By Dr. Tony Garland
Q. About a year ago you helped me out with the book on Israelology (Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology by Arnold Fruchtenbaum) and I was wondering if you would give me some guidance again. I am starting a personal study on systematic theology and have spent hours trying to figure something out. I am so confused.
What I am trying to understand is this: what is reformed theology and is it the same as covenant theology? Also, where does dispensationalism fit or not fit with reformed?
Could you recommend any articles or books to help me?
A. Your confusion about the various forms of theology is understandable.
Of course, as believers we are not ultimately interested in various forms of theology, but instead: what do the Scriptures teach when interpreted plainly?
However, as we immerse ourselves in the Scriptures, and especially when we sit at the feet of those whom God has raised up to help us in this endeavor (Eph. 4:11), we soon become aware of differences in how the unchanging Word of God is interpreted by different teachers, all of whom seem sincere in their desire to know the Scriptures.
If the Scriptures themselves are unchanging, then why is it that different teachers seem to fall into different “camps” of interpretation? There are numerous factors which contribute to these differences of opinion about what the Scriptures teach on secondary issues, but perhaps the largest influence has to do with how one reads the Scriptures. In particular, are the passages taken plainly at face value like normative communication? Or is some other interpretive lens imposed upon the text. Also: are distinctions which are found within the text accounted for or are they glossed over or worse, "spiritualized" in an attempt to find a deeper meaning or application which differs from that which the original author intended. Another influential factor concerns predispositions and biases which interpreters bring to the text. These predispositions and biases work to prevent the interpreter from accepting the plain meaning of the text - especially where it may differ from already-held ideas or beliefs.
The combination of these factors helps explain why the different theological systems came to be. Moreover, once certain aspects of one’s interpretive view have been established, other aspects of Scriptural teaching tend to follow. Thus, although there are many variations in theological positions, most tend to fall into one of several major categories such as Covenant, Reformed, or Dispensational.
While it is quite impossible to offer up a detailed treatment of the theological systems you've asked about (without misrepresenting aspects), I've attempted to get at the heart of what they denote in the summary which follows.
Reformed Theology developed as a product of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The term "Reformed" is used to distinguish the Calvinistic from the Lutheran and Anabaptist tradition - all of which are Protestant. The Reformed tradition finds its roots in the theology of Ulrich Zwingli, the first reformer in Zurich, and John Calvin of Geneva, who in his biblical commentaries, his pamphlets, but especially in the Institutes of [the] Christian Religion, developed a Protestant theology.
In general, Reformed teachings emphasize more strongly the belief that all Christian teaching and practice must find its origin directly in the Scriptures and should not be based upon tradition. Although Luther was also a Reformer, he proved more reticent to distance Reformation teaching and practice from some aspects of tradition which held sway in Roman Catholicism - although all the Reformers were reacting against it to a great degree. This can be seen in differences in liturgy (Reformed Theology rejecting anything and everything which does not find its basis in Scripture) and in views concerning the Lord’s Supper (Luther’s view being slightly closer to Rome’s than that of the Swiss Reformers). Yet there are other areas where Reformed Theology failed to be fully informed from the Scriptures alone: Reformed Theology distanced itself from the Anabaptists who rejected infant baptism and insisted upon rebaptism of those who were baptized prior to coming to faith (sound Biblically-informed positions).
Over time, Reformed Theology also came to denote distinctive aspects of the Reformation which find expression in the now famous “TULIP” acronym: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints. Thus, Reformed Theology has a very high view of God’s sovereignty in matters of history - especially concerning the election and predestination of those who are saved. Another aspect of Reformed Theology is a strong emphasis on what it sees as a cultural mandate for Christians to live actively in society and work for the transformation of the world and its cultures. Although sound in concept (believers are to be salt and light and oppose and expose works of darkness - Pr. 28:4; Mat. 5:13-16; Eph. 5:11), where this cultural mandate is taken to an extreme it can lead to an over-emphasis on social work and even the denial of Scriptural truth concerning the predicted apostasy of this age and the reality of the coming tribulation (Mat. 24:10-12; 2Th. 2:3; 1Ti. 4:1-3; 2Ti. 3:1) - in effect concluding that Christianity will reform the world rather than the Scriptural truth that the world will ultimately reject Christ ushering in a time of fearful judgment (Isa. 13:12; Jer. 30:7; Dan. 12:1; Mat. 24:21; Mark 13:19; Rev. 6; 7:14; 9:15; etc.). Influenced by this cultural mandate, the outlook of Reformed Theology is generally amillennial (there is no literal 1,000 year kingdom of Christ on earth: Rev. 20:4-7) or postmillennial (Christ returns after an indeterminate golden age where society yields to the reforming influence of Christianity).
