Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period
Part 2: Ages and Dispensations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers
Bibliotheca Sacra [BSac 144:576 (Oct 87) pp. 377-400]
Larry V. Crutchfield

Bible Instructor
Baumholder Military Community, Baumholder, West Germany

Video Planned

    IT IS POSSIBLE to find in the writings of the Fathers divisions of human history based on God’s dealings with mankind. These are systems based not on an arbitrary division of human existence into predetermined chronological ages, as C. Norman Kraus charges,[1] but on God’s program for humanity within the context of salvation. The early church fathers recognized that at various times the method of God’s dealings with men and the content of the divine revelation to them had undergone change to counteract the creature’s failure and to facilitate his approach in obedience to God. Yet these Fathers saw but one basis throughout human history for man’s justification before God: faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
    Among those whose doctrine of ages and dispensations has survived from the ante-Nicene period are Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and to a minor degree Victorinus of Petau. This study will focus on Justin and Irenaeus, with occasional references to Tertullian and Methodius as appropriate. The dispensational outline found in Victorinus of Petau is similar to the others (see Appendix A), but the absence of detail in his scheme makes meaningful evaluation of it virtually impossible.

The Early Concept of Ages and Dispensations

    Barnabas’ year-day tradition is the earliest budding of the dispensational understanding of God’s dealings with man. Barnabas indicated that boundaries have been set for the times of man, the kingdom rest, and the beginning of eternity.[2] Furthermore within the time of man’s allotted 6, 000 years, God has had His special people Israel, who failed. Therefore He established a new people with whom He deals on the basis of newly revealed principles. While sacrifices, burnt offerings, and oblations were the acceptable means of approach to God in the old era, according to Barnabas, Christ Himself is the “human oblation” in the present age.[3] This latter age, suggested Ignatius, is “a dispensation founded on faith in [Jesus Christ] and love for Him, on His Passion and Resurrection.”[4] It is distinct from what Clement terms “every age that has passed,”[5] and as Hermas implies, from “the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell.”[6]

Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 100-165)

    The data by which to reconstruct Justin Martyr’s doctrine of dispensations is abundant though it is not presented systematically. The stage for a dispensational system was set with his reply to a question on whether God always taught the same righteousness. Justin remarked,

    "For if one should wish to ask you why, since Enoch, Noah with his sons, and all others in similar circumstances, who neither were circumcised nor kept the Sabbath, pleased God, God demanded by other leaders, and by the giving of the law after the lapse of so many generations, that those who lived between the times of Abraham and of Moses be justified by circumcision, and that those who lived after Moses be justified by circumcision and the other ordinances—to wit, the Sabbath, and sacrifices, and libations, and offerings."[7]

    Elsewhere Justin made three things clear in this regard: (1) God is always the same; (2) the righteous actions (righteousness) that He expects are always the same;[8] but that (3) the manner in which they are expressed or that man is to respond to God changes from dispensation to dispensation, and that change is precipitated by man’s sin and failure. Justin warned of:

"...fall[ing] into foolish opinions, as if it were not the same God who existed in the times of Enoch and all the rest, who neither were circumcised after the flesh, nor observed Sabbaths, nor any other rites, seeing that Moses enjoined such observances; or that God has not wished each race of mankind continually to perform the same righteous actions [obedience to the will of God]: to admit which, seems to be ridiculous and absurd. Therefore we must confess that He, who is ever the same, has commanded these and such like institutions on account of sinful men."[9]

