|COVENANTS OR DISPENSATIONS?
HIS GLORY REIGNS
Apr 18 2008 08:00AM
God's initiatives in the establishment of covenantal relationships structure redemptive history. His sovereign
interventions provide the essential framework for understanding the great biblical epochs. This perspective has
characterized the present treatment of the biblical materials throughout.
A major alternative for analyzing the structure of biblical history is offered by a school of evangelical thought more
popularly known as "'dispensationalism." Dispensationalism has set itself over against covenant theology as a means for
grasping the architectonic structure of biblical revelation.
As the dispensational perspective is being evaluated, it should not be forgotten that covenant theologians and
dispensationalists stand side by side in affirming the essentials of the Christian faith. Very often these two groups within
Christendom stand alone in opposition to the inroads of modernism, neo-evangelicalism, and emotionalism. Covenant
theologians and dispensationalists should hold in highest regard the scholarly and evangelical productivity of one
another. It may be hoped that continuing interchange may be based on love and respect.
More recently, dispensationalism has tended to minimize the significance of the "dispensations" as characterizing its
distinctive system. Dispensationalists note that "covenant" theologians also make use of "dispensational" terminology.
Yet the use of similar terminology does not involve inevitably agreement in principle. As a matter of fact, the concept of
the dispensations held by the "dispensationalists" sets their perspective on biblical history over against the viewpoint
maintained by the covenant theologian.
Interestingly, the difference of approach in dispensational and covenantal history-structuring manifests itself in two
different systems appearing within dispensationalism itself. If covenant theologians make use of the term "dispensation,"
so also do dispensationalists make frequent use of the term "covenant." As a matter of fact, two alternative systems for
structuring redemptive history function within dispensational thinking itself. One of these systems is "covenantal," and
the other "dispensational."
As interpretive remarks by dispensationalists regarding covenants and dispensations are compared, a significant tension
emerges. It is as though the history of redemption had two structurings. At points these two structurings interrelate
closely with one another. At other times, they vie for prominence. It is not easy to determine which of these systems
actually should be understood in the mind of the dispensationalist himself as the key to understanding the progress of
redemptive history. The questions presses forward: Which structures Scripture - covenants or dispensations?
The present investigation will move through the various epochs of redemptive history by noting the optional perspectives
afforded in covenantal theology and in dispensationalism. Because of the developing nature of dispensational thinking,
more than one description of some epochs will have to be noted. Dispensational theologians have been quite active
during the past few decades in refining their system of biblical analysis. Certainly it would not be fair to treat the
dispensationalist today as though his modes of expression were identical to those which characterize the "old" Schofield
Bible as it first appeared in 1909. Yet at the same time, these early foundations cannot be ignored altogether. For the
earlier dispensational theology continues to provide the basic mode of approach for dispensationalism today.
As this "journey" through the various structurings of the history of redemption progresses, three matters should become
evident. First, it should become clear that some significant refinements have developed in more expressions of the
dispensational perspective. Second, it should become clear that a significant point of tension exists within
dispensationalism itself as it views the covenants and the dispensations as two options for structuring redemptive history.
Third, it should become clear that a basic difference of perspective exists between the structure of redemptive history as
understood by the covenantal theologian and by the dispensationalist.
The Covenant of Creation
Covenant theology understands God's relationship to man at creation from a covenantal perspective. Man's
responsibility as created in God's image to form a culture glorifying to the Lord indicates something of the breadth of
human responsibility established by creation. The whole of the universe was to be brought into subjection to the glory of
God. The ordinance of marriage and the institution of the Sabbath implied that man's obligation to his Maker extended to
every area of human activity. At the same time, a special test of probation with respect to the noneating of the tree of
knowledge of good and evil focused attention on man's specific responsibility to obey the word of the Lord simply
because it was the Lord's word. By the establishment of this all-encompassing relationship, God bound Himself to man
the creature. This relationship established by creation serves as the foundational basis for understanding the whole of
human history as it develops from this point.
The epoch that corresponds to the covenant of creation according to the "old" Scofield Bible is called the dispensation of
"innocency." This dispensation is described as "an absolutely simple test" which ended in the judgment of the expulsion.
This particular dispensation receives very little elaboration in the old Scofield Bible. No explanation is given concerning
the broader responsibilities of man created in God's image. Only the reference to the "simple test" describes the actual
character of this relationship. Such an abbreviated perspective on man's responsibilities as created eventually, must
have a most significant effect on the overall view of the meaning of Christianity.
More recent dispensational thinking on the dispensation of "innocency" may be found in *C.C. Ryrie's Dispensationalism
Today. Ryrie indicates that Adam's responsibilities involved maintaining the garden and not eating the fruit of the tree of
the knowledge of good and evil. He notes man's broader responsibility with respect to the garden, although he does not
elaborate on the significance of this obligation. He also introduces into the discussion a significant feature at this early
stage that characterizes his treatment of the dispensations. He attempts to provide scriptural limitations which bracket
the particular epoch under discussion. In this case he sets the limits of the dispensation of innocency as Genesis 1:28-3:
6. As shall be seen subsequently, this effort to provide the points at which each dispensation begins and ends creates
some troublesome problems for dispensational interpretation.
