by Rev. Jack Brooks
Two of the most dominant streams in the river of evangelical theology are Dispensationalism and Covenant (or Reformed) Theology. Dispensationalism was initially formulated in the late 1800s by Irish preacher John N. Darby, popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and numerous Bible conferences, and is taught in most North American Bible colleges. The best-known Dispensational seminary is Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas. Well-known Dispensationalists include Charles Swindoll, Charles Ryrie, and Kay Arthur. Covenant theology has roots in the writing of Augustine and John Calvin, but was more clearly defined in the British Westminster Confession of Faith and leaders of the Dutch Reformation. It has recently been popularized in the Geneva Study Bible. Well known Reformed/Covenant leaders include R.C. Sproul and J.I. Packer. This system is taught at schools such as Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.
These two systems share many common, orthodox convictions about Biblical prophecy. Both systems believe in the literal, future return of Christ. They both affirm God's future judgment of the righteous and the wicked. They both believe in the translation of the saints into glory, and in the resurrection of the just.
However, Covenant Theology differs greatly from Dispensationalism in certain key areas of prophetic theology. Two important differences are listed below:
(1) Most Reformed thinkers do not believe that the reference to a 1000-year reign of Christ should be taken as a future event (Rev. 20:1-5). They regard this section of Revelation as a symbolic "recapitulation" of Christian church history, with Satan spiritually "bound" through Christ's resurrection, the resurrection of souls being a symbol of new birth, and so on (see Cox' booklet Amillennialism Today, Presbyterian & Reformed Pub.; also L. Berkof's standard Systematic Theology, A. Hoekema's The Bible and the Future). Although this view is often called a-millennialism, this is not quite accurate. The prefix "a" means "no". Covenant writers do believe in a Millennium; but they define it non-physically and non-futuristically. Most Covenant thinkers accept the general idea of a final period of extreme apostasy and divine wrath just prior to Christ's return.
There has recently been a resurgence of post-millennialism in Reformed circles as well. This is the belief that all the glorious O.T. predictions of a Golden Age for Israel will be fulfilled through the Christian Church prior to Christ's return. Post-millennialism is an essential element in the Christian Reconstruction/Theonomy movement.
Some Reformed believers hold to historic pre-millennialism (which could be described as non-dispensational Premillennialism). This could also be called Covenant Premillennialism, and appears to be a minority opinion in Reformed/Presbyterian circles. This viewpoint can be found in several of the professors at Biblical Seminary (Hatfield, PA).
(2) Reformed writers believe that the translation of the saints into glory, the resurrection of the just, (1 Thess. 4:13-18), the return of Christ (Rev. 19:11-16), and the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15) all happen at the same time. (sequentially) I.e., they disagree with the teaching that the Rapture of the Church happens prior to the final tribulation. Most would teach that the Rapture happens at the end of the great tribulation (post-tribulationalism). Christ's return ushers in the final regeneration of the cosmos, with no intervening millennium.
Covenant eschatology is controlled by several principles:
But, underlying all three principles, is a single ruling doctrinal presupposition held by almost all Covenant theologians. That presupposition is that ethnic Israel is entirely and permanently disenfranchised, or cut off from their special relationship with God. If we assume that Israel is forever out of the picture, one must find some new way to fulfill O.T. prophecies (lest we find ourselves saying that many of God's prophecies are unfulfilled, and thus open a gaping hole in our doctrine of Scriptural inspiration). Consequently, the O.T. predictions of a golden Messianic Age for Israel are transferred to the Church. The interpretive device used to justify this transfer is allegory. O.T. prophecies pertaining to Israel are taken as no longer pertaining to Israel in the future. Rather, they allegorically pertain to the Church in the present.
The key presupposition is whether Israel has been entirely disenfranchised. The position of the New Testament is that the Jews have never been completely and permanently cast aside by their covenant God. Paul states in his most absolute language that God has not cast away His foreknown nation, regardless of their disobedience and contrariness (Romans 10:20-21, 11:1-2). God is no more free to cast aside the Jews in toto than He is one of the Christian elect.
