One of the most important keys to understanding the Bible is discerning how to apply what is written based on the time period it was written in and the audience for whom it was intended. When discussing this topic, current theology provides basically two major options: dispensationalism and covenant theology. In this article, we will take a brief look at both views, their strengths and weaknesses, and some practical considerations in light of this topic.
It is incredibly important for the reader to know what both have in common: they are both “interpretational frameworks.” What does this mean? This means that, strictly speaking, neither of these viewpoints is based entirely on Scripture. Both viewpoints require Biblical interpretation to develop their cases. And this is easily seen in the non-biblical language used by both sides (i.e.—“covenant of works,” “age of innocence,” etc.). This doesn’t mean that both sides don’t have some merit. In fact, each of these perspectives has strengths and weaknesses.
In light of all of this, I think it’s important to mention that it is okay if you don’t belong firmly in one of these two camps. I know that I don’t. That brings up an important point—I am not a big fan of labels in general. Labels can be helpful to communicate quickly, but that can also lead to misunderstandings.
First, let’s look at dispensationalism. A dispensationalist believes that the Bible is broken down into periods of time, called dispensations or administrations. This terminology comes from Paul’s writings:
I Corinthians 9:17 (KJV)
For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.
Ephesians 1:10 (KJV)
That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:
Ephesians 3:2 (KJV)
If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
Colossians 1:25 (KJV)
Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;
The word “dispensation” is the Greek word oikonomia, which is translated “dispensation” these four times and “stewardship” three times in the gospel of Luke. Thayer defined oikonomia as: “the management of a household or of household affairs” with a sub-definition being “administration, dispensation.” Here are a couple of examples of dispensational timelines:[i]
- The Dispensation of Holiness – Adam and Eve
- The Dispensation of Conscience – Cain and Abel
- The Dispensation of Government – Noah
- The Dispensation of Promise – Abraham
- The Dispensation of Law – Moses
- The Dispensation of Grace – lasts from Pentecost until the rapture
- The Dispensation of Kingdom – ends with the Great White Throne judgment
Here is E. W. Bullinger’s system of administrations:[ii]
- The Edenic Dispensation (Innocence) – Adam and Eve
- The Patriarchal Dispensation – until Moses gave the Law
- The Dispensation of Israel (Law) – Moses until Pentecost
- The Dispensation of the Church (Grace) – lasts from Pentecost until the rapture
- The Dispensation of Judgment – from the rapture until the millennium
- The Dispensation of Theocracy (Millennium) –from the binding of Satan until the White Throne Judgment
- The Dispensation of Eternity (Paradise/Glory) – begins after the Great White Throne judgment and continues forever
Basically, dispensationalists believe that correct Biblical interpretation hinges upon understanding the dispensation in which the events are occurring. For example, there is no need for the modern Christian to perform the works of the Law, because the Christian is now under grace. A dispensationalist would say that, while the whole Bible is important, that the most important books of the Bible to understand and apply are from Acts (Pentecost) to Jude. The book of Revelation concerns future events that are outside of the Dispensation of Grace.
Now let’s turn our focus to covenant theology. Covenant theology is based on the idea that God’s relationship with man is centered around covenants, not dispensations. In particular, there are two main covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. According to covenant theologians, the covenant of works was instituted in the Garden of Eden and was based on a simple premise: if Adam and Eve obeyed God, they would have eternal life in paradise. Once Adam sinned, God intervened with another covenant: the covenant of grace. God promised a redeemer who would be able to walk perfectly on behalf of the people. The requirement of perfect obedience does not go away in the covenant of grace; instead, Jesus Christ fulfilled this requirement on our behalf. During the covenant of grace, God made various covenants with righteous men: Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. Each of these covenants was basically a sub-covenant of the covenant of grace. So those who believe in covenant theology, like dispensationalists, believe that God has interacted differently with His people over time. (For more information on covenant theology, see the sources in the endnotes).[iii]
Okay, so what’s the big fuss about? Everyone agrees that God’s relationship with His people has changed somewhat over time. While that is true, there are many practical differences between the dispensational approach and the covenant theology approach. Here is a brief list (for a more comprehensive list, see the link in the endnotes):[iv]
- The place of the Law of Moses
- Literal or figurative Biblical interpretation
- The place of Old Testament prophecies about Israel
- When did the Church begin?
- What was God’s eternal plan?
