A brief comparison of
Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology
(A supplement to "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth")
In order to comprehend the entirety of God's revelation to mankind in the Bible, over the years, believers have developed systems or frameworks for understanding the Bible. The two most widely held, of these frameworks are Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology.
With many variations, Covenant Theology (also known as Reformed Theology, because it embraces the teachings of John Calvin) is the view of most of the mainline denominations (eg., Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and many "holiness" groups such as the Nazarenes).
Dispensational Theology, is the primary view held by most Baptists and by many "Bible" churches, which emphasize scripture over tradition. However, "Reformed Baptists" and several other groups follow Covenant Theology.
The editor of this website holds to the Dispensational view. A more complete description of "the Seven Dispensations" is provided in the lesson by that name, in the study entitled "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth". However, before beginning that study, it might be helpful to take a brief look at Covenant Theology, in order to appreciate the differences.
Both systems (Dispensational and Covenant theology) are held by true believers, including some very well known and influential pastors, teachers and authors, in both camps.
- The primary question, that distinguishes these groups, is not: "What must I do to be saved?"
- But rather: "Which framework provides the most accurate understanding of God's Word?"
- Of course, a misunderstanding of the Bible can lead to missing the way of salvation.
- Covenant Theology-
- The name suggests that it was developed in consideration of the many distinct covenants which God made with men, as recorded in the Bible. (eg., Edenic, Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, the New Covenant). But this not the case.
- Covenant theology gets its name from two (actually, three) covenants, into which theologians have divided history and the biblical text.
- According to this system of understanding, God's overarching purpose is "the Salvation of mankind."
- Mankind is in need of salvation due to Adam's failure to fulfill "the Covenant of Works" in the garden of Eden. God immediately provided Salvation through a "Covenant of Grace," via the blood of the Lamb (ultimately Christ, who is the second Adam, Gen 3:15,21).
To this end, the Godhead had previously entered into a "Covenant of Redemption" (not shown in the diagram), prior to the creation of man, by which God the Son agreed to offer Himself as the substitutionary sacrifice for men, and God the Father agreed to raise the Son from death.
- The provision of Salvation by Grace is seen as the consistent theme through scripture.
- The successive biblical covenants (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, etc.) are seen as a continuation of the Covenant of Grace, rather than as new revelation to man.
Because (according to this view) the whole Bible comments on the Covenant of Grace, all parts of the Bible are considered to speak uniformly to this subject. Thus, the boundary between the Old and New Testaments is blurred.
- The Church is seen as an extension of Israel.
According to this view, the Church began when Adam and Eve were saved by Grace through faith in the blood of the Lamb. [Rather than at Pentecost, in Acts 1:1-9; Acts 2:1-4.]
- Therefore, Israel is the OT Church... The Church is the NT Israel.
[This blending, of Israel and the Church into one continuous entity, arises from misunderstanding passages such as:
While Covenant Theology claims to read these passages "literally", it fails to distinguish between the physical and spiritual seed of Abraham.]
- Gal 6:16 "...the Israel of God" [speaking primarily of Jewish believers in Christ]
- Gal 3:29 "...the seed of Abraham" [speaking of Jews and Gentiles who are spiritually 'born again' by faith in Christ. By such faith, like that of Abraham, they become spiritual "children of God," not to be confused with the physical seed of Abraham.]
- Rom 2:28,29 "he is a Jew, which is one inwardly... circumcision is... of the heart..." [This passage demonstrates the emptiness of false confidence in external rites and racial privilege. "for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart" (1Sam 16:7).
- Php 3:3 "we are the circumcision... which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." [The term 'the circumcision' often refers to ethnic Jews. However, in this passage Paul is contrasting the physical rite with cutting off all confidence in fleshly rituals and assets. True heart righteousness comes from Christ alone, apart from any merit on my part. But that righteousness does not transform me into an Israelite.]
- Therefore, under Covenant Theology...
- NT principles are read back into the OT.
- For example, the "filling" of the Holy Spirit is applied equally to NT and OT believers.
[But if this is the case, why did Jesus say that after His ascension, He would send the Holy Spirit to dwell with and in those who believe in Christ, and never leave them (John 14:16-18)... rather than coming upon them temporarily for special enabling, as He did upon OT prophets? (eg., Samson, Judg 14:19; 16:20)]
- OT practices are read forward into the NT.
- This leads, for example, to the practice of infant baptism (and also to the concept of "baptismal regeneration") - In the OT, the sign of the Covenant was circumcision. Whoever lacked this sign was cut-off from God's people. In the NT, the external sign is baptism, which, like circumcision may be administered to infants, to make them Sons of the Covenant.
[However, this practice and understanding is contrary to "believer's baptism" as taught in the NT (eg., Acts 8:36-38).]
- OT prophecies and promises, made to Israel, are applied to the Church.
- [As previously mentioned, under Covenant Theology, the Church is seen as the continuation of spiritual Israel. God has rejected national Israel, because they rejected their Messiah. Therefore, the promises which God spoke to Israel have been given to the Church, instead. Thus, the Church displaces (or replaces) the nation of Israel as the recipient of God's promises. (This is known as "Replacement Theology.")
