When I went to seminary, I was fairly ignorant. Some might argue that I still am. They gave us a series of questions so they could understand the background of their new students. One was whether I held to Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology.
I was in a quandary. As a new believer I had read some Hal Lindsey (never a good idea) and embraced Dispensationalism in its popularized form. But over time I began to have serious questions concerning its validity as I continued to read Scripture. By the time I showed up in Orlando, I was not a Dispensationalist.
But I had no idea what Covenant Theology was. I would learn.
When I got to the congregation I pastor here in the desert, there was a large number of small pink books on a shelf. No, not books by Pink. Pink books.
The book was A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology by Richard Belcher. Before using it as a give-away, I thought I had better read it. Was it really a comparison, or was it a polemical book? That is important. We sometimes have people who begin to attend who are new to what we believe. I don’t want to turn them off unnecessarily. If I started to hand this book out, I wanted to be sure it was fair and accurate. So I finally read it.
The book is quite short (46 pages including the bibliography). His main point is that everyone has a theology, and most Protestant embrace one of these two theological systems (it was published in 1986, and since then New Covenant Theology has grown in popularity).
He briefly explains (classical) Dispensationalism (since then progressive Dispensationalism has also grown in popularity) in the first chapter. In the second chapter he explains Covenant Theology. And in the final chapter he compares them in how they view significant issues.
This is a helpful little primer. It is brief, so it is not nuanced to recognize many of the differences that do exist between adherents of each theological system. He mentions a few of them, but tries to stick to the basics. And does a good job.
I think the comparison could have been longer. There are some important issues that he didn’t address, like how they view the Law, Sacraments etc. But that would have greatly increased the size of the book. And that really wasn’t the purpose.
So this book remains useful in comparing these two theological systems. It provides enough to get one thinking. He avoids all polemics, so no one should be put off by what they read in the book. He’s being descriptive, not prescriptive.
In his conclusion, he does not argue for one position. Rather he provides wise advice for sorting things through. I’ll summarize them. First, read the Bible (often) before reading books on theological systems. If we don’t read the Bible a few times and understand its general structure and content, we can easily force the Bible into the system we have learned. We evaluate the Bible by the system instead of the system by the Bible. Second, read books or material from both sides of the issue (Calvinism & Arminianism, infant baptism & believer’s baptism…). Often a book espousing one view will present a straw man view of the other view. For instance, Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today does not paint a picture of Covenant Theology I would recognize. Dave Hunt, and others, does not accurately describe Calvinism. So, as my dear professor Roger Nicole would tell us, read your “enemies” so you know what they believe first hand.
I’ll shift gears for a few moments and include some of the thoughts I had as I read the book. Some of these are critical. But let’s go!
One of the things I found interesting (that I hadn’t thought about before) was that despite the shift in dispensations, conscience and human government continue to exist and exert influence on personal and community life. There really isn’t any sense of salvation in these dispensations, so I’m not sure of the point.
I also pondered, how can a sinner have a clear knowledge of good and evil? Even during the dispensation of conscience, people were sinners and had a faulty conscience. It was doomed to fail.
This was the first time I had seen the Law not only as a dispensation but as a test for the dispensation of promise. Apparently the Jews were supposed to reject God’s law. I’m really not tracking with that. And it neglects the gracious origin and nature of the Law which you see expressed in Covenant Theology.
The notion that the covenants were for the Jews and not the Gentiles does not square with biblical history. God made a covenant with Noah- who was not a Jew.
Furthermore, though some Dispensationalists (Chafer, Ryrie) admit to holding to 2 ways of salvation (one for Israel and one for Gentiles) their system demands at least 3 ways of salvation. This is because Gentiles are seen to be saved by grace in Christ. What of the Old Testament saints who were saved before there was such a thing as Israel? They argue that man related to God in simple sacrifices. So people like Adam, Seth, Enoch and Noah were saved by a general faith in God and not in the hope of a Redeemer. This is different from how Gentiles are saved now, and how Jews were and will be saved (and might be now?). Instead of seeing salvation as always connected to faith in Christ progressively revealed (beginning in Genesis 3), they have too many ways of salvation.
The more I read of Dispensationalism, the less biblical I find it to be. I know some disagree. Just sayin’.