Friday, July 08, 2011

What Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology Have in Common (But Shouldn't)

I want to wrap up the series I started several weeks ago on biblical covenants, rooted initially in Steve Wellum's chapter, "Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants" [PDF], in Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright's Believer's Baptism.

A summary of where we've been so far: Part 1 provided a brief summary of main contours in Covenant Theology. Part 2 focused on the "seed" theme in the Bible, reaching the conclusion that the term is used in four related but distinct ways. Part 3 traced Wellum's argument that Christ fulfills ALL the OT covenants. Part 4 highlighted two of Wellum's conclusions.

Now in Part 5, I want to give a bit more attention to John Reisinger's Abraham's Four Seeds, a book that's been quite helpful to me in holding both Dispensationalism (D) and Covenant Theology (CT) up to the mirror of some pivotal biblical texts. In it, Reisinger examines four biblical usages of the theological term, "seed"—natural, physical, unique (Christ) and "special" natural (the Nation of Israel). (Regardless of your personal convictions, it's worth a read, if for no other reason than that it'll help you look at those texts from outside the comfortable confines of your theological system.) Be aware that he's primarily critiquing the D of Scofield and the CT of the Westminster Confession, so your particular flavor of revised D or CT may not overlap precisely.

Most everyone would agree that D and CT differ strikingly over the matter of continuity in Scripture, related to the covenants and the people of God. D sees less; CT sees more. So you can get a sense of where Reisinger's coming from, here's how he describes that difference:
Dispensationalism drives a wedge between the OT and the NT and never the twain shall meet as specific promise (OT) and identical fulfillment (NT); and Covenant Theology flattens the whole Bible out into one covenant where there is no real and vital distinction between either the Old and New Covenants or Israel and the Church. (p. 19)
But Reisinger also notes a surprising point of similarity between D and CT. In fact, it's a recurring point of his book. (As much as I'm tempted to blog through the whole book, I'm choosing simply to quote the point rather than attempt to develop it. We'll see if I pay for that in the comments . . .) I think you'll see how it largely dovetails with Wellum's arguments:
What we are really saying is this: (1) Every promise that was made to Abraham and his seed is either now fulfilled spiritually in Christ; or will be fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth; or else it ended when the Old Covenant was done away; or there will be, in some cases, a 'double' fulfillment. (2) Every single thing given to a believer 'in Christ' is far better than anything in the natural world, including all of the land of Palestine. Every believer, whether Jew or Gentile, will ultimately be united to Christ and be part of his bride (Rev. 21) and experience the "better things" of Hebrews 11:39, 40.

Both the Dispensationalist and the Covenant Theologian want to bring the promise of Abraham and his seed into the present age in a physical sense via the lineage of their physical children. They both insist that the promise made to Abraham and his seed is an unconditional covenant and is therefore still in effect for physical seeds. The Dispensationalist naturalizes the seed to mean physical Israel, and the Paedobaptist naturalizes the seed to mean the physical children of believers. The Padeobaptist [sic] wants to make the Abrahamic covenant to be a special covenant with believers concerning the salvation of their physical children that is still in effect today. The Dispensationalist wants the same covenant to be a special covenant still in force with Jews concerning the land of Palestine. In the end, the Paedobaptist does exactly the same thing with Abraham's seed as the Dispensationalist! He merely does it for a different purpose. (p. 94)
In the final post of this series, I plan to reproduce a helpful chart that shows how God's single goal is advanced through two different covenants and two distinct nations.


Anonymous said...

Ben, great choice of authors. This isn't even his best book.

You were always more suited for NCT.

Ben said...

James, I'm not sure I know enough of what NCT is to identify with it. I do get the sense that a number of people who may not overtly identify themselves as NCT (Carson, Schreiner, Sailhamer, Moo, Wellum, Hamilton, etc.) are saying similar things—things I'm agreeing with.

For me, it all started while I was teaching through Romans in a Sunday School class back in Watertown, when we dug into Romans 4. (Steve? Nate? Anybody else out there? I just didn't see how the traditional D view could fit that text. And I couldn't find a D source that grappled with the issues (aside from some PDs). As I kept reading the Bible, I bumped into other pivotal texts in Ephesians, Galatians, 1 Peter, and most importantly Hebrews.

Sailhamer was world-rocking. Pound-for-pound, Wellum's chapter was outstanding. Swimming in covenantal waters in DC broadened my understanding. Other little things along the way. But more than anything, it's just been reading the Bible and listening as people have helped me see how the pieces fit together.

Anonymous said...

The thing about NCT is that there is historical confession like the LBCF or a movement of schools like Dallas or Grace as you see with CT and DT. You will however see the theology of NCT throughout the ages. Irenaeus' view of the Christian and law is decidedly not Covenantal. John Bunyan's view wasn't either.

There are certain tenets of NCT that those theologians hold too. So while none of them explicitly say they are NCT, it is probably because it isn't a completely definable position.

I know with certainty that many of those guys are very favorable to NCT.

The great thing about Reisinger is that he used to be Scofield DT and then WCF CT. His critiques of CT are dead on. His critiques of DT are mostly outdated imo, but still well thought out.

Anonymous said...

My first line on the previous post was to say that there is NOT a historical confession or movement schools behind NCT.

An interesting note though, the LBCF2 does contain contradicting language. It is enough that NCTers and CTers debate what was really meant.