Covenant Theology (CT) and dispensationalism (D) are both frameworks created by man to understand and make sense of Scripture (both the Old Testament and New Testament). They are meta-systems of analysis and synthesis. Think of them as interpretive grids. Theological propositions or rather truths are distilled into a framework that aids in understanding the complexities of Scripture. They are thus determinative in one how interprets Scripture. They are not hermeneutics, but rather they can utilize hermeneutics to aid in being faithful to Scripture and arriving at the correct understanding.
In this blog post, I will contrast CT and D and talk about some of their strengths and weaknesses. Further, I make a case for why CT is not essential to Reformed theology, and why dispensationalists can be recognized as belonging to Reformed theology. There has been, sadly, much elitism and bigotry by CT adherents towards dispensationalists.
In CT, there are 3 main covenants (a theological construct that defines man’s relationship with God):
- the covenant of works
- the covenant of grace
- the covenant of redemption
To be brief, the covenant of works encapsulates the way to salvation through perfectly obeying God. So obedience was key. This operated in the Old Testament under the Mosaic law. The covenant of grace is the path to salvation whereby believers are covered by the blood of Christ, who keeps the covenant of works on our behalf. This is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The covenant of redemption is between Christ and the Father, where Christ assents to pay for the sins of His people – the Church.
On the other hand, D is, as I said, an interpretive method that classifies our relationship with God, and His work and purposes, as best understood as occurring through several distinct periods of time. A dispensation can be thought of as the particular means God uses to deal with His creation and mankind during a particular period/epoch in redemptive history. The classical dispensationalist position puts emphasis on the glory of God as manifested in the various epochs of world history. Dispensational theologians differ on the precise number of dispensations, but the majority of scholars, both now and historically, define 7 distinct dispensations:
The first dispensation is called the Dispensation of Innocence (Genesis 1:28-30 and 2:15-17). This dispensation covered the period of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In this dispensation God’s commands were to (1) fill the earth with children, (2) subdue the earth, (3) have dominion over the animals, (4) care for the garden, and (5) abstain from eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God warned of the punishment of physical and spiritual death for disobedience. This dispensation came to an end when Adam and Eve disobeyed in eating the forbidden fruit and were expelled from the garden.
The second dispensation is called the Dispensation of Conscience, and it lasted about 1,656 years from the time of Adam and Eve’s eviction from the garden until the flood (Genesis 3:8–8:22). This dispensation demonstrates what mankind will do if left to his own will and conscience, which have been tainted by the inherited sin nature. The five major aspects of this dispensation are 1) a curse on the serpent, 2) a change in womanhood and childbearing, 3) a curse on nature, 4) the imposing of difficult work on mankind to produce food, and 5) the promise of Christ as the seed who will bruise the serpent’s head (Satan).
The third dispensation is the Dispensation of Human Government, which began in Genesis 8. God had destroyed life on earth with a flood, saving just one family to restart the human race. God made the following promises and commands to Noah and his family:
1. God will not curse the earth again.
2. Noah and family are to replenish the earth with people.
3. They shall have dominion over the animal creation.
4. They are allowed to eat meat.
5. The law of capital punishment is established.
6. There never will be another worldwide flood.
7. The sign of God’s promise will be the rainbow.
Noah’s descendants did not scatter and fill the earth as God had commanded, thus failing in their responsibility in this dispensation. About 325 years after the flood, the earth’s inhabitants began building a tower, a great monument to their solidarity and pride (Genesis 11:7-9). God brought the construction to a halt, creating different languages and enforcing His command to fill the earth. The result was the rise of different nations and cultures. From that point on, human governments have been a reality.
The fourth dispensation, called the Dispensation of Promise, started with the call of Abraham, continued through the lives of the patriarchs, and ended with the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, a period of about 430 years. During this dispensation God developed a great nation that He had chosen as His people (Genesis 12:1–Exodus 19:25).
The basic promise during the Dispensation of Promise was the Abrahamic Covenant. Here are some of the key points of that unconditional covenant:
1. From Abraham would come a great nation that God would bless with natural and spiritual prosperity.
2. God would make Abraham’s name great.
3. God would bless those that blessed Abraham’s descendants and curse those that cursed them.
4. In Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed. This is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His work of salvation.
