From Dispensational Publishing House; used with permission.
What is the difference between dispensational and covenantal theology? Furthermore, is the difference really that important? After all, there are believers on both sides of the discussion. Before entering into the conversation, there are a couple of understandings that need to be embraced.
Tension & Mystery
First and foremost, there is the need to recognize the tension—and mystery—which has characterized this and other theological discussions for centuries. There will probably never be a satisfactory answer or clarifying article that will settle the debate once and for all for both parties. There will be no end to the discussion until Jesus Christ returns (either in the rapture of His church or earthly millennial reign, in my estimation).
Man is limited in his ability to understand and articulate each nuance of theology. Not everything can be comprehended about God and His sovereign purposes. Scripture reminds repeatedly of the humbling fact that God is majestic, infinite and incomprehensible. His ways are inscrutable—He does not have to explain Himself. Passages such as Job 11:7 (NASB) ask great questions such as,
Can you discover the depths of God?
Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?
The Psalmist reminds us, “Your thoughts are very deep” (Ps. 92:5) and we “cannot attain” them (Ps. 139:6). Recall, as well, Isaiah’s record, that:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. (Isa. 55:8)
Though there are scores of passages, one more is Paul’s doxology in Romans 11:33-34 in which he proclaims “the depth of” God’s “wisdom and knowledge,” with none to counsel Him. God transcends human comprehension, extends beyond human logic, and remains above man’s ability to reason and deduce. John Wesley was reported to have said, “Give me a worm that can understand a man, and I will give you a man who can understand God.”1 Surely “His greatness is unsearchable” (Ps. 145:3).
Bible-based, Christ-centered & God-honoring
Second, and equally important, is the need during this exchange to be Bible-based, Christ-centered and God-honoring. Though we are entitled to our own opinion, we are not entitled to our own truth. When speaking, the only basis for authority is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative and sufficient Word of God. The truth of the Bible is objective, propositional reality that is to be unpacked through cautious and diligent exegesis rather than hearsay and speculation.
Notice the third caveat here—God-honoring. When dialoging with fellow believers on opposing issues, we must be sober-minded and gracious. We cannot win the opposing side if we are being pejorative and unkind. We have no entitlement for condescending comments or judgmental jabs. We want to develop a winsome case, rather than use mockery or suggestions that the differing side is engaging in heresy on this matter. Many times in the readings of Christian academic papers there can be much unchristian cajoling that does not honor Christ. Let us honor fellow servants of Christ rather than do what one well-known evangelical did while at a rival school on this issue, when he called their view goofy. We must practice Christian charity as we honor one another in Christ.
The intent of this series of articles is not to fully flesh out the views of either dispensational or covenant theology, but to show the clear distinctions between them and why—Biblically—dispensational theology is to be preferred.
Covenantalism in a Nutshell
The terms covenantal and Reformed are often used interchangeably. There are dispensationalists who speak of being Reformed, yet the way they use the term Reformed is in respect to salvation, referring to the doctrines of grace. Another might refer to himself as a Calvinist-dispensationalist, but this is a rather awkward phrase, since Calvinism is typically used in the discipline of soteriology, not eschatology. This designation would be used to refer to men like John MacArthur and faculty from his school, The Master’s University,2 and others who have embraced the doctrines of grace and who apply a consistently literal hermeneutic, especially in the prophets, while not reading Jesus into every Old Testament verse or giving the New Testament priority.3
When trying to define a system and associate certain teachers with it, there are nuances that make such a feat difficult. For example, James Montgomery Boice was pretribulational4 and premillennial,5 yet he also practiced paedobaptism.6 Not all covenantalists are amillennial7 or postmillennial. And not all premillennialists are dispensationalists (e.g., Boice and George Eldon Ladd).
We will begin next time by thinking about the covenants in covenantal thought, using the chart below to illustrate the concepts that are involved.
Copyright © 2017 Dispensational Publishing House, Inc., used with permission.
1 Our Daily Bread, Sept.-Nov. 1997, page for Nov 6.
2 John F. MacArthur, Faith Works (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), p. 225.
3 More of these particulars will be augmented later in the series.
4 Pretribulationism teaches that God will remove His church from the Earth (John 14:1-3; 1 Thess. 4:13-18) before pouring out His righteous wrath on the unbelieving world during seven years of tribulation (Jer. 30:7; Dan. 9:27; 12:1; 2 Thess. 2:7-12; Rev. 16).
5 Premillenialism teaches that Jesus Christ will return to earth and rule with His saints for a thousand years. This is a time where He lifts the curse He placed on the earth and fulfills the promises given to Israel (Isa. 65:17-25; Ezek. 37:21-28; Zech. 8:1-17), including a restoration to the land they forfeited through disobedience (Deut. 28:15-68).
6 Paedobaptism is the practice of baptizing infants or children who are deemed not old enough to verbalize faith in Christ.
7 Amillennialism is the belief that the thousand years referenced by John in Revelation 20 are not a literal, specific time.
Parker Reardon is a graduate of Word of Life Bible Institute, Pensacola Christian College and The Master’s Seminary, where he received a doctorate in expository preaching. He is currently serving as the main teaching elder/pastor at Applegate Community Church in Grants Pass, OR, and as adjunct professor of theology for Liberty University and adjunct professor of Bible and theology for Pacific Bible College.