Dispensation (οἰκονομία, management, prop. of household affairs, hence Engl. economy; "stewardship," Lu 16:2-4; "edifying," 1Ti 1:4, apparently reading οἰκοδομή).
(1.) By the divine dispensations are generally meant those methods or schemes which are devised and pursued by the wisdom and goodness of God in order to manifest his perfections and will to mankind, for the purpose of their instruction, discipline, reformation, and advancement in rectitude of temper and conduct, for the promotion of their happiness. These have 'varied in different ages' of the world, and have been adapted by the wisdom and goodness of God to the circumstances of his intelligent and accountable creatures. Divines designate these various dispensations as the Patriarchal, the Mosaic or Jewish, and the Christian; the first commencing with Adam, and reaching to the giving of the law; the second from the giving of the law to the death of Christ; the third from the death of Christ to the end of the world. All these were adapted to the circumstances of the family of man at these different periods: all, in regular succession, were mutually connected, and rendered preparatory to one another: all were subservient to the design of saving the world, and promoting the perfection and happiness of its rational and moral inhabitants (Watson, Theol. Dictionary, s.v.). "There is, perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy, and wherein orthodox divines so much differ, as in stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ" (Jona. Edwards, On Full Communion, Works, N.Y. 1848, 1:160). See Pye Smith, First Lines of Christian Theology, book 4, chapter 3; Fletcher, Works (N.Y. ed.), volumes 2, 3, and the art. SEE FEDERAL THEOLOGY.
(2.) Dispensations of Providence are any particular or unusual modes of visible treatment to which, under the divine government, mankind are subjected. They are either merciful or in judgment, though what appear to belong to the latter class are often blessings in disguise (Buck, Theol. Dict. s.v.). SEE PROVIDENCE.
(3.) The word dispensation is used in ecclesiastical law to signify a power granted by the Church authorities to do or leave undone something which otherwise is not allowed. The Roman ecclesiastical law grants to the pope the right and power of dispensing with the law in certain (and numerous) cases, and of deputing this power to bishops and other church officers. "The limits of the dispensing power have been the subject of much discussion, not only in controversy with Protestants, but among Roman Catholics themselves. It is held by the extreme advocates of papal power that the pope may dispense in any divine law, except the articles of faith; by others, that his dispensing power does not extend to express precepts of the New Testament; some say that his dispensation is valid only when it proceeds upon just cause; some, that it is not properly a relaxation of the law's obligation, but merely a declaration that in the particular case the law is not applicable. The usage of the Church of Rome, however, agrees with the opinions of her theologians in making the pope supreme in releasing from oaths and vows; and a decree of the Council of Trent anathematizes all ,who deny the power of the Church to grant dispensations for marriages within the prohibited degrees of the Mosaic law; while the multiplied prohibited degrees of the canon law give much occasion for the more frequent exercise of the same power" (Chambers). The dispensations in the Church of Rome are divided by Roman Catholic writers into papal and episcopal, pro foro externo et interno (according to the public or secret character of the impediment to be removed), dispensationes justitice et gratiae. Roman Catholics generally admit the fact that in former times it was common for bishops and provincial councils to dispense from general Church laws, and that only since Innocent III the canon law provides in what cases bishops and provincial councils may grant dispensations, while in all cases a special authorization by the pope is required — in cases pro foro externo through the apostolic Dataria, and in cases pro foro interno through the Poenitentiaria. SEE CURIA ROMANA. If the communication with the pope is interrupted, or if there is danger in delay, and the granting of the papal dispensation be highly probable, the bishop may exceptionally grant a dispensation which ordinarily is reserved to the pope; but in such cases the papal sanction must be solicited as soon as possible. The authorization of the bishops to grant dispensations is partly renewed every fifth year (facultates quinquennales), and partly given as a personal distinction (facultates extraordinariae); but they can only exercise it as papal delegates. "The only kind of dispensations now in use in England are those granted by a bishop to a clergyman to enable him to hold more benefices than one, or to absent himself from his parish. Formerly the pope's dispensations in England, as elsewhere, prevailed against the law of the land, not in ecclesiastical matters only, but in all that large department of civil affairs which, by an interested fiction, was brought within the scope of ecclesiastical government. This abuse was swept away at the Reformation by 25 Henry VIII, c. 21. The power of the pope was then conferred on the archbishop of Canterbury, in so far as it was not contrary to the law of God. The granting of special licenses of marriage, and the like, is the only form in which it is ever exercised. In former times, the crown claimed a dispensing power in civil, similar to that of the pope in ecclesiastical matters. The power was grossly abused by James II, and was consequently abolished by the Bill of Rights. The privilege of granting pardons in capital cases is the only form in which the dispensing power of the crown still exists" (Chambers).
In the Protestant churches of the Continent of Europe, the right of dispensing with ecclesiastical laws has devolved upon the princes, who generally exercise it through the Consistories. If the prince needs an ecclesiastical dispensation himself, he usually calls for the opinion of a theological faculty.-Herzog, Real-Encykl. 3:423; Wetzer u. Welte, Kirch.- Lex. 4:178; Barrow, Works (N.Y. ed.), 3:204 sq., 278.