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).
To be clear, everyone has a mix of continuity and discontinuity in their systems. It’s just about the proportion of each.
Given the complexity of the issues, the purpose of the book is to describe each camp, and the various sub-distinctions within that camp, so that the reader (a) understands their own view (this is more needed than you think!), (b) appreciates the views of others (with charity and fairness), (c) recognizes that their view is not perfect, and (d) stays focused on the Scriptures as the ultimate authority.
In order to accomplish these goals, Merkle’s book does not advocate any particular position. Instead, the goal of the book is merely descriptive, laying out the details of each view without choosing a side. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical about this at first (and doubtful that any normal person could suppress their own views while writing such a book). But I think Merkle has achieved his goal splendidly. As one who knows his views, I thought he was extremely fair and evenhanded.
Of course, one is not obligated to remain neutral when writing theology books—there’s nothing inappropriate about making the case for one’s view (and I know Merkle would agree). But, given the highly polemical and combative nature of most theological discourse, this was a remarkably refreshing read. The evangelical world could stand to have more books (and authors) like this one.
As for the different views covered in the book, Merkle’s taxonomy includes the following (moving from discontinuity to continuity):
- Classic dispensationalism
- Revised dispensationalism
- Progressive dispensationalism
- Progressive covenantalism
- Covenant Theology
- Christian Reconstructionism (Theonomy)
So, the view with the most discontinuity is classic dispensationalism, with a very hard distinction between church and Israel. And the view with the most continuity is Christian Reconstructionism which even adopts Israel’s civil laws as relevant for today.
When analyzing each view, Merkle covers four key diagnostic questions:
(a) What is the basic hermeneutic? This section delves into literal vs. symbolic interpretation, use of typology, and how the prophecies of Israel are fulfilled.
(b) What is the relationship between the covenants? This section covers how people are saved in the old covenant, and how the old covenant laws apply to the new covenant era.
(c) What is the relationship between Israel and the Church? This is the big one. For each view, Merkle explores whether the church fulfills Israel or is kept separate from Israel (or a mix), and what the future holds for ethnic Israel.
(d) What is the Kingdom of God? This section explores both the nature of the kingdom, and its timing (Is it here now? Only in the future? Both?).
In sum, Merkle has written a very helpful, and long overdue book that should be an important tool in the ongoing discussions of covenant theology and dispensationalism. Not only should it be read for the clear, concise summaries it contains of various views, but for the way it models charity and fairness in a theological battleground (eschatology) that has too often produced more heat than light.
David Spoede says
Love your posts, Dr. (or is President the correct way to address you?) Kruger. Question for you:
Why is it that theologians and most Christians seek certainty and specificity in areas that the Bible has left vague or unclear? Why must we put labels on everything and then fight over the correct labels and the correct definitions for each label? Can’t we, like Paul in referring to marriage, simply say it is a mystery?
Loren J Golden says
Because the local church has to have a Biblical basis for how it will live out the implications of secondary doctrines.
The best example of this would be the dispute between paedobaptists and credobaptists. Scripture does not definitively answer the question of whether God wants Christian parents to present their infant children for baptism or to postpone presenting them until they have made a credible profession of faith when they are older. In the absence of a definitive Biblical statement, the local church, at least in the area of this dispute, does not have the luxury of saying that since God left this matter vague or unclear, we will too. Is the local church going to baptize infants nor not, and on what Biblical grounds will it make that decision?
Members of the local church promise to be subject to the local church’s government and discipline. If a believer was baptized only as an infant, and believes that baptism to be valid on Biblical grounds, he or she would come into conflict with the elders of a church that believed and taught that infant baptism was not valid on Biblical grounds. Conversely, credobaptist parents who refused to have their children baptized until they have made a credible, public profession of faith would likewise come into conflict with the elders of a church that believed and taught, as Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians do, that the continuity between the Old and New Covenants, in the signs and seals of Circumcision and Baptism, respectively, effectively mandates that Christian parents present their children for baptism without undue delay, and without the requirement that those children first make a credible, public profession of faith.
Some latitude may be given to individual church members on secondary doctrines that do not directly affect the life of the local church (e.g., dispensationalism v. covenant theology, Calvinism v. Arminianism, differences in millennial interpretation), because one’s interpretation of secondary doctrines does not imperil one’s eternal salvation and union with Christ. However, where secondary doctrines do directly affect the life of the local church, as in paedobaptism v. credobaptism, it becomes much more difficult for the elders of the church to grant such latitude.
