Dispensationalism and Covenantalism play a large part in how we read and interpret key parts of the Bible and it is important to understand the implications.
What is the difference between Dispensational & Covenant Theology? Dispensationalism and Covenantalism are essentially two different approaches to scripture that have drastically different implications. Dispensationalism relies on literal hermeneutics, whereas covenantalism gives more credit to literary genre, figurative language, context, and co-text.
In this post, I hope to use the research I have been doing of late to give you a good side-by-side comparison of each view and the key points that distinguish them.
Table of Contents
- God’s People
- Future of Israel
- Salvation in the Old Testament
Before exploring any of the other differences between dispensationalism and covenentalism, you have to understand the differences in their hermeneutics, the lens with witch they interpret Scripture. This will impact the way you understand scripture from their perspective.
Dispensationalists approach scripture with a “consistent-literal” hermeneutic. This means that they think scripture should always be interpreted by its most literal meaning.
They also believe that although the Old and New Testaments build off of each other the New Testament does not redefine or bring clarity to the Old Testament.
One of the areas in which these views is consistently talked about is in eschatology.
Because of their approach to Scripture, Dispensationalists view Revelation as if none of it has yet taken place. All of it is yet to happen in the future.
They also usually look at the New Testament in light of Revelation instead of Revelation in light of the New Testament.
Another important book of the Bible used in eschatology is the book of Daniel. They would interpret scenarios such as the 70 weeks in such a way that the 70th week has not yet happened. That it is sometime yet to come in the future.
Covenantalists approach scripture with a greater emphasis on literary genre, context, and co-text. They believe that you should thoroughly examine these three elements of scripture in order to discern the best interpretation.
They do believe that the New Testament can re-interpret, or bring clarity to Old Testament passages. They would argue that God is revealing himself over time and the New Testament is a fresh revelation of the mystery of the kingdom.
As I said before, on of the areas where this discussion is especially pertinent is the realm of eschatology.
Most covenantalists believe that Revelation 1-19 has occurred already and that these events were speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Revelation 20-22 has yet to be fulfilled.
They also usually view Revelation in light of the New Testament instead of the New Testament in light of Revelation.
Daniel is another important book in the eschatology discussion. Covenantalists would interpret events like the 70 weeks as already having happened, with the 70th week being at the destruction of Jerusalem.
Dispensationalism includes certain truths regarding the Church, prophecy, and Israel, but it is basically an outlook on the Bible that works on the basis of historic, orthodox tenets of the faith, and attempts to allow the Bible to open itself to the reader.Matthew Stamper
Each of these perspectives also has a different understanding of how God has been at work in our lives throughout history.
Dispensationalists believe that God has worked out his plan in seven dispensations. Each follows a pattern of God’s provision: Israel rebels, God judges them for their rebellion, and then God constructs a new way to provide for them.
- Innocence: In this first dispensation, Adam and Eve are dwelling in the garden of Eden with full access to the presence of God. However they rebelled and God judged them for this by casting them out of the garden.
- Conscience: Then God creates a new way to provide for his people by keeping them accountable through their conscience. However, they rebelled again and the world was rampant with sin. So, God judged them with the flood.
- Government: In this dispensation God instituted government to protect his people from sin. Israel sinned again and God sent his judgement through the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.
- Promise: Here God makes a promise to Abraham to bless others through Israel. Israel rebells once again and God judges them with slavery in Egypt.
- Need for a Savior: God then provides the Law of Moses to guide his people and keep them from sin. However, once again the rebelled and God will judge them if they do not believe in the good news of Jesus at the tribulation.
- Grace: In this dispensation, God sends his son to provide a way for people to repent and be saved. Judgement won’t come until end times for those who didn’t believe. In this stage, it is possible for someone to be a part of both dispensations. They can be a descendant of Abraham and not repent, therefore receiving judgement. Or, they could become a spiritual descendant of Abraham by repenting and believing the gospel.
