04 January 2015

The Alternative to Dispensationalism

One of the oldest and perhaps greatest of theological questions is how do the Old and New Testaments relate to one another? Is there total discontinuity, continuity or some combination of the two?

Rising in the 1800's Dispensationalism emphasized the discontinuity between the Old and the New Testaments and in fact in its original form created several tiers of discontinuity even within the Old Testament. This was a break with past theological models and ways of explaining how the Bible fit and worked together.

Historically there had been a tendency to overemphasize the unity between the Old and New. The whole premise of Christendom and much of what happened with the Church in the Middle Ages rested on this assumption of continuity and emulation of Old Testament patterns.

The Reformed or Calvinistic wing of the 16th century Reformation later reworked some of this theology into what is often called Covenant Theology. The problem with this term is its broadness. There's a wide range of positions and understandings that have operated under the umbrella of Covenant Theology. Different factions have emphasized this teaching in different ways. Covenant Theology attempts to tie the Old and New together in some form of overarching unity... one Bible, one Plan and certainly one God. And yet, also explain how the Old and New administrations differ.

While the term Covenant may sound foreign to some, it shouldn't. The word that is translated as Testament is identical with Covenant. Thus when we speak of Old and New Testaments, we're also speaking of Old and New Covenants.

While we hold to Covenant Theology our understanding of it tends toward discontinuity. There are many Covenant Theologians who would accuse us of having Dispensational tendencies, while most Dispensationalists would not agree with the level of unity that we allow for and accuse us of overemphasizing the continuity with certain aspects of the Old Testament.

Of course the question is... what does the Bible itself teach?

On the one hand Paul makes clear Abraham was saved by faith just as we are and that we in the New Testament are children of Abraham and members of the Commonwealth of Israel and participants in the Covenants of Promise...

And yet on the other hand the gospels speak of the veil of the Temple being rent and Hebrews speaks of the Old Covenant being annulled.

There is both unity and disunity at work and how it works out depends on the particular text one is dealing with.

The New Covenant prophesied in the Old Testament is also closely tied in with the promise of the Kingdom and in the New Testament the Kingdom principle is at the forefront. The emphasis is slightly different but still part of the same general set of ideas... the Covenants pertaining to Christ and realities of the heavenly Kingdom.

Dispensationalism denies the Kingdom as a present reality. For them it is something future, something that takes place after Christ returns and yet falls short of what we would call 'heaven'. For them that comes 'after' the Kingdom.

We contend one of the keys to understanding the Christian life is to understand the spiritual nature of the Kingdom, it inauguration by Christ in the Gospels and its present reality. In addition we understand that 'in Christ' we are already part of that Kingdom, citizens of heaven and that we dwell in both This Age and The Age to Come simultaneously. This affects how we live, our expectations for this age, and this tension, this dual-reality, also plays out in how we understand the Church on Earth... an Eternal body manifested in time and space.

These questions affect how we view the Church's mission in the world, how we understand the nature of the Church, how we view and raise our children, as well as other issues, like how we view our jobs and our lives in this sin-cursed epoch of history.  

We definitely take a stand that has historical precedent but has always represented something of a minority position. That is truer than ever today. Dispensationalism represented something of a pendulum-swing, a reaction to long held errors within Protestantism.

But the pendulum swung too far and compromised the Biblical structure and had led to a large-scale misreading of the Bible.

The Covenants and the Kingdom all fulfilled in Christ are the answer. And it is only in Christ that we find the fulfillment of Old Testament expectation and prophecy. And only then can we rightly understand the hope we possess in looking for His return.