Dr. Willis Newman, Esmeralda Newman, bible-teaching-about.com

Dispensational Vs.
Covenant Theology

QUESTION:

What is the difference between Covenant and Dispensational Theology regarding Biblical prophecy?<br><br>

C from WA

You can spend as much or little money as you want on commentaries. For a two volume set, my favorite is The Bible Knowledge Commentary by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck. They are, however, Dispensational, but fair. So is Wayne House. My own vary favorite commentary is The Expositor's Bible Commentary with Frank Gaebelein as editor. It is 12 volumes. 

My two favorite study Bibles are the Nelson Study Bible, again the editors are House, Radmacher and Allen. The one I use the most is the Ryrie Study Bible. The one I use now I have had since 1986.

Most Evangelical commentaries do not harbor too much on the issues of Covenant vs. Dispensational theology. Calvinists are Covenant, and most Dispensationalists are Calvinists. 

2. Now for the framework on the issues of prophecy – and a personal confession. I am one of those Dispensationalists. Some people are very uneasy about them – mostly Covenant people. There is much confusion about what Dispensationalists believe – and in many cases, with good reason. But, there are broad distinctive differences that identify the two in particular regarding prophecy. 

Unfortunately, I must say there are enough straw men raised by Covenant people against Dispensationalism to build a haystack. I am amazed at what I am supposed to believe. I guess I am a little defensive here, but from my readings and talking to my dear Covenant friends, it seems that their system, when it comes to prophecy, consists primarily on attacking Dispensationalists. You ask them what their system of prophecy (eschatology) is, and you reap a torrent of invectives against Dispensationalism. 

At the same time, some of the utterances and beliefs of Dispensationalism get to be rather outlandish. So, it is important to first ask, “What brand of Dispensationalism do you refer to?” What I briefly explain below is that “brand” taught in such places as Western Baptist Seminary, Multnomah Seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, Talbot Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, and Grace Seminary – among others.

There are several contrasting principles that Covenant and Dispensationalists square off over in the area of prophecy. I mention just a few below. 

First, Dispensationalists believe in a literal hermeneutic (interpretation) for all Scripture, including prophecy. I realize that “literal interpretation” gets dicey at times, but they do hold it as a principle. Most Evangelical non-Dispensationalists use the literal method - except for prophecy, where a great deal of subjective speculation is used.

Second, Dispensationalists believe there is a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. They are two different entities in Gods dealing with humanity. The Church is not “spiritual Israel.”

Third, Dispensationalists believe that God has distinct methods of dealing with or governing humanity at different periods in history - thus, they are called Dispensationalists. The word, “dispensation,” is Latin and is used to translate the Greek oikonomia. The latter refers to the law, arrangement, government, or management of a house hold – to manage, administer, regulate, or plan (Cf. Ephesians 1:10). 

For example, the laws, customs, and social systems of America can be called a dispensation. It is the way we govern ourselves by way of a representative government, modified capitalism, rule of law, democracy, etc. Now, in contrast, an absolute dictatorship where one man rules at the point of a gun has a different dispensation or way of governing their domain. 

So, that brings us back to God and the Bible. God, through history, has used different dispensations for different time periods. This is easy to see. For example, God dealt with Adam & Eve differently than He deals with us now. God’s arrangement with Abraham before the nation of Israel and the Mosaic Laws was different than with Adam and with us now. His arrangement with the nation Israel and the sacrificial system and laws is different than how he governs us during the Church dispensation. Obviously, we don't sacrifice bulls and sheep on stone altars every Sunday (or Saturday). Finally, there is the eternal state. With this brief look, we can identify five separate dispensations.

The Bible records the different dispensations. In interpretation, we must be careful not to apply rules from one dispensation to another.  For example, in the church today, we don’t stone rebellious teenagers or adulteress. And Abraham did not conduct the Lord’s Supper. However, some things do stay the same throughout the dispensations. For example, God has always saved by Grace. 

To sum it up: if you believe God ran things different in the Garden of Eden than He does now, or will in the eternal state, then you are a Dispensationalist. However, I concede, some people who call themselves Dispensationalists have a very vivid imagination, and say things that are somewhat “off the wall,” and clearly not within mainstream Dispensationalism.

A fourth area of difference between the Dispensationalist and Covenant systems is the theme of the Bible. Covenant people tend to emphasize that the main theme as the redemption of humanity – or the elect. Dispensationalists tend to emphasize the main theme as the glory of God.

3. It seems that most of the dust up between the two camps (concerning prophecy) revolves around the future kingdom – or sometimes called the Millennium – or sometimes called the Millennial Kingdom. To shorten things, let me refer to it as the MK. There are huge mounds of details regarding this issue, but let me try to be brief. 

There are three main views: Premillennial (PM), Amillennial (AM), and Postmillennial (PM). Millennial is usually thought of as a block of time (dispensation) representing 1,000 years. The Premillennial view believes that Jesus Christ will come before the MK, and will literally, physically rule the world during that time. Dispensationalists hold this view. The Jews also hold this view. The MK ruler, according to them, will be the Messiah – who Christians say was Jesus. This view was held from the beginning in the Church, but came in disfavor with Augustine. Anti-Semitism by the Western Church also placed PM view into disrepute.  

Amillennial holds that there is no literal, physical MK. In fact, they believe we are in the MK right now. Christ is ruling from heaven, not on earth. They believe millennium does not mean a literal 1,000 years, but just a long time period. Most Covenant people hold this view. They do not take much of the material regarding future prophecy as literal, but spiritualize it. For example, all the plagues of Revelation happened through Church history, and are not reserved for a future date. Eventually, Christ will make His return and the eternal state will come about. 

The Postmillennial view holds that the world will gradually get better and better through the earthly influence of the church, and eventually Christ will come at the end of the MK. The church will become “triumphant” they say. Since that does not seem to be happening, because the world is in a mess and getting worse, this view has fallen out of favor. WWI and WWII sunk this view.

Actually, all three views believe in a Rapture, Tribulation, Anti-Christ, the physical return of Christ, a resurrection, judgment, and an eventual eternal state of heaven and hell. The questions of when, where, and how are the differences. It all gets complicated, doesn’t it?

4. Another area of dispute erupts among the Premillennialists (PM), and that has to do with the Rapture and Tribulation. And, remember, Dispensationalists are PM’s. The Tribulation is a seven year block of time that immediately precedes the MK. The Rapture is when all living Christians will all be taken up from the earth into heaven along with the resurrection of the dead. 

There are several views about what events will happen during the Tribulation, and in what sequence they unfold. Putting the details together regarding those events is where much mockery and ridicule comes against Dispensationalists. The details are sometimes vague and subject to mistakes, different interpretation, and guesswork. 

The three main views are Pre-trib, Mid-trib, and Post-trib. Basically, the views are concerned with the question, “Will the Anti-Christ, Christ, the terrible event, and Rapture appear before, in the middle of, or at the end of the Tribulation?” The final area of dispute is, “Does the Church go through the Tribulation?”

C from Washington, this gives a basic framework of the issues you ask of. Now, let me address more specifically the questions you ask.

Question #1: I am uneasy with how the dispensationalists have become so prominent in the last 20 or so years.

Answer: Dispensationalist concepts have been around for over 2,000 years – though sometimes in a minority position. I think it is better to think of Dispensationalists as Premillennialists. In the last hundred years or so, they have become more visible in America, starting with the Schofield Study Bible and rise of Grace Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary. As a whole system, Dispensationalism is probably best traced to J.N. Darby from Great Britain, and who died in 1882. It is true that because of the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye the view has ballooned in the last 20 years. The view was first popularized in the public mind in America by Hal Lindsey in his “Late Great Planet Earth” written in 1970. 

Truthfully, the theological works of Dispensationalists cannot be discarded as rubbish and foolishness. I speak of men such as John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, John Whitcomb, Leon Wood, John, Paul, and Charles Feinberg, Alva J. McClain, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and a host of others. Their scholarly work is impeccable. 

You used the term term “pre-dispensationalist,” which is not really accurate. What you are referring to is “Premillennial” or “Pre-tribulation” positions.

Question #2: Do these people believe that the anti-Christ comes before the tribulation?

Answer: Some do believe that the Anti-Christ comes before the Tribulation. It is probably better to think of his appearance as right after the start of the Tribulation, which is marked by the Rapture. In this position the worst of the Tribulation happens about ½ of the way through the seven years. The idea is that the Anti-Christ will become a world ruler through peace, then mid-way through the Tribulation, he will demand worship and absolute obedience and unleash a reign of terror on the world against his opponents. Christ returns at the end of the Tribulation to establish His MK.

Question #3: Do they think that all prophecy in the Bible relates to the end times and is happening now, instead of realizing that some of the prophecy is in the context of Biblical times? 

Answer: Maybe some do think that all prophecy refers to the end times, but it is not a correct view. Obviously, the prophecies regarding the first advent of Christ are past. Much prophecy fulfillment occurred in the past – but much does deal with the future. Some estimate that 25% of the Bible deals with prophecy. This is one of the arguments of  Dispensationalists: since prophecy has been literally fulfilled in the past, then prophecy dealing with the future will be literally fulfilled.

Question #4: To summarize, you mention that American Evangelicals are unaware that there are different theologies to choose from and Dispensationalism is not the only one. 

Answer: You are correct that Dispensationalism is not the only Evangelical view. And, it should not be a dividing issue. Covenant and Dispensational theology have an enormous amount of beliefs in common. It is easy to get bogged down in one area of theology, create enemies with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and forget about winning people to Christ and grounding them in the Faith. We are to teach and learn the whole counsel of God (Acts20:27; Matthew 28:20).

Finally, C., you might want to get a copy of my ebook on Revelation from the ebook section of the website. Hopefully, it addresses and clarifies many of the issues of which you speak. 

All the best, and stay in touch.

Dr. Willis Newman

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