A gracEmail subscriber writes, “The last 10 years or so I have benefitted greatly from coming to a more dispensational approach to Scripture. I see Acts 9 as the start of the church which Paul proclaims. I would be interested in your opinion concerning the writings of such men as C. R. Stam, Charles Baker and others of this persuasion.”
And a different gracEmail reader asks, “Have you heard of the Berean Bible Society? They seem to say that the Apostle Paul is the only one we (non-Jews) should follow, that his message and ministry was distinct and separate from that of the Twelve, and that Paul was given the doctrine and the program for a new dispensation. They believe that water baptism and spiritual gifts belonged to the former dispensation and that they are not intended for today. What do you think about this?”
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There have been many attempts through the years to interpret the Bible by dividing it into different “dispensations.” This approach always begins with the assumption that God has dealt with humans during successive historical eras through entirely different programs, arrangements or types of relationship. My own church background proposed three such dispensations — the patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian. The Darby or Scofield approach divides history into seven dispensations. The Berean Bible Society founded by Cornelius R. Stam and the “Grace” movement of Charles Baker focus on Paul’s conversion and ministry as the initiatory point of the “dispensation of grace” in which they say we now live.
All these people believe they are “rightly dividing” the Scriptures, as Paul instructed Timothy to do (2 Tim. 2:15, KJV). My problem with all these schemes is two-fold. First, it seems to me that Scripture itself emphasizes the continuity and similarity of God’s dealings with humankind from first to last, rather than suggesting entirely different arrangements for various periods of world history. Second, I do not see biblical writers defining these “dispensations” or suggesting that various portions of Scripture are intended for and limited to people who live within a particular historical period. That is not to deny that Paul was entrusted with certain unique insights regarding the Gentiles’ place of blessing in this time of messianic salvation, or concerning the unity in Christ of Jew and Gentile (Eph. 3:1-10). But this acknowledgement comes far short of the dispensationalism proposed by the brothers mentioned above.
New Testament writers do distinguish between the “old covenant” and the “new covenant,” and, in that sense, between the “Law” which Moses brought and the “grace and truth” displayed by Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8:6-13; John 1:17). Jesus himself saw John the Baptist as a pivotal figure who stood as an Old Testament prophet on the threshold of the messianic Kingdom of God (Matt. 11:13; Lk. 16:16). Yet all the first-century Church used the Jewish Scriptures which we call the “Old Testament” as its Bible. Indeed, the New Testament Scriptures are essentially commentary on the former Scriptures in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
God’s plan of salvation is singular, universal and all-encompassing in range of time and place. None other than Paul himself teaches us that the patriarch Abraham is the prototype of a man set right with God by grace through faith — the model for all generations to come (Romans 4). Reformed Christians have historically emphasized the unity and continuity of the Bible, and in this I believe they more accurately reflect the way in which Scripture presents itself.
I heartily recommend the 174-page book by my friend Stanley W. Paher, entitled The Eternal Covenant: God’s Invitation to Faith and Life, published in 1997 by Nevada Publications, 4135 Badger Circle, Reno, Nevada 89509 (phone 702-747-0800). This book shows how God consistently deals graciously with trusting humans throughout the entire Bible, and how Jesus Christ is the climax and capstone of that divine-human relationship.