For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students. The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary. Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves. As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems. And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.
I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of biblical and systematic theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.
This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.
1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?
In many ways, defining oneself by “dispensations” is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT). The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible. They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are. What do the concepts “innocence,” “conscience,” “government,” “promise,” “law,” “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?
Why, for example, would “government” be a more emphasized stewardship than “conscience” after Noah? Wasn’t Israel’s theocracy far more of a government than anything found in Genesis 9? The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise. But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham? Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, “the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise’ ” (The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421). Sailhamer is referring to the promise-fulfillment motif, but this is certainly relevant to the “Dispensation of Promise” which assumes such a motif. If Sailhamer has a point, it would seem wise to replace the imprecise term “promise” with “covenant.” But once we do that we will be required to drop the theme of “dispensation” too, so as to give the Abrahamic covenant the developmental scope it clearly must have.
In addition to this change of emphasis from what seems nebulous and inexact to what is plainly revealed and stressed in the biblical text there needs to be a rethinking about what dispensationalists mean when they refer to their theology as a “system.” It needs to be made clear that if dispensationalists continue to accept a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of theology, or (which is much the same thing) if they are content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of “dispensational premillennialism,” then they have admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete “system.” Restricting DT—as many dispensationalists tend to do—to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a system of theology.” Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the church or the last things is being discussed does not qualify—neither does it deserve to be identified—as a system of theology. And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!
For the record, here is my working definition of DT:
An approach to biblical theology which attempts to find its raison d’etre in the Scriptures themselves, and which constructs its systematic presentation of theology around a primary focus on the biblical covenants.
You will see that I have booted out the dispensations and thrown the spotlight upon the covenants in the Bible. That may disturb some people, but the profit of this move is immense.
Dispensationalism has often been associated with grammatico-historical interpretation. Quite apart from whether many older dispensationalists actually contented themselves with approach, the fact is that the very term “grammatico-historical” no longer enjoys a static meaning. So it becomes necessary to spell out what kind of hermeneutics is envisioned by that term.
In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words. God is the Author of language, and when He speaks in the early chapters of the Bible there is a correlation between His thought, the words selected to convey His thought, and the product brought into existence by His word. This flow from God’s word to God’s action is so obvious in the Bible that it scarcely needs proof. Let the reader study the Bible Story with this in mind and he will see it everywhere. Thus we have an important hermeneutical marker from inside the Bible.
As we have seen God also makes covenants. We may easily locate divine covenants, for instance, in Genesis 9, Genesis 15-22, Exodus 19-24, Numbers 25, Deuteronomy 29-30, 1 Chronicles 17, Psalm 89, Psalm 105, Psalm 106, Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah 33, Luke 22 and many other places. God does not need to bind Himself by an oath, so why does He do it? One reason, I want to suggest, is because of our propensity judge God’s word by our own capacity for belief. Like Eve sizing up the forbidden tree, we want to come to our own conclusions independently. It is our default position, and the covenants set up the boundaries within which our interpretations ought to operate. The biblical covenants might well be seen as “a reinforcement of divine speech.” If this be the case, God’s covenants serve to boldly underline the God’s word—God’s action motif we saw earlier.
Hermeneutically speaking then, we have two powerful interpretive ideas coming at us from the pages of the Bible itself. And this is given further emphasis in such places as 2 Kings 1 and John 21 where God goes out of His way to explain that He means what He says.
This hermeneutic takes us a surprisingly long way when applied to all of Scripture.
3. Biblical Theology
If there is one thing that most biblical theologies fail to take seriously it is the doctrines of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture. These concepts are inseparable. If Scripture isn’t clear (except, of course, to those highly skilled practitioners in the genres of Ancient Near East and typology), then for sure it isn’t sufficient. When one adds to this the biblical theologies’ miraculous coincidences wherein each type and genre corroborates the particular theological bent of the writer, it all begins to look a little suspicious and question-begging. Understandably, Dispensationalists prefer to stake their hermeneutical tents down on firmer ground. But the myopia induced by paying too much attention to dispensations prevents them from setting out a sound alternative biblical theology. Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them.
Using something like the revised definition of DT given above, it is possible to trace out what I like to call “the Creation Project” using the two hermeneutical guidelines previously discussed. When this is done we begin to see something like the following:
- Creation involves both a teleology and an eschatology (thus a study of the end times involves a study of the beginning times).
- The Fall introduces the noetic effects of sin which resets our default from dependence to independence. Genesis 3:15 covers the major work of Christ in a fallen world.
- The Noahic Covenant provides a predictable framework for history until the consummation, and further stresses the nature of divine covenants as reinforcements of language—since all interpreters take this covenant “literally.”
- The Abrahamic Covenant sets out a blessed future for at least two lines of humanity: those from Isaac and Jacob who inherit “the land of Canaan” and “the Nations.” It also picks up on the promised seed idea from Eden.
- The Davidic Covenant promises a great King who will pull the strands of the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants together.
- The New Covenant brings all the other everlasting covenants into itself in the Person of Christ, through whose redemptive death and new life the covenants must pass in order to find their specific fulfillments.
- The Church as a “new man” created after the resurrection of Christ also enters into specific blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenants. In fact, in a real sense, it enters them before those with whom they were originally promised.
- The Second Coming, which is given more emphasis in the Bible than the First Coming, brings the earth’s Owner and the second Adam back as King to judge, restore and beautify it. Just as all the covenants run through Christ, so Christ is Maker, Owner, Redeemer, Restorer, and Ruler as the physical world as a physical Being in the world. The two comings of Christ are in reality one work separated by time, as is evident from the Messianic prophecies in the OT and the Lord’s Supper in the NT. This fact also shows us that the teleology/eschatology motif inaugurated at Creation and instilled in the biblical covenants is yet unfolding.
- Because this world is cursed, even Christ cannot remove the ravages of God’s curse on the ground without constantly exercising His miraculous restraint on it. This explains the need for a new heavens and new earth wherein there is no more curse. This completes the original “Creation Project.” The whole Bible program is radically (but not artificially) Christological.
That, I submit, is a lot more promising than talking about the dispensations and restricting it to the Church and Israel. I call it, for want of a better term, Biblical Covenantalism.
(Continued in Part 2.)
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.