Mar 11, 2012

How Two Covenant Theologians View Dispensationalism

Michael J. VlachBy Dr. Michael J. Vlach
Theological Studies

Twitter Facebook RSS Contact Amazon

If you are interested in issues related to Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, you might want to check out a video from a January 20, 2012 meeting called "Theology Night with Sinclair Ferguson & R.C. Sproul," sponsored by Ligonier Ministries. (This can be found at

Sinclair Ferguson & R.C. Sproul

During a Q & A discussion, R. C. Sproul and Sinclair Ferguson address a question about Dispensationalism and how it differs from Reformed Theology. (They discuss Dispensationalism about two-thirds of the way through the video.)

This video clip allows us to see how two high profile Covenant theologians perceive Dispensationalism, and it can challenge us to think through how discussion between the two camps should occur.

Before I comment on this specific video clip I'd like to discuss another time when I listened to Sproul address Dispensationalism in a Q & A session.

One time last year I was on a treadmill at a local gym listening to a podcast of a Q & A with Sproul. A question was raised about Dispensationalism and Sproul said one of his main problems with Dispensationalism was its insistence on the doctrine of trichotomy—the view that the constitution of man is made of three parts—body, soul, and spirit.

After catching myself from falling off the treadmill I played the clip back to make sure I heard him rightly, and yep, he said it—those rascally dispensationalists are all about pushing trichotomy according to Sproul. Now that was news to me. I personally hold to a dichotomy view in which there are two parts to a person—body and soul/spirit (actually I call my view a 'complex unity' view). I was taught this view by dispensationalists and that is the view I teach my students in my Anthropology section at a dispensational school. I am aware that some dispensationalists have taught the trichotomy view before so I'm not denying that. But trichotomy is not a majority or necessary view of Dispensationalism. I recently asked a well known dispensational theologian about the trichotomy vs. dichotomy view and his answer was something like, "I didn't know anyone even held to trichotomy anymore." My main point is not to get in an argument over trichotomy vs. dichotomy, but I can assure the reader that there are several issues that are at the heart of dispensational theology—but trichotomy is not one of them. I just chuckled at Sproul's comment and haven't thought much about it since.

Then comes this video clip from Ligonier Ministries. Again, the issue of Dispensationalism and how it differs with Reformed Theology comes up and now both Sinclair Ferguson and R.C. Sproul say what they really think of Dispensationalism.

Pulling out an old straw man argument from the past, Ferguson declares that Dispensationalism is about believing in multiple ways of salvation:

There are dispensationalists who seem to believe that God has operated with different ways of salvation throughout biblical history...That would be a bargain basement distinction between Reformed Theology and that kind of Dispensationalism.

So if you are in the audience or listening on the internet and you're not aware of what Dispensationalism teaches, you are left with the impression that a major segment of Dispensationalism teaches multiple ways of salvation while Reformed Theology teach that saints of all ages are saved by faith. The problem with this statement is that Dispensationalists do not teach multiple ways of salvation. Several Covenant theologians have affirmed that Dispensationalists do not teach multiple ways of salvation. Fred H. Klooster is one example:

In light of this significant revision in the New Scofield Reference Bible and the arguments of such dispensationalists as Ryrie and [John] Feinberg, the old charge should be dropped. One must proceed from the acknowledgement that Dispensationalism recognizes a single way of salvation throughout the Scripture. Salvation is now and has always been by grace alone—sola gratia! This agreement is a cause for joy; its acknowledgment should not be made grudgingly. [1]

Anthony Hoekema also declared, "We gratefully acknowledge their [dispensationalists'] insistence that in every age salvation is only through grace, on the basis of the merits of Christ." [2] Daniel Fuller wrote, "In comparing these contemporary statements of dispensationalism with covenant theology, we conclude that there is no longer any substantive difference between the two on the subject of the law and the gospel." [3]

While these men strongly disagreed with Dispensationalism they acknowledged that the "multiple ways of salvation" argument is not valid. Needless to say, Ferguson's use of this argument shows a lack of understanding on this particular issue.

When it was Sproul's turn to address Dispensationalism he took the route of mockery. He told of a time he spoke at Dallas Theological Seminary. Someone in the crowd asked Dr. Sproul why he wasn't a dispensationalist, to which Sproul recounted, "I smiled and said because I think dispensational theology is goofy." Sproul noted that the good-natured audience roared with laughter but then he came back and said, "But I wasn't kidding." He then went on to state that Dispensationalism was "goofy."