5. The sign of the covenant is circumcision.
6. This covenant, which was repeated to Isaac and Jacob, is confined to the Hebrew people and the 12 tribes of Israel.
The fifth dispensation is called the Dispensation of Law. It lasted almost 1,500 years, from the Exodus until it was suspended after Jesus Christ’s death. This dispensation will continue during the Millennium, with some modifications. During the Dispensation of Law, God dealt specifically with the Jewish nation through the Mosaic Covenant, or the Law, found in Exodus 19–23. The dispensation involved temple worship directed by priests, with further direction spoken through God’s mouthpieces, the prophets. Eventually, due to the people’s disobedience to the covenant, the tribes of Israel lost the Promised Land and were subjected to bondage.
The sixth dispensation, the one in which we now live, is the Dispensation of Grace. It began with the New Covenant in Christ’s blood (Luke 22:20). This “Age of Grace” or “Church Age” occurs between the 69th and 70th week of Daniel 9:24. It starts with the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and ends with the Rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4). This dispensation is worldwide and includes both Jews and the Gentiles. Man’s responsibility during the Dispensation of Grace is to believe in Jesus, the Son of God (John 3:18). In this dispensation the Holy Spirit indwells believers as the Comforter (John 14:16-26). This dispensation has lasted for almost 2,000 years, and no one knows when it will end. We do know that it will end with the Rapture of all born-again believers from the earth to go to heaven with Christ. Following the Rapture will be the judgments of God lasting for seven years.
The seventh dispensation is called the Millennial Kingdom of Christ and will last for 1,000 years as Christ Himself rules on earth. This Kingdom will fulfill the prophecy to the Jewish nation that Christ will return and be their King. The only people allowed to enter the Kingdom are the born-again believers from the Age of Grace, righteous survivors of the seven years of tribulation, and the resurrected Old Testament saints. No unsaved person is allowed access into this kingdom. Satan is bound during the 1,000 years. This period ends with the final judgment (Revelation 20:11-14). The old world is destroyed by fire, and the New Heaven and New Earth of Revelation 21 and 22 will begin.https://www.gotquestions.org/seven-dispensations.html
CT adherents would claim CT is derived from Scripture and are the only proper way to view Scripture. I believe this assertion is false. D also provides a means of understanding Scripture. It is rooted in Scripture and no dispensationalist I’ve encountered would claim this is exclusively the only way to interpret Scripture.
Hermeneutics are vitally important. They consist of various rules or processes one employs in analyzing Scripture to find the correct meaning of the various texts. Both CT and D tend to use different hermeneutics, sometimes radically so.
My preferred hermeneutic is contextual literalism applied within the framework of D. Here is a blog post of mine which explains what it is:
Also, here are some principles and rules I believe aid greatly in defining a solid hermeneutic:
A great example that illustrates the differences between CT and D is the case of the relationship between Israel and the Church. CT adherents say that the Church has replaced Israel. Some balk at that choice of words and prefer to say that the Church expanded the role of Israel. But the simple fact is that if you assert that the Church has replaced Israel (known as supersessionism) you believe that all the specific and explicit promises God made to Israel were fulfilled in the Church.
This is simply a bad way to interpret Scripture. Doing theological gymnastics to explain away the clear and direct promises of God to a particular people is very wrong. Israel and the Church are distinct. God is not yet done with Israel.
We see how important hermeneutics are as they color how we see Scripture.
Historically the vast majority of Reformed scholars and pastors have followed CT as their framework of choice for interpreting Scripture. Nearly all who follow CT use hermeneutics which haven a heavy emphasis on interpreting Scripture symbolically using various literary devices such as allegory and metaphor.
Further, CT adherents’ hermeneutic asserts what is called New Testament priority. This is the belief that the New Testament is best understood as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and that the New Testament promises and covenants were either fulfilled in the New Testament under Christ or the Church. Thus the Old Testament is interpreted in light of the New Testament.