    Justin set forth four distinct phases[10] through which the human race passes in God’s progressive, revelatory program of salva-tion: the first, from Adam to Abraham; the second, from Abraham to Moses; the third, from Moses to Christ; and the fourth, from Christ presumably to the eternal state. Each phase has one or more chief representatives, distinct characteristics marking it off from all others, a specific reason for which change is instituted, and a clear basis on which salvation rests (see Appendix B).
    Justin identified Enoch and Noah as the chief representatives of the first dispensation extending from Adam to Abraham. He wrote of “Enoch, Noah with his sons, and all others in similar circumstances”[11] and of “Enoch and those like him.”[12] Elsewhere Justin named Adam, Abel, Lot, and Melchizedek as also belonging to this dispensation,[13] which included all those “righteous and pleasing to Him, who lived before Moses and Abraham.” He distinctly marked the next dispensation when he wrote, “After them Abraham with all his descendants until Moses”[14] and spoke of “those who lived between the times of Abraham and of Moses.”[15]
    Justin identified the chief dispensational characteristic during this first period as the nonobservance of rites. He said, “All these righteous men already mentioned,”[16] “neither were circumcised, nor kept the Sabbath,”[17] “nor any other rites.”[18] Yet the means of their salvation, as is the case in all dispensations, by Justin’s reckoning, is the individual righteousness that comes through faith in God, as evidenced by the keeping of His commands. Those from Adam to Noah, though observing no rites, were declared righteous and pleasing to God[19] because of their possession of true circumcision—the circumcision of the heart. “Though a man be a Scythian or a Persian, if he has the knowledge of God and of his Christ, and keeps the everlasting righteous decrees, he is circumcised with the good and useful circumcision, and is a friend of God, and God rejoices in his gifts and offerings.”[20] And again, “We, who have approached God through Him [Christ], have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed…. and all men may equally obtain it.”[21]
    This dispensation of nonobservance of rites, however, came to an end. But since Justin’s focus was on Israel as the people of God, he said nothing directly here about the personal failure of those between Adam and Abraham. He wrote only in general terms of the need for new “institutions on account of sinful men”[22] and “the hardness of your people’s heart.”[23] This he said with reference to the two dispensations to follow. Failure in each of these periods was presented by Justin primarily in terms of God’s chosen people, the Jews, while the Gentiles and those who preceded Abraham were mainly ignored. As was the custom of these early Fathers, the canvas of theological debate is covered only by the broad strokes of apologetic or polemic necessity with little attention given to nonexpedient detail.
    In the second dispensation, from Abraham to Moses, Abraham was the chief representative. Since “circumcision began with Abraham,”[24] Abraham was representative of those who followed him, until the time of Moses.[25]
    The primary identifying mark of this dispensation is the rite of circumcision. Justin explained to Trypho that this rite was unnecessary before Abraham’s time, but because of the foreseen sin of Israel it became a necessary sign.[26] It would seem that, according to Justin, as a type of the true circumcision to come, circumcision of the flesh also served as the means of approach to God and as a symbol of Abraham’s obedience in faith.[27]
    Justin explained the reason for the change in dispensational arrangement in the following way. On the basis of God’s foreknowledge of Israel’s sin, the rite of circumcision (“of the flesh”) was given as a sign.[28] This sign was given so that Israel might be distinguished from all other nations “and that you alone may suffer that which you now justly suffer.”[29] He maintained further that “these things [various sufferings of the Jews] have happened to you in fairness and justice, for you have slain the Just One, and His prophets before Him; and now you reject those who hope in Him, and in Him who sent Him…cursing in your synagogues those that believe on Christ.”[30] But in another place Justin suggested that this circumcision of the flesh “was a type of the true circumcision by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath [namely, through] our Lord Jesus Christ.”[31]
As in all dispensations justification in this period between Abraham and Moses was by faith. And faith results in individual righteousness which is manifested by obedience to the revealed will of God. “For when Abraham himself was in uncircumcision,” wrote Justin, “he was justified and blessed by reason of the faith which he reposed in God, as the Scripture tells.”[32] And again he said, “For Abraham was declared by God to be righteous, not on account of circumcision, but on account of faith [Gen 15:6].”[33]
    The chief representative of the third dispensation, that from Moses to Christ, was Moses himself. This is the “legal dispensation,”[34] the dispensation of Law. Again, as Justin explained, certain rites “were enjoined on account of the hardness of [the] people’s heart.”[35] The rites that characterized this dispensation included the continuation of circumcision, with the addition of Sabbaths, sacrifices, offerings, libations (or ashes), and feasts.[36]
    As was true with circumcision, Justin maintained that these new rites were given as signs and not for a work of righteousness. At the same time, however, he viewed the rites as a means of approach to God, as a prod toward piety and away from idolatry. On the significance of the rites as signs, Justin wrote, “Moreover, that God enjoined you to keep the Sabbath, and impose on you other precepts for a sign, as I have already said, on account of your unrighteousness, and that of your fathers—as He declares that for the sake of the nations, lest His name be profaned among them, therefore He permitted some of you to remain alive.”[37]
    But while Justin claimed that these rites were given as signs because of Israel’s hardness of heart, he also insisted that they were given to lead the Jews into obedience to God and away from idolatry. With regard to sacrifices, for example, he said that “it was for the sins of your own nation, for their idolatries, and not because there was any necessity for such sacrifices, that they were likewise enjoined.”[38] He quoted Amos 5:18–6:7; Jeremiah 7:21–22; and Psalm 1 in support. Then he added, “For indeed the temple…in Jerusalem, He admitted to be His house or court, not as though He needed it, but in order that you, in this view of it, giving yourselves to Him, might not worship idols.”[39] Commenting on the same theme elsewhere, Justin wrote, “You were commanded to observe the Sabbath, and to present offerings, and that the Lord submitted to have a place called by the name of God, in order that, as has been said, you might not become impious and godless by worshiping idols and forgetting God, as indeed you do always appear to have been.”[40] The Sabbath itself was to serve as “a memorial of God.”[41]
    Justin also stated that the Jews had indeed forgotten God and once again demonstrated their disobedience, despite God’s efforts to encourage them in righteous conduct. Justin maintained that under Moses, all those descended from Abraham “appeared unrighteous and ungrateful to God, making a calf in the wilderness: wherefore God, accommodating Himself to that nation, enjoined them also to offer sacrifices, as if to His name, in order that you might not serve idols. Which precept, however, you have not observed.”[42] Justin indicted Israel further: “You were commanded to abstain from certain kinds of food, in order that you might keep God before your eyes while you ate and drank, seeing that you were prone and very ready to depart from His knowledge.”[43]
    Those who lived under the Mosaic dispensation were saved as others are: by individual righteousness through faith in God on the basis of Christ’s atoning work. Trypho had asked Justin, “Tell me, then, shall those who lived according to the law given by Moses, live in the same manner with Jacob, Enoch, and Noah, in the resurrection of the dead, or not?” Justin replied,

"...each one…shall be saved by his own righteousness…. those who regulated their lives by the law of Moses would in like manner be saved. For what in the law of Moses is naturally good, and pious, and righteous, and has been prescribed to be done by those who obey it; and what was appointed to be performed by reason of the hardness of the people’s hearts; was similarly recorded, and done also by those who were under the law. Since those who did that which is universally, naturally, and eternally good are pleasing to God, they shall be saved through this Christ in the resurrection equally with those righteous men who were before them, namely Noah, and Enoch, and Jacob, and who ever else there be, along with those who have known this Christ, Son of God."[44]

