Covenant theology and dispensationalism are two dominant systems of biblical interpretation in Evangelical biblical theology. Both take Luther's law/gospel dichotomy as a starting point and attempt to situate it in the salvation history depicted in the Bible, rather than just in the hearts of individual believers. From there, however, the systems proceed in very different directions, the comparing of which is the object of this essay.
Covenant theology (CT) views salvation history and the law/gospel dichotomy as several covenants made by God. Grudem defines a covenant as consisting of "a clear definition of the parties involved, a legally binding set of provisions that stipulates the conditions of their relationship, the promise of blessings for obedience, and the condition for obtaining those blessings."1 The covenant of works was made with Adam, as the federal head of the human race, in the garden of Eden (Gen 2:16-17; see Hos 6:7). In return for his obedience to God's command not to eat from the tree, he would enjoy everlasting life with God in a perfect creation. When Adam and his wife disobeyed, they brought sin, death, evil, and suffering into the world. They broke the covenant of works, and because of our inherited sinful nature we have no hope of keeping it either (Rom 5:18); we are slaves to sin, objects of God's wrath (Rom 9:22).
But God had a plan. In eternity past, the Father and the Son had planned the redemption of mankind from sin and death, through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus; this was the covenant of redemption. So after the Fall, God made a new covenant with Abram, to enter into a relationship with him and restore His blessing to all the fallen nations of the world (Gen 12:3). This was the beginning of the covenant of grace. In the covenant of grace, God does not demand perfect obedience in exchange for blessing but graciously takes the initiative, replacing our sin with Christ's righteousness so that we may have eternal life by knowing Him. (Jhn 17:3)
So CT frames salvation history in terms of these three covenants, but especially the covenants of works and grace, which are a historicization of Luther's law/gospel dichotomy. Even the Mosaic law is included in the covenant of grace; it was never intended as a means by which man was to earn his salvation by obedience, but was a guide for the Israelites and a pedagogical tool to show the impossibility of self-justification and to lead people to Christ. In the covenant of grace, Jesus acts as mediator and redeemer, fulfilling the terms of the covenant for us so that all that is required to receive God's blessing of salvation is faith in Him.2
CT emphasizes the continuity of God's plan of salvation. Everyone (save Adam and Eve before the Fall) has the same standing before God, and the same responsibility: believe in God and accept salvation by grace through faith. The way that this saving faith is lived out might vary from age to age (contrast the Mosaic law with the law of Christ), but the centrality of faith is constant. CT's hermeneutic also tends to find continuity in Scripture. Through typology and the pattern of promise-fulfillment, Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of the law, the prophets, the sacrificial system, and many other symbols of Judaism. Jesus Himself is the "new Adam" (see Rom 5:12-19), succeeding where Adam failed. He is the end of the law (that is, its goal or culmination, not simply its cessation) (Rom 10:4). He is the perfect sacrifice who truly atones for the sins of the world, to which the imperfect Mosaic sacrificial system "pointed" (See Hbr 10).
Another distinctive of CT is that it sees the Christian Church as the true people of God, the "true [or new] Israel". This means that promises made in the OT to the nation of Israel are now understood to be fulfilled by Christ for the Church, which is considered to include Israel and to have begun with Adam. For example, Hebrews 8:8-12 views the promises made in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as having their fulfillment in Christ, for the Church. This results in a "dual hermeneutic" in which some messianic prophecies (e.g. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, Mic 5:2) are interpreted literally, while others (such as prophecies about the restoration and glorification of Israel; see Hosea 14) are interpreted more theologically, as finding their fulfillment in Christ's redemption of the Church, instead of ethnic Israel per se. (Paul meditates on this tension in Rom 9-11) Based on the usage of OT prophecies in the NT, some OT passages (and, indeed, the OT as a whole) are reinterpreted typologically in light of their Christ-centered meaning. Even if this new meaning isn't evident from the original text, it is believed to be the "true" meaning of that passage. For example, the "suffering servant" section in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is commonly believed to be unambiguously predicting the ministry and passion of Jesus, even though in its OT context it seems more likely that Isaiah is speaking of Israel.
CT sees the "kingdom of God" as present here and now, albeit in a spiritual sense. It was inaugurated by Jesus (see Mat 4:17, the beginning of His public ministry) and claims the true allegiance of all Christians. Obviously the kingdom's status as spiritual is different from how it was anticipated by the Jews (who expected a visible, political salvation from foreign oppressors), but nonetheless it is how Jesus has chosen to rule the world, through word and Spirit. Some adherents of CT (particularly premillennialists) also expect a final, visible consummation to this kingdom, but this is secondary to living as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven here and now.
