as God's agent in this new era.
Fourth, now look at the transition, which is brought about by the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, which, according to millennialists, will be preceded by flaming judgment on evil men, leading to His institution of the 1000-year reign, Earth's Golden Age. All millennialists agree that there will be a vast change between the Tribulation and the Millennium:
Fifth, swinging the pendulum of time backward again and pursuing the matter further, the call of God to Abram, accompanied by significant covenant promises to him and his seed, not to mention that awesome occasion when God came down to quaking Sinai and with extremely loud trumpet tones announced His holiness, add dimensions to truth never before revealed:
Sixth, the book of Hebrews labors the differences between the era before the death and resurrection of Christ and the era brought about by his ascension and present ministry at the right hand of His Father's throne (not His own, Rev 3:21). Year by year, there had been continual remembrance of sin by those divinely ordained but temporary and non-conclusive sacrifices, which could atone (cover) but never "take away sins," sacrifices that looked forward typically to that "once for all sacrifice" of Christ which could and did "take away" sin. Observe Chart 6
Seventh, finally, to those who accept our Lord's own prophecy that there will be a period of great Tribulation, unique in history, another dramatic transition is implicit in those terrifying events when the bulk of mankind moves out of the Church Age into Tribulation horrors at the return of Christ to the air to call away His true Church-His blood bought bride from the earth, when He shall say, "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." (Song of Solomon 2:13).
In the light of the transitions cited above, it will be seen that the concept that the only major transition in man's history is to be found in the "before Christ" and "after Christ" contrasts of Hebrews doesn't take into account all of the scriptural data. Attempts to correlate all scriptural data should be respected by all scholars. Those who hold to a dispensational interpretation should be recognized for what they are-honest, earnest, qualified Bible expositors who accept dispensationalism as a key, a correct and proper key, to accurate biblical interpretation. But, as Ryrie points out in Dispensationalism, it comes as a distinct shock to many scholars -particularly in professors' chairs in colleges and anyone bright enough to earn a graduate degree could be ignorant enough to succumb to dispensationalism. Indeed, a number of anti-dispensationalists say essentially: "In the days of my ignorant childhood, I heard my pastor espouse dispensationalism, and it sounded sensible, but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
Yet, if one simply puts in a series the obvious changes of eras delineated above, he would come up with a minimum of six, or a maximum of eight, ages in which the truth of God was expanded by further revelation and activity on God's part. Look at Chart 8 coordinating the usual Scofield position with the contrasts discussed previously in this article.
Who "Invented" Dispensationalism?
Easy recognition of transition sequences seems perfectly natural as one goes through the Bible, yet much has been written to suggest that Scofield concocted some sinister system after his conversion as a 36-year-old drunken lawyer. Some suggest he got his scheme from a friendly St. Louis pastor, James H. Brookes, who helped him get started in the Christian life. But sophisticated opponents, like Talmage Wilson, claim that the whole idea can be traced back to that eccentric Plymouth Brethren brother named John N. Darby. An even more recent theory proposes that Darby got some of his ideas, like the pretribulation rapture of the church, from an erratic, 17-year-old girl who spoke in tongues in the Irvingite movement in England.
It is strange indeed that scholars should be so careless with historical fact that they will keep on stating categorically charges like these as though they were true. Actually, a casual examination of the last chart will demonstrate a very obvious and natural walk through scripture, recognizing divinely announced transitions from one era to the other that are inherent in God's expanding of His revelation to man.
Rather than one "inventor" of dispensationalism, a study of the matter will show that many men through the centuries, have, in their study of the Bible, sponsored these ideas as being the way God did it. Their terminology may have varied but the basic principles are amazingly close to each other.
