To begin with it is not easy to define dispensationalism. One would think that the place to start is with the basic definition of dispensation.
The original Scofield Reference Bible defines dispensation this way:
A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.
This is practically useless, mostly because it cannot be used to give any meaningful definition of dispensationalism. For example, the next step is often to say something like:
Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation that delineates history into different dispensations, seven in the classic representation.
This provides little insight, since many theologians have partitioned history, also often into six or seven stages (because of the creation paradigm) but they are not dispensationalists. Jonathan Edwards is a notable example.
This definition of dispensationalism is something like saying Covenant Theology is the system that views redemptive history in terms of God’s covenants with man.
You get the point, right?
Further confusion arises from the fact that dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are rightly understood to be competitors, so right off the bat there is the temptation to look for significant differences between a dispensation and a covenant.
There are none. A dispensation and a covenant are very much the same. Dispensationalists talk about covenants and Covenant Theologians talk about dispensations. And yet dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are very different, as we will see.
So there is almost no point, interestingly enough, in defining dispensationalism in terms of dispensations.
Instead, we will simple borrow a nice succinct from noted dispensationalist Charles Ryrie:
The essence of Dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church. This grows out of the dispensationalists' consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well. -- Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today
Mathison (Dispensationalism, Rightly Dividing the People of God?) provides this useful elaboration of Ryrie’s definition:
- First and most importantly, the essence of dispensationalism is the distinction between Israel and the church.
- This distinction is the result of consistently literal interpretation.
- The distinction reflects the understanding that God’s primary purpose is to Glorify Himself.
We will use Ryrie's definition as our starting point. Note that his definition does not mention dispensations!