Because of the situation I find myself in, I’ve been writing a great deal about dispensational thought and theology, and less than I’d like about the other two schools of Christian thought (Protestantism and Catholicism).
It has come to my attention that when I attempt to explain my position on any number of theological concepts, I am told that perhaps I am over thinking it. Or in politer terms, my friends shrug and say “I just follow Jesus, I don’t know about all this systematic theology.” The reigning misconception is that Calvinists (or more properly, covenant theologians) have, like the Dwarfs of Moria, delved far too deep into the text, and hence, read things that aren’t there.
I don’t believe that the people who believe this about us mean it in spite or ill-will; perhaps some, but by no means all. It seems more to be a pervasive misunderstanding than anything else.
First of all, what is covenant theology? Far be it from me to try and explain it to any extent, but the Wikipedia article does a fine job (as far as it can be objective about theology).
Essentially, covenant theology’s hermeneutic views all relationships in terms of a covenant, or contract, between God and man. Many view this as a works-salvation theology: however, this is far from the truth. We affirm salvation by grace alone: however, the Covenant may require an action from either party involved, God and man. Many people fail to see that this is not a salvation by works, but essentially a list of what God expects from His people. Covenant of works does not equal salvation by works alone.
Because of this view of covenant as a framework for not only how the Biblical text is organized, but how all of life is structured, we can see more clearly how God has built His World.
It ties into everything. The death and resurrection motif required to establish a new covenant puts the Crucifixion in a context quite different from that of dispensationalism. This New Covenant is signed and sealed by a propitiatory sacrifice, just like all the others we see in the Bible (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic).
But, since I do not pretend to understand all the subtle nuances of this, I will try not to go in over my head, and simply discuss some of the ramifications of covenant theology.
- It directly contradicts dispensationalism, which states that the Old and New Covenants (simply the Old and New Testaments) are completely different in the way that God deals with them regarding salvation. The Christian Church post-Ascension is a different entity than that of Old Israel, God’s Chosen people. In a covenant theology framework, and building from the book of Hebrews, we see that the New Covenant, brought about by Jesus, was an expansion on the existing covenant, rather than a replacement of it. This is a very important distinction: while there are separate covenants, each builds on the last, rather than scrapping the old one and starting again. This is what Jesus means when He says “I did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.”
- It affects the way we worship. Properly understood, the Lord’s Service is not a simple time of worship, but a covenant renewal service. This includes but is absolutely not limited to worship. It is a time of communion with God, whereby we renew the Covenant established at Christ’s coming. Because of this, the Lord’s Supper, with bread and wine, is a very important, inseparable, component: it is a sign and seal of the Covenant. The regulative principle of worship (the view that Scripture provides forms and regulations for our worship) is also a very important component of some covenant theology (views vary on this).
- Baptism, being the other of the two signs and seals of the New Covenant, takes on a whole new significance (I say “whole new,” but the Fathers of the Protestant Reformation understood all of this theology in covenant terms as well. We are only going back to their solid theology and building from that). Strict covenantal theology is in favor of paedobaptism, that is, baptizing children, before the public confession required by most modern denominations.
- I’ve already mentioned the Eucharist briefly, but it’s worth repeating. As a Covenant sign and seal, it is a spiritual, mysterious participation in the Real Presence of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit (as opposed to the Catholic view of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view of sacramental union, and the Baptist view of a simple memorial). As a sign and seal, it is important that it be observed on a regular basis within the context of the liturgy.
Covenant theologians generally have a high view of the Church, leading to carefully considered liturgies, theologically sound psalms and hymns, and a view of the Covenant Body of believers as a corporate entity (as opposed to the Americanist tendency towards individualism).
My point? Well, count how many words in that last section had more than 7 letters. Plenty.
There seems to be a prevailing view that this sort of intellectual discussion obscures the truth of the Gospel. Or, if it’s not detrimental, then it’s simply unnecessary. They will claim that this kind of deep exegesis is not helpful.
Well, why is this perception popular?
Part of the reason is that we haven’t been teaching our children good theology. The “crisis faith,” or “anxious bench,” or “personal experience” school of thought makes kids think they are excluded from the Kingdom. Until they magically get this “gift,” there’s really no reason to learn about the Bible in a deep way.
During the Great Awakenings, and during the expansion of the West, most pastors were not theologically trained. They were unable to teach their followers fully, and thus the cycle has perpetuated.
There are a host of other factors as well, and perhaps this strand goes too far to trace.
One could say it all comes back to the children and the self-perpetuating cycle. They are not trained to study the Bible deeply (especially the Old Testament), and they are sent to schools that are downright hostile to the Gospel. And all of this doesn’t bother dispensationals, because it is only in a covenant framework that theology is a real factor in the real world (politics, education, etc). Without that framework, politics and education, among others, means nothing.
Even the forerunners of modern dispensational thought were “intellectual.” That is, they had a specific hermeneutic by which they interpreted the Bible. It might not have been the best one, but they put thought and work into it. Sadly, the inheritors of their legacy have not followed their example. They have stagnated. Nothing has moved forward. Dispensational thought has remained unchanged for quite some time.
The only thing that does not change is God’s Word. We change, and the way we interpret the Word changes (hopefully for the better). We always must move towards a more full exegesis of Scripture in order to know God better, what He requires of us, and we should live that out.
To say that covenant theology is “too intellectual” is to willingly remain in immaturity. We’re not right all the time. And they’ve got some things right as well, we should never deny that. But the difference is, we’re moving forward and trying to correct our mistakes through careful, applied, studies of the Scriptures. If we’re not doing that, we’ll never learn anything at all, and remain in our respective ditches.