It’s about time.
It’s time that I stop calling myself a dispensationalist; I haven’t believed in the dispensations for years. Without a better title to go by it can be hard to sever that association, but perhaps then it’s also time to give a name to my system of redemptive history.
To any reading this who are not theologically inclined, Dispensationalism is a fancy term describing one approach to understanding or making sense of biblical history. Effectively, a (classic) dispensationalist looks at history as described in the Bible, and segments it into seven separate “dispensations” or eras when God has acted differently within the world. Before the flood of Noah for example, man was allegedly governed primarily by his conscience; after the flood, God instituted human government. Dispensationalists emphasize the differences that they see between one era of history and another; as a result their position is often called a perspective of “discontinuity”.
Dispensationalism has a rival, a perspective called “Covenant Theology” which looks at biblical history through the lens of its many covenants or agreements between God and man. Covenant theology tends to view all of redemptive history as a single story of redemption that is expressed in different ways through the various covenants found in scripture; as a result their perspective tends to be regarded as one of “continuity”.
The debate between these two positions is something that has become increasingly important to me over the years, which is unusual; on the surface it seems like such a minor point. Okay, so one person interprets history one way, and another looks at it differently – who cares? But I’m finding that how one frames redemptive history tends to have a deep and sweeping impact on the rest of his theology. For example, by emphasizing the seeming differences within redemptive history, various dispensationalists have put forward the idea that a person is saved (rescued from God’s wrath) by following the law in one dispensation versus accepting the atoning work of Jesus given in another. This is a very troubling claim to many, and rightly so IMHO; it compromises the effectiveness and/or necessity of gospel. Covenant Theology on the other hand undergirds its own set of doctrines that I would dispute, some of which also touch the purity of the gospel (e.g. kuyperian regeneration). Of course not everyone who holds to these views of redemptive history necessarily arrive at those other bad doctrines; however this does offer us a warning, that if you choose a wrong perspective on redemptive history, it can have a negative impact on other parts of your theology.
The trouble is, I don’t think that either position is correct, or even close to correct for that matter. I’ve believed in both of them at different points in my life, and have since found them both to be lacking in their ability to explain what we find in scripture. After I became a Calvinist in my soteriology (doctrine regarding salvation), I quickly adopted the covenantal view. I liked its simplicity, and how its continuous perspective on history mapped well to my beliefs regarding salvation. However, as I came to know scripture better, I began to see some of the significant problems that Covenant Theology has in defending its Israelogy (understanding of the people of Israel) while remaining true to the plain meaning of scripture. Then, as I became exposed to some of the more balanced flavors of Dispensationalism, I began to understand why some people would choose to believe in such a complicated, discontinuous system.
So I swung the pendulum and became a dispensationalist. And I think that if I had to choose one, at this point in my life I would still rather be called a dispensationalist than a covenant theologian (what do you call someone who believes in C.T.?) The key issue of contention between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology is the relationship between Israel and the Church (are they the same entity with the same destiny, or are they different entities with different purposes in God’s plan of redemption?), and I think that here Dispensationalism shines. I cannot in good conscience commit to a system of theology that overlooks, overrides and rewrites the scriptures that plainly lay out a future and distinct destiny for the nation of Israel – there is simply too much evidence against it. It would be hard for me to kick against the goads of scripture in this matter, even to uphold a system as otherwise attractive as Covenant Theology.
That being said, as I get to know scripture better and better, I find it increasingly difficult to call myself a dispensationalist. I agree with one conclusion of Dispensationalism (that Israel and the Church are distinct), and of course with the hermeneutical commitments that lead them to that conclusion. However I entirely disagree with the system of redemptive history that they use to explain that phenomenon. To call me a dispensationalist because I agree with one dispensational conclusions is akin to saying that because I believe in human responsibility before God, therefore I must be an Arminian.
Dispensationalists, I suspect for the sake of providing a unified front against C.T., have more recently defined themselves in incredibly loose terms. Ryrie stated that the only key ingredients needed to be called a dispensationalist are 1) maintaining a distinction between Israel and the Church, 2) believing in a literal or plain interpretation of scripture, and 3) believing that the underlying purpose of God in the world is the glory of God. In other words you don’t even have to believe in the dispensations in order to be called a dispensationalist; you only have to agree with a few commitments and conclusions.
But how far can you go from the original theological system before you call yourself something else? Pastor Herzer and I were discussing this Sunday – there is a lot of theological baggage that’s associated with Dispensationalism, beliefs and ideas that I don’t agree with. For example, I don’t agree that segmenting history into separate non-overlapping eras is a particularly helpful or correct way of viewing history. Classic Dispensationalism holds e.g. that the dispensation of human government began after the flood, and continued until the time of Abraham, but I don’t find this particularly useful or true. It may very well be true that human government began at that point (though even that’s debatable), but I don’t find it particularly helpful to view it as ending in its influence at the point of the patriarchs. We see the storyline of human government running strong throughout the rest of the biblical history, in the rivalry between Babylon and Jerusalem, Jesus and the Antichrist etc. The entire book of Daniel is dedicated to demonstrating how God works through the governments of the world to fulfill His purposes in all eras, not just the one immediately following the flood. And this is just one of many issues present within the dispensational system of thought.
So it’s time to move on. But move on to what? I certainly can’t go back to Covenant Theology; that has its own offenses. More and more, as I’m developing my understanding of scripture, I’m becoming increasingly unwilling to simply “choose theology off of a menu.” When I first started learning theology, my approach was to choose the viewpoint that I believed best represented scripture, then defend it to the death. But more and more I am understanding that every system of theology has its faults, and it is foolish to defend it in those places where it offends against the Bible. By the same token, most systems of theology have their benefits, and it would be foolish not to learn from them.
So if I don’t like the options that are presented to me on the menu, my only choice then is to go into the kitchen and make something myself. I’ve decided to call my viewpoint “Shadow Covenant Theology” for reasons that I’ll later develop (mostly just ’cause it sounds cool ;-). In particular though, I want to emphasize and recognize the influence that Covenant Theology has had on my way of thinking; without it I would still be a full-blown dispensationalist. I want to identify, reinterpret and integrate the good parts of C.T. into my own theological system while still respecting the difference between Israel and the Church.
“Half Vampire… Half Lycan… but stronger than both!”
— Singe theorizing about the first Hybrid
I have been too hasty I think to discard Covenant Theology wholesale; there is a lot of good and important work that’s been done under the covenantal paradigm, and it would be a shame to lose that by insisting on a Dispensational system. I’m working right now through O. Palmer Robertson’s Christ in the Covenants, and even after the first chapter I had my mind blown. There is good to be gleaned from the Covenantal perspective, so I do want to continually revise my perspective to incorporate those parts of Covenant Theology which mesh well with scripture, yet at the same time remain critical of those areas which don’t, and demonstrate clearly my points of disagreement.
So I’m gonna blog a bit, just a few entries to catalog and sort out my thoughts as they come to me. First up, in my next entry I’ll take a look at Robertson’s definition of a covenant and how it integrates into Shadow Covenant Theology.