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.”