A Presentation of Dispensational Theology
The majority of Dispensational Theologians are convinced that the Scriptures reveal seven dispensations of God’s rule which cover the scope of history. Inasmuch as foundational matters related to Dispensational Theology were considered in the previous article, it is now time to examine the seven recognized dispensations.
THE DISPENSATION OF INNOCENCY
Traditionally Dispensational Theologians have called the first dispensation “The Dispensation Of Innocency.” Since Dispensational Theologians normally name each new dispensation after its new ruling factor or factors, it might be better to call the first dispensation “The Dispensation Of An Unconfirmed Favorable Disposition.” The reason for this suggested name will be seen later.
The first dispensation began with the creation of man and ended with the fall of man from God. The Scripture portion which covers this dispensation is Genesis 1:26-3:24.
The ruling factor which God used to govern man during the first dispensation was an unconfirmed favorable disposition. Before man fell he was favorably disposed toward God. Adam and Eve fellowshipped with God. They obeyed God by cultivating the garden of Eden in accord with His will. They did not run and hide from Him when He approached them. These things indicate that man originally had a disposition which was favorably oriented toward God.
It should be noted, however, that this favorable disposition was unconfirmed. This means that man was not locked into it forever. He could lose it by his own choice.
Man’s favorable disposition toward God was unconfirmed because man had not chosen it for himself. It had been given to him by God at the time of man’s creation. When God created Adam, He gave him this kind of disposition in accord with His own sovereign choice. He did not show Adam all the kinds of dispositions which were possible and then give him the option of deciding which kind he wanted.
The only way that man’s favorable disposition could become confirmed was for man to be confronted with an alternative to being favorably disposed toward God and, then, for him to choose to remain favorably disposed.
The special revelation which God gave to man for the first dispensation is recorded in Genesis 1:28-29; 2:15-17, 24. God revealed that man was to abstain from eating the forbidden fruit and was to cultivate and keep the garden of Eden. As male and female, human beings were to live together in a marital one-flesh relationship, reproduce themselves and exercise dominion over animal and plant life.
Man’s responsibility during the first dispensation was to obey God on the basis of his unconfirmed favorable disposition toward God. This responsibility subjected man to a test. The test was as follows: would man obey God on the basis of his unconfirmed favorable disposition?
Man failed the test. Satan entered the garden and confronted him with an alternative to being favorably disposed toward God. The alternative consisted of man rejecting God’s rule over him and asserting his own self-rule — just as God is His own SeIf-Ruler. Man chose to adopt this alternative rather than to remain favorably disposed toward God. He displayed his choice outwardly by eating the forbidden fruit in violation of God’s command.
Man’s failure resulted in judgment. This judgment consisted of several tragic consequences. For example, man died spiritually as soon as he made his fateful choice (Gen. 2:16-17). A great separation took place between man and God. Man lost his favorable disposition toward God and replaced it with a disposition of enmity against God (Rom. 8:7). This is evident from the fact that Adam and Eve hid from God when He entered the garden to talk with them after their original sin. Because man had chosen to go this route, this disposition of enmity was a confirmed disposition. Man was so thoroughly locked into it that he could not rescue himself from it. Only the redemptive work of God could accomplish such a rescue.
In addition to spiritual death, man now became subject to disease, deformity, accidents and physical death. The woman was cursed with pain in childbirth and with the desire to rule the man. The ground was cursed, thereby making man’s work of growing food much more difficult. Man lost his perfect environment. Because man followed Satan’s lead to rebel against God’s rule, Satan was able to usurp the rule of the world system away from God temporarily. Now instead of living in a world system which would be ruled by the benevolent God who loved him, man was doomed to live in a world system which would be dominated by a tyrant who would use man for his own selfish ends.
In the midst of this dismal tragedy at the end of the first dispensation God gave forth a ray of hope. In Genesis 3:15 He pronounced the first promise of the Redeemer who would be born of woman into the world during the course of history. As God would progressively work out His purpose for history, two of the great things which He would accomplish through the Redeemer would be the provision of redemption for fallen man and the defeat of Satan.
THE DISPENSATION OF CONSCIENCE
The second dispensation extended from the fall of man and ended with the Noahic Flood. The Scripture which covers this dispensation is Genesis 4:1-8:19.
Inasmuch as man had lost his favorable disposition toward God, that ruling factor of the first dispensation was no longer available. As a result, in the second dispensation God administered His rule over man in a different way. It would appear that He used two ruling factors to govern man during the new dispensation. The first new ruling factor was the human conscience. In Romans 2:14-15 the Apostle Paul indicated that human beings have a conscience. That the conscience functions as a ruling factor over human beings is evident, for Paul declared that it caused pagan Gentiles to “do instinctively the things of the Law,” even though they had never been given the Mosaic Law. Paul also indicated that the conscience is the awareness of good and evil which exists inside of human beings.