A much fuller perspective on God's relationship to man at creation is found in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible
with respect to the "covenant" God established with man at creation. The "new" Scofield Bible capsules the substance of
God's original covenant with man:
race; (2) to subdue the earth for man; (3) to have dominion over the animal creation; (4) to care for
the garden and eat its fruits and herbs; and (5) to abstain from eating of one tree, the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, on penalty of death for disobedience.
Except for failing to mention the role of the Sabbath in God's creation ordinances, this description of man's original
relationship to his Creator has much to commend it. It deals quite adequately with man's broader responsibilities, while at
the same time indicating the specific test under which man was placed at creation.
In comparing the dispensational treatment of the first of the "dispensations" with the first of the "covenants," it cannot be
said that these two perspectives actually conflict with one another. However, man's original relationship to God finds a
much fuller treatment under the dispensational analysis of the "Edenic covenant" than under the dispensational analysis
of the "dispensation of innocency."
The Covenant of Redemption
Adam: The Covenant of Commencement
Covenant theology understands the whole of history after man's fall into sin as unifying under the provisions of the
covenant of redemption (or more traditionally, the covenant of grace). Beginning with the first promise to Adam-in-sin
and continuing throughout history to the consummation of the ages, God orders all things in view of His singular purpose
of redeeming a people to Himself. Indeed, significant sub-structures within this great expanse of time must be noted.
The distinction between old covenant and new covenant marks a major structural division within the history of
redemption. Yet even these two great epochs relate integrally to one another as promise and fulfillment, as shadow and
God's initial words to Adam after his fall into sin appropriately may be considered in terms of the commencing of this
covenantal history. In His words to the serpent, to the woman, and to the man the Lord decrees the nature of the
struggle which shall ensue in the cause of bringing man to salvation. In the sweat of man's face, through the pain of
childbirth, by the provision of a singular Champion, God shall achieve for man a thorough-going redemption. This entire
program aims toward the restoration of man to the situation of blessing in which he was created originally. Covenantal
history thus displays the unifying purposes of God in the world.
The Schofield Bible characterizes the period which immediately follows man's fall into sin as the "dispensation of
conscience." According to the "old" Scofield Bible, man under this dispensation "was responsible to do all known good,
to abstain from all known evil, and to approach God through sacrifice."
Perhaps the most obvious problem associated with this description of the state of man immediately after his fall into sin is
the failure to center on God's promise concerning the provision of a Redeemer as described in Genesis 3:15. It is not
man's conscience that comes to the fore in Scripture immediately after the fall. Instead, it is God's grace that promises to
enter the conflict against Satan on behalf of his fallen creature that characterizes the age.
Although not nearly radical enough in its revisions, the "new" Scofield Bible shows appropriate sensitivity to this problem.
The revised description of the "dispensation of conscience" introduces a reference to the first promise of redemption. It
elaborates on the responsibility of man, as described in the "old" Scofield Bible, to approach God through blood sacrifice
by noting that this responsibility is "here instituted in prospect of the finished work of Christ." The note also alters the
description of the final result of the "second testing of man." According to the "old" Scofield Bible, the testing of man by
his conscience resulted in the absolute depravity of man as described in Genesis 6:5. According to the "old" Scofield
Bible, the "result" of this second dispensation is to be found in the promise of redemption as described in Genesis 3:15.
Still further, the "new" Scofield Bible modifies this particular dispensation by revising the perspective on the "end" of this
period testing. The "old" Schofield Bible had declared that this "dispensation of conscience" came to an end in the
judgment of the flood. But the "new" Scofield Bible affirms that man continued in his moral responsibility as dictated by
conscience throughout succeeding ages.
Ryrie's treatment of the "dispensation of conscience" accentuates the problems associated with the "ending" and
"beginning" of the various dispensations. As noted earlier, Ryrie indicated that the scriptural limits for the dispensation of
innocency ran from Genesis 1:28 to Genesis 3:6. He begins the following dispensation, the dispensation of conscience
with Genesis 4:1. It is actually quite amazing to note the manner in which the first promise of the Redeemer as found in
Genesis 3:15 is omitted from its central place as characterizing the state of man in relation to God after his fall in sin. It
would seem quite evident that this omission indicates that the promise of redemption really is not integral to Ryrie's
structuring of history. As a matter of fact, Ryrie elsewhere states that the dispensations "are not stages in the revelation
of the covenant of grace, but are distinguishingly different administrations of God directing the affairs of the world. In his
determination to set the dispensational perspective over against covenantal theology, Ryrie has moved the promise of
redemption to fallen man away from its proper center-stage position.
The tension inherent in the dispensational structuring of history is seen at this point by comparing these notations
concerning the "dispensation of conscience" with notations from the "old" and the "new" Scofield Bibles with respect to
the second or "Adamic covenant." Both reference Bibles describe the Adamic covenant as containing the divine initiative,
which conditions the life of fallen man until the kingdom age. The elements of this covenant include the curse of Satan,
the first promise of a Redeemer, the changed state of the woman, the burdensome character of labor, and the sorrow
and brevity of human life.
