In the previous post we examined the oldest systems of Protestant covenant thought.
The two systems to emerge we labeled as belonging to “Category A: Covenantalism.” They include both the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession. We also had the opportunity to see that Adventist theology has a lot of similarities with these two systems of thought. Most interesting is that we agree in both the perpetuity of the law and the continued validity and relevance of the Sabbath command. In the next post we will explore those similarities more closely, but for now we will turn our attention over to the alternate covenant views present in Category B.
1) Westminster Confession
2) 2nd London Baptist Confession
(Embrace Perpetuity of Law and Sabbath)
Alternate views to Covenantalism
2) New Covenant Theology
(Reject Perpetuity of Law and Sabbath)
“Dispensationalism & New Covenant Theology”
Dispensationalism 1 was the next development to emerge in Protestant covenant thought and was popularized in the United States during the 1830’s. Dispensationalism owes much of its development to Futurism – a method for interpreting Bible prophecy that was developed in the mid to late 1500’s by the Bible teacher John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)2. Dispensationalism affirms Sola Scriptura, holds to Trinitarian doctrine and all the principles of the Protestant Reformation. While it does not claim a specific theology of salvation, it was initially popularized among Arminians3. It also contends that the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith. Unlike Covenantalism it rejects the interpretive priority of the NT over the OT and is committed to a distinction between Israel and the church. In addition, unlike Covenantalism which unites the story of Scripture via the covenants (with the Covenant of Grace being the unifier of the redemption narrative), Dispensationalism strings the story of Scripture via dispensations (different administrations of grace throughout different ages). “It considers Biblical history as divided deliberately by God into defined periods or ages to each of which God has allotted distinctive administrative principles4.” From here this system takes two routes. Classic Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism5. Due to the the minor differences between the two systems we will only review the classic view below.
Salvation: Classic Dispensationalism does not have a particular theology of salvation. Calvinists, Arminians and those who believe in “once-saved-always-saved” are all proponents of this view.
Covenant Narrative: In order to fully comprehend Dispensationalism we must first realize that it is best defined as having a “Dispensational story” as opposed to a “Covenant story.” To put it simply, while Covenantalism breaks the story of Scripture down from covenant to covenant, Dispensationalism breaks the story down from one period of administration (dispensation) to the next (note that in Dispensationalism the terms administrate and dispensate are interchangeable). As a result, Dispensationalism sees God administering His saving grace in different ways (dispensations) throughout human history. However, the New Covenant is the covenant in which grace can be said to administer, or dispensate, itself.
Because Dispensationalism divides redemptive history via dispensations (rather than covenants) all of which took place at different intervals in human history, it is necessary to see what these “dispensations” are. Dispensationalism divides them into seven distinct categories6:
1) Innocence – This is the period of time, or dispensation, in the Garden of Eden. During this time mankind was responsible to obey Gods commands in childlike innocence. It was through obedience that they maintained their relationship with God.
2) Conscience – This is the dispensation from the Edenic expulsion until the flood (approximately 1600 years). During this time men follow their conscience in order to do right and the end result is the need for God to destroy the world with a flood.
3) Civil Government – This is the post-diluvian period from the re-entry of Noah’s family into the world until the tower of Babel was built (approximately 320 years). This is also the time in which the Noahic Covenant was instituted.
4) Promise – This is the period from God”s call to Abraham, continued through the patriarchal age, and ended at about the time of the Exodus (about 430 years). During this dispensation, God developed the nation of Israel as a partial fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Abrahamic Covenant) that his descendants would be as the stars of the sky.
5) Law – This is the period of time from the Exodus up until the death of Jesus (approximately 1500 years). This dispensation is basically the period of time in which the Mosaic Covenant was in effect (followed by the Davidic Covenant). During this time God dealt with the descendants of Abraham (Israel) via the law.
6) Grace – This is the period of time from the death of Jesus up until the rapture of the church. After the rapture, a period of seven years of tribulation will commence on the earth in which God pours out His judgments. Those who were not raptured will have a second opportunity to place their faith in Christ and be saved when He returns again.