Genesis 3:5 and 22 indicates that man obtained this awareness of good and evil as a result of eating the forbidden fruit. In other words, the human conscience began when man rebelled against God. Since the conscience functions as a ruling factor over human beings, it became one of the ruling factors of the new dispensation. Because of this, Dispensational Theologians have chosen to name the second dispensation after this new ruling factor.
The second ruling factor which God began to use in the second dispensation was the restraint by the Holy Spirit. In Genesis 6:3 God talked about His Spirit striving with man during the days prior to the Noahic Flood. The verb which is translated “strive” signifies to rule.1 Thus, the Holy Spirit was also a ruling factor during the second dispensation.
In Genesis 4:3-7 God accepted Abel’s blood sacrifice but rejected Cain’s non-blood sacrifice. This implies that the special revelation which God gave to man for the second dispensation was as follows: man was to approach God only by means of a blood sacrifice (cf. Heb. 11:4). Sinful man, no matter how sincere, could not come to God in his own way. He could come only in the one way that God had ordained.
Man’s responsibility during the second dispensation was to obey God on the basis of his conscience and the restraint by the Holy Spirit. This responsibility subjected man to the following test: would man obey God on the basis of his conscience and the restraint by the Holy Spirit?
Man failed the test miserably. Cain refused to bring the kind of sacrifice which God required. When God rejected his wrong sacrifice, Cain became so enraged that he murdered Abel. Cain began to build a godless civilization which became characterized by polygamy and violence. By Noah’s day “the wickedness of man was great on the earth” and “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Things had become so bad that God could find only one righteous man left. That man was Noah.
This serious failure brought horrible judgment. Through a worldwide flood God destroyed the perverted segment of mankind. Through the ark God preserved Noah and his family. In essence, God wiped the slate clean in order to give man a fresh start.
It should be noted that murder began as the result of man’s rebellion against God’s rule and that the flood took place because of that rebellion and God’s judgment of it.
THE DISPENSATION OF HUMAN GOVERNMENT
The third dispensation extended from the Noahic Flood to the call of Abraham. The Scripture portion which covers this dispensation is Genesis 8:20-11:32.
Inasmuch as man had failed to obey God on the basis of his conscience and the restraint by the Holy Spirit during the second dispensation, once the flood ended God started a new dispensation by instituting a new ruling factor. Since the fountainhead of all the human corruption prior to the flood was the continued existence of the first murderer, Cain, God determined that never again would He allow murderers to infect the rest of humanity with their rebellious attitudes. Shortly after Noah and his family left the ark, God ordained capital punishment for murderers (Gen. 9:5-6).
Capital punishment necessitates a human government agency to administer the sentence of execution. God required that the murderer’s blood be shed by man. Thus, when God ordained capital punishment, He was thereby instituting human government as a further restraint against the lawless rebellion of man. In Romans 13:1-7 the Apostle Paul indicates that governmental authority derives its existence from God, that it was ordained for the purpose of restraining evil, and that it functions as the minister of God when it uses the sword for capital punishment Human government, then, with its authority to administer capital punishment, was the new ruling factor which God instituted for the third dispensation. Human conscience and the restraint by the Holy Spirit continued on as ruling factors in this new dispensation (indeed, Rom. 2:14-15; 2 Th. 2:7 and other passages indicate that they continue as ruling factors even into today’s dispensation). Thus, the third dispensation had three ruling factors which God used to govern man: human conscience, the restraint by the Spirit, plus human government. Dispensational Theologians have named the third dispensation after the new ruling factor, since that is the factor which made the third dispensation distinct from the second.
The special revelation which God gave to man for the third dispensation is recorded in Genesis 9:1-17. God commanded man to multiply and populate the earth. He indicated that animals would now have a fear of man. God made animals a source of food for man. He promised that there would be no more universal floods, and He required the execution of murderers.
Man’s responsibility during the third dispensation was to obey God on the basis of human conscience, restraint by the Holy Spirit and human government. This responsibility subjected man to the following test: would man obey God on the basis of these three ruling factors?
Man failed this test of the third dispensation. Noah became drunk. This led to an indiscretion on the part of his son, Ham. Through time Noah’s descendants rebelled against God’s command to populate the whole earth (Gen. 11:4). In order to prevent their scattering over the entire earth, they began to build the city and tower of Babel.
This failure brought God’s judgment. Up to this time Noah’s descendants spoke only one language (Gen. 11:1). This universal language enabled them to work together on their building project. God judged these rebels by confusing their language. For the first time man began to speak different languages. This caused the building project to come to a halt, because the builders could no longer understand each other’s speech. This also caused Noah’s descendants to separate from each other and relocate to different areas of the earth. Thus, they would begin to populate the entire earth.
Through time this beginning of different languages caused the development of nations. Thus, different languages and nations began as the result of man’s rebellion against God’s rule and God’s judgment of that rebellion.
The next article will examine more of the recognized dispensations.
- C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary On The Old Testament, Vol. I, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959), p. 134.