Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists actually hold a great deal in common, including the most important things. Nevertheless, they do differ in certain ways. Some of those differences are more important and some less so. Some of them are more characteristic of each group, while others are matters of degree.
One of the differences has to do with dispensationalism and covenant theology. In general, fundamentalists are rather loyal to dispensationalism. Also in general, conservative evangelicals incline toward covenant theology.
This difference does not apply in every instance. Exceptions exist in both camps. Some fundamentalists are (and always have been) covenant theologians, while some conservative evangelicals are dispensationalists.
Actually, at one time many or most conservative evangelicals were also dispensationalists. For example, in his recent history of Dallas Seminary, John D. Hannah argues that Dallas Theological Seminary tried to stake out a middle ground between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism. He cites Lewis Sperry Chafer and John Walvoord to show that these leaders disapproved of inclusive evangelism as it was practiced by the new evangelicals, but they also disapproved of the rigid separatism (as they saw it) of many fundamentalists.1 Yet Dallas Seminary was certainly among the leading voices of dispensationalism.
Even at that time many conservative evangelicals affirmed covenant theology. In particular, those who were connected with Westminster Seminary and Covenant Seminary were outspoken covenantalists. Compared with the Moody-Wheaton-Dallas axis, they were probably a minority within evangelicalism. Nevertheless, their influence was considerable and it grew over the years.
Just as many conservative evangelicals were once dispensationalists, some fundamentalists have held to covenant theology. Curtis Lee Laws, in his original definition of fundamentalism, made it clear that that fundamentalist party was comprised of “premillennialists, post-millennialists, pro-millennialists and no-millennialists.”2 T. T. Shields was an advocate of covenant theology as were the fundamentalist branches of the conservative Presbyterian movement that J. Gresham Machen founded. As late as 1992 Allan MacRae, founder of Biblical Seminary, was still insisting that he had always affirmed covenant theology.3
Even now, some conservative evangelicals are dispensationalists and some fundamentalists are covenant theologians. Both the Bible Presbyterian Church and the Free Presbyterian Church are fundamentalist organizations, and both are clear in their adherence to covenant theology. On the other hand, John MacArthur and his associates are definitely dispensational (though MacArthur calls himself a “leaky” dispensationalist), while being identified with conservative evangelicalism.
In spite of these exceptions, however, the generalization holds. Covenant theology is definitely a minority position within fundamentalism, and a small one at that. Dispensationalism seems to be held by only a minority of the most visible conservative evangelicals. Even some who might not identify themselves as covenant theologians would be very reluctant to accept the dispensationalist label.
How thoroughly dispensational is fundamentalism? Examining the ten largest training institutions that identify themselves as fundamentalist, one will discover that virtually every professor of Bible and theology affirms some version of dispensationalism. The percentage is very high indeed.
Determining the percentages among conservative evangelicals is more difficult, but little question exists concerning the widespread influence of covenant theology. Figures such as R. C. Sproul, John Piper, and Mark Dever are public advocates for some version of covenantalism. Dever has even stated that the attempt to institute premillennialism as a test of church membership is sinful.4
In general, the dictum holds: fundamentalists tend to be dispensationalists while conservative evangelicals tend to hold covenant theology. This is a difference between the two movements. But how serious is this difference?
In the calculus of doctrines, the distinction between dispensationalism and covenant theology affects some rather important areas. It involves the relationship between Israel and the church. It touches on hermeneutics, particularly the hermeneutics of prophecy. It even opens the question of the content and direction of God’s plan. These are more than incidental differences. It is to be expected that these differences, if taken seriously, will lead to some limitation in the experience of Christian fellowship.
Having said that, the differences are not as great as might be feared. Some older dispensationalists sounded as if they believed in more than one way of salvation. Some covenant theologians reacted with understandable vigor, but too quickly concluded that dispensationalism necessarily entails a denial of the gospel. Most dispensationalists have been trying to clear up this misunderstanding ever since, and many covenant theologians have been willing to accept their reassurances.
The gospel is not at stake in this difference. Some level of Christian commonality actually exists between covenant theologians and dispensationalists, and some level of mutual endeavor is certainly possible. Fundamentalist dispensationalists and fundamentalist covenantalists manage to work together in various ways, for example at the annual Bible Faculty Leadership Summit.
Furthermore, the distinction between covenant theology and dispensationalism does not go to the heart of either movement. Conservative evangelicals are not conservative evangelicals because of their covenant theology, nor do fundamentalists hold to fundamentalism because of their dispensationalism. While fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals do tend to disagree about dispensationalism, that divergence is not really what makes them different.
Dispensationalists and covenant theologians find ways to work together within both fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, though they do experience tensions in both camps. It may well be possible that dispensationalists might find ways to work together whether they are conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists. The same might be said of covenant theologians.
Downplaying the difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology is a mistake. So is amplifying that difference, particularly when the difference is not really the thing that distinguishes the two groups. And it is not the point of distinction between conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
Consequently, the difference over dispensationalism should have a limited effect upon the ability of fundamentalists to cooperate with conservative evangelicals. This difference should affect the two groups in much the same way that it affects parties within each group. It is not, however, the only difference between the two. Three more differences remain to be weighed.
1 John D. Hannah, An Uncommon Union: Dallas Seminary and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 156-159.
2 Curtis Lee Laws, “Convention Side Lights,” Watchman Examiner (1 July 1920), 834.
3 Allan MacRae, “Communication,” Westminster Theological Journal 54 (fall 1992), 404.
4 Mark Dever, “The End of Death,” sermon preached at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, 12 July 2009. While some covenant theologians are premillennial, no dispensationalist can be amillennial.
The Habit of Perfection
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)
Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.