The characterization of the state of man after the fall as presented in the dispensational treatment of the "Adamic
covenant" possess a much stronger biblical basis than the description of the same epoch under the rubric of the
"dispensation of conscience." The emphasis of the "covenantal" approach centers squarely on an exegetical treatment
of Genesis 3:15, the very passage passed over by Ryrie. Instead of characterizing the period immediately after the fall
as a time in which man was responsible "to do all known good" and "to abstain from all known evil," a responsible
analysis of the epoch-making words of God respecting His covenantal commitment to redeem men from their sin
appears. It is rather difficult to understand why the dispensationalist would quarrel with the covenant theologian in his
desire to see a single "covenant of redemption" overarching history from God's first promise to Adam to the
consummation of the ages if he himself affirms that the conditions established under the "Adamic covenant" were to
prevail until the arrival of the kingdom age.
Noah: The Covenant of Preservation
Covenantal theology emphasizes the integral relation of the covenant of Noah with God's original covenant of creation.
Man's responsibility under the covenant of Noah to multiply and to replenish the earth can be understood in no other way
than a renewal of original creation mandates. Still further, covenantal theology emphasizes that God's covenant with
Noah must be understood in the context of God's commitment to redeem a people to Himself. If the primary commitment
of the Lord in the covenant with Noah is to preserve the earth, this preservation has its goal of sustaining of the world
until redemption may be achieved. God's grace sovereignly centers on a single family. He saves them from the
destructive judgment of the flood. He seals His gracious relationship to them by the sign of the rainbow. He enters into a
bond with the whole of the created universe, pointing toward the universal offer of the gospel of salvation.
Corresponding to the "covenant with Noah" is the third "dispensation," "called the dispensation of "human government."
The "old" Scofield Bible indicates that man "utterly failed " under conscience, and that the judgment of the flood marked
"the end of the second dispensation and the beginning of the third." The "new" Scofield Bible omits this particular
sentence. Instead, it affirms that although this time-era ended with the flood, "man continued in his moral responsibility
as God added further revelation concerning Himself and His willing succeeding ages.
Under this dispensation of "human government," man failed to rule righteously, but his responsibility for government did
not cease. Instead, this responsibility will continue "until Christ sets up His kingdom." The primary emphasis in both the
"old" and the "new" Scofield Bibles is on the failure of Jewish and Gentile governments to perform as God had desired.
No particular effort is made to relate the ordinances of this epoch either to creation or to God's ongoing program of
The treatment of the "covenant" with Noah in dispensational thinking may be characterized as secularistic rather than
redemptive-historical. Capital punishment is not put in a perspective that sees it as preserving the earth so that God's
purposes of redemption may be accomplished. The eating of animal flesh, the development of government, science, and
art primarily under the sponsorship of the Japhetic line, the confirmation of the order of nature are not tied in with God's
on-going program of redemption. Even the prophetic declaration concerning the servitude of the descendants of
Canaan is presented without any effort to explain its redemptive-historical significance. The only note sounded with
some redemptive overtones relates to Shem's peculiar relation to the Lord. All divine revelation is to come through
Shem, and Christ is to be born a Shemite. But this isolated note hardly has the effect of integrating adequately the
various aspects of the Noahic covenant into the mainstream of redemptive history. This treatment of the Noahic
covenant manifest a secularistic, non-redemptive dimension which characterizes much of the history of dispensational
interpretation of prophecy.
Abraham: the Covenant of Promise
Several difficult problems emerge from an analysis of the treatment of the "dispensation of promise" as found in the "old"
Scofield Bible. On the one hand, this epoch is described as "wholly gracious and unconditional." But the immediately
following sentence indicates that "the descendants of Abraham had but to abide in their own land to inherit every
blessing." In successive sentences, the covenant is declared to be unconditional while at the same time conditioned on
remaining in the land of Palestine. This concentration on the land of Palestine becomes characteristic of the
dispensational treatment of the promises made to Abraham.
It is particularly difficult to appreciate the introduction of a condition that Israel remain in the land in this particular
covenant. As the covenant itself is being made, God declares that because the iniquity of the Canaanites is not yet full,
Israel will have to sojourn in the land of Egypt for 400 years (Genesis 15:13,16). Furthermore, at the point at which
Jacob reluctantly consents to descend into Egypt, the Lord Himself appears and reassures him that his course is right.
He is not to fear to go down into Egypt, for God will go down with him and will surely bring him up again (Genesis 46:3,4).
Another point of tension in the treatment of the "dispensation of promise" by the "old" Scofield Bible has to do with the
relation of this dispensation to the period of law that follows. Scofield says that "the dispensation of promise was ended
when Israel rashly accepted the law," and that "at Sinai they exchanged grace for a law." Such an analysis of the events
of Sinai hardly does justice to the sovereign character of God's covenantal relationships. It is not that Israel "rashly
accepted" the law at Sinai; it is that God in His ordering of the progress of redemption's history instituted a new
The "old" Scofield Bible also reveals a tension between the "dispensation of promise" and the "covenant of promise."
This effort to distinguish between a promise-dispensation and a promise-covenant emphasizes the basic problem in the
dual structuring of redemptive history by dispensationalism. The Abrahamic covenant is described as being everlasting
because it is unconditional, while the Abrahamic dispensation is described as ending at the giving of the law.
