Contrasting Dispensationalism and Biblical Covenantalism

This is an older post which I have taken the opportunity to revise and update, hopefully in light of more mature thinking.

A Little Back-Story

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).

In reflecting on the reasons for this I eventually asked myself a rather obvious question: “does the Bible ground its biblical theology upon the dispensations or on something else?”  Re-reading the Bible with this question uppermost in my mind led me to the conclusion that the Bible does indeed base its theology in something other than changing administrations.  It roots itself in the divine covenants!  From this was born what I have called Biblical Covenantalism.  It retains all that makes Dispensationalism good, but refocuses it on the covenants of God.  The result is, I believe, a far more robust and intellectually promising system that is there to be developed.

Anyway, here are what I think are the main contrasts between my approach (BC) and traditional Dispensational theology (DT):

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 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 (i.e. describe one aspect).

BC: defines itself by the covenants of God 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 (i.e. describe a purpose and prescribe God’s outlook).

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.  There is a “God’s words = God’s actions” hermeneutical sequence in Scripture which is amplified by the covenants.

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 arrangement 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, in consequence confining its thinking and hence productivity to those areas.  It cannot be developed into a worldview system under these confines (hence it is not prescriptive).  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.

7. DT: emphasizes the end of the Bible and places little importance on the doctrine of Creation and its outworking in God’s overall plan.

BC: does put a lot of stress upon Creation and sees history in terms of the combined outworking of the teleology and the eschatology which was built into Creation from the beginning.  The Bible is an eschatological (and also teleological) book from beginning to end.

27 comments

  1. Dr. Henebury, As always, you nailed it. Thank you for your study and your writing on this topic. It’s great to see a sharp pen used for the Lord.

  2. Dr. Henebury, I’m looking forward to your book. Thanks for this updated post. Have you ever considered putting your lectures on other platforms such as Google Play Podcast or iTunes? It would make it very easy to share your lecture series. I have been listening to them on my morning walk and I would like to share them with others.

    Thanks again!

      1. Hi Michael,

        FWIW, those presentations that Paul has made that have made their way onto SpiritAndTruth.org are available as a podcast within iTunes:

        http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/spiritandtruth.org-podcasts/id480579525

        The above feed includes the most recent 250 podcasts from our website (which includes teaching by Dr. Henebury).

        You can also access it outside of iTunes or Apple devices:

        http://www.spiritandtruth.org/news/podcast.xml

        There is also a podcast feed which includes over 1800 podcasts over the history of SpiritAndTruth.org:

        http://www.spiritandtruth.org/news/podcast-all.xml

        Blessings – Tony

  3. Thanks for your article, Dr. Henebury. From what I gather most Christians who share your view on Biblical Covenantism also are Prerertists. Are you a Preterist?

    Thanks!

    1. Jerry,

      If someone else has written biblical theology in terms of this ‘biblical covenantalism’ I am not aware of it. I am quite well read, but maybe I missed it?

      And NO, I am very far from being a preterist. Who did you have in mind as you asked your question?

      1. Dr. Henebury,

        Thanks for your reply. In regard to the term “biblical coventalism” I just thought that you were referring to Covenant Theology. Do you believe in the church parenthesis or the pre-trib rapture? Are not these two things an integral part of traditional dispensationalism? If your answer is “yes” then how did these two doctrines develop apart from dispensational theology?

        Thanks!

  4. Baiting a hook because I am curious about your ideas about the Church parenthesis and the pre-trib rapture?

    1. Well, all you have to do is type “rapture” in the search bar and a whole series on that topic comes up. As for the Church, no I don’t think parenthesis is the best word. I view it as fully intended as part of the movement of providence (what I call the Creation Project). It is not an afterthought.

      The rejection of Christ by His people was foretold in the Psalms, so the Church, which is predicted in Matt. 16:18, cannot be an aside. I teach that Christ is the personification of the New covenant, so the church in Him is one aspect of all the saved who are or will be in Him.

  5. Thanks, Dr. Henebury. In your article you wrote,”Dispensations are just not that important: the biblical covenants are”

    So knowing one’s stewardship responsibility at the present time is not that important?

  6. Here are three quotes from the pen of Paul which speak of the stewardship responsibility which the LORD gave to him:

    “if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you” (Eph.3:2; NASB).

    “Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might [fn]fully carry out the preaching of the word of God” (Col.1:25; NASB).

    “For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me” (1 Cor.9:17; NASB).

    The “stewardship” which was committed to Paul is in regard to “God’s grace”, a “ministry”, and a “gospel.” Here Paul sums up his dispensational responsibility:

    “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20: 24).

