However comforting such a narrative might be to Dispensationalists it is demonstrably false. Covenant theology did mature in the 17th century but the very system of a prelapsarian (pre-fall) covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace, which allegedly arose in the 1640s, existed explicitly as early as 1561 and implicitly much earlier than that. In the transitional period from 1561 until 1600 one sees multiple writers doing explicitly what some Dispensational apologists claim did not exist until the 1640s.
There are varieties of Dispensationalism, e.g., classic (Darby, Scofield), modified (Chafer, Ryrie), and progressive (Bock, Blaising). To be sure there are varieties of covenant theology, e.g., classic e.g., that taught in the classical period that taught the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the covenant of works (foedus operum), and the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae) and revised (which omits the covenant of works and/or the covenant of redemption). Nevertheless, despite the significant differences between revised and classic covenant theology, they are united in their conviction that the history of redemption is united by a single, typological, covenant of grace progressively revealed in the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 3:15 and ratified by Christ’s obedience and death.
For a century, beginning in the 1870s, American evangelicalism was heavily influenced by Dispensationalism. Advanced through Dispensationalist prophecy conferences, Bible Colleges, seminaries and perhaps most of all, through the Scofield Bible (1909), it became the dominant paradigm for the interpretation of redemptive history among those influenced by