Contrasting Dispensationalism and Biblical Covenantalism

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.

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There are 12 Comments

Joe Whalen's picture

Paul,

Thank you for your work in this area.

Just two quick questions for you.  Do you interact with New Covenant Theology?  And if so, how does Biblical Covenantalism differ from NCT?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Paul's points here, which I've read over the past several years, helped me immensely as I struggled with an allegedly holistic framework (DT) that really only seemed to address prophesy and fit the Bible like Cinderella's glass slipper fit her step-sister. Am eagerly awaiting the book. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

I include some NCT authors in my book, but I don't interact with it in the same way as I do with Dispensationalism above.  The reason is that Biblical Covenantalism as I conceive of it is very close to basic Dispensational understandings of Scripture.  That is to say, it incorporates things like the Israel/Church distinction (although I have a place for the Nations in the Kingdom as a third triadic people - hence there is a three-in-oneness to the people of God), premil, 7 yr Tribulation, personal Antichrist, thousand year reign of Christ followed by new creation, etc.  The rapture question is as open as in traditional Dispensationalism, but the covenantal basis of BC encourages pretrib.  BC is just a far better and stronger foundation for these things than dispensations.  It also has the benefits listed in the article (and a few more; e.g. the divine covenants are connected with God's decrees).   

NCT is, I suppose, actually a somewhat similar approach but as an "improvement" upon covenant theology.  While not as successful in my opinion, it dispenses with the 3 traditional theological covenants of CT and replaces them with a Creation covenant and the New covenant.  The former is still exegetically weak, but is theologically quite strong.  Their understanding of the New covenant does the same thing as CT's with the covenant of grace.  It produces one people of God; no Israel/Church dichotomy; typological hermeneutics, and a strong insistence that the New Testament and the first coming of Christ take hermeneutical priority over the Old Testament and the second coming.  Hence, NCT employs the same argumentation as CT most of the time.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

josh p's picture

Really glad to read this Paul. I’ve been wanting to see a clear contrast of the two views. A couple of questions:

In point 2 above do you have an example of how the two views would interpret a passage differently based on their respective hermeneutics?

Am I correct in understanding that BC would place greater emphasis on the creation-fall-meta-narrative? If so, does this provide an interpretive framework as CT does with its Christological/Redemptive hermeneutic?

Thanks brother.

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks for the questions.  As to the first, the issue is not so much interpreting differently as emphasis and grounding.  Let me explain and then give you a real interpretive example. 

Because God's covenants are hermeneutical fixed points, and they cannot be gainsaid by other matters, that means they provide a way of reading the Bible.  This hermeneutic is bolstered by what I call the "God's words = God's actions motif" where you will find that He does exactly what He says He is going to do.  A clear example is John 21:21-23.  Naaman's healing or Elijah's doom upon Ahaziah are others.  

As to an interpretive example, well, I teach on the basis of e.g. Isa. 42:6; 49:8; 1 Cor. 11:23-25 and Heb. 9:16-17 (where "testator" ought to be translated as "covenant").  that Jesus IS the New covenant.  What I mean by that is He mediates it, He is the offering of it, His blood is the blood of the New covenant, and the Servant is made a covenant of salvation.  It is Him.  If it is Him then all the saved must "pass through" Him in order to be saved.  His blood is the basis for the salvation of OT saints, the Church, Israel, and the Nations in the Millennium.  This nails down the New covenant issues which bedevil Dispensationalism.  

As for the second question, the answer is 'Yes' as long as it is understood that the R-M hermeneutic must rely on typology and spiritualization because a. they ignore the biblical covenants b. they interpret Scripture by the first coming and the Cross, and c. they allow only one people of God thereby effectively nullifying the covenants with Israel.  (Of course, this is utterly circular). 

In BC the hermeneutically fixed covenants dictate the terms of approach.  Since Christ is the New covenant He is central to the whole system without being read into alien OT texts.  Added to this is the fact, as you noticed, that Creation is the big thing here.  God created for a purpose.  That purpose (telos) continues and is being brought to completion.  This movement is not redemptive-historical so much as creatio-historical.  This means that the Bible is eschatological in its movement to its telos.  I call this "the Creation Project."  Because BC holds that the emphasis of Scripture is on the completion of Christ's work (which involves Him reigning in peace and justice over a redeemed planet) it is second advent oriented not first advent oriented.  This means that it doesn't have to typologize and reinterpret Scripture to cram it into a first coming setting.

