Dispensational and Covenant Theology

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Within evangelical theology, people tend to view the Bible’s overarching storyline within the larger views of dispensational and covenant theology, with progressive covenantalism serving as a mediating view. In previous articles, progressive covenantalism has been described, but in this post, I will describe some of the distinctive points of the other two views.

Dispensational Theology

As a movement, Dispensationalism began in the early nineteenth-century among the Brethren in England and quickly spread to other countries. It was originally associated with such names as John Darby (1800–1882), Benjamin Newton (1807–1899), and George Müller (1805–1898), and in North America with such names as D. L. Moody (1837–1899), J. R. Graves (1820–1893), and C. I. Scofield (1843–1921) and the Scofield Reference Bible. Probably the most extensive dispensational systematic theology is Lewis Sperry Chafer’s eight-volume work. Dispensationalism is not monolithic. Over the years, it has undergone a variety of revisions, which are now identified as: “classic” (John Darby, Lewis S. Chafer, Scofield Reference Bible), “traditional” (John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, revised Scofield Bible), and “progressive” (Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock, John Feinberg, Robert Saucy, Bruce Ware).

Dispensationalism derives its name from the biblical term oikonomia (Eph. 1:10; 3:2, 9; Col. 1:25), which means “to manage, regulate, administer, and plan the affairs of a household.” The word conveys the idea that God’s plan or administration is accomplished in the world according to various “dispensations” or “administrations” of God’s plan. Although covenants are important for dispensationalists, unlike progressive covenantalism, they do not view the progression of the covenants as the backbone to the Bible’s story and the central way God’s plan unfolds over time.

Dispensationalism is known for dividing history into various “dispensations” which reflects God’s ordering of his redemptive plan. Classic dispensationalism divided history into seven dispensations, while later dispensationalists simplified that number. However, the word “dispensation” is not completely helpful for distinguishing dispensationalism from other views, since all Christians believe in distinct dispensations or epochs in the unfolding of God’s plan. For this reason, one cannot defend the uniqueness of dispensationalism by merely appealing to the word; one must look elsewhere to determine what is unique about the view.

So what, then, is distinctive about dispensationalism? Various “essentials” have been proposed but what is central to dispensationalism is a specific understanding of the Israel-church relationship, which in turn is organically related to their understanding of the biblical covenants. For all varieties of dispensationalism, Israel refers to an ethnic, national people and the church is never the transformed, restored eschatological Israel in God’s plan. The salvation of Gentiles is not part of the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel as a nation now realized in the church. Instead, God has promised national Israel, first in the Abrahamic covenant and re-affirmed by the prophets, the possession of the Promised Land under Christ’s rule as the Davidic king, which still awaits a future fulfillment in the premillennial return of Christ and in the consummation.

The church, then, is distinctively new in God’s purposes and ontologically different from Israel. Although in our present dispensation the church is comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, the church only receives the spiritual blessings of the Spirit that were promised to Israel, not all of her national blessings. In the future, Christ will rule over believing nations, including Israel, but not the church in her present form. The church as a present-day covenant people will not receive all of God’s promises equally and fully in Christ or continue in its present form. Instead, believing Jews and Gentiles, who now compose the church, will join the redeemed of national Israel and the Gentile nations to live under Christ’s rule according to their respective national identities and specific promises. In this way, a clear distinction is maintained between Israel as a nation and the church as a people, who at present, in an inaugurated form, illustrate what is still to come but will not continue forever in its present form.

Dispensationalism also affirms that the church began at Pentecost with the gift of the Spirit. Thus, most insist that the salvation experience of the person in the church is qualitatively different from the salvation experience of the Israelite under the old covenant. Also, given the Israel-church distinction, dispensationalists see more discontinuity from the old to the new covenant in relation to the nature and structure of the covenant communities, in contrast to covenant theology. Not surprisingly, given the Israel-church distinction and its outworking in dispensational theology, the major theological differences between dispensational and covenant theology often emerge in ecclesiology and eschatology.

