Covenant Theology vs Dispensational Theology Part I: Introduction

I’ll likely be poking a bear of some kind with this series of blogs. For that reason, I want to make sure in the open here that what I do is set the tone for this. This is not meant to cause division among the body, it is not meant to slander, nor to attack any of my brothers and sisters on the other side of the issue. My hope and earnest prayer is that this can provide two prominent objectives.

Firstly, to offer my stance on eschatology, and second, the desire in showing error in one view, I am not cutting down, but rather edifying fellow believers who disagree with me. I hope and pray that my readers that disagree with me, do not see this as angst against them, but my desire to have cordial respect for one another, despite our disagreements, and even in spite of what will sometimes in this series appear to be me being harsh towards them.

I want to also make note here in the beginning that almost everything you will read in this series is my position, not necessarily a hardline amillennialist, nor postmillennialist. I note this to emphasize the fact that I take this position entirely on the basis of my own study of Scripture, not just for “team amill” or “team postmill”, and I think I will prove that with how I argue my points; no talking points are borrowed from anyone throughout this, though I will likely line up with particular teachers and/or groups.

Hermenutics

I think it’s most important to begin with hermenutics. What are hermenutics? Put plainly, it is the science and study of interpretation; hermenutics deals with the study of Scripture much like epistemology deals with the study of human knowledge. It asks the fundamental question, what is the proper way to interpret and understand Scripture, so that we take it all in the most consistent and coherent fashion? In a sense, this question has at its principle foundation, Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)–the belief that Scripture is God-breathed, and as such, is the only thing the church possesses in physical form that is of divine origin. Hence it being so, it is the sole rule of faith and practice for Christians.

With that assumption defined, we must move on to say that Sola Scriptura must assume that the infallible God speaks His word infallibly, and hence all Scripture is true, and self-consistent. If we take this assumption, one all true Christians accept, then problems with biblical interpretation arise out of our own ignorance, sin and fallibility, not Scripture. This must necessarily force us to re-evaluate our interpretive grid; more often than not, poor understandings of Scripture arise out of invalid presuppositions that are taken to Scripture, interpret Scripture, rather than allowing the consistent biblical witness to define our presuppositions.

This is why hermenutics are important. Above all else, it forces us to have to do intense self-scrutiny, to ensure we are doing justice to God’s word, and in doing it justice, we glorify Him best, and live more properly in this world. If we find that we are using double standards with hermenutical principles, if we cannot take Scripture as a whole, if we must change our interpretations for one that we do not allow for another, this is a major sign of inconsistency of hermenutics; something is wrong with our presuppositions. We should be able to use a single form of hermenutics that gets us the Trinity, gets us the central tenants of the faith, like justification, the deity of Christ and even the inspiration of Scripture.

When we are not self-aware of our hermenutics, we are a slave to invincible ignorance, where we are never considering anything I just mentioned above. We no longer become concerned with consistency, we are concerned with a particular theological position that requires a different hermenutical approach that we do not use for another position. We ought to view our theological system, which overlays Scripture, as a tree with many branches. The branches are the different subjects pertaining to Scripture’s discourse, while the tree–the base itself–is the core, the nexus of those branches. We ought not instead view our interpretive principles as file cabinets all separated from each other, where you have this set of principles and passages for justification, but another for the church and so on. This allows us to make play dough of Scripture, to make it whatever we want, and this does not honor God.

Covenant Theology

This is where this conversation needs to begin, and hence, the real struggle of eschatology always goes back to the interpretive grid we are starting with, not so much the passages we are proof-texting. What I am going to do for the remainder of this introduction is to give summaries of the two schools that are in view of this subject, not to make this subject simplistic, but to keep things at a layman’s perspective.

The first we are going to discuss is what is called Covenant Theology. Covenant theology is an over-arching biblical grid of interpretation that sees God’s redemptive plan workout by covenants. This is held both in the Old Testament, as well as the New. Covenant theologians view even the church age as covenantal. God has not changed His ways of dealing with His people; He has dealt with His people in the New Covenant just as He did with the Old.

The obvious question one would raise is that if that is the case, why are the New Covenant people not gathering around temples, sacrificing goats and rams anymore, and do not have priests nor a high priest? In covenant theology, while God’s essential dealing with His people (and really, all humanity, fallen or redeemed) is the same, the method or mode by which He does this changes. Dispensationalists will likely ask what the difference is then between a covenanter and a dispensationalist. The difference really is one single word: fulfillment. Dr. John MacArthur in a sermon, Why Every Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist, built his sermon up to one big question towards the middle where he essentially asks, “The big question is, has God taken the promises from Israel?”

In all due respect to the great Dr. MacArthur, that actually isn’t the big question. The real big question is, “Has God taken the promises from Israel, or has He fulfilled the promises?” And that is the difference between two little but big words in this debate–are we talking about replacement, or fulfillment? Covenant theologians believe what God has done is fulfilled the Old Covenant in Christ, and as a result, ratifies the New Covenant. This results in the New Testament revelation.

