Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dispensationalism and Covenant/Reformed Theology

(So I am suffering from a case of writer's block on having anything meaningful to say about 2 Peter or Jude. I wrote this article for a brother at the assembly I go to, Northwest Bible Fellowship in Omaha, Nebraska)

Dispensationalism and Covenant/Reformed Theology

Theologically speaking, christians tend to fall into one of two categories: They either identify with and interpret scripture according to the Dispensational method, or according to the Reformed method. On the surface, one might not be able to tell the difference between a dispensational believer and a reformed believer. There are believers from both camps who love the Lord and have a zeal for the gospel and witnessing to others. Dispensational christians as well as Reformed ones name Christ as their Savior. So what's the difference between the two? Does it matter how you interpret the word of God? And, perhaps most importantly, can believers who adhere to one method of interpretation work alongside believers who adhere to a polar opposite method in proclaiming the gospel? The group of christians I meet with interpret scripture according to the Dispensational view, so in answering these and other questions in this article, I will be promoting Dispensational theology and its method of interpretation of scripture. 

One of the primary differences between Dispensational and Reformed theology is how scripture is to be interpreted. Dispensationalists interpret scripture in the literal sense or the more accurate term, the normal sense. Reformed theologians on the other hand, interpret scripture in the allegorical sense, spiritualizing the text. The result of a normal interpretation versus allegorical can be enormous. First, let us consider the allegorical method. Charles T. Fritsch summarizes the allegorical method thus: "According to this method the literal and historical sense of Scripture is completely ignored, and every word and event is made an allegory of some kind either to escape theological difficulties or to maintian certain peculiar religious views...".1 In regards to the creation account, the traditional Reformed view was a literal, chronological view. However, in recent years, many Reformed pastors and theologians have been interpreting even the creation account in an allegorical way. Now, this does not mean that some truth of an allegorical nature can not be gleaned from the creation account. For in that account we have Adam, a type of Christ being given a bride, Eve, a type of the Church from out of his side. From this perspective, the creation account presents a very beautiful truth about Christ and His Church. But this is only a secondary interpretation. The primary interpretation is that God put Adam into a deep sleep, and formed a woman out of his rib, and this woman would be called Eve. In order for the secondary allegorical interpretation to be true, the primary literal interpretation must be true. If the primary interpretation is not true in its literal sense, then the secondary interpretation can not be true in its allegorical sense. It is very important for all serious students of the Bible to not make an allegorical interpretation the primary interpretation unless scripture dictates otherwise. For example, the wisdom and poetry books of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Job) employ many similes and metaphors. These grammatical devices are allegorical by their very nature, so the primary interpretation ought to be understood in an allegorical context. Although the majority of Reformers do interpret the creation account in its proper literal context as its primary meaning, they are not consistent when it comes to their understanding of passages addressed to Israel. 

All or most Reformed theologians are in agreement about Israel and the Church in that the Church either replaced Israel ( a type of Reformed theology called replacement theology), or that the Church existed in Old Testament times as Israel. The latter view is the more common view, and as such, Reformed theologians disregard Acts 2 as being the start of the Church. Instead, they look in the OT to Genesis 15 where God establishes a covenant with Abraham as being the birth of the Church. The great danger to interpreting the word of God this way is clear: there is no way to test whether the conclusion makes sense. The authority of scripture is removed from itself and placed upon man and his often times fanciful interpretations. Take for example, the verse Isaiah 65:25: "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD." The entire chapter of Isaiah 65 is prophetic of the Millenium yet to come. There is no reason to spiritualize the meaning or try to give this verse some mystical, meaning that is not apparent in the text. Now, consider John Wesley's interpretation of Isaiah 65:25: "The wolf, &c. - God here promises to take off the fierceness of the spirits of his peoples enemies, so that they shall live quietly and peaceably together. And dust - God promises a time of tranquility to his church under the metaphor of serpents eating the dust, their proper meat, Gen_3:14, instead of flying upon men: it signifies such a time, when wicked men shall no more eat up the people of God."2 Here, Wesley applies metaphors to the subjects of the verse, isolating the verse from the rest of scripture thus making it impossible to validate his interpretation.

