How Many Dispensations?
A Chart Comparing Various Dispensational Schemes

By Ed F. Sanders

The acknowledged 'father of dispensationalism', John Nelson Darby, held to a scheme of 6 dispensations. Darby was not consistent with the names of dispensations so Professor Charles Ryrie (Dallas Theological Seminary) reworked Darby's scheme based on his analysis of Darby's writings (see chart). C. I. Scofield proposed a 7 dispensation scheme (see chart below) in his Scofield Reference Bible which has become the most widely held view.

In spite of Scofield's popular seven dispensational scheme the number and names of the dispensations is still a confusing issue. I have seen schemes for few as three to as many as five, seven (E.W. Bullinger, Scofield, etc), eight, nine (Finis Dake), twelve (A. E. Koch), fourteen, and eighteen (C. H. Welch). Concerning the number of dispensations one website author opines

"How many dispensations are there? It all depends how finely you look at the issue - the more detailed your criteria for defining a dispensation, the more you get.......My own feeling is that seven dispensations seems about right".

'It all depends...seems about right' shows the writer, like others, just do not know for sure! And why the confusion? The fact is that dispensationalism is a scheme imposed upon the Scriptures rather than a clear teaching based on Scripture. If it were taught in Scripture there would be no confusion about the number and names of the dispensations.

One author tries to answer the question

"How many dispensations are there? That is a much harder question to answer. I could settle for as few as three if I had to. If we had to call it a new dispensation every time God changed the instructions at all, I suppose we could have, maybe even thirty seven.(1).

Another author says

"A dispensation is a period of time during which God deals in a particular way with man in the matter of sin and responsibility. The whole Bible may be divided into either three or seven dispensations"2.

Part of the reason for the confusion is in the understanding and use (or misuse) of the word translated 'dispensation'(3) in the KJV. Charles H. Ryrie who has written perhaps the standard definition of a dispensation:

"A concise definition of a dispensation is this: a dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purpose"(4).

Kenneth Gentry commenting on Ryrie's definition says

"this is remarkable in that since a dispensation is a "distinguishable economy" it would seem that it should DISTINGUISHABLE"!

Others who think the dispensations are clearly marked off and distinct include:

Lewis Sperry Chafer:
"According to Scripture, there are in all seven major dispensations"....."As to time, the Bible may be apportioned into well-defined periods. These periods are clearly separated and the recognition of their divisions with their divine purposes constitutes one of the important factors in true interpretation of the Scriptures. These divisions of time are termed dispensations, which word is somewhat different than the word age in that the word age is more general, being used of any brief division of time or generation of men, though the word age is rightly used as synonymous with the word dispensation(5)"....."A dispensation is a specific, divine economy, a commitment from God to man of a responsibility to discharge that which God has appointed him(6)"

E. W. Bullinger:
"In the Bible seven distinct administrations are set before us(7)".

C. I. Scofield:
"These periods are marked off in Scripture..."(8)

I have yet to see the 7 dispensations "marked off  in Scripture", only in the Scofield Bible notes which are not part of the inspired text!. Another writer who thinks the dispensations are distinct says:

"Right Division is a method of studying the Bible in the light of recognizing God's distinct dispensations and programs(9)".

Concerning the question of the number of dispensations Charles C. Ryrie confidently declares:

"Nevertheless, on the basis of the definition of a dispensation as a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purpose, it is not difficult to deduce how many dispensations are revealed in Scripture"(10).

According to Ryrie

"At least three dispensations (as commonly understood in dispensationalism) are mentioned by Paul: one preceding the present time (Col. 1:25 - 26), the present arrangement (Eph. 3:2), and a future administration (Eph. 1:10). These three require a fourth, one before the law, and a prelaw dispensation would seem to need to be divided into pre - and postfall economies. Thus five administrations seem clearly distinguishable (at least within a premillennial understanding of Scripture). The usual sevenfold scheme includes a new economy after the Noahic flood and another with the call of Abraham"(11).

If it is "not difficult to deduce how many dispensations are revealed in Scripture" then why so many dispensational schemes? If the dispensations are so distinct, so clearly and unequivocally taught in Scripture, then one would think that the number and names of the dispensations would be quite clear for God is not the author of confusion!

In an attempt to diffuse the confusion one writer has said

"The key to Dispensationalism is not in the definition or recognition of a specific number of dispensations(12)".