For instance, Augustine kept working on these matters and came up with something that sounds clearly like the dispensational view of a succession of ages. Unfortunately, he later followed the old Jewish rabbis well intended, pious, but unscriptural Septa-Millenary theory, which was never received by Christ or the apostles. This theory said the world would run 6000 years, corresponding to the six days of creation, followed by the final 1000 year Kingdom Age, pictured by the seventh day Sabbath following the six days of creation. These words from Augustine sound like overtones from Ironside, Scofield, Gaebelein, Walvoord, or Ryrie:
"The divine institution of sacrifice was suitable in former dispensations, but is not suitable now. For the change suitable to the present age has been enjoined by God, who knows infinitely better than man what is fitting for every age, and who is, whether He give or add, abolish or curtail, increase or diminish, the unchangeable Governor as He is the unchangeable Creator of mutable things, ordering all events in His providence until the beauty of the completed course of time, the component parts of which are the dispensations adapted to each successive age, shall be finished, like the grand melody of some ineffably wise master of song, and those pass into eternal contemplation of God who here, though it is a time of faith, not of sight, are acceptably worshipping Him."
"For as the man is not fickle who does one thing in the morning and another in the evening. One thing this month and another in the next, one thing this year and another next year, so there is no variableness history-He enjoined one kind of offerings and in the latter period another, therein ordering symbolical actions pertaining to the blessed doctrine of true religion, in harmony with the changes of successive epochs without any change in Himself."
"For in order to let those whom these things perplex understand that the change was already in the divine counsel, and that, when the new ordinances were appointed, it was not because the old had suddenly lost the divine approbation through inconstancy in His will, but that this had already been fixed and determined by the wisdom of God to whom in reference to much greater changes, these words are spoken in scripture: "Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou are the same."
"It is necessary to convince them that this exchange of the sacraments in the Old Testament for those of the New had been predicted by the voices of the prophets. For thus they will see, if they can see anything, that what is new in time is not new in relation to Him who appointed the times, and who possesses, without succession of time, all those things which He assigns according to their variety to the several ages!"
Similarly, Augustine says:
"If it is now established that that which was for one age rightly ordained may be in another age rightly changed-the alteration indicating a change faculty, to which unconditioned by succession in time, those things are simultaneously present which cannot actually be done at the same time, because the ages succeed each other."
Far from Scofield, Brookes, or Darby being the inventor of dispensationalism, look at the scheme of things developed in the 17th century by a French man named Pierre Poiret (1646-1719), a good 150 years before Scofield and about a hundred years before Darby. Here is Poiret's dispensational scheme. He uses the French word Oeconomy, which, like our English word economy, is taken directly from the Greek and transliterated into English. The Greek word means stewardship:
The Oeconomy of:
Infancy, to the Deluge
Childhood, to Moses
Adolescence, to the prophets, or about Solomon's time
Youth, to the coming of Christ
Manhood, "some time after that" (i.e., the church era)
Old Age, "the time of his (man's) decay" (i.e., church apostasy and tribulation)
Renovation of all Things (i.e., Millennium)
Poiret explains, "I do not pretend precisely to determine the number or duration of these periods, but it is obvious unto all, however that the Word has passed through periods of this nature."
Looking very much like Scofield, Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer's outline was:
The Dispensation of Innocency; or the Religion of Adam at first
The Adamical Dispensation of the Covenant of Grace; or, the Religion of Adam after the Fall
The Noachical Dispensation; or the Religion of Noah
The Abrahamical Dispensation; or the Religion of Abraham
The Mosaical Dispensation; or the Jewish Religion
The Christian Dispensation
"The public dispensations of God towards men are those wise and holy constitutions of his will and government, revealed or in some way manifested to them, in several successive periods or ages of the world…The dispensations may be described as the appointed moral rules of God's dealing with Mankind, considered as reasonable creatures and as accountable to him for their behavior, both in this world and in that which is to come. Each dispensation may be represented as different religions or forms of religion, appointed for men in the several successive ages of the world."
Watts' dates are 1674-1748, slightly after Poiret but long before Darby and Scofield. Time and space do not permit a rundown of others like John Edwards (1639-1716), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), and Canon Fausset, of the famous commentary team of Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown. Fausset was born about 1821, and it is of particular interest that, except for Brown, the much acclaimed commentary was originally not only premillennial but also dispensational. Later a Reformed reviser almost completely obliterated any hint of dispensations and changed the approach in the original six volumes, later condensed into one.
