The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times®

October 26, 2009 | 20 comments
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So the upcoming RS/MP lesson got me thinking: What exactly does the phrase “the dispensation of the fulness of times” actually mean?

For starters, as the lesson itself makes clear, that language comes from the teachings of Joseph Smith, where it very clearly echoes Ephesians 1:10 (which is the only biblical usage of that phrase):

That in the dispensation of the fulness of times [God] might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.

(The phrase Dispensation of the Fulness of Times® also appears a few times in the D & C.) In LDS usage, a “dispensation” usually means a time period headed by a prophet, when the priesthood is on the earth. A dispensation ends with a general apostasy, and is then followed by another dispensation. (Rinse. Repeat.)

Modern translations for the Ephesians text include: “the administration of the fullness of the times” (NET), “the times will have reached their fulfilment” (NIV), “an administration suitable to the fullness of the times” (NASB), and “the fullness of time” (NRSV).

The Greek word translated in the KJV as “dispensation” is oikonomia, which can also mean something more like “stewardship.” It is used seven times in the NT (details here), and is in fact sometimes translated in the KJV as “stewardship”:

And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship [oikonomia]; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship [oikonomia]: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship [oikonomia], they may receive me into their houses. (Luke 16:2-4)

Reading stewardship for dispensation is an interesting nuance to the phrase, inasmuch as it takes us in the direction of feeling a sense of responsibility for living in the fulness of times (as it is our stewardship) instead of a sense of neener-neerer-neener to all of those historical losers who didn’t get to live in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times®.

And, as y’all know, I’m not as much of a literalist as most LDS are, and the idea of “stewardship” avoids any problematic (for me, anyway) ideas of literal 1,000-years-and-not-a-day-longer “dispensations.”

Why the ®? Because usually when I hear this phrase, it sounds like it should be capitalized and have the ® after it. I don’t like that. It sorta reifies the words, reifies the particular translation, and is especially problematic if we stop thinking about what the words mean and start thinking about them as a title.

More important than my irritation at Mormon cultural foibles, though, is this: in the Ephesians text, the focus (or, at least: one foci) is on Christ: the gathering of things is in Christ, through Christ, about Christ, “even in him.”

20 Responses to The Dispensation of the Fulness of Times®

  1. Ugly Mahana on October 26, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I think that the dispensation/apostasy model is useful, with the following explanation of the current dispensation:

    The dispensation of the fulness of times culminates with (and thus includes) Christ’s return. For me, this puts Joseph Smith’s (and our own) work into perspective. We are preparing for Christ to come. The restoration God instituted through Joseph will not be complete until Christ’s return. Then Christ will indeed restore all things. Until then, we must be forward looking, and not content to say that we have received enough, or all that God has in store for us.

    We believe . . . that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.

  2. Clean Cut on October 26, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I’d also like to add the question:
    What exactly does the “fulness of the gospel” actually mean?

  3. DavidH on October 26, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    I wonder if anyone has traced the history of the understanding or teaching Mormon dispensationalism with dispensationalism in the evangelical tradition, which it appears arose about the same time or traced the ways in which evangelical dispensationalism differs from Mormon dispensationalism (other than the absence of a Dispensation of the Fullness of Times from evangelical dispensationalism). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensationalism
    http://www.theologicalstudies.org/dispen.html

  4. Shelley on October 26, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    @Clean Cut: It’s my understanding that it means the entire restored Gospel (Priesthood, prophets, revelation, Scripture, etc.) rather than bits and pieces of it.

  5. Geoff B on October 26, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Julie, interesting to think of “dispensation” as “stewardship.” What does this mean for the tribe of Ephraim, if anything?

  6. Clean Cut on October 26, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Shelley, I do think that is a common understanding. Problem is, we’re told that the Book of Mormon contains a fulness of the everlasting gospel, as does the Bible. Naturally, many of the later “add ons” of the Restoration aren’t in those books. That’s why I ask the question.

  7. Shelley on October 26, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Clean Cut, a quick google search brought me here:
    http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/response/qa/bom_fullness_doctrine.htm

  8. Jacob J on October 27, 2009 at 1:10 am

    The whole “dispensation=1000 years” equation makes no sense to me. When I see the word dispensation I think of the root “dispense” which means to distribute. Prophets who are “given a dispensation” are given a responsibility to distribute the gospel to a people of a certain time and/or place.

