Christian Life 

Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism

Two contradictory and competing 'systematic theologies' have been, and remain very influential in shaping Christian belief and action.
 
 
 

 

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Preface

The following article is a modified extract from an earlier article entitled 'A Covenant-keeping God'. The latter, which contains an overview of the major Biblical covenants, is itself part of a 'Drilling Down' series of articles (a 'work in progress').
 

Foreword:

Theological constructs;
frameworks of interpretation
(aka Systematic Theology)

 


Regarding interpretational systems and frameworks or – to use the fancy term – hermeneutics, it is important to note the distinction between terms which are ‘theological’ and those which are ‘biblical’. Theological terms need to be treated with great caution.
Whilst they might be convenient in the discussion of key biblical themes and concepts (e.g. the term ‘Trinity’ as used in reference to the triune Godhead) these are essentially – in the grand sweep of history – neologisms.
They are essentially religious rather than biblical terms or, to use another word, ‘inventions’. They are often lacking clear definition and, across the Christian spectrum, experience differing levels of (dis)agreement and common understanding.
An example is the word ‘sacrament’. It is not found in the Bible and theologians have differed regarding the precise nature of a ‘sacrament’ and also what is (and isn’t ) covered by the term. (See New World Encyclopedia on the subject.) And the different opinions are not confined to the clichéd Roman Catholic/Protestant divisions. The Reformers Luther and Zwingli were famously in disagreement over Communion.

It is also important to differentiate between inductive learning and deductive reasoning. The former derives a view directly from (out of and formed by) the Bible text (exegesis): the latter is arrived at by a process of logic. For instance (and only for the sake of illustration) if it is held that God predestines some to salvation, then logic should dictate that God must, by extension, predestine some to a lost eternity. The use of logic can produce doctrines that are arrived at by eisegesis (reading into a Bible text from a particular and pre-suppositional theological framework).
Clever murder mysteries use 'deduction' to lead the reader or viewer on a false trail and to suspect the wrong person of the crime. (But of course Hercule Poirot's incisive and 'out-of-the-box'  thinking shames the logic of we armchair sleuths every time.)

This is not to detract from the benefits of Systematic Theology which (in plainer language) is merely a themed approach to Bible study, but rather to highlight that theological suppositions should never be placed on a par with or, infinitely worse still, sit above the Word of God.
 

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Introduction

 
Two major theological systems -
 
(which contradict each other whilst also failing the Berean test: Acts 17:10-11).

EO logo1Caveat: Whilst focussing on particular interpretations, this is an 'equal opportunities' document in that it offers scope for upset right across the theological spectrum.

In the Christian community across the world there are a variety of theological positions. However two of these have gained widespread support and – whilst disagreeing with one another – have both been highly influential in the formulation of belief. And it is important to stress again that these are theological constructs. The earliest of the two has been termed ‘Covenant Theology (mainly formulated and codified in the 17th century; see Footnote): the other being ‘Dispensationalism’ (with its origins in the 19th century).
 
The former is a central plank within Presbyterian churches around the world and across the (Presbyterian) denominational spectrum. The latter originated in the UK (pioneered by those within what became the Plymouth Brethren), but crossed the Atlantic to become hugely influential in the late 19th century. Dispensationalism informed the belief of the pentecostal churches at the start of the 20th century and has, since then, expanded both denominationally and geographically.

 
Covenant Theology

 


Covenant Theology






Covenant Theology (CT) developed two principal terms to describe its dual covenant interpretational framework viz. a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace. (Some argue that there is only one covenant – the Covenant of Grace. Others include a Covenant of Redemption between the Father and the Son.) These theological terms have been employed to develop a whole range of doctrines and, because of the influence that they have had, we will (d.v.) come back to these later in more detail.

However, for the moment and with reference to the most common 'dual-covenant' view – developed first by Dudley Fenner, an English Puritan, in 1585; and then Scottish theologian Robert Rollock (1555 - 1598)  – it is sufficient to say that the (theological) Covenant of Works is used to denote the period prior to the Fall in the Garden of Eden. In simple terms the Covenant of Works would say: “If Adam and Eve had obeyed the instructions given to them then they would have been OK. “ However Adam and Eve didn’t, so God had to embark on Plan B – the Covenant of Grace.”