7) Kingdom – This period of time begins with Christ’s literal return to earth and will last a millennium (1000 years). It will end with the final judgment of Satan and all who have rejected Christ, even with the second chance of the seven-year tribulation.
Covenant Continuity/ Discontinuity:
Due to Dispensationalism separating the covenants into temporary/ local administrations that pass away with the arrival of a new administration, they do not see any continuity from Old Testament covenants into the New. For example, whereas the law may have been that which administered grace in the Mosaic Covenant, in the New Covenant grace is administered via the finished work of Jesus. As a result, Dispensationalism sees the New Covenant, not as a different method of salvation, but as the clearest and fullest dispensation of God’s redemptive grace. Because of this, there is no longer any need for the other covenants which are essentially “lesser administrations” of grace during different periods of time. The greater administration is now here, and it’s Christ Himself.
As a result, Dispensationalism denies infant baptism. It also denies the continuity of the 10 Commandments into the New Covenant. The only nuance would be that, unlike Covenantalism which holds that any command not explicitly nullified in the NT remains, Dispensationalism argues that any command not explicitly repeated in the NT is automatically cancelled.
Likewise, Dispensationalism does not distinguish between moral, ceremonial, or civic law. According to Dispensationalism, the Mosaic law is one unit and the abrogation of this law at the cross includes the entire thing. In addition, Dispensationalism does not see the law as existing before the covenants. Therefore, the abrogation of the law in the New Covenant means it has been completely cancelled for anyone under the New Covenant. However, this does not mean Dispensationalism is in favor of sinful living. The Dispensationalist camp still maintains that the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel, and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith.
Thus, Dispensationalism would concur that 1) The indwelling Spirit leads us to holy living apart from the written law and, 2) that the law written in our hearts is the law of other-centered love which is the fulfillment of the law. As a result, Dispensationalism still upholds obedience to the 10 Commandments –only they would see it as living by the Spirit, not the law. Even the Sabbath remains as a command – only Dispensationalism would argue that one keeps the Sabbath under the New Covenant by resting in Christ, not by keeping a 24-hour period holy.
Israel/ Church Relationship:
The Dispensationalist view of the Israel/ Church relationship is the major distinction between it and Covenantalism. This view is also the reason why they reject the law. Those seeking to understand the Dispensationalist mind need to recognize this. The central key to their entire system is the way in which they distinguish between Israel and the church. It is that distinction that then paves the road for their views on the Law and Sabbath (as we saw above).
According to Dispensationalism God has always had two redemptive plans: Israel and the Church. These two redemptive plans are distinct. Therefore the church is not the continuation of Israel. The two are to remain separate forever. As a result, the dispensation of Grace – which is meant for the church – will end at the rapture of the church. And the dispensation of Law – which is meant for Israel – will once again become the administrative covenant though still under the New Covenant banner (so there will be some distinctions). In this way God will fulfill all of His promises to Israel. While Covenantalists view those promises to Israel as being fulfilled via the church, Dispensationalism would disagree and argue for a fulfillment of those promises to literal Israel, not spiritual Israel.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this distinction is to Dispensationalism. According to this system, God made promises to literal Israel that He intents to keep with literal Israel. They do not see the promises as fulfilled in the church. Literal Israel will be the recipient of those promises. No one else. Thus, this distinction between Israel and the Church is the key that unlocks their entire system. From it they also distinguish between how Israel was brought into covenant with God and how the church is brought into it.
Israel was brought into covenant via the law. The church was brought into the covenant via grace. The Sabbath day is a sign between Israel and God. Resting in Christ is a sign between the church and God. This strong division of Israel and Church must be understood and appreciated by those who wish to engage in meaningful discussions with Dispensationalists. Arguing about the law and Sabbath is meaningless. I will revisit that in part 4. For now, we continue with Dispensationalism.
End Time Events:
As a result of these views, Dispensationalism sees national Israel as playing a central role in end-time events. Dispensationalism uses the Futurist method for interpreting Bible prophecy which, in turn, provides them with a narrative quite distinct from the Historicism/ Preterism of the Westminster and Second London theologians.