Finally, Christ again is the one by whom and FOR whom the whole shooting-match is here (Col. 1:16-17).  Ergo, He must be the central character.  It is not a forced thing.  Rather it is plainly what all Christians believe on the basis of reading the text normally.        

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

josh p's picture

Thanks Paul that helps a lot. Since the emphasis is on the purpose of God in creation culminated in the second coming, as interpreted through a covenantal framework, do you see a creation covenant, Edenic covenant, redemptive covenant (I’m guessing no here) or the like? In other words, if the Noahic covenant is the first chronologically how are you seeing the covenants interwoven with the creation narrative? Is it simply because creation was the first step in bringing about Christ’s ultimate purposes?

Paul Henebury's picture

We must speak where Scripture speaks and not impose our system on it.  There is no creation covenant, or Edenic or Adamic covenant, and I am amazed DT's teach it with their hermeneutics.  What one needs to assert a covenant is an oath!  No oath, it's all guess work.  You can make the covenant say whatever you want.  It would help me if there was a clearly defined creation covenant with an oath, but there isn't one!

It is significant that the first covenant comes in THIS world (2 Pet. 3:6).  Before that there were no covenants.  But we live in THIS world, and it is governed by God's covenants.  The covenants are expressions of God's creation decrees.  Hope that helps.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul, I know there are probably as many viewpoints as there are participants on SI -- and a lot more.

I want to commend you on your work. I am writing what I believe would be helpful to you.  We NEED a good theological hermeneutical framework derived from Scripture. You may have thought of all the below and come to alternative conclusions. If so, sorry for the clutter.

In my opinion, point one is crucial. Point two, to me, seems very obvious.  Like Covenant Theology, DT is a system forced upon the Scriptures from without.  Point three is right on.  Christ instituted the New Covenant for the church now, but certain aspects for Israel are future.

Points 4 and 5,  in my mind, are often forced and contrived. The Bible has two themes in my view, Redemption in Christ and God's Undying Faithfulness to Israel.  Look at the bulk of Scripture that does not directly deal with Christ or Redemption.  True, parts of the Torah are shadows of these things, but if you tore out all the verses that in any way addressed redemption in Christ, you would have most of the Old Testament.  And what would be the theme?  God's dealings with Israel.  The scarlet thread of redemption is woven throughout the Old Testament, but it is a thread, not an afghan, if you get my point.  Limiting the theme of Scripture to Redemption in Christ is another paradigm forced from the outside, IMO.  Yes, the Spirit of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy, and redemption in Christ is the acme of it all, but not the only theme.

Although academia criticizes dispensationalism for point 6, from a practical viewpoint, I am not so sure that the differences between covenant theologians and dispensationalists are that great in areas outside of eschatology and ecclessiology.  I can see the importance of this, though, in order to gain a hearing and the respect of the broader evangelical academic world.

On point 7, you are right.  Creation is foundational.  I think dispensationalsts, who also embraced the gap theory, downplayed creation for that reason. The gap theory took the heat off of the creation-evolution controversy and resulted in essentially ignoring the issue. It was an evasive tactic.

Have you ever read or considered David Stern's paradigm in, "Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel?" Just in case you haven't, you might find the paradigm simple and worth evaluating.  Here is a link: http://www.jiol.com/docs/olive_tree_theology.pdf

I think your approach is a good approach, even with my areas of (minor) disagreement.  I love its attempt to draw a hermeneutical paradigm from the Scriptures themselves.

The term "BIBLICAL COVENANTALISM," while accurately describing your paradigm, is begging to be confused with Covenant Theology. They own the word.  If you want to garner attention, you might consider a name quite distinct.

Perhaps "Contract Theology" would be better.  That's an understandable synonym for a covenant.  Or, if you want a separate set of initials, "Divine Contract Theology" (DCT).

Paul, I wish you great success!  You have earned my respect a while ago.  May God bless your efforts!

 

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul Henebury's picture

These are very good reflections.  Let me offer some response.

You would like to bring in the theme of Israel into more prominence.  I make quite a lot of the role of Israel as what I might call "the first nation" (i.e. in the achievement of eschatological and teleological goals).  It is through Israel that not only the Savior-King comes, but through whom the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant come.  

