Dispensationalism, Covenantalism, or Something Else

In a typical day at seminary, it is nearly impossible to go through a class, walk through the library, or browse through the bookstore without seeing or hearing something that is tied to dispensational theology. This is closely related to the fact that Dallas Theological Seminary is the flagship school for dispensationalism in North America. I never considered myself a dispensationalist before I came to DTS, and nothing I have heard so far has persuaded me to alter my belief structure to accommodate dispensationalism.

The doctrinal statement of DTS says this: We believe that three of these dispensations or rules of life are the subject of extended revelation in the Scriptures, viz., the dispensation of the Mosaic Law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom. We believe that these are distinct and are not to be intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive. Link

When I look at dispensational theology, the thing that strikes me the most about it is that I find it less useful as a theological basis for approaching Scripture and more useful as a broad outline of Scripture. Depending on who you talk to, they will usually say there are between three and seven dispensations:

1. The Age of Innocence, from the creation of Adam and Eve until they fell into sin.

2. The Age of Conscience, from the fall into sin to Noah’s flood.

3. The Age of Human Government, from Noah to Abraham.

4. The Age of Promise, from Abraham to Moses.

5. The Age of Law, from Moses to Christ.

6. The Age of Grace, from the death of Christ to the rapture of the Church.

7. The Age of Christ, His personal 1000 year reign, yet future.

I have two problems with dispensationalism as a way of understanding Scripture and the world. The first problem is the focus on the end times. Many of the biggest names associated with dispensationalism are people who have written numerous books on prophecy or the end times (John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsay). When their work is examined critically it rarely passes the litmus test of sound doctrine. They interpret most, if not all, of the book of Revelation as prophetic, ignoring that apocalyptic literature that was very popular in the late first century and was often used by the oppressed as a type of secret language to communicate their protests against their current situation and their hope for a better future. Much of the imagery in Revelation makes great sense when interpreted in light of the circumstances of first century Christians. This popularizing of theology has proven to be a great source of power, income, and prestige for many Christians. I wonder what makes them think they can better see prophecy being fulfilled before their eyes than the 12 apostles who failed to see Jesus as their spiritual savior instead of as their political savior. The moral of the story is that when we try to interpret prophecy we are consistently wrong. It has been that way since the apostles missed the true meaning of Old Testament prophecy even when the fulfillment was walking with them and it continues today. It was not until after Jesus died and the Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled that the apostles began to understand the significance of what those prophecies meant.

I will discuss the second problem along with Covenantalism.

Covenant Theology:

· The Noahic Covenant, found in Genesis 9.

· The Abrahamic Covenant, found in Genesis 15.

· The Mosaic Covenant, found in Exodus 19-24.

· The Palestinian Covenant — an unconditional covenant enlarging upon the Abrahamic Covenant promising the seed of Abraham eternal possession in the land (Deuteronomy 30:1-10), and

· The Davidic Covenant, found in 2 Samuel 7

· The New Covenant

Much of what I said about dispensationalism applies here as well. I think that both dispensationalism and covenant theology work well at outlining in Scripture. The problem lies in that both tend to over-complicate the overarching theme of Scripture. When I read and study Scripture I can certainly see where dispensational and covenant theology come from, and both of them make sense. However, I think there is a much simpler approach to theology that ties the whole of Scripture together and doesn’t create artificial outlines that can lead to many problems (like the relative abandonment of the Old Testament by many Christians and the disproportional obsession with the end times that pop-Christianity has).

I believe that when you look at Scriptures the overarching theme is the grace of God toward man. From the time of the fall to last pages of Revelation, the Bible is a story of how God continually offers grace to humanity. The stories of the Old Testament are full of times that God extended mercy to undeserving people. In the New Testament God became man and died in the ultimate act of grace; the ultimate extension of mercy. The remainder of the New Testament tells us how to live in light of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.

Sure, it is simple, but it makes perfect sense. From the first page of the Bible to the last it is a story of God’s grace. This is echoed in our lives, from our first breath to our last, they are stories of God’s grace. No matter what the covenant or dispensation of the time was/is, it has been and always will be about grace.






