The Covenantal Kingdom
COVENANTS AND DISPENSATIONS
There are many Reformed critiques of dispensationalism available. Among the best are: the gentle but penetrating analysis by Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists; the detailed work by Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow; and the humorous and devastating newsletter by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Dispensationalism in Transition. Although there is overlap between them, they each provide different perspectives from which to consider the basic issues.
Reformed critiques have been so numerous and so successful, in fact, that dispensationalists themselves have joined the bandwagon. Some of the most helpful evaluations of dispensational errors have been provided by a new school of dispensationalism. Though often merely repeating from a modified dispensational perspective what Reformed theologians have said before, they may communicate best to other dispensationalists. Among these the two best may be Robert l. Saucy's, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism and the collection of articles edited by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church.
The new dispensationalists, however, have missed the heart of the issue. They cling on to the idea of a dispensation without realizing that this very idea is the real problem with dispensationalism. Even Reformed critics have not always dealt adequately with this important issue. The first problem with dispensationalism is the idea of a dispensation.
The problem with the idea of a dispensation is not that it is entirely unBiblical, though dispensationalists have distorted the Biblical concept. The problem is that dispensationalists have not noticed that their definition of a dispensation fits almost exactly the Biblical definition of a covenant. Thus, while denying that the covenant is the key Biblical doctrine that unifies and explains history, dispensationalists have brought in a modified covenantal idea by the back door. By contrasting their view with the "covenantal" view of history, dispensationalists have introduced no little confusion into theological debate. And by misunderstanding the Biblical doctrine of the covenant, they have also significantly distorted the Biblical philosophy of history, including the Biblical teaching about how Christ's death and resurrection relate to history and eschatology.
The Dispensational Definition of a Dispensation
Dispensationalists tell us that the progress of world history must be understood in terms of the idea of a dispensation. The definition of this word is, therefore, crucial. On the basis of his understanding of the Biblical words oikonomeo (to be a steward), oikonomos (steward), and oikonomia (stewardship, etc.), Charles C. Ryrie gives us the following definition of a dispensation:
Ryrie also asserts that: "The dispensations are economies instituted and brought to their purposeful conclusion by God." Though these "economies" are instituted in history, Ryrie emphasizes that "a dispensation is primarily a stewardship arrangement and not a period of time." His summary statement is:
Given this understanding of a dispensation, there are two important questions we must ask. 1) Where in the Bible do we find the idea that history is divided into "dispensations." 2) How do the dispensationalists relate the idea of a dispensation to the idea of a covenant? In answer to the first question, Ryrie strains Ephesians 1:10 "the dispensation of the fulness of times" and Ephesians 3:2 the "dispensation of the grace of God" to obtain a dogmatic conclusion that will not even persuade all dispensationalists: "there can be no question that the Bible uses the word dispensation in exactly the same way the dispensationalist does." Ryrie is on better ground when he argues "it should be remembered that is is perfectly valid to take a Biblical word and use it in a theological sense as long as the theological use is not unbiblical." No one doubts the truth of this assertion. What may be doubted is that Ryrie's idea of a dispensation is actually Biblical. By replacing the Bible's own covenantal framework with a similar, but different idea, dispensationalism is guilty of at least being less Biblical than covenant theology.
Dispensationalists do not deal with the second question. They frequently discuss the covenants, especially as the foundation for their premillennialism. But they make no real attempt to explain the relationship between the ideas of a Biblical covenant and a dispensation. God is leading history through dispensational periods, some of which -- at least the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic -- are based upon covenants, but somehow the two notions of covenant and dispensation remain unintegrated. This is a fatal flaw in the dispensational system, one that contributes to a false notion of the dispensations usually labeled "law" and "grace," and also to distortions -- sometimes gross -- of the Biblical teaching on the new covenant.