Covenant Theology sees the relation of God to mankind as a kind of compact which God established as a reflection of the relationship existing between the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Covenant Theology interprets all of Scriptural truth through the interpretive lens of two or sometimes three covenants. The system was birthed out of its predecessor, Reformed Theology, apparently motivated in part as a means of softening some of the harsher aspects of Calvinistic teaching associated with the Protestant Reformation:
After Calvin's death in 1564, Holland gradually became the center of Calvinistic theological activity. . . . Theological tension was high in Holland following the Synod of Dort (1619) . . . particularly against the teaching of double predestination (the decrees of election and reprobation). It was at this time that Cocceius advanced his theory concerning the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works, in which he soft-pedaled the doctrine of predestination. . . . This teaching, of course, was rejected by the Reformed Church. . . . [Then] Witsiu introduced his idea of a third covenant (later known as the Covenant of Redemption) which concerned God's saving purpose before the foundation of the earth. The Reformed theologians were quick to see the possibility of reconciling the doctrine of the eternal decrees with this new idea set forth by Witsius [in 1695]. Therefore, the Reformed Church did an about face and embraced the theory of the covenant. - Clarence E. Mason, Jr., "Eschatology" (Class notes, Philadelphia College of Bible, Philadelpha, 1970), p. 55 cited in Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy, p. 242.It is important to recognize that Covenant Theology interprets Scripture based upon two or three inferred covenants. These covenants are not explicitly found within the Bible:
Covenant theology holds to two or three theological covenants. They believe there is a Covenant of Works (between God and Adam), a Covenant of Grace (between God and the elect, some say all of fallen humanity), and possibly a Covenant of Redemption (among the Members of the Godhead). None of these are found in the Bible. Concerning the Covenant of Works, Hodge states directly that it “does not rest upon any express declaration of the Scriptures.” - Charles Ray, “Systematic Theology and Premillennialism,” The Conservative Theological Journal, Vol. 8 No. 24, August, 2004, 165-191, p. 168.Notice that these covenants are not expressly taught (or called such) in Scripture. This proves to be an important observation because much of what flows out of Covenant Theology is inferred based upon logical deductions from these postulated covenants. While the logic of deduction may be sound at times, the basis upon which it rests lacks a solid Scriptural foundation. Another aspect of Covenant Theology is its insistence upon glossing over distinctions among the true Biblical covenants1 (e.g., Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.) and artificially merging them into a unifying concept of "The Covenant." This interpretive lens (a single unifying covenant) winds up being force-fit upon the various Biblical covenants which Scripture itself defines:
The Father covenanted to grant the Son to be the Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the Son covenanted to provide redemption for the elect by becoming incarnated in human flesh and dying a substitutionary death for them. According to Covenant Theology, a covenant of works was establishing between the triune God and Adam between creation and the fall of mankind. God required Adam's implicit and perfect obedience. Adam was placed on temporary probation to determine if he would voluntarily subject his will to God's will. God promised eternal life (not natural life) to Adam and his descendants in return for Adam's perfect obedience. But because God appointed Adam to be representative head of the human race, he and his descendants would be penalized with death, “including physical, spiritual, and eternal death,” if he disobeyed God. Covenant Theology also maintains that God established a covenant of grace because Adam broke the covenant of works. Louis Berkhof defined the covenant of grace as “that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience.” Thus God is the first party of the covenant of grace. Covenant theologians claim the second party is either (1) the sinner, (2) the elect, (3) the elect sinner in Christ, or (4) believers and their seed. Some Covenant theologians believe the covenant of grace was established immediately after Adam's fall, while others claim it was not established until God's covenant with Abraham. Once established, it continues throughout time as the unifying principle of history." [emphasis mine] Renald E. Showers, “Covenant Theology: What's in It for Israel?”, Israel My Glory, January/February 2005, 11-13, pp. 11-12.Covenant Theology begins with a reasonable premise: God is a God of covenant and as such His covenant promises are a very important aspect within which theology must be developed. But it goes astray where it emphasizes inferred theological concepts over the plain revelation of God’s Word which contains numerous covenants made with differing parties not all of which can be neatly packaged within the framework of a single promise with the abstract “people of God” - at least not without doing violence to the Biblical covenants.