Eugene F Douglass, MS, MDiv, PhD says
When I was considering switching seminaries back in the 1980s, I briefly considered Dalla Theological Seminary, and got in touch with them. Asking them about their dispensationalist theology. I was taken aback, because when I told them I was more reformed in theology, but did not mind their position, as I understood it, they responded by telling me, that unless I accepted dispensationalism as they taught it first, I would not be welcome there. Despite the fact, that one of my favorite Christian educators and preachers was on the faculty, Dr. Howard Hendricks. Thankfully, since then DTS has modified their position regarding acceptable students.
But, it got me into doing some basic investigations of the differences, and for me it came down to one basic aspect, a kind of Christian escapism, that gets hope from being removed from difficult circumstances, persecution etc, instead of being a light in dark places or salt of the earth as a living witness for Christ, in the world but NOT of it.
It also is related to various aspects of eschatology, particularly millennialism/tribulationism, involving literal vs figurative interpretation. I realized the debates were essentially foolishness, because God’s word makes clear that only God knows when He will return in judgement, and warns us to beware of preachers that manipulate others by predicting when He will return.
I essentially became PanTrib/PanMill, it will all pan out in the end, God wins. What God wants us to do now, is live our lives on earth for Christ, and leave the timing to Him.
Van Rhodes says
Fascinating insight. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Lois Westerlund says
Thank you so much for this helpful blog. I fit the pattern: raised in Plymouth Brethren dispensationalism, came to feel that that chart was far too complicated, read one book of the left Behind series, could not get with the graphic depiction of supernatural reality, learned about Reformed theology when I met my husband, then at Westminster Seminary. But as an octogenarian, I am non-contentious, persuaded that God did not give us a book of systematic theology, as helpful as we may find that discipline to our logical thinking, but a revelation of Himself, that we might know Him, love Him, obey Him. As long as I humbly read the entire canon, relying on the Holy Spirit, without an agenda, I trust Him to keep me knowing what I need to know. I will get the book, though–it looks so very helpful, and your recommendation is compelling. Again, thank you!
Dustin Battles says
Michael, why no love for Baptist Covenant Theology, which has existed (though separate from) (Paedobaptist) Covenant Theology? (Or maybe it’s in there and Amazon’s preview/search doesn’t show it to me?)
Eugene F Douglass, MS, MDiv., PhD says
Probably because Presbyterians and other major Reformed denominations now, use Covenant theology (usually bringing up the “end of circumcision” being replaced with infant baptism, but when I ask “what about baby girls, who were never circumcised in the first place?? They oddly have no answer for it. LOL ) to justify infant baptism. And based on what I learned at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, their historical anger at those who developed the London Confession of Faith, had many more scriptural proofs for adult baptism, after conversion vs child/infant baptism to “seal” (covenantily) the baby for the future.
All the literature I could find about the infant/adult baptism fight between UK Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists was angry vitriol aimed at those who dare object to baby baptism.
The problem with Reformed Baptist Theology these days, there is no real denominational structure that insists on adherence to the London Confession of Faith, and few churches in the USA, that preach and teach along those lines, so many of us, end up attending PCA or OPC congregations concentrating on what unites us, not fighting over babies getting wet. Because for those who are not baptized as infants BOTH groups do practice believers baptism for older children and adults who understand what they are going through.
Cheryl M. says
I don’t know what kind of Reformed folks you have read, because your caricature doesn’t resemble the Reformed theology / churches that I’ve been part of for close to 20 years now. No answer about the baby girls not being circumcised, for example? I’ve heard that one quite a few times in my own limited experience. In Christ there is no male or female, and the mark of the covenant is now not only given to males. Nor do I see “anger” in explanations of Reformed theology or infant baptism.
BRUCE MERCER says
there is a 3rd option, New Covenant Theology
David J Miller says
Could you elaborate on New Covenant Theology? I’m interested.
Guymon Hall says
As to the relationship between the church and Israel, and God’s plans for the nation of Israel, and how the church figures into that, I recommend the following book (or portion thereof):
Dennis Clark says
Dr. Francis Schaeffer agrees with you in your reference to Romans 11. He even wrote a letter emphasizing that ignoring God’s covenant with Israel is antisemitic. https://www.pcahistory.org/documents/anti-semitism.html
This trend has taken its toll among the graduates of dispensational educational