According to this narrative, Jesus will return in two stages: an invisible return and a visible return. The invisible return will be the rapture of the church which will mark the beginning of the seven years tribulation. During the tribulation, national Israel will once again become central in the story of redemption. The Jewish temple will be rebuilt and the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament will commence once more. During this time, there will be a total and complete restoration of national Israel, the arrival and reign of the Antichrist, and the judgments of God poured out.
At the end of the seven years will be the visible return of Jesus which will mark the start of the Millennial kingdom (Premillennialism). During this time Jesus will fulfill all of His promises to national Israel. These thousand years will end with the final judgment of the wicked and the New Heavens/ New Earth.7.
Other Elements of Classic Dispensationalism:
In closing, here are some brief mentions of other elements inherent to Dispensationalism:
- Sign of the New Covenant is baptism.
- Immersion is the only acceptable method of baptism.
- Some spiritual gifts have ceased, others remain.
- Separation of church and state.
- The Lord’s Supper is only an act of remembrance not a sacrament.
New Covenant Theology
New Covenant Theology 8 is a relatively new system of covenant thought that has not yet been fully defined. It is, by far, the most recent development in this sphere. Its development cannot be boiled down to a particular person but it positions itself as the middle ground between Covenantalism and Dispensationalism (as you will soon see it appears to agree with a Dispensationalist interpretation of covenant continuity/ discontinuity while holding to a Covenantal view of the Israel/ Church relationship). It affirms sola scriptura, the interpretive priority of the NT over the OT, Trinitarian doctrine, holds to all the principles of the Protestant Reformation and holds to Calvinist soteriological9 tradition. It also contends that the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith. Its uniqueness is derived from its hermeneutic10 which is essentially Christo-centric, meaning it seeks to understand the narrative of Scripture from the position that Jesus is the center of the entire story and it can only be properly understood through that lens. From there this theological system takes two routes. The first is New Covenant Theology. The second view is even more modern and is known as Progressive Covenantalism11. Due to the minor differences in the two systems, we will only review the former system below.
Salvation: New Covenant Theology maintains that salvation has always been only by grace and that the entire salvation story of Scripture is centered on the person of Jesus Christ. Some would argue that all of these systems of covenant thought are Christ-centered. While this may be true, New Covenant Theology uses this as its interpretive principle and claims to do so consistently, while the other systems, it proposes, do not. According to New Covenant Theology, God has only ever had one redemptive plan to secure the salvation of His elect, and that plan was Jesus. Thus, all the saints of all time have been saved by grace through faith in Christ. New Covenant Theology holds a Reformed/ Calvinist salvation theology.
Covenant Narrative: According to New Covenant Theology, redemptive history can be divided into three ages. The first is the pre-flood world. The second is the post-flood world (up to this day), and the third is the age to come (New Jerusalem). New Covenant Theology also posits two covenant eras: the era of the Old Covenant – which ended at Jesus’ death – and the era of the New Covenant – which began at Jesus’ death. Unlike Dispensationalism, New Covenant Theology sees only one redemptive plan and one people of God. It rejects a Dispensational view of salvation history. In regards to Covenantalism, New Covenant Theology also rejects the covenant of redemption, works, and grace due to what they claim is a lack of clear delineation in Scripture. Instead, New Covenant Theology recognizes the promise of a Savior in Genesis 3:15 as the New Covenant which is then successively unfolded through the OT until it reaches its fulfillment in Christ in the NT and is consummated at the Second Coming.
Covenant Continuity/ Discontinuity: Because New Covenant Theology views the narrative of scripture in a Christo-centric sense and sees the New Covenant as anticipated in Genesis and fulfilled in Christ, it rejects any continuity from Old Covenant into New Covenant. Another way to put it would be that in New Covenant Theology, the Covenant of Grace was revealed in Genesis and each subsequent covenant was a progressive revelation that pointed forward to Christ. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any need for the types and shadows that progressively pointed to Him. Therefore all of the OT covenants and everything associated with them has been fulfilled in Jesus and are no longer necessary. Thus, for example, New Covenant Theology rejects infant baptism for it sees the Abrahamic covenant and all of its elements as pointing forward to and fulfilled in Christ.