    In ‘Bibliotheca Sacra,’ Roy L. Aldrich quotes these three verses (Eph.3:2; Col.1:25; 1 Cor.9:17) and then says, “These passages use the word ‘dispensation’ (or ‘stewardship’) to describe the sacred commission or trust to preach the gospel” (Aldrich, “A New Look at Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra, January-March, 1963, Vol.120, Number 477, p.43).

    Are members of the Body of Christ not given the same stewardship to preach the gospel of the grace of God?

    1. Not in the sense that Paul was no! Notice in the first two verses the stewardship is given to Paul FOR other Christians. Aldrich’s article is very good. But it does not prove that dispensations take priority over covenants.

      1. Dr. Henebury, you said, “Notice in the first two verses the stewardship is given to Paul FOR other Christians.”

        The stewardship to preach the gospel of grace is to preach that gospel to the unsaved, not to those who are already saved. Paul preached that gospel in “all the world” (Col.1:6) so his stewardship was for the unsaved. This is the gospel Paul said to make “known to all nations (Ro.16:26).

        I’m not saying that dispensations take priority over the covenants but instead that both are absolutely essential to a correct understanding of the Bible. Again, are you saying that knowing one’s stewardship responsibility at the present time is not that important?

  7. Look Jerry, every time you visit this site you try to start a debate. What is worse, you don’t pay attention to my answers, as proven by the above where you ignore the first two verses you cited as evidence that we are given a stewardship. Paul is given the stewardship, not us, but twice he says it is for us (not the unsaved). Telling people the gospel is not a dispensation, it is a witness to what God has done in Christ. If you were right then Dispensationalists would not refer to this dispensation as the Dispensation of Grace or of the Church, they would refer to it as the Dispensation of the Gospel – but who does that? No one, because they mean something different by it than you do. Rom. 16 is not referring to some stewardship in the mold of Dispensational-ism. You are making logical missteps.

    And I have told you before; I don’t hold to hyper-dispensationalism. I am not sure why you come here to be honest.

  8. Dr. Henebury, you said,”Look Jerry, every time you visit this site you start a debate. What is worse, you don’t pay attention to my answers, as proven by the above where you ignore the first two verses you cited as evidence that we are given a stewardship. Paul is given the stewardship, not us, but twice he says it is for us (not the unsaved).”

    I believe that the Scriptures prove that believers have a stewardship because they speak about believers being “stewards”:

    “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet.4:10).

    Are we not stewards of God’s grace in its various forms?

    “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor.4:1).

    Are we not stewards of the mysteries of God, especially the “mystery” Paul associates with the gospel spoken of here?:

    “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past,
    but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith” (Ro.16:25-26).

    1. So Jerry,

      we have once more arrived at the place where you appear to ignore what you have been told and try to steamroller through. You get a bee in your bonnet and, for reasons which escape me, you want to deal with it here. Well, that’s not going to happen.

      You have a problem with equivocation. You see “stewardship” and you think “dispensational theology.” I cannot help you (not that you come to learn anything anyway).

      I am bothered by your way of insinuating without coming into the light. I have looked over all your past comments and your SOP is always the same. I deleted comments before for this reason and will do so once more if you try to post another comment. Don’t post here again.

  9. Classical dispensationalism taught that there were multiple ways of salvation:

    1. BW Newton’s observed that the logical conclusion of Darby’s system is that ways to salvation changed according to each dispensation;
    2. Scofield’s note on John 1:16, the law was a “condition of salvation”
    3. Scofield’s note on 1 John 3:7, “The righteous man under law became righteous by doing righteously”
    4. LS Chafer (1936) wrote, “There are two widely different, standardized, divine provisions” for justification.
    5. Chafer (1951): sola fide “not found in the kingdom administration”
    6. Chafer, The Kingdom in History and Prophecy (1915): “there will be a return to the legal kingdom grounds”
    7. William Evans, Outline study of the Bible (1941), “The characteristic of this age is that salvation is no longer by legal obedience . . .”. “No longer” implies that it formerly was.
    Then, of course, is the implication of a “dispensation of law” contrasted with one of grace.

    1. You have already palmed this stuff off on Micah Martin. If you wish to be taken seriously, please provide the actual works where these comments are to be found. I shall respond by proving that covenant theology DOES teach two ways of salvation, and I shall quote my authorities.

      1. All but the first cite the actual works where those comments are to be found. If you wish to be taken seriously, please read what you are responding to.

      2. 1, 4 & 5 have NO book information. No 5 is true. If the kingdom is future (as Chafer held) then faith gives way to sight. Some of these are mere fragments. This looks like a cut and paste from an anti-dispensational work. Which one? I may have it.

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