Are dispensational theology and covenant theology mutually exclusive or are both useful?
First we must define dispensational theology and covenant theology. Both of these are ways to interpret biblical history. Classic dispensational theology uses seven dispensations to understand biblical history. Classic covenant theology uses nine covenant models to explain biblical history.
Dispensational theology uses a seven-dispensation approach to understanding Bible history. Here are the seven classic dispensations:
- Innocence (Creation to Fall of Humanity). This is the dispensation in which Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden. Before the Fall, they didn’t transgress God’s command and lived in peace and security.
- Conscience (Fall of Humanity to Flood). The moment of the Fall of Humanity, Adam and Eve and their descendents until the Flood lived in an age of consciousness of sin and its damaging effects.
- Human Government (Flood to Tower of Babel). Humanity is responsible to make laws and govern itself. The conscience and civil obedience become important.
- Promise (Abraham to Moses). God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation even though he was old and without a son. This dispensation ended when the Israelites began their 40 year journey in the wilderness.
- Law (Moses to Crucifixion of Christ). This is the time where humanity knows God’s expectations through Mosaic law. It ends in 70 AD when Israel scatters as Jerusalem is sacked by the Romans.
- Grace (Cross to Rapture of the Church). The Church operates for Christ in his absence under the grace supplied by him as he fulfilled the law. The Church is ruptured to be with Christ, ushering in the Great Tribulation and God’s wrath.
- Millennial Kingdom (1000 Year Reign of Christ). Christ reigns over the whole world from Jerusalem until God judges the great rebellion in his final judgment.
Covenant theology focuses on the covenants of the Old Testament as a way of understanding how God has worked in the past and works with humanity now. The nine covenants of classic covenant theology are:
- Covenant of Works. In the garden of Eden God trusted Adam not to break his single commandment to not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam violated God’s commandment as a representative of all of humanity.
- Covenant of Grace. This covenant promises eternal life to all people who have faith in Christ. Christ fulfills the covenant of works on the believer’s behalf through his sacrifice. He gives the Holy Spirit to the elect.
- Covenant of Redemption. The agreement between the members of the Godhead for Christ to come and die for humanity to atone for their sin. In return, God raised Christ from the dead and gave him supremacy.
- Adamic Covenant. From the covenant of works to the covenant of grace, God institutes it through the sacrifice to give them skins for their nakedness.
- Noahic Covenant. The Flood looks back to Creation in Genesis 1 as a motif of God re-creating the world.
- Abrahamic Covenant. The covenants with Adam and Noah are universal for humanity. But the covenant with Abraham is with a certain people. God promised Abraham and offspring and land.
- Mosaic Covenant. God continues the covenant with Abraham by promising and fulfilling the people becoming a nation, the nation of Israel, and giving them land.
- Davidic Covenant. God promises to build David a house and lineage forever. The prophets look forward to a messianic figure to complete this covenant.
- New Covenant. The prophets, especially Jeremiah, anticipate that this covenant will be fulfilled. Jesus fulfills it at the Last Supper when he says that the cup is the new covenant in his blood.
Both dispensational theology and covenant theology are ways to interpret biblical history. The basic movement between each step presents a way of looking at biblical history. They move from the beginning of God’s interaction with humanity to the current age.
Probably the starkest contrast between dispensational and covenant theologians is the nation of Israel. Dispensationalists see the nation of Israel and the church as two separate entities. The nation of Israel is an ethnic group of people while the church is saved individuals in the present dispensation (from the cross to the rapture). Some theologians see covenant theology as replacement theology. They say that it replaces the nation of Israel with the church.
Another difference is that dispensationalism usually accompanies a pre-millennial, pre-tribulation view of the end times. It has become popular because of this framework for the end times. Covenant theology comes from a reformed theological background. These traditions tend not to get along with one another.
I believe these are two ships passing in the night. They have different ways of looking at biblical history and how to interpret the Bible. Even though they come from different frameworks and theological backgrounds, they both have something to offer.
I liken dispensational theology to systematic theology. A systematic theologian takes a subject like salvation and looks up that word in a concordance. He then systematically reads the verses in the context and writes a chapter focusing on how Christ saves the human soul. References to the Old Testament show how God has saved before and leading up to Christ. But his goal is to show how Christ is the ultimate salvation.
Covenant theology is more like biblical theology. A biblical theologian takes a subject and starts in the beginning of the Old Testament, moving from Genesis to Revelation, showing how that idea has progressed through human history. For instance, salvation is described through “salvation history.” God offered a different way of salvation from Adam to Christians. The Israelites offered sacrifices when they transgressed God’s laws. Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of that because his blood covers over our sins, the ultimate sacrifice once and for all.
For a new Christian, systematic theology is quite useful. And so’s dispensational theology. Understanding the basic framework for what the Bible says about a subject helps a new Christian to grow faster. We can know what the Bible says about a subject because of systematic theology. Dispensational theology helps us to grasp the message of the Bible in a quick and easy to understand way.
As a Christian grows in faith, understanding the nuances of the Bible through biblical theology continues the growth. It’s not that systematic theology loses its importance. It is the foundation upon which biblical theology continues. In the same way, understanding more of the nuances of interpreting our Bibles gives covenant theology a chance to help us grow further.
These two different ways of interpreting and understanding the Bible from its simple to complex features should not be mutually exclusive. Both are effective tools for all Christians. They can both help us understand our Bibles, interpret them and understand biblical history, in a deeper way.