This is an amazing statement - the definition or number of dispensations are not 'key' to dispensationalism! If not what then is the key? For a system of theology that claims to be the only true basis for correct interpretation of Scripture based on 'consistent literal interpretation' and 'right division', it is an  admission that the doctrine does not have any real Scriptural basis.

A look at the following chart should be enough to convince anyone that the Bible does not clearly teach any 'distinguishable' dispensational scheme 'clearly marked off in Scripture', even the most well known and respected dispensationalists do not agree on the number and names. Some of the attempts to define the dispensations follow:

Dispensational Schemes Compared








1 Noahic

1 Paradisaical

1 Edenic

1 Innocency

1 Edenic

1 Gentiles

1 Innocence

2 Abrahamic

2 Noah

2 Antediluvian

2 Conscience

2 Anti Diluvian

2 Israel

2 Conscience

3 Israel
(law, priesthood, kings)

3 Abraham

3 Patriarchal

3 Human Government

3 Post Diluvian

3 Church

3 Civil Government

4 Gentiles

(law, priesthood, kings)

4 Mosaic

4 Promise

4 Patriarchal

4 Millennial

4 Promise

5 Church, Spirit, Christian, Gentile, Church, Present(13)

5 Gentiles

5 Church

5 Law

5 Legal

5 Mosaic Law

6. Millennium 

6 Spirit

6 Millennial

6 Grace

6 Ecclesiastical

6 Church


7 Millennium

7 Fullness of times

7 Kingdom

7 Millennial

7 Tribulation

8 Eternal

8 Perfection

8 Millennium

9 New Creation

John Nelson Darby,
See articles: The Apostasy of the Successive Dispensations
Darby's Original Dispensational Scheme

Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism,
pp. 68, 71.
(his version of Darby's scheme)

Dr James M. Grey was one of the editors of the Scofield Bible. Note the difference in names (and number) from the Scofield scheme.

C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible (1917 Edition)

Lewis Sperry Chafer held to essentially the same scheme. See another variation at

Clarence Larkin
(see chart)

Robert Thieme taped lectures Basic Training (c. 1968).
See chart of Thieme's dispensational scheme

Harold L. Willmington,
Willmington's Bible Handbook

1. The Church age is variously stated to be either the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, or 9th dispensation(14)! What utter confusion for such a 'distinguishable' doctrinal scheme so 'clearly' taught in Scripture!
2. One commentator even proposes two 'Mosaic dispensations', one before the Church age and one after.
3. Another comparision chart here



(1) Quote from the article The 12 Dispensations at

(2) The Bible Book by Book: A Manual for the Outline Study of the Bible by Books, J. B. Tidwell D.D., Published 1916 by Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas

(3) Actually the Greek word is generic rather than a 'technical' word: 'oikonomia' (oikonomia)' from 'oikonomeo' meaning stewardship. The KJV translates 'oikonomia' dispensation' 4 times and 'stewardship' 3 times (Strong's Greek Dictionary).

(4) From Dispensationalism by Charles C. Ryrie. Moody Press, Chicago. 1995

(5) Major Bible Themes, Lewis Sperry Chafer

(6) Systematic Theology. Dallas: Dallas Sem. Press, 1948, IV, 16-21; VII, 121-123, Lewis Sperry Chafer

(7) Appendix 195, The Companion Bible, by Dr. E.W. Bullinger

(8) Rightly Dividing The Word Of Truth, chapter 2, C. I. Scofield

(9) From an article on a dispensational website, author not stated.

(10) Dispensationalism, Charles C. Ryrie (p. 46)

(11) Quote from Ryrie's article on 'dispensationalism' in Elwell Evangelical Dictionary.

(12) Quote from an article on Others make similar statements.

(13) There are at least these five names given for this dispensation in Darby's writings: Spirit/Christian/Gentile/Church/Present!!!

(14) Listed as #9, the "Secret" dispensation by A. E. Koch!

For further study:

Dispensationalism - An Abbreviated Critique, Grover Gunn
The Scofield Bible And Dispensationalism, Wesminster Publications (NZ)
The Relationship Of Dispensations, K. Gentry
A Study Of Dispensationalism, A.W. Pink
What Is Dispensationalism?, Ed. F. Sanders

Some differences between Dispensational and Historic Premillennialism can be seen on our Eschatology Chart.
More articles are listed on our Theology page.

Updated 2-11-2010

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