These men above are cited to make it clear that they and many others had dispensational schemes long before the purported "inventors." Even Charles Hodge, in his great Systematic Theology, lists four dispensations and alludes to another, though he treats them more as time eras, rather than true dispensations. He also foresaw a future for literal Israel.
Two False Arguments
The whole thesis of opponents of dispensationalism, a thesis even held by antidispensational premillennialists as well as reformed theologians, may be summed up in two points:
Something so new must be untrue.
No one would, from his own personal study of scripture, come up with a dispensational premise.
As to the first of these theses, I have already adequately shown above that the idea that dispensationalism is of recent origin is untrue to fact. Yet every book and speaker who denounces dispensationalism labors this point.
But consider what bad logic this charge would be if we applied it, for instance, to the modern missionary movement, which all hold began in approximately 1790 with William Carey. The early church was explosively missionary. Then Roman apostasy set in and missions became dormant. Much as we would like to think that the Reformation logically spawned modern missions, the fact is that Luther and Calvin and Knox did not actively revive missions. This task remained for the Danish Halle University men, followed closely by William Carey. They brought in the modern missionary movement with strong pleadings and dramatic personal implementation of their newfound convictions.
The time was approximately equidistant between Luther and today, a good two hundred years after Luther and about the time of the founding of the United States government. Does anyone follow the logic of this first argument against dispensationalism - untrue because it is too new - and rule out the scriptural validity of modern missions?
As to the second charge, namely that no one would ever arrive at dispensationalism from a study of scripture alone; I note the striking experience of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. No one would ever accuse him of being taught dispensationalism by Harnack and his peers. Schweitzer's experience makes a strong and strange witness for the fallacy of the second charge, while at the same time, giving striking witness to the claim that different men, in different eras, in different countries, came to the same view through the study of scripture alone. Indeed, there is no evidence that either Darby or Scofield had ever read or even heard of Pierre Poiret.
Like all European young men of his day, Schweitzer was drafted into military service for two years. Although Harnack and his other professors had scoffed at any idea of a literal kingdom of Christ on earth, settling for some sort of ethereal rule of Christ over men's hearts now, Schweitzer came to a different conclusion. He took with him into his military service no book but his Greek New Testament, which he constantly read. After two years, studying nothing but the Greek Testament, he categorically said, "The New Testament undoubtedly says that Jesus believed in and taught an eschatological kingdom on earth in the future."
However, due to his distorted view that the Bible was not inspired, he added, "Of course, Jesus was mistaken. But that is what the New Testament teaches, without a doubt."
What is a Dispensation?
At this point we must zero in on the question, "What is a dispensation?" We've talked all around it, but what IS it?
The word used is the Greek word transliterated economy, which, as I said earlier, is used both in French and English, as for instance, a "political economy." It literally and simply means "a stewardship." Jesus uses it eight times in His parables on stewardship in Luke's gospel. Peter uses it once (1 Peter 4:10), and Paul uses it the remaining nine times in his epistles. There can be no doubt as to the meaning. It is a stewardship of something for which a person is responsible.
The second thing to observe is that it has no linguistic connection with the time word "age." They are two distinct words. Yet it is a fact that with the passage of time and the widespread use of the Scofield Reference Bible, the word has come to mean theologically, and to many Christians, practically the same thing as the word "age." I feel this is unfortunate, but language is changed by general usage.
Here is Scofield's 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 (italics by author).
It is regrettable that this definition is both misleading and inadequate, and much of the prejudice against dispensationalism has come from this diluted definition. I have read many attacks on dispensationalism which inevitably start with the remark that since Scofield did not even know what the word oikonomia means, he disqualifies himself from any further consideration on the subject. One could wish that Scofield had engaged in more public debate with other theologians, so that a more careful definition would have been placed in his monumental work, the Scofield Reference Bible.
You can imagine what a problem this meant to the Revision Committee for the New Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1967. We were very much aware of the superficiality of these arguments against the Scofield Reference Bible, but we could not bluntly say, "Scofield was wrong!" and call it the "Scofield Reference Bible." We would have warmed the hearts of Scofield's enemies and dismayed his friends, many of whom had never had occasion to hear the word oikonomia debated. Yet we had to explain this apparent discrepancy and show that what Scofield really meant did not hinge on philology.
