Contend Earnestly: Dispensationalism, Covenant and New Covenant Theology

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dispensationalism, Covenant and New Covenant Theology

I admit it, I steal. I lifted this from Desiring God and the following was written by Dr. John Piper. I thought this was a great glimpse into each theological department in one post. Figured I would put them here. Historically I have been a dispensationalist, but according to these descriptions alone, I would really lean more towards New Covenant Theology. Before I get into each one, here is a quote from Driscoll that would help understanding of where I fall in the looking at the OT (and why I feel I am getting closer to NCT, although I still strongly believe in a literal 1000 years):

It is my desire that you really embrace this simple but transforming truth. Unless Jesus is the central message of the Old Testament, many errors abound. The most common is moralizing. Moralizing is reading the Old Testament not to learn about Jesus, but only to learn principles for how to live my life as a good person by following the good examples of some people and avoiding the bad examples of others. That kind of approach to the Old Testament is not Christian because it is not about Christ. It treats the Bible like any other book with moral lessons that are utterly disconnected from the example and empowerment of Jesus.
Mark Driscoll, A Book that You Will Actually Read on the Old Testament, p. 42

Below is a quick description of each theological position in a nut shell, which one do you agree with? Do these faithfully describe each one? Take a look below.

What does John Piper believe about dispensationalism, covenant theology, and new covenant theology?
By Dr. John Piper
January 23, 2006

There are three main theological camps on the issues of law, gospel, and the structuring of God's redemptive relationship with humankind: dispensationalism, covenant theology, and new covenant theology. Many have written to us asking about the differences between these three views, and so before discussing John Piper's perspective we will give an overview of each.

It can be hard to summarize dispensational theology as a whole because in recent years multiple forms of it have developed. In general, there are three main distinctives.

First, dispensationalism sees God as structuring His relationship with mankind through several stages of revelation which mark off different dispensations, or stewardship arrangements. Each dispensation is a "test" of mankind to be faithful to the particular revelation given at the time. Generally, seven dispensations are distinguished: innocence (before the fall), conscience (Adam to Noah), government (Noah to Babel), promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), grace (Pentecost to the rapture), and the millennium.

Second, dispensationalism holds to a literal interpretation of Scripture. This does not deny the existence of figures of speech and non-literal language in the Bible, but rather means that there is a literal meaning behind the figurative passages.

Third, as a result of this literal interpretation of Scripture, dispensationalism holds to a distinction between Israel (even believing Israel) and the church. On this view, the promises made to Israel in the OT were not intended as prophecies about what God would do spiritually for the church, but will literally be fulfilled by Israel itself (largely in the millennium). For example, the promise of the land is interpreted to mean that God will one day fully restore Israel to Palestine. In contrast, non-dispensationalists typically see the land promise as intended by God to prophesy, in shadowy Old-covenant-form, the greater reality that He would one day make the entire church, Jews and Gentiles, heirs of the whole renewed world (cf. Romans 4:13).

In many ways it is thus accurate to say that dispensationalism believes in "two peoples of God." Although both Jews and Gentiles are saved by Christ through faith, believing Israel will be the recipient of additional "earthly" promises (such as prosperity in the specific land of Palestine, to be fully realized in the millennium) that do not apply to believing Gentiles, whose primary inheritance is thus "heavenly."

Covenant Theology
Covenant theology believes that God has structured his relationship with humanity by covenants rather than dispensations. For example, in Scripture we explicitly read of various covenants functioning as the major stages in redemptive history, such as the covenant with Abraham, the giving of the law, the covenant with David, and the new covenant. These post-fall covenants are not new tests of man's faithfulness to each new stage of revelation (as are the dispensations in dispensationalism), but are rather differing administrations of the single, overarching covenant of grace.

The covenant of grace is one of two fundamental covenants in covenant theology. It structures God's post-fall relationship to mankind; pre-fall, God structured His relationship by the covenant of works. The covenant of grace is best understood in relation to the covenant of works.

The covenant of works, instituted in the Garden of Eden, was the promise that perfect obedience would be rewarded with eternal life. Adam was created sinless but with the capability of falling into sin. Had he remained faithful in the time of temptation in the Garden (the "probationary period"), he would have been made incapable of sinning and secured in an eternal and unbreakable right standing with God.