    The verse in Ephesians seems to be saying that during the last time that the gospel is dispensed on the earth (the dispensation in the fullness of times) God will gather together all things together in one in Christ (which, the author of Ephesians goes on to explain, happens as we (the church/bride) are married to Christ (the bridegroom)).

    The idea of a dispensation as a stewardship makes perfect sense in this light because the people tasked with dispensing the gospel are being given the responsibility to take the gospel to the world. However, being born in the “dispensation of the fulness of times” just means being born during the last time the gospel is dispensed to the world and doesn’t imply any stewardship at all (according to my understanding). When we receive the gospel we take on a responsibility to dispense it to others and in that sense it becomes our dispensation.

  9. Peter LLC on October 27, 2009 at 8:08 am

    I taught this lesson last week and was a little surprised to learn that the general consensus among quorum members was that there is a relatively low number of dispensations based on some kind of gospel numerology (in our case guesstimates hovered above or below 7), and this despite the Bible Dictionary’s position that “there have been many gospel dispensations since the beginning.”

  10. Eric Boysen on October 27, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Oikonomia looks like economy. Is that our collective temporal stewardship. If so, it looks like we have mucked it up again.

  11. Mike Parker on October 27, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Clean Cut/Shelly:

    “The fulness of the gospel” is succinctly defined in 3 Nephi 27:13–21. Compare D&C 39:6.

    There’s a great deal of confusion on this subject, because the Book of Mormon doesn’t say a word about baptism for the dead, eternal marriage, and lots of other doctrines the Church teaches, and yet it contains “the fulness of the gospel.” On that issue, see here:

    http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Contains_the_fulness_of_the_gospel

  12. Brent Hartman on October 27, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Here’s a couple of relevant quotes from Joseph Smith.

    “These [animal] sacrifices, as well as every ordinance belonging to the Priesthood, will, when the Temple of the Lord shall be built, and the sons of Levi be purified, be fully restored and attended to in all their powers, ramifications, and blessings. This ever did and ever will exist when the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood are sufficiently manifest; else how can the restitution of all things spoken of my the Holy Prophets be brought to pass. It is not to be understood that the law of Moses will be established again with all its rites and variety of ceremonies; this has never been spoken of by the prophets; but those things which existed prior to Moses’ day, namely, sacrifice, will be continued.” (TPJS, p. 173, D.H.C 4:212)

    “The dispensation of the fullness of times will bring to light the things that have been revealed in all former dispensations; also other things that have not been before revealed.” (TPJS, p. 193, see also D.H.C 4:424-426)

  13. Stephen Hardy on October 27, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Julie: I always find your posts to be interesting and thoughtful. How do you get this information? Do you read the bible in Greek? Do you use commentaries? In other words, how do you know that “the Greek word translated in the KJV as ‘dispensaion’ is oikonomia,” and that it is used 12 times? How do people know such things without actually reading it in Greek? I recall that you are a biblical scholar, right?

    I don’t like communicating on a forum like this, because you can’t tell my tone from my posting. I worry that you could think that I am asking in a way that questions your credentials. I am simply interested, and I am not critical. I certainly believe your post, but sometimes I hear someone make a comment like this in Sunday School (who knows, maybe I will next week!) and I wonder how anyone knows such a thing. I would be reluctant, actually, to repeat this factoid in Sunday School, because I know it only second-hand, and if anyone asked a follow-up question I could only say that I learned it on-line from this woman from Texas called Julie Smith.

  14. Mike Parker on October 27, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Stephen,

    A good place to start is with a Hebrew/Greek concordance. Strong’s Concordance has long been the standard in this field, and this recent edition corrects many of the errors that have been perpetuated in previous editions:

    http://www.amazon.com/Strongest-Strongs-Exhaustive-Concordance-Bible/dp/0310233437/

    You can see sample pages at the link above. The basic idea is that you look up the English word in the front, then find the Hebrew or Greek word from which it is translated in the back, where you’ll also find the number of occurrences of that word.

    This doesn’t allow you to find various forms of the Hebrew/Greek words (plural, past tense, third person, etc.), but it’s a good start.

  15. Stephen Hardy on October 27, 2009 at 11:53 am

    One more thing: I looked up dispensation in the dictionary:

    There are many meanings, but my on-line source listed a “theological” meaning as follows:

    “A religious system or code of commands considered to have been divinely revealed or appointed.”