The sad result of glossing over differences which Scripture reveals concerning the parties, timing, and promises of the various Biblical covenants is the significant distortion of what Scripture teaches on important topics, and especially those informed by the Biblical covenants:
- All the covenants become merely part of "The Covenant" made with the elastic “people of God” which now finds its fulfillment entirely within the Church.
- Literal promises made to the Jews (the physical offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), have either been forfeited as a result of their rejection of Jesus or are reinterpreted as applying to the Church. Thus, for example, the literal Promised Land (Gen. 13:15; 15:18-21; 17:8; Ex. 23:31; Num. 34:2-12; Deu. 1:7; 11:24; 34:1-4; Jos. 1:4; 13:1,7-8; 2Sa. 8:3; 1Ch. 5:9; 1Ch. 18:3; 2Ch. 9:26; Ps. 105:11; Eze. 37:25; Eze. 47:13-23; etc.) is understood as a generic spiritual concept of blessing, possibly denoting our heavenly destination, and the throne of David (2S. 7:16; cf. Mat. 25:31; Luke 1:32-33; Rev. 3:21) is relocated to heaven to be presently occupied by Jesus while having nothing to do with the earthly city of Jerusalem in any age to come. In more extreme forms, this view is known as “Supercessionism” or “Replacement Theology” which, unintentionally or otherwise, facilitates the advance of anti-Semitism within Christianity.
- The concept of national Israel and its special purposes in the plan of God beyond the crucifixion is denied. There is essentially no future for Israel as a nation, except for the individual salvation of Jews who happen to come to faith (Rom. 11:26, but also see Rom. 11:1-2, 29). The recreation of Israel as a political entity is seen as an historic curiosity with little, if any, relevance to Scripture. The concept of a future time of fulfillment for promises made to the nation Israel, including a geopolitical reign of Jesus centered in Jerusalem within the Promised Land is denied.
- The concept of the “body of Christ” being a mystery unique to the New Testament, having been formed in the Book of Acts and excluding all believers prior to the giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is denied (Mat 16:18; 18:17; John 7:39; 14:16; Acts 1:5; 11:15; 15:14; 1Cor. 12:13; Eph 2:15; 3:5-6; Col. 1:26-27). The Church is seen to have begun with Abram (Abraham) or even as far back as Adam and Eve. Thus, the uniqueness of the Church as the body of Christ ministering in His absence consisting only of those baptized by the Spirit is unappreciated and the doctrine of a separate rapture of the bride of Christ is predictably rejected and even ridiculed as unscriptural (1Cor. 15:51-52; 1Th. 4:7). (Many, although not all, Pentecostal congregations embrace Covenant Theology since they also fail to fully appreciate the context of events on the Day of Pentecost associated with the historical coming of the Spirit.)
- The future time of cataclysm and judgment revealed in Scripture must be reinterpreted or otherwise denied since it flies in the face of the cultural mandate that Christianity reform the societies of the world ushering in the return of Christ. Thus, partial Preterism2 (orthodox) and its cousin, full Preterism (heterodox) generally find their basis in Covenant Theology. Both of these views relocate the future tribulation to the past taking the events described as having already transpired (generally in the events of Rome surrounding Nero) and interpret cataclysmic passages as mere hyperbole.