Although all nine of the committee members worked on the entire Bible, there were special assignments given to individuals, which were then carefully considered by the whole committee, voted up or down, or revised. One of my assignments was to suggest revisions for the notes on dispensations and covenants. I was to suggest definitions that would basically maintain the Scofield position while more adequately explaining his view to both adherents and opponents. Needless to say, this was difficult.
If you will examine the notes in both the Old and the New Scofield Reference Bibles, you will find substantial expansions and refinements of the old notes on dispensations and covenants. The resulting decision was to combine both ideas of time and stewardship of light in the definition of dispensation, while making sure that people saw that the primary use of the word in the original notes was a stewardship of responsibility, although that responsibility was inextricably related to time (age). We felt satisfied that fair critics would now see that they were not correct in assuming that Scofield did not see what he actually did see-namely, a dispensation is a stewardship of responsibility of God's light as related to and usually introducing a new age.
Among earlier, fuller, definitions of dispensation, it is interesting to note Scroggie and Ironside, as helpful examples. Scroggie said:
"The word oikonomia bears one significance and means "an administration," whether of a house, or property, of a state, or a nation, or as in the present study, the administration of the human race or any part of it, at any given time. Just as a parent would govern his household in different ways, according to the varying necessity, yet ever for one good end, so God has at different times dealt with men in different ways, according to the necessity of the case, but throughout for one great, grand end." (Do you hear overtones of Augustine, Watts, and Poiret?)
Ironside put it this way:
"An economy (oikonomia) is an ordered condition of things… There are different economies running through the Word of God. A dispensation, an economy, is that particular order or condition of things prevailing in one special age which does not necessarily prevail in another."
Evaluation and discussion of these definitions
However, helpful as these definitions are, they also raise problems. There is no clear differentiation between time and teaching, between age and dispensation. To equate the two tends to mislead a Bible student into two unclear conclusions:
The misconception that when an age ends, the dispensation
This compartmentalizes the Bible and has lead opponents of Dispensationalism to feel that we are saying that God "tried and tried" through a series of hermetically sealed eras, mutually exclusive from one another. This has led to the claim that we teach different methods of salvation in different ages, a very thin argument against dispensationalism. Worse, it tends to deny any real unity in God's purpose through the ages. To counter this, see my note on "Dominion" at Genesis 1:26 in the New Scofield Reference Bible, which the committee felt corrected this popular misconception.
Helpful as they are, the wordings of the Scroggie and Ironside definitions of "dispensation" fail to indicate the progression of God's revelation through the ages. It fails to make clear that, although not all the Bible is to us (today), all the Bible is for us.
The charts below contrast the compartmentalized, erroneous view with a progressive sequence of tied-in expanding truths, suggested by overlapping ovals. The ovals in Chart 9 emphasize that the purpose of God is one and that the method of salvation is always the same, by grace through faith plus nothing, however gradually the light of God may have been revealed.
The correct view is a series of overlapping cycles rather
than hermetically sealed compartments making the ages unrelated to each other,
as in Chart 10:
misconception of the Ironside and Scroggie wordings is to give the false
impression that, during any given age, all the people of the world were
uniformly, and without exception, given responsibility for that stewardship of
light, by which revelation a new era or age was instituted. This misconception
has led to all types of confusion.
For instance, although all the nations were promised ultimate blessing through the Seed, our Lord Jesus, in the revelation of the Abrahamic covenant, there was no basic sense in which the great mass of the Gentiles were directly made recipients and custodians of the Covenant. Indeed, Abram was called out from among the Gentiles! By the same token, the Law was never given to the Gentile world. It was introduced clearly by the words, "Hear O Israel!" Except in a few hymns, when were Gentiles ever called Israel? Certainly never in scripture! Yet, it is strange that these two erroneous misconceptions remain, even in the dispensational camp. The average dispensationalist simply does not know what to say when faced with these two problems.