    The fourth dispensation in Justin’s outline of human history is the period from Christ to presumably the eternal state. While it is certain that Justin looked for a distinct 1,000-year millennial reign of Christ on earth, he did not discuss it in dispensational terms. He seemed rather to include it under the dispensation of Christ.[45]
    However, Justin did speak pointedly about the end of the dispensation under Moses and the beginning of that under Christ. Because of Israel’s sin, “it was necessary, in accordance with the Father’s will, that they [all rites] should have an end in Him who was born of a virgin, of the family of Abraham and tribe of Judah, and of David; in Christ the Son of God.”[46] In response to Trypho’s questioning, Justin admitted that Christ “was both circumcised, and observed the other legal ceremonies ordained by Moses,” but he hastened to add that “He endured all these not as if He were justified by them, but completing the dispensation which His Father…wished Him [to complete].”[47] Obviously Christ is the chief Representative of the present dispensation.
    Justin characterized this dispensation under Christ as one in which the rite of circumcision instituted with Abraham, and the rites of Sabbath-keeping, sacrifices, offerings, and feasts, which came in under Moses, have ceased.[48] Now God provides spiritual circumcision of heart[49] and gifts of the Holy Spirit.[50] The prophets of old received “some one or two powers from God,” by which they were enabled to speak what has been set down in Scripture. After citing several instances of this as evidence, he said,

    "Accordingly [the Holy Spirit] rested, i.e., ceased, when He [Christ] came, after whom, in the times of this dispensation wrought out by Him amongst men, it was requisite that such gifts should cease from you; and having received their rest in Him, should again, as had been predicted, become gifts which, from the grace of His Spirit’s power, He imparts to those who believe in Him, according as He deems each man worthy thereof."[51]

    The reason given by Justin for the change in God’s governmental arrangement of things with men is that with the advent of the sinless Christ there is no longer any need for the former rites.[52] The blood of that former circumcision, asserted Justin, is obsolete. For now “we trust in the blood of salvation; there is now another covenant, and another law has gone forth from Zion. Jesus Christ circumcises all who will…with knives of stone; that they may be a righteous nation, a people keeping faith, holding to the truth, and maintaining peace.”[53] In Christ believers have “the everlasting law and the everlasting covenant.”[54]
    Concerning the promised New Covenant and its relation to the old, Justin made a significant statement about God’s methods of dealing with mankind. To Trypho, Justin said,

    "Did not the Scriptures predict that God promised to dispense a new covenant besides that which [was dispensed] in the mountain Horeb?…Was not the old covenant laid on your fathers with fear and trembling, so that they could not give ear to God?…God promised that there would be another covenant, not like that old one, and said that it would be laid on them without fear, and trembling, and lightnings, and that it would be such as to show what kind of commands and deeds God knows to be eternal and suited to every nation, and what commandments He has given, suiting them to the hardness of your people’s hearts, as He exclaims also by the prophets.[55]

    The means of salvation in this dispensation, as in the previous ones, according to Justin, is individual righteousness. In every instance obedience to the decrees of God results in salvation through Christ.[56] Those who have approached God in this dispensation, Justin maintained, have received the same spiritual circumcision received by Enoch and others like him. “And we have received it through baptism,” said Justin, “since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain it.”[57] While his terminology is not always consistent and his presentation of the subject is not systematic, it is nevertheless clear that Justin is in essential agreement with Ryrie’s statement that “the basis of salvation is always the death of Christ; the means is always faith; the object is always God…but the content of faith depends on the particular revelation God was pleased to give at a certain time.”[58]

Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 120-202)

    Like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus saw human history not merely as parcels of time patterned after the six plus one days of creation, but in terms of the dispensational arrangements of God. Even though Irenaeus’ presentation of the dispensations is not as full as Justin’s, he did make some interesting statements about and arguments for God’s ordered program for man’s salvation. Irenaeus’ four dispensations are (1) Creation to the Deluge (or Adam to Noah), (2) Deluge to the Law (or Noah to Moses), (3) the Law to the Gospel (or Moses to Christ), (4) the gospel to presumably the Eternal State (or Christ to the Eternal State).
    The method by which Irenaeus arrived at the number of dispensations is interesting as it is based on quadriplex prototypes, both in nature and in Scripture.[59] He reasoned that the Gospels can be neither greater nor fewer than four in number because of the analogy of the quadriform structure of creation. Irenaeus maintained that there are four zones of the world inhabited by mankind and four principal winds. He concluded, therefore, that while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” [1 Tim 3:15] of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars [1 Tim 3:15], breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.[60]
Irenaeus developed this reference to Christ sitting on the cherubim (Ps 80:1) in conjunction with the “four living creatures” of Revelation 4:7. Observing that the cherubim were four-faced, Irenaeus contended that “their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God.” As seen in the following summary of Irenaeus’ position,[61] he saw the dispensational arrangements of God culminating in the final dispensation brought in by Christ.[62]

1. First living creature: like a lion = “His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power” (characterized by the Gospel of John). “And the Word of God Himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with His divinity and glory” (reference to the first and second dispensations).

2. Second living creature: like a calf = “[His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order” (characterized by the Gospel of Luke). “But for those under the Law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service” (reference to the third dispensation).

3. Third living creature: like a man = “His advent as a human being” (characterized by the Gospel of Matthew). “Afterwards, being made man for us” (reference to the fourth dispensation).

4. Fourth living creature: like a flying eagle = “Pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the church” (characterized by the Gospel of Mark). “He sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings” (reference again to the fourth dispensation).

    Irenaeus advanced his thesis by saying that just as the living creatures and the gospel are quadriform so also is “the course followed by the Lord.” He contended that this is the reason God gave four principal covenants to mankind. It should be kept in mind that Irenaeus often employed the term “covenant” in a broad sense to refer to some specific economy in God’s program of salvation. Thus in some contexts the terms “covenant” and “dispensation” signify essentially the same thing. Since there is some variation in the dispensational system of Irenaeus in the Latin and Greek versions of the text under consideration, both are presented below in parallel and summary fashion.[63]

1. First, “prior to the deluge, under Adam.”
Greek version: “first covenant as having been given to Noah, at the deluge, under the sign of the rainbow.”

2. Second, “that after the deluge, under Noah.”
Greek version: “the second as that given to Abraham, under the sign of circumcision.”

