By Kenneth L. Gentry
We may trace Scripture’s unity through the unity of the covenants, which set forth the overarching Covenant of Grace. The heart of God’s “covenants of the promise” (diathekon tes epaggelias, Eph 2:12) is: “I will be your God and you will be My people.” This idea occurs many times in Scripture. God establishes his redemptive covenants in order to secure a favorable relationship between him and his people. By means of the covenant, God’s people are intimately related to the Lord of heaven and earth. “The covenant of redemption and grace that governs the Bible begins with Abraham, and it is here that the main image patterns of the covenant become firmly established.”
Covenantal development is onion-like, layer upon layer: “Each successive covenant supplements its predecessors.” We may easily see this in comparing the structural and thematic continuity between the covenants. For instance, when preparing to establish the Mosaic covenant “God remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Ex 2:24). Those living under the Davidic Covenant often refer to the Mosaic Covenant frequently, as well as to the Abrahamic. And, of course, the new covenant relationship to earlier covenants appears in the very formula of the new covenant: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31).
Interestingly, Ezekiel combines the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants in the chapters in which he deals with the new covenant:
And David my servant shall be king over them [Davidic]; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them [Mosaic]. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt [Abrahamic]; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever [Davidic]. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them [New]: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. (Eze 37:24–26)
Willem Van Gemeren notes that “the promises of these covenants were renewed and enlarged throughout the history of redemption, even when the external conditions of the covenant relationship changed. McComiskey concludes, ‘The elements guaranteed by the promise covenant undergo amplification and enrichment in their expression in the major administrative covenants.’”
In the new covenant era itself we discover continuity with the preceding covenants. Romans 16:20 harkens back to the Adamic Covenant. Second Peter 3:5–7 draws a parallel with the Noahic Covenant. Romans 4:16 founds the new covenant on the Abrahamic. Romans 15:12 harkens back to the Davidic covenant. As mentioned above, Paul sums up the various Old Testament covenants as being “the covenants [plural] of the promise [singular]” (Eph 2:12). Both a basic unity as well as a pro-gressive development undergirds God’s covenants. From his Reformed premillennial perspective, Chung approvingly cites Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce a Demarest: “It is important to appreciate that Reformed covenant theology has definite merits in promoting ‘the unity of the covenant of grace, being essentially the same from Genesis 3:15 through Revelation 22:21.’ It also has strengths in affirming ‘a unity of soteriological purpose. Both Testaments set forth identical promises, the same spiritual life, and the same means of salvation, namely, faith in God’s promises.’” Thus, when the new covenant comes in Christ’s ministry, we reach “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4; cp. Mk 1:15). And these covenants concern redemption — a redemption, as we shall see, that shall overwhelm the world.
The major competitor to covenantal theology among evangelicals today is dispensationalism. Dispensationalism allows the historic, biblical covenants to play a large role in its theology. Yet dispensational theology and covenantal theology are, in the final analysis, “irreconcilable.” Indeed, “reformed covenant doctrine cannot be harmonized with premillenarianism” because the dispensationalist’s “dispensations are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace, but are distinguishingly different administrations of God in directing the affairs of the world.” Thus, the major difference between covenantal theology and dispensational theology is that covenantal theology traces a relentless forward moving, unified, and developmental redemptive progress, generally understood in Reformed theology as the Covenant of Grace. Dispensational theology, however, maintains two peoples of God serving two different historical purposes. It also moves forward rather fitfully, backing up in the final dispensation to a Jewish era exalting the old covenant people, rebuilding a physical temple, and re-instituting a sacrificial cultus in the millennium.
For better or for worse the very system name “dispensationalism” tends to throw the focus on the system’s discontinuous, compartmental view of history, despite dispensationalists’ protests. This is because “a dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose. If one were describing a dispensation he would include other things, such as the ideas of distinctive revelation, testing, failure, and judgment.” So, as noted in the preceding paragraph, dispensations “are not stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace, but are distinguishingly different administrations of God in directing the affairs of the world.”
This necessarily fragments biblical history. In fact, as one dispensa-tionalist notes, “the more one moves in the continuity direction, the more covenantal he becomes; and the more he moves in the discon-tinuity direction, the more dispensational he becomes.” Certainly then, discontinuity in redemptive history is a major effect of dispensationalism. Even historic premillennialists fault dispensationalism’s fragmentation of redemptive history and the Bible: “One cannot emphasize strongly enough that this [dispensational] hermeneutic is utterly foreign to the early church. . . . The fundamental conviction that binds patristic interpretation together [is that] the Bible is a unified book whose theme is Jesus Christ.” I will show later that this has a major bearing on the development of God’s redemptive purpose in history and thus on Scrip-ture’s eschatology, when I compare the catastrophically introduced millennial kingdom of dispensationalism and the gradually developed kingdom of postmillennialism.
Although Scripture specifies and implies many covenants, God’s overarching redemptive purpose throws a special emphasis on a select few. These covenants include the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and Christ’s new covenant. Unfortunately, dispensationalism suggests a secular understanding of some divine covenants, rather than a redemptive one (e.g., the Creation, Adamic, and Noahic Covenants).