A Comparison of the Hermeneutics Concerning Covenant Theology & Classical Dispensationalism (Part One)

A Comparison of the Hermeneutics Concerning Covenant Theology & Classical Dispensationalism (Part One)

In greater evangelical Christianity there are two major systems of theology: Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Although there is a common thread between the systems (i.e., the glory of God), there is a major difference in how the glory of God is ultimately displayed. For the Covenant theological system, the glory of God is primarily redemptive. This redemptive plan according to Covenant theology is observed by God establishing two (or possibly three) covenants with mankind: The covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. In Dispensationalism, there are three qualities that govern the system: the doxological purpose of God (which this author would argue governs the two other  qualities), consistently observing the words of Scripture in their plain and normal sense (i.e., the consistent normal historical-grammatical reading), and the distinction between Israel and the Church (in plan and purpose). From a dispensational view, the glory of God in all of His works is the focus and not only the salvation of mankind. 

One of the common criticism from those who adhere to Covenant theology is dispensational thinkers have an Israel-centered hermeneutic rather than Christocentric hermeneutic, as one such website notes

The very category of “replacement” is foreign to Reformed theology because it assumes a dispensational, Israeleo-centric way of thinking. It assumes that the temporary, national people was, in fact, intended to be the permanent arrangement.

The Hidelblog.com. Covenant theology is not replacement theology. Retrieved from: https://heidelblog.net/2013/08/covenant-theology-is-not-replacement-theology/

Even though the word “replacement” has not been used in the past, this particular use of the word has not been without reason. There have been theologians throughout history that have stated that Israel as a nation, in comparison with the church, is now irrelevant. Justin Martyr (130-202 A.D.) in Dialogue with Trypho wrote:

Then is it Jacob the patriarch in whom the Gentiles and yourselves shall trust? or is it not Christ? As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitic race.

Justin Marytr. Dialogue with trypho. Retrived from https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.cxxxv.html.

Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), another early theologian in his work An Answer to The Jews made a similar comment about Israel, using the historical narrative of Jacob and Esau he commented:

Accordingly, since the people or nation of the Jews is anterior in time, and greater through the grace of primary favour in the Law, whereas ours is understood to be less in the age of times, as having in the last era of the world attained the knowledge of divine mercy: beyond doubt, through the edict of the divine utterance, the prior and greater people — that is, the Jewish — must necessarily serve the less; and the less people — that is, the Christian— overcome the greater.

Tertullian. New Advent. An answer to the Jews.  Retreived from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0308.htm

Those who subscribe to Covenant theology connect their hermeneutic back to the early church fathers (e.g., Justin Martyr, Tertullian, etc.), as one author noted:

In the history of theology, the elements of what we know as covenant theology; the covenant of redemption before time between the persons of the Trinity, the covenant of works with Adam, and the covenant of grace after the fall; have existed since the early church…Indeed, Reformed readers who turn to the early church fathers (c. 100–500 AD) might be surprised to see how frequently they used language and thought patterns that we find very familiar.

Clark., S (2006). The history of covenant theology. Retrieved from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/history-covenant-theology/

However, when a person observes Scripture in its plain meaning there are promises that are explicitly given to national Israel. For example, God promised Abraham’s descendants physical land that stretches from Egypt to the River Euphrates (as far as Egypt to what is now modern day Iraq) (Gen. 15:18). 

future-map5
The future borders of Israel outlined in Gen. 15:18. Retrieved from http://www.ahavat-israel.com/eretz/future.

In addition, God promised David a physical King that would come from his line and rule Israel on his throne to usher in an everlasting righteousness (2 Sam. 7:8-14). Furthermore, the promise of the new covenant is given specifically “to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Ezek. 31:31). The future promises that are given to national Israel are associated with the consistency of creation itself described by the prophet Jeremiah!

Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the Lord, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease. From being a nation before Me forever.” Thus says the Lord, “If the heavens above can be measured And the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done,” declares the Lord

Jer. 31:35-37 NASB

How would a Covenant theologian explain the land promise found in Genesis 16:18? John Calvin in his works does not even comment on how much land Abraham’s descendants would receive but he comments the covenant in this specific text is essentially a shadow of the sacraments of the church. John Gill, another prominent theologian mentioned in his commentary that the River Euphrates was the boundary line during the rule of King David. However, there has never been a time in history where Abraham, nor Abraham’s descendants have received land by the Nile River in Egypt. The Covenant theologian, based upon a predominant “ecclesiastical” hermeneutic at the most replaces the promises given to Israel to the church, or at the least supersedes the promises of God that are given to Israel to the church.

By contrast, the dispensational view, consistently observing Israel in the plain normal sense, would recognize that these things mentioned above (land, king, and spiritual renewal) are given directly to this nation whom God has promised these things to. If God fails to give these things to those whom He has addressed, or if He exclusively transfers these promises to another group of people in effect this would diminish His very glory.  In short, the method a person uses to read the Bible (i.e., hermeneutic) is how one is going to explain the Scriptures.

The critique that dispensational thought employs an Israelological grid to explain the Scriptures is false. The system of dispensationalism has at its very core a doxological focus. It must be noted that Israel does figure prominently in the Old Testament and even the New Testament Scriptures. However, this is due to the promises God gave to them as a nation, and these promises are directly associated with His glory. 

There is no denying God’s redemptive work for mankind. Both Covenant and Dispensational systems acknowledge this. Both systems also recognize the glory of God as the ultimate end. How God’s glory is understood in relation to human history is determined on the method that is employed by each system. For the Covenant theologian due to the hermeneutic they use they observe the glory of God primarily in the salvific act of Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. For the dispensationalist, the glory of God is observed in all His works, and this includes not only the salvation of those who are part of the church but God fulfilling the future promises to the people who will receive them, which is Israel.

Yet there are those who subscribe to Covenant theology that believe dispensationalists juxtapose Israel and the church. In the next article, this author will demonstrate from the Book of Ephesians that this is not the case.

Until next time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.

 

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