There is another thread here that's discussing Dispensational Theology, and I've found the following article to be very helpful in examining two of the most common templates used to interpret Scripture, as well as a third option, which I find to be very reasonable indeed. I first came across this article years ago, and it is still available in cached form HERE.
It's a long article, but well worth the read. Due to limitations of post length here at CC, I'll break the article down into the three main sections over 3 (or more, if necessary) posts. I hope this helps folks to sort out the theological templates common today and give an alternative view which simply puts Christ properly at the interpretive center.
Dispensational Theology, Covenant Theology,
and Christocentric Theology
By James A. Fowler
Everyone engages in theology. Everyone has a theology. The word "theology" is derived from two Greek words, theos meaning "God," and logos meaning "word" with extended meanings of "reasoning" or "logic." Theology refers to "reasoning about God." Everyone has some "reasoning about God," including the atheist who rejects the "god" he has reasoned about. Christians should not be afraid of theology or have an aversion towards theology. Theology is not necessarily overly intellectual or "unspiritual." Granted, there has been much theology that has been nothing more than academic exercises in "God-talk," but this does not negate the legitimacy of genuine theological consideration which seeks Biblical documentation and spiritual understanding.
In analyzing the theological systems that predominate today, it is important that we remain as objective as possible. We do not want to misrepresent what others believe. We do not want to set up "straw men," which any wind-bag could blow down. We do not want to engage in ballistic brick-throwing and unloving polemics against Christian peoples who hold differing theological opinions.
Genuine and sincere Bible-believing Christians subscribe to varying theological systems. Never do we want to "write someone off" and deny that they are our Christian brother or sister because they organize their "belief-system" differently that we do, provided they profess that Jesus is the Christ and have received Him by faith. Christian unity is not uniformity of thought or ideology. We seek a unity of love despite diversity of opinion, understanding, interpretation or theological explanation. Our unity is in Christ, not in theological constructions.
In this study we will be considering the two predominant theological systems in conservative Christian theology today (Covenant theology and Dispensational theology), and then proposing another theological interpretation (Christocentric theology), that avoids some of the problems presented by the other two. This will necessarily involve some critique of the predominant theological systems and their presuppositions. Questions will be asked about their premises, some of which beg for an answer. We seek not to destroy these theological systems, but to honestly inquire, question and confront. In that these theological systems have innumerable variations among their proponents with subtle nuances of differing interpretation, we must attempt to analyze the over-all system and simplify the issues involved without being so simplistic as to misrepresent. Not an easy task!
Covenant theology is also referred to as "Reformed theology" and occasionally as "Federal theology." Reformed theology is not equivalent to Reformation theology. In their protestation against the theology of Roman Catholicism, Martin Luther and John Calvin, among others, developed distinctive theological interpretations, so that Lutheran theology and Calvinistic theology both existed prior to Reformed or Covenant theology.
It was not until the seventeenth century that a systematized theology based upon the idea of "covenant" developed. Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) from Scotland, and Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) of Holland, were both instrumental in the establishment of Covenant theology. It became firmly entrenched in Reformed Protestant theology after the Church of Scotland accepted the Westminster Confession in 1647, which incorporated the idea of federal or covenant theology into a creedal statement for the first time.
The socio-political climate in which these ideas germinated is important.1 In the seventeenth century, the European societies were breaking free from the old feudalistic system of governance. There was strong emphasis on national sovereignty and on social contracts or "covenants" to defend national freedom. Societal and moral law was emphasized to maintain the new social structures. These sociological and cultural factors lent themselves to the development of a corresponding political theology which emphasized law and covenant and sovereignty. Covenant theology has been conducive to political enmeshment throughout its history, as is evidenced by the contemporary resurgence of "theonomy" and "reconstructionism."
Theologians and authors identified with Covenant theology include Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), Philip Mauro, Albertus Pieters, Oswald Allis, William Cox, Anthony Hoekema, Herman Ridderbos and John Murray, as well as many others.
Covenant theology is closely connected with "five-point" Calvinistic theology, though not to be equated with such. Some of the prominent features of Covenant theology include (1) the idea of a common "covenant of grace," (2) emphasize on the singular collective "people of God," (3) unity and uniformity of God's people and the Bible.
A single, over-all, everlasting "covenant of grace" is postulated by covenant theology. The mention of an "everlasting covenant" in Genesis 17:7,13,19 serves as the basis for this single, unified covenant, within which a series of subordinate covenants are said to build upon one another so as to culminate in the "new covenant." Even so, the old and new covenants are not viewed as two separate covenants, but only as two forms of the one "covenant of grace." The progressive sequence of subordinate covenants includes (1) the covenant of works (Gen. 1,2) in the garden of Eden with the promise of perfect environment, (2) the Adamic covenant (Gen. 3) with the first promise of a Savior, (3) the Noahic covenant (Gen. 6-9) with the promise never to destroy the earth by flood again, (4) the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12-35) with the promise of multitudinous "seed," (5) the Mosaic covenant (Exod. 19-24) with the promise of grace, (6) the Davidic covenant (II Sam. 7:1-16) with the promised throne of David, and (7) the New covenant (Heb. 8:8) which fulfills the promise of Jeremiah 31:31 and God's ultimate purpose for an "elect people" in covenant relationship with Himself.
