Traditional dispensationalists typically view biblical history through the grid of seven administrative divisions, or dispensations. Some progressive dispensationalists have narrowed down the dispensations to four, namely: Patriarchal, Mosaic, Ecclesial, and Zionic. The Patriarchal age is from Creation to the giving of the Law at Sinai. The Mosaic dispensation is from Sinai to the ascension of Christ. The Ecclesial era is from Christ’s ascension to His return. And the Zionic age is from Christ’s return into eternity. I understand the desire for simplifying the structure, and I believe that is one goal of progressive dispensationalism’s scheme. I also disagree with the traditional 7-dispensation scheme. However, I have a few things to note about progressive dispensationalism’s outline.
First, some of the dispensational divisions seem strange. For example, why is the first dispensation all the way until Sinai? It seems that there is certainly a significant, indeed central, administrative shift from God’s universal dealings with man to His election of Abraham and his family, so why not a dispensational division at the calling of Abraham? The change to the ecclesial dispensation at the ascension of Christ also seems a strange choice. Instead of Pentecost (which most dispensationalists would designate as the start of the church, but we’ll talk about that another time), progressive dispensationalism views the ascension of Christ as the primary dispensational division. This seems to be because of progressive dispensationalism’s tendency to view the ascension of Christ as the beginning (inauguration) of His Davidic reign. The Zionic age, with the Millennium and the eternal state conflated into one dispensation, also seems strange as there are clear distinctions and differences between the millennial kingdom and the eternal state (though they do subdivide it I noticed).
My primary concern with this outline, however, is that the Scriptures do not speak primarily in terms of dispensational differences and distinctions, but rather in terms of the biblical covenants. Of course, I believe in dispensations — but so does R.C. Sproul! What makes dispensationalism distinct is in how it interprets the biblical covenants. Dispensationalism interprets the covenants the way that God enforces His covenants — literally. In holding fast to a consistently literal hermeneutic, and observing how God reiterates and enforces the Abrahamic, Sinaitic, and Davidic covenants especially, the student of Scripture arrives at a theology which views the promises of the Abrahamic covenant as irrevocable (Rom 11:29), the messianic promises of the Davidic covenant as literal and physical, and, necessarily, the church as an entity which cannot displace or replace national Israel in the plan of God. Thus, the dispensational distinctive revolves around how the interpreter of Scripture handles the covenants.
In light of that conviction, how might one speak of distinctions in both God’s dealings with man, and man’s responsibility? There would certainly be a division at the calling and covenant of Abraham. There is clearly an administrative shift with the giving of the Law at Sinai. The progress of revelation concerning the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is narrowed and further defined with the Davidic covenant. There also is a clear and monumental step both administratively and in the progress of revelation with the coming of Christ — a large transitional period including His ratification of the New Covenant through His blood, as well as the start of a new ministry of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the future, Christ will return as king and establish His everlasting kingdom in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, at which time the promises of the Abrahamic, Davidic, Priestly and New covenants will be fully experienced by national Israel; but there is certainly another significant change at the end of this world with the New Earth and the start of the eternal state. It seems to me that it is not only possible, but far more consistent with the biblical framework laid out by Scripture, to view and speak of history by tracking the progress of revelation, not as it progresses through somewhat arbitrary dispensational distinctions (how many versions of the dispensational scheme are out there?), but rather as the Bible itself traces it — primarily as it is conveyed and related through the biblical covenants and their outworkings in history and the future.
For further study in this covenantal dispensation framework, spend some time with the writings of Dr. Paul Henebury here.
virtus et honos