- New Heaven and New Earth : Finally, in this dispensation, all the believers are able to participate in the millennial kingdom which will culminate in the White Throne Judgement. Those who remain loyal to Jesus get to be part of the New Heaven and New Earth.
Covenantalists believe that God has only dealt with his people in one way throughout history. According to this perspective God interacts with his people through three main covenants. These covenants have always been present and God’s actions are an expression of one of the covenants.
- Covenant of Works: The covenant of works enacted in the beginning at the garden of Eden holds everyone accountable to God for their actions and will be judged accordingly. As a result, we are all deserving of judgement for our sins and will be held accountable.
- Covenant of Grace: God did not stop with the covenant of works. He created a way for us to be reconciled to himself through the covenant of grace. God has been doing this throughout history. Those who were faithful to him like Abraham are included in this covenant. However, he made available for all people including gentiles through Jesus. By his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection three days later we are all able to be reconciled to God.
- Covenant of Redemption: This is the agreement amongst the members of the Trinity on how to bring about the salvation and redemption of humanity. It is the plan for bringing those faithful to God into his family. There is some debate amongst theologians as to whether this is actually a biblical covenant and how that impacts the interpretation of scripture. It is up to you to discern what you think the Bible is saying on this matter.
One of the key differences between dispensationalism and covenantalism is their understanding of Israel, the Church, and the people of God. These differences have a crucial impact on the interpretation of many different end time events.
According to dispensationalists there are two separate peoples of God. There are the physical descendants of Abraham and the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Some of the physical descendants also share in spiritual lineage if they repent and believe the good news.
They also believe that all the promises that God has made to Israel need to be fulfilled by national Israel. Therefore, major covenants like the Abrahamic Covenant or Davidic Covenant must be fulfilled by national Israel, they do not believe that Jesus could have fulfilled these covenants.
Covenantalists believe that there is only one people of God. The people of Israel and God’s covenant of grace was simply expanded to include Gentile believers. They believe it was always God’s plan and design for it to be this way.
They believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of the major covenants that God made with Abraham and David.
Future of Israel
One of the implications of each views understanding of God’s people is their outcome of the future of Israel.
Because dispensationalists think that Israel and the Church are separate this leads to a few specific beliefs about the future of Israel.
Because they are separate, dispensationalists believe that the promises made to Israel must be fulfilled by Israel, not the church. This means that the ethnic nation of Israel still has a role to play in the blessing of the world.
They also believe, as a result, that Israel will play a large part in the coming of the kingdom of God. Jews who didn’t recognize Jesus at his first coming will recognize him in his second and Israel will have a practical role in the leadership of the nations.
Because covenantalists believe that God’s people is simply expanded and the Gentiles are “grafted in,” they do not believe that the ethnic nation of Israel still has a particular role left to play.
It is important to note that God’s people in this model only include those who have repented and believe the good news. Ethnic Israel is not automatically part of the people of God.
The promises of Scripture are still fulfilled through “God’s People” it’s just that God’s people are not Israel alone. It is all those who repent and believe the good news. This includes Messianic Jews who accept Jesus as the Son of God and his sacrifice and also Gentiles who do the same.
Since believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant, we’re not under the stipulations of the old covenant as a covenant. The Mosaic or Sinai covenant was enacted with Israel, not with us…
The laws given to Israel were its charter as a nation, as God’s special people in the ancient world. But the laws and stipulations aren’t the requirements for the church of Jesus Christ, which is under a new covenantThomas Schreiner (Covenant Perspective)
Salvation in the Old Testament
The discussion is somewhat complicated. Particularly for dispensationalists. Let’s take a look at how these differences play out.
Dispensationalists are often accused of advocated two ways of salvation because they claim that God dealt with Israel using the law during the earlier dispensations and through grace in later dispensations. This coincides with their view of the Church and Israel being separate.
