Many times when a dispensationalist and covenantal theologian get together there can tend to be a bit of a confusing discussion that takes place around the term dispensations. The dispensationalist will say something like, “the idea of dispensations is in the scripture, how can you deny this?” The covenantal theologian will say something like, “we believe in dispensations, the idea of the old and new covenant is quite clear in scripture.” At this point the discussion will tend to get a bit sloppy unless the term dispensation is defined.The term dispensation for the dispensationalists carries with it the meaning of “economy” or “house rules” by which God tests mankind. To the dispensationalist there are usually seven dispensations.
1. The Dispensation of Innocence. (From Creation to Adam’s fall)
2. The Dispensation of Conscience and Sacrifice. (fall of man until the flood)
3. The Dispensation of Human Government. (flood until the tower of Babel)
4. The Dispensation of Promises. (Babel until Moses)
5. The Dispensation of Law. (From Moses until Pentecost)
6. The Dispensation of Grace Abounding. (Pentecost until the rapture)
7. The Dispensation of The Kingdom. (the thousand year millennium)
In each of these dispensations God has different rules by which men are to live. The focus in all of this for the dispensationalist is the focus on the rules or laws set forth to test mankind. It looks at the different ways in which God expects men to live in each period.
For the Covenantal theologian (also known as Federal theology), the focus is the progressive revelation of the covenant of grace. Normally, as with Berkhoff and Charles Hodge, the dispensations are primarily broken down into the old covenant and the new covenant. But both theologians agree that the old covenant can be broken down into sub-divisions, as God reveals in different stages the covenant of Grace that he has made to save his people. Charles Hodge subdivides the old covenant into three different dispensations.
1. Adam to Abraham – the covenant is revealed through the promised seed that would come from mankind.
2. Abraham to Moses – God reveals further the covenant of grace by selecting Abraham as the head of a people from which the seed will come, as this progresses there is a clearer understanding through the type with the near sacrifice of Isaac.
3. Moses to Christ – Through the moral law God is further revealing our need for the covenant of redemption and through the Levitical law we see many types and shadows of how God was going fulfill this covenant of Grace.
4. Christ – the fulfillment of the covenant and the mystery revealed. This is also known as the new covenant.
(Hodge, by the way, leaves out the Noahic dispensation which earlier covenantal theologians held.)
So what is the difference? The dispensationalist tends to look at the law (God’s house rules for living during different dispensations), and the Covenantal theologian tends to look at the progressive revelation of the Gospel. So when both say they believe in dispensations they are focused on slightly different things.