I believe this interpretive approach used by CT adherents is fraught with problems. For one there is nothing in Scripture that asserts that the Old Testament must be interpreted in light of the New Testament. Certain passages will, but not as a blanket rule. Also, I believe it is deeply wrong to allegorize or spiritualize passages of Scripture that the author intended as literal. One example is the 1,000-year Millennial reign of Christ on earth. CT adherents would assert that this was never meant as a literal period of 1,000 years and they’ll claim various interpretations.
Dispensationalism uses a historical-grammatical-cultural hermeneutic as the preferred lens for interpreting Scripture. A hermeneutic of contextual realism, which I favor, says that we must interpret Scripture in a clear and literal way (not wooden literalism such as asserting Christ is a literal door) unless the context *clearly* indicates it is better understood in an allegorical/symbolic/metaphorical way. The authorial intent behind the texts can be obscured or even obliterated and twisted to mean something completely different depending on what hermeneutic one employs.
CT adherents will say that CT is defined by/derived from Scripture and thus as they assert that the regulative principle is the only biblically faithful way to worship God and is part of Reformed theology, they also assert that CT is the only biblically faithful way to interpret Scripture in an overall framework. I disagree with both assertions. I believe one can follow D and still be Reformed. We both believe our interpretive system is warranted from Scripture, yet either CT or D one is wrong, or even both could be wrong.
By the way, I should note that D doesn’t deny the existence of covenants in Scripture. We just don’t believe that covenants are the overarching framework of redemptive history. Both CT and D were present in nascent forms in earlier periods of church history. Some adherents of CT assert that CT was present in the Early Church Fathers and that D didn’t exist until the 19th century. This type of assertion betrays great ignorance. D existed in various degrees in the 17th and 18th centuries as documented in the book “Dispensationalism Before Darby“, by William C. Watson. In fact, if we dig deeper and look further back in history we find that D existed in the Patristic period including the Early Church. This is brilliantly demonstrated in the book “Ancient Dispensational Truth: Refuting the Myth that Dispensationalism is New“, by James C. Morris.
Interestingly, there is strong evidence that both CT and D, in explicit forms, with the theology more fully fleshed out can be traced to the 17th century! In the case of CT it originated with Reformed theologian Johannes Cocceius (1609–1669).
Despite the historical evidence I’ve seen numerous times CT adherents denigrate D and falsely assert it originated with Darby in the 19th century. They also falsely assert that CT existed in explicit forms in the Early Church Fathers. This simply is not true. While it’s true that D existed in a proto or incomplete state in the Early Church Fathers it was both much more fully matured and cited much more in extant historical documents than CT.
Covenant Theology boasts
CT adherents like to make slogans such as:
- “Covenant theology is nothing more or less than the theology of the Bible.”
- “Reformed theology is covenant theology.”
Both of these slogans are bare assertions unsupported by Scripture. In fact, such assertions betray an ignorance as to what exactly a framework like CT or D is. They are higher-order systems of interpretation based on logical deduction and inference of Scripture. It’s akin to claiming a college biology book that describes our cells as the same thing as the cellular structures in our bodies. This is clearly fallacious.
Now I’ll talk about why I believe one can indeed be Reformed and utilize D as their preferred interpretive framework.
Since CT is extrinsic to Scripture it is not an essential of Reformed theology. What is essential to Reformed theology is a Calvinistic soteriology and the 5 Solas of the Reformation. D is also extrinsic to Scripture. One should be free to choose their interpretive framework of choice and still be recognized as Reformed. I see these 2 distinctive as the essential ingredients of Reformed theology. CT is an ancillary doctrine.
It should be noted that the sine qua non of Reformed theology is man glorifying God in all things. That is precisely the essence of dispensationalism.
By the way, the most popular eschatology of Reformed believers is amillennialism. Dr. Walvoord demonstrates in the article “Amillennialism in the Ancient Church” that amillennialism didn’t exist until the close of the 2nd century. Whereas premillennialism, the preferred eschatology of dispensationalists, can be traced back to the very Early Church in the 1st century. Amillennialism was fleshed out by Augustine in his book the City of God completed in 426 AD. It soon became the de facto position of the Roman Catholic church. Sadly the Reformers inherited this eschatology from the Catholic church and they didn’t go far enough in reforming to jettison this position.