The "new" Scofield Bible has eliminated many of these problematic modes of expression as found in the "old" Schofield
Bible. He says: "The promised land was theirs and the blessing was theirs as long as they remained in the land." Now
the false condition of "remaining in the land" is brought forward again as the basis for blessing in the Abrahamic
The dispensational treatment of the covenant with Abraham manifests the inherent problematic of a basic dualism
involved in their total approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Instead of seeing a single purpose of God that unites
His activity throughout the ages, dispensationalism strongly advocates a dual purpose in divine activity. One purpose
relates to the nation of Israel, while the other purpose relates to the church of the New Testament age.
According to the "new" Scofield Bible, "the Abrahamic covenant reveals the sovereign purposes of God to fulfill through
Abraham his program for Israel, and to provide in Christ the Saviour for all who believe." Rather than seeing this
covenant as having a unified goal in bringing salvation ultimately both to Jew and Gentile, the dispensationalist insists
that a distinction be made between God's purpose for Israel as established in the Abrahamic covenant, and God's
purpose for the nations as established in that same covenant. In expounding the particulars of the provisions of the
Abrahamic covenant, the effort is made to interpret particular items either to one or both sides of God's "dual" purpose.
God's promise to make of Abraham a great nation has primary reference to Israel. The promise that Abraham is to be a
blessing finds its fulfillment preeminently in Christ. The indicator that those who curse Abraham will be cursed themselves
serves as a warning against anti-semitism, while the promise that all the families of the earth will be blessed in Abraham
is the great evangelical promise which is fulfilled in Christ.
This distinction between two purposes of God through history may be regarded as the distinctive hallmark of
dispensational teaching. Rather than seeing a unity of purpose in God's plan to redeem a people to be his own,
dispensationalism maintains that two distinctive purposes for God's activity in the world must be distinguished. One of
these purposes relates to ethnic Israel, and the other purpose relates to the Christian church. Ryrie quotes with
approval the summarization of dispensational distinctiveness as expressed by Lewis Sperry Chafer:
related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved which is Judaism; while the
other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is
Dispensationalism would assert vigorously that such a conclusion derives from a consistent literalism in biblical
interpretation. But it would appear that a much more fundamental principle is at work. Actually, the dispensational
distinction between the two purposes of God in history arises from a metaphysical rather than a hermeneutical
presupposition. Notice in the quotation from Chafer just cited that one purpose of God has to do with an earthly people
and earthly objectives, while the other purpose is related to heaven involving heavenly people and heavenly objectives.
Inherent in this distinction is not a "more biblical" consistency of interpretation. Instead, basic to this distinction is a
metaphysical or philosophical dichotomy between the material and the spiritual realms. If this distinction that actually lies
at the root of the difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology. Covenant theology does not see
redemption as related to a more "spiritual" realm than the realm in which the promises of Abraham operated. Because
covenant theology sees redemption from the perspective of creation, no dichotomy exists ultimately between redemption
in the spiritual realm and redemption in the physical realm. The activity of Christ in renewing a people for himself does
not stop with the restoration of "spiritual" relationships. From the very beginning, Christ's goal is the restoration of the
total man in his total creational environment. Nothing less than bodily resurrection in the context of a new heavens and a
new earth where the entire curse of the fall has been removed can satisfy the biblical concept of redemption.
Dispensationalism, however, emphasizes God's activity of setting apart a people for Himself physically as it relates to
Israel and spiritually as it relates to the New Testament people of God. The distinction is indeed one of metaphysics. A
form of Platonism actually permeates the hermeneutical roots of dispensationalism.
God's covenant with Abraham cannot be partitioned so that parts of the covenant relate to ethnic Israel while other parts
relate to God's new covenant people. Instead, partitioning must be done on a temporal rather than a metaphysical
plane. Without question, God did deal distinctively with ethnic Israel under the Abrahamic covenant during the entire
period preceding the coming of Christ. As in the case of all God's institutions under the old covenant, a shadowy
promise anticipated the reality of fulfillment. This shadow-form of God's treatment of Israel partook of the same
limitations of all other Old Testament institutions. As prophetic type of the anticipated reality, God's dealing with Israel as
his elect people could only approximate the meaning of God's real purposes for those who were to be redeemed in Christ.
It must be insisted that the basic distinction involved in God's treatment of his elect people is a temporal rather than a
metaphysical one. The redemption of the church in the present age cannot be spiritualized. Christ's bodily resurrection
anticipates the intention that God has had all along in redemption. Nothing less than the renewal of the whole of
creation, which now waits in anticipation for the resurrection of the sons of God, satisfies the Scripture's expectations of
Dispensationalism partitions the purposes of God, making one purpose relate to the physical, earthly realm, and another
purpose relate to the heavenly, spiritual realm. The whole of the Christian faith cries out against such a distinction. Man
cannot be partitioned in such a manner because he was not created in such a dualistic fashion. Man was created as a
physical/spiritual complex. The only meaningful redemption man can experience is in terms of the renewal of his total
being in the context of his total environment.
