In his series The Drama of Redemption, Dr. R.C. Sproul develops the idea that history is a story being told by God – that the plan of redemption can be usefully viewed as a drama, with actors, conflict, and a story arc etc. I like this analogy (if indeed it is only an analogy), and in this post I’ll use it to highlight an assumption that is central to both dispensational and covenantal views of history, then work to demonstrate how Shadow Covenant Theology takes a different approach to the telling of God’s story.
Both Dispensationalism and C.T. exhibit a view of history that I regard as a flat or linear story arc. To define that term, I’ll turn to the wisdom of the web:
“A Linear plot begins at point A, progresses through events which build towards a climax, and then finally reaches point B. This type of linear plot is also referred to as the Aristotelian plot structure.”
— some random wiki on the web
In other words, both of these viewpoints understand the drama of redemptive history as being comprised of a single plotline that progresses from point A (creation) to point B (judgement/re-creation) by going through a series of developments and/or changes. Dispensationalism and C.T. present very different views on how much continuity exists across those developments and changes, but fundamentally both perspectives hold to a single plotline.
This incidentally is where I believe that Covenant Theology shines. The more I come to understand the Bible, the more convinced I am that there is a compelling, continuous, unified story arc that scripture presents from Genesis to Revelation, and a great deal of that story can be lost when a viewpoint like Dispensationalism places excessive emphasis on the differences between various periods of history. Probably the greatest benefit I receive from Covenant Theology comes from its thorough development of the greater story of redemption.
That being said, I nevertheless believe that Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism share a critical flaw – they both fail to recognize the presence of a significant subplot. Consider the following illustration:
You’ll have to pardon my novice Inkscape-abilities (ow!); I can’t quite get the text in the image to not look fuzzy. Regardless, the point should be clear; both systems progress along a single thread or storyline.
Dispensationalism segments history into different “economies” or periods of time when God is working differently in the world than in other eras. Covenant Theology on the other hand puts forward a single story with a single (redemptive) covenant that appears in different “administrations” of the covenant during various periods of time. Both views recognize that there are constants throughout history (e.g. man has been under the curse since Gen 3), and both views recognize that some things are not constant (e.g. Christians are not presently under the dietary laws). Thus the battle between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology is ultimately a disagreement between two similar viewpoints over how much continuity exists across history. Fundamentally they both have the same linear understanding of scripture.
However, strictly linear plotlines are not the only kind of story that can be told; quite often authors will compose more complex stories with subplots that ultimately lend themselves to the main storyline. As hinted previously, I believe that God the master storyteller has written into His story (ow!) at least one significant subplot, a shadow story that serves as a type or picture of God’s greater story of redemption.
Failing to recognize and account for this subplot of redemptive history will cause a linear system to struggle in its attempt to handle the differences (or similarities) between the main story and the shadow story. Dispensationalism condenses both into one plotline, then focuses on their differences to produce disjointed eras of history. Covenant Theology condenses both into one plotline, then focuses on their similarities at the expense of scripture that defies such constraint.
Shadow Covenant Theology holds the two storylines as being distinct while endeavoring to draw parallels between them. For the moment, there are two critical points in the main story that I want to focus on, namely the beginning and the end. Regardless of our respective positions on this topic, most of us can probably agree that the story of biblical history begins with creation and ends with the judgement and re-creation of the world.
If Shadow Covenant Theology is correct – if there truly is a shadow story that mirrors the greater story of redemption, then it too should exhibit a similar kind of beginning and end, a shadow creation, and a shadow judgement and re-creation.
These two bookends of creation and judgement help us to develop an initial outline of redemptive history under the shadow-covenantal perspective. So before I progress any further, I’ll spend two posts examining these crucial moments in shadow history.