These hermeneutical systems affect the way we read and interpret Scripture. Covenant theology, for example, sees much more continuity across all of Scripture. It also rejects the idea that God has two separate peoples. Dispensationalism sees much more discontinuity, on the other hand. It argues that much of Scripture applies only to Israel and not to Christians today. This radically affects the way we read the Bible. It also affects the preaching of the Bible.
Covenant theology emphasizes the importance of Genesis 1–3 for our understanding of all of Scripture. It emphasizes the radical change caused by man’s fall. Before the fall, God related to man according to a certain formal arrangement. Covenant theology speaks of this as the “covenant of works” or “covenant of life.” After the fall, in order to save His people, God established a new arrangement, which covenant theology refers to as the “covenant of grace.” As God prepared for the sending of the Messiah, He established various covenants throughout redemptive history (e.g., the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant), all of which laid the groundwork for the coming of the Messiah and the new covenant. All these covenants were parts of God’s redemptive plan under the one covenant of grace—the one overarching plan of salvation by grace alone through the work of Christ alone. The emphasis here is the Protestant insistence on the fact that after the fall, the only way for sinful man to be saved is by faith alone in Christ alone. Covenant theology is simply an outgrowth of the five solas of the Reformation.
For more than a century, dispensationalism has been a widespread and popular hermeneutical system among evangelicals. Although it is best known for its distinctive eschatological views, dispensationalism’s most important element is its distinction between two separate peoples of God: Israel and the church. Because of its understanding that God has two distinct plans for two distinct peoples, dispensationalism divides redemptive history into several separate time periods or dispensations. During each of these dispensations, God tests humanity. In each of these dispensations, man fails the test and a new dispensation is inaugurated. Most dispensationalists believe that there are seven distinct dispensations. The present dispensation, the church age, is unique because it is a parenthesis in redemptive history during which God turns His attention from Israel to the church. Dispensationalists claim that their system alone rests on a consistently literal method of interpretation. In reality, the claim itself rests on a very arbitrary definition of literal that is applied selectively and fails to take into account the kind of literature found in these ancient books.
These hermeneutical systems affect the way we read and interpret Scripture. Covenant theology, for example, sees much more continuity across all of Scripture. It also rejects the idea that God has two separate peoples. Dispensationalism sees much more discontinuity, on the other hand. It argues that much of Scripture applies only to Israel and not to Christians today. This radically affects the way we read the Bible. It also affects the preaching of the Bible. I recall one of my dispensationalist seminary professors telling our class that when we preach from the Old Testament, we should be able to preach that sermon at a Jewish synagogue without anyone raising an eyebrow. That is only possible if we do not mention Jesus or the gospel. Is that the way the authors of the New Testament dealt with the Old Testament? Certainly not.
In recent decades, a number of Baptist theologians who were dissatisfied with the older options have offered alternatives that they believe provide a middle way between dispensationalism and covenant theology. Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, a number of dispensationalists, for example, began advocating “progressive dispensationalism.” Progressive dispensationalism sees more continuity in Scripture than traditional dispensationalism does. It sees the dispensations as progressively developing and advancing God’s plan. Progressive dispensationalists continue to maintain a distinction between Israel and the church, but the distinction is not as radical as one finds in traditional dispensationalism.