DISPENSATIONALISM, COVENANT THEOLOGY, and NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY

Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, and New Covenant Theology are the three main theological perspectives that deal with issues of law, gospel, and the intricacies surrounding God's redemptive relationship with humankind. Sometimes it may sound like certain people like to split hairs (so to speak) and have too much time on their hands (which may be true), but it is important to begin to formulate a view of Gods redemptive grace that has been extended to us. Here is a brief overview and a chart showing the differences.
 

Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism is easy and hard to pin down today. It is easy because they break how God structures His relationship to mankind into seven dispensations (called "stewardship arrangements). These seven dispensations have been called trials or tests to see if mankind would or could be faithful to God's bestowed revelation. The typical seven dispensations are as follows:

1.    innocence (before the fall),
2.    conscience (Adam to Noah),
3.    government (Noah to Babel),
4.    promise (Abraham to Moses),
5.    Law (Moses to Christ),
6.    grace (Pentecost to the rapture),
7.    millennium. 

Dispensasionalists hold very strongly to what they see as the literal interpretation of scripture (that there is a literal meaning even behind the figurative passages)...and this is where it gets a little hard to pin down (in how they interpret some of those said passages). There are now a couple different schools of thought in dispensationalism, most notably Progressive Dispensationalism which seeks to bridge the gap with non-dispensationalists.

Classical Dispensationalism holds to a view of two peoples of God (Israel and the church), both with a different destiny. Those of Israel who believe will have their land fully restored (in the millennium), while the church's destiny and inheritance is primarily found in heaven. 
 

Covenant Theology

Covenant theology believes that God has structured His relationship with humanity by covenants rather than dispensations. Covenant is, in its simplest definition, God's word for relationship. In ancient culture there was what known as unilateral covenants and bi-lateral covenants. A bi-lateral covenant is between two parties on equal footing trying to get something from each other (grazing rights, water rights, right of passage), there is a reciprocal exchange. A unilateral covenant is made when there is a more powerful party (in our case God) and lesser party (us). There is nothing God gets out of His covenant with us except a willful, stubborn, and disobedient people. God pledges Himself to us because there is nothing we could bring into this covenant that could repay God for His kindness and grace to us.

In the Scriptures you will read of various covenants God made with His people (Adam and Eve and the promise of Jesus after the fall, Noah's covenant in Genesis 9, Abraham's covenant, the giving of the Law at Sinai, God's covenant with David...and ultimately the New Covenant in Christ). When we understand covenant correctly we know that they are not tests for man, but simply more revelation of God's character; it is why many see not a overwhelming number of individual covenants disjointed throughout time, but one larger overarching covenant of grace.
 
The covenant of grace is one of two fundamental covenants in covenant theology (this are taken from Matt Perman's explanation of John Piper's position on covenant theology).

  1. The covenant of works: This would be instituted in the Garden of Eden and was the promise that perfect obedience would be rewarded with eternal life. Adam was created sinless but with the capability of falling into sin. Had he remained faithful in the time of temptation in the Garden (the "probationary period"), he would have been made incapable of sinning and secured in an eternal and unbreakable right standing with God. But Adam sinned and broke the covenant, and thereby subjected himself and all his descendants to the penalty for covenant-breaking, condemnation.
  2. God in His mercy therefore instituted the "covenant of grace," which is the promise of redemption and eternal life to those who would believe in the (coming) redeemer. The requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life is not done away with by the covenant of grace, but is rather fulfilled by Christ on behalf of His people. All are sinners and no one can meet the condition of perfect obedience by his own performance, so the covenant of grace does not set aside the covenant of works, but rather fulfills it.

 
Remember, Covenant Theology would more emphasize that there is only one covenant, the Covenant of grace. Covenant is about God's promise of salvation (by grace through faith). Matt Perman points out that, "since there is only one promise of salvation...it follows that there is therefore only one covenant of grace. All of the specific redemptive covenants we read of (the Abrahamic, Mosaic, etc.) are various and culminating expressions of the covenant of grace."
 

New Covenant Theology

You may be wondering what other differences there could be in regard to Covenant Theology, the answer is that we are men and men like to create differences, so we get New Covenant Theology. The main difference between Covenant Theology (CT) and New Covenant Theology (NCT) is how it looks at the Law given through Moses. CT would see three distinctions in the type of laws given to Moses in the Torah: Magisterial Laws (God being Israel's King and how they were to function as such...these are called civil laws), temple laws (or ceremonial laws...laws given to govern the temple and sacrifices), and moral laws (like the 10 commandments). CT theology argues that Magisterial and Temple laws were fulfilled in Christ, but we are still bound by the moral law. NCT theology disagrees with this division of the Mosaic Law and believes you must take it as a whole and not split it up. NCT believes that the ENTIRE Mosaic law is not binding on believers and the whole thing has been set aside in light of Christ.
 