3. Third, “the giving of the Law, under Moses.”
Greek version: “the third, as being the giving of the Law, under Moses.”

4. Fourth, “that which renovates man [under Christ], and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.”
Greek version: “the fourth, as that of the Gospel, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In the Greek version, the least authoritative of the two,[64] the outline is exactly the same as that found in Justin Martyr.

    Irenaeus held firmly to the belief that the divine program of salvation for mankind is worked out in an orderly fashion by the Triune God. And this orderly system he cast in dispensational terms. Irenaeus spoke of the various gifts, “adapted to the times,” which have been bestowed on the human race by the “prophetic Spirit.” “Thus, therefore,” he concluded, “was God revealed; for God the Father is shown forth through all these [operations], the Spirit indeed working, and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving, and man’s salvation being accomplished.”[65] For Irenaeus, Christ is especially prominent in this dispensational drama. It is the eternal Son, he said,

"...who did also show to the human race prophetic visions, and diversities of gifts, and His own ministrations, and the glory of the Father, in regular order and connection, at the fitting time for the benefit [of mankind]. For where there is a regular succession, there is also fixedness; and where fixedness, there suitability to the period; and where suitability, there also utility. And for this reason did the Word become the dispenser of the paternal grace for the benefit of men, …revealing God to men through many dispensations, lest man, falling away from God altogether, should cease to exist."[66]

    Irenaeus gave relatively little information on the first two dispensations, Creation to the Deluge, and the Deluge to the Law. But the information he did include is redolent of Justin’s teaching on the subject. Irenaeus explained that circumcision (Gen 17:9–11) and Sabbath observance (Exod 31:13; Ezek 20:12) were both given as signs. The former was given so that the “race of Abraham might continue recognisable.” But he explained further that these signs had symbolic meaning and real purpose beyond the sign. Physical circumcision, for example, was a type of the circumcision of the heart performed by the Holy Spirit (Col 2:11; Deut 10:16, LXX). Sabbath observance, on the other hand, taught continual service to God. It spoke too of the millennial rest to come, after the type of the seventh day of rest following the creation.[67]
    Like Justin, Irenaeus insisted that no man was justified by these rites. For proof of this he mentioned Abraham, Lot, Noah, and Enoch, all of whom were uncircumcised yet pleased God. Also “all the rest of the multitude of those righteous men who lived before Abraham, and of those patriarchs who preceded Moses, were justified independently of the things above mentioned, and without the law of Moses.” Here Irenaeus obviously followed the Greek version of the dispensational system outlined earlier, and was in agreement with Justin’s dispensational arrangement.[68]
    Irenaeus asked, “Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant [Law given to Moses] for the fathers?” His answer was to the effect that the fathers prior to Moses had the Law (meaning here primarily the Decalogue) written in their hearts and the righteousness of the Law in their souls, and they lived by it.[69] Therefore there was no need for an external Law written on stone. However, said Irenaeus,

    "When this righteousness and love to God had passed into oblivion, and became extinct in Egypt, God did necessarily, because of His great goodwill to men, reveal Himself by a voice, and led the people with power out of Egypt, in order that man might again become the disciple and follower of God…. And it [the Decalogue] enjoined love to God, and taught just dealing towards our neighbour, that we should neither be unjust nor unworthy of God."[70]

    This passage suggests the principle of a new dispensation precipitated by failure. The principle is also set down that with the new dispensation is an attendant new revelation, the purpose of which is to assist man in gaining justification before God.
    In another place, on the theme of failure and differing covenants, Irenaeus pointed out that one person may, more accurately than another, be able to explain the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation; and show that God manifested longsuffering in regard to the apostasy of the angels who transgressed, as also with respect to the disobedience of men; and set forth why it is that [by] one and the same God…more covenants than one were given to mankind; and teach what was the special character of each of these covenants.[71]
    Irenaeus blamed the error of Simon Magus, Marcion, Valentinus, and others on their “ignorance of the Scriptures and of the dispensation of God.” He, on the other hand, promised in the progress of his treatise to address the cause of the differences between covenants and to touch on their unity and harmony. For those were perfected, he maintained, “who knew one and the same God, who from beginning to end was present with mankind in the various dispensations.”[72]
    In speaking of the various covenants, especially that under Moses (the legal dispensation) and that under Christ (the gospel dispensation), Irenaeus emphasized the fact that throughout history there is but one God and one means of salvation. But at the same time he believed in the progressive nature of both revelation and the precepts by which salvation is understood and God approached. “The Lord is the good man of the house, who rules the entire house of His Father.”[73] It is He, according to Irenaeus, who delivers what is suited to man in each dispensation. For example the old covenant was suited to those who were slaves and undisciplined. But the same householder brought forth a New Covenant, the gospel, as fitting for free men, justified by faith. This, he said, is “the new dispensation of liberty, the covenant, through the advent of His Son.”[74]
    The former covenant, the legal dispensation,[75] resulted in bondage, whereas the latter, the greater of the two dispensations, brought forth liberty and multiplied grace.[76] This New Covenant and He who was to carry it out, Irenaeus continued, were both preached by the prophets and revealed to men as it pleased God. This was done in order that “they might always make progress through believing in Him, and by means of the [successive] covenants, should gradually attain to perfect salvation. For there is one salvation and one God; but the precepts which form the man are numerous, and the steps which lead man to God are not a few.”[77]
    As failure was the reason the Mosaic or legal dispensation was substituted for that under Abraham, Irenaeus believed that here too failure resulted in mankind enter[ing] upon a new phase, the Word arranging after a new manner the advent in the flesh, that He might win back to God that human nature (hominem) which had departed from God; and therefore men were taught to worship God after a new fashion, but not another god [contra Gnostic teaching], because in truth there is but “one God, who justifieth the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith” [Rom 3:30].[78]
Irenaeus employed the imagery of a vineyard to explain the reason for the transfer from the former dispensation to the present. After explaining that the God who called those of the former dispensation of Law (which involves bondage) also called those of the latter dispensation (by means of adoption), he added, “For God planted the vineyard of the human race when at the first He formed Adam and chose the fathers; then He let it out to husbandmen when He established the Mosaic dispensation.” Irenaeus observed that God then “hedged it round about” (i.e., gave special instructions for worship), “built a tower” (i.e., chose Jerusalem), and “digged a winepress” (i.e., prepared a medium for the prophetic Spirit). God sent the prophets to seek the fruits of righteousness and then He sent His own Son. But the wicked husbandmen killed His Son and cast Him out of the vineyard. Thus God, having justly rejected these evil men, has unhedged the vineyard, throwing it open to husbandmen (i.e., Gentiles) throughout the world. Now the beautiful “elect tower,” the church, is being raised everywhere and the winepress is being digged everywhere, for everywhere there are those who are receiving the Spirit.[79]
    This last dispensation, the “dispensation of His coming,” was clearly announced by Moses (Num 24:17) as being from Jacob and from among the Jews.[80] There are some, he pointed out elsewhere, who “despise the coming of the Son of God and the dispensation of His incarnation, which the apostles have transmitted to us.”[81] And further, “certain persons, because of the disobedient and ruined Israelites, do assert that the giver…of the law was limited in power, they will find in our dispensation that ‘many are called, but few chosen’“ [Matt 22:14]. Nevertheless “those who have believed on Him should be honoured with immortality.”[82]