Let me give my own definition of "dispensationalism" as I see it somewhat more expanded than in the New Scofield Reference Bible. There is nothing like a class to hone sharp wording. I asked students two years in a row in my Eschatology course to write their personal definition of a dispensation. This brought stimulating ideas. I added a key word or phrase here or there, as the students sought to solve the problem. I dropped and changed some of my own words or phrases. This was the refined result:
The word dispensation means literally a stewardship or administration or economy. Therefore in its biblical usage, a dispensation is a divinely established stewardship of a particular revelation of God's mind and will, which is instituted first with a new age. This brings added responsibility to the whole race of men or that portion of the race to whom the revelation is particularly given by God.
Associated with the revelation, on the one hand, are promises of reward or blessing for those responding in obedience of faith, while on the other hand there are warnings of judgment on those who do not respond in the obedience of faith to that particular revelation.
However, though the time period (age) ends, certain principles of the revelations (dispensation or stewardship) are often carried into succeeding ages, because God's truth does not cease to be truth. These principles become part of the cumulative body of truth for which man is responsible in the progressive, unfolding revelation of God's redemptive purpose. Some of these are carried over intact (e.g., conscience, human government, Abrahamic covenant) and some are passed on adjusted (law, church) to the age(s) which follow(s).
Now, what is the solution to the idea that the time period does not end the light that God had previously revealed? In the years that Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost taught at Philadelphia Biblical University I worked out and discussed with him an idea. He heartily approved but made a good suggestion, namely, that since God's revelation is expanding with the succession of the ages, why not make the chart go up like stair steps? The chart, which resulted from our discussion, is included below. Observe that it shows the "dispensation" (teaching) continues after the "age" (indicated by rectangular box) has concluded.
Chart 11: The Light of Previous Dispensations Continues Into The Succeeding Ages
(Link - Opens New Explorer Window)
This chart shows that truth does not cease to be truth because an age change has taken place, but men may now be related to that truth in a different way. I will say more about this later, but it may be helpful at this point to clarify some thinking about the state of the heathen.
Romans 2:12 teaches that for the heathen world, there has been no advance in dispensations since the days of Noah. Yet we often hear untaught people cry out, "How could a just God condemn people for not believing a gospel they have never heard?" The simple answer is, "He does not." "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Genesis 18:25.
As the chart shows, men are condemned for rejecting the light for which they are stewards, as Paul labors to clarify in Romans 1 and 2, where he states that "since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God," they were therefore without excuse. And, as Romans 2:12 affirms, "For as many as have sinned without law (i.e., the pagans) shall also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law (i.e., the Jews) shall be judged by the law."
As one who trained eight years for missionary service but was not privileged to enter it, I consider myself to be missions minded. At times though, missionary appeals put God in a very bad light, due to overstatement. For instance, a favorite verse usually quoted is: "How shall they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). But many fail to add what God adds, "But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: 'But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth." And the apostle continued quoting Psalm 19, adds, "their words to the ends of the world." This is not anti-missions, but pro-missions.
God has commanded us to take the gospel into the entire world, for this is in direct harmony with His program from the creation. God has never left Himself without a witness. He has preached a 24- hour-a-day sermon since creation! People are not condemned for what they have not heard but for rejecting what they have heard. They are condemned for rejecting the light God has given them-whatever that light may be-the light of nature, of conscience, of protecting the sanctity of human life as God-owned and God-given, of the need for repentance from sin and sacrifice therefore, or if and when they hear it-for the fuller light of later ages. John also tells us "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." John 3:18-19.
One other matter. Many earnest students of scripture have wondered if the word "dispensation"-a stewardship of light-should be equated with "covenant," because often a new age is introduced by a stewardship of light which turns out to be one of the major covenants.
The answer is that however similar they may be and however attractive the equating may be, a careful study shows that covenants and dispensations are not synonymous. Adequate example to reject the theory can be seen in the fact that, although there is one age-Law-between Sinai and the cross, there are three major covenants. Namely, revealed during that age are (1) the Mosaic, (2) the Palestinian, and (3) the Davidic covenants (New Scofield Reference Bible notes: Mosaic, Ex. 19:5; Palestinian, Deut. 30:3; Davidic, 2 Sam. 7:16.).