This term – again simply speaking, but remembering that it is a theological expression, not a biblical, one – covers the continuous period from the Fall until the final consummation and Kingdom come.
However this span of time is (it is argued) split into two ‘administrations’ (again a non-biblical term); basically delineated by the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT) periods. In these two ‘administrations’ (it is said) God applied the same principles but in two different situations and in two different ways to the one people of God. These were Israelites in the OT and believers (Gentile and Jewish) in NT times.

Whilst this is a convenient hermeneutic, it is not biblical. The nation of Israel was in effect a theocracy within which some were in communion with God (cf Heb. 11) while others were very obviously not. In contrast the church (in the true sense of the bride of Christ) comprises solely of people in blood-bought communion with God.
So 'OT Israel = OT expression of church' is both overly-simplistic and grossly misleading . As a corollary, 'Church = Israel' is also untrue. (More on this below.) But as Covenant Theology has been widely accepted as ‘biblical’ it has led directly to (for instance) infant baptism. Accordingly paedobaptism is claimed to be the NT equivalent of circumcision – even though circumcision was never the symbol of salvation and union with God; and was only ever applied to males. [Again, more on this at later date (d.v.) when looking at 'Who are Abraham's seed?']

One of the other principal, and even more serious, mistakes deriving from Covenant Theology has led to what is commonly called ‘Replacement Theology’. This ‘theology’ – also termed Supercessionism – teaches that the Jews have now been ‘replaced’ by the mainly-Gentile church and (therefore, by deduction and logic) the promises to the Jews have now either all been fulfilled or spiritualised;or will find any contemporary or future fulfillment in the church. (So for instance many older Bibles have chapter headings for Isaiah 59 as “God’s curses on the Jews” and Isaiah 60 as “God’s blessings on the Church”.)
The ‘replacement’ view is most emphatically rejected by Paul in his letter to the (Jewish and Gentile) church at Rome. In fact this is his core message (Rom 11:1-2; 11-12) and the underlying reason for writing this – his longest – letter.

 

Dispensationalism

 


Dispensationalism







In contrast to Covenant Theology the other system of interpretation that has attracted widespread support is that of Dispensationalism.

There is a view that Dispensationalism (as distinct from, but embracing pre-millennialism) has its genesis in a Scottish believer (Margaret Macdonald; 1815-1840) and a Church of Scotland minister (Rev. Edward Irving; 1792-1834). What is undisputed is the fact the John Nelson Darby (founder of the Plymouth Brethren as a distinct grouping with its roots in the wider Brethren movement) is the latter-day father of this theological system. Darby took his pre-tribulation rapture teachings (the removal of believers from the earth prior to the return of Christ and before the ‘great tribulation’ of Matt. 24) to America where they were enthusiastically embraced by a lawyer called Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921).
 
Scofield in turn produced the Scofield Reference Bible (first published 1909) which is annotated throughout in support of Darby’s interpretations – especially with reference to eschatology, the end-time prophecies and events regarding Christ’s return. The Scofield Bible has been hugely influential right through to the present day – in America and right around the world. The teachings are now being propagated through the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Dallas Theological Seminary, and more than 200 other lesser-known Bible institutes..

Dispensationalism divides history into sections, covering the periods of Innocence, Conscience, Civil Government, the Patriarchs, the Law, Grace (the church age), the Millennium and the final consummation leading to the everlasting kingdom. However, and perhaps because this theological system lacks biblical warrant,  there is a range of opinions (disagreement) on how many dispensations there are (varying from three to eight) and where, in history and in Scripture, the dividing lines lie.
But irrespective of the number of dispensations, the agreed assumption is that God has dealt differently with his world and its people in each of these different dispensations. Accordingly then a different hermeneutic needs to be applied to the different portions of Scripture which cover these different periods of time.

What is also generally agreed is that the church age is a parenthesis – a defined interlude – in God’s overall plan of salvation i.e. in the OT is God dealing through the Jews while the NT is the time of the Gentile church until Jesus’s rapture of the saints
(with a pre/post/mid-Tribulation rapture range of views) . This will usher in a further period of God again dealing with and through the Jews.