However, dispensationalists would say this is not true, that people in the Old Testament could look towards the Messiah and obey the law based on faith. So, they too were saved by faith.
Covenantalists hold that there is only one way of salvation, salvation by faith. It doesn’t matter that the Messiah hadn’t come yet, Abraham was saved by faith apart from the law. There is one method of salvation for the whole Bible.
One of the areas where dispensationalism and covenantalism are discussed in detail is their impact on eschatology.
Dispensationalists believe that the kingdom has not yet come because the Jews rejected Jesus when he came. They believe that it will instead come at some point in the future.
Revelation is one of the primary books used to discuss eschatology however there is disagreement on when it was written. Dispensationalists usually hold to a later date in the early 90s AD. This impacts their view of the destruction of Jerusalem, a key part of the covenantalist argument.
Covenantalists describe the kingdom as the “already and not yet.” Jesus brought the commencement of the kingdom through his life death and resurrection, however, this is just a taste of the kingdom to come. We have it in some measure right now, but there is more yet to come.
Again, Revelation is one of the primary books used to discuss eschatology however there is disagreement on when it was written. Covenantalists argue for an earlier date in the 60s AD which impacts their view of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Covenantalism and dispensationalism have both had significant roles in the history of theology, and they have risen and fallen in popularity over the years.
Dispensationalism didn’t really come onto the scene in any significant way until the 1800s and even more so in the 1900s. This view was largely pushed by John Nelson Darby.
This view gained popularity in the face of the mounting Christian Liberalism that was sweeping over the country. During this time Dispensationalism’s commitment to the literal interpretation of Scripture protected Christian orthodoxy.
This view was also perpetuated through the Scofield Reference Bible. One of the first Bibles published with this theology.
Covenantalsim is the position traditionally held by the church throughout most of history. However, this was not a popular topic of conversation until later on so there is not a lot of documentation of early church fathers and what they believed on this subject.
This view died out in the 1800s and especially the 1900s due to the rise of dispensationalism and the battle with Christian Liberalism. However, it has been climbing in popularity in recent years.
These views have had a large impact on the lives of many great theologians, pastors, and missionaries. Their understanding propelled them farther into their pursuit of the Kingdom of God and we can learn from their ministries.
Some prominent dispensationalists include D.L. Moody, C.I. Scofield, and Lewis Sperry Chafer. Each of these men contributed to the rise of dispensationalism and continue to influence many of todays future theologians.
D.L. Moody created Moody Bible Institute which now serves to “equip people with the truth of God’s Word using new technology in an agile and innovative community.”
C.I. Scofield helped to create the Scofield Reference Bible which would popularize dispensational thought for years to come.
Lewis Sperry Chafer was the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary which seeks to “glorify God by equipping godly servant-leaders for the proclamation of His Word and the building up of the body of Christ worldwide.”
Each of these individuals has helped in the training up of the next generation of theologians which have impact and will continue to impact the world for years to come.
William Carey is one of the most influential missionaries of all time. He is often considered the father of Protestant missions and his work helped to initiate the “Great Century,” a period of fruitfulness in missions.
What many people don’t realize is the impact of eschatology on his passion for the mission field. Carey takes a covenantal, optimistic, postmillennial view of eschatology.
This view dictates that the second coming of Christ will occur after the millennium which will be a time of Christian power and prosperity. Carey connects this with the Great Commission and prioritizes it as a result, seeking that Christ would return soon.
This caused him to pursue the Great Commission with the fervor that would make him the father of Protestant missions.
Each perspective has its own merits and shortcomings, and at some point, we must all figure out which is best supported by Scripture. Or, more accurately, discern from the beginning what Scripture says and see which view lines up with that.
Hopefully this was helpful in illustrating the differences between each view and if you want to learn more about each position and what the Bible has to say about it, check out these posts:
- Dispensational Theology: Definition, Viewpoints, & More
- Covenant Theology: Definition, Viewpoints, Why It Matters