New Covenant Theology also rejects the three-part distinction of the law (moral, civil, ceremonial) and argues that the entire law was part of one system that typified Christ and thus the entire thing was fulfilled by the death of Jesus and no longer binding upon NT believers. New Covenant Theology rejects the 10 Commandments as being above the covenants by arguing that they are merely extensions of the two great commands Jesus advocated – to love God and neighbor. Thus, New Covenant Theology maintains that the law of love is above the covenants but the 10 Commandments were extensions related to the Mosaic covenant that no longer apply. Of course, this does not mean they excuse sin.
The New Covenant Theology camp maintains that the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel, and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith. Thus, New Covenant Theology would concur that 1) The indwelling Spirit leads us to holy living apart from the written law and, 2) that the law written in our hearts is the law of other-centered love which is the fulfillment of the 10 Commandments. As a result, New Covenant Theology still upholds obedience to the 10 Commandments – only they would see it as obedience to the law of love as opposed to the written law. As is the case with Dispensationalism, New Covenant Theology also views the Sabbath command as still binding – only it is kept by resting in Christ, not by keeping a 24-hour period holy. The 24-hour period, they argue, was a ceremonial command that symbolized rest in Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and given us His rest, the Sabbath command has been fulfilled and is no longer binding to the NT believer.
End Time Events: New Covenant Theology rejects rapture theology and holds to a visible return of Jesus at the end of the age. Some New Covenant Theology proponents hold to a Preterist hermeneutic for end-time events while others hold to Futurism or a blend of the two. They reject the “papacy as antichrist” view of Classic Covenantalism and hold to a one-world government scenario as identifying the Antichrist (though they refrain from specifics as to who that may represent). New Covenant Theology does see Israel playing a role in end-time events, but not apart from the church. Rather, an in-gathering of Jews into the church is held – making the church, not Israel, the central character. New Covenant Theology also rejects the millennial rule of Christ and sees it as symbolic of the inter-advent period (Amillennialism). The narrative ends with the final judgment for the non-elect to eternal hell and renewal of the heavens and earth for the elect.
Other Elements of New Covenant Theology
For the sake of clarity I have added a condensed table below that looks at each of these systems side by side. Please note that this chart is a very simplified summary. For more details compare them to the descriptions above. 12
Brief Nuances of Covenant Theology
Now that we have done a brief overview of Protestant covenantal thought, the question we will turn to is, Where does Adventism sit in this continuum? Although we have explored this in brief, we will now do so in detail. Do we have a view of salvation, the covenants, the law, and end time events that is wholly and entirely distinct from anything found in historic and contemporary Protestant thought? Do we hold to a view that can be defined by one of the aforementioned systems? Do we have a view that is both rooted in historic and contemporary protestant thought and yet distinct enough to merit the introduction of a whole new system? And lastly, do we actually have anything helpful to offer the world of Christian theology that deserves theological and scholarly reflection? We will look at these questions in the next two posts.
- Note: Dispensationalism is a view held by some Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Messianic and Non-Denominational churches. However, the view is not directly tied to any denomination and is also held by some Calvinists. ↩
- On futurism see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futurism_(Christianity); On Darby see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Nelson_Darby ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensationalism#History ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensationalism ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_dispensationalism ↩
- https://gotquestions.org/seven-dispensations.html ↩
- to understand Dispensational eschatology visit https://gotquestions.org and search their articles on the topic ↩
- New Covenant Theology is the view held by some Calvinist Baptists. ↩
- Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation ↩
- Hermeneutic is a method or theory of interpretation ↩
- See: “Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course Between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies” by Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker. Available on Amazon.com. (Sabbath School Net will get a small referral fee when you use this link, but the book won’t cost you a penny more.) ↩
- You can review the more detailed charts: http://nct-blog.ptstn.org/comparison-charts/ ↩
- see “The Naked Gospel: The Truth You May Never Hear in Church” by Andrew Farley. (Link goes to Amazon.com, and Sabbath School Net receives a small referral fee if you use this link, without costing you more.) ↩