A Word about the Number of Dispensations

    While it is true that the number of dispensations to which one holds is not a decisive issue, it is nevertheless an important one. The claim made by Kraus, that for the Fathers “there is only one basic dispensational division,”[83] is inaccurate. It was of course true then as now that the basic division between the Old and New Testaments—God’s programs before and after Christ—was recognized. But it is also true, as has been demonstrated, that several of the Fathers held to a multi-staged (or dispensational) dealing of God with man based generally on a cycle of failure and the consequent need for new revelation to aid mankind in his endeavor to please God in obedient faith. Though some Fathers set forth only four such dispensations, others came very close to making nearly the same divisions modern dispensationalists do. In Irenaeus, Victorinus of Petau, and Methodius the number of dispensations is artificially restricted to four because of the quadriplex types adduced from both nature and Scripture which seemed to require it. Without such an artificially self-imposed constraint, the result is more like that found in Tertullian.[84]
    While it makes little essential difference whether the Fathers held to four or more dispensations, it is nevertheless instructive to determine how they arrived at the number of dispensations to which they held. It is also of interest to observe how their dispensations relate to those held by contemporary dispensationalists. The dispensations are most often spoken of in the early Fathers in terms of the prominent persons—Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ—with whom God dealt individually, and to whom He imparted new revelation for the collective good of His people. Often the name of Abel is associated with that of Adam, while Enoch is often connected with Noah. Dispensational divisions were customarily made along the boundaries of these five men’s lives and times.
    If a church father held to only four dispensations, there is frequently confusion as to where to draw the boundaries for the first two dispensations. The Fathers recognized the distinctive part that Adam, Noah, and Abraham played in God’s dispensational arrangements. But if there can be only four dispensations and the Law under Moses and the gospel under Christ are assumed,[85] the first two economies must be manipulated to fit the predetermined number. The result is that, depending on which fourfold system one examines, one patriarch (usually Adam or Abraham) was absorbed into one of the others when the actual divisions were set forth. In general discussions of God’s economies, however, the fivefold division continued to be observed. And these five are roughly equivalent to Scofield’s dispensations of Innocence (Adam), Government (Noah), Promise (Abraham), Law (Moses), and Grace (Christ).[86]
    But how did the Fathers deal with what modern dispensationalists call the dispensation of conscience (from the Fall to the Flood) and the millennial dispensation (the second coming of Christ to the eternal state)? Since the Fathers tended to think of the dispensations in terms of prominent men, it is easy to see how Abel and Enoch (two of the prominent men of the dispensation of conscience)[87] could be absorbed into the economies under their more illustrious contemporaries (Abel under Adam and Enoch under Noah), men to whom greater portions of the biblical narrative are devoted. In the case of the millennium the Fathers alternated between calling it a “new” dispensation and the “future” dispensation,[88] and simply regarding the whole period from the Incarnation to the eternal state under Christ, the prominent figure throughout. Regardless of the number of economies to which the Fathers held, the fact remains that they set forth what can only be considered a doctrine of ages and dispensations which foreshadows dispensationalism as it is held today. Their views were certainly less well defined and less sophisticated. But it is evident that the early Fathers viewed God’s dealings with His people in dispensational terms.


    John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) was the first to give systematic form to the doctrine of ages and dispensations. But he was by no means the first to recognize and employ the basic principles on which this doctrine stands. Ehlert’s valuable work, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism,[89] shows that this doctrine has a history almost as old as the church itself. In every major area of importance in the early church one finds rudimentary features of dispensationalism that bear a striking resemblance to their contemporary offspring. But this doctrine does not depend on the historical consensus of human opinion—devout or otherwise—for its existence. We have one authority, and one authority only. As Charles L. Feinberg aptly puts it, “The final issue is, ‘What saith the Scripture?’“[90]

