Dispensationalism & “Biblical Covenantalism” – What’s in a Name?

I am a Reluctant Dispensationalist.  If someone wants to know what my general outlook on the Bible is I will tell them it is Traditional or Classic Dispensational.  I then feel compelled to qualify this confession by making it clear that I do not follow the Tim LaHaye’s and Hal Lindsey’s of this world.  Where our theological paths cross I might find myself in agreement with them a fair bit of the time.  I would not agree with their Arminianism for one thing.  I’m not sure about this, but LaHaye may be closer to Limborch and Finney than to Arminius himself.  In any case, I do not think it is wrong to be an Arminian of the stamp of Arminius himself (or Episcopius), and I am sure that many Calvinists who can hardly bring themselves to say the word without their lip curling have never read Arminius for themselves (or a contemporary like Thomas Oden).

But differing on such matters does not make me a Reluctant Dispensationalist.  Perhaps the majority of Dispensationalists are and have been Calvinistic in their soteriology.  I myself believe salvation to be a sovereign work of God for the elect even if I wouldn’t formulate it in the usual Calvinist way.

I am not a Reluctant Dispensationalist either because I differ with my teachers, Mal Couch, Thomas Ice, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Steve Ger, Tom McCall, and Robert Lightner.  I learned a great deal from these men and esteem them all.  But truly I wish we could all go back to the time of Erich Sauer and Alva McClain and follow their lead.  They had little to say about “dispensations” in their overall schemes.

I must also insert here that I find little use for Progressive Dispensationalism.  I do think their treatment of the New Covenant is quite helpful, but their “complementary hermeneutics” looks to me like they are trying to have their cake and it eat it.  Often it seems that they have come to their views independently of the text in its context.

My reason for being reluctant is the name!  Yes, I know, what’s in a name?  Dan Phillips this past week has, in personal correspondence, tried to reason with me about this.  “Dispensationalism” is the name we’ve got and we’re stuck with it.  I greatly appreciate his advice, and I believe he is probably right.  So while I shall have to continue to say I am a Dispensationalist, I would like to try to explain why I have such a issue with the name, and why I shall continue to put in a word for “Biblical Covenantalism,” regardless of its obvious lack of shop-window appeal.  I’ll try to do it by way of contrast.  DT = Dispensationalism and BC = Biblical Covenantalism:

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 false 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.

BC: defines itself by the covenants 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.

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.

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 orientation 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 (e.g. Vlach), in consequence confining its thinking and hence productivity to those areas.  It cannot be developed into a worldview system under these confines.  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.

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23 comments

  1. Very helpful, thanks. Maybe if you wrote a book?

    To be clear, I share your reluctance in that the name is not at all transparent. It’s as if calling oneself “baptist” means that one mostly preaches about water baptism. Yet to communicate we’re forced to use words, all of which have limitations. By calling yourself an {Anything] Covenantalist, you then run the other risk of being misperceived as a Covenant Theologian. Which you are. But aren’t. (c:

    What covenants do you identify as structuring history/Biblical narrative, then?

    1. Synopsis:
      1. There’s a bit to it, but I believe the first covenant is that with Noah and creation in Gen.9.
      2. 2 Pet. 3:6-7a divides “the world that then was” from “the heavens and earth which are now.”
      3. Our history (in contrast to pre-diluvian history) is governed by the Noahic Covenant with its assurance of uniformity (cf. Gen. 8:22). This uniformity will continue until Christ delivers up this creation to the Father after the Millennium (1 Cor.15:20-28). That covenant provides the stage for the unfolding of the other covenants.
      4. The Abrahamic Covenant furnishes blessings for ethnic Israel (“Jacob”) and the Nations. The Davidic and Priestly covenants fill out a covenantal triad for Israel (I place the Land covenant of Deut. 29-30 within the AC).
      5. The Mosaic covenant was temporal and served among other things to preserve Israel.
      6. None of these covenants have within them the redemptive means for their consummation. This is by Divine design.
      7. To ensure Christ (for whom it was all made in the first place and is sustained by Him now) is front and center in His Plan, God places the redemptive means needed by the other covenants in the New Covenant in Christ’s Blood.
      8. The eschatological context of the NC passages of the OT, like Jer. 31 & Ezek. 36, point to its being made with the Remnant of Israel at the Second Advent.
      9. The Church is not spoken of in the OT, so one should not read too much into its absence in Jer. 31.
      10. The NC was made with the Church as distinct from national Israel at the first advent (Lk.22; 1 Cor.11). This is why the Church is not under the Law as a rule of life. The NC links the Church to certain provisions in the AC.
      11. The telos within the original creation is carried by biblical eschatology via the covenants to its consummation under the historical rule of the last Adam. Hence, teleology & eschatology are inseparable.
      12. This earth is cursed and that curse cannot be removed. But before the New Heavens and Earth Jesus will regenerate it on its “Noahic Base” and present it to God; history having been consummated.
      13. The everlasting terms of the unilateral covenants will continue into the eternal realm, which will be closely associated with this realm, especially in its original condition.
      14. To reflect the Triune nature of God and the triadic imprint within nature, there will be three peoples of God (Jew, Gentile, Church) who are one people of God. These correspond to the three Persons: Father “marries” Israel; Son “marries” the Church; the Spirit “marries” the Gentiles.