For pedagogical purposes, God under the old covenant did indeed foreshadow the ultimate goal of Abraham's
"salvation" in terms of the possession of Palestine. But Scripture itself explicitly indicates that this hope of the patriarch
found its consummate realization only by his firm faith in the resurrection of the body (Hebrews 11:17-19). The old
covenant patriarch, as the father of all who believe, is characterized by Scripture as looking for a "better" country, which
is "heavenly," although not thereby nonphysical (Hebrews 11:14-16).
Moses: the Covenant of Law
From the perspective of covenantal theology, God's dealing with his people under the Mosaic covenant must be
understood as contributing significantly to the advancement of the purposes of redemption. As the law formed Israel into
a covenant people, it brought God's design for redemption to a new stage of realization. Instead of continuing as a
nomadic tribal confederacy, Israel solidified as a distinctive nation, consecrated as God's own priests. Rather than
representing in any sense a step of retrogression, the manifestation of law to God's people must be interpreted in terms
of a significant step in the advancement of redemptive revelation. Although drastically less in its glory when compared to
the brilliance of the new covenant, the Mosaic covenant of law definitely served to advance the purposes of redemption.
Apparently it was felt by dispensationalists that the rather unguarded statements of the "old" Scofield Bible concerning
the "dispensation of law" could not stand. The "new" Scofield Bible no longer states that Israel rashly accepted the law,
and at Sinai exchanged grace for law. Instead, the note on the "dispensation of law" is designed specifically to
counterbalance the common misunderstanding of dispensationalism that accuses their theology of proposing more than
one way of salvation for men. It is stressed that the law "was not given as a way of life...but as a rule of living for people
already in the covenant of Abraham and covered by the blood sacrifice." The law is presented as teaching "the marvel
of God's grace in providing the way of approach to Himself through typical blood sacrifice." In a further note concerning
the giving of the law at Sinai, the "new" Scofield Bible stresses that it is "exceedingly important" to observe that the "law is
not here proposed as a means of salvation but as a means by which Israel, already redeemed as a nation, might through
obedience fulfill her proper destiny."
All these comments indeed are salutary. The concern on the part of the editors of the "new" Scofield Bible to make it
plain that there is only one way of salvation for men must be commended.
Yet it is not apparent that a fully consistent picture emerges even in the more recent dispensational treatment of the
subject of the Mosaic law. In two successive notes under Exodus 19.5, the following comments appear:
the essence of law as a method of divine dealing and the fundamental reason why "the law made
nothing perfect" (Hebrews 7:18-19; Romans 8:3). To Abraham the promise preceded the
requirement; at Sinai the requirement preceded the promise. In the new covenant the Abrahamic
order is followed.
The Christian is not under the conditional Mosaic Covenant of work, the law, but under the
unconditional New Covenant of grace.
Obviously it is true that there is a sense in which the new covenant believer is not "under the law." The external-to-life,
temporary mode of administration of the law has been superseded by the new covenant manifestation of the law written
on the heart. But it is not true that an element of conditionality existed under "law" which is not present under "grace."
The same "ifs" so apparent under the Mosaic administration as they applied to Israel in the wilderness manifest
themselves with even greater portent of judgment in the event of failure under the new covenant (Hebrews 3:7, 14,15; 4:
The problem of the dispensational understanding of the revelation of law in Scripture surfaces rather obviously when
their treatment of the "covenant" of law in distinction from the "dispensation" of law is considered. As a matter of fact,
both the Old and the New Scofield bibles present two covenants associated with the revelation of law to Moses. These
two covenants are radically different in their substance. One of these "covenants" administered through Moses is
conditional in its very essence, and the other is absolutely unconditional, according to dispensationalism.
The "Mosaic covenant" discussed under Exodus 19:5 in the "new" Scofield Bible is said to have been added to the
Abrahamic covenant for a limited time only. The Christian is "not under the conditional Mosaic Covenant of works, the
law, but under the unconditional New Covenant of grace."
But the revelation given to Israel through Moses is presented elsewhere in the Scofield Bibles as establishing a
completely different covenant on a completely different basis. Both the "old" and the "new" Scofield Bibles include
treatments of what is designated as the "Palestinian Covenant." The essence of this covenant is interpreted by
dispensationalism as centering about God's promise to return Israel to their land. Although the threat of dispersion in the
event of disobedience appears in this covenant, the certain conclusion of God's dealing with Israel must be a full
restoration to the land of Palestine. This covenant "secures the final restoration and conversion of Israel."
A basic misreading of the text of Scripture apparently has led to the introduction of this additional covenant in
contradistinction from the Mosaic covenant established at Sinai. The Scofield Bible uses Deuteronomy 30:3 as the
passage of Scripture for introducing this particular covenant. Its provisions are presented as though they were quite
distinctive from the provisions made under the Mosaic covenant of law. The emphasis of this "Palestinian covenant,"
according to dispensationalism, is on the gracious promises of the Lord, comparable to the unconditional promises of the
Abrahamic covenant. The final possession of the land of Palestine by Israel is assured by this covenant. Jesus Christ is
yet to perform "its gracious promises."