CT is the theology of my church, so I have become familiar with both its strengths and shortcomings. Its historicization of Luther's ahistorical system of theology is commendable, as is its focus on the unity of God's plan of salvation as told in Scripture. CT brilliantly portrays Christ as the fulfillment of the OT in all that it meant to the Israelites, the expected Messiah who would redeem God's lost people and bring the promises spoken to Abraham to the nations. And finally, the attention that CT pays to the "already" aspect of prophecy and the present (though invisible) reality of the kingdom of God in the world is a welcome rebuke to the stereotype of Christians dismissing involvement in the world on the grounds that it is all going to burn anyway.
CT’s three central covenants seem to correlate only loosely with the ones depicted in the Bible. The covenant of redemption is explicitly described nowhere in the Bible and is of a different kind than the others (God interacting with God, rather than with man); viewing God's command to Adam as a covenant (one of the three major ones, even) seems tenuous; and all the other covenants that are actually clearly depicted as such in the Bible (the covenant with Noah, the major ones with Abram and Moses, and especially the new covenant in Christ's blood (Mat 26:28)) are considered to be part of a single "covenant of grace". Could the distinctions between the biblical covenants be unduly flattened by CT?
Also, as Peter Enns points out in his book Inspiration and Incarnation3, there is a clear tension between the ways CT allows the NT authors to reinterpret the OT and what is considered sound hermeneutics in conservative evangelical circles, i.e. the grammatical-historical method that considers the intended meaning of a text’s author to be the "true" meaning. For example, in Matthew 2:15 Jesus' return from His flight to Egypt is said to fulfill Hosea 11:1: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." (ESV) Yet in context, Hosea was clearly speaking of the nation of Israel, and immediately goes on to describe how Israel sinned and turned to idolatry. (11:2) Clearly he wasn't describing Jesus here, so how can Matthew's usage of Hosea 11:1 as describing Jesus be based on Hosea’s original meaning? Does Matthew get a free pass to interpret Scripture in ways we would consider incorrect today because He was inspired? As Enns points out, we seem to be left with an unsavory choice between following the apostles' hermeneutics and violating our interpretive instincts, or admitting that the apostles should not be examples for us in how we use our Bibles.4
Last, and most personally for me, is the treatment of the law which CT inherits from Luther. Recall that CT holds the Mosaic law to be a pedagogical tool to show us how we are subject to sin, unable to fulfill God's moral demands on us, and thus need Jesus to fulfill them for us so that we can be saved by His righteousness rather than our own. I have been wrestling with the implications of this view for years, and the question of how the law can be a good gift from a loving God to His chosen people if it really plays the role that CT says it does. I can't actually see it in the OT, only in the NT's "reinterpretation" of it (which I cannot but see as eisegesis). The Pentateuch seems to equate faith in God with obedience to His commandments. In Deuteronomy 30, after reviewing the law of God and the blessings and curses for obeying or disobeying, Moses says, "For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. ... But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." (v. 11,14) This is a far cry from CT's view of the law. Here it seems simple: you are able to obey the law, so you should. In Romans 10:5 Paul further says, "For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them." Are we supposed to seek salvation through the law or not? Paul seems to contradict himself on this matter, as does the rest of Scripture, at least as interpreted through the lens of CT.
Contrasting CT in many ways is the alternate system of dispensationalism (DT). It is so named because of its division of salvation history into a series of "dispensations"; a dispensation is "a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God's purposes with unique expectations for human beings".5 In each dispensation (there are generally held to be seven6) God relates to humans differently and gives them different responsibilities to respond to Him; each time man is tested, his failure demonstrates his sinfulness and need for God.7
Literal interpretation of Scripture is thought to be the foundation for the system of DT.8 Among other things, it also plays out in DT's treatment of Old Testament prophecy. Rather than allow the NT to reinterpret the OT as CT does, DT insists on the preservation of the original, literal meaning of the whole Old Testament. The NT authors can add meaning to prophecies (under inspiration), but they can never cancel the original meaning, which is still in force. A significant corollary of this is that DT views the nation of Israel and the Church (which is seen as having begun at Pentecost) as two separate entities. Promises and prophecies made about Israel still apply to Israel; promises made to the Church apply to the Church; a contrast is often drawn between the earthly nature of the promises to Israel and the spiritual nature of the promises to the Church.9 In the view of DT, God has two separate peoples and two programs of salvation.
Also in contrast to CT, DT sees the kingdom of God as more visible and immanent, and thus still in the future. Though subject to Christ's rule as king here and now, dispensationalists await the coming earthly manifestation of that kingdom at the second coming of Christ. In their vision of eschatology (in which dispensationalists seem at least a little more interested than other Christians), Israel and the Church, being separate entities, are believed to have separate destinies under separate parts of God's plan; the earthly kingdom of heaven for Israel and the more universal kingdom of God for the Church.10 Though Israel has been set aside for now as God ministers to the Church, it will be remembered and play a prominent role in the last days.