      God bless and thanks for your encouragement,

      P.

      1. Hi Paul,

        Thanks for laying your view of God’s plan as revealed in the Bible in this list form. I will come back to you with more learning and comparing.

        Joel

      2. Paul, I’m not sure I can agree with your justification above that the New Covenant is established with the Church. From what you wrote above, you seemed to support either two New Covenants, or one covenant but two aspects.

        There is nowhere in the New Covenant in Jeremiah, for example, doesn’t allow the two aspects to be divided. And in addition, there is not sufficient scriptural passage evidence to support which aspect relate to the Church vis-a-vis Israel.

        To me, I’m still thinking the partaker view (Fruchtenbaum, et al) is more appropriate because it seems to be putting more on the raw scriptural passages rather than taking a more theologically-based harmonization. Sure there is a rough edge around here and there, but it is the result of trying to engage the Scripture texts more faithfully than otherwise. I’m afraid the question may have to await Christ Himself to answer.

      3. Joel,

        you write: “There is nowhere in the New Covenant in Jeremiah, for example, doesn’t allow the two aspects to be divided. And in addition, there is not sufficient scriptural passage evidence to support which aspect relate to the Church vis-a-vis Israel.”

        Let me ask two questions brother:

        1. Why would you expect to find mention of the Church in Jeremiah?
        2. What do you do with Paul’s NC language in 1 Cor.11?

        Perhaps if you reread my “Christ at the Center” posts, particularly Pts 2 & 3 my position would become clearer. I have more to add later.

        God bless,

        P

  2. Paul, have you read, “The God of Israel and Christian Theology” by R. Kendall Soulen. He’s seems to be on your trajectory, and is offering a renaming and refinement of DT to “Consummationism.” The book isn’t rich in exegesis, but more the big picture stuff.

    1. Hi Ted, nice of you to visit!

      I have not read Soulen’s book, although I have heard of it. Sounds like I need it. Does he say much about the covenants?

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul

  3. Paul, I don’t think you’ll ever kill off “dispensationalism” even if other dispies agree to Biblical Covenantalism. Personally, it’s growing on me and I think you may be right. However, I bet our non-dispies friends will stick to the old term. I suspect they like the label as a target – if you know what I mean.

    I like Dan’s idea re the book 😉

      1. Craig,

        I was not really saying the dispensations drive the hermeneutic, but the dispensations drive the self-understanding of dispies and restrict their thoughts. All our systems have their “problem texts” – some more than others – but my chief concern here is with development, or what older writers called “improvement”, meaning “exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the system and making them a little better.”

        On Joel 2/Acts 2 – you are probably aware that one doesn’t have to be a dispy to see that the phenomena of Joel 2 do not match what is described in Acts 2. Therefore, most seek theological clues around the context to try to understand what Peter was on about. I don’t think a full solution will ever be agreed upon this side of the return of Christ, but I think the expectations in Acts 1:6 and 3:9-21 are crucial to any good interpretation. I do not see an eschatological view as necessitating dispensational premillennialism in the interpretation of Acts 2 (although I’ll be honest enough to admit that it will not contradict that view 😉 )

        God bless,

        Paul

  4. Paul, you have articulated a number of my concerns with DT. As you stated (if I read it right), I have always felt that the dispensations (which I personally don’t see (at least not 7 of them)) drive the hermeneutic and not the covenants which are clearly there from beginning to end.

    Additionally, I always felt that DT did not allow me to read and understand/interpret the text as seemed natural. I was initially drawn to Covenant Theology because I felt it allowed me to interpret the text as seemed to be normal and plain (to take the DT phrase from them). For example, seeing the present fulfillment (beginning to be fulfilled/inaugurated) of Joel in Acts 2 and the terms used in 1 Pt. 2 to describe the church that are used in the OT to describe Israel. However, I have not been able to swallow the full pill of CT and I don’t expect I will.