Yet the setting of Deuteronomy 30 requires that it be understood as reporting nothing other than a renewal of the Mosaic
covenant of law. The entire book of Deuteronomy presents itself in covenantal form as renewal of the Mosaic covenant
of law. The entire book of Deuteronomy presents itself in covenantal form as a renewal of the bond which God
established originally with Israel at Sinai. Moses assembles Israel in the plains of Moab prior to his departure from them
and renews their covenantal obligations. This covenant-renewal document includes the most terrifying description of the
results that would fall on covenant-breakers (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). The fact that gracious provisions concerning the
restoration of Israel to Palestine are found to be the core of this portion of Scripture apart from any recognition of
potential threats by dispensationalism indicates the basic fallacy in the dispensational distinction between the Abrahamic
covenant of promise and the Mosaic covenant of law. Rather than standing in tension with one another, these two
epochs of biblical revelation complement one another. As grace clearly may be found in the Mosaic covenant of law, so
law clearly may be found in the Abrahamic covenant of promise.
David: The Covenant of the Kingdom
From a covenantal perspective, the establishment of the Davidic covenant in the Old Testament represented a supreme
consummation-point in the history of redemption prior to the actual appearance of Christ himself. David's throne
definitely introduced a new epoch in Old Testament history, while at the same time typically anticipating the messianic
reign of Christ. The localization of God's throne in Jerusalem, and the virtual identification of the Davidic dynasty with the
manifestation of God's lordship in the earth, climaxed Old Testament typical representations of the movement toward the
establishment of a messianic kingdom.
It is rather remarkable that dispensational theology has no "dispensation of the kingdom" corresponding to the reign of
the Davidic line. Because of this absence, it is difficult to determine precisely the relation of the Old Testament version of
the messianic kingdom to the progress of redemption in dispensational thinking.
Could it be that no recognition is given in dispensational thinking to the literal, earthly reign of God in Palestine via the
Davidic kingdom because all such notions have been projected into the future, to be realized only in the millennium?
Under David and Solomon, the land was possessed, the kingdom of God existed on earth, God's throne was centered in
Palestine, and a literal earthly reign of God came into being. In one sense, the essence of that which has been projected
by dispensationalism into a future millennial kingdom already found its realization under the monarchy of Israel in the Old
Testament. This fact should make one pause as he defines the future hope of Israel in very similar terms.
Although there is no dispensational kingdom-age in the Old Testament period, the Scofield Bible does speak of a
"Davidic covenant." This covenant is described as the basis on which the future kingdom of Christ is to be founded.
This domain, which is yet to be given to him, should be understood as a "literal earthly kingdom."
No quarrel may be entered against the insistence that the promises of the Davidic covenant are to be fulfilled in a "literal"
and "earthly" fashion. But the current fulfillment of this promise in the present age indicates that Christ's kingdom cannot
be restricted merely to an earthly domain. All power in heaven and in earth has been given to Jesus Christ, the Son of
David. He reigns in the heavenly Mt. Zion, as well as among the hosts of earth. When he manifests his ultimate victory
over the last great enemy, which is death, his bodily-resurrected citizens shall inhabit "literally" the new heavens and the
new earth in which righteousness shall dwell. "Literal" and "earthly" categories do not provide the proper framework for
crystallizing the distinction between dispensational and covenantal perspectives on the question of the messianic
kingdom promised to David.
Instead, the focal point of disagreement with dispensationalism concerns the question as to whether Christ now has
entered his regal office as descendant of David. Has the kingdom of Christ, the anointed Messiah, been postponed? Or
has the first stage of its actual realization begun?
A reading of the early chapters of the book of Acts indicates that Jesus Christ does indeed now reign in fulfillment of the
promises spoken to David. According to the apostle Peter, it was because David was a prophet and knew that God had
sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne that he looked ahead and spoke of the
resurrection of the anointed king who would succeed him (Acts 2:30). As fulfillment of this prophecy concerning the
seating of one of David's descendants on David's throne, Peter immediately points to Jesus' resurrection and exaltation
to the right hand of God. The culminating evidence that this prophecy concerning David's descendant has reached its
fulfillment, according to Peter, is found in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the very day on which
the apostle currently was preaching. The "anointed one" already must have been enthroned prior to the day of
Pentecost. The "Christ," whose title indicates that his distinctiveness resides in his being "anointed" by God's Holy Spirit,
must have received his regal "anointment" by the day of Pentecost, since he was empowered by this date to pour forth
the same Holy Spirit by which he himself was anointed (Acts 2:32). In concluding his remarks, the apostle Peter declares
that in fulfillment of David's prophecy concerning a greater than David who was to be seated permanently at the right
hand of God, Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father as the anointed king who reigns over the
messianic kingdom. As a result of this exaltation, all the house of Israel should know for certain that God has made
Jesus both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:34-36).
It is difficult to imagine any way in which Peter could have expressed more pointedly that Jesus Christ's current exaltation
fulfilled God's promise to David that his descendant was to reign as the anointed one of Israel. The question cannot be
relegated to one of "literal" or "nonliteral" interpretation. Jesus Christ "literally" is the descendant of David. He sits
"literally" on David's throne, since from both the Old Testament and the New Testament perspectives the "throne of
David" is to be identified with the throne of God. As the figures of David's throne and God's throne merged in the
theocracy of the old covenant, so God's throne and Jesus' position as heir to David's throne seated at God's right hand
merge in the new covenant. Today Jesus reigns "literally" in Jerusalem because the "Jerusalem" of the old covenant
represented the place of God's enthronement, just as the "Jerusalem" of the New covenant represents the place of
God's throne today. Quite obviously, the circumstances of the new covenant excel the circumstances of the old
covenant in every way. David, his throne and his city have achieved a greater significance through the fulfillment
realized by the coming of Christ. But when viewed from a biblical perspective, the "literal" character of this fulfillment
meets and excel every old covenant figuration.