This does not mean that NCT believes that there is no higher divine law, they argue that we are now under the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Matt Perman writes, "NCT makes a distinction between the eternal moral law of God and the code in which God expresses that law to us. The Mosaic Law is an expression of God's eternal moral law as a particular code which also contains positive regulations pertinent to the code's particular temporal purpose, and therefore the cancellation of the Mosaic Law does not mean that the eternal moral law is itself canceled. Rather, upon canceling the Mosaic Law, God gave us a different expression of his eternal moral law--namely, the Law of Christ, consisting in the moral instructions of Christ's teaching and the New Testament."
 
NCT would push people to look at Christ, the author and perfector of our faith, and not Moses. The law of Moses pointed to Jesus and is useful in as much as that is where it leads us. The supporters of NCT will argue its simplicity, it solves the problems of trying to figure out which laws of Moses were magisterial, sacrificial, and moral and simply places us under the headship of Christ. 
 

Element's position

It is difficult to place Element solely in one position, not because we don't want to be pinned down or state our position, but there are true things stated in each of these views (more in CT and NCT than dispensationism). There are wonderful theologians and authors from all of these tribes who are doing wonderful things in the name of Jesus today. In regard to Mosiac law we fall under the heading of CT, but all of Element's views do not fit solely in that category (as an example, we would agree with NCT with its focus on the "law of Christ" superseding everything). In the end, we long to fall into the category of the Bible…and that alone.

 

