Regular Baptist Books has released a new volume, Dispensational Understandings of the New Covenant, edited by Mike Stallard of Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. Titles need to be manageable in length, and this one labels the book nicely. It would have been more precise, however, if it had specified that the book contains traditional dispensational understandings of the New Covenant, and actually only some of them.
The limitation is deliberate. The book results from collaboration between traditional dispensationalists in the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics. This council, which meets annually for the exchange and examination of ideas related to dispensational theology, includes only traditional dispensationalists. From the time that it first met in 2008, one of the goals of the council was to foster the publication of current, traditionally-dispensational thinking. Dispensational Understandings of the New Covenant is its first major release.
The book is necessary because dispensationalists have never agreed about how the church is related to the New Covenant. Some think that the church has no legal relationship to the New Covenant. Others believe that the church is not a party to the covenant, but nevertheless stands in some relationship to it. Still others have believed in the existence of two New Covenants, one for Israel and another, different one for the church. Some have argued that the church is directly related to the New Covenant and has been brought in as a participant alongside Israel.
Of these views, the only one that is not represented in Stallard’s book is the Two-New-Covenants hypothesis. This exclusion was not deliberate, but the view has waned in popularity over the past few decades. No responsible defenders have put themselves forward within the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics, and so the view was simply left out by default.
The other three theories, however, are advocated by vigorous and competent defenders. Roy Beacham (Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis) advocates the theory that the church has no relationship whatever to the New Covenant. This view is not widely held even among traditional dispensationalists, but Beacham argues cogently from the nature of covenant making in the Ancient Near East.
Elliott Johnson (Dallas Theological Seminary) is widely known as one of the last voices of “Old Dallas” dispensationalism. His view is that, while the church is not a party to the New Covenant, it is connected with the New Covenant so as to receive certain blessings from it. This is probably the majority theory among traditional dispensationalists, and Johnson is the most obvious person to represent it.
Rod Decker (Baptist Bible Seminary of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania) goes a step further. He believes that New Testament revelation indicates that God has actually expanded the terms of the New Covenant, so that the church now stands as a partner to the covenant with Israel and participates directly in some (though not all) of its blessings. While this view is a stretch for many traditional dispensationalists, Decker marshals impressive evidence through his exegesis of Hebrews 7-10.
In addition to contributing a chapter apiece, each of the principal authors also interacts with the other theories. This format has been used successfully for many theological issues, but this is the first time that it has been used to highlight differences between traditional dispensationalists. The interaction allows the reader to see how each writer handles the evidence that seems strongest to each other writer.
John Master (Philadelphia Biblical University) contributes a foreword that surfaces several questions for the contributors to answer. Another early chapter is written by Dave Fredrickson (Western Seminary, Sacramento, California), who discusses the important problem of determining which biblical passages should count as evidence in a discussion of the New Covenant. Both of these chapters do much to further the discussion.
The epilogue is provided by R. Bruce Compton (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary). The inclusion and location of this chapter is a bit puzzling. In a volume of this sort, the usual function of a closing chapter is to summarize the contributions of the principal authors and to suggest further directions that the conversation might take. Compton’s chapter, however, is essentially a re-defense of the theory that the church is an indirect participant in the New Covenant (the theory that Elliott Johnson defends).
On its own merits, Compton’s chapter is superb. He probably offers a better defense of his theory than Johnson does. The puzzling part is why it occurs where it does—which was surely not Compton’s decision. By including both Johnson’s and Compton’s chapters, the editor allows two voices for one particular theory. By placing this chapter as an epilogue, the editor makes it a kind of parting shot to which the other contributors receive no opportunity to respond. This may strike some as poor form. Nevertheless, the book really would be weaker without Compton’s presentation.
As a discussion of differences among traditional dispensationalists, this book represents a bit of a new departure—and a needed one. It is also a new departure for the publisher, Regular Baptist Books. Normally, the Regular Baptists have published materials for popular readers. While much of this volume could be read and understood by informed church members, its real target is the academic community. This is certainly an ambitious undertaking by the publisher (academic publishing presents a whole world of new challenges), and Regular Baptist Books is to be commended for taking up the task.
While this book is not Sunday School material, it is reading that will repay the effort. It is substantial enough for professors of Bible and theology, but it is lucid enough for ordinary pastors. In fact, pastors may find the greatest benefit from it, for it will help them to understand how the ideas of dispensationalism hang together. It is a good book.
Early, My God, Without Delay
Isaac Watts (1674–1748)
Early, my God, without delay,
I haste to seek thy face;
My thirsty spirit faints away
Without thy cheering grace.
So pilgrims on the scorching sand,
Beneath a burning sky,
Long for a cooling stream at hand,
And they must drink or die.
I’ve seen thy glory and thy power
Through all thy temple shine;
My God, repeat that heav’nly hour,
That vision so divine.
Not all the blessings of a feast
Can please my soul so well,
As when thy richer grace I taste,
And in thy presence dwell.
Not life itself, with all her joys,
Can my best passions move,
Or raise so high my cheerful voice,
As thy forgiving love.
Thus till my last expiring day
I’ll bless my God and King;
Thus will I lift my hands to pray,
And tune my lips to sing.