Biblical Covenantalism

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament, Part 1

A view of the Valley of Jezreel as seen from Mt. Carmel

From the forthcoming book The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation. Read the series.

If one surveys the contents of the Old Testament with both eyes upon the divine covenants, what one comes away with is a massive sense of expectation. The simply-worded Creation chapter (Gen. 1) displays a purpose and goal for the world which God is moving forward. The simplicity of the wording conveys an important hermeneutical truth; that what God does is directly in line with what He says (i.e. God’s words equal God’s actions). This can be tested in numerous points throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 1:3, 6-7, 11-12, 26-31; 6:7-13; 11:7-9; 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 4:16, 25, 32-33).

This movement towards a goal is seemingly interrupted by the calamitous fall of our first parents and the autonomous thinking that it brought about. While seeming innocuous, this default of naive independence from the authority of God and His words has led mankind to every false notion and violent act in our bloody history. It has also caused God’s people to recalibrate what God has said by passing it through the apparatus of independent interpretation. In the long term this is what is chiefly responsible for the varied schools of thought in Christian theology. But in the Hebrew Bible it was a major cause, through reevaluation of God’s word, for Israel’s defection.

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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).

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A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist. In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker (“Dr. Reluctant”) as a title.

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors. They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals. Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all. And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, nor should not be, fixated on the defense of a system. Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing—its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible. We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right. That is a good thing. But the last word will not be said in this life. We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know). The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders. Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.

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Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 2

This completes the thoughts offered previously (see Part 1).

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology, the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology (DT) cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely contented to append their eschatology on to the end of another system—most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

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Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 1

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)?

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