After taking two articles to cover the history of dispensationalism, it is time to move on to the other school of theology – covenant theology. This view is generally seen as the historic view of the church fathers (i.e. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc). It is probably fair to say that the Reformation caused the system to be structured in more clearly defined terms.
Note: Though the two schools are called dispensational theology and covenant theology, both sides speak of ‘covenants’ and ‘dispensations’.
There are three main beliefs that covenant theologians hold to:
- God’s revelation throughout the history of humanity is the working out of one covenant relationship. They see history as unified through one covenant that began in creation, a covenant of grace that was in Christ who was slain before the foundations of the world (Revelation 13:8 NKJV; Ephesians 1:4).
- This one eternal covenant is seen through progressive covenants – some speak of 3, 6, or 7 major ‘sub-covenants’. They emphasize the progressive nature of God’s revelation in these covenants, meaning each covenant gives a little more revelation into the one over-arching covenant of grace. Covenant theologians also emphasize that, when a new covenant is formed in Scripture, it does not disregard the previous covenants. For example, when God made a covenant with Abraham, He did not forget the covenant made with Noah, nor Adam. Instead, God built more onto the previous foundations. Paul relates this principle to the covenants with Abraham and Moses (see Galatians 3:17). Covenant theologians use the illustration that though a seed does not look like a tree, throughout time, it will eventually grow to become the full tree. Thus, though what God began to do in Genesis was in ‘seed format’, it would become like a ‘full tree’ in Christ and the new covenant.
- There is one people of God inheriting the promises of God. God’s people are all those in Christ. There is no distinction made now between Jew and Gentile. All who believe in Christ are one in Christ. Any promise made to physical Israel in the Old Testament is now given to the Israel of God (see Galatians 6:15-16), which is both Jew and Gentile who are in Christ. They are referred to as the Church.
Knowing these three beliefs of covenant theologians, it is also good to know five principles held to when interpreting Scripture from the covenantal standpoint:
- Grammatical-historical interpretation: To understand Scripture, you have to know the grammar and the history of when it was written. If someone was to read our writings of today and saw the phrase, ‘go break a leg’, they might take it literally. But we know they would be misunderstanding our language and culture (or grammar and history). Thus, it is very important to know the culture and grammar of the Biblical times. In many places it is not so easy to just read black ink on white paper.
- Scripture interprets Scripture: The clear passages of Scripture help us interpret the figurative passages. We must respect the whole of Scripture when handling any part of it. It is worth noting signs, symbols and numbers that Scripture uses regularly. For example, the number 1,000 is a significant number. Psalm 84:10 says, ‘Better is one day in Your courts than a thousand elsewhere.’ That does not mean if we spend 1,001 days somewhere other than God’s presence, then it is better than being in His presence. In the Bible, the number 1,000 stands for a large amount. What it is saying is simply this: ‘Being with God is better than being anywhere else for a very long time.’
- Cumulative fulfillment of prophecy: The prophetic Scriptures are not always fulfilled at one point in time, but rather many of them are fulfilled throughout history. It is like when two people are married. The one promises to honor the other, but it is not fulfilled just at that moment at the wedding. But, rather, it is fulfilled throughout their life together, and greater and greater as they grow older together. The kingdom of God is likened to a mustard seed – though it is starts small, it grows and grows greater and greater until it is the greatest (Matthew 13:31-32).
- Grace and faith: God cannot deal one way with Israel (Law) and another way with the Church (grace). He does not change His ways because He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Scripture shows continuity not discontinuity. God has always dealt with His people based upon grace through faith, even in the Old Testament.
- Progressive revelation: As mentioned previously, God progressively revealed Himself in history through one main covenant revealed to us in various sub-covenants. These sub-covenants build on the previous covenants. The new revelation (NT) helps understand and interpret the old revelation (OT).
- Hermeneutics: This word simply means ‘the interpretation, understanding, and application of the Biblical text.’ One stresses literal interpretation of prophecies; one stresses figurative, or symbolic, interpretation of prophecies.
- Covenant: One sees two covenant plans for two different peoples – a covenant of Law for Israel, a covenant of grace for the Church; the other sees one main covenant of grace between God and His people.
- One or two people of God: One sees that God has two different peoples, mainly Israel and the Church; one sees God as having one people of faith that are in Christ.
I hope this has given some good insight into the development of specific eschatological beliefs. It is not always advantageous to begin by studying the books of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel. You actually need to start at the root. After looking at the two different major schools of theology – dispensationalism and covenantalism – it is easier to see how different views have formed. Whether you are studying the major millennial views, differing perspectives on the book of Revelation, or any other of the gamut of issues, I hope we are encouraged to look at the theological foundations first.