Regarding ecclesiology, since the church is distinctively new due to the newness of the Spirit’s permanent indwelling in the believer, dispensationalists view the nature of the church, along with its structure and ordinances, as distinct from Israel. Regarding the nature of the church, in contrast to covenant theology, dispensational ecclesiology views the church as constituted by a regenerate people and permanently indwelt by the Spirit, not as a “mixed” community of believers and unbelievers. Also, dispensational ecclesiology affirms credobaptism, contra paedobaptism, since one cannot equate the sign of the old covenant with the sign of the new, given the essential Israel-church distinction and what baptism signifies for the church. By contrast, covenant theology rejects the Israel-church distinction of dispensationalism and argues for continuity between them, both in terms of the nature of the covenant people (and similarity of salvation experience) and the meaning of the covenant signs of circumcision and baptism. On these points, dispensational ecclesiology differs from the ecclesiology of covenant theology.

Regarding eschatology, given the Israel-church distinction and God’s unchanging promise to Israel of living in the land ruled by the Davidic King (i.e., Jesus), dispensationalism affirms a distinct future for national Israel, tied to her national identity, in a future millennial age and continuing in the consummation. Much of the rationale for their form of premillennialism is their belief that specific promises to Israel remain unfulfilled from the Old Testament, which God will fulfill. For progressive dispensationalists, the kingdom is viewed as a multinational order of redeemed peoples on a renewed earth. Israel, as a redeemed nation, is guaranteed her national and territorial identity due to God’s promise, and redeemed Gentile nations will also live according to their national identities on a new earth. By contrast, covenant theology rejects this form of premillennialism, mainly because they view all of God’s promises reaching their fulfillment in Christ and the dawning of the new creation, which the church, as the restored eschatological Israel inherits and receives.

Covenant Theology and Its Varieties

Covenant theology, as a theological system, has its roots in the Reformation (Ulrich Zwingli [1484–1531]; Heinrich Bullinger [1504–1575], John Calvin [1509–1564]; Zachary Ursinus [1534–1583]) and, in the post-Reformation era, was systematized by Herman Witsius (1636–1708) and Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669). It is taught by Francis Turretin (1623-1687), and among the English Puritans (John Owen [1616–1683]); Dutch Calvinism (Herman Bavinck [1854–1921]; Geerhardus Vos [1862–1949]; Louis Berkhof [1873–1957]), and American Presbyterian theology as represented by old Princeton (Charles Hodge [1797–1878]; B. B. Warfield [1851–1921]) and the Westminster Theological Seminaries (John Murray [1898–1975]; Meredith Kline [1922–2007]). It is taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643–1649) and earlier Reformed confessions (Belgic Confession [1561]; Heidelberg Catechism [1563]).

Covenant theology views the covenants as more than a theme of Scripture. Instead, covenants function as the Bible’s own internal structure by which God’s plan unfolds over time. Although covenant theology is not monolithic, broadly, covenant theology has taught that all of God’s relations to humans are understood in terms of three covenants: the pre-temporal “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the triune persons; the “covenant of works” (foedus operum) made with Adam before the Fall on behalf of the entire human race; and “the covenant of grace” (foedus gratiae) made with Christ as the last Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed, which, in history, is unfolded over time by different covenant administrations.

While covenant theology admits there are a plurality of covenants in Scripture, it tends to subsume all post-fall covenants under the overarching theological category of the covenant of grace. This allows for a strong continuity between the covenants since all of them are an expression of the one covenant of grace. Although there are administrative differences between the covenants, each covenant is substantially or essentially the same, and as such, the emphasis is on the unity of one covenant of grace.

For this reason, unlike dispensationalism, covenant theology insists on the continuity between Israel and the church, which directly impacts ecclesiology and eschatology. For example, it teaches that Israel and the church are by nature essentially the same, yet administered differently. Covenant theology argues that there is continuity between Israel and the church in at least three ways: both communities are comprised of believers and unbelievers (i.e., a “mixed” people within the covenant community); their respective covenant signs (i.e., circumcision and baptism) signify the same spiritual reality, thus the rationale for applying baptism to infants in the church; and the salvation experience of believers in Israel and the church is basically the same. The only real difference is that the “church” is more racially mixed and a more knowledgeable version of “Israel.” Since the salvation experience and the Spirit’s indwelling is the same, the only difference is that Christians may experience a greater “consciousness and enjoyment” of salvation than OT saints.

In a nutshell here is a basic description of dispensational and covenant theology. Although these two views agree on more than they disagree, there are still substantial differences that affect numerous important theological conclusions. As stated, central to the differences between the views is how one understands the overarching story of Scripture, especially in regard to the progression of the covenants and the relationship between Israel and the church.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).