[1] C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1958), p. 25.
[2] Epistle of Barnabas chap. 15. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from and references to the Fathers in this study are from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.) or Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.).
[3] Epistle of Barnabas chap. 2.
[4] Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians chap. 20, cited in Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, ed., Ancient Christian Writers: The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, trans. James A. Kleist (New York: Newman Press, 1946), p. 67.
[5] Clement of Rome I Clement chap. 8.
[6] Shepherd of Hermas Vision Fourth chap. 3.
[7] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 92. In Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.16.1-2 and Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chaps. 2–6, these matters received further treatment within the context of God’s dispensational dealings with mankind.
[8] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chaps. 23, 92; cf. chap. 67, for reference to “deeds God knows to be eternal and suited to every nation.”
[9] Ibid., chap. 23. In Banquet of the Ten Virgins Methodius too set forth a clear fourfold dispensational division of human history with a fourfold giving of the law in succession to Adam, Noah, Moses, and the Apostles. These “laws” he explained as the means by which sinful men may “approach…God as suppliants, and ask His mercy, and that they may be governed by His pity and compassion” (Banquet disc. 10, chap. 2). As with Justin, Methodius also cited humanity’s failure as the reason for each new revelation of law. Of the failure under Noah, for example, he wrote, “Those men, having been thus rejected from the divine care, and the human race having again given themselves up to error, again God sent forth by Moses a law to rule them and recall them to righteousness. But these, thinking fit to bid a long farewell to this law, turned to idolatry” (Banquet disc. 10, chap. 4; cf. chaps. 2–3). Methodius concluded that “when the first laws, which were established in the times of Adam and Noah and Moses, were unable to give salvation to man, the evangelical law alone has saved all” (Banquet disc. 10, chap. 3).
This “law” spoken of by Methodius was also referred to by Tertullian. It seems to signify that body of revelation necessary to enable man to approach God in righteous obedience. In speaking of the law as predating Moses, Tertullian wrote that God “gave to all nations the selfsame law, which at definite and stated times He enjoined should be observed, when He willed, and through whom He willed, and as He willed.” He explained that the first law was given to Adam and Eve “that they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree planted in the midst of paradise; but that, if they did contrariwise, by death they were to die” (An Answer to the Jews chap. 2). Tertullian maintained that this law given to Adam and Eve—which contained in embryonic form “all the precepts of God—(existing) first in paradise,” was “subsequently re-formed for the patriarchs, and so again for the Jews, at definite periods.” Tertullian cautioned, “And let us not annul this power which God has, which reforms the law’s precepts answerably to the circumstances of the times, with a view to man’s salvation” (An Answer to the Jews chap. 2). Evidently both Methodius and Tertullian recognized the progressive nature of God’s revelation of His message to man.
[10] For some of the ante-Nicene Fathers the number four had special significance. The dispensations were spoken of by Irenaeus, for example, as “four covenants” (Against Heresies 3.11.8; 4.9.3); by Victorinus of Petau as “four generations of people” (On the Creation of the World, no divisions); and by Methodius as “four trees” or “four laws” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 10, chap. 2); see Appendix A. As seen in Irenaeus, the reasons given for the fourfold division were many and diverse.
[11] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 92.
[12] Ibid., chap. 43. Methodius limited the first dispensation to “those before the flood,” “those who had pleased God from the first-made man in succession to Noah” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 7, chaps. 4–5).
[13] Ibid., chap. 19.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., chap. 92.
[16] Ibid., cf. chap. 27.
[17] Ibid., chap. 92; cf. chaps. 19, 23, 27.
[18] Ibid., chap. 23.
[19] Ibid., chaps. 19, 27, 46, 92.
[20] Ibid., chap. 28 (cf. chap. 46). Justin never spelled out what the “everlasting decrees” of God are. But he spoke of God’s rejoicing in the “gifts and offerings” of the one who keeps them. Elsewhere he pointed out that though Abel and others were uncircumcised, God “had respect to the gifts of Abel,” translated Enoch, “saved [Lot] from Sodom,” and spared Noah and his family in the ark (chap. 19; cf. Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chap. 2). These seem to express the more positive aspects of the means of approach to God during this period. The keeping of the everlasting decrees seems to involve simple obedience to the commands of God in the varied circumstances of life. Chapter 45 of the Dialogue with Trypho seems to place this within the context of the universal law of God which exists for all men. Here Justin spoke of what is “naturally good, and pious, and righteous” and of what “is universally, naturally, and eternally good” and thus “pleasing to God.” (Tertullian referred to this when he said, “Before the Law of Moses, written in stone-tables, I contend that there was a law unwritten, which was habitually understood naturally, and by the fathers was habitually kept” [An Answer to the Jews chap. 2].) In his discussion of the New Covenant brought in by Christ, as contrasted with the covenant under Moses, Justin said that “it would be such as to show what kind of commands and deeds God knows to be eternal and suited to every nation, and what commandments He has given, suiting them to the hardness of your people’s heart” (Dialogue with Trypho chap. 67).
[21] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 43. Here Justin’s Christological focus is evident. All justification is by faith and thus the true or spiritual circumcision of the heart must point forward to the incarnate Christ, in whom all rites “have an end.” For additional information on Justin’s perception of the process of salvation from age to age, see note 58.
[22] Ibid., chap. 23.
[23] Ibid., chaps. 43 and 67; cf. chaps. 16 and 92.
[24] Ibid., chaps. 43 and 16; cf. chaps. 23 and 46.
[25] Ibid., chaps. 19 and 92. For Methodius the second dispensation involved “those who lived after the deluge.” He said these “needed other instruction to ward off the evil, and to be their helper, since idolatry was already creeping in” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 7, chaps. 4 and 6).
[26] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chaps. 23 and 43.
