A Little Backstory
As many of my readers will know, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to place Dispensational theology on what I believe is a more secure footing. Dispensationalism has not produced many top-line academic works, especially in the last half century, and with only one or two exceptions it presents itself as static and unwilling to improve. In the meantime it has been frozen out of mainstream evangelical scholarship and its influence has dwindled.
One example among many will suffice: The huge 8 volume IVP Dictionaries, which cover the entire Bible, and are written by hundreds of top scholars across the broad sweep of evangelicalism, include scarcely any contribution by dispensational scholars. The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets has (as far as I can tell) only one entry by one dispensationalist (Robert Chisholm on “Retribution,” and I’m not sure Chisholm is much of a dispensationalist).
In reflecting on the reasons for this I eventually asked myself a rather obvious question: “does the Bible ground its biblical theology upon the dispensations or on something else?” Re-reading the Bible with this question uppermost in my mind led me to the conclusion that the Bible does indeed base its theology in something other than changing administrations. It roots itself in the divine covenants! From this was born what I have called Biblical Covenantalism. It retains all that makes Dispensationalism good, but refocuses it on the covenants of God. The result is, I believe, a far more robust and intellectually promising system that is there to be developed.
Anyway, here are what I think are the main contrasts between my approach (BC) and traditional Dispensational theology (DT):
1. DT: is led by its very name to define itself by an aspect of its approach which is really tangential to its overall genius. This definition then circumscribes the outlook and understanding of its adherents and places blinkers (blinders) on their theological vision. Dispensations are just not that important: the biblical covenants are. Dispensationalism is limited because of what dispensations can do (i.e. describe one aspect).
BC: defines itself by the covenants of God found within the pages of Scripture. Because these covenants, correctly understood, comprehend God’s declared purposes for the creation (not just Israel, His chosen people), they expand ones theological vision. Biblical Covenantalism is expansive because of what the covenants of Scripture can do (i.e. describe a purpose and prescribe God’s outlook).
2. DT: although I don’t expect everyone to see this, Dispensationalism derives its hermeneutics from “without” by asserting the normal or literal sense via grammatical-historical hermeneutics. There is little attempt to derive this hermeneutics from the Bible itself.
BC: seeks to derive its hermeneutics (which correspond to traditional grammatical-historical hermeneutics) from “within” – from the Bible itself, in deference to the Biblical Worldview. This acknowledges the comprehensive relation of revelation and knowledge. There is a “God’s words = God’s actions” hermeneutical sequence in Scripture which is amplified by the covenants.
3. DT: often struggles with the New Covenant and its application. Some believe the New Covenant is only for Israel; some that the Church somehow “participates” in the New Covenant without being a party to it. A few believe Christ made the New Covenant with the Church, but usually they limit it to the salvation of the soul.
BC: because it pays special attention to the covenants and their inter-relationships, comprehends the Christocentric arrangement of the other covenants around the New Covenant. Christ and the New Covenant are identified, allowing one to see how all beneficiaries of God’s grace have a covenantal relation to Him. Thus, the terms of the other covenants are released to be fulfilled once the parties to those covenants (whether national Israel or the Gentiles or both) have passed under the New Covenant in Christ.
4. DT: is not redemptively focused, meaning it does not concentrate on the teleological goals of God in Christ for the future of the whole created realm.
BC: is redemptively focused in the sense given above.
5. DT: tends therefore, not to be as Christological as Covenant Theology.
BC: is just as christological as Covenant Theology, though not artificially reading Christ into foreign contexts. Stressing, as it does, the truth that this creation is made through and for Christ; is redeemed in Christ, and will be ruled over and restored by Christ.
6. DT: tends to restrict its remit to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology, in consequence confining its thinking and hence productivity to those areas. It cannot be developed into a worldview system under these confines (hence it is not prescriptive). This confinement is only exacerbated by the way Dispensationalism defines itself.
BC: is far more expansive; focusing on every area of Systematic Theology and worldview through its reflection on the outcome and repercussions of the biblical covenants and the centrality of Christ.
7. DT: emphasizes the end of the Bible and places little importance on the doctrine of Creation and its outworking in God’s overall plan.
BC: does put a lot of stress upon Creation and sees history in terms of the combined outworking of the teleology and the eschatology which was built into Creation from the beginning. The Bible is an eschatological (and also teleological) book from beginning to end.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.