Covenant Theology vs Dispensational Theology: Understanding the Differences
Two main schools of thought for interpreting the Bible are covenant theology and dispensational theology. It’s important for Christians to understand their differences to aid in their faith growth. This article examines the four key points that differentiate them.
Interpretation of the Bible
In Covenant theology, scholars interpret the Bible as a unified whole. As a central theme of God’s covenantal relationship with his people. They assert that every part of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, interconnects and points to the redemptive work of Christ. Covenant theologians affirm that the promises made to Abraham, for instance, find ultimate fulfillment in Christ and his church, as stated in Galatians 3:16.
On the other hand, Dispensational theology divides the Bible into different “dispensations” or periods of time, each with a distinct set of regulations and requirements. Dispensationalists posit that God interacts with humanity in different ways during various periods in history. They maintain that God has a separate plan for Israel and the church, and that the promises made to Israel will be fulfilled in a literal way in the future, according to Romans 11:26.
Understanding of God’s promises
In Covenant theology, believers understand God’s promises as fulfilled in the church, which comprises both Jews and Gentiles. This theological framework asserts that Christ and his church have fulfilled all of God’s promises, including those made to Israel, as depicted in Ephesians 2:14-16. According to this passage, Christ dismantled the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, creating a new, unified humanity.
Covenant theologians argue that Galatians 3:29 establishes the church as the spiritual descendants of Abraham and the true Israel. They believe that through Christ and his church, God fulfilled the promises he made to Abraham, rendering physical Israel no longer God’s chosen people. This perspective emphasizes the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, with promises made in the former ultimately realized in Christ and his church in the latter.
Dispensational theology believes that God has separate promises and plans for Israel and the church. This means that while God’s promises to the church are spiritual in nature, his promises to Israel are physical and earthly (Romans 11:29).
Dispensational theology, in contrast to covenant theology, sees a clear distinction between God’s promises and plans for Israel and the church. According to dispensationalists, God has different purposes and plans for each group. While God’s promises to the church are primarily spiritual in nature, his promises to Israel are more physical and earthly, such as the promise of the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:18-21).
Dispensationalists believe that God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled in a literal way in the future, such as the promise of the Messiah ruling on David’s throne in Jerusalem (Isaiah 9:6-7) during the millennial reign of Christ on earth.
Dispensationalists believe it’s crucial to differentiate between God’s promises to Israel and the church. They argue that failing to make this distinction leads to misinterpretations of the Bible, particularly in eschatology. According to dispensationalists, some have embraced a replacement theology that denies God’s ongoing relationship with the Jewish people by disregarding His separate purposes for Israel and the church.
Dispensational theology emphasizes distinct promises and plans for Israel and the body of Christ. The church’s promises are primarily spiritual, while God’s promises to Israel are more physical and earthly, to be fulfilled during the millennial reign of Christ. This distinction is essential to dispensationalists, enabling a proper interpretation of biblical prophecy and recognizing Israel’s ongoing significance in God’s plan of salvation.
In Covenant theology, believers view the return of Christ and the final judgment as a single event. They believe that God’s plan for the end times centers around the church. As a result, the church will have to endure tribulation and persecution before the return of Christ. This judgment will apply to both believers and non-believers, as stated in 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Revelation 7:14.
On the other hand, Dispensational theology holds a different view on the return of Christ. According to this perspective, it will happen in two stages. The first stage involves a rapture of believers before a seven-year tribulation period. After the tribulation, there will be a millennial reign of Christ on earth. This means that the church will be taken away from the earth before the tribulation (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Moreover, the final judgment will be distinct for believers and non-believers, as noted in Revelation 20:11-15.
Covenant theology sees the law as a unitary whole, revealing God’s character and serving as a guide for ethical living. This means that the law is still relevant for Christians today, even though it has been fulfilled by Christ (Matthew 5:17-18)
Dispensational theology views the law as having different applications in different dispensations, with some aspects of the law being fulfilled by Christ and no longer applicable. This means that the law is not binding on Christians today. (Galatians 3:23-25).
Christians can grow in their faith by actively understanding the differences between covenant theology and dispensational theology. This information can serve as a springboard for deeper exploration into these theological differences, allowing for a thorough understanding of both positions. Only then can one be fully persuaded as to which is right for them. As the Bible says, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
Got Questions: What is Covenant Theology?