But Adam sinned and broke the covenant, and thereby subjected himself and all his descendants to the penalty for covenant-breaking, condemnation. God in His mercy therefore instituted the "covenant of grace," which is the promise of redemption and eternal life to those who would believe in the (coming) redeemer. The requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life is not annulled by the covenant of grace, but is rather fulfilled by Christ on behalf of His people, since now that all are sinners no one can meet the condition of perfect obedience by his own performance. The covenant of grace, then, does not set aside the covenant of works but rather fulfills it.

As mentioned above, covenant theology emphasizes that there is only one covenant of grace, and that all of the various redemptive covenants that we read of in the Scripture are simply differing administrations of this one covenant. In support, it is pointed out that a covenant is in essence simply a sovereignly given promise (usually with stipulations), and since there is only one promise of salvation (namely, by grace through faith), it follows that there is therefore only one covenant of grace. All of the specific redemptive covenants we read of (the Abrahamic, Mosaic, etc.) are various and culminating expressions of the covenant of grace.

New Covenant Theology
New covenant theology typically does not hold to a covenant of works or one overarching covenant of grace (although they would still argue for only one way of salvation). The essential difference between New Covenant Theology (hereafter NCT) and Covenant Theology (CT), however, concerns the Mosaic Law. CT holds that the Mosaic Law can be divided into three groups of laws--those regulating the government of Israel (civil laws), ceremonial laws, and moral laws. The ceremonial law and civil law are no longer in force because the former was fulfilled in Christ and the latter only applied to Israel's theocracy, which is now defunct. But the moral law continues.

NCT argues that one cannot divide the law up in that way, as though part of the Mosaic Law can be abrogated while the rest remains in force. The Mosaic Law is a unity, they say, and so if part of it is canceled, all of it must be canceled. On top of this, they say that the New Testament clearly teaches that the Mosaic Law as a whole is superseded in Christ. It is, in other words, no longer our direct and immediate source of guidance. The Mosaic Law, as a law, is no longer binding on the believer.

Does this mean that believers are not bound by any divine law? No, because the Mosaic Law has been replaced by the law of Christ. NCT makes a distinction between the eternal moral law of God and the code in which God expresses that law to us. The Mosaic Law is an expression of God's eternal moral law as a particular code which also contains positive regulations pertinent to the code's particular temporal purpose, and therefore the cancellation of the Mosaic Law does not mean that the eternal moral law is itself canceled. Rather, upon canceling the Mosaic Law, God gave us a different expression of his eternal moral law--namely, the Law of Christ, consisting in the moral instructions of Christ's teaching and the New Testament. The key issue that NCT seeks to raise is: Where do we look to see the expression of God's eternal moral law today--do we look to Moses, or to Christ? NCT says we look to Christ.

There are many similarities between the Law of Christ and Mosaic Law, but that does not change the fact that the Mosaic Law has been canceled and that, therefore, we are not to look to it for direct guidance but rather to the New Testament. For example, England and the US have many similar laws (for example, murder is illegal in both countries). Nonetheless, the English are not under the laws of America, but of England. If an English citizen murders in England, he is held accountable for breaking England's law against murder, not America's law against murder.

The benefit of NCT, its advocates argue, is that it solves the difficulty of trying to figure out which of the Mosaic laws apply to us today. On their understanding, since the Mosaic Law is no longer a direct and immediate source of guidance, we look to the Law of Christ for our direct guidance. Although the Mosaic Law is no longer a binding law code in the NT era, it still has the authority, not of law, but of prophetic witness. As such, it fills out and explains certain concepts in both the old and new covenant law.

John Piper's position
John Piper has some things in common with each of these views, but does not classify himself within any of these three camps. He is probably the furthest away from dispensationalism, although he does agree with dispensationalism that there will be a millennium.

Many of his theological heroes have been covenant theologians (for example, many of the Puritans), and he does see some merit in the concept of a pre-fall covenant of works, but he has not taken a position on their specific conception of the covenant of grace.

In regards to his views on the Mosaic Law, he seems closer to new covenant theology than covenant theology, although once again it would not work to say that he precisely falls within that category.


Anonymous said...


I am always intrigued by what people who believe in a "Literal" intep. of Revelation mean by "literal." For instance Tim LaHaye says he believes in a literal interpretation then call's what happens in the following verses from Rev a helicopter:
The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. 8 Their hair was like women's hair, and their teeth were like lions' teeth. 9 They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. 10 They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. 11 They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer).

I think we can both agree that a helicopter is not a literal interp. but rather a different form of figurative. The difference to me is that one interp/ the figuarative in light of Christ and the other in light of helicopters....

I think the word itself is a clever smoke bomb by people whose entire eschatological system is based on a suspect system (disensationalism)... and is designed cause people fear liberalism to scare people into belief. The issue is not whether it is literal, but rather it is right.

So what do you mean by "literal"


Seth McBee said...

What do you mean by literal?

Be literal until you sould like you should be locked up.

Anonymous said...

Dispensation theology is the craziest theology and one which drives the middle east israel-arab conflict imho. I'm closer to NCT than 'covenant theology' these days for the reasons outlined. It seems to me that somehow covenant theologians keep pushing believers back to the law whereas NCT seems more aligned with the teaching of promise and fulfilment in Christ. My experience is that covenant theology drives legalism more (as is rampant also in dispensationalism.) The only theologian who has it all correct is God. Oh btw I hold to an amillennial view.

Stefan said...

Interesting post, especially with regard to Piper's own position.

It seems to me that by saying he has a little bit in common with all three positions, that he is really evading the question.

Also, I think the statement that he hasn't taken a position on the Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace is misleading, at best. Piper has made his positions known, though they seem to have shifted over time.

In the past he eschewed the pre-fall covenant of works, siding rather strongly against it (and the covenant of grace) in his support of Daniel Fuller's hermeneutic of gospel-law, in which the two are completely collapsed into one, so that gospel is law and law is gospel. In classic covenant theology the two remain distinct, precisely because of the covenant of works-covenant of grace distinction. In fact, Piper once said (either in his introduction to one of Fuller's books, or in the intro to Future Grace), that the seed-bed for all of his theology was (at that time) Fuller's hermeneutic -- which is not Dispy, CT, or NCT.

I know from reading Piper's stuff on justification that he appears to be moving away from this (as the federalism of Rom 5:18-19 necessitates), but has anyone seen him repudiate his earlier teachings and those of Dan Fuller in print?

I would hope he would be responsible and accountable (and honest!) and do so if he has not otherwise made his position clear.


Puritan Lad said...

Obviously Covenant Theology. NCT has too many strange teachings, such as the idea that the church did not exist in the Old Testament.

Of course, Dispensationalism is nonsense.

Poop is Emergent Too said...

PL: NCT does say that the church had a beginning in the New Cov. but at least it does not deny that the OT Saints are a part of it like dispensationalism...

Anonymous said...

Dispensationalism is utter rubbish.

I blame that wretched Left Behind Series.

NCT sounds closest to me.

Steve Fuchs said...

I realize this is a pretty old post, but I just happened by it and thought i'd provide some input.
There are various threads within NCT, but one of the most promising I think is that which understands the NC to be Christ Himself.
If you look at Is 42 and 49, we see that this was promised by God as he spoke through Isaiah of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ.

Is 42:4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. 5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens & stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 "I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations"

Christ himself is the NC from God, and His Spirit written on their hearts is what those who are far off, the coastlands even, wait for. This is the promise Peter explains at Pentecost.

Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For this promise (of Spirit) is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."

I could go on quoting places the NT contrasts the Oldness of Law code against the Newness of the Spirit, but I'm sure you can find those yourself.

This is not to say the Spirit replaces the scripture, for the scripture is God's revelaion of Christ (truth), but the thing that compels and governs NC members toward righteousness is not a code, but the person of Christ living within them.
Christ is the living expression of God's ways (law) which begins and ends with Love. He is the NC law and His Spirit is written on the hearts of believers.
The scripture confirms and testifies to Him in an essential manner, but what the members of the NC are 'under' is not a code, but a person. The scripture documents and describes the ways of God, but Christ in us animates them in 3 dimension - in ways a code can't.

Evangelicals have often referred to the Spirit of Christ as 'enabler', but He's more than that. He's the cause of our transformation to righteousness.

Read Ezek 36 again and notice God's promise to put His Spirit within us and *cause* us to walk in His ways.

The down payment of Chris's Spirit we have now is our assurance for what the full measure of oneness with Christ will produce on that day...our complete perfection with no more sinfullness.

NCT sees what many of the Reformers were grasping at, yet recognizes that all is fulfilled in Christ. The Word became flesh (John 1). The Covenant became a living Son (Isa 42:6/49:8). The Law became the life-giving (animating) Spirit of Christ himself.

Rom 8:4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, SF...that was helpful. Everyone's comments have been helpful. I've spent most of my time in dispensationalist churches, but am trying to get a better handle on the differences between these systems.

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