Dispensationalism shares much with Reformed Theology, especially its Protestant belief in the sole source of authority being Scripture alone and placing tradition subservient to Scriptural revelation. Many, but not all dispensationalists would also embrace many aspects of Calvinism (the most frequent exception being the L of TULIP: limited atonement). Yet it is important to understand that although many dispensationalists embrace the (Biblical) Calvinistic emphasis upon the sovereignty of God, this is not a distinguishing element of dispensationalism.
Some of the more important distinguishing aspects of dispensationalism, in my view, are:
- An insistence upon consistently taking the Scriptures at face value. Interpreting passages normally and plainly, while recognizing figures of speech, but without spiritualizing them and while paying attention to the details which are recorded therein. This includes the belief that prophetic passages of Scripture follow the same interpretive rules as non-prophetic passages and that genre is not license for jettisoning normative interpretation.
- Recognizing the historical precedent of the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost to begin a new ministry: baptizing believers into the body of Christ which is the Biblical definition of "the Church" (1Cor. 12:13). Hence, only believers from the Day of Pentecost until our time are participants in the Church. Believers who died prior to Pentecost are not part of the Church, but distinct from it - the body of Christ being instituted on the Day of Pentecost and never having existed in the Old Testament (John 7:38-39).
- Understanding the Biblical use of the term “Israel” as consistently denoting physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and never including any Gentiles, although excluding, in some limited contexts, unfaithful Jews who are not part of the “Israel of God” (the faithful believing remnant among the Jews). Thus the Church and Israel are distinct.
- An emphasis upon the Biblical covenants (as opposed to the inferred covenants of Covenant Theology) as an important key to the proper interpretation of Scripture. The systematization of doctrine across both Old and New Testaments is only viable to the degree these Scriptural covenants are properly understood and held inviolate. Where these covenants apply to different recipients at different times and include varied rules and provisions, dispensationalism allows that God has chosen to interact with different people in ways which vary with time and context. Ignoring these distinctions leads to great confusion and confounds the proper understanding of Scripture. In other words, let the covenants and the historical context speak for themselves. This necessarily leads to recognizing distinctions which are “papered over” by Covenant Theology.
- A belief that promises made by God within various unconditional Biblical covenants will all be fulfilled with the original parties with which they were made. Some of these unconditional promises (e.g., possession of the Promise Land) may be delayed due to disobedience, but the promises themselves will not fail. Nor can they ultimately be transferred away from the original recipients. This is no small thing as it has direct bearing upon the nature of communication and the very character of God.
As can be seen, a succinct comparison between Reformed Theology, Covenant Theology, and Dispensationalism is somewhat difficult to achieve. Also, much of what I've stated above is a broad-brush: there are numerous secondary variations upon the general themes which may be held by individuals who associate themselves with each viewpoint. Nevertheless, any student of the Word who desires to grow in an understanding of Church history or gain a better understanding of factors which differentiate interpreters of the sacred text would do well to become acquainted with these distinctives.
As for myself, I knew nothing of these terms or views. I simply studied the Scriptures. Over time, I became aware of differing interpretations from my own and found out what these differing views were generally called (e.g., Covenant Theology, Reformed Theology, Preterism) and that what I saw Scripture to teach was known as “Dispensationalism.” And so, I “became” a dispensationalist - or rather came to recognize that dispensationalism described those who shared my beliefs about how to read and understand the Scriptures without doing violence to all that they teach.
So we can observe that Reformed and Covenant Theology have a large degree of overlap whereas Dispensationalism differs in important aspects, especially in regard to understanding the Biblical covenants and distinctives among the peoples of God in different ages and contexts. All who come to faith are saved in the same way3, but not all serve the same purpose in God’s plan within history.
Two resources which I can recommend for understanding how and why Dispensationalism differs from Covenant and Reformed Theology are:
- There Really Is a Difference!: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology by Dr. Renald Showers.
- Dispensationalism by Dr. Charles Ryrie.
1. See Introduction to the Biblical Covenants - SpiritandTruth.org (Tony Garland)
2. See Hermeneutics of Preterism - SpiritandTruth.org
3. See Does Dispensationalism Teach Two Ways of Salvation? - The Conservative Theological Journal (March 2003) by Anthony C. Garland