Covenantal vs. Dispensational Theology

Gary DeLashmutt and Dennis McCallum

General Background

Covenantal Theology is typical of reformed theologians. This includes the Reformed and Christian Reformed, the Presbyterian, the Anglican (or Episcopal), and to some extent, the Lutheran. The Catholics also recognize the same approximate divisions of scriptural history, while differing on the question of man's responsibility in the covenant of grace. Taken together then, the covenantal view must be considered by far and away the predominant view.

The dispensational view is of more recent origin, arising from the evangelical awakening in American and England. Through the work of Jesse Penn-Lewis, T. Austin Sparks, J.N. Darby (who is given credit for formally bringing the view to light) Dwight Moody, C.I. Scofield (who included it in the Scofield Bible) Watchman Nee, and Lewis Sperry Chaffer, this view has become widespread and popular today. It is the view of most pentecostals, Brethren, many Baptists, and most independent Bible churches.

Covenantal Theology

Covenantal Theologians organize all history and theology around several covenants, or arrangements between God and humans or the Son. They are:

1. Covenant of Redemption

This covenant is optional. It occurred before creation.

  • The Son' agreement - perfect obedience in death promised to the Father
  • The Father' agreement - promised to the Son: 1) all the Son's needs to be met; 2) Holy Spirit given to the Church; 3) salvation to all believers; 4) exaltation of the son.
2. The Covenant of Works

Lasting from creation until the fall.

  • Man's conditions - Adam must obey God
  • God rewards obedience with eternal life, punishes disobedience with death
3. The Covenant of Grace

Lasting from the fall until the second advent.

  • Man's conditions - saving faith issuing in obedience
  • God's response - salvation in all of its phases

Dispensational Theology

Dispensational theology organizes history and theology around a series of dispensations, which are each different "economies" or arrangements decreed by God. Each dispensation begins with an offer of blessing by God, and ends with failure by man to meet God's conditions and a resulting period of Divine judgement. Old line dispensationalists taught 7 dispensations. Newer, moderate dispensationals focus only on #1, 5, 6, and 7.

1. The Dispensation of Innocence - Untested Holiness
  • Began at Creation and lasted until the fall
  • People could have direct fellowship with God, but they must not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
  • Final judgment: People expelled from the Garden
2. The Dispensation of Conscience - Cain & Abel
  • Began at the time of the fall and lasted until the flood
  • People were responsible to live according to their God-given conscience
  • Final judgment: Universal Flood
3. The Dispensation of Government - Noah
  • Lasted from the time when God offered Noah a covenant with the rainbow until the Tower of Babel
  • People were to follow God both through their own conscience and by establishing just government
  • Final judgment: The Tower of Babel - confusion of tongues
4. The Dispensation of Promise - Abraham
  • From the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12) until the Exodus.
  • The Covenant People were to remain faithful to Yahweh alone and practice circumcision
  • Final judgment: slavery in Egypt
5. The Dispensation of Law - Moses
  • From the giving of the law to Moses until the second advent of Christ.
  • The Covenant People were to be faithful to Yahweh through obeying the Law
  • Final judgment: The great tribulation (notice that the church age is inserted as an unforseen haitus in the midst of the dispensation of law. The church is therefore removed in the rapture before things revert to conditions as they were in the Old Testament period.)
6. The Dispensation of Grace or the Church
  • Lasts from the day of Pentecost until the Rapture
  • The church is to render saving faith in following Christ
  • No ending judgment for this dispensation except for the counterfeit church, which goes into the tribulation with the rest of the world
7. The Dispensation of Kingdom
  • Corresponds roughly to the Millenium
  • People are to obey Christ who reigns on earth
  • Great White Throne

Discussion Questions

After reviewing and gaining a good understanding of the strengths and weakness of each view from a biblical point of view, discuss the following questions.

  1. How might the Covenantal versus Dispentional view affect Eschatology?
  2. How might the Covenantal versus Dispentional view affect Bibliology?
  3. How might the Covenantal versus Dispentional view affect Ecclesiology?
  4. How might the Covenantal versus Dispentional view affect Soteriology?
  5. How might the Covenantal versus Dispentional view affect Pneumatology?