A Brief Overview And Analysis of Dispensationalism As Compared to Covenant Theology
Dispensationalism takes a literal-historical-grammatical approach to Bible interpretation, it teaches progressive revelation, it distinguishes between Israel and the church, and it views all of history and the Bible as serving the ultimate purpose of pointing to Christ and glorifying God. Its name comes from the fact that it differentiates various periods of Biblical history into distinct ages, eras, or dispensations. Dispensationalism would say that God has worked differently in different times, setting up different distinguishable ages of how man was to be judged and how he was to live, all based upon what had been revealed to him in terms of expectations. There is some disagreement among dispensationalists as to how many dispensations there are and exactly what they are. Dispensationalists believe that there was a covenant of law through Moses and a new covenant of grace through Christ. In all cases, salvation was based exclusively upon grace through faith.
I believe that God has revealed Himself and His plan for salvation progressively over time, such that now we look back with a much fuller understanding than those who came before us had. This means that, though salvation is always by grace through faith, what was required to be believed by people at different times varied. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:6). Certainly, Abraham didn’t understand all that we now know about the coming of Christ and His sacrificial death, so his faith couldn’t have been based in believing precisely what we are to believe. Adam and Eve wouldn’t have known even all that Abraham knew or that King David knew. As time progressed, God kept revealing Himself to man more and more until He finally spoke to us in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). Mysteries from the Old Testament were revealed that the prophets of old had wanted to understand, but they were unable to fully grasp precisely what they were pointing to (1 Peter 1:10-12). In the New Testament times, these mysteries are revealed through Paul and the apostles as God brings the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-9) and reveals other mysteries such as marriage representing Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32), the rapture (1 Corinthians 15:51), and so on. Acts 17:30 speaks of “times of ignorance” implying that we have more understanding, revelation, and thus accountability now that the Bible is complete than those who came before us did. God has furnished proof to all men of the coming judgment, of His love for man, and of the deity of Christ in raising Him from the dead (Acts 17:31). Certainly, more is understood and revealed now than before. We will be held accountable according to the revelation we are each given, with those in the later times having more opportunity for additional revelation. Thus, I agree with the importance of progressive revelation.
Where I disagree with dispensationalism is that we can precisely distinguish the particular times where God changed how he dealt with man. Certainly there is an overhaul of the Old Mosaic covenant with the coming of Christ and the new covenant, but I do not see clear evidence that we can partition the Bible into certain, distinguishable periods beyond this. What is clear is that God has continued to reveal Himself, unfolding mysteries, bringing grace to those who respond in faith, and glorifying Himself. I definitely agree with a literal approach to the Bible as a default means of approaching it. The accounts are historical and not mere myth or allegory. Grammar does matter as God spoke ever word of Scripture purposefully (Revelation 22:18-19). When the Bible speaks symbolically, there is usually an interpretation accompanying the symbolic account or vision (prophetic literature, parables, etc.).
I agree with distinguishing between Israel and the church, though it is important to emphasize that some who are Jewish are part of the New Testament church, having converted to Christ. Traditional dispensationalists would accept this, which is a partial fulfillment to the Old Testament prophecies, though not a complete one. This will be explained more later on in this article.
I strongly disagree with ultra-dispensationalism. I reject any notion that says that some of the Bible does not apply to us today or is not relevant because we are in the “church age.” Romans 15:4 and 2 Timothy 3:16 teach clearly that the Old Testament Scriptures (and the new, by implication) are for our learning, teaching, and being equipped in this time. I also take issue with those who use 2 Timothy 2:15, which speaks of “rightly dividing the word of truth,” to justify their divisions of Scripture into dispensations. I believe that this is an extremely poor interpretation of this verse, which is clearly intended to communicate that we need to study God’s Word so that we can rightly understand it and teach it. The NAS explains this verse to mean “accurately handling the word of truth,” which is true to the original intent of the passage and to the meaning of the original languages.
Dispensationalism’s emphasis on the centrality of Christ in Scripture and the glory of God are very important as we take a God-centered view of the Bible and life rather than a man-centered one. That man is saved by grace through faith in all dispensations is also important.
Covenant theology claims to take a literal interpretation of the Bible, though those of this viewpoint often typically interpret apocryphal literature symbolically. It teaches that there were three covenants: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. The covenant of redemption was within the Godhead where God planned to redeem the elect through the atonement in Christ. The covenant of works was between Adam and God which was that Adam was to keep God’s commands. If he did, he would be saved; if he did not, he would die. Adam’s failure is thus transferred to all of humanity who must die unless they receive the grace of Christ. The covenant of grace, then, is the call of man to respond in faith and obedience to the promises of God, ultimately the death of Christ Himself. Justification is by grace through faith.