Perhaps there's something authentic about this answer but imagine a dispensational theologian before a crowd of respected covenant theologians and students at a bastion of covenant theology being asked what he thought of covenant theology. What if he said, "It's stupid! Go ahead and laugh but I'm serious. Covenant theology is stupid." I hope that would not happen because it's disrespectful, especially in front of a room of respected scholars, and it is not a serious response to a serious question.

Sproul then goes on to mock Dispensationalism even more by saying,

"I don't understand how anybody can really embrace the full substance of historic dispensational theology."

"I think it is goofy and I think it is extremely seriously distorting of historic Christian thought."

So now we move from "goofy" to "seriously distorting of historic Christian thought." Then the "H-word"—"Heresy"—even comes up in the discussion. So much for good and healthy discussion between the two camps.

Sproul also tells of a conversation he had with a dispensational theologian. As Sproul talks to this dispensational theologian on the phone he tells him, "The biggest problem I see is with your doctrine of regeneration." Why is that according to Sproul?

"You teach a doctrine of regeneration that is not regeneration."

"You have the Holy Spirit coming into the life of a convert without changing that person necessarily at all."

What's funny is that Sproul tells the dispensationalist he is talking to that this view is probably not his, and this theologian appeared puzzled when Sproul brought this issue up. Well, if this view is not the view of the dispensationalist he is talking to then how is Sproul so sure that this view of regeneration is inherently a dispensational view? Plus, one has to be struck by the confidence Sproul has to declare that he knows Dispensationalism better than the dispensational theologian he is talking to.

I encourage anyone interested in these matters to read specific descriptions of Dispensationalism from those who have tried to define it like Charles Ryrie, John Feinberg, Craig Blaising, John MacArthur, and myself and see if you can find a specific view of "regeneration" as being at the heart of Dispensationalism. You won't find it. You will find that Dispensationalism is primarily about hermeneutics, the church, and the end times, but you won't find it promoting any specific soteriological view because Dispensationalism is mostly about hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

Sproul also plays the antinomianism card when he says, "You are antinomian through and through." For Sproul, if one says we are not under the Mosaic Law then you are antinomian (anti-law). This must mean, then, that all saints before Moses were antinomian since they did not possess the Mosaic Law. Never mind that Dispensationalists believe the Law of Christ as described in the New Testament is our law for living and that some aspects of the Mosaic Law have been picked up and reapplied in the Law of Christ. That is not good enough for Sproul because if one says he is not specifically under the Mosaic Law then he is antinomian.

What is Sproul's advice for those caught in the web of Dispensationalism? "I think that people who are evangelicals and dispensational at the same time ought to run for their lives from it," he says. Forget serious discussion of the true issues, just run from it as fast as you can.

One ironic point is that earlier in the video clip Sproul bemoans the fact that Reformed Theology is often seriously misrepresented by its opponents especially on the limited atonement issue. He brings up a valid point but then he goes on and misrepresents Dispensationalism. But if opponents of Reformed Theology should represent Reformed Theology fairly why are Covenant Theologians allowed to misrepresent Dispensationalism?

I recommend watching the clip. The value of watching it is in seeing how Dispensationalism is still portrayed by some high profile Covenant theologians. There is still a significant segment within Covenant Theology that believes the way to combat Dispensationalism is through mockery and dismissal. Not all are like this, but this is still the case for some.

Hopefully, this can also serve as a motivation for those on both sides to engage the Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology debate with maturity and giving attention to the main issues like hermeneutics, people of God, kingdom, etc. May language such as "goofy" "heresy," "serious distortion" and similar language be dropped from the discussion along with misrepresentations and straw man arguments. If you are a Dispensationalist, the way to deal with the tactics of those like Sproul is not by responding in kind with emotional rhetoric and straw man arguments but by discussing the real issues with those we openly embrace as true brothers and sisters in the cause of Christ.

[1] "The Biblical Method of Salvation: Continuity," in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John Feinberg. Crossway, 1988, 133.
[2] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future. Eerdmans, 1979, 194.
[3] Daniel Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? Eerdmans, 1980, 45.