By Charles H. Welch
The word dispensation is the translation of the Greek oikonomia, a word that has become well known in the anglicized form ECONOMY. Crabb discriminates between economy and management thus:
It is a secondary and derived meaning of the word, that uses it as a synonym of frugality, for a truly economical use of money, sometimes may mean very lavish spending. We can speak of the ‘economy of nature’, and by so doing refer to the operations of nature in generation, nutrition, preservation and distribution of plants and animals. Macaulay writing of David Hume said: ‘David Hume, undoubtedly one of the most profound political economists of his time’.
The Greek oikonomia is made up of the word oikos ‘house’ and nemo ‘to administer’, ‘to deal out’, ‘to distribute’. The word oikonomia is employed by Plato for the management of a household and oikonomia and oikonomos and oikonomeo are found in the LXX. In Isaiah 22:19,21 where the A.V. reads ‘station’, ‘government’, the LXX reads oikonomia ‘stewardship’. Oikonomos translates the Hebrew Al ha Beth ‘over the house’ in 1 Kings 4:6; 16:9; 18:3 and in four other places. We have gone thus far afield in order that the reader may have first-hand information concerning the use of the term from ancient to modern times. We now give a concordance of the three words that are found in the Greek New Testament.
‘The Greek word rendered dispensation is oikonomia and refers to the act of administering. By the figure Metonymy, the act of administering is transferred to the time during which that administering is carried on’ (How to Enjoy the Bible, Dr. E. W. Bullinger).
How many ‘dispensations’ are indicated in the Scriptures? This is a question that is more easily asked than answered. Every single believer who has been entrusted with stewardship of truth adds to the number of ‘dispensations’, but this aspect of the matter is of course not intended by the question. When we refer to the different ‘dispensations’ we refer to those subdivisions of the ages, in which the revealed will of God, carrying differing obligations, has been made known, and put into force, and in practically every case, the administration or stewardship of these separate and differing administrations, are found to have been entrusted to some chosen servant of the Lord. Moses, for example, is inseparable from the dispensation of law, and ‘Moses verily was faithful in all his house’ (Heb. 3:5).
The following subdivision of the Purpose of the Ages does not claim to be perfect or complete, but no real distinction in administration has been ignored, though some may have been merged (as for example the special stewardship of John the Baptist, the period under Saul before the accession of David and others, which would swell the list unduly).
A word perhaps is called for in connection with the subheading that suggests that two dispensations may run together. If a dispensation is but another name for an age it is clear that two ‘ages’ cannot run together, but in any one period of time there may be more than one stewardship in exercise. Galatians 2:7-9 makes it clear that Paul had an apostleship and a stewardship that differed from that of Peter, but which was exercised during the self-same period. Or again, Romans 1:18 to 2:29 and Acts 17:25-28 make it clear that at the same period that Israel had the law, the covenants and the service of the tabernacle with all its rich typical teaching, the nations of the earth were under a dispensation of conscience and the witness of the works of creation.
John’s Gospel with its insistence upon the Giver of life, is addressed to those who did not know the meaning of the Hebrew word Rabboni and so could not be Jews. It was written after the whole of Paul’s ministry had ceased, it can be preached to-day without invading the smaller circle of faith encompassed by the Prison Epistles (see the article JOHN). It will be seen that a mere list of dispensations cannot set forth the whole truth of the matter, and must be used with discrimination. The office of Dispensational Truth is to decide whether any particular doctrine be it command, promise, calling or prophecy - does or does not pertain to any particular individual or company, and the recognition of these varying dispensations is therefore essential if we would walk worthy of our calling, and preach the truth for the present time.
Before attempting to explain or expound any particular portion of Scripture, the following interrogation, which is but the recognition of the fact that there are a succession of dispensations observable in the Bible, will prove a valuable guide.