Dispensational teaching has been greatly popularised and adopted through hugely-influential and best-selling books like Hal Lindsey’s ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ (1970) and the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels by Tim LaHaye. The Left Behind books – the first in the series appeared in 1995 – have sold over 50 million copies, and have been turned into a cinema production. The books are freely available from and often prominently displayed in Christian bookshops.
As stated earlier, the core element of these novels is the ‘pre-tribulation rapture’ which, as already stated, teaches that all Christians will be suddenly and without any warning removed from the earth prior to the return of Christ. (See Footnotes.) However, and apart from the wider Christian community, even within the Brethren camp there was disagreement. George Mueller (of Bristol Orphanage fame) broke with Darby over this issue. The great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon also declared the teaching to be unscriptural. Nevertheless the doctrine has persisted.
 
 In summation...
 

 Both Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism have been and continue to be highly influential in formulating Christian belief, but both are disputed.

Covenant Theology dismisses swathes of end-time prophecy as irrelevant or allegorical, and sees no place in God’s final purposes for the Jews other than (perhaps) a final ingathering as outlined in Romans. In terms of latter-day expectations prior to the return of Jesus, the former implicitly teaches a universally positive response to the Gospel (reading more into Matt. 24:14 than the verse allows; cf Matt 7:14).

Meanwhile, though recognising the prophesied 'time of great trouble' (Dan 12:1; Matt 24; 2 Tim. 3:1-12), Dispensationalism (in pre-tribulation rapture form), teaches that believers will be spirited away, leaving the Jews to face the music of Satan’s final onslaught. (See Footnotes.)
So while the Gentile believers look down from a safe vantage point in heaven (as God's 'heavenly people'), the Jews will be God's latter-day 'earthly people' who will suffer greatly but endure through the Great Tribulation. Within the Dispensationalist view, Matthew 24 (et al)  and, for some, Revelation chapters 4 - 19 are seen as only of academic interest  – given the belief that the Gentile saints will be in heaven during that period.

Regarding God’s end-time purposes for the Jews, Dispensational Theology cannot get the church and Israel together, whereas Covenant Theology cannot get the church and Israel apart. The former sees the Jews and the church as totally different entities separated by ethnicity and end-time progression, whereas the latter see Israel and the Jews as essentially an earlier expression of the church, differentiated only by two separate and distinct ‘administrations’ of time (OT/NT) in God’s grace. In fact Israel was/is a physical nation comprising the saved and the lost (Rom 9:7), whereas followers of Christ are a spiritual nation made up exclusively of the redeemed (Gal 3:7,8; 1 Pet 2:9).
 
At the very least it can be confidently stated that because these two systems disagree markedly with one another, they cannot both be completely right. (And it could be argued that in critical issues they are both wrong.) Yet both of these systems have created expectations and assumptions which could leave believers scripturally askew; vulnerable through false hopes; and ill-prepared to understand the times and the purposes of God in our day as the cosmic upheavals preceding Kingdom Come drawn ever nearer.

At the risk of vain repetition, the theological systems of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism lack Biblical support in major areas of doctrine, theology and eschatology. Moreover they profoundly disagree with each other on very significant points – especially concerning the times preceding the coming again of Christ; the place of, and God’s purposes for the Jewish people; and the establishment of His everlasting kingdom.

 
Footnotes:

1. Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the church as taught by most Dispensationalists. The view held is that Christ will have two comings: the first will be invisible 'for the saints' and the second 'with the saints'.
pre-trib rapture

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Westminster Confession2. The Westminister Confession of Faith (1644) codifies much of what is described as 'Calvinism' and is subscribed to as a 'Subordinate Standard' by Presbyterian denominations worldwide.

The document is predicated on so-called 'Covenant Theology' and contains material which is, in the broad sweep of the formulation Biblical, extra-biblical, and unbiblical representing Truth mixed with error.
It is also deficient in failing to cover some some major biblical themes: making bare mention of the person and role of the Holy Spirit, and with no mention of the Great Commission.

3. The Millennium
MillenniumBroadly speaking Reformed (Covenant) theology teaches the Millennium as being a definite period prior to the coming again of Christ at the end of the age. However, the early church believed in a literal Millennial reign of Christ on earth.
While many today share this view, not all who do are Dispensationlists (i.e. all Dispensationlists are pre-millennial but not all Pre-Millennialists adhere to Dispensationalism). See article The (Coming) Millennium by a Scottish lay preacher and city mission superintendent.