[27] Ibid., chaps. 41 and 92. Justin’s position here is not completely clear. He certainly believed that men of all ages are justified by faith. He believed also that circumcision of the flesh was instituted on account of Israel’s foreknown sin and failure. But he seemed to imply that all rites, while being brought in because of sin and being in and of themselves unable to bring justification to the individual, when observed, were nevertheless in some sense symbols of faith and obedience to God’s everlasting decrees. In chapter 92 of the Dialogue Justin thus spoke of “those who lived between the times of Abraham and of Moses be[ing] justified by circumcision” and in chapter 41, of circumcision of the flesh as a type of the true circumcision to come. Nevertheless, Justin observed, even the difference in the sexual anatomy of men and women suggests that righteousness itself cannot be based merely on the physical act of circumcision. For while women cannot receive the physical sign, God has given them “the ability to observe all things which are righteous and virtuous.” Thus, Justin concluded, “we know that neither of them [male or female] is righteous or unrighteous merely for this cause [circumcision], but [is considered righteous] by reason of piety and righteousness” (chap. 23).
Something of an expression of this twofold nature of the rites is seen in chapter 44 of the Dialogue. “Some injunctions were laid on you in reference to the worship of God and practice of righteousness; but some injunctions and acts were likewise mentioned in reference to the mystery of Christ, on account of the hardness of your people’s hearts.” This twofold character of the rites, both as signs and as a means of approach in obedience to God, will be brought out in greater detail in the discussion of the dispensation under Moses.
[28] Ibid., chaps. 16, 23, 92; cf. chap. 28.
[29] Ibid., chaps. 16 and 19; cf. Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chap. 3.
[30] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 16.
[31] Ibid., chap. 41. For Tertullian the contrast is between the “carnal circumcision” of a disobedient people given for a “sign,” and the “spiritual” circumcision of an obedient people given for “salvation” (An Answer to the Jews chap. 3).
[32] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 23.
[33] Ibid., chap. 92. As will be shown, this is a faith which, according to Justin, must have its fulfillment in the coming Christ. Tertullian too was clear in his statement that throughout human existence, justification is only by faith. As Abraham was justified by faith, so also people today are justified by faith in Jesus Christ (Against Marcion 5.3).
[34] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 47. Here the term “legal dispensation” is used twice in the course of Justin’s discussion with Trypho over the status of those who confess faith in Christ yet either choose to observe “the legal dispensation” or to deny Christ altogether and then go back to “the legal dispensation.”
[35] Ibid., chap. 43; cf. chaps. 23, 44, 46, 67.
[36] Ibid., chaps. 43 and 92; cf. Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chaps. 4–5.
[37] Ibid., chap. 21.
[38] Ibid., chap. 22.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Ibid., chap. 92.
[41] Ibid., chap. 19. Tertullian viewed circumcision, Sabbath observance, sacrifices, and the giving of the Law to Moses as temporary, carnal prefigures of future spiritual counterparts to be found in the new dispensation or new law under Christ (An Answer to the Jews chaps. 4–6).
[42] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 19.
[43] Ibid., chap. 20.
[44] Ibid., chap. 45. See chap. 97 for a discussion of the salvation of those who kept the Law but at the same time confessed faith in Christ.
[45] In chapter 45 of the Dialogue, in the context of successive arrangements of God among men, Justin spoke of the two advents of Christ as the means by which Satan and his angelic followers will be destroyed and death eliminated. He also wrote of final judgment and of the benefits and prospects of immortality for the faithful. All these events are rather compressed together: Incarnation-second coming-immortality (church age + millennium + eternal state = dispensation of Christ?). For Methodius the fourth dispensation is that composed of “those after Christ” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 7, chap. 4). It is what Tertullian called “a nobler dispensation” during which God would “choose for Himself more faithful worshipers, upon whom He would bestow His grace, and that indeed in ampler measure” (Apology chap. 21).
[46] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 43; cf. chap. 23. According to Methodius, the law given in the fourth dispensation is the last. He said, “There will be hereafter no other law or doctrine but judgment and fire” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 10, chap. 4).
[47] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 67.
[48] Ibid., chaps. 23 and 43.
[49] Ibid., chap. 43.
[50] Ibid., chap. 87.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Ibid., chap. 23. For Methodius the reason for change was the failure of God’s people as evidenced by their idolatry. “Hence,” said Methodius, “God gave them up to mutual slaughters, to exiles, and captivities, the law itself confessing, as it were, that it could not save them” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 10, chap. 4).
[53] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 24.
[54] Ibid., chap. 43.
[55] Ibid., chap. 67; cf. Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chap. 6, for the “promised new law” versus the old.
[56] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 45.
[57] Ibid., chap. 43.
[58] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 131, cf. p. 123. In chapter 45 of the Dialogue with Trypho it is clear from the context that when Justin wrote, “Each one…shall be saved by his own righteousness,” he was speaking of those of all ages who demonstrate a faithful obedience to God which results in salvation “through this Christ.” For Justin the process of salvation from Adam to the second advent is Christological throughout. He told Trypho that “only those who in mind are assimilated to the faith of Abraham” may expect an inheritance in the coming kingdom. And further, “there is no other (way [of salvation]) than this—to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins” (Dialogue chap. 44).
[59] Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.11.8-9. In his discussion of “the reason of the truth why the fourth day is called the Tetras,” Victorinus of Petau gives a disjointed little discourse on the quadriform nature of certain things. He cites the four elements of which the world is composed, four seasons, four living creatures before God’s throne (Rev 4:6), four Gospels, and four rivers flowing in paradise (Gen 2:10). He then makes reference without elaboration to “four generations of people from Adam to Noah, from Noah to Abraham, from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ the Lord, the Son of God” (On the Creation of the World).
[60] Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.11.8-9. Methodius, in following the figure of the four trees in Judges 9:8–15, maintained that “also four Gospels have been given, because God has four times given the Gospel [good news] to the human race and has instructed them by four laws, the times of which are clearly known by the diversity of the fruits” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 10, chap. 2).
