Conversations on Covenantalism: The Introduction

The issue of covenantalism and dispensationalism, may strike you in one of two ways. Either it sounds like a load of Christianese that is better left to the theologians… or you think that it’s just another divisive topic best avoided.  Truth be told, it easier to sneak up on a Kryptonian than to get to the bottom of this issue (not that hard on a planet without a yellow sun).

My hope in this post, and the posts I hope will follow, is to explain what a ‘Covenantalist’ is, why I am one, and then explore some of the implications that I feel are undeveloped with regards to a Baptist understanding of the Covenant. It’s important to start off with a quick disclaimer: I don’t know everything about the subject; I came to a Covenantal position after many years of being a dispensationalist, and after 9 months of wrestling with the two issues. What adds to the difficult of the issue is the fact that there are godly, far smarter men than me on both sides of the issue so it feels worse than Sofie’s choice.

Fortunately my goal in the coming posts is not to trash dispensationalism, but rather to show the consistency that covenantalism has with Scripture…. ok Tyrell, but I still don’t know what you’re talking about?! Well, that’s what I want to do in this first post. Today I want you to leave with a simple explanation of these two positions, just so that you know what’s going on in the weeks to come… So in the words of Gandalf, “It’s the deep breath before the plunge.”

Dispensationalism and Covenantalism offer to different understanding on how to understand the structure of the Bible… two different approaches for grasping the way the story of Scripture looks. One way of understand that there can be two different views is to think of the two ways of understand the Holocaust, for you history buffs its similar to the distinction between the functionalists and intentionalists (if that doesn’t help you, then I guess you have some googling to do).

Here is a Dispensationalist understanding of the structure of the Bible:

Some key understandings of a Dispy (affectionate term for… well Dispys)

  1. ‘Israel’ always means the literal, physical descendants of Jacob (ethnic Jews).
  2. ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16 means physical (national, ethnic) Israel alone.
  3. God has 2 peoples with 2 separate destinies: Israel (earthly) and the Church (heavenly).
  4. The Church was born at Pentecost after the Ascension of Christ.
  5. The Church was not prophesied as such in the OT but was a “mystery”, hidden until the NT.
  6. All OT prophecies for ‘Israel’ are for the physical nation of Israel (ethnic Jews), not the Church.
  7. The Church is a parenthesis in God’s program for the ages.
  8. The main heir to Abraham’s covenant was Isaac and literal Israel (ethnic Jews).
  9. God’s program in history is mainly through separate dispensations.
  10. God’s laws as given in the Old Testament are no longer in effect unless repeated in the New Testament.

Now here is a Covenantalist understanding of the Bible:

Some unique points for us ‘Covers’ (doesn’t have the same ring to it):

  1. Depending on the context, ‘Israel’ may mean either physical descendants of Jacob, or “spiritual Israel” (who are people with faith in Christ like Abraham).
  2. ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16 means spiritual Israel, parallel to Galatians 3:29; Romans 2:28-29; 9:6; Philippians 3:3.
  3. God always had only one people, the Church who gradually developed through the ages, in accordance with a Covenant worked out in eternity past between the “Three Persons of the Godhead.” (The Cov. of Redemption)
  4. The Church began in the Garden of Eden and grew in the Old Testament with the OT covenants and reached fulfillment in the New Testament with the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. God has one family, one church, one flock, one baptism, one way of salvation whether before the Cross or after – by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
  5. Recognizes that there are many OT prophecies of the NT Church, and that the NT writers also affirmed this fact (1 Peter 1:10-12; Acts 2:16-35; 3:22-25).
  6. Some OT prophecies are for national Israel, others for spiritual Israel based on context.
  7. God’s main purpose is His own glory, which is revealed in Christ and then through the Body of Christ – the New Covenant Church.
  8. The main heir to Abraham’s covenant was Christ, the Seed, and spiritual Israel which is “in Christ” (Galatians 3:16).  Thus all who have faith in Christ (are “in Christ”) are the participants in the Abrahamic Covenant.
  9. God’s program is history is mainly through related covenants, but all those covenants were derived from the eternal covenant that the Trinity made in eternity, the Covenant of Redemption.
  10. God’s moral laws are eternal and are thus in effect forever.  OT laws for the government of Israel and temple activity are interpreted through Christ since the inauguration of the New Covenant.

When it all comes down to it, the most powerful distinction between the two views boils down to how we interpret Scripture. Dispensationalists have many different ways of interpreting Scripture, from the hyper-symbolic to the hyper-literal; however the best of the Dispys claim to interpret Scripture using the historical-grammatical method, meaning basically that the grammer and the context should drive the meaning of any passage, in its own limited context. The Covanenalist while also following the Historical-grammatical method believes that ‘the Analogy of Faith’ is the over-riding rule to interpret the Bible. What that means is that the Bible is the best commentary on the Bible. If a New Testament author interprets a passage in a particular way; that is the correct interpretation of the Old Testament passage. This is consistent with the evangelical understanding of progressive revelation.

Important note: this is a brief characterisation of the two views… there is a middle road. As Dispensationalists have developed in their theology since the beginning of Dispensationalism in the 1800’s there has come a middle view known as ‘progressive Dispensationalism’, which is basically a slide to a more covenantal view. Time does not permit me to go into the entire thing suffice to say its a slide in the right direction J.

Hope that helps… Next week we begin the conversation concerning Covenantalism.

  5 comments for “Conversations on Covenantalism: The Introduction

  1. July 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Hey Tyrell,

    I’m not sure 2. ‘Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16 means physical (national, ethnic) Israel alone. holds true for every Dispensationalist; or 8. The main heir to Abraham’s covenant was Isaac and literal Israel (ethnic Jews).; and I’d definately take exception to the language in 10. God’s laws as given in the Old Testament are no longer in effect unless repeated in the New Testament..

    Does the sentence This is consistent with the evangelical understanding of progressive revelation. imply that Covers are evangelical whilst Dispys not?

    This is going to be so much fun :)!

    • tyrellh
      July 14, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      Well Mark, your difference on points 2,8 and 10 may be because you are more in the camp of the ‘progressive dispensationists’. For point 2, some Dispensational sources like the ‘Bible Knowledge Commentary, ‘The New American Commentary’, and Dr. MacArthur’s position is that it is ethnic Israel, or converted Jews (MacArthur’s position). Point 8 may not hold true for all of them, but then there are large inconsistencies developing in Dispensational Theology. Point 10 I guess is different from Dispy to Dispy.

      The sentence, “This is consistent with the evangelical understanding of progressive revelation.” Is merely a pre-emptive discounting of MacArthur’s favourite line, that Covenant Theologians create a Cannon within a Cannon by interpreting the Old testament in light of the New Testament. This however is completely consistent with Progressive Revelation. Dispys are very much evangelical, that’s why we work together as brothers in Christ. Dispy’s have been evangelical since they appeared in the 1830’s as they were born out of evangelical theology (obviously excepting the spell where some held to two ways of Salvation).

  2. July 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks Tyrell for this!

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