I recently watched a spirited exchange take place among a group Reformed covenant folks on Facebook in response to a quackish, hamfisted, anti-Calvinist documentary that accuses the Reformation of Antisemitism. For the record, I agree with the Reformed folks over and against the documentary.
At any rate, during the course of that exchange, those of the Dispensational persuasion, like myself, were accused of denying the Gospel, being idolaters, following a false prophet (J.N. Darby), being in a cult akin to Mormonism, and denying the Scriptures. I didn’t see all the comments, but I imagine Dispensationalists were also accused of shotgun blasting baby ducks in a pond and punching babies.
A lot of that rhetoric comes from former Dispensationalists; Reformed covenant converts who write vigorously against their Dispensationlist past. Honestly, I doubt any of them seriously adhered to Dispensationalism. They were merely exposed to it because they were saved in either a red state evangelical/Calvary Chapel-style church that was Dispensational by default, or perhaps given a John Hagee book to read as a new Christian. But they were no more a serious “Dispensationalist” as Ergun Caner was a “serious” Muslim.
Usually what happens is those folks come to embrace Calvinism, because that’s what the Bible teaches. Yet, because all their Calvinist heroes adhere to Covenant Theology and are either amillennial or postmillennial with their eschatological views, they also abandon Dispensationalism and premillennialism. At some point they are moved by zeal to publicly confess how they were embarrassed by their Dispensational past and ridicule those they left behind (pun somewhat intended). To their determent, they are often woefully misinformed with their criticisms. That is largely due to their exposure to only secondary, critical sources of Dispensationalism that are extremely dated or poorly argued. When I have engaged individuals like this and challenged them as to their sloppy research, they become agitated for some reason.
So, in order to pull my Reformed covenant friends out of the 1950s and show them that Dispensationalism is more than the fanciful diagrams of Clarence Larkin and is not a Gospel denying cult, I thought I would help clear up a misconception or two and then compile some resources for them.
First, the Reformed, internet masses tend to get Dispensationalism confused with eschatology. If you mention the word Dispensationalism, in no time someone is blasting away at the pre-tribulational rapture and complaining how the doctrine was developed by a crazy, charismatic girl.
While it is certainly true pre-tribulationists are Dispensationalists, Dispensationalism is not eschatology. Eschatology is a sub-set of theology proper, and Dispensationalism is a theological framework that distinguishes the outworking of God’s redemptive purposes through Scripture. Sure there are important nuances, say for instance the key distinction between Israel and the NT Church and the understanding that the redemptive purposes of God entail a restoration of Israel in a future, millennial kingdom. That would be a part of the eschatology of Dispensationalism.
Also, a lot of the modern Reformed folks are surprised to learn that Dispensationalism started among Presbyterians in the 1800s. The early founders of Dallas Theological Seminary were five point, Presbyterian ministers, and they founded the seminary primarily as a Presbyterian school. As Todd Magnum points out in his study of the history between the adherence of Dispensational and Covenant Theology, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift (See his paper summarizing his larger dissertation: HERE), Dispensationalism was a perfectly acceptable position within the Reformed, Presbyterian circles. It wasn’t until polarizing personalities among a few Covenantalists raised unnecessary charges against their Dispensationalists brothers that a rift formed and has sadly remained ever since.
For basic, available resources on the subject, one of the better places to begin is with Dr. Michael Vlach’s list of, 40 Recommended Resources for Understanding Dispensationalism (Click link for the PDF attachment with this article)
The list is mostly book length studies that one will have to find on Amazon or in a library. Highlighting just a few of those items he lists, I would recommend John Feinberg’s article on systems of discontinuity found in the compilation book, Continuity and Discontinuity. The entire book is worth the read, but that article lays down the essential points defining Dispensationalism.
Next would be Alva McClain’s The Greatness of the Kingdom which is a comprehensive study of the Kingdom of God and probably one of the best works on the subject in print. I personally think non-dispensationalists would benefit greatly from this work.
I would also point folks to the theological writings of Paul Henebury, Dr. Reluctant, who shares his concerns and recommendations for refining Dispensationalism. Take a look at his Telos Theological Ministries where you will find a lot of good material, especially his article on Biblical Covenantalism and Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism.
Now, the biggest difference between the covenant theologian and the dispensationalist is the application of hermeneutics. The way one interprets the Bible, particularly prophetic texts, is going to have a major impact on how one sees the progress of Divine revelation from the OT to the NT. Additionally, how one sees the OT fulfilled in the NT. Some helpful articles regarding hermeneutics:
Michael Vlach’s article, New Covenant Theology Compared with Covenantalism has an extended section detailing the matter of hermeneutics. In fact, the Master’s Seminary faculty devoted the entire fall 2007 journal to discussing New Covenant Theology and because NCT shares similar theological views with Covenant Theology, there are some helpful discussions. The issue is Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2007.
For a couple of book length study, see Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classic Evangelical Hermeneutics and James White’s Scripture Alone. Ironically, James is a Reformed Baptist who would have nothing to do with Dispensationalism, but he provides a study of hermeneutics and exegesis I find well done and when applied consistently, only confirmed my understanding of Dispensational principles.
Moving to some more readily available sources on the web,
The on-line teaching of S. Lewis Johnson is all excellent, but noting a couple of of his series,
also, this article from the TMS journal highlighting a specific passage in Galatians 6:19,
Paul and the “Israel of God” an Exegetical Case Study
Dan Phillips, Twenty-five Stupid Reasons for Dissing Dispensationalism
R. Bruce Compton, Dispensationalism, The Church, and The New Covenant
These are some good places to start. If folks have additional recommendations, note them in the comments and I’ll add them to the main list here.
To be balanced, I can point to some good works defending the Covenantal Reformed perspective.
I can think of the classic work (but a brutal read), The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius available online HERE.
And then the two work by O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants and The Israel of God. His lectures on Covenant Theology can be downloaded HERE.
And then one final work that I am told is an outstanding treatment from a Reformed Baptist perspective is Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptist Perspective on God.