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How do scholars differentiate between a Covenantal and Dispensational view of Biblical understanding? Covenant people criticize Dispensationalists for cutting up the Bible narrative into distinct parts, for saying God deals with his people in different ways in different times. They prefer to use the word "Covenant" instead of Dispensation, but isn't this the same thing using a different word? Covenantal people divide the Bible into different covenants, explaining how God deals with his people in different ways in different times.

What would help me make up my mind concerning this dilemma?

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    There is another view - that there is one everlasting covenant. Of which Israel was a figure, a demonstration on earth of what would in Christ be revealed as the everlasting covenant. This question only touches on two other opposed factions.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 28, 2023 at 2:57
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    @NigelJ That sounds very similar to Covenant Theology's eternal Covenant of Grace.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 28, 2023 at 4:21
  • I don't have the time to offer a full answer here, so I'll just point you to 1689federalism.com There are many resources referred to here that offer a very full explanation. 1689 Federalism is a Baptist Covenant Theology, as opposed to the more widely known Presbyterian view. I'd also recommend a study on how the NT writers use the OT, such as from Carson and Beale.
    – aswine
    Jul 28, 2023 at 16:29

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There is a spectrum between the extremes of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, but in short they represent two sides of the continuity and discontinuity debate over the Old and New Testaments.

Dispensationalism says there is no substantial continuity between Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament. In fact, even within the Old Testament and the New Testament there are multiple dispensations in which God interacts with humanity in very different ways. These dispensations can be unexpected: there are three dispensations in only the first 11 chapters of Genesis, but no dispensation focused on David and the Davidic Covenant. In this diagram from gracegospelpress.org each of the arrows represents a dispensation in which God's primary way of interacting with God's people was different:

A diagram showing 7 dispensations

The implications of Dispensationalism are seen most clearly in how they understand the promise/covenant of the Promised Land: the promise that the territory of Israel would belong to Abraham's descendants forever belongs to the people of Israel forever. While this promise was partially fulfilled during the time of the Monarchy, it is still waiting for its final fulfillment. So Dispensationalists usually anticipate that the biological nation of Israel (not necessarily the current country of Israel) will gain control of the entire land promised in Genesis 15, from the "Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates". This is entirely separate from God's dealings with the Church. Many descendants of Abraham will also be part of the Church, but being part of the Church doesn't mean you'll be part of Israel. This focus on the fulfilment of Abraham's covenant as he would've understood it (and not just spiritualised away into the idea of inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven) leads most Dispensationalists to focus on an earthly eschatology, a pre-millennial return of Christ and a 1000 year reign of Christ in the current Middle East.

Covenant Theology represents the extreme in the other direction, that we should not see any real discontinuity between Old and New. You might expect from the name that Covenant Theology would be focusing on the Biblical covenants of Noah, Abraham, Mosaic, David, and New, but that's not actually the case. Instead Covenant Theology refers to the three "theological" covenants: the Covenant of Works, that God would give life to humanity as long as they remained righteous, the Covenant of Grace, in which God would save his people, and the Covenant of Redemption, which is a covenant between the persons of the Trinity, in which the Father appointed the Son to be the one to become incarnate and die for the atonement of God's people. The Biblical covenants are considered administrations of the singular Covenant of Grace, which means that each of the Biblical covenants has the same purpose, the same covenant parties, and the same benefits, so that the differences between the Biblical covenants are considered to only be incidental. It is because the covenant parties are considered to be one, the People of God, that Israel and the Church are considered to be One people, or why people say that the Church is the New Israel.

Because there is ultimately only one covenant between God and his people, and because there is only one people of God, Covenant Theology does not anticipate a earthly fulfilment of God's promise of the land of the levant. In this era of the church, the promise of the land is seen as being taken up inside the larger promise of the spiritual Kingdom of God; in the future it will be expanded again into the New Heavens and New Earth. But even if there would be in some sense a land of Israel in the New Earth, the promise wouldn't have any particular connection to that land. In the administration of the Abrahamic Covenant the promise of the land of God was seen as referring to the land that Abraham walked, but in subsequent administrations the same promise is now seen as referring to a larger land. In essence, the eternal promise was not to a particular piece of real estate, but instead that God would provide a home for his people. That real estate can change, but the promise to provide it does not.