God's commitment to Israel in this New Covenant era is illustrated by His salvific preservation of a believing Jewish elect, despite the nation's generally widespread unbelief (11:3-6). He punished individual Jews for their unbelief toward Christ by hardening their hearts (11:7-10). But Israel's national privileges (Rom. 9:1-5) and national vocation are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). Though broken off from the vine of His rich blessing through godless unbelief, God swears that He will again engraft the Jews back into their proper place of benediction if and when they repent (11:17-24). Paul writes this in reference to the unbelieving Jews then persecuting the Christians (11:28). It is impossible for the word "Israel" in this section to be an allegory for "Church" since it is a hardened, rebellious, and condemned "Israel", in contrast to believing Gentiles, of which Paul writes.
In the past traditional Dispensationalism (exemplified by Dr. Lewis S. Chafer) has rendered itself vulnerable to Covenant critique by its one-sided denial of any continuities between Israel and the Church. However, Dispensationalism does not live or die on the assertion of an absolute antithesis between the two bodies. An absolute antithesis cannot be sustained from Scripture. The Christian Church finds her charter in sections of the Abrahamic covenant (see Galatians 3). Israel and the Church are sisters - separated now by the sword of Christ, but one day to be re-united as one (as embodied in the New Jerusalem, the architecture of which features both the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles, Rev. 21:12-14).
Is this topic merely a glass-bead game played by theologians with too much time on their hands? It can become that at times. Theologians are professionals at what they do, and professionals are prone to become so absorbed in the intricacies of their craft the they forget or neglect the practical implications of their findings.
There are some dire consequences for holding to a Covenant view of prophecy.
First, a covenant-theology view of prophecy tends to lead the Church into militant attempts to reconstruct the secular order into a Christian state. The transferal of O.T. predictions of a Kingdom Age from future Israel to the present Church encourages those who hold this view to seek to bring about the Kingdom right now. After all, if the Kingdom is happening right now, in and through the Church despite the absence of the visible Christ, then the Church must be God's agent for bringing in the Kingdom. This will be accomplished through a two-pronged action: evangelism on one hand, and political force on the other.
This is a fools goal. The New Testament speaks of a preserving and ameliorating effect which the Word of God should have upon the social order. The idea that the law of Moses can, will, or should become the rule of law prior to Christ's return is Biblically unfounded. Totally depraved souls have no more ability to surrender to the Law culturally than they can do so soteriologically. Covenant theology's understanding of prophecy invariably leads to the errors of Theonomy/Reconstructionism. It enmeshes the Church into power politics, and leads her to think that God has given her the power of the sword. This is an undesirable regression to "Christian" Europeanism.
Second, a covenant-theology view of prophecy encourages a superficial, double-standard hermeneutic. It is necessary to gloss over the details of prophetic texts in order to sustain Amillennialism. My own substantial exposure to Reformed literature over the years has given me the impression that Reformed writers (with notable exceptions) are strong on philosophy, creeds, and history, but very shallow on ordinary inductive exegesis. The very depths of exegetical oceans may be probed in a commentary on Romans, but prophetic passages such as the latter chapters in Isaiah are handled very lightly and superficially.
Doctrinal generalizations are spun out like web-strands from superficially examined texts. The rules and intensity of exegesis applied to II Corinthians are almost never applied to The Book of Zechariah. I say that the reason for this is that the standard rules for grammatical-historical exegesis, when applied to Old Testamental prophetic literature produces pre-millennialism. Since most Reformed writers have an a priori, creedal, and institutional commitment to Amillennialism, they will not exegetically "permit" a pre-millennial interpretive result to happen.
Third, a covenant-theology view of prophecy leads to an unscriptural view of Satan's current power. On one extreme we see the "power evangelist" literature, which is almost Zoroastrian in the formidable powers it attributes to the Devil. In the Reformed camp we see not a naturalistic world view (the silly, glib slander which the Vineyard and other Third Wavers use to characterize their critics), but a theological underestimation of Satan's contemporary abilities. Covenant theology teaches that Satan is "bound" right now - this is their allegorical interpretation of Rev. 20:1-3. Imagine the implications which that assumption would have upon your views of sanctification. Christian counseling? Missions in pagan nations?
Pre-millennialism is important because of the interpretive approach it signifies, and its interrelatedness with one's doctrine of the Church. Dispensationalism is correct in its belief that God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew.
(Rev. Jack Brooks can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org)