What is New Covenant Theology? (Part 3)

This is now the third post in my series on New Covenant (NCT). In the last post I tried to get you oriented to the discussion by introducing the first major competing theological system: Covenant Theology (CT). Today I will be introducing the second: Dispensationalism (DT).

DT was first developed by John Nelson Darby in the middle of the 19th Century, and has been by far the most influential system among American Evangelicals. All forms of DT share some basic distinctives:

1. Progressive Revelation. The idea here is that God has revealed himself and his plan progressively throughout history. Each new stage of history, while connected to what came before and after, is considered a distinct “dispensation” in God’s plan. Though God never changes, the way he deals with humanity is different in each dispensation. Thus, what may have applied to people in one dispensation may not apply to people in another. For example, DTs would unanimously argue that the Mosaic Law applied to Israel under the dispensation of Law, but it does not apply to the Church. These are two different peoples and dispensations.

 2. Literal Interpretation. What makes the DT approach distinctive is their insistence that Old Testament promises must be fulfilled exactly as the original recipients would have understood them. So for example, when God promised Abraham (and his descendants) the land of Canaan as an eternal possession, that promise must stand forever exactly as articulated to it’s original hearers. It cannot be applied, for example, to Christians in the New Covenant. The promise was a specific piece of land  given to a specific people, the Jews. This is the literal interpretation.

 3. Distinction Between Israel and the Church. This distinction flows naturally out of DTs first two commitments. The nations of Israel belongs to a unique dispensation and plays a unique role in God’s eternal plan. He has made specific promises to this nation that must be fulfilled. The Church, likewise, belongs to her own unique dispensation and plays her own unique role in God’s plan. It is hermeneutically irresponsible to take the promises made to the nation of Israel and apply them the the church.

4. Future Restoration of National Israel. This view also flows naturally out of DTs first two commitments. Not only is Israel distinct form the Church in God’s plan. But Israel is still awaiting the fulfillment of specific Old Testament judgments and promises. Specifically, they are awaiting Daniel’s 70th week (Daniel 9:24-27) in which Israel will receive the last bit of God’s Judgment for their disobedience. They are also awaiting the coming of Messiah to conquer their enemies and give them the long awaited promised land.

So that’s Dispensationalism from about 20,000 ft. It is necessarily brief and lacks nuance. But hopefully it gives you the main idea of how this system works. Stay tuned, because over the next several posts I’ll be going deep into the theological system known as New Covenant Theology. And I’ll be comparing it to both CT and DT along the way.

 What do you think about DTs four distinctives? 


  1. Reply
    Scott Allen says

    I appreciate DTs awareness of progressive revelation but I don’t see how the “Literal Interpretation” point (as defined above) is consistent with that. If God has revealed Himself progressively, wouldn’t we want to interpret scripture given the fullness of His revelation? So, while something may have been understood a certain way in it’s place in redemptive history, since God is revealing Himself progressively, and since the NT authors do quite a bit of interpreting of the OT, would be not want to interpret scripture literally the way they did?

    I guess my question is how do they uphold both of these points consistently?

  2. Reply
    Andy Barlow says

    Well, I don’t think DT is consistent at this point. If God is revealing himself and his plan progressively, then we must always let later revelation shed further light on previous revelation. That said, later revelation doesn’t contradict previous revelation or assign to it a meaning it never could have had. Instead, I believe NT authors read the OT contextually and simply filled in further details that have been revealed with the coming of Christ. So while DTs tout a “literal” approach, I don’t think they stay true to their commitment to progressive revelation.

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