    1. Craig, I was at my church (which has a moderately Reformed background, i.e. “Reformed yet not too Reformed”) and there was a sermon series on Joel some months back. I personally don’t think the position that Acts 2 states Joel 2’s condition as fulfillment is appropriate or being faithful to the text of Joel itself. The way I see it, you must either have the whole block fulfilled at the same time, or you come back to the age old Jewish cultural usage problem: Peter is using this just as a type to illustrate something similar has happened. (i.e. his way of quoting the Joel text is in the Jewish way, that is to augment the teachings with types).

      The preacher has to bring in theological concepts such as “the day of the Lord” i.e. End Times begins immediately after the cross until the Second Coming to make the fulfillment view sounding sensible. But this would contradict 2 Thesslonians 2:2 that the Day of the Lord has yet to come.

      1. Paul & Joel, how do you understand the language/wording of Acts 2:16 if Peter is not liking the Joel prophecy to what is happening in Acts 2? I don’t see how it is not at least an indication that it has begun to be fulfilled but not fully. Help me here.

  5. Good question Craig,

    Please note my reply to you on this above. Let me add a couple of things:

    1. the pronoun “this” (houtos) in Acts 2:16 presents a problem for all but the most die-hard spiritualizer. It is just a fact that the phenomena described in Joel 2 were not occurring at Pentecost. Therefore, one who wants to be “literal” with “this” will have to forsake it in very quick order. This ought to cause one to pause a little.

    The “houtos” might be construed to signal, not a comparison with Joel 2, but an announcement of it, with all its eschatological expectations associated with the Spirit. In that case, Peter is announcing the imminent coming of the day of the Lord IF Israel would repent. Not many (comparatively) did, but this view does square very well with Peter’s assertions in 3:9-21 which see. As F.F. Bruce says, the restorative language of 3:19 & 21 relate to the “regeneration” language of Jesus in Matt. 19:28, making the thrust of the sermon an offer.

    2. The Lukan narrative has already made a theological case for the delay of the eschatological kingdom of God in e.g., Lk. 19:11f; 21:9 and Acts 1:6-7. I know there are present aspects of the kingdom in the Person of Jesus, but the thrust of these passages is both obvious and, I think, calculated.

    This creates a kind of tension between 1. and 2. as outlined above. If Peter knew that the kingdom was not imminent (at least by Acts 1:7), how could he offer it? My answer is simply that the decree of God does not affect man’s responsibility to respond to an offer. Hence the offer can be genuine, even though its immediate acceptance may not come to pass. This would make Peter’s sermon akin to Jesus’ preaching in Matt. 4:17.

    I see no easy way for ANY school to interpret Peter’s first sermon, but I think the steps here make sense (to me anyhow) 🙂

  6. Hi Paul, I haven’t forgotten your question asking me to read Pts 2 & 3 and reconsider your position. I’m tied up with daily commitment at the moment and am sourcing a few sides’ opinions. I hope to come back to yor sometime when I have done more studies. Sorry about the wait. Thanks, Joel.

  7. Hey Paul,
    I had a question for you. How do you believe the way you do about the church and the new covenant, in similar fashion to many progressives, and yet avoid the whole complementarian hermeneutic? This is not meant to be a hostile question at all I’m genuinely curious. I’ve been doing some reading and have found myself unsatisfied with traditional dispensational answers to the NC problem, but at the same time uncomfortable with PD’s hermeneutic. I guess I’m sympathetic towards PD but in disagreement. I think they are on to something when they speak of spirit baptism but they take it to far so as to eliminate important distinctions between Israel and the Church. Can you help me out?

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the question. I can avoid the PD hermeneutics simply because I don’t need it to match the Church up to the New Covenant. In fact, I run everything which will last through the New covenant which is Jesus Christ. PD’s urge a form of G-H hermeneutics, but along with most moderns they basically cancel it out with their theological-canonical readings. This comes to the fore with their reading of Acts 2. If one interprets a passage by the rest of Scripture and gives that interpretation final say then what ends up happening is the interpreter’s preferences come through strongly and exegesis of the passage in its context is often put to one side. Or at least the threat hangs over it every time the canonical reading is introduced. Really, this is letting the analogy of faith in at the back door before the passage has been fully understood in context.

      Anyway, read Part Two of ‘Christ at the Center’ and see if you get where I’m going: .https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2012/06/14/christ-at-the-center-pt-2a/

      Can I also say that although reading others is important, the Bible stands above them.

      God bless,

      Paul

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