There has been no small feud between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology. Theologians have argued constantly over which theology is better, using the tools of exegesis and logic, as well as red herrings, straw men, and bandwagons. And Each side presents a highly logical case and can defend it well. But why do they disagree?
The answer to this question can be answered in one word: hermeneutics (that is, the theory of interpretation). The governing principles behind how a person reads the Bible will shape how s/he derives it’s theology. Those governing principles are different between Covenant and Dispensational Theology. And so, their outcomes are different.
Differing Governing Principles
The governing principle of Covenant Theology is New Testament priority. Basically, the Old Testament revealed the plan of God in types and figures and the NT interprets those figures for us. With regards to the promises limited to Israel, they are types of a higher spiritual reality. When the reality (the church) has come, the types are fulfilled, and it is pointless to return to the types (the promises). Thus, Covenant Theology points up to the spiritual ideals which the OT contained, and the MT explains. Or as Augustine put it:
The Old is in the New revealed, the New is in the Old concealed.
For example, the Passover is a figure, not just of the exodus, but of the coming death of Jesus. Also, Isaiah presents Israel as the Servant of Yahweh, and Jesus fulfilled that figure (cf. Mat. 2:15). This method of interpretation also applies to the national promises given to Israel. The land, the nationhood, the supremacy of the nation were types pointing to the church in its international glory.
However, not all Covenant Theologians completely “spiritualize” these promises. Some believe that the land promised to Israel will be literally fulfilled in the new heaven and new earth. But it is not just Israel that will inherit it, but all who are the sons of Abraham by faith–the church. In addition, some theologians also believe that there will be an in-gathering of Jews before Christ’s return. They won’t inherit the land, but they will be saved into the church.
In Dispensational Theology, the governing principle is “literal” interpretation. Literal is not a very good word, because it suggests that poetic expression is ignored. However, what these theologians mean is that the text should be considered in its own context (including genre) before bringing in NT uses and applications to the text. It views the text as having physical reality, and that what God says is what he means to say.
For example, when God promises the New Covenant to Israel, it is to Israel and not the church. The nation will “literally” and physically receive the New Covenant–which includes a return to the land. Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple will be physically fulfilled in the millennium.
In this view, it is not pointless to return to the promises of the OT because God promises exactly what he intends to promise. He does not promise one thing and then do another.
The two schools of thought remind me of the two philosophers Plato and Aristotle. In the picture above, Plato points up and Aristotle holds his hand flat. Plato is pointing up to the ideal forms of all material things–to a greater and perfect form of reality. Aristotle holds hand flat, representing the empirical, physical description of all material things.
In the same way, Covenant Theologians point up to the higher spiritual reality and Dispensational Theologians point to the physical (“literal”) reality. Covenant Theologians see the kingdom, the land, the nation as shadows of spiritual realities; Dispensational Theologians see the kingdom, the land, the nation as coming physical realities.