Wikipedia explains Covenant Theology this way:
- 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 . . .
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:
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.
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.
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.'"
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.