The Editor, 30/07/2013

Feedback:
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John Miller 13/08/2013 18:48
I'll rejoin the discussion as soon as possible. Other responsibilities are restricting my participation at the moment. Blessings to all.
Colin Ford (Guest) 13/08/2013 21:27
Editor,
Sorry for being so late with my response.
As I have intimated before, yes we can manufacture as many dispensations as we like. But I believe that Scripture teaches TWO ages; pre Messianic and Messianic.
When I use the expression "the Day of the Lord", as I have said many times before, I believe this IS the 1000 year reign. But clearly this LONG Day has a start and an end, and Scripture teaches this. The Day of the Lord starts when He Comes according to 1 Thessalonians 4.16, 1 Corinthians 15.52 & Matthew 24.31 etc. This Day will finish at the end of the blessed millennial, 1000 year reign, when Satan will be "loosed a little season" Revelation 20.3, Revelation 20.7-8. At this time the great white throne judgment takes place Revelation 20.11, this is the great assize when the books are opened, Revelation 20.12-13, it is at this time the second death takes place Revelation 20.14-15.This is when the unrighteous dead are resurrected, Daniel 12.2, Acts 24.15, Matthew 25.46. Then after this comes the eternal state, Revelation 21.1.
I believe 1 Thessalonians 5.2 and 2 Peter 3.10 speak of the same time, there is only one Day of the Lord.
I would rather not comment on Scofield's bible!! It has led many, many astray.
There is MUCH confusion within Dispensationalim, as you have found out, there is also great disharmony in respect of their understanding of Scripture. The pre tribulation, or imminent, any moment rapture, is the one thing they ALL agree upon!
As regards Joel 2.30-31, Matthew 24.29, Acts 2.20 all speak of these signs BEFORE the Day of the Lord, of course! Let us turn back to Genesis 1.14, the "lights in the firmament of heaven" WERE appointed for SIGNS!?
Now I believe this to be true, according to my understanding of Scripture, what I have posted, otherwise I wouldn't have posted it?
But, I would ask all to check these things out. If I have posted any error, please let me know.
Colin Ford (Guest) 13/08/2013 21:45
As I posted my last comment, a thought occurred to me, as they sometimes do!
There does appear to be much talk in the media at present about all sorts of cosmic events going on, comets, meteor showers, asteroids etc.
Indeed, these signs ARE happening, and will continue to intensify?

Editor 14/08/2013 01:08
Colin, you re-stated my earlier view: "There is MUCH confusion within Dispensationalism"

However, on the subject of eschatology, there is also, it needs to be said, much confusion within 'Conservative Evangelicalism/Reformed Presbyterianism/Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity'.

And if we read 'the Day of the Lord' exclusively as a 'long day' of 1000 years then we run into the problem that it is portrayed as a bleak period (Amos 5:18-20 et al). This cannot be said of the whole millennium period which is predominantly a time of great blessing. But of course the Amos verse most surely refers to the forthcoming exile and captivity and not the end times.

The plea I would make is that we all avoid dogmatism on this question and accept that there are some difficulties with every position (although I would say that with some there are more difficulties than with others).

With regards the prophet Daniel's experience some things were explained to him (Dan 8:19; 10:14), others were hidden from him (Dan 12:9).
And for us all there will be some things which will only become clear -
(a) when they are realised (Dan 12:4; Acts 2:16) and others
(b) in glory (1 Cor. 13:12).

The original article relates to the two conflicted systems of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (respectively).
Both may have some things right, but both would appear to have some things wrong.

Colin Ford (Guest) 14/08/2013 11:26
Editor,
There IS much confusion everywhere!!??
But Covenant Theology, so-called, or rather MCT (Millennial Covenant Theology) is about what I believe the Bible teaches.
I believe that Dispensationalism rips the heart out of the gospel message, creating two separate people groups; when we are all ONE in Christ? That I do believe.
I certainly have a problem with traditional Conservative, Reformed,Presbyterian, Calvinistic, and Protestant Churches; you walk in there and feel alien! You feel guilty if you cough, put a foot out of place etc. And plus the fact they are nearly all a-millennial or post millennial! But also this Charismatic, Pentecostal movement, has given birth to far, far and far away the worst excesses of doctrinal error, in my opinion at least!