Covenant theologians recognize essentially three covenants in all of biblical history. In their order, it begins with,

  1. The Covenant of Redemption: made in the godhead from all eternity, before God created the world.
  2. The Covenant of works: Made between God and Adam, of which Adam broke and cursed his seed with sin.
  3. The Covenant of Grace: Coming full circle to the first covenant, how God saves His people through His own fulfillment of the covenants He made to Israel in the Old Testament, the blessings of which He distributes by grace, to all His elect.

These three covenants are not to be seen as separate from each other, but as intertwined, or related to each other. You can think of it as a machine requiring power to work. The machine itself can do nothing, and possesses no power. But with a power generator, or a battery that gives it life, the machine now works. The machine needs the batteries to work; the batteries need the machine to fulfill their purpose. Neither works without the other. In covenant theology, we see the covenants build on one another and in the ultimate revelation of God, which is the Incarnate Son, we see Christ not doing away with the old covenant as though it was a bad idea, but he rather fulfills it, and reigns in the new and greater covenant, which was always God’s purposes for all His elect, Jew and Gentile alike.

Dispensationalism

We have looked at Covenant Theology in brief, and now we will compare that with Dispensationalism. In this view, we look at the whole history of Scripture, and indeed our own time, not as successive covenants being fulfilled on top of one another, but rather as periods of time in which God changes the way He deals with humanity, and particularly His people. That is to say, there are different dispensations (hence the name) of God’s redemptive work. In total, Dispensationalism distinguishes between seven dispensations in the following order:

  1. Of Innocence (pre-fall).
  2. Of Conscience (post-fall; Adam to Noah)
  3. Of Government (Noah to Abraham)
  4. Of Patriarchal Rule (i.e., of promise; Abraham to Moses)
  5. Of the Mosaic Law (Moses to Christ)
  6. Of Grace (The current church age)
  7. Of a thousand years of Christ’s Millenial Kingdom (Yet to come).

This is the paradigm, or grid by which Dispensationalism views the entire biblical narrative. As stated, it sees God’s activity continue throughout time in different ways, not rather in the covenantal way. This is the main area in which Dispensationalists and Covenantalists differ, and hence what we want to focus upon. However, there are a few particulars of Dispensationalism that need to be considered.

Dispensationalism by presupposition adheres to a pre-tribulation Rapture. In this respect, dispensationalists differ from the historic premillennial view in that while premillennialism believes that the millennial kingdom comes later (confessing this with dispensationalism), nevertheless, premillennialism typically does not have the particular view that the church will be removed from the earth before the tribulation comes that sets the stage for the thousand-year reign of Christ.

Dispensationalism is unique in this point, and it is such because of what we hinted at with John MacArthur. One who is new to this subject may ask, what does Israel have to do with this? Everything, really, and especially if you are Dispensational. Along with the pre-tribulation Rapture, the Dispensationalist believes God has two distinct types of people, and it must hold to this, as its central position (that God deals with man in dispensations, not by successive covenants) leads one to believe that God has a particular way in which He deals with one people in a certain point in time, and has another for a different group. In this case, God has a particular way (or dispensation) in which He deals with Israel as a nation, and a particular way in which He deals with the church.

Let’s quickly set aside an objection that might be raised about this system, which is the idea that if this is true, are there no Jews being saved right now? Of course there are! I can’t imagine a Dispensationalist who would not say this was true. Why, then, if that is true, is God bringing Jews in the church? If He does not deal with Israel as He deals with the church, why are Jews part of the church? Once again, it’s an issue of dispensations. Just because we are in the dispensation of grace does not mean God cannot still save Jews. The difference is that He’s doing it in this current way, until the church age is done with, and He returns to His dealings with the nation of Israel.

Conclusion

As we close this introduction out, I want us to take the information we have looked over here, and consider this question: Now that we know the two essential views on this subject, and how they are functioning, which of the two systems is able to read the Scriptures as they are plainly stated in the text? Whose view comes out from Scripture, and whose has to constantly insert things into the text, and shift it from its plain meaning? The surest sign of eisegesis (reading something into the text, rather than letting the text teach you) is when you constantly have to fit presuppositional baggage into the passages you read.

Let’s be clear, we all do this to some extent; in a certain sense, no one can avoid the necessity of systematic thinking, and that’s a good thing. But if we find we must constantly do this, and do so in inconsistent ways, it is clear evidence of eisegesis, and not reading the text for what it clearly states. On the other hand, if you find that you can simply read the text, allow it to tell you what it means, there’s no more obvious conclusion than that you are being loyal to what God’s word says.

With these two views now established, in our next article, we’re going to begin diving into which best explains the passages.

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