In this final article in this series on the importance of the Biblical Covenants I want to outline what I believe are the important issues which ought to affect anyone who believes that the Bible should be interpreted in the same “naive” way we read personal letters, sermons, novels and other books. We must always keep in mind that the Bible is written to the “common man” not the specialist scholar.
1. Although there are recognizable dispensations within the Bible story these are given too much emphasis by many Dispensationalists (I have already mentioned that the label “dispensationalist” is an unfortunate one. “Biblical Covenantalism” is a more accurate moniker). This is because the dispensations give a “man’s-eye view” of biblical history and are merely markers to the way God has dealt with men under certain conditions. Doctrinally the dispensations carry in themselves little content for the Church.
I am saying that we can get our theology from the whole Bible whether we pay attention to the dispensations or not. One does not have to know what a dispensation is to know that we no longer build giant arks or sacrifice bulls and goats. As a result of this recognition it is clear that the dispensations themselves are of secondary importance. We must look for something that gives theological potency to the system. Most Reformed scholars find this underlying structure in the theological covenants – especially in the so-called “Covenant of Grace.” The dispensationalist will find his underlying theological structure in the Biblical Covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Land, Davidic and New).
2. Dispensational theology, grounded not in the dispensations but in these Covenants is the theology of the Bible. It is in these biblical covenants that God has told us what He will do and is doing. God has made specific declarations in the covenants of the chiefest theological importance.
To give two examples: A). the doctrine of the Grace of God is exemplified in the covenants. Even the Mosaic Covenant was, of course, not a way of salvation, but pointed the sinner away from himself and toward the necessity of a gracious sin-Substitute. B). the great covenant with Abraham sets out promises which God commits Himself to fulfill. These include personal prestige for Abraham; a special nation through his physical seed (Isaac) which will occupy the Land of Promise (Gen. 15); blessings through Abraham for the nations of the world, etc.
These promises supply theological truths such as a theology of Israel in the land corresponding to the wording of the covenants. In the same way the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant to “all the families of the earth” come to us through the Church’s participation in this particular promise (cf. Gal. 3:6-8,14-16,26-29) via its association with Jesus Christ in the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:6).Though I agree that the New Covenant was announced to Israel and Judah (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8f.) and must come to fulfillment with ethnic Israel, I do not see why we cannot speak of the Lord’s supper and its institution (see Lk.22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26) as God’s making the very same New covenant with the church so as to give access to the blessings of Genesis 12:3. If Israel needs the New Covenant to access all their covenant blessings, why should not the Church need to cross the same “bridge” to get at its covenant promises too? I know this seems novel, but I can’t see much against it and it may have quite a bit going for it – not least not avoiding the pretty obvious covenant language of Christ and Paul! Still, if one prefers the “participation” view I shall not rankle – it makes sense and has a better pedigree than mine!
There are, then, strong soteriological and eschatological links that are shaped by the covenants of Scripture. And this holds true for other doctrines too.
3. But these things are only true provided these covenants are left alone to say what they say and are allowed to form doctrines as they are seen unfolding. We must not impose foreign schemes which obstruct this unfolding. Let me give an example: If the Davidic Covenant is studied (e.g. 2 Sam. 7:4-17; 1 Chron. 17:16-27; Psa. 89; Jer. 33:14-26; Lk. 1:32-33, etc.) it becomes clear that Israel has a right to expect a Davidic King and earthly kingdom to arise in fulfillment of God’s promises. The only way this can be challenged is if a teaching is intruded into these pledge-texts to nullify some or all of the wording of the original covenant. This is precisely what Replacement theology does with its claim that the Church is the “New Israel” and that Christ is now ruling from David’s throne in heaven – so that there is little or nothing left to be fulfilled of the Davidic Covenant.
By the imposition of a non-biblical single “covenant of grace” and/or a misinterpreted NT verse or two (e.g. Rom. 9:6; Gal. 6:16; Heb. 11:8-16) the literal wording of the scriptural covenant is washed away or altered to point to something other than David or the Jews were led to believe.
4. What is the bottom line then? The fundamental unmovable tenet of interpretation is that the biblical covenants must be allowed to mean what they say. Their wording must be treated as sacrosanct, for when this is done they are treated as proper contractual agreements whose particulars must be honored by the contracting parties.
5. Now two crucial points come into view. Firstly, since the biblical covenants control much of the rest of biblical revelation their plain-sense interpretation must be extended to the other parts of Scripture. The full import of this is: If the biblical covenants must be interpreted literally, the whole Bible must be interpreted literally. If this rule is not followed, conflicting interpretations will quickly arise as a result. Thus, the covenants contain within themselves the hermeneutical key to the entire Bible.
Second, because the covenants provide the “God’s-eye view” of God’s purposes, they provide the foundational elements of the biblical worldview (something that a focus on the dispensations could never do). God’s Self-disclosure and Self-naming is often given within a covenantal context (e.g. His personal name “Yahweh” is peculiarly associated with these covenants). And what God tells us about this world and its future, and about mankind as fallen, and the promise of redemption are covenantally conditioned. Hence dispensationalists can construct a “dispensational worldview.”
6. Stressing the biblical covenants in this way does not mean we ignore anything which does not appear to fit the covenantal structure. For example, the opening chapters of Genesis, which probably do not contain a covenant (though some find an “Edenic covenant” there), are presupposed in the Noahic Covenant. On the other hand the doctrine of the Church does not contradict the covenants so long as it is not thought to be the fulfillment of those covenants.
Since the revelation of God in Scripture and in the natural world is complementary, we can affirm that a Systematic Theology built along these lines will be able, at least in theory, to assign each biblical teaching its correct place and importance. It will not need to rely upon interpretations which cut across the great contractual commitments of the Creator as laid out in the Covenants of Scripture.