Now, we will take up the literal, normal method of interpretation. David Dunlap says this of the literal method of interpretation: 
"The literal method of interpretation is often called the historical-grammatical method because it gives to words their normal meaning according to accepted grammatical rules and historical usage. It will be immediately recognized that this tends to lead to simplicity and clarity. In the grammatical sense, we read the Bible the same way as we do any other book. The literal method does not rule out the use of type, allegory, and symbol, but it does not make these the basis for interpretation."3 In other words, the literal method makes room for an allegorical interpretation, or the use of a type, shadow, or illustration, whereas the allegorical method does not make any room whatsoever for a literal method of understanding the text. Even when the literal method applies a metaphor in understanding a passage of Scripture, the meaning of the metaphor is to be taken literally. An example of this would be John 1:29 where John the Baptist cries out: "...Behold the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world." John the Baptist was not referring to an actual, literal lamb-- he was referring to Christ who, like a sacrificial lamb would literally bear the sins of the world. Finally, Scripture itself asserts the plain, normal interpretation for in 2 Peter 1:20: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." 

In both Reformed and Dispensational theology, there is a ultimate goal, or program, of history; A goal God from eternity past designed and planned. With both theological systems the chief end of the program is the glory of God. However, in the Reformed system, God acheives this goal only through the redemption of the elect who He sovereignly chose for salvation from before the foundation of the world ( Note: this belief is not only Reformed but also Calvinistic, which the two share a close relation and we will address that down the road). In Dispensationalism, God acheives His goal of attaining glory for Himself not only through the redemption of repentant sinners, but in many other aspects. Renald Showers writes: "Although the redemption of elect human beings is a very important part of God's purpose for history, God not only has a program for the elect but also a program for the nonelect (Rom. 9:10-23). In addition, God has different programs for nations (Job 12:23; Isa. 14:24-27; Jer. 10:7; Dan. 2:36-45), rulers (Isa. 44:28-45:7; Dan. 4:17), Satan (Jn. 12:31; Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:7-10; 20:1-3), and nature (Mt. 19:28; Acts 3:19-21; Rom. 8:19-22). Since God has many different programs which He is operating during the course of history, all of them must be contributing something to His ultimate purpose for history. Thus, the ultimate goal of history has to be large enough to incorporate all of God's programs, not just one of them."4 Covenant theology is a branch of Reformed theology, so throughout this article the two terms will be used interchangeably. Because Covenant theology places such a large focus on the redemption of the elect, it only sees two, or at most three covenants that God made with mankind throughout history. Dispensationalism with its broader scope, sees eight covenants in all. The covenants that are given according to the Reformed tradition are: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption ( the covenant of redemption is the covenant that most Covenant Theologians differ on). When one follows the literal method of interpretation, these covenants do not manifest themselves so clearly which is why Dispensationalists see eight covenants, all of which can be seen when the text is interpreted clearly and plainly. 

The covenants given by Dispensationalists are as follows: 1.) The Edenic Covenant (Gen. 2:16) conditions the life of the man in innocence. 2.)The Adamic Covenant (Gen. 3:15) conditions the life of fallen man and gives promise of a Redeemer. 3.) The Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9:16) establishes the principle of human government. 4.) The Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:2) founds the nation of Israel and confirms, the Adamic promise of redemption. 5.) The Mosaic Covenant (Ex. 19:5) condemns all men "for all have sinned." 6.) The Palestinian Covenant (Dt. 30:3) secures the final restoration and conversion of Israel. 7.) The Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:16) establishes the perpetuity of the Davidic family and of the Davidic Kingdom over Israel and over the whole earth, to be fulfilled in and by Christ. 8.) The New Covenant (Heb. 8:8) rests upon the sacrifice of Christ and secures the blessedness, under the Abrahamic Covenant of those who believe.5

Of these eight covenants, there are four that are hotly debated amongst Dispensationalists and Reformers. They are the Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New Covenants-- all of which are directly and primarily related to Israel. For the Reformer, these four covenants are conditional and allegorical. The Dispensationalist on the other hand, sees them as unconditional and literal, which makes all the difference in the world. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised Abraham that through his seed, all the nations of the world would be blessed. Now if this promise was conditional, then we Gentiles can forget about receiving any kind of blessing because Abraham and his sons as well as the whole nation of Israel disobeyed God multiple times. If it were allegorical, then it is impossible to reconcile the fact that there are other promises God made with Abraham and his seed that literally came true. If the fulfilled promises and prophecies of scripture have come true in a literal sense, then it proceeds that the unfulfilled promises and prophecies of scripture will come true in a literal sense. 

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