Two Helpful Solutions
First, a proper understanding of dispensational principles clears up many misunderstandings of Biblical truth. A second suggested solution will be the Law's relation to the Church, but to get the background clear, we must first see the Law's relation to Promise, as delineated in the Abrahamic covenant.
Look at this Chart:
We see that the Law was an added thing, according to Galatians 3:19. It did not take the place of, or abridge, or dilute the promise of God to Abraham and his seed. It was taken over into the age of Law intact. Observe:
It was never a rival means of justification: "For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness (i.e., justification) should have been by the law. (Gal.3:21)
The law was never a means to life but a way of life for a people already in covenant relation to God through blood.
Indeed, as Paul said, "I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness came by the law, then Christ's death was simply superfluous" (Gal. 2:21 Arthur S. Way Version). Further, Romans 10:5 has been misinterpreted. It does not say of the law that "The man who does these things will live by them." Literally, it says, "The man that does these things will live in them"-that is, in that sphere that protects him from contamination of a pagan world all around him.
Why then was the law given? Galatians and Romans both explain. It was a temporary provision to show the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and indeed "to make sin exceedingly sinful" by characterizing it - through definite rules - as transgression, rebellion against the commands of God. It was never anything else, as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 3:7 and 3:9, but a ministration of condemnation and death. The law never gave merit badges for obedience. It effectively punished those who disobeyed. And since all disobeyed, all came under condemnation, as Paul summarizes in Romans 3:1-23.
It is important to see that the law was never given to the Gentiles, and even more important to understand that the law was never given to the Church as a rule of life. It is true that all scripture is ours for light and profit and equally true that every commandment, except the Sabbath, is reiterated in the epistles, but that is just the point.
The principles of truth abound, but the approach and implementation often vary drastically, as in this case. The entire Bible is for us who are the Church, but not all the Bible is to us of the Church.
This issue is probably one of the most misunderstood, and thus difficult, misinterpretations of the Bible today. This is true, not only among those of the Reformed persuasion (Westminster Confession) but also among many who call themselves dispensationalists. They wish to avoid the appearance of dishonoring God's holy law, but in doing so many dispensationalists backtrack and land in an untenable morass of interpretation. There seems to be a general tendency to adopt the reformed view that only the ceremonial law has been done away, but the moral law-whatever that is-remains intact as our code of life in the Church Age.
This is a misleading interpretation-as witness the Seventh Day Adventists. The average Christian simply cannot answer the Adventist argument that if we are supposed to keep nine of the commandments, by what authority do we have the right to omit the Sabbath? Didn't the same God give all ten? All this stems from the unscriptural division of the law into three divisions:
The moral (Decalogue)
This division may be helpful in clarifying the different aspects of the one Law, but it dismembers the Law into three parts, which can no more be done than to split a man into body, soul, and spirit and expect him to live. Remember such passages as James 2:10 "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." He sins against the one God who expressed His will to Israel in one entity, the Law.
The usual urging to continue the believer under the "moral" law is contradicted by the logic of the Spirit through Paul in such passages as 2 Corinthians 3, where in successive verses the Law is said to have been "abolished," and "done away." To say this refers to the ceremonial part of the Law is to play right into the hands of the Seventh Day Adventists and destroy the most effective argument against their theory. The precise statement is that it was what was engraved in letters on stone that was done away and abolished (2 Corinthians 3:7).
Since when was any portion of the one Law written and engraved on stone except the Decalogue? This should be the sufficient and final answer to Christians who seek to distinguish a difference. It is precisely this problem and mistake that Paul exposes in Romans 7 when he says we are made dead to our old husband, the Law, in order that we might be married to the Risen Christ, our new husband. He says the whole problem is that he was finding joy in the old husband (the Law, v. 22) when he should have been delighting in his new husband, Christ. The result is that the old husband (the Law) could not deliver him from the old master (Sin) to which he felt chained as to a body of death, getting sicker every day. Only when he turned to his new husband, ("Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!" v. 25) did he get deliverance from the flesh (the old master) and the ability to walk in newness of life. Christians who are concerned about the Law should realize that to be married to Christ and live with Moses is polygamous and breaks the Law!
