To this day, I can still remember watching those “rapture” movies in my middle school youth group. In particular, I remember A Thief in the Night (1972), which scared the pants off of me. It was a bit of a mix between a horror movie and cheesy spy thriller. For the next week I had trouble sleeping, worried that I would wake up and find myself left behind.
As a result, I grew up assuming that the dispensational framework was the only proper way to read the Bible. But when I got to college, some upperclassmen introduced me to Reformed Theology and a covenantal framework for reading Scripture. It was a refreshingly different perspective than what I had grown up with (and not quite so scary!).
I am guessing my experience is probably pretty typical for many evangelicals in America. We all struggle to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the host of questions that come along with it: How do we know which OT laws carry over and which do not? What is the relationship between the church and Israel? Should we interpret prophecy literally or symbolically, or a mix?
And there are two major frameworks for answering these questions: dispensationalism and covenant theology.
Or are there? Anyone who has explored this issue knows that people cannot be divided into just two camps. It’s not that simple. Instead there are multiple versions of each system spread along a continuum. And trying to distinguish all these gradations can get really complicated. Fast.
For these reasons, I am thankful for the new book by Ben Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (Lexham Press, 2020). Merkle is professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (and a former seminary classmate of mine!).
As the title suggests, Merkle frames the debate (and rightly so) as an issue of continuity vs. discontinuity. Generally speaking, dispensationalists push for a lot of discontinuity between old and new covenants (which explains their sharp distinction between the church and Israel), whereas covenant theologians argue for more continuity between old and new covenants (which explains why they see the church as the new/eschatological Israel). [Read more…]