If it is insisted that Christ's throne today actually is in heaven rather than in Palestine, two considerations must be kept in
mind. First of all, David's regal power was not derived from the situation of his throne in a topographical area called
"Palestine." David drew his authority from the interconnection of his throne with the heavenly throne of God. His locality
in Jerusalem simply represented the earthly embodiment of the heavenly rule. Secondly, Christ's present reign at the
right hand of the Father does not limit in any respect his involvement in the land of Palestine or in any other material,
topographical area of the world. As the resurrected Christ clearly indicated to his disciples, all power has been given to
him in heaven and in earth. His present reign cannot be spiritualized into a heavenly realm that does not touch earthly
material borders. To the contrary, his heavenly reign manifests itself in earthly concreteness. Christ's throne "literally"
fulfills the promises made to David while at the same time stretching beyond the proportions which David himself
experienced, in a manner appropriate to the consummative character of the new covenant when compared to the
shadowy form of the old.
The New Covenant: The Covenant of Consummation
The great divide in the history of redemption for covenant theologians distinguishes the old covenant with its prophecies
and shadows from the new covenant with its fulfillments and realities. Each of the successive covenants made with
Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David finds its fulfillment in the new covenant. The Lord's Supper represents the
point of formal inauguration of this new covenant. At this consecrative meal, Christ officially institutes the new age.
Indeed, the provisions of the new covenant shall receive a fuller realization in the age to come. At present the believer
lives in a tension between the promises of God as already having been fulfilled and the same promises as having yet a
richer realization. But it is true nonetheless that the "end of the ages" now has arrived.
The tension inherent in the twofold manner of structuring history within dispensationalism manifests itself once more
when its description of the "new covenant" is compared with its description of the "dispensation of grace." The
"dispensation of grace" stands out quite distinctly as an epoch with a concrete beginning and ending. It begins with the
rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation and ends with the establishment of the millennial kingdom. But the "new
covenant" as treated by dispensationalism has the peculiar characteristic of embracing both the church age of the
present time and the distinctively Jewish millennial kingdom of the future. The new covenant, according to the "new"
Scofield Bible, "secures the personal revelation of the Lord to every believer (in the church age). At the same time it
"secures the perpetuity, future conversion, and blessing of a repentant Israel, with whom the New Covenant will yet be
It is difficult to justify such a neat distinction of application within the provisions of the new covenant. The writer to the
Hebrews, when applying new covenant terminology to the circumstances of the present age, does not eliminate the
designations "house of Israel" and "house of Judah" from his quotation of Jeremiah's prophecy (Hebrews 8:8). According
to the inspired author, the Holy Spirit witnesses "to us" who live today on the basis of our involvement in the "new
covenant" (Hebrews 10:15).
The "old" Scofield Bible is particularly problematic in its formulation regarding the "dispensation of grace." Possibly for
this reason the description of this era receives a rather extensive revision in the "new" Scofield Bible. However, it is
important to be aware of the original formulation of this epoch as found in the "old" Scofield Bible.
The description in the "old" Scofield Bible concerning the "dispensation of grace" declares: "The point of testing is no
longer legal obedience as condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of
salvation." But when at any time in the history of redemption has the point of testing been legal obedience as the
condition of salvation? Never has there been a time since the fall of man into sin in which God proposed legal obedience
as the way of salvation. Always the acceptance or rejection of Christ by faith alone has been the way of man's
In discussing the "dispensation of the church" which corresponds to the "old" Scofield Bible's dispensation of grace, the
"new" Scofield Bible omits any statement which suggests that salvation at one time was dependent on perfect obedience
by sinful men. Instead, the emphasis lies on the distinctive role of the church in this particular period. According to the
"new" Scofield Bible the church is to be "carefully distinguished from both Jews and Gentiles as such," although drawing
its constituency from both. This careful separation of Jew and Gentile as such from the church provides the basis in
dispensationalism for the postponement of the Jewish messianic kingdom until the end of the present age. The rejection
of Christ by the Jewish leadership marks the point at which the kingdom promised to the Jews was postponed. A new day
began from the dispensational perspective with this postponement of the kingdom. The present era, called the
"dispensation of grace" or the "dispensation of the Church," shall continue until the coming millennial age.
No quarrel may be entered against the suggestion that a distinct epoch runs from the time of the Jewish rejection of
Christ to the time of his second coming. But there is a vast distinction between understanding Christ as postponing his
kingdom due to the Jewish rejection of his offer to them, and Christ as establishing his kingdom even in his suffering at
the hands of the Jews. Jesus never merely offered to the Jews, the possibility that he should become king among them.
Instead, he declared that he was a matter of fact king among the Jews. It was not that Israel rejected an offer on the part
of Jesus that he become their King. It was that the Jews rejected their King!