One final passage is found in 1 Timothy 1:3-11. Evidently Timothy was meeting this same problem in Ephesus and Paul tells him how to deal with it. He instructs him on the unlawful use of the Law as well as the lawful use of the Law. He says categorically, "They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly." (vv. 7-8)
What is the unlawful use of the Law? Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1:9, "Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man (saved)." That is the exact opposite of the very thing that people of the Reformed persuasion and some dispensationalists say when they insist that Christians today are under the moral law. Paul says "no." To say otherwise is to contradict the scripture. This is the unlawful use of the Law. This is not in my opinion but the Holy Spirit's revelation. The Law said its last word to us at the cross when we died in Christ. It said, "Condemned." What then is the lawful use of the Law? It is to throw God's holy light on sinners, condemn them, convict them, and show them they need to turn to Christ as Savior. In this age, the Law is not for the righteous, but for the unsaved, "lawbreakers and rebels" (1 Tim. 1:9). The apostle then proceeds to summarize the Ten Commandments in verses 9 and 10.
All of this is "according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust." Paul and us too! (1 Timothy 1:11)
The first message of the gospel, which is good news for the unsaved, is the bad news that people are hopelessly lost because they have sinned against a holy God. The Law is a message of condemnation and death (2 Cor. 3). So the Law is for sinners, for the unsaved. Therefore, it is not the rule of life for the New Testament believer of the Church age. It is "not for a righteous man." Its function in this age is to convict sinners. This is the first aspect of the Gospel.
Now, look again at the stair step chart (#11). I am not saying the Old Testament is done away. Truth is always truth. But I am saying that the Law is not the Christian's code of life. Of course, everything in God's Word, as well as in the Law, which is illuminating and of ethical, moral and spiritual value, which God sees is for us, He re-issues and restates to us in the beseeching of grace in the New Testament epistles. The Law said, "Do this and I will bless you." Christ, through the apostles, says in the epistles, "I have blessed you; therefore, do good."
He heightens-not lowers-the standard. Indeed, He gives us a standard that only an omnipotent Holy Spirit can keep (e.g., "Love as I love."). And that is the genius of this age and our high position in Christ-to walk as heavenly citizens upon the earth under our own set of regulations (the Church's), energized by the Spirit.
LAW 1 + 2
NO OTHER GODS AND NO IMAGES
"For the ungodly and unholy an sinners" (Those who have missed the mark)
LAW 3 + 4
NO PROFANITY OF GOD'S NAME OR DAY
"For profane" Those who profane God's Name
NO DISHONOR BUT HONOR TO PARENTS
"For murders of fathers and murderers of mothers" (The opposite of honor)
"For murders (Manslayers)
NO ILLICIT SEX
"For whoremongers (fornicators) and perverts" (i.e., Defile themselves with mankind - homosexual, lesbian)
"For stealers of people (kidnappers)" and of things
"For liars and perjured persons"
"For defiled and whoremongers" "i.e., Those who "covet" their neighbor's wife or anything else ("if there be any other thing contrary to sound doctrine")
Needless to say, anyone who lives this way rises far above and beyond the Law's standards. For instance, the fruit of the Spirit is love and love is the fulfilling of the Law. If the admission price is five dollars and we put down ten, we definitely will be admitted.
Finally, some conclusions
In my daily commute to the college where I teach, I travel over the beautiful Kelly Drive West along the Schuylkill River. In the morning, the traffic is one way toward the city, and in the evening the traffic flows in the opposite direction, monitored by appropriate signs and laws. I travel under two different "dispensations" in harmony with God and man! There are Laws of Grace as well as Laws of Moses.
The story is told of an English businessman who lived in Berlin, and had many German friends. Just before the beginning of World War I, he was tipped off by one of these friends that he should transfer his assets into gold and flee the country. He barely made it to the Netherlands before the war storm broke. However, arriving in Britain with his ample earnings, he was startled by the fact that none of it was negotiable. The coins had the insignia of Kaiser Wilhelm. So he had to take them over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and have them reminted with the image of George V. What was appropriate to one time and place was not appropriate to the other, although what he had in each case was undeniably gold. He was under a new dispensation. The gold had to be adapted to the new economy.
