Years ago I worked out my view of the whole Dispensationalism/Covanentalism thing. Well, “worked out” is not the best way to put it. I put down a position flag that was somewhat tentative and have not revisited it in some time.
If you are not familiar with this issue, let me attempt to help. There are two theological camps out there called “dispenationalists” and “covanentalists.” While there are many prophetic implications (how you view the end times, millennium, rapture, anti-Christ, etc), the primary issue has to do with how you see the nation of Israel in relation to the church. Are they distinct or one? Is their a future for the nation of Israel? Is there a distinct future for the nation of Israel? Has the Abrahamic covenant been fulfilled, forfeited, or transferred? If fulfilled, is the fulfillment literal or spiritual?
There. Clear as mud?
Let me try again.
Dispensationalist believe that there is still a future for the nation of Israel (the literal descendants of Abraham) due to their understanding that the Abrahamic covenant has yet to be completely fulfilled.
Covanentalists believe that the church has assumed the Abrahamic covenant and is the “spiritual” Israel. In Christ, there is no distinction between true (faithful) Israel and the church.
Though I graduated from the Mecca of Dispenationalism, I am honest enough to admit that both sides have good arguments and good people representing these arguments. Everyone should be able to have a great deal of understanding and empathy as to why each side believes the way they do. If they don’t, then I suspect they have not really studied the issue.
Confusing this even more is all the variations that construct an ever growing spectrum of belief between the two. Dispensationalists come in many varieties (with “Progressive Dispensationalism” holding the scholarly consensus among Dispensationalists these days). So does Covanentalism. As well, there is more to each than a simple side by side comparison. Sometimes they are not alternative parallel rival views about a particular issue, but would be better understood as comparing apples and oranges.
Theologically speaking, it is important for us to understand that this issue should be seen as a secondary issue. In other words, this should certainly not cause anyone to break fellowship. It is a non-cardinal issue that does not have any bearing whatsoever on one’s orthodoxy (much less one’s salvation).
However, being non-essential does not mean that it is non-important. I think it is important for us to wrestle with these things and take them seriously, even if we are unwilling to elevate them in an imbalanced manner.
My purpose with here is to briefly present my position which could be thought of as a mediating position between two extremes. I introduced this in 2002 during the filming of The Theology Program. It is called “Progressive Covanentalism” and represents my tentative flag in the ground concerning the Israel-Church-future thing.
Progressive Covenantalism: God made one covenant of redemption to man that has been progressively fulfilled and understood throughout the ages by way of “installments.” The first “installment” was made to Adam and Even in Eden when God vaguely promised to fix what they broke (protoevangelion; Gen. 3:15). This was a covenant of redemption made by God to man. It was the first promise concerning redemption. All successive covenants are further installments to this covenant, representing extensions of the first, making it progressively more clear how this was going to play out.
Sense this does take from the best of dispensationalism, it is only fitting that I have a chart:
Each covenant extends God’s purpose and blessing from the beginning. While there are “dispensations” (ways of relating to God) that form the historical backdrop to this progress, the one covenant of redemption is the central focus, not the dispensations.
The Edenic Covenant of redemption was extended first in the Abrahamic Covenant in that God’s promises to Abraham provided an avenue through which the covenant of redemption would be accomplished. God promised that Abraham (and by extension his physical descendants) would be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3).
The Mosaic Covenant was an extension of the Abrahamic Covenant. The nation of Israel (Abraham’s decedents) were to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), representing God to the nations. While this Covenant could only be fulfilled in Christ it served multiple purposes in the broader scheme and served as a tutor for God’s people (Gal. 3:24). Christ became the ultimate priest to the nations (Heb. 6:20).
The Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:8-16) progressed even further giving details about the royal line of redemption and restoration. The eternal peace that is promised is a redemption from the toil of the curse (2 Sam. 7:11).
The New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) represents an internalization of the previous for a “matured” or “tutored” people. In the Church, the New Covenant begins to find its fulfillment through the new creation in Christ. This “new creation” is a correction of the fall and therefore a final stage in the fulfillment of the first covenant.
The New Covenant was not simply for Israel, but for Israel as it extended its purpose of representing the people of God into the nations. The church itself is a progressive extension of the covenant made to Israel. Therefore, as far as the covenant goes, the Church is the umbrella of God’s protection and restoration that he used Israel to create. Redemned Israel rests under it along with all the nations of the earth.
The Kingdom Age (or millennium) is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. But, remember, the Abrahamic Covenant is an extension of the Edenic Covenant. Therefore, the millennium is not simply for the nation of Israel, but for all those who are under the umbrella. The Church has assumed the promises of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), but this does not mean that the physical descendants of Abraham are not assumed into the church and destined to become partakers of this kingdom in and with the church. Therefore, there is not a distinct future for the physical descendants of Abraham, but there are promises yet to be fulfilled that require the physical blood of Abraham (the natural branches) to be assumed back into the tree or (as I have put it) the umbrella (Rom. 11:17-26).
In the end, there is only one people of God, one New Covenant, and one heaven. The millennial fulfillment is not simply for Israel, but to all people whom have taken part in the extension of God’s covenant of redemption. There is no eternal distinction between the church and Israel. However, the natural branches must to be grafted back into the olive tree. If this is the case, they are distinct only to the degree that they have yet to be assumed into the church. There is a definite future for the nation of Israel. God will bring Israel into the church which they birthed. The church has not replaced Israel as a nation. They remain united and distinct.
I remain a dispensationalist simply because I continue to see that God is not done with the nation of Israel. However, the dispensations themselves are very secondary. All traditions, technically speaking, believe in dispensations. This is not the issue. Therefore, I drop the term. The covenant of redemption is the issue. It has been progressively revealed throughout Scripture starting in Eden. Therefore, I am a “Progressive Covanentalist.”