The difference between CT and DT shouldn't be overstated. Both are conservative evangelical systems; both are based on Luther's vision; both affirm that salvation is by grace through faith; both purport to tell the overall "story" of salvation from the Bible. Yet the differences are also clear. CT focuses on the unity of salvation history as God's single plan; DT focuses more on the diversity by seeing it as a series of dispensations. CT is willing to reinterpret the OT in nonliteral, theological ways to connect it into its single vision; DT does not allow this, and holds that the revelation of Jesus as God-in-the-flesh only adds to the promises given in the OT, rather than altering them. And, of course, while CT sees the Church as the new Israel, DT sees them as two separate entities with their own places in God's plan of salvation.
DT's willingness to stand up for the literal meaning of OT prophecies is, of course, more consistent with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Unlike CT, it does not risk overspiritualizing the kingdom of God until it becomes little different from secular ethics. It keeps in mind the "not yet" aspect of the kingdom as something to be fervently hoped for, and eagerly affirms that the world (not just peoples' hearts) is far from the way it should be. It also takes the diversity of Scripture more seriously rather than risk ignoring the contexts of some parts of it for the sake of a unified interpretation.
Yet DT has at least as many shortcomings as CT. Most of these arise from its a priori commitment to a strictly literal hermeneutic and a biblicist view of Scripture that seems to view the Bible as a sort of reference book for truth whose primary purpose is to provide easily systematizable prooftexts. How did it become a given that such a hermeneutic is the most faithful one? (Or rather, where is it stated in the Bible?) By reducing Scripture to being essentially a repository of propositional information, literalists not only miss out on the richness of the Bible's many genres, contexts, and perspectives; they betray their own goal of reading Scripture faithfully. It strikes me as much like the flat way nonbelievers who think the Bible is a bunch of nonsensical fairytales read it—except that dispensationalists believe it all anyway.
By making the words of Scripture the sole determiner of truth, literalism fails to grasp that truth refers to a reality outside itself. DT coheres with a strictly literal reading of Scripture, but nothing else. Whenever two different words or terms are used similarly or interchangeably (e.g. "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew 19:23-24), instead of realizing they refer to the same thing with different connotations and studying what the word choice means, DT assumes they refer to distinct theological concepts and develops a separate theology for each based on other uses of that specific term. So with the kingdoms, so with Israel and the Church.
The result is a hermeneutic that becomes almost a cipher; the meanings of terms are kept hermetically discrete and controlled not by context or an attempt to discern what the author meant, but by what DT's "biblical" system says them must mean. It is disjointed, arbitrary, complicated, and highly unintuitive; there is little reason to believe that God would work in such a way besides literalism's say-so, and a wealth of reasons to prefer a more theological (not to mention traditional) interpretation that sees greater unity in Scripture and salvation history as the coherent work of one Author. There is little in the way of a single biblical "storyline"; God seems unable to make up His mind what to do with His people and keeps reworking His relationship with them. What basis does such a system provide for any kind of transcendent, universal morality, beyond simply whatever God has tasked people with doing at the moment?
DT's eschatological vision in particular is missing what I consider to be a key component. The kingdom of God, or "Millennium" in the dispensational imagination, will consist of the visible, earthly rule of the returned Christ, which will involve a total transformation of the world's social, political, and economic orders and will be enforced on everyone, with nonbelievers either slain or forced into paying lip service11; "all will have to accept Him as King; some will also accept Him as personal Savior".12 It will be a restoration of Old Testament theocracy, with sin immediately punished.13 This conception of the kingdom seems entirely imposed from the top down, very much like failed utopian visions of yesteryear. In this way it misses the upside-down nature of Christ's kingdom, which is not of this world (Jhn 18:36) and is not simply a better, more successful version of earthly kingdoms. It forgets that the kingdom of God is not simply something "out-there", but already exists in the Church and in the hearts of those who love God. It does not use violence and coercion to achieve its goals, especially over sin (see Jesus' refusals of violence in Mat 26:52-54, Jhn 18:36), but self-sacrificing love. In the dispensationalist imagination, Jesus' kenotic ministry in Judea, as described by Paul in Phl 2:5-11, seems to have been a mere parenthesis, and in the end He will be revealed to be more like the violent, tribalistic God of the OT after all.
I also find one of DT's most characteristic features, its distinction between national Israel and the Christian Church, highly problematic. DT seems to rule out the possibility that God's separate plan for Israel is simply their mass conversion into the Church, for if Israel must join the Church to be saved, how is this any different from CT's claim that the Church is the new Israel, the one true people of God? And if God still has a plan of salvation for Jews who reject Jesus, it seems to imply that Jesus is not the only means of salvation for God's people(s). Besides the unfortunate Trinitarian implications of asserting that you can reject Jesus and somehow still obey God, Paul asserts the unity of God's plan of salvation in 1 Tim 2:5 (RSV): "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus".