So no, it's definitely not just a matter of terminology. Dispensationalism doesn't focus on the covenants - only four out of the conventional seven dispensations align with a Biblical covenant, and there is no distinct dispensation for one very important Biblical covenant, the Davidic Covenant. And on the other hand, Covenant Theology does not actually refer to the Biblical covenants, but the "theological" covenants of Works, Grace, and Redemption.

To return to the beginning, Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism represent the extremes of continuity and discontinuity, but they are not the only frameworks Protestants have for understanding how the Old and New Testaments work together. In particular, Reformed Baptists in the US have been doing a lot of good work in recent decades to find some middle paths between continuity and discontinuity. In my opinion their frameworks give a more appropriate emphasis to the Biblical covenants than either Covenant Theology or Dispensationalism do, and I think it's likely their popularity will grow globally in the future. Look out for names like Beale, Gentry, Wellum, and Zaspel.

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  • Personally I don't think Covenant Theology adequately exegetes the Biblical Covenants. For example in Genesis 13:14-17 God promises to Abram the land that he is looking over, walking through, and kicking up the dust from. This is a very specific promise, and is not just a promise to provide a home.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 28, 2023 at 0:06
  • Abrahamic Covenant There are several aspects to the Abe. Cov. Land acquisition was one of them, and the Bible said it was fulfilled from "wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates." (2 Chron.9:26) God also said He would take away this land if Israel forsook Him. (Chron. 7:19-22) But was is salient is the fact that the N.T. inspired writers didn't focus on a physical land or capitol, BUT pointed to the covenant's promise to bless the whole world. THE SEED of Abraham and His blessing on all peoples---not just Jews--was their emphasis! The Jews got the land and lost it, but the world got Jesus!
    – ray grant
    Aug 10, 2023 at 22:59
  • @curiousdannii-Excellent description of Dispensational and Covenantal beliefs. Along with this, the history of how each came to these beliefs is a real eye-opener. As is said, it's not just a matter of terminology. Both affect soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc. in a marked way. In the mean time, it is recommended to stick to the Old and New Covenant approach of the Holy Bible. (Hebrews 8:6, 13, Jer. 31:31-34, Gal. 4:24) Two are enough to digest and meditate on.
    – ray grant
    Aug 10, 2023 at 23:11
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Because this is a Protestant controversy, I was not familiar with the terms. However, a bit of light research has led me to understand what the difference is.

Essentially, Dispensationalists hold to a real distinction between Ethnic Jews and Ethnic Gentiles, which still affects relation to God today, whereas Convental theologians hold that the Church is the New Israel:

If we may speak of the two systems in their unqualified forms, dispensationalism asserts that God still has future plans for the Jewish people and deduces that the Church is not spiritual Israel; covenant theology asserts that the Church is spiritual Israel and deduces that God has no future plans for the Jews different than his plans for any other people. (Akin, Jimmy. Israel and the Church)

Dispensationalism began in nineteenth-century England and has undergone various revisions. However, what is unique to all its forms is the Israel-church distinction, dependent on a particular understanding of the covenants. For dispensationalists, Israel refers to an ethnic, national people, and the church is never the transformed eschatological Israel in God’s plan... The church, then, is distinctively new in God’s plan and ontologically different from Israel... Although covenant theology recognizes the plurality of the covenants, it subsumes all post-fall covenants under the overarching category of the covenant of grace. As a result, the Israel-church relationship is viewed in terms of continuity — that is, the two by nature are essentially the same, yet administered differently. For this reason, Israel and the church are constituted as a mixed people (elect and non-elect), and their respective covenant signs (circumcision and baptism) signify the same spiritual reality — hence why baptism may be applied to infants in the church. (Wellum, Stephen. Dispensational or Covenantal? The Promise and Progress of Salvation in Christ)

Given the above, I think the framing of the question is what is contributing to the confusion. It is not the case that Covenentals and Dispensationalists differ on whether to divide parts of the bible, but in how they divide it up. Dispensationalists tend to see ethnic differences between Jews and Gentiles as important even after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Covenentals do not.

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