These ideas flow from misunderstanding of certain scripture passages, such as Gal 6:16 (identifying the Church as "the Israel of God") or, Acts 7:38 where Israel is referred to as "the church in the wilderness." This verse uses the Greek word 'ekklesia', which is frequently used of the NT Church, which is a body of individuals who are 'called out' (the literal meaning of the word) of the world to be joined to Christ. However, the common usage of this Greek word was in reference to any assembly or gathering of people, often for secular or political reasons. In the context of Acts 7:38, Moses was addressing such a gathering of the nation, as he proclaimed God's Word and foretold the coming of Christ. But at that time, the congregation, did not receive God's Word. Therefore, it could hardly be equivalent to the NT Church. Furthermore, Paul teaches, in Ephesians (eg., 3:3-7), that the NT Church is something new, which was not previously revealed in the OT.]
- Christ's earthly Kingdom is Spiritual and Present (rather than Physical and Future).
- According to this view, ever since His death and resurrection, Christ has been reigning from heaven over His Kingdom on earth. His followers are in the process of bringing the world under His complete dominion, which will be realized prior to His return to take His people into the eternal Kingdom of Heaven.
[However, this runs counter to the scriptural teaching that "evil men shall wax worse and worse" (2Tim 3:13), and that apostasy will cover the earth prior to Christ's return: "when the Son of man cometh, shall he find [the] faith on the earth?" (Luk 18:8). The view that the world is becoming a better place, also conflicts with the evident downward spiral in the current affairs of this world.]
- Dispensational Theology (a very brief overview in contrast to Covenant Theology) -
- Dispensational Theology agrees, with Covenant Theology, that Salvation, in every age, is by Grace through Faith...
- But observes that...
- God has revealed Himself and His Purposes progressively, through the ages, not all at once.
- Whereas Covenant Theology sees God's overarching purpose as "the Salvation of man," from the Dispensational viewpoint, the central theme of scripture is "the Glory of God," "whom to know is life eternal" (John 17:1-4), as He reveals Himself, progressively and graciously against the backdrop of the continual manifestation of man's sinful fallen nature, and in the light of His gracious provision of salvation through Christ.
- God administered successive periods in accord with what He had revealed up to that time.
- In every age, men were responsible to believe and obey His Word. But He held men accountable only for what He had revealed, up to that time.
- God made several specific covenants, which reveal important differences between those periods of administration (or, dispensations). (ie., The Edenic, Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the New covenants).
- Paul uses the word "dispensation" in reference to God's administration of the Gospel of God's Grace in Christ, in the present age. (See Eph 1:10; 3:2)
(Paul also uses this word, in another sense, in regard to the way God administered, to him, the responsibility of preaching the Gospel. 1Cor 9:17; Col 1:25)
- God's Covenants and Promises to Israel include both conditional and unconditional aspects...
- Conditional (eg., "if you keep my law, then... if you forsake my law, then..." Deu 7:11-15; 8:11-20; 30:1-3)
- Unconditional (eg., "I the LORD have spoken... I will do it." Eze 36:16-38)
Therefore, according to Dispensational Theology...
- Scripture must be understood in the context of each dispensation
- (taking into consideration: to whom the message was originally given, and how they would have understood it, in the light of God's revelation to that time). Looking back, with the revelation that we have received, we often see pictures (or "types") of Christ, which the people, at that time, could not fully appreciate. We should not assume that they saw what we can see now. We should not assume that NT revelation was understood by believers in OT times (eg., 1Peter 1:10-12).
- Scripture must be understood according to the natural (literal) reading.
- For example, God's unique promises to Abraham cannot be claimed by any "Tom, Dick or Harry." Likewise, God's promises to Israel are intended for that nation, not for the Church (or vice versa).
- God's purposes for Israel and the Church are distinct and ongoing.
- In the process of time, God would bless all nations through Abraham's seed (ultimately fulfilled through Christ in His Church). But Israel, the great nation which has descended from Abraham, also continues. God will fulfill His unique promises to Israel (Jeremiah 31:35-37; Romans 11:1,2).
The promises of God to the nation of Israel will be fully realized at the time that they recognize and receive the One who has already made the New Covenant for them (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:20; Zech 12:9- 13:1
But even now, it is evident that God has preserved Israel through centuries of diaspora, in the face of many enemies who sought their destruction. It is also evident that, in recent years, He has partially restored them as a nation, to their Land, in the Holy City, with their own language, and with increasing strength, just as He said He would do, prior to the realization of their full salvation (eg. Eze 37:1-14; Zech 12:1-9; Rom 11:25,26). [However, to those who embrace 'Replacement Theology,' Israel has no right to be in their land. The partial restoration of the nation is an embarrassment to their theological system. In their view, Israel's removal would promote world peace. But that view contradicts God's program as outlined in biblical prophecy.]
- Christ's earthly Kingdom is Future and Physical (while His Spiritual Kingdom has already begun).
- Whereas He presently waits on His Father's throne in Heaven, Jesus Christ will descend bodily from heaven to rule from David's Throne over all the earth. It is He (not the church) who will judge and dispose of wickedness in all its forms (including the apostate church). It is He who will restore the world which sinful men have destroyed, and who will establish His reign of righteousness over the whole earth.
- For a more complete understanding of the Dispensational viewpoint, click on the link below.
Return to chapter 2 - The Seven Dispensations
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