In regards Amos 5.18-20, of course, there would appear to be a problem. But surely there is NO problem? Messiah's Day, or THE Day of the Lord is the 1000 year reign, but of course it starts with a literal 24 hour day, just as in the creation account in Genesis 1.5? And it will finish with a last 24 hour day then there will be "time no longer" Revelation 10.6?
If this were not the case, how on earth could anyone make sense of 2 Peter 3.10? The time it took me to get my head round that verse! But he does quote Psalm 90.4, two verses earlier which clears the problem up?
Nathaniel West; in his classic work on the 1000 years, on Psalm 90.4/ 2 Peter 3.8, "The one day was in Peter's mind 24 hours. The "1000 years" were alike literal."
I would of course agree with you about "dogmatism", but if we would learn from God's Word me must learn to differentiate? The Day of the Lord is also a title?
We have a similar problem at the other end when Christians believe in that awful gap theory?
Certainly the 1000 year reign will be anything but bleak! According to Amos 5.18-20, reading the chapter/context there are people who desire this day (1000 years) whose hearts are not right with God? Doing a brief study this morning; these verses read in conjunction with Joel 1.15, tell us that "destruction is at hand", this is at the beginning of the Day of the Lord?
I think we often forget the Hebrew mindset, to whom these Scriptures were primarily written to; were they not written to a people awaiting the Messianic Kingdom? I would like to know.
I should add; many thanks for giving me the opportunity to discuss these great matters.
Colin Ford (Guest) 14/08/2013 13:23
To those that are interested, Nathaniel West, was a Hebrew scholar of note. He was originally influenced by Dispensationalism, thus believing in the pre tribulation rapture; but through his study of Hebrew eschatology, and obviously the NT, he came to reject pre tribulationism.
John Ferguson (Guest) 14/08/2013 15:41
I believe the Day of The Lord comes as a thief in the night.A great and terrible day Joel 2:2;11;31 Mal 4:1 1Thess 5:2-3 2 Peter 3:10 .After which The Day of God is ushered in 2 Peter 3:12
I.as a Diipensatioalist keep the snatching up of the saints quite distinct from the Day of The Lord. Many have misapplied the term,and it has been constantly asserted that Second Epistle to the Thessalonians was written to shew the saints that it was wrong to be expecting the return of Lord; whereas the fact is they thought the Day of The Lord had come.the First Epistle keeps the two things quite distinct ,compare 1 Thes 4:13-18 with 1 Thess 5:1-5 and this could come until Antichrist was revealed.
There will be judgments before the millennium,and judgements after the millennium ,so that we may regard The Day of The Lord as extending through th millennium.Itwill be the Lord's day in contrast man's day.
Editor 16/08/2013 11:06
John (just to be clear) are you saying that the rapture is the Day of the Lord (i.e. as a 'thief in the night')?
John Ferguson (Guest) 16/08/2013 11:18
Editor.
No I don't think the rapture is The Day of The Lord ,it is not the thief in night believers are expecting it at any moment.
Colin Ford (Guest) 16/08/2013 14:47
It appears that the second epistle to the Thessalonians was written in vain for pre tribulationists. The view had got about in the Church at Thessalonica that the Day of the Lord, which was to be characterised and and introduced by two events-the Lord's Coming in triumph (as shown in 1 Thessalonians 4.16) and the muster of the elect (1 Thessalonians 4.17)- had actually arrived: But, says Paul "Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exhalteth himself above all that is worshipped " (2 Thessalonians 2.3-4 KJV). And then the Apostle refers to Antichrist's own Coming and success, and his complete overthrow by our Lord at His "Appearing and Arrival"-employing the two words that are used again and again for the Church's hope: Appearing, which in Titus 2.13 is emphatically said to be "the blessed hope," and Coming which all pre-tribulationists apply to it.
According to pre tribulationists the Day of the Lord's Coming precedes the arrival of Antichrist. Paul says men that teach such a thing are deceivers. "Let no man deceive you by any means" 2 Thessalonians 2.3, this ALL means people, even those with familiarity of the Bible, his piety, personal prestige, dogmatism, nor even by his having been used of God to teach much truth-BE NOT DECEIVED; the Apostasy and the Antichrist MUST come first.
It is somewhat unfortunate because of the chapter break between 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, but we must ever remember Paul didn't insert chapter and verse, it was one seamless letter. So obviously the first several verse of chapter 5 are a natural continuation of the last verses of chapter 4.

Pre tribulationism, secret Coming, Darbyism, any momentism, imminence etc, this is all the work of errant Dispensational theology, but I doubt if many will dig to it's roots to find out the truth. Paul knew of no pre trib rapture, he didn't teach such a doctrine; it was imported INTO his words.
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