Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dispensationalism and covenantalism

I don’t normally comment on dispensationalism. However, recent discussion regarding the modern state of Israel has raised the issue. Since my own arguments were primarily ethical, historical, and geostrategic rather than theological, my position on dispensationalism is tangential to the immediate dispute.

However, the relationship between covenant theology and dispensationalism is worth discussing in its own right. This is a multifaceted issue.

1. Baptist factions

It’s striking to observe the polarity of views within Baptist tradition on the state of Israel.

On the one hand you have Baptists who identify with dispensationalism. So they support the modern state of Israel.

On the other hand, you have Baptists who identify more strongly with their Anabaptist roots. They regard Christian Zionism as a major theological aberration. They also tend to inveigh against political activism.

Then you have Reformed Baptists. Some Reformed Baptists combine TULIP with progressive dispensationalism.

Other Reformed Baptists espouse the type of covenant theology articulated in one or another editions of the LBCF.

Still other Reformed Baptists subscribe to New Covenant Theology.

2. Covenant theology

Traditionally, covenant theology views divine covenants as the major structuring principle for history and theology.

It distinguishes between at least two covenants (the covenant of works, covenant of grace) or sometimes three covenants (the covenant of works, covenant of grace, covenant of redemption).

The covenant of works/grace schema is a theological construct. It’s not identical with any concrete, historical covenant. Rather, it views historical covenants as specific, concrete exemplifications of general, overarching principles.

Within English-speaking Calvinism, the most influential form of covenant theology was enshrined in the WCF. Of course, given the genre of the Confession, that’s more of a sketch than a blueprint. But it lays down some conspicuous markers.

A basic challenge for covenant theology is to show how these abstract theological constructs map onto concrete particulars like the Adamic, Abrahamic, Noahic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants.

Covenant theology is a powerful structuring device in two fundamental respects:

i) On the one hand, it furnishes a unifying device.

ii) On the other hand, it makes room for progressive revelation.

So it combines a dynamic principle (linear development) with a stabilizing principle (the underlying unity of the covenants).

However, contemporary covenant theology is in a state of flux. John Murray questioned whether we should equate the Adamic covenant with a covenant of works.

Conversely, Meredith Kline reaffirmed the Adamic covenant of works, but he equated works with meritorious works. Moreover, he reinterpreted the Noahic covenant, and he introduced his intrusion ethical paradigm.

Mediating positions include O. P. Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants and T. E. McComiskey’s The Covenants of Promise.

There’s also the question of whether Reformed Scholastic analyses which drawn fine-spun distinctions between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption haven’t seriously overextended the Biblical data.

So where does covenant theology stand at this juncture? Let’s consider some well-anchored presuppositions:

i) Even if we didn’t have any direct Biblical witness to a covenant of grace/redemption, something along those lines would still be a necessary inference from Trinitarian theology. In the history of redemption, there’s a Trinitarian division of labor. And whatever happens in time was intended from eternity. Acting in time, the Son and the Spirit do so with a prior understanding of what will be accomplished. Each party agreed to this arrangement.

ii) At one level, covenant theology is synonymous with federal theology. In federal theology, you have a one-to-many relation between different parties to a covenant. You have the divine party who initiates, dictates, and enforces the terms of the covenant. You have a federal head. And you have the many in whose stead, on whose behalf, the federal head is acting. We see this principle at work in Scriptural covenants.

iii) Beyond the general principles of (i-ii), there are Biblical passages like Jn 17 and Rom 5:12-21 that bear specific witness to something like the twofold or threefold covenantal rubric.

3. Dispensationalism

Back in 1945, Oswald Allis wrote a classic critique of dispensationalism (Prophecy and the Church). At the time I think that was a necessary corrective. However, that was then and this is now.

From what I can tell, it’s difficult to pin down contemporary dispensationalism.

Premillennialism is a necessary component. However, that’s a dispy essential rather than a dispy distinctive.

Pretribulational premillennialism is more distinctive.

There’s a commitment to the future destiny of “ethnic” or “physical” Israel in the plan of God. However, one doesn’t need to be a dispy to believe that.

There is also a belief in the “literal” fulfillment of the land-promises. However, that doesn’t demarcate dispensationalism from amillennialism or covenant theology as clearly as it used to, since you have Reformed scholars (e.g. Poythress, Hoekema, VanGemeren) who oppose the reduction of land-promises to picturesque metaphors for the church age. 

Of course, one might contend that what sets dispensationalism apart is not individual distinctives, but a distinctive package. 

4. Hermeneutics

Traditionally, dispies accentuate the “literal” fulfillment of prophecy as a dispy distinctive, in contrast to covenant theology. However, “literal” is more of a cipher or placeholder than a self-explanatory principle. And it’s subject to many qualifications.

More recently, dispies accentuate grammatico-historical exegesis. I think that’s getting closer to what they want to say, but it’s still insufficient to single out dispensationalism.

5. Typological fulfillment

Amil covenant theologians like Beale and Poythress espouse modified idealism. From what I can tell, this is quite similar to the typological fulfillment scheme that Darrel Bock espouses (“Single Meaning, Multiple Contexts & Referents,” Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament). Likewise, Craig Blomberg’s view of typological fulfillment is scarcely distinguishable from the above.

6. The locus of meaning

I think the core issue boils down to the locus of meaning. One concern of dispies is to filter out anachronistic interpretations. This, however, raises an awkward question of whether Christians ought to use apostolic exegesis as a guide to the OT.

i) Do we equate meaning with authorial intent? That has much to commend it.

On the other hand, that’s a bit fuzzy. For one thing, authorial intent includes the intended audience. The author is writing with an implied reader in mind.

Where the Bible is concerned, is the intended audience the historical audience? The author’s contemporaries?

Yet there’s a broader sense in which the Bible was written for the benefit of believers in all ages. At the same time, we could also say later readers have a responsibility to take the original circumstances into account.

ii) Or should the meaning shade into the referent? Especially when we’re dealing with questions of prophetic fulfillment, or a promise/fulfillment scheme, the text was future-oriented or goal-oriented from the outset. The text has a forward-looking, extratextual target. And that also figures in authorial intent.

iii) In terms of inspiration, there’s a distinction between what God understands, and what God intends the reader to understand. Not that these work at cross-purposes, but simply that the divine understanding outstrips the audiencial understanding (as well as authorial understanding). That’s a referential dimension of the text.

iv) In addition, Scripture is a serial text. How we understand a text all by itself, and how we understand a text when one text is positioned or repositioned in relation to other texts, will affect our understanding of the individual text. For we have a better sense of what the text is pointing to. Where it’s headed.

Of course, this doesn’t so much alter the original meaning of the text as it sharpens our understanding of what that means in relation to an unfolding plotline. If we know the goal, if we see where the promise is going, then we can also infer divine intent from divine the divinely-intended outcome. Retroengineer the end-result.

At the same time, books of the Bible were designed or preadapted to line up in a certain direction to show God moving historical events to bring his promises to fruition and futurition.

v) This also goes to the spiraling dialectic between text and hermeneutic. On the one hand, we must come to any text with a provisional, operating hermeneutic.

On the other hand, our operating hermeneutic must ultimately be grounded in the text, or texts. It may take its cue from certain paradigm-texts, or the narrative arc over the course of many books.

7. Redemptive-historical theology

Although redemptive-historical theology isn’t synonymous with covenant theology, it’s cognate with covenant theology. It traces out the broad, evolving patterns of promise and fulfillment over long stretches of history, from beginning to end, in a chronological series of books. The literary sequence roughly parallels the chronological sequence.

In that respect, Biblical theologians like scholars like James Hamilton, T. D. Alexander, John Sailhamer, Gregory Beale, and Stephen Dempster are charting a way forward for covenant theology.

In addition, both dispies and covenant theologians should continue to refine the locus of meaning. 


  1. Thumbs up for this post.

  2. Dear Mr Hays,

    Thank you for this very thought-provoking post.

    I'd like to also mention that I admire your ability to consistently and prolifically write with such precision and insight. Your posts help me think about things I'd never thought of before.

    Thank you for sharing your gift and knowledge with us.



  3. In an otherwise extremely well written post, the use of "dispie" to refer to dispensational theologians would appear to be pejorative. When paired with "covenant theologians" this derogatory implication seems explicit. I understand that this is common, but unless you want to shorten "covenant theologians" to "covies", perhaps a little more care when referring to the labels for these systems would not be too much to ask.

    John T. "Jack" Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

  4. "Dispy", and "dispies" would be included in my comment above as well. I think if you reread your post, you will notice that you slipped into this nicknaming shorthand at one point in the post, and then continued, somewhat inconsistently to repeat it. If shorthand is felt to be necessary I have used CTers and DTers once that is explained. Otherwise, covenantalism and dispensationalism, covenantist and dispensationalist, covenant theology and dispensational theology, or covenant theologian and dispensational theologian should be used equally where appropriate. I'm just sayin'... :-)

    John T. "Jack" Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

  5. This is a good overall summary, Steve.

    I thought you left out one significant distinctive between DT and CT which, apart from the eschatalogical considerations you noted, is probably the most contentious (dare I say divisive?) issue between the camps, to wit - the question of proper candidacy for water baptism.

    Is this simply not a factor in your mind, or for the purposes of this post were you merely outlining the contours of how each system treats the unfolding of God's redemptive plan in history, and by extension into the future as it relates to ethnic/physical Israel?

    In Christ,