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):
- Innocence (Genesis 1:28-30)
- Conscience (Genesis 3:8 through 8:22)
- Human Government (Genesis 8-11)
- Promise (Genesis 12 through Exodus 19:22)
- Law (Exodus 20 through Death of Jesus)
- Grace (The Death of Jesus through the Return of Jesus)
- Millennial Kingdom
In addition to these epochal periods, dispensationalism manifests itself with two primary distinctives with regards to hermeneutics and the church:
- Literal interpretation of scripture, especially as it relates to understanding prophecy and the book of Revelation. This includes the belief that the New Testament does not reinterpret Old Testament passages in a way that changes or cancels the original meaning of the Old Testament writers. Dispensationalists emphasize the need to follow the historical-grammatical approach to interpreting scripture.
- A distinction between Israel and the church is God’s plan of salvation; the church does not replace or supersede Israel. Different expressions of dispensationalism treat this relationship differently, but all share the common emphasis of discontinuity between Israel 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):
- Covenant of Redemption — Ephesians 1:4-14 (made before the foundation of the world between the three persons of the Trinity)
- Covenant of Works — Romans 5:12-21 (made with Adam on behalf of the whole human race in the garden)
- Covenant of Grace — Genesis 17:6-8, Galatians 3:29 (made through Christ on behalf of the elect — the covenants in scripture [i.e. Abrahamic & Mosaic] are different administrations or expressions of this one covenant of grace)
Some of the distinctive within Covenant Theology that shape their hermeneutics are:
- Covenant theologians see more comfortable interpreting the scriptures “less literally” — for example, very few who hold to Covenant Theology regard the thousand years in Revelation 20 as being, literally, 1,000 years. In interpreting the Old Testament, Covenant theologians emphasize the need for Redemptive-Historical hermeneutics.
- Covenant theologians understand the church as the continuation of (or in continuity with) Israel. Some pejoratively call Covenant Theology “replacement theology,” but that is not the term that covenant theologians prefer, as they don’t see the church as replacing Israel, but rather as being a part of the same one people of God under the one Covenant of Grace. Thus there is no distinct future for ethnic Israel, but rather now the church is Israel.
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:
- Adamic Covenant (Covenant with Creation)
- Noahic Covenant
- Abrahamic Covenant
- Covenant with Israel (The Old Covenant)
- Davidic Covenant
- The New Covenant
Along those lines, Progressive Covenentalism has these five distinctives:
- An emphasis of progressive revelation.
- Interpreting scripture across three horizons: textual (grammatical-historical context),
epochal (individual covenantal context), and canonical (redemptive-historical context).
- New Covenant supersedes previous covenants. “Progressive covenantalism maintains that we apply the Old Testament covenants through Christ and in the light of Christ, the
one to whom they all pointed and in whom they are fulfilled (Meade, class notes).
- Typological structure is developed through the covenants. “The new covenant interprets
the fulfillment of the Old Testament types” (Meade).
- Understanding biblical covenants as both conditional and unconditional, thus there had
to be a faithful covenant keeper — the new Adam, who is Christ.
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).