Covenant theology views the church and Israel as now synonymous. According to their position, because of Israel’s stubbornness and sin, God has removed His blessing and promise to Israel, transferring it to the church, which is, in effect, the new Israel.
Covenant theology believes that the purpose of the Bible is to glorify God and to draw attention to Christ and His work on the cross.
Dispensationalists and covenant theologians essentially agree about grace and the nature of redemption. Both do well to emphasize salvation by grace through faith and to point to the supremacy of Christ in Scripture and to the fact that God must be glorified in all things.
Covenant theology emphasizes divisions in Biblical history based upon covenants while dispensationalism emphasizes divisions based on dispensations. Though some may argue the details, the concept of parceling Biblical history into various distinguishable divisions is held in common by these two views. Though the terminology is different, this view, like dispensationalism, still implies progressive revelation as it teaches that God deals with man in respect to what has been revealed to him, which I think is a good interpretation of the Bible. There is nothing, however, in the Bible to show that there was a covenant of works given to Adam or that there was a covenant of redemption made among the Godhead. These are extra-biblical inferences, a dangerous thing to do. Dispensationalism risks doing this also as it reads into the text additional ages that the Bible doesn’t specifically acknowledge.
Both dispensationalists and covenant theologians view the church as being grafted into the promises of God to Israel through Abraham. They see the church as being part of the fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis 12:1-3 to bless the whole world through Israel. As Romans 9:8 says, “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” In other words, though Israel was not a nation for many years, the world was blessed through them as the gospel of Christ, a Jew, went forward bringing both Gentiles and Jews to saving faith as part of the church. The difference, however, is that covenant theologians teach that the church has replaced Israel, meaning that God is done dealing with the nation of Israel and His covenant promises to them no longer apply. The only application of such promises, according to covenant theology, is thus to the church and any Jew who converts to Christ. Covenant theologians do not believe that God’s promises in the Old Testament to restore and defend Israel (Zechariah 14), giving them hearts of flesh and so on (Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26), are meant to be literally applied to a future Israel. This is where their literal interpretation of the Bible breaks down. They see the promises as being transferred to the church, which they view as the new Israel. This has great implications for their view on prophecy because many do not take the prophetic and apocryphal literature to be literal when I see no reason not to keep the same Biblical method of interpretation.
Paul makes it very clear in Romans 9-11 that the Gentiles are benefactors of the failure of Israel to honor God. We have been given the mercy of God to be grafted in to the eternal family of God, whereas Israel was God’s chosen nation on earth. Only Israel had priests, but now we are the priests of God. Israel was God’s holy nation, but now the church is God’s holy people (1 Peter 2:9). Yet it doesn’t end with God turning His back on Israel forever. Romans 11:1-2a says, “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” Paul goes on to explain that there is a faithful remnant of Israel which has believed on Christ, but this is not the sole fulfillment of God’s promise to give Israel new hearts. Paul explains in Romans 11:11-12, “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” The point is clear: Israel’s failure has led to blessing for the rest of the world, so how much more will their restoration to faithfulness as a people bless the world! In other words, they will come back to God, and God is not finished with them yet. As Romans 11:15 says, “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” Dispensationalists believe strongly that Israel as a people will come to accept Christ and return to God. Their hardening is only temporary so that God’s Word will go forth to the world, and God will change Israel’s hearts and save them. Romans 11:25-27 says, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery--so that you will not be wise in your own estimation--that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB. THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.’” That God will save the Jewish nation which is alive at His coming is the clear teaching of Scripture. The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, and God will show Israel mercy as a people in the last days (Romans 11:29-31).
Zechariah 12 describes the final battle when the armies of the earth converge on Jerusalem to destroy it. Many Jews will be there, and God will fight for His people. Here is what will happen to Israel at this point according to Zechariah 12:10, “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.” Finally, the house of David, Israel, will recognize Christ as the Messiah Who did come and Who is now setting up the kingdom on earth that they have desired for so long. These will have endured the tribulation period, according to dispensationalism, and they will repent as Christ then comes and sets up a millennial kingdom on earth. Covenant theology rejects this interpretation along with the idea of a millennial kingdom (c.f. Ezekiel 40-48), tribulation period, and so on. In their view, when Christ returns, He returns. The rest is all symbolic, a strange conclusion to draw for those who intend to take the Bible literally.