Christians have stressed the unity of the Bible for well over a thousand years; the Scriptures are one Canon to be read as a whole that shapes every aspect of our lives. The more difficult question has been “how” — how is the bible one story? How does the Old Testament related to the New Testament? How do the many covenants within the Old Testament related to the new covenant in Christ? What is the relationship between Israel and the Church? Whole books have been written on this matter. In the last two hundred years, there have been two major schools of thought: dispensationalism and covenant theology. But, more recently a “via media” (middle way) has emerged called Progressive Covenentalism. These three basic biblical-theological views will be examined below.
A great, short resource on dispensationalism is the book, Dispensationalism by Michael Vlad. While all streams of evangelicalism stress the unity of scripture, dispensationalism emphasizes the discontinuity within the biblical story itself. Dispensationalism acknowledges that there are seven different “Dispensations” (administrations or epochs):
In addition to these epochal periods, dispensationalism manifests itself with two primary distinctives with regards to hermeneutics and the church:
Prominent dispensational theologians and pastors include John McArthur, John Darby, Charles Ryrie, Cyrus Scofield, and Tim LaHaye.
A helpful and accessible resource on covenant theology is Sacred Bond by Michael Brown. Different from dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, or what has also been called and/or associated with Reformed Theology, emphasizes the unity within the biblical story. In contrast with the seven epochs emphasized in dispensationalism, Covenant Theology sees a three-covenant structure (the simple difference between seven and three should already highlight the focus on continuity within covenant theology compared to the discontinuity with dispensationalism):
Some of the distinctive within Covenant Theology that shape their hermeneutics are:
Prominent Covenant Theologians and Pastors include John Calvin, Michael Horton, R.C. Sproul, and Wayne Grudem.
This newer system of thinking is represented in two key multi-author books: Kingdom Through Covenant and Progressive Covenentalism, which features Phoenix Seminary’s own Dr. John Meade. As the subtitle to Progressive Covenentalism indicates, the system seeks to “chart a course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies.” Thus, while dispensationalism emphasizes discontinuity and Covenant Theology emphasizes the continuity, Progressive Covenentalism seeks to highlight a both/and in its synthesis of the meta-narrative of scripture. Progressive Covenentalism sees the narrative fitting together like this:
Along those lines, Progressive Covenentalism has these five distinctives:
Prominent theologians who hold to Progressive Covenentalism are Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellem.
It should be noted that each of these systems contains nuance and diversity within them that could not be articulated here. The best way for us to understand the different systems of thinking is to read primary sources from those hold the positions, rather than read caricatures of the various views by dissenters. Ultimately, we must learn from Christ, who in his wisdom, did not record for us the details of his conversation on the Road To Emmaus, when “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV).