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Covenant, Reformed, and Dispensational Theology

September 6, 2010

Tony Garland has recently posted a good overview article concerning the differences between Reformed, Covenant and Dispensational theology — a good starting place for anyone wanting to know more about the basic differences.

A few of the highlights:

Concerning Reformed Theology:

Although sound in concept (believers are to be salt and light and oppose and expose works of darkness – Pr. 28:4; Mat. 5:13-16; Eph. 5:11), where this cultural mandate is taken to an extreme it can lead to an over-emphasis on social work and even the denial of Scriptural truth concerning the predicted apostasy of this age and the reality of the coming tribulation (Mat. 24:10-12; 2Th. 2:3; 1Ti. 4:1-3; 2Ti. 3:1) – in effect concluding that Christianity will reform the world rather than the Scriptural truth that the world will ultimately reject Christ ushering in a time of fearful judgment (Isa. 13:12; Jer. 30:7; Dan. 12:1; Mat. 24:21; Mark 13:19; Rev. 6; 7:14; 9:15; etc.).

Concerning Covenant Theology:

Another aspect of Covenant Theology is its insistence upon glossing over distinctions among the true Biblical covenants1 (e.g., Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.) and artificially merging them into a unifying concept of “The Covenant.” This interpretive lens (a single unifying covenant) winds up being force-fit upon the various Biblical covenants which Scripture itself defines

. . .

Covenant Theology begins with a reasonable premise: God is a God of covenant and as such His covenant promises are a very important aspect within which theology must be developed. But it goes astray where it emphasizes inferred theological concepts over the plain revelation of God’s Word which contains numerous covenants made with differing parties not all of which can be neatly packaged within the framework of a single promise with the abstract “people of God” – at least not without doing violence to the Biblical covenants.

. . .

The future time of cataclysm and judgment revealed in Scripture must be reinterpreted or otherwise denied since it flies in the face of the cultural mandate that Christianity reform the societies of the world ushering in the return of Christ. Thus, partial Preterism2 (orthodox) and its cousin, full Preterism (heterodox) generally find their basis in Covenant Theology.

And regarding Dispensational Theology:

An insistence upon consistently taking the Scriptures at face value.  Interpreting passages normally and plainly, while recognizing figures of speech, but without spiritualizing them and while paying attention to the details which are recorded therein. This includes the belief that prophetic passages of Scripture follow the same interpretive rules as non-prophetic passages and that genre is not license for jettisoning normative interpretation.

An emphasis upon the Biblical covenants (as opposed to the inferred covenants of Covenant Theology) as an important key to the proper interpretation of Scripture. The systematization of doctrine across both Old and New Testaments is only viable to the degree these Scriptural covenants are properly understood and held inviolate. Where these covenants apply to different recipients at different times and include varied rules and provisions, dispensationalism allows that God has chosen to interact with different people in ways which vary with time and context. Ignoring these distinctions leads to great confusion and confounds the proper understanding of Scripture. In other words, let the covenants and the historical context speak for themselves. This necessarily leads to recognizing distinctions which are “papered over” by Covenant Theology.

A belief that promises made by God within various unconditional Biblical covenants will all be fulfilled with the original parties with which they were made. Some of these unconditional promises (e.g., possession of the Promise Land) may be delayed due to disobedience, but the promises themselves will not fail. Nor can they ultimately be transferred away from the original recipients. This is no small thing as it has direct bearing upon the nature of communication and the very character of God.

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