A Covenantal Definition of a Dispensation
Poythress points out that "Virtually all ages of the church and all branches of the church have believed that there are distinctive dispensations in God's government of the world, though sometimes the consciousness of such distinctions has grown dim." In this broad sense, then, many non-dispensationalists may be called dispensationalists. Arnold D. Ehlert's A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism, for example, includes the Reformed postmillennialist Jonathan Edwards as a dispensationalist because Edwards spoke of redemptive epochs. Ryrie points out that Isaac Watts saw the progress of redemption unfolding through dispensational periods in a manner very similar to that of the Scofield Bible. To mention only one more example, the famous Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Witsius (1636-1708), described the covenants between God and man through history in a broadly dispensational scheme. The question, then, is not whether Reformed theologians can tolerate the idea of distinctive epochs in God's government of the world. The problem is, rather, the nature of these redemptive epochs. A Biblical approach must take into account the doctrine of the covenant.
Covenant theology may be simply defined as that theology which recognizes Robert Rollock's principle: "God says nothing to man apart from the covenant." This is an essential principle for Biblical interpretation. One of the most fundamental ideas of the entire New Testament, for example, finds its explanation here. Paul teaches that all men are either "in Adam" or "in Christ" (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21ff.). But how do we understand the words "in Adam all die"? Paul is not speaking of a physical relationship nor of an undefinable mystical idea. "In Adam" and "in Christ" describe man's covenantal status before God. "In Adam" is equivalent to "under the old covenant which Adam broke," and "in Christ" equivalent to "in the new covenant with Christ as representative before God." The book of Hebrews refers to this when it explains that Christ brings salvation by bringing in a new covenant: "But now hath He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second" (Heb. 8:6-7).
The Bible, thus, divides first of all into old covenant and new covenant eras. Within the old covenant era, however, there are numerous covenantal periods. These covenantal periods can be described in terms very similar to Ryrie's definition of a dispensation, because Ryrie has inadvertently borrowed the covenantal idea through the concept of "stewardship." Ray Sutton's covenantal outline applies to these periods of history:
In the book of Genesis, dispensationalists have correctly identified the covenantal eras: from Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to Moses. But they have not observed that the giving of the Davidic covenant constitutes a new "dispensation" which ends with Israel's captivity, nor that God granted a new covenant to Israel upon her return to the land which lasted until the coming of Christ. Because they do not follow the Bible's own covenantal outline they have misunderstood the periods of redemptive history.
This would not be terribly important if it were just a matter of the number of dispensations. A slightly different count doesn't change much. The real problem is that dispensational theology has traditionally seen the dispensations as periods that are not only distinct but largely separate, each dispensation operating on fundamentally different principles. By not recognizing that each period is a covenantal period, dispensational theology replaces the Biblical doctrine of the organic growth of God's covenantal revelation with the dispensational doctrine of a fragmented revelation.
In Reformed theology a "dispensation" is a covenantal period. Fundamentally, there are just two "dispensations," the dispensation of the old covenant and the dispensation of the new. The old covenant itself is divided into various covenantal administrations, but covenant theology sees the various covenants before the coming of Christ as extensions of the creation covenant that include an unfolding revelation of the promise of the new covenant. Each of these covenantal periods may be referred to as a "dispensation" of the old covenant. But these dispensations are part of the organic growth of the kingdom of God in history and cannot be divorced or isolated from one another. Each "new" covenant presupposes and builds upon the previous covenant revelation, which is of continuing relevance. None of the covenants is simply abrogated. In the end all of them, including the Mosaic, are fulfilled in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ, bringing salvation.
Viewing the dispensations through the stewardship model, the main difference between Reformed and dispensational theology is that dispensationalism believes that point three of the covenant, what Ryrie refers to as specific responsibilities, can be widely disparate in different dispensations. Dispensationalists see the dispensations of law and grace, for example, as involving systems of ethics that are radically diverse. Covenant theology, on the other hand, emphasizes that differences between the specific commandments of God -- about priesthood, sacrifices, land, clothing, food, etc. -- do not concern basic ethical issues, that there is one unified system of ethics taught in the Bible.
The most important result of the failure by dispensational theology to see the covenantal nature of history is the misinterpretation of the new covenant. Older dispensational theologians even invented the doctrine of two "new covenants" in order to keep the church age separate from the entire Old Covenant era and from their idea of a future restoration of the Old Covenant era in a Jewish millennial kingdom. But this doctrine is so exaggerated that it could not remain. Eventually dispensationalists had to acknowledge that there was only one New Covenant and that the Church shares in the "spiritual blessings" of the New Covenant.