8 thoughts on “Dispensationalism, Covenantalism, or Something Else

  1. I agree with you completely. The theme of most of my theological education at Columbia International University focused on finding the center of Biblical tension. While I have developed a love for theology, I have also developed a distaste for systematic theology. It seems to me that these “outlines” are first developed from a study of scripture. Then they are used to interpret all scripture. This seems like a case of the tail wagging the dog to me. I prefer a Biblical theology where major themes are identified simply to help tie everything together and not to perfectly explain every little verse according to a system.

  2. To see a truly eye-opening article, Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards” – an item definitely not approved by Dallas Seminary or any other habitation of dispies! Other riveting Google pieces include “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” and “Famous Rapture Watchers.” The “Powered by Christ Ministries” site probably has more rapture-exposing material than anyone else. Marge

  3. Caleb,
    Seems to me that you’re falling into the trap of the self-proclaimed sophists of seminary–those students who believe since they are in seminary, their knowledge and wisdom is elevated to the point at which they may now sit in judgment over the accumulated life’s work of all church fathers, reformers, and the studied theologians of evangelical history. I would not for a moment attempt to squelch your questioning mind, but I would suggest putting off making pronouncements until you’ve fully examined the broad range of source data available.
    For many years I was bound tightly in a dispensational construct with some of the same questions you presented. The release for me was not found in dancing lightly over unifying biblical themes and wistfully sighing that their application to my glide through life is all that God ever wanted to communicate.
    Systematic theology for the unlearned is nothing more than categorization. However, if you peel the onion enough to uncover the deeper layers of thematic unity even in the systematics, I think you’ll find a close link to the development of biblical theology.
    Dispensationalism, I agree, seems to have decided on discontinuity as a model. Covenantalism, however, seems less so inclined. Its basis is not in the dividing of Scripture into covenants, but rather showing the expanding revelation of God (including his grace) through those covenants. The covenants are not dismissed with the addition of each successive one, but all point to and are ultimately fulfilled in Christ, and then further to us as his children. That shows continuity. And covenantalism does not point to charts and graphs of end time ramblings as does dispensationalism, but rather to ultimate security and perfect relationship with God.
    Do a little more research. I’d suggest the book The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson (probably not on the must read list of DTS). Read Biblical Theology by Geerhardus Vos (which you may already have, but take another deeper look). Then take the time to examine the Systematic Theologies of Louis Berkhof and Robert Reymond. After all that, and if you can handle it, try delving into some of Patrick Fairbairn’s exhaustively rich works.
    Also, I apologize if my comments are seemingly harsh at times. We all reach turning points when what we’ve been told just doesn’t seem to hold the force it used to. But the answer is not in sliding back to a less thoughtful or intense approach. The nature of the communication our God has provided requires a deep commitment of mind as well as heart–especially for those in training to influence others. Please don’t dismiss ideas and doctrines too easily. Study well.

  4. i am a dispensationalist …… because just reading the bible, as you would read any book .. can only move you to be a dispensationalist.

    progressive revelation


    1. I’m sorry, Richard, but my heart just broke when I read your comment, and what broke it was the bit about the progressive revelation. God has always had one plan, and he has been quite clear with it, ever since the get-go with Adam. The key to understanding Scripture is not in covenantalism or dispensationalism, but in knowing the God who wrote them. The Holy Spirit is what gives illumination, not a systematic theology. Plus, even the word theology, theos (θεοσ) and logos (λογοσ) just means a word about God. Not about covenantalism or dispensationalism or interpretation or whatever. Just God.

  5. The basic problem with Covenant [aka Replacement] Theology is in an overreaching and irrational dependence upon allegorical interpretation of Scripture, which, if consistently followed, implies that God revealed Himself in a duplicitous manner by saying things to the prophets, knowing full well those declarations would be interpreted normatively by the hearers, all the while intending a different meaning entirely. Moreover, in its overreaching dependence on pagan philosophy, Covenant Theology represents a gnostic dualism towards scripture, teaching that interpreting Scripture according to ordinary rules of language is evil, while interpreting Scripture according to allegorical symbolism is more spiritual and therefore good.
    This gnostic tendency is furthered in the covenant theological camp by an attendant corollary that unless one has been schooled to interpret Scripture allegorically, one is unqualified to teach and expound Scripture–thereby not only promoting a gnostic view of Scripture, but eroding the very foundational beliefs of the Reformation.

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