Worse, this Israel/Church dichotomy breaks the narrative of the Bible into two. Jesus is no longer seen as the fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Israel for salvation (which God seems to be unaccountably putting off), but something totally "unforeseen and intercalary".14 The failure to unify the two strikes me as a failure of imagination that I don't find compelling in the least. Stating that God is one but has two peoples and two separate plans of salvation goes against my intuition of the biblical storyline; I see absolutely no reason to believe it except DT's literal hermeneutic and its failure to see unity of the Bible. Why is Jesus not the universal savior of both Jew and Gentile? DT fails to provide a remotely satisfying answer as CT does. And, finally, this distinction is flatly contradicted by Paul who portrays Christians as the true Jews (Rom 2:25-29) and states that Christ demolishes the distinction between Jew and Gentile and is Lord of them both (Rom 10:12, Gal 3:28). In Romans 4:11-12, he says that Abraham is the father both of those who believe without being circumcised and those who are circumcised but emulate Abraham's faith. I don't find DT's attempts to restrict the scope of Paul's words to Jewish and Gentile Christians convincing. Additionally, one of his major points in his argument in Rom 9-11 is to deny that Jews have any special privilege by virtue of their birth, for “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6); his hope for the Jews is that they will come to Christ, not a separate plan of salvation. Paul’s heart is broken for his fellow Jews who have rejected Christ; there is no other plan for them. It saddens me that literalistic interpretation is used to silence Paul to prevent this major theme of his writing from being heard.
A few other comments. The distinction between earthly Israel and the heavenly church is an eisegetical imposition of a dualism alien to the biblical imagination. The literalistic, systematizing, prooftexting hermeneutic of DT tends to lead (as we often hear) to unhealthy speculation about the "end times" that treat the Bible as a manual of cryptic prophecies to decipher into a clear roadmap of how (and even when) they will play out. And the attempt of some dispensationalists to establish that their theology is the historic belief of the Church15 is totally unconvincing. Just because a church father says something that sounds like it could have been said by a dispensationalist does not mean he was as well. DT also implies a strange kind of pluralism, the existence of two continuing ways to God: Judaism and Christianity, each with a different set of blessings; choose wisely! Apparently when Jesus called Himself "the way" (Jhn 14:6), He was speaking only to the Church (that is, His altogether Jewish disciples).
As I said, I was raised in churches that largely followed CT, so this is the system I am most familiar with. I still share its desire to see God's plan of salvation as unified and coherent, and its vision of the kingdom of God as being spiritual now, but visibly manifested through the Church and Christ's rule of it (not simply in top-down fashion) at His return. And I very much try to view Christ as the expected fulfillment of the OT promises, as the culmination of the promises made to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the other OT saints. I think most of my disagreement with CT comes from the belief that it does not adequately realize its own theological goals, not from any dispute with those goals. I am less experienced with DT and less positive toward it, but in its refusal to let NT reinterpretation trump the original meaning of OT passages or flatten biblical diversity into a single picture, I can see some of my objections to CT echoed.
My own approach to biblical theology differs from both CT and DT in a few important ways. I see the “point” of the gospel as not just the salvation of human souls, but the redemption of all creation through Christ and the Church; not simply the end of sin-as-disobedience, but of sin-as-ontological-corruption and the related forces of death, the devil, and the world’s “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). I consider this a much grander and, ultimately, more glorious view of God as the true savior of the world, whose plan of salvation is much bigger than us humans. I emphasize that throughout salvation history God has related to people not only externally through outward signs and covenants, but transformationally in our hearts. I view “law” as the Mosaic law, which was given by a good God as a precious gift to His people for a definite purpose (which it has now served), not simply as oppressive and condemning. Lastly, I am keen to see Christianity as the fulfillment of the Israelite religion, not merely a substitute or add-on, so I try to see Jesus as the true (though not always literal or expected) fulfiller of the original meaning of Old Testament prophecies, albeit in the expanded context of God’s people as defined universally by faith rather than national birthright. Such an approach, I hope, both incorporates the best aspirations of both CT and DT while learning from their blunders.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
Grudem, Systematic, 519.
Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the
Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic,
2005), see ch. 4.
Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 156.
William Glenny, "Dispensationalism" (online lecture),
Lewis Chafer and John Walvoord, Major Bible Themes (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 128.
Chafer and Walvoord, Major Bible Themes, 127.
Lewis Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas: Dallas Seminary
Press, 1951), 33 and 37.
Chafer, Dispensationalism, 64.
"Dispensationalism Chart", <
https://courses.unwsp.edu/mod/page/view.php?id=673157> (30 June
Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1988), 510.
Ryrie, Basic Theology, 509.
Chafer, Dispensationalism, 34.
See Chafer, Dispensationalism, 10–12.