Two of the most dominant streams in the river of evangelical theology are Dispensationalism and Covenant (or Reformed) Theology.
Dispensationalism was initially formulated in the late 1800s by Irish preacher John N. Darby, popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and numerous Bible conferences, and is taught in most North American Bible colleges. The best-known Dispensational seminary is Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas. Well-known Dispensationalists include Charles Swindoll, Charles Ryrie, and Kay Arthur. Dispensationalism has gone through many changes such as Hyper (1870s), Revised (1950s), and Progressive (1980s) Dispensationalism.
Covenant theology (CT) is much older and has roots in the writing of Augustine and John Calvin, but was more clearly defined in the British Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and leaders of the Dutch Reformation. It has recently been popularized in the Geneva Study Bible. Well known Reformed/Covenant leaders include R.C. Sproul and J.I. Packer. This system is taught at schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.
There is one recent modification to CT called New Covenant Theology (or NCT) that is a Christian theological system that teaches that the Old Testament Laws have been fulfilled and abrogated or cancelled with Christ’s death, and replaced with the Law of Christ of the New Covenant. It shares similarities and yet is distinct from Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology and could be considered to be a separate theology. NCT attempts to eliminate the perceived weak points of the two. New Covenant theologians, however, understand many of the Old Covenant laws as being re instituted by Christ under the New Covenant. For a more in-depth explanation see the articles New Covenant Theology and What is the Difference Between Covenant Theology, and New Covenant Theology?
These two (three?) systems share many common, orthodox convictions about Biblical prophecy. Both systems believe in the literal, future return of Christ. They both affirm God`s future judgment of the righteous and the wicked. They both believe in the translation of the saints into glory, and in the resurrection of the just, but I can`t embrace any one of them in totality and I`ll conclude this discussion by stating my conclusions based on my research. You can draw your own conclusions.
I believe that dispensations should be viewed as a way to explain how God has shown His people, Israel that Theocracy is the only form of government that He will accept. Although He has allowed them to embrace other forms of government (dispensations), they just don’t work.
The seven dispensations viewed in this light are:
- Innocence or Edenic (Genesis 1–3)
- Conscience or Antediluvian (Genesis 3–8)
- Civil Government (Genesis 9–11)
- Patriarchal or Promise (Genesis 12 to Exodus 19)
- Mosaic or Law (Exodus 20 until the Birth of the Church)
- Grace or Church (Church Age until the Rapture)
- Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 20:4–6)
Regarding the Law and Grace:
New Testament writers refer to the Mosaic Law in its totality (in other words all 613 laws, not only the Ten Commandments). Therefore, when Paul says, “we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:25) he is saying that the Mosaic Law en toto has passed away.
There is still a Law in the New Testament however. Paul says that he is “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21), and he is therefore still responsible to Law. The eternal, unchanging moral law is expressed in both the New and Old Law, but the Old Law doesn’t itself carry over. The Law of Christ is the moral commands given by the writers of the New Testament (Jesus and his apostles). As Moses went to a mountain to get the Law, so Christ went up into a mountain to give the new Law (Mat 5-7; cf. 2 Cor 3).
Salvation by grace through faith was also present in the Old Testament as is confirmed by Heb 11 and Gal 3.
Galatians 3:12-14 But the Law is not of faith; but, “The man who does these things shall live in them.” (13) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone having been hanged on a tree”); (14) so that the blessing of Abraham might be to the nations in Jesus Christ, and that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Regarding the Rapture:
I also believe that the Scriptures contain ample evidence to support a pre-tribulation rapture and a millennial kingdom. Many believe that the concept of a rapture is a relatively new idea, but the rise in belief in the pre-tribulation rapture is often wrongly attributed to a 15-year old Scottish-Irish girl named Margaret McDonald (a follower of Edward Irving), who in 1830 had a vision of the end times which describes a post-tribulation view of the rapture that was first published in 1840. It was published again in 1861.
Some proponents of a preliminary rapture believe the doctrine of amillennialism originated with Alexandrian scholars such as Clement and Origen and later became Catholic dogma through Augustine. Thus the church until then held to premillennial views, which see an impending apocalypse from which the church will be rescued after being raptured by the Lord. This is even extrapolated by some to mean that the early church espoused pre-tribulationism.
Some pre-tribulation proponents maintain that the earliest known extra-Biblical reference to the pre-tribulation rapture is from a 7th-century tract known as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephraem the Syrian, which says, “For all the saints and Elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.” For more information on the scriptural references for a rapture see Analogy of the Jewish wedding .
Regarding the Millennial Kingdom:
I don’t understand how the words of John in Rev. 20:4-5 can be referring anything other than a literal Millennial Kingdom on this earth, “and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. “ And to those that believe that Christ is not currently ruling in Heaven but not on this earth because of passages like Eph. 1:20 and Heb. 12:2, which place Him in Heaven, seated at the right hand of God, I would point out that the faithful are seated with Him in Heaven (Kingdom of Heaven) yet still are on this earth (Kingdom of God) Eph. 2:5-6. Young’s Literal Translation puts it this way: “and did raise us up together, and did seat us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”
And a final thought on the Millennial Kingdom is that if you accept these dispensations as a means of showing Israel through various forms of earthly government that won’t work, and if Satan is bound during this millennium and they can’t say that “the Devil made me do it”, then it would seem that this period may be to show that our natural self can still create problems (e.g. Rom. 7).
If you are presenting the truth then why so many divisions/revisions to the system? Dispensationalism has at least three major divisions/revisions with a number of sub-revisions. I use the term divisions since each has it’s adherents.
Covenant Theology after remaining the same until recently when a number of major 20th-century covenant theologians have departed from the traditional recognition of a Covenant of Works to develop a mono-covenantal scheme subsuming everything under one Covenant of Grace. The focus of all biblical covenants is then on grace and faith.
Many consider New Covenant Theology as a third division/system presenting a middle ground with a biblical basis of understanding.
Even though this ministry embraces Reformed Theology, we are not totally in agreement with Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology or with New Covenant Theology. We believe that Christ is NOW ruling on this earth as well an in Heaven, and that all who have been saved (Old & New Covenant) have been saved by faith through His grace alone. On all of the other issues we can lovingly agree to disagree.