Friday, September 29, 2006

early meandering thought on covenant/dispensational theology

As mentioned yesterday, I am reading Renald Showers' book "There Really is a Difference" discussing the fundamental differences between Covenant and Dispensational Theology. The author is a strong dispensationalist who sees many flaws with the Covenant Theology. I am hoping to better understand these 2 systems as I begin to write my ordination thesis in the upcoming weeks.

Wikipedia explains Covenant Theology this way:

Typically, Covenant Theology views the history of mankind's redemption from sin under the framework of three over-arching theological covenants:

  • the Covenant of Redemption
  • the Covenant of Works
  • the Covenant of Grace

These three covenants are called "theological covenants" because they are not explicitly presented as such in the Bible, although covenantalists see them as theologically implicit. I personally believe some Covenant Theology is attempting to explain the Bible and God's dealings with men in too simple of categories. Also, the inability for Covenant Theology to find a place for Israel and much of the unfulfiled Old Testament prophecy makes their system sit on a shaky foundation.

Dispensationalists explain the history of God's dealings with men quite differently. They claim to "rightly" divide Christianity into 7 succinct dispensations. "These periods are marked off in Scripture by some change in God's method of dealing with mankind, in respect to two questions: of sin, and of man's responsibility," explained C. I. Scofield. Unlike Covenant Theology, Dispensationalists can use specific examples in scripture when God speaks to people and declares a special relationship with humanity. There are 7 (though Dispensationlists have varying opinions) main dispensations when God has established covenants or new dealings with certain individuals or groups of people. They are:

  • the dispensation of innocence (Gen 1:1–3:7), prior to Adam's fall,
  • of conscience (Gen 3:8–8:22), Adam to Noah,
  • of government (Gen 9:1–11:32), Noah to Abraham,
  • of patriarchal rule (Gen 12:1–Exod 19:25), Abraham to Moses,
  • of the Mosaic Law (Exod 20:1–Acts 2:4), Moses to Christ,
  • of grace (Acts 2:4–Rev 20:3 -- except for Hyperdispensationalists), the current church age, and
  • of a literal, earthly 1,000-year Millennial Kingdom that has yet to come but soon will (Rev 20:4–20:6).

I personally believe, however, Dispensationalists work a little too hard to make the Bible fit their system rather than letting the Bible speak for itself.

I will give more of a book review later. But now I would like to give one brief example on how both Covenant and Dispensational theologies seem to want to explain things and lump some things together to make a coherent system, but in this attempt have to make or force the Bible to say things it really does not.

For instance, one of Covenant Theology's greatest modern theologians Louis Berkouf has said, "The covenant of grace, as it is revealed in the New Testament, is essentially the same as that which governed the relation of Old Testament believers to God." That stands in the face of Jeremiah 31:30-34 when it says God will establish a new covenant one day that is very different than the one established previously. Another danger zone I see is when Covenant Theology sees the Church existing in the Old Testament. Acts 11:15 (referring to Pentecost in Acts 2) makes it quite clear that the Church was not established or find its beginning until the giving of the Holy Spirit, which obviously marked a time when God would interract with His (new) people in a way He had never done before.

One minor statement against Dispensationalism would be against their constant desire for Scripture to speak in order to fit the system. One example is their description of the Dispensation of Conscience. Dispensationalists believe God established a special relationship with humanity from the Fall of Adam to the covenant with Noah. What marked this time was that humanity would be ruled by their conscience and restraint by the Holy Spirit. They were to obey, but obviously they failed. Another "key" distinction during this dispensation (according to Dispenationalists) was that God prohibited capital punishment. After Cain killed Abel, God and Cain had a coversation that went like this . . .

Genesis 4:13-16

13 Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."

15 But the LORD said to him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the LORD's presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. NIV

According to a Dispensationalist, God stood against capital punishment until the new Dispensation of Human Government (recorded in Gen. 9:1ff) when He spoke specifically to Moses about murder. This is the type of Bible proof texting that drives me a bit crazy. From Gen. 4:14, it's clear that Cain and all of those living at the time recognized capital punishment as the appropriate (and I assume established) response to the taking of another person's life. It's clear that this particular act of God is one of mercy. He is not marking out the difference in dispensations, but He is showing unmerited favor to Cain who has taken the life blood from his brother.

Side note, Dispensationalists work very hard to make distinctions between Israel and the Church. I've always wondered what they do with OT and NT verses like these:

Deuteronomy 30:6
The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
NIV
Romans 2:29
No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
NIV

Hosea 2:23
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.'
I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people';
and they will say, 'You are my God.'"
NIV
Ephesians 2:11-13
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision " (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
NIV
Philippians 3:3
For it is we who are the circumcision , we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—
NIV
Colossians 2:11-12
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
NIV
Ephesians 3:6
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel , members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
NIV

It seems Covenant Theology may be oversimplifying the relationships/covenants/dispensations of God's work in history, but Dispensationalists may be over analyzing and chopping up the bible in "nice" and "neat" segments in history.

3 comments:

Tim said...