Dispensational

Covenant Theology

New Covenant Theology

May be Arminian or modified Calvinist. Almost never five-point Calvinist Usually those from a Reformed perspective, though there are exceptions. Same as CT
Stresses 'literal' interpretation of the Bible Accepts both literal and figurative (spiritual) interpretation of the Bible Same as CT
Usually does not accept the idea of the 'Analogy of Faith.' Almost always accept the idea of the 'Analogy of Faith.' (Scriptures should interpret scriptures). Same as CT
'Israel' always means only the literal, physical descendants of Jacob. ‘Israel’ may mean either literal, physical descendants of Jacob or the figurative, spiritual Israel, depending on context. Same as CT
'Israel of God' in Gal. 6:16 means physical Israel alone. 'Israel of God' in Gal. 6:16 means spiritual Israel, parallel to Gal. 3:29; Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6; Phil. 3:3. Same as CT
God has 2 peoples with 2 separate destinies: Israel (earthly) and the Church (heavenly). God always had only one people , the Church gradually developed through the ages, in accordance with an Covenant worked out in etrnity past between the "Three Persons of the Godhead." In OT, believers are called simply "the elect of Israel", not the Church. NCT doesn't recognize a Church in the OT, such as in the NT. They use Matt 16:18 where Jesus said that he will build His Church. "There is but one people of God of whom natural Israel was the typical foreshadowing. So, the Church is the "New Israel."
The Church was born at Pentecost The Church* began in the OT (Acts 7:38) and reached fulfillment in the NT.
There is an unfortunate tendency to translated the word "ecclesia" with the word church, when it can very well be translated "assembly", which would make more sense in the OT version of it.
Same as Dispensationalism.
The Church was not prophesied as such in the OT but was a "mystery", hidden until the NT There are many OT prophecies of the NT Church. Same as CT
All OT prophecies for 'Israel' are for the physical nation of Israel, not the Church. Some OT prophecies are for national Israel, others for spiritual Israel. Same as CT
God's main purpose in history is national physical Israel. God's main purpose* in history is Christ and secondarily the Church.
God's main purpose is His own glory, Christ included because He is the glory of God, and then the church
Same as Covenant Theology with one exception. NCT sees the saints of the OT as being added to the church after it's built.
The Church is a parenthesis in God's program for the ages. The Church is the culmination of God's saving purpose for the ages. Same as CT
The main heir to Abraham's covenant was Isaac and literal Israel. The main heir to Abraham's covenant was Christ, the Seed, and spiritual Israel which is "in Christ". Same as CT
There was no eternal Covenant of Redemption within the Trinity, to effect election. The eternal Covenant of Redemption was within the Trinity to effect election
  • Same as Dispensationalism but there was an eternal Decree or Purpose of Redemption within the Trinity to effect election.
Most believe there was no Covenant of Works with Adam in the Garden of Eden. God made a conditional Covenant of Works with Adam as representative for all his posterity. Same as Dispensationalism. But agree with CT on Adam as representative for all his posterity.
Most believe there was no Covenant of Grace concerning Adam. God made a Covenant of Grace with Christ and His people, including Adam. Does not believe in a "Covenant of Grace." NCT believes that only when the Bible stipulates that a Covenant has been "cut" between God and man, is there a Biblical reason for believing that one has been made.
Israel was rash to accept the Covenant at Mt. Sinai. Israel was right to accept the Covenant at Mt. Sinai. NCT say that Israel was so frightened that they would have accepted anything.
The 'New Covenant' of Jer. 31:31-34 is only for literal Israel and is not the New Covenant of Luke 22:20; although there is some disagreement among Dispensationalists about this. The 'New Covenant' of Jer. 31 is the same as in Luke 22:20; both are for spiritual Israel according to Heb. 8 Same as CT.
God's program in history is mainly through separate dispensations. God's program is history is mainly through related covenants, but all those covenants were derived from the eternal covenant that the Trinity made in eternity. God's program in history is through related covenants, but culminating in the new covenant that eliminates the others because they were all realized in Christ.
Some have said that OT sinners were saved* by works.
This is one of the areas where we believe that Dispensationalism, when carried to its logical conclusion, alters the gospel of Christ, and so is a dangerous departure from authentic Biblical Christianity.
No man has ever been saved by works, but only by grace. (Eph 2:8-10) Same as CT.
Most teach that men in the OT were saved by faith in a revelation peculiar to their Dispensation, but this did not include their faith in the Messiah as their sin-bearer. All men who have ever been saved have been saved by faith in Christ as their sin-bearer, which has been progressively revealed in every age. Same as CT, although *some* would say that in the OT many would not have known about the sin-bearing part, just that they were sinners that needed the grace of God to be forgiven, and that they waited for the promise of God for He would crush the head of the serpent.
The OT sacrifices were not recognized as the Gospel or types of the Messiah as sin-bearer, but only seen as such in retrospect OT believers believed in the Gospel of Messiah as sin-bearer mainly by the sacrifices as types and prophecies Same as CT
The Holy Spirit indwells only believers in the Dispensation of Grace, not OT and not after the "Secret Rapture." The Holy Spirit has indwelt believers in all ages, especially in the present NT era, and will not be withdrawn. They believe that the indwelling wasn't the same as in the Church time (as Jesus would send the comforter).
Jesus made an offer of the literal Kingdom to Israel; since Israel rejected it, it is postponed.
D.G. Barnhouse, "Dispensationalism believes that the purpose of the first advent of Jesus Christ was to offer an earthly Kingdom to the Jews. This Kingdom would reinstate the Old Testament legal system and it's expansion to the entire world under the Messiah. When the Jews rejected Jesus Christ and His Kingdom offer, plan B went into effect and Christ went to the cross to initiate the dispensation of Grace and the "mystery church". Had Israel received her King there would have been no cross - and no Gospel! "
This is why it is seen as an unbiblical view.
Jesus made only an offer of the Spiritual Kingdom, which was rejected by literal Israel but has gradually been accepted by spiritual Israel Same as CT
OT believers were not 'in Christ,' nor part of the Body or Bride of Christ. Believers in all ages are all 'in Christ' and part of the Body and Bride of Christ Same as CT, but realized in the NT
The OT Law has been abolished. For the Church, but not Israel, who will be under that Law when the Church is taken away, and God returns to His original people... Physical Israel The Law has 3 uses: to restrain sin in society, to lead to Christ, and to instruct Christians in godliness. The ceremonial laws have been abolished; the civil laws have been abolished except for their general equity; the moral laws continue Same as Dispensationalism, without believing that physical Israel has a future. NCT says that only the laws of the NT apply to the Christian. The OT Law is there to instruct us in the way God dealt with His people in the OT. Christ is affirmed as being "The New Law-Giver", as opposed to Moses who was "The Old Law-Giver"
OT laws are no longer in effect unless repeated in the NT OT laws are still in effect unless abrogated in the NT Same as Dispensationalism
Teaches that the Millennium is the Kingdom of God. They are always Premil, usually Pre-tribulation The Church is the Kingdom of God. They are usually Amil or Postmil; although a few are Premil or Preterist Same as CT
The OT animal sacrifices will be restored in the Millennium, as a memorial only The OT sacrifices were fulfilled and forever abolished in Christ. Same as CT.
The Millennium will fulfill the Covenant made with Abraham. Israel as a nation has a future. Christ fulfilled the Covenant to Abraham. Some believe in a future for literal Israel, most don't Same as CT
David or Jesus will sit on the Millennial throne in Jerusalem Christ alone sits on the throne in heaven. Saints rule under Him in Spirit Same as CT
Most do not embrace infant baptism. Usually believer's baptism is the norm, although those Dispensationalists that are Presbyterian are paedobaptists. Most embrace infant baptism, but the Baptist among them don't. Does not embrace infant baptism, only believer's baptism

Excerpts and information in this article were taken from Desiring God Website (By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org) and many things in the chart from Donald Hochner (and his work at http://www.angelfire.com/ca/DeafPreterist/compare.html). Donald Hochner states that his work came mainly from Curt Daniel in "History and Theology of Calvinism." The New Covenant Theology items were mostly written by G. Richard Gaudreau. Any differences and additions were added by ourelement.org.