Monday, July 13, 2015

Dispensing With Dispensations

If you are the average, practical Christian just looking to apply practical Christian principles practically to your life, feel free to tune out here.

This post will not help you much.

If, on the other hand, you are keen on understanding the whys and wherefores in scripture, being able to make distinctions in the way God has behaved towards mankind throughout history has helped me tremendously, and has made a lot of things clear that would otherwise be terribly foggy. I’ll give you a very real-life example of that tomorrow.

Let’s talk about dispensationalism. There are Christians that love it and Christians that hate it. I try to avoid the word for the most part because it predisposes an audience to believe that they know what you’re going to say next.

Wikipedia says the following:
Dispensationalism is a Christian evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that believes that God has related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of ‘dispensations,’ or periods in history.”
Typical Wikipedia lowest common denominator definition, rendered only slightly problematic by the obvious fact that interpretations don’t “believe” anything. But you get the general idea.

I also find the “futurist” part of the definition a bit questionable. Dispensationalists observe what God has done in the past and is doing in the present. If they project a bit, it is probably with adequate precedent. I have a feeling Wikipedia, among others, is linking issues that are not necessarily related simply because many of the same writers believe them, such as premillennialism and the belief in a pre-tribulation rapture of the church.

Still, Wikipedia estimates that between 5 and 40 million Christians hold the dispensationalist view in North America alone. If that view is wrong, a lot of believers are going down with that theological ship.

I’m not a seminarian so it makes little difference to me whether a fellow believer observes eight different periods in human history in which God has dealt with mankind differently or only three. If it matters to you, plenty has been written in defense of every possible permutation and combination. Covenant theologians find implicit covenants which they label “redemption”, “works” and “grace”. They’re the “three”. Dispensational theologians find many more, and they too may be correct.

Wikipedia tells us that dispensationalists believe the nation of Israel to be distinct from the Christian church, but then that is true of nearly everyone in Christendom. The disagreement is really about what that means for Israel: is she permanently excluded from the plans and purposes of God with all her promises now fulfilled in the church, or does God have a plan for national Israel in days to come? The dispensationalist sees a distinct role for Israel in God’s agenda based on, among other things, Romans 11.

Covenant theologians see human history as being subdivided into various arrangements between God and man (or covenants) that form part of a greater, overarching “covenant of grace”. But while they would differ with dispensationalists over semantics, the effect is the same: they divide human history into periods in which God chose to operate distinctly with respect to mankind or some segment thereof. 

So covenant theologians have much more in common with dispensationalists than they would like to think. They disagree about what God was doing at any given point in time. They disagree about why he was doing it. They dispute the particular years that things started and ended. But in the end they agree that at some points in human history, God worked differently with mankind than at other points.

My fellow blog host Immanuel Can says this:
“The dispensationalism thing is always the pill people find hard to swallow, and yet swallow without realizing it, all the time. After all, no thoughtful person believes that Law and Grace are the same ages. For everyone there are at least two covenants. But then what about the Garden? Surely the pre-Fall and post-Fall state of humanity had to be different, so … Dispensation 3. And then what about the eternal state? Does anybody really think it’s going to be the same as now? Dispensation 4 … and so on. So we can only disagree about numbers, not concept.

Still, the word ‘dispensation’ sets off a thousand fire alarms.

Do you know I’ve heard it said that dispensationalists are crass literalists; that they hate Jews and want them all wiped out at Armageddon; that they deny the consistency of God; and that they ‘steal’ key passages — like the Sermon on the Mount — from the treasure trove of Christians? That’s quite a (false) legacy to live down before a hearing becomes possible.”
To my mind, dispensation = covenant. I have an opinion, which I hope is not sneaking out here between the lines. In the end what matters is this: something unique and historic happened at the cross of Jesus Christ. Things changed for both God and mankind. More Christians believe that than don’t, whatever they may choose to call themselves. They can be called dispensationalists, covenant theologians or chopped liver. It makes little difference.

What matters is that Law is distinguished from Grace. Because when you can’t make that distinction, you can’t read your Bible at all. If you draw a line through human history at the cross of Jesus Christ, you can begin to speak intelligibly about what the Bible teaches.

If you don’t, you can’t.

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