In his rejection, Jesus manifested the true nature of his kingdom. His power would not be exercised through political or
military pressures. In this sense his kingdom was not of this world. Instead, Jesus the King manifested his power
through suffering at the hands of sinners. It was this aspect of his kingship that the Jews of his own day could not
comprehend. Even his disciples could not understand a king who would suffer.
This is precisely the dimension of the kingship of Christ which dispensationalists have failed to comprehend. Their
insistence upon a Jewish millennial kingdom in which Christ subdues the nations by the exercise of political and military
authority hinders them from perceiving the presence of God's kingdom today. Reference to a "mystery form of the
kingdom" only diverts attention from the oneness of Christ's messianic reign.
The last era according to dispensationalism is the "dispensation of the fullness of times" or, in the "new" Scofield Bible,
the "dispensation of the kingdom." Ryrie calls this period the "dispensation of the millennium." This epoch is described
as being identical with the kingdom covenanted to David. During this time, "overt disobedience will be quickly punished."
Rather surprisingly, dispensationalism has no dispensation of the eternal state. Ryrie explains this omission by noting
that dispensational economies are related to the affairs of this world. Since this world will come to an end with the
millennium, there is no need for another dispensation. Rather than having history climax in eternity, Ryrie indicates that
God's entire program culminates not in eternity but in the millennial kingdom. This millennial culmination "is the climax of
history and the great goal of God's program for the ages."
The dispensational satisfaction with pointing toward the millennial kingdom as the culmination of the ages emphasizes
once more the basic tension in their system. Dispensationalism has built its entire approach to biblical interpretation on a
metaphysical dichotomy between the material and the spiritual realms. While the church age centers on a supposed
heavenly, spiritual realm, the millennium culminates the purposes of God in the material realm.
Such an approach clearly limits a person's concept of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in the present age. Under
such a construction, it would be impossible to appropriate the meaning of the reign of Christ in the material realm today.
At the same time, the "spiritualizing" of the eternal state has the effect of minimizing the cosmic character of Christ's
resurrection as the first fruits of all believers. Obviously, the dispensationalist does not deny the bodily resurrection of
Jesus Christ as a tenant of the Christian faith. But it does appear that there has been an inadequate apprehension of
the significance of that resurrection in terms of its potential for the renewal of the totality of the universe in the present
and in the future. Christ's resurrection is not merely a detached hope for the future; it is a reality in the present which
establishes his physical as well as his spiritual reign over the entirety of the universe.
In conclusion, the following problematics may be indicated as inherent in the dispensational understanding of the
structure of redemptive history:
First of all, the dispensational system of biblical interpretation builds on a dichotomy of the purposes of God. God is
presented as having one purpose that is earthly and physical and another that is heavenly and spiritual. Says Ryrie: "If
the dispensational emphasis on the distinctiveness of the Church seems to result in a 'dichotomy,' let it stand as long as
it is a result of literal interpretation." This dichotomy in the purposes of God is metaphysical rather than biblical in origin.
The purposes of God are one. That one purpose is the redemption in body and spirit of those who are united with Christ.
The concept of the postponement of the kingdom of Christ until the millennium by dispensational thinking could explain
the reason that much American fundamentalistic thinking has not comprehended adequately the implications of the
gospel for carrying forward the righteousness of God into every realm of life. If God's kingdom of righteousness has
been postponed until some future date, then the obligation of Christians to manifest the righteousness of the kingdom in
the present age has been weakened considerably.
Secondly, dispensationalism involves a dual structuring of history. Both the covenantal and the dispensational models
are employed to describe the purpose of God throughout the ages. These two structurings quite frequently conflict with
one another. The analysis of the "dispensation of innocency" is quite different from the analysis of the "Edenic
covenant," even though these two epochs coincide. The "dispensation of conscience" does not manifest the same
characters as the "Adamic covenant." Yet these two time periods coincide. Certain "dispensations" receive a rather
secularized treatment, while the "covenants" generally reflect the purposes of God along redemptive lines. The
dispensations of "conscience" and "moral government" do not relate naturally to God's ongoing program of redemption,
although the corresponding covenantal perspective appropriately encourages man's hope of a coming Redeemer.
Thirdly, the dispensational exclusion of the present reign of Christ from the perspective of the Old Testament promise
concerning the Davidic Messiah simply does not conform to the New Testament analysis of the present age. Christ's
resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father provides the basis for understanding the whole of Old
Testament prophecy as it consummates in the suffering and exalted king of Israel. The present age is not a
"parenthesis" unforeseen by the prophets of old. Instead, men today enjoy the privilege of tasting now the realities of
Christ's eternal kingdom.
The question may be asked once more: Which structures Scripture - covenants or dispensations? The dispensationalist
himself ultimately must choose between these two alternatives, since both of them are presented in his own system in
ways that conflict with one another. It should be remembered that the covenants are explicit scriptural indicators of divine
initiatives that structure impositions on the biblical order. In the end it is not human design but divine initiative that
The Christ of the Covenants, by O. Palmer Robertson, Copyright 1980, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing.
Dispensationalism Today, by Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Copyright 1965, Moody Press.
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