What are the Differences Between Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

June 25, 2020

To this day, I can still remember watching those “rapture” movies in my middle school youth group.  In particular, I remember A Thief in the Night (1972), which scared the pants off of me. It was a bit of a mix between a horror movie and cheesy spy thriller. For the next week I had trouble sleeping, worried that I would wake up and find myself left behind.

As a result, I grew up assuming that the dispensational framework was the only proper way to read the Bible.  But when I got to college, some upperclassmen introduced me to Reformed Theology and a covenantal framework for reading Scripture. It was a refreshingly different perspective than what I had grown up with (and not quite so scary!).

I am guessing my experience is probably pretty typical for many evangelicals in America.  We all struggle to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the host of questions that come along with it: How do we know which OT laws carry over and which do not?  What is the relationship between the church and Israel? Should we interpret prophecy literally or symbolically, or a mix?

And there are two major frameworks for answering these questions: dispensationalism and covenant theology.

Or are there? Anyone who has explored this issue knows that people cannot be divided into just two camps. It’s not that simple.  Instead there are multiple versions of each system spread along a continuum. And trying to distinguish all these gradations can get really complicated. Fast.

Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and ...For these reasons, I am thankful for the new book by Ben Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (Lexham Press, 2020). Merkle is professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (and a former seminary classmate of mine!).

As the title suggests, Merkle frames the debate (and rightly so) as an issue of continuity vs. discontinuity. Generally speaking, dispensationalists push for a lot of discontinuity between old and new covenants (which explains their sharp distinction between the church and Israel), whereas covenant theologians argue for more continuity between old and new covenants (which explains why they see the church as the new/eschatological Israel).

To be clear, everyone has a mix of continuity and discontinuity in their systems. It’s just about the proportion of each.

Given the complexity of the issues, the purpose of the book is to describe each camp, and the various sub-distinctions within that camp, so that the reader (a) understands their own view (this is more needed than you think!), (b) appreciates the views of others (with charity and fairness), (c) recognizes that their view is not perfect, and (d) stays focused on the Scriptures as the ultimate authority.

In order to accomplish these goals, Merkle’s book does not advocate any particular position. Instead, the goal of the book is merely descriptive, laying out the details of each view without choosing a side. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical about this at first (and doubtful that any normal person could suppress their own views while writing such a book).  But I think Merkle has achieved his goal splendidly. As one who knows his views, I thought he was extremely fair and evenhanded.

Of course, one is not obligated to remain neutral when writing theology books—there’s nothing inappropriate about making the case for one’s view (and I know Merkle would agree). But, given the highly polemical and combative nature of most theological discourse, this was a remarkably refreshing read.  The evangelical world could stand to have more books (and authors) like this one.

As for the different views covered in the book, Merkle’s taxonomy includes the following (moving from discontinuity to continuity):

  • Classic dispensationalism
  • Revised dispensationalism
  • Progressive dispensationalism
  • Progressive covenantalism
  • Covenant Theology
  • Christian Reconstructionism (Theonomy)

So, the view with the most discontinuity is classic dispensationalism, with a very hard distinction between church and Israel. And the view with the most continuity is Christian Reconstructionism which even adopts Israel’s civil laws as relevant for today.

When analyzing each view, Merkle covers four key diagnostic questions:

(a) What is the basic hermeneutic?  This section delves into literal vs. symbolic interpretation, use of typology, and how the prophecies of Israel are fulfilled.

(b) What is the relationship between the covenants?  This section covers how people are saved in the old covenant, and how the old covenant laws apply to the new covenant era.

(c) What is the relationship between Israel and the Church?  This is the big one. For each view, Merkle explores whether the church fulfills Israel or is kept separate from Israel (or a mix), and what the future holds for ethnic Israel.

(d) What is the Kingdom of God?  This section explores both the nature of the kingdom, and its timing (Is it here now? Only in the future?  Both?).

In sum, Merkle has written a very helpful, and long overdue book that should be an important tool in the ongoing discussions of covenant theology and dispensationalism. Not only should it be read for the clear, concise summaries it contains of various views, but for the way it models charity and fairness in a theological battleground (eschatology) that has too often produced more heat than light.

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