I have tried to think through this "main themes of Scripture" stuff and I am a little uneasy with it.  Creation viewed in terms of God's project is a broad enough container for all else in my book, without being vacant.  The Creation Project includes the telos, the fall, redemption, covenant, Israel, Church etc within it, and it calls our attention back to what this is - a created physical and spiritual wonder produced out of love and wisdom.  That is where my thoughts tend.  

BC is very Christocentric, but in a natural and not a forced way.  It stresses the OT expectation of the Messiah in combining the covenants in Himself without changing their meaning.  This encourages a Systematic Theology that will reflect this (but that is in the future dv).  I do not think Dispensationalism as often presented is nearly Christ-centered enough.  Perhaps this is because of the stress laid upon ecclesiology and eschatology?  In any event, CT and NCT has DT beat on that score.  BC can compete with them on it because Christ is central to the Creation Project. and the covenants.  He is not central to dispensations!

Point 6 is the thing that first got me questioning DT formulations.  How can you call DT a system of theology if it doesn't concern itself with formulating its own theology of God, salvation, and Scripture?  Whether it looks like CT is not the point.  The point is that BC encourages the formulation of all corpora from its own resources, not those of CT.  I realize I may be pretty much on my own in this insistence, but there it is.  

As for the name, I recognize your point, but from all my research on covenants I am averse to using the word contract as a synonym.  Thanks for the Stern link and the encouragement!

God bless you and yours,

Paul

        

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

A little personal note.  I think it most inadvisable to call the Apostle Paul by his Hebrew name Sha'ul (Saul).  Paulos was the name used, as is clear from his own writings.  Moreover, he was from Tarsus, a center of Greek culture and was appointed Apostle to the Gentiles.  Calling him Sha'ul not only contradicts Paul's own identification, it distances the Apostle from the Gentiles he was sent to.  

Just a little bug bear of mine.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture

Moderator

 How can you call DT a system of theology if it doesn't concern itself with formulating its own theology of God, salvation, and Scripture?  

Paul, I might respond more later from a traditional perspective, but if I might, let me hit this quickly because I am having a difficult time understanding this.

Isn't the reason why Ecc and Esch are different is because there are distinct issues that have arisen because of DT? If DT formulated its own theology proper, salvation, and Scripture (though I think here DT has some distinctives), would it really be any different? Would you say the same thing about CT? That's its failure to have a distinctive doctrine is problematic?

Again, I am struggling to understand this line of reasoning.

 

Paul Henebury's picture

I don't expect that everyone will see things my way, but I believe that a system of theology must be built from its own foundational tenets, not the tenets of another system.  This is so even if they both arrive at the same place.

Reformed covenant theology is a heavily deductive system which formulates doctrine as much theologically as inductively.  When it uses induction it ends up where we all end up, with the fundamental doctrines.  I described this in the articles on "Rules of Affinity" a while back.  

Dispensational theology employs a different approach to hermeneutics and a more inductive approach (although it too gets overly deductive in places).  I have wanted to use that basic hermeneutics to construct a Systematic Theology.  In fact, I have done so.  When it comes to things like the doctrine of Scripture obviously much of the work done by e.g. Warfield matches that by e.g. Radmacher.  But it ought to be done anyway.  But even there the CT principles of the clarity of Scripture and its sufficiency cannot be followed blindly by DT's.  This is because their view of progressive revelation (which is different than DT) colors their doctrine of clarity.  For sufficiency the creeds and confessions are often given great authority, but that binds the doctrine of sufficiency to Reformed theology generally.  

As for soteriology, well, CT's doctrines of e.g. limited atonement or perseverance are theologically derived from the system.  A Dispensationalist who holds to these doctrines must come to them using a more inductive route.

The reason that distinctive issues have arisen in eschatology and ecclesiology is because the Dispensational hermeneutic is more consistently applied there.  However, what I am claiming is that unless that same hermeneutics is applied to the other areas of theology it cannot be said that DT is actually capable on its own of being a Systematic Theology or indeed a Worldview.  That is my beef.  BC is my attempt to both better ground the tenets of DT and provide a fillip for a full system of theology.  

I don't know if that makes things clearer or murkier, but it's an answer.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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