(Read Part 7)
In this day and age, many evangelicals identify themselves with the covenantalism of Reformed theology because they see much more in Scripture about covenants than they find about dispensations. They sincerely desire to be thoroughly Biblical in their theology. However, they need not adopt the theological conclusions of covenantalism that fail to maintain a clear distinction between Israel and the church. One reason evangelicals have gravitated to the covenantalist approach involves how that approach appears to support continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Continuity is one thing, but turning a theological system into a hermeneutic relying on an over-emphasis upon continuity or discontinuity is yet another thing.
Everyone must beware of inverting theology and hermeneutics. Neither covenantalism nor dispensationalism should be allowed to become a self-fulfilling hermeneutic. Sound exegesis must apply a consistent literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic in order to carry us to our theology—not the reverse. Too often we hear people say, “I interpret the Bible dispensationally” or “I interpret the Scriptures covenantally.” This kind of thinking leads to an anti-exegetical stance and actually allows human systems of theological thought to be imposed upon the text of Scripture. A hyper-Christocentric interpretation that seeks to find Christ in every verse of Scripture—what we used to call eise-Jesus—results from imposing theological presuppositions and positions upon the text. Replacement theology (also called supersessionism), dominion theology, theonomy and reconstructionism all represent variations of what results from either abandoning a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic or imposing one’s theological system upon the Biblical text.
This study of covenants and dispensations barely scratches the surface. It has focused on covenants more than on dispensations—a logical approach considering the Bible’s greater detail regarding and clearer identification of covenants. A more thorough look at Biblical dispensations must be left to a separate study. Meanwhile, I hope that this series of blogs results in dispensationalists taking a closer look at the covenants of the Old Testament and how they contribute to a consistent viewpoint regarding God’s kingdom and redemption programs. Our covenantalist friends have rightly spent more effort on identifying the Biblical covenants and seeking to incorporate them into their theological system. Dispensationalists must do the same. That does not mean that we adopt some covenantalists’ view of a so-called “covenant of works” or even an “Adamic Covenant.”
As with any major Biblical topic, the covenants and dispensations can become one of the means by which a reader tests the accuracy of his or her reading of the Bible. After all, Scripture interprets Scripture. Perhaps we might join with Kreider to speak of this facet of dispensationalism as “an interpretive lens.” If we reach the exegetical conclusion that there are three Persons in the Godhead, we are apt use that interpretive lens to identify a specific Person when the text refers to God. For example, which Person of the Godhead “created the heavens and the earth” in Genesis 1:1? The immediate context offers no clue other than the possible hint that the Person in verse 1 might not be the “Spirit of God” mentioned in verse 2. But, passages like John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-17 indicate that the second Person of the Godhead created everything. Thus, we could identify “God” in Genesis 1:1 with the preincarnate Son of God. Limiting ourselves to Genesis 1, however, we could conclude that “God” is an unidentified Person of the Godhead or all the Godhead together (see the “us/our” references in Gen. 1:26 and 3:22). And so it is when the Scriptures refer to a covenant without an identifying label or to an era of revelation without any specification regarding a dispensation.
We must celebrate the sovereignty of Almighty God as one of the great Biblical themes expressed by Biblical covenants and dispensations. God progressively revealed the covenants and dispensations:
- to demonstrate that history is truly His story;
- to reveal that He has a consistent plan for His people; and
- to remind His people that He always demonstrates His truth and faithfulness—He fulfills His promises (Heb. 6:13-20).
God’s people must pay attention to the theocentric focus of the covenants, observing how they reveal the nature, character and attributes of God. Why? Because God’s people must reflect His character and attributes. Since He “is perfect,” so we must “be perfect” (Matt. 5:48). We must “love one another as” He has loved us (John 15:12). God’s people are to be forgiving, as He is forgiving (Eph. 4:32). We should be faithful as He is faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). As He is holy, we ought to “be holy” (1 Pet 1:16). Indeed, the very “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), which we must exhibit in our lives, consists of the character and attributes of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, our study of the covenants and dispensations should result in us living the way God commands us to live.
Dr. William D. Barrick served as professor of Old Testament and director of Th.D. studies at The Master’s Seminary from 1997 to 2015. He remains active in ministry as a theologian and a linguistics expert whose service, writings and translations have spanned numerous nations and languages. He is also the Old Testament editor of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary from Logos Bible Software. We are most grateful to include him as a contributing author to Dispensational Publishing House.
Copyright © 2016 by Dr. William D. Barrick. Used by permission of the author.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®.
Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 See Michael J. Vlach, Has the Church Replaced Israel?: A Theological Evaluation (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010) for a superb response to replacement theology.
 Glenn R. Kreider, “What Is Dispensationalism?” in Dispensationalism and the History of Redemption: A Developing and Diverse Tradition, ed. by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, 15-46 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), p. 18.