I wrote this for a NT Theology class and decided I’d share it on here. Most of the information on the different approaches come from class notes, except for the argument I made using Romans 11.
Comparison of Approaches to the Covenants of the OT and NT
Dispensational Theology (DT)– DT emphasizes strong discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. It is a relatively recent movement arising in the 1800s, and though this was not always the case, it is now the majority view among Baptists. This is also the movement typically associated with the notion of a Rapture, also arising in the 1800s. The major motivating ideas of DT are a Literal Hermeneutic in interpretation, according to which the Old Testament promise of full restoration from exile and an earthly kingdom for Israel will be literally fulfilled (great emphasis on authorial intent and though there is metaphor in the Bible, those are also pointing to a literal reality), and strong separation between the Church and Israel. On this view, God’s overall plan for salvation primarily operates through distinct dispensations (different periods of intervention where God has given us particular ways to relate to Himself).
New Covenant Theology (NCT)– NCT emphasizes both discontinuity and continuity. Though it focuses on grace in each stage of progressive revelation, it also takes care to note differences between the Church and Israel. Unlike Covenant Theology (below), it rejects the idea of an overarching covenant and takes the Old Covenant to have been temporary. So, God’s plan for human salvation is through related covenants ultimately culminating in the New Covenant that eliminates the others because they are all fully realized in Christ. Since NCT takes emphasis from both sides, it often takes positions shared by one or the other. For instance, like CT, it affirms that though some Old Testament prophecies are for the nation Israel others are for the spiritual Israel. On the other hand, it agrees with DT in that Old Testament Laws are no longer in effect unless they are reaffirmed in the New Testament.
Covenant Theology (CT)– CT emphasizes strong continuity. Though it has strong roots in Catholic and Orthodox theology, this has become associated with Reformed protestants. It argues there is only one people of God, perhaps reframed in the NT but still the same people or entity. You might say the Church is like an updated Israel. It claims the first covenant, with Adam, was a Covenant of Works (which failed), while the second covenant, in the rest of the Bible, is a Covenant of Grace. Because of the continuity between the Old and New Covenants, aspects of the former are transposed onto the latter. For example, the sign of the Old Covenant is circumcision, which included infants (Gen. 17:12), and so similarly the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, should be allowed for infants. God’s overall plan to save us is primarily through related covenants, with those covenants all derived from the eternal covenant between the Trinity made from before creation.
Favoring a Covenant Theology
Romans 11 in light of Romans 2:28-29–
There are two kinds of Jews: an outward, merely ethical Jew, and an inward, legitimate Jew (who may also happen to be an ethical Jew). To say the former is a kind of Jew may be a bit misleading, as he is not really a Jew, that is, a member of God’s elect. Romans 2:28-29 explains, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (ESV)”
With this distinction, we should be able to read Romans 11 and it’s account of the outward Jews, who have not obtained salvation because “they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Rom. 9:32), and be able to tell where they stand relative to the believing gentiles (spiritual Jews), as well as to the believing ethical Jews (spiritual and ethical, like Paul).
To start the chapter, Paul is considering the question of whether God has rejected Israel, to which he answers, “By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew (11:1-2).” He also points out, “at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace (11:5)”, and this remnant is the current (at Paul’s time) believing Jews such as himself. So, at this point, God has saved those Jews he “foreknew” would believe and preserved them as His “elect”, the true Israel. As he writes of the ethical Jews, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened (11:7)…”
In verses 11-14, Paul explains “ through their trespass Salvation has come to the Gentiles (11:11)” and he hopes that through this some of his fellow Jews (ethical) will become jealous “and thus save some of them (11:14)”. It is here that Paul spring boards into the manner in which the gentiles have been saved, and it is here the crux of my argument lies, in verses 17-24.
He addresses the gentiles, “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree…” So we see, in the context of the chapter, the broken off branches are the unbelieving Jews (ethical) being replaced by the grafting in of a “wild olive shoot”, the gentiles (spiritual Jews). Moreover they are grafted in among the “others”, the Jews who believed (ethical and spiritual), so as to share in the “nourishing root”, which is salvation, of the “olive tree”, that is, the Kingdom of God (members of the New Covenant).
Just as Covenant Theology teaches there is one true (spiritual) Israel and one overall Covenant of Grace (11:5&6) into which those who believe are grafted in. This is the shift we saw in the New Testament, as the unbelieving Jews were replaced by believing Gentiles. There was no destruction or replacement of Israel as God’s people. The believers are Israel. Those who doubt are grafted out, and one’s place in the covenant only persists as their faith does, as Paul warns, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off (11:22).”
So Romans 11, read with the Paul’s own distinctions, indicates that the Church is Israel (that is, the Israel of the inward Jews). The unbelieving outward Jews were grafted out, and the believing gentile inward Jews were grafted in with the prior believing ethical Jews who kept their place by faith, and this constitutes the Church.
Hence, God’s work to save the faithful is not a matter of one failed attempt replaced by a successful one. Rather, God’s work throughout history (Heilsgeschichte) is a unified whole with the goal of a new and redeemed world it’s shared ultimate end. We are all part of one grand scale salvation scheme articulated prior to creation, in which God’s elect, those He foreknew would believe, are saved as members grafted into His covenant and His kingdom. In light of this, we must hold to a Covenant Theology (whether or not that implies all the teachings typically associated with the approach), as New Covenant theology is not quite enough and Dispensational Theology is…well…more than a bit off track.