I personally enjoy you posting more theological stuff and stuff on your mind. I'm glad you are thinking. I wanted to respond to all of your verses, but for the sake of time, I'll just respond to 2.

I just finished writing what is below. Hope it doesn't come across arrogantly. I'm just spitting out what I think.

Deuteronomy 30:6
The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

I think this passage (and others like it) is a huge challenge for the Covenantalists. It's a promise to Israel of future blessing - blessing they are still waiting for. This is saying nothing at all about Gentiles. This is a promise to the nation of Israel. They are still waiting for it. I do find intriguing, Matt's view, that unfulfilled promises to Israel will be fulfilled in eternity - rather than in the millennium. I may be able to buy into that, but it's way beyond my comprehension at this point to do. I personally can't fathom how this even affects Dispensationalists. I cannot see this as being about Gentiles in the least. If it is a promise to Gentiles and relates to the Church - explain all the other verses - verse 9 for example - How are my cattle and such being blessed? Or more importantly, how are the persectued Christians cattle being blessed. And what curses are being poured out on our enemies (vs 5)? More importantly, explain how any other verse about Israel can't be taken to be about Gentiles.


Romans 2:29
No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.

The context of verses 17-29 is speaking to Jews - and showing that they are sinners. Paul is making the argument that being a Jew by birth did not guarantee heaven (heaven - or being part of the true covenant community...). He's going to go on in chapter 4 and explain that being a part of God's covenant community has always been about faith. Verses 29 is not at all speaking to Gentiles. He is simply saying - the true Jews, even in the OT, had to have a spiritual circumcision to really be right with God. This is not a verse about Gentiles and spiritual circumicision.


ON THE WHOLE
I don't know if I've ever met a true 7 point dispensationalist (and I went to a dispensationalist school) - so I think even arguing against the seven points is a bit of a straw man. The core of the issue comes down to whether or not the Church is the new Israel - or if God still has a plan for national Israel (in my simple mind). I do think Dispensationalists have done way too much to make the Bible fit their system. On the other hand, Covenentalists have gone out of their way to allegorize the OT (I've read parts of many different commentaries by Covenenatlists - especially James Boice, and it is nearly all allegory. One went so far as to say you can find Jesus in ever verse of the Bible) and to make the Bible fit their system.

I think their is much more unity to the Covenants than Dispensationalists understand. I think Covenantalists stretch God's Word to fit their system too much too. I do think that the ability to "spiritualize" (exegete differently - often) leads down a very slippery slope (and maybe I dislike liberalism way too much more than legalism - but it's easy to find many previously solid denominations that were covenant and have slipped, than those that were dispensationalist and have slipped - and I think there is a correlation).

My favorite OT prof has a different perspective on the Covenants - one that I LOVE. Ask a Covenentalist the purpose of the covenants - and he'll tell you they have one main purpose - Redemption. Ask a Dispensationalist and he'll say they are there to issue in a new way God relates to man. Both fall far short. My prof believes they are primarily Revelatory. I think that's beautiful - and accurate. Go Dr. John Walton!!!

Matt Proctor said...

Tim,

Thanks for writing.

I think the book "There Really is a Difference" is helping me see the distinctive promises made to Israel that seem to point to a millennial fulfillment. Especially the land promise in Genesis 15, since that has not been fulfilled ever. If all the other promises were fulfilled literally and physically, that one needs to as well. Could it happen in a new earth? Well, I think so, but the emphasis of the kingdom of God all throughout the Gospels and the first 9 verses of Acts all point to it happening in the earth we know and see now.

The NT verses I posted earlier, though, make me really see the Church and True Israel as being one in the millenial kingdom. Ethnic Jews will experience a great blessing, but that blessing seems to be shared by all members of the "true circumcision" (True Israel, members of teh faith community, etc.) not just Jews.

you rock,
mp

Matt Proctor said...

Tim,

The most convincing verse to me of the ones I listed in my original blog is this:

Ephesians 2:11-13
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision " (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.

It seems as if Gentiles are now citizens of true Israel, also members (no longer foreigners) of the covenants and promises. Gentiles are engrafted and thus members (not pseudo-members, but full members, and with the full rights as sons). Romans 11:19 shows that all Jews (and anyone for that matter) are cut off from the promises if they do not have faith. If you have faith, you share in the promises. Ethnic Israel will one day be engrafted back into the true vine at a huge amount (all Israel) according to Rom. 11:25-32. That’s how God will fulfill loads of specific promises made to Israel in the prophets. But they will be engrafted back into the promises of God through faith, the same way the Gentiles are current possessers of the promises and covenant.

I totally agree there is a difference between covenants made to Gentiles and Jews, and the new covenant was promised to ethnic Israel often in the OT, but the fulfillment of the covenant seems to be shared by a common faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ regardless of ethnicity or a circumcision of the flesh (in other words, Jesus is not just the Christ and Savior of the Jews, but of the whole world). The whole book of Romans and Galatians (which my friend calls “Romans for Dummies”) is about who is truly saved and thus members of the covenant community.

By the way, I am really enjoying this conversation.