    This comes closer to my understanding of the word “stewardship.”

  16. Stephen Hardy on October 27, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you Mike: I will try refering to it. My only concern with using such a source is again my profound ignorance of any first-hand understanding of such matters. Latin is much closer to our language than Greek, and concepts translated from Greek to English would, I assume, require big jumps across cultural assumptions and boundaries. I personally have no idea of the stucture of the Greek language, and whether it translates easily into English, and whether any particular word actually translates well. Obviously, translating an ancient text in Greek to English would provide plenty of opportunities for mis-understandings. Then you can add to that the idea that it is ancient Greek, and in the case of the KJ Bible, a form of English which we may not understand well ourselves. So if I were teaching a class on the New or Old Testament, I still wouldn’t feel that I could simply look up a word and then present myself as an expert…

    I can’t believe that I have posted three times today. I will return to my usual lurking at any time now.

  17. Julie M. Smith on October 27, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Stephen Hardy,

    I am glad for your caution in not repeating random facts from blogs in church, because mostly we make stuff up here. ;)

    But in this case, you can verify the information yourself.

    I like the interlinear bible at crosswalk.com for word studies, which you can do without knowing Greek or Hebrew. Go here:

    http://www.biblestudytools.com/InterlinearBible/

    And type in the verse you are studying.

    When the verse shows up, most words will be highlighted. When you click on a highlighted word, it will take you to a page that tells you what Greek or Hebrew word it is translated from, what the definition is, how many times that word is used in the Bible, and where. As you consider the definition and other uses of the word, you can get a feel for the word without knowing any Greek. I do know Greek, but I certainly didn’t read the entire NT and count how many times oikonomia occurred! I just used this tool.

    If you want more info about each word, you can use this:

    http://bible.johndyer.name/

    And I’m glad you commented. :)

  18. Clean Cut on October 27, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    FWIW, I’m wasn’t wanting to sidetrack the conversation–just enlarge it a bit. I fully believe the Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the gospel. I was just trying to get some further definition on “fulness of the gospel” for the sake of clarification. I actually agree with Mike that “The fulness of the gospel” is succinctly defined in 3 Nephi 27:13–21 and D&C 39:6. But it seems to me that only LDS use the term “fulness” in conjunction with this “gospel”. Perhaps there needs to be a more nuanced explanation? For if we define the gospel as the “good news” of Christ’s atonement on behalf of fallen man, then cannot traditional Christians also claim to have a “fulness of the gospel”?

  19. Raymond Takashi Swenson on October 27, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    The key aspect of the “dispensation of the fulness of times” in the LDS Church is tied to our belief in new revelation from heaven, literally a new dispensation, that begins with, and culminates in, the return to earth of Christ to take an account of all our stewardships. So Christ kicks off the dispensation in 1820, and makes appearances in the Kirtland Temple (1836) and the Salt Lake Temple (1899, to Lorenzo Snow), and will initiate the Millenium and the First Resurrection with his open return, visible to all mankind.

    A significant part of the new dispensation is vicarious ordinances for the salvation of the dead, which is the first scriptural topic spoken of by Moroni to Joseph Smith (1823), and is referred to as well by John the Baptist (1829) when restoring the priesthood authority to baptize, and by Elijah in conferring the sealing power (1836).

    Besides offering salvation to all the dead, the Church is also tasked to offer it to all the living. Hence the emphasis on missionary work.

    It was with these tasks in mind that Joseph told an early gathering of the holders of the priesthood in Kirtland that, beyond their wildest expectations, the Church would “fill” North and South America and the world, and fulfill the dream of Nebuchadrezzar. At Christ’s Second Coming, the earth will be governed through the network of LDS wards and branches and temples.

    Critics of the Church have called this egotistical, but it is not a looking forward to individual Mormons having power, but rather having the world join us in worship of the Savior, alongside the resurrected righteous.

  20. Dave on October 29, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Nice discussion, Julie. I see the term “dispensation” as having come from the Mormon adoption (in the early 20th century) of the dispensationalism doctrines of the fundamentalists. Marking out this one as “the dispensation of the fullness of times” just highlights our Mormon dispensation as better than any previous one. I may be wrong, but it seems like the use of the term “dispensation” is much reduced in contemporary LDS discourse such as General Conference talks. Probably a good thing.