In Christianity, one meaning of the term dispensation is as a distinctive arrangement or period in history that forms the framework through which God relates to mankind.
The concept of a dispensation – the arrangement of divisions in Biblical history – dates back to Irenaeus in the second century. Other Christian writers and leaders since then, such as Augustine of Hippo and Joachim of Fiore (1135–1202), have also offered their own dispensation arrangements of history. Many Protestant writers, including Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, and Isaac Watts (1674–1748) also preached and taught dispensation schemes and divisions. Even the Westminster Confession of Faith noted "various dispensations" in 1646.
Within Dispensationalism, dispensations are a series of chronologically successive dispensations of Biblical history. The number of dispensations held are typically three, four, seven or eight. The three and four dispensation schemes are often referred to as minimalist, as they recognize the commonly held major breaks within Biblical history. The seven and eight dispensation schemes are often closely associated with the announcement or inauguration of certain Biblical covenants. The variance in number relates to the extent of detail being emphasized by the author or speaker. Below is a table comparing some of the various dispensational schemes:
|Range of Bible Chapters|
|Schemes||Genesis 1–3||Genesis 3–8||Genesis 9–11|| Genesis 12
to Exodus 19
| Exodus 20 to
| Acts 2 to
|Revelation 20:4–6||Revelation 20–22|
| 7 or 8 Dispensational
|Civil Government|| Patriarchal
|Millennial Kingdom|| Eternal State |
| 4 Dispensational
| 3 Dispensational
(Reformed or minimalist position)
|Freedom||Grace (Law)||Grace (Gospel)||Kingdom|
These different dispensations are not separate ways of salvation. During each of them man is reconciled to God in only one way, (i.e. by God's grace through the work of Christ that was accomplished on the cross and vindicated in His resurrection). Before the cross, man was saved on the basis of Christ's atoning sacrifice to come, through believing the revelation thus far given. Since the cross, man has been saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom revelation and redemption have been consummated. On man's part, the continuing requirement is obedience to the revelation of God. This obedience is referred to as stewardship of faith.
Although the divine revelation unfolds progressively, the deposit of truth in earlier time-periods is not discarded, rather it is cumulative. Thus conscience (moral responsibility) is an abiding truth in human life (Ro. 2:15; 9:1; 2 Co. 1:12; 4:2), although it does not continue as a dispensation. Similarly, the saved of this present dispensation are "not under law" as a specific test of obedience to divine revelation (Gal. 5:18; cp. Gal 2:16; 3:11), yet the law remains an integral part of Dispensational teaching. The Law clarifies that, although Christ fulfilled the law for us, by it we have had the knowledge of sin(Rom 7:7), and it is an integral part of the Holy Scriptures, which, to the redeemed, are profitable for "training in righteousness" (2 Ti. 3:16–17; cp. Ro. 15:4). The purpose of each dispensation, then, is to place man under a specific rule of conduct, but such stewardship is not a condition of salvation. In every past dispensation unregenerate man has failed, much like he is failing in the present dispensation, and will fail in the future until Eternity arrives. Salvation has been and will continue to be available to everyone by God's grace through faith. (The New Scofield Study Bible, 1984, pg. 3–4).
Latter Day Saint dispensations
In the Latter Day Saint movement, a dispensation is a period of time in which God gave priesthood authority to men on the Earth through prophetic callings. Between each dispensation is an apostasy where the priesthood is at least partially absent. The LDS Bible Dictionary says:
A dispensation of the gospel is a period of time in which the Lord has at least one authorized servant on the earth who bears the holy priesthood and the keys, and who has a divine commission to dispense the gospel to the inhabitants of the earth.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that there have been many dispensations, and use the Bible and modern revelation to identify and clarify some of them. They also make note of dispensations occurring among the Lost Tribes of Israel as well as Book of Mormon peoples, namely the Nephites and the Jaredites.
- Adamic dispensation
According to Latter-day Saint scriptures an angel appeared to Adam and Eve soon after they were driven out of the Garden of Eden, who taught them the gospel and gave him priesthood authority which he passed down to his children (see Moses 5:6–9, Moses 6:64–65). Eventually they "began from that time forth to be carnal, sensual, and devilish" (see Moses 5:12–13) and the priesthood was lost thus ending the dispensation in apostasy.
- Dispensation of Enoch
- See (Moses 7:69; Doctrine and Covenants D&C 107:48, D&C 107:53.
- Dispensation of Noah
- See Moses 8:19–20.
- Dispensation of Abraham
- See D&C 84:14; Abraham 1:16,18.
- Mosaic dispensation
- See D&C 84:6.
- Dispensation of the meridian of time
This dispensation's authority was in Jesus Christ himself and then with the apostles after his death and resurrection. Following their death, shortly after the record of the Bible, and before the first seven Ecumenical Councils, the Earth fell into the great apostasy.
- Dispensation of the fulness of times
The dispensation of the fulness of times is the last dispensation before the Second Coming of Christ. It was begun with the restoration of the church in 1830 and continued with the restoration of all the priesthood keys of each prior dispensation.
Bahá'í Faith dispensations
- In the Bahá'í Faith, a dispensation is a period of progressive revelation relating to the major religions of humanity.
- Blaising, Craig A.; Darrell L. Bock (1993). Progressive Dispensationalism. Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint. ISBN 1-56476-138-X. p. 116
- "Lesson 2: The Priesthood from Adam to the Restoration", Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part A, LDS Church, 2000
- "Dispensations", Bible Dictionary, LDS edition of the Bible, LDS Church
- "The Bahá'í View of Islam". studycircle.