Underlying some of the basic differences in the interpretation of the bible and consequently, divisions among believers, are the concepts of Covenantism and Dispensationalism. Covenantism is a theology that puts all of history into the framework of old and new covenants. Covenant can also be translated testament. In other words and while this may be a little oversimplifying this theology is dominated just by the differences between the old and new testaments. The old covenant is the one started with Abraham, is distinguished by works, and includes the law. The new covenant starts with the redemption of Christ, is distinguished by grace where the law is fulfilled and no longer authoritative. Basically, in this system, there are two sets of rules that guided people and their biblical interpretations are based on these. Covenantism was the dominant theology until the 1800â€™s when J. N. Darby promoted the dispensationalist point of view in many areas.i
Dispensationalism divides history into many more periods or â€œadministrations”.
Dispensationalism divides history into distinct eras or “dispensations” in which God deals with man in a distinctive way. (The words “dispensation” and “administration” are synonymous. Where dispensation is used in the bible the word administration can be used.) The dividing doctrine comes with the theological conclusions that dispensationalism derives versus covenantism in issues like infant baptism and when the rapture will occur.
Adding to the confusion about this topic is that there are further divisions within dispensationalism: there is also revised dispensationalism, normative dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism and ultra dispensationalism.
Under Dispensationalism there are many more periods with corresponding sets of rules. Seven is a common number for the number of administration in the bible. The basic question is whether Covenant or Dispensational theology is the correct theology for interpreting the bible. Covenant theology is part of the reasoning used to justify infant baptism and sacraments, while dispensationalists mainly favor adult baptism by immersion and ordinances.
Biblical Basis of Covenantism and Dispensationalism
As usual in dividing doctrines there are no clear cut specifications about the topic. Here are verses that refer to covenants between God and men.
God made a covenant in promising a redeemer:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Gen 3:15
God made a covenant to never flood the earth again:
And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sonsâ€™ wives with thee. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them.
Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.Gen 6:13-21
God made a covenant starting with Abraham that the Jews would be his people:
Then the LORD said unto Moses, Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh: for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land. And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Jehovah was I not known to them. And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Exodus 5:1-5
The sign for the covenant with Abraham was circumcision:
And he gave him the covenant of circumcision: and so Abraham begat Isaac, and circumcised him the eighth day; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat the twelve patriarchs. Acts 7:8
The book of Hebrews clearly states that the first covenant (Abrahamâ€™s) would be replaced with a new covenant:
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
â€œThe time is coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, â€˜Know the Lord,â€™
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.â€
By calling this covenant â€œnew,â€ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.Heb 8:7-13 NIV
Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Heb 13:20
Clearly we have God establishing covenants with his people. Not only do we have covenants in the Bible, we have more than just two. There is the covenant that God will not flood the earth again, and the sign for that is the rainbow. But the two covenants that are used to delineate the interpretation of the Bible are the old and new covenants. The old covenant starts with the promise to Eve that her progeny will include a Redeemer. It includes the promise the covenant to Abraham that his people will be the chosen people. From Abraham’s people the Redeemer will be born. The sign for that covenant is circumcision. The new covenant is talked about in the book of Hebrews where it talks about differences like writing rules on the tables of men’s hearts and that men will know the Lord personally. The new covenant is depicted in Jeremiah:
â€œBehold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people:
and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.â€ Jer 31:31-34
This new covenant focuses on the inward man where Godâ€™s spirit dwells in his people. Using Covenant theology some theologians promote infant baptism as the sign of the new covenant as circumcision was the sign of the old testament.
Just as it is clear that there are covenants in the Bible, it is also clear that there are different dispensations or administrations. What makes them administrations are the different rules for God’s people in each period. We use this terminology all the time in modern government. When a new president is elected in the USA we say there is a new administration because there will be changes of law. The biblical administrations include:
In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve were given instructions which were basically that they could eat of any tree they wanted, except they were to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the original or paradise administration.
After the Garden of Eden these rules were no longer in play, thus there was a new administration. From Adam to Moses there was no law, however, we have records that demonstrate that the principles of things like sacrifices, offerings, tithes were known and honored. The story of Cain and Abel tells us that a moral law, that at the very least, forbade murder, was known. This can be called the Patriarchal administration as the Patriarchs like Abraham and Israel led the people of God at this point.
Under Moses the people of Israel asked for the Law, which required many things that were never required before. There are precise instructions for different kinds of offerings, as well as specific penalties for the specifically enumerated violations of the law. This period is called the Law administration. This is clearly a new set of rules, a new “administration.”
The arrival of Jesus the Christ is the presence of the King on earth. He taught and lived a law of love that is a higher law to the law while still fulfilling the law to the very letter of the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law and redeem mankind which he accomplished by dying for our sins on the cross. This period is the Christ on Earth administration. When Jesus paid the price the requirements of the law; circumcision, dietary requirements, sacrifices, offerings, tithes, were no longer required.
After the crucifixion and Jesus ascent to Heaven marked the advent of a new administration, the Church or Grace administration. The rules change here is huge. All the law requirements are gone. Grace now rules as the guiding principle behind this administration. The word for dispensations or administrations is seen in the Bible in this reference to the grace administration.
If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God. Eph 3:2-10 KJV
As the verses above describe, this is the dispensation (administration) of grace. Itâ€™s unique in several points:
- Its hallmark is grace as compared to the law administration that preceeded it.
- It was hidden from man until it happened. It was a mystery or secret.
- The gentiles became fellow heirs of the promise of Christ.
Again it is clear that there are different rules in play in the grace administration as we see in Romans 6:14: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.”
There are more administrations in the bible as it teaches us that there future periods where there will a millenial kingdom and finally there will be a new heaven and earth
The only conclusion to make logically is that there are both administrations (dispensations) and covenants in the Bible. Since this is the case both must be considered when interpreting.
Still some denominations follow covenant theology while others follow dispensation theology. This is a cause of division within the church.
i. The Meaning Of The Millennium, Robert G. Clouse, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove , Illinois 1977 p.12
(c) 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.