By: Brian Chilton | December 11, 2017
When parsed out, theology can become quite complex. One of the deeper issues of theology deals with the differences between covenant theology and dispensational theology. When the term dispensationalism is spoken, some may think of the Left Behind series or may dismissively think of radical date setters. However, the theological system is much deeper than that.
Covenant theology and dispensational theology is divvied up according to how one views God’s future plans with the nation Israel and how one interprets prophecies in Scripture. Dispensationalists hold that God’s new covenant does not dismiss the prophecies pertaining to national Israel, whereas covenant theologians hold that the church has replaced national Israel in God’s plan. Dispensationalists hold to a literal interpretation of Old Covenant promises, whereas covenant theologians interpret the promises allegorically. Simply put—if you think that God still has plans for the nation of Israel, then you are a dispensationalist. If not, then you are a covenant theologian.
Even within the theological systems, there are minute differences that partition the theologies into varying subsets. From what I can gather, there are four major views (2 in each major system). They are the Traditional Covenant Theology (TCT), New Covenant Theology (NCT), Traditional Dispensationalism (TD), and Progressive Dispensationalism (PD).
Traditional Covenant Theology (TCT)
- Views the covenants of God with a singular view of redemption.
- Views the Old Testament with the lens of the New Testament, thus taking prophecies as allegories related to the church.
- Views three covenants throughout history: covenant of works, covenant of grace, and a covenant of redemption.
- Israel failed to follow God’s plan, therefore they were replaced by the church.
- Teaches infant baptism.
New Covenant Theology (NCT)
- The Old Testament law has been replaced by the New Testament law.
- NCT does not accept TCT’s tripartite separation of the covenants.
- Mosaic law cannot be divided.
- The new covenant fulfilled the Mosaic law, thereby making the Mosaic law inapplicable to modern Christians.
- Rejects infant baptism.
- Church began at Pentecost and Israel is not the church.
- The New Testament trumps the Old Testament.
- Like TCT, NCTs believe that Israel no longer finds a place in the plan of God.
Traditional Dispensational Theology (TD)
- Interprets the Old Testament promises literally.
- Holds to a discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New.
- Separates Israel (God’s earthly people) and the Church (God’s heavenly people).
- Accepts that God’s promises to Israel still apply.
- God has worked through seven dispensations of grace: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom.
- God has two people: Israel is his earthly people, and the church is his heavenly people.
- The church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan for Israel (when God resurrects the church, he will then focus again on Israel).
Progressive Dispensational Theology (PD)
- Holds a continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
- God moves progressively through the dispensations to save people.
- Simplifies dispensations
- Israel and the Church are distinct.
- The Church was anticipated in the Old Testament.
- Interprets the Old Testament according to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic.
- Many prophecies are viewed in an already-not-yet paradigm (some have been partially fulfilled, but will be completely fulfilled at a point in the future).
- PD is in some ways similar to covenant theologies in that PDs view God working in one, continual, linear plan; however, PDs are truly dispensational as they hold that God is not finished with Israel and will fulfill his promises made to the nation at some point in the future during the millennial reign of Christ.
Which do you find most attractive and most comparable to Scripture? Personally, I like the progressive dispensational scheme for multiple reasons, particularly the continuity that is kept between the OT and the NT and the general scheme of God to save humanity.
Brian Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is currently a student of the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University. Brian is full member of the International Society of Christian Apologetics and the Christian Apologetics Alliance. Brian has been in the ministry for over 14 years and serves as the pastor of Huntsville Baptist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.
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