Another illustration emphasizes that differences in the Bible often hinge around who is being addressed. God does not write a new Bible with every change in His dealings.
A salesman worked for a large company that had a factory, office personnel, and sales force. He came in late one afternoon from a trip to leave his sales report and to get things ready for a trip from Philadelphia to Washington. Just as he was about to leave, his assistant handed him a booklet and said, "Here is the new company manual. The boss asked me to tell you to read it carefully and follow the instructions in detail."
He tossed it in his bag and didn't think of it again until he got on the train the next morning. When he opened the manual, he happened to open it to the section that gave instructions to factory workers. To his dismay he read: "Appear promptly at the south gate of the factory at 7 AM, dressed in a neat uniform, ready to begin your assigned task."
He said to himself, "This is terrible. I am in the wrong place." He rushed up to a conductor and told him he had to return to Philadelphia immediately. Getting off at Wilmington, he caught the first train back to Philadelphia, ran by a department store, bought a uniform and work shoes, and puffed up to the south gate of the faculty, full of apologies. The gateman looked him over. "Who are you and what are you doing here so late?" he asked. "I've never seen you before."
Pulling out his manual, the salesman pointed to the place that gave the instructions he had read. The gateman looked him over again and said, "Man, you are out of it. You've got the wrong section of the manual. What do you do? Salesman? Look at the top of the page. It says 'Factory workers.' There's a section for them, a section for salesmen, and a section for office personnel. Next time the company puts out a manual, find out what's addressed to you and what isn't or you may land in the office furnace room."
We smile at the well-deserved rebuke, but that is just the mistake many Christians make. They think because it is the same company (Heaven) and the same boss (God) that anything He says is addressed to them. But the Bible is addressed to three main groups of people: the Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God (1 Cor. 10:32). It is not humorous that some are running to the south gate when they should be flying to Chicago or Washington? Confusion would reign in any company if the employees were as careless in reading their manuals as Christians are in reading their Bibles.
There can be painful results. I was once at a funeral where a well-intentioned pastor read from Psalm 103 "who … heals all your diseases" when the man had died of cancer. Why would he not know that Israel was an earthly people with earthly promises and the Church is a heavenly people on earth with no earthly guarantees? We need to wake up! God has well-established areas of administration. Make sure you are acting in accordance with his administration or dispensation in THIS age of the Church.
As Augustine says, "Distinguish the ages and the scriptures agree." The scriptures are neither confused nor confusing. Why should we be confused, especially when we are indwelt by the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit, who can guide us into all truth?
About the Author
Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr., (1904-1985) was on the faculty of today's Philadelphia Biblical University from 1927 until his death in 1985. He served as academic dean from 1946 until 1969. He continued to teach undergraduate students until 1974, and continuing education students until 1985. He was instrumental in helping found the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges and was the driving force that moved Philadelphia School of the Bible and Pennsylvania Bible Institute to merge in 1951 and go on to become a nationally accredited four-year college, Philadelphia College of Bible. Dr. Mason served two pastorates (1927-1946), and was on the revision committee of the New Scofield Reference Bible published in 1967. In 1984, just prior to his death, Dr. Mason and two other Bible scholars from Philadelphia Biblical University, integrated the entire New Scofield Reference Bible notes and cross references to the New International Version. He was married to Lois McShane Mason (1904-1997), and was the father of two children, Robert and Elizabeth.
Dr. Mason was a graduate of Wheaton College and the first class of Dallas Seminary. His teaching was greatly influenced by his Bible teachers at Dallas such as H. A. Ironside, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Griffith Thomas. In his early years as a pastor, he honed his theology through the modernist/ fundamentalist controversy of the '20's and '30's.
1 Bibliotheca Sacra. Dallas Theological Seminary, April 1957.
2 R. B. Kuiper, "Why Separation was Necessary," Presbyterian Guardian. September 12, 1936.
3 New Scofield Reference Bible. Note on Gen. 3:7.
4 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism. Chicago: Moody Press, 1995, p. 14.
5 Augustine, Letter 138 to Marcellinus. Chapter 1, paragraph 5.
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