First, we have the place of the Law of Moses. For the dispensationalist, the Law of Moses was completely replaced. Christ’s sacrifice signaled the end of the Law. Thus, there is no need to concern oneself with keeping any aspect of the Law, unless, of course, that commandment has been repeated in a section of the Bible specifically applying to the Grace Administration. For the covenant theologian, there are certain laws that were ended by Christ but there are others that are eternal and not done away with in Christ. The ceremonial laws (pertaining to worship) have been done away with completely. The civil laws have basically been eliminated, but they may have some utility for daily life. The moral laws (like the Ten Commandments) are still completely in effect. The covenant theologian generally believes that all laws are still in effect unless specifically repealed in the New Testament. Covenant theologians believe that the Law is still useful to lead people to Christ, to instill a sense of godliness, and generally to restrain sin in society.[v]
Second, we have the question of literal or figurative interpretation. Simply put, the dispensationalist tends to approach the Bible literally wherever possible. The covenant theologian tends to be more comfortable with figurative understandings of various sections.
Third, we have the place of Old Testament prophecies about Israel. For the dispensationalist, the term “Israel” always means the people of God from the nation of Israel. There is no place for a figurative understanding of the word “Israel.” For the covenant theologian, the term Israel may mean the nation of Israel or it may mean “the people of God,” the spiritual nation of Israel. One verse that can be considered along these lines is Galatians 6:16:
Galatians 6:16 (ESV)
And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
For the dispensationalist, the “Israel of God” refers to the nation of Israel. For the covenant theologian, the “Israel of God” refers to the spiritual Israel (see also Romans 2:28-29). This distinction bleeds into Old Testament prophecies about Israel. The dispensationalist will always understand prophecies about Israel as referring to the nation of Israel, while the covenant theologian will allow room to interpret whether the prophecy is referring to literal Israel or to the Church. And often, the distinction is unnecessary for a covenant theologian, because they believe that Israel was the Church in the Old Testament. In Acts, God was able to add anyone (including Gentiles) to His Church that already existed.
This leads us to our fourth point of difference: when the Church began. For the dispensationalist, the Church began on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. For the covenant theologian, the Church began in the Old Testament as the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, the redemptive work of Christ allowed God to add all nations of the world to a preexisting Church. Sometimes, covenant theologians will quote verses like the following to bolster this position:
Acts 7:38 (ESV)
This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.
The word “congregation” is the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “church.” So, covenant theologians believe that Israel was the Church in the Old Testament, and then it became available for anyone, including the Gentiles, to be added to the Church after the day of Pentecost.
Finally, a fifth difference of beliefs between these two schools of thought is how they each handle the eternal purpose and plan of God. For the dispensationalist, the major purpose and plan throughout history is to have a nation of committed followers, Israel. The Church that includes the Gentiles is a temporary break in that plan and purpose. Ultimately, the born-again Gentiles will be united with the Israelites into a new Israel for all of eternity. For the covenant theologian, the main purpose of God throughout history is Christ, and the Church is a secondary result of that movement of God. The Church, then, is the culmination and final result of all of God’s planning and preparing throughout all ages.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of each viewpoint? Here are some of the strengths and weakness of each:
There are many practical implications related to this issue. Here is a list of practical considerations to be developed in future articles:
- The place of the Gospel accounts
- How are Christians supposed to treat those who are physically poor?
- What do we make of the accounts towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, such as the last half of the gospel of John?
- How do we handle the commandments from the Old Testament?
- Do we still need to practice the Sabbath?
- Do we still need to tithe?
- Are the Ten Commandments still applicable?
- How do we understand the epistles?
- Are the epistles a continuation of God’s relationship with His people? Put another way, can the epistles stand alone or must we understand the Old Testament to fully understand the epistles?
- Are the epistles a replacement of previous Scripture?
- What does it mean to be in the post-Pentecost church?
- What is the Great Mystery?
- How did Jesus prepare his disciples for what would happen after he died?
Before I conclude this article, I wanted to sum up my major beliefs about time periods in the Bible:
- I believe that God has always loved all people.
- I believe that the Bible can be taken literally in many places but must be taken figuratively as well.
- I believe that the Law has been fulfilled and therefore has no formal bearing on our lives as Christians. However, I believe that the intent of the Law still absolutely applies, especially as codified as “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
- I believe that a new relationship with God was made available on the day of Pentecost.
- I believe that the Gospel accounts are mostly applicable by Christians. There are some exceptions to this rule.
- I believe that the epistles show a great reliance on the truth of the Old Testament. One major key to understanding the epistles is to understand the Old Testament context.
In the weeks and months ahead, we will look at these and other issues relating to Biblical interpretation. As we do so, we will focus less on formal theological concepts and instead on how to understand and apply the Bible in our daily lives.
[ii] See How to Enjoy the Bible by Bullinger, pages 78ff.