Does the emphasis on "covenant" serve to cast God's dealings with man into a legal, judicial, contractual framework? Is God the ultimate "legal contractor" who keeps adding clauses to the contract? Does the whole framework of legality diminish the dynamic and ontological essence of God's function? Does the covenantal and legal framework lend itself to external behavioral legalism?
A second prominent feature of Covenant theology is the focus upon the "people of God." God, the Father, chose a "people" for Himself; the Son agreed to pay the penalty for their sin; the Holy Spirit agreed to apply the benefits of the Son's work to the "people of God." Does this not divide the Godhead into work assignments? Does God need a "people" so necessarily as to become contingent on man for such? Does the sociological collectivism of an identified "people" overshadow the individual response to God in faith? Does the application of "benefits" adequately explain the life and work of Jesus Christ?
A third feature of Covenant theology is the "unity" of all God's people spiritually throughout the covenantal development. This is also identified and applied as the "unity of the Bible." Does not the unity thesis become a "uniformity grid" which imposes a singularity of divine function, which effectively puts God into a straight-jacket? When all subsequent covenantal actions of God must incorporate all precedent actions, so that there is an equivalency among all the "people of God" in every age, is God really free to do something "new" and unique and novel? Is God unable to change His modus operandi?
When Covenant theology explains the connections of old covenant and new covenant, it is heavily weighted toward a correspondence of theological content throughout all of the history of God's dealings with mankind. Both law and grace are said to be co-existent within each era or covenantal period. Despite the almost antithetical contrast that Paul draws between law and grace,2 Covenant theology often attempts to balance these concepts or amalgamate them in such non-biblical phrases as "the grace of the law," or "the law of grace." Does God talk out of both sides of His mouth at the same time with different emphases?
Covenant theology asserts that the gospel has been preached in every covenantal period. Grace has been available to all men with a singular plan of salvation offered to all in every age. God's divine declaration of righteousness, the activities of the Holy Spirit, and the personal regeneration unto spiritual life are attributed to believers both in the new covenant and in prior times. All of the so-called "divine benefits" are regarded as having an "eternality" of existence based on God's eternality. Does this not deify God's actions apart from His Being?
Emphasizing the eternality of God's activities in the continuity of historical continuum, covenant theology seems to stereotype God into a commonality of continuous content and action that disallows God from every doing anything different or new. If all subsequent actions are consistent with precedent actions, God is trapped in the box of precedency.
To sidestep some of these logical contingencies of the covenant theological system, explanation is sometimes given that attempts to show some discorrespondence of theological content and discontinuity of historical continuum between old and new covenants. It is explained that law took precedence over grace during the Mosaic covenant, but that grace predominates over law in the new covenant, even though law still has its function. The on-going function of the law is explained in the arbitrary categories of moral law, ceremonial law and judicial law. One segment of covenant theology has advocated the contemporary application of God's law in theonomy and reconstructionism,3 which involves the application of their understanding of God's law as the "law of the land" in the United States.
A sense of discorrespondence and discontinuity is also suggested by covenant theology when they are forced to admit that new covenant Christians experience "superior" spiritual "benefits," or that these "benefits" take on "deeper meaning" in the new covenant. Within their emphasis on the "people of God," there is also a discorrespondence and discontinuity in the explanation that the physical application of this designation predominated in the previous covenant periods, but a spiritual application of the "people of God" predominates in the new covenant period.
Over-all, the presuppositional insistence on a singular and common "covenant of grace" in Covenant theology leads to an emphasis on a concordance and correlation of covenant peoples, a solidarity and unity of divine activity, which verges on complete identification and equivalence. The "people of God" are one collective and corporate unity, albeit with multiple manifestation in old and new covenants, having one common heavenly destiny in the presence of God. Israel and the Church are in essence the same entity, the "elect people" of God. The Church, the ecclesia, the "called out people of God," existed all the way back to Adam. The events on Pentecost (Acts 2) comprised but the empowering of the Body of Christ in the new covenant. The kingdom of God, defined by His "right to rule," has existed from the beginning of God's dealings with man.
What, then, was the purpose of Christ's coming to earth in His redemptive mission? Covenant theology seems to explain that Jesus came to make the final addition to the covenantal progression in order to establish the new covenant manifestation of Israel, the church, the kingdom, wherein the "people of God" might have right relationship with God.
What are the expectations, the hope of covenant theology? When God's "people" evidence commitment and obedience within the legal and contractual framework of the covenant relationship, then the situation will progress toward the perfection of God's intent for the new covenant community. Things will get better and better. Most who accept the covenant theological premises arrive at eschatological conclusions which are amillenial or postmillenial. There are premillenial covenant theologians, though, so eschatological persuasions alone are not the basis for determining whether one subscribes to Covenant or Reformed theology. Likewise, there are those who have amillennial or postmillennial eschatological beliefs, but have an Arminian theology, and could never be identified with Covenant theology which is strongly connected with Calvinistic theology.
The prominent feature by which Covenant theology is identified is the distinctive idea of a common "covenant of grace," and this colors their interpretation of all the Scriptures. The covenant idea was, to some degree, sociologically, politically and culturally derived from the sixteenth and seventeenth century transition from feudalism. Covenant theology is closely allied with the closed-system theology of Calvinistic determinism which emphasizes the "sovereignty" of God in the implementation of His covenants. If one accepts the ideological premise of a "predetermined, unified covenant people," then Covenant theology can be a consistent theological system.
Continued . . . .