But dispensationalists could not stop there either. They could not escape from the fact that the New Testament use of the Old Testament presupposes a far more profound continuity than dispensationalism could tolerate. Progressive dispensationalists now admit that the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants apply to the church age. What they insist on, however, is that "the present operation of the new covenant in saving Jews and Gentiles in the Church is not the complete fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy. The return of Christ will bring further fulfillment."
The progressive dispensationalists have missed two important points. One is the fact previously explained that a dispensation is a covenantal period and that each new covenant brings in a new dispensation. The second point, naturally following, is that the new covenant fulfills all of the promises of the various dispensations of the old covenant and is the final covenant. To have another dispensation -- a Jewish millennium -- following the present one places upon the theologian the burden of the fiat creation of another new covenant, as in the older form of dispensationalism. The New Testament is clear, however, on the finality and perfection of the new covenant in Christ (esp. Heb. 8-10). There can be no new covenant beyond the new covenant already granted in Christ, neither can there be a future dispensation greater than the present, unless we consider eternity another dispensation. What there can be is the growth of God's kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel so that the promises of the new covenant are completely fulfilled and the glory of God revealed in history.
Dispensationalists have contributed to the growth of Biblical theology by their insistence on the dynamic growth of God's revelation in history. But they undermined what they attempted to teach by their fragmented view of historical development. On the opposite extreme, some versions of covenant theology had a virtually static view of God's revelation, missing the growth of the new covenant promise in the dispensations of the old covenant. More recent covenant theology admits "dispensational" periods in the growth of God's covenantal revelation, but it understands these in the larger context of covenantal unity. Covenantal postmillennialism is more faithful to the Biblical insights of dispensationalism than dispensationalists themselves, providing not only a dynamic view of history as the growth of God's covenantal kingdom, but also following the Apostles' teaching on the new covenant as the covenant of the Messiah in whom all of the promises of God are Yea and Amen (2 Cor. 1:19-20)!
1. Available through the Institute for Christian Economics. See Appendix 2.
2. Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press,  1971), p. 26. Please note: we are speaking of the definition of a dispensation, not the definition of dispensationalism.
3. Ibid., p. 30.
4. Ibid., p. 29.
5. Ibid., p. 31. It is difficult to see how Ryrie can actually de-emphasize the idea of a time period since each "economy" is a "stage" of revelation "in the process of time." The "progressive dispensationalist" Robert L. Saucy appears satisfied with a simpler definition. For him dispensations are simply "various periods of human history brought about through the progressive revelation of God's salvation program." See: Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), p. 13.
6. Dispensationalism Today, p. 27; italics are Ryrie's.
7. Ibid., p. 28; italics are in the original.
8. For example, Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953 ).
9. Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), pp. 9-10.
10. Ibid., p. 11.
11. Dispensationalism Today, pp. 73-74.
12. The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man (Escondido, Cal.: The den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990).
13. Please note that this is not the same as Old Testament and New Testament. The Bible never refers to a division of books such as Old Testament and New Testament. From the Biblical perspective there is more than one covenant, but there is only one covenantal revelation.
14. See Chapter Four above.
15. It is interesting to note that not only has Ryrie given a definition that follows exactly Ray Sutton's five-point outline for the covenant, but he even gives the points in the same order, though he combines one and two.
16. Reformed readers who object to the very use of the word "dispensation" should call to mind the Westminster Confession of Faith VII:6 in which occur the words, "There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations." Rather than throw the word out, Reformed theology should reclaim it by correctly defining it.
17. So-called "progressive dispensationalism" views the relations between the dispensations in a manner very similar to covenant theology. However, because they do not see the growth of the kingdom of God in terms of covenants, they have virtually the same problem in the end as other dispensationalists.
18. Ryrie argues at length for the idea of two new covenants in his The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, pp. 108-125. See also Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), vol. 7, pp. 98f.
19. Saucy refuted the older dispensational notion of two new covenants in his The Church in God's Program (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), pp. 77-82.
20. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 139.
21. An excellent book explaining the growth of the covenant over time is James Jordan's Through New Eyes (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1988).