[61] Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.11.8. See portions of the entire paragraph.
[62] Irenaeus believed that all the dispensations culminate in Christ. “For those things which have been predicted by the Creator alike through all the prophets has Christ fulfilled in the end, ministering to His Father’s will, and completing His dispensations with regard to the human race” (Against Heresies 5.26.2).
[63] Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.11.8. The source for both versions is Roberts and Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:429 (for the Greek version see their note 3).
[64] “A portion of the Greek has been preserved here, but it differs materially from the old Latin version, which seems to represent the original with greater exactness, and has therefore been followed” (Roberts and Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:429, n. 3). This note goes on to give what “seem[s] the complete system” of Irenaeus. How the writers arrived at this is not stated, but it provides data for a fascinating comparison of Irenaeus’ system with the sevenfold dispensational system taught by C. I. Scofield. (1) Paradise [Innocence]—”with the tree of life,” (2) Adam [Conscience]—”with the Shechinah,” (3) Noah [Government]—”with the rainbow,” (4) Abraham [Promise]—”with circumcision,” (5) Moses [Law]—”with the ark,” (6) Messiah [Grace]—”with the sacraments,” (7) Heaven [Kingdom]—”with the river of life.” For Scofield’s dispensations see Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., n.d.), pp. 12-16, or The Scofield Reference Bible.
[65] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.20.6. Irenaeus’ reference to the various gifts, “adapted to the times…and man’s salvation being accomplished,” reminds one of Tertullian’s statement that God “reforms the law’s precepts answerably to the circumstances of the times, with a view to man’s salvation” (An Answer to the Jews chap. 2).
[66] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.20.7. Compare Irenaeus’ language here with that in Tertullian Against Praxeas chap. 16. With reference to the appearances of Christ (Christophanies) throughout the Old Testament, Tertullian wrote that “ever from the beginning” Christ was “laying the foundation of the course of His dispensations, which He meant to follow out to the very last.” Elsewhere Tertullian said that “the name of Christ…does not arise from nature, but from dispensation [ex dispositione]” (Against Marcion 3.15). The editor’s note appended here explains that “Ex dispositione…seems to mean what is implied in the phrases, ‘Christian dispensation,’ ‘Mosaic dispensation,’ etc.” (Roberts and Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 6:429, n. 17, italics theirs).
[67] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.16.1.
[68] Ibid., 4.16.1-2 (italics added). Methodius maintained that those who lived before Noah (first dispensation) “had no need of precepts and laws for their salvation, the creation of the world in six days being still recent.” He spoke of the “confidence Seth had towards God, and Abel, and Enos, and Enoch, and Methuselah, and Noah, the first lovers of righteousness” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 7, chap. 5).
[69] See Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chap. 2 for essentially the same question and answer concerning the giving of the Law before Moses.
[70] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.16.2.
[71] Ibid., 1.10.3.
[72] Ibid., 3.12.12-13.
[73] Ibid., 4.9.1.
[74] Ibid., 3.10.4. For other references to the “covenant of liberty,” see 3.12.14 and 4.34.3.
[75] For references to the “legal dispensation,” or “dispensation of the Law,” see Against Heresies 3.10.2; 3.10.4; 3.11.7; 3.12.15; and 3.15.3.
[76] Ibid., 4.9.1-2. In another place, Irenaeus stated that “one and the same Lord granted, by means of His advent, a greater gift of grace to those of a later period, than what He had granted to those under the Old Testament dispensation” (cf. Tertullian Apology chap. 21). Irenaeus’ reason for this is that Old Testament saints rejoiced and hoped in Christ’s coming only in a limited sense while those of the New Testament period on the other hand could rejoice because of His actual arrival. As those who obtained liberty and partook of His gifts, they were the recipients of “a greater amount of grace, and higher degree of exultation” (Against Heresies 4.11.3).
[77] Ibid., 4.9.3. Also see 4.28.2, in which Irenaeus discussed the one God/one salvation theme: “There is one, and the same God the Father, and His Word, who has been always present with the human race, by means indeed of various dispensations, and has wrought out many things, and saved from the beginning those who are saved (for these are they who love God, and follow the Word of God according to the class to which they belong).”
[78] Ibid., 3.10.2.
[79] Ibid., 4.36.2.
[80] Irenaeus Proof of the Apostolic Preaching chap. 58. In a note appended to this chapter, the reader is told that the Armenian word tnawrenut'iwn is equivalent to the Greek ???????”?Ža. See Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, ed., Ancient Christian Writers: St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, trans. Joseph P. Smith (New York: Newman Press, 1946), text on p. 86, and p. 194, n. 263.
[81] Irenaeus Proof of the Apostolic Preaching chap. 99.
[82] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.15.2.
[83] Kraus, Dispensationalism in America, p. 23.
[84] Refer to Appendix A. While the absence of this incentive for a fourfold dispensational system allows greater freedom for division along more naturally biblical lines, at least in Tertullian’s case, it also results in a system with less well-defined boundaries than those found in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. As pointed out in note 64, Irenaeus developed a “complete system” (Roberts and Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers), a sevenfold system that closely approximates what is found in contemporary dispensationalism.
[85] Victorinus’ scheme, with its lack of amplification, is the exception. How these divisions may have been treated elsewhere in his nonextant works is of course past finding out, but stirs interest nonetheless.
[86] See C. I. Scofield, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, pp. 12-16.
[87] Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 59. Ryrie includes Noah along with Abel and Enoch as the “heroes of faith” in the dispensation of conscience.
[88] Four times Methodius calls the millennium the “new” dispensation (Banquet of the Ten Virgins disc. 4, chap. 5; disc. 7, chap. 3; disc. 8, chap. 11; disc. 9, chap. 1) and the “future age” (or dispensation) once (Fragments, “On the History of Jonah” 2). Tertullian presented the interesting notion that time is to be reckoned as consisting of two portions, separated by the millennium: creation to millennium (“millennial interspace”) and “eternal economy” (Apology chap. 68; cf. On the Resurrection of the Flesh chap. 59).
[89] Arnold D. Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966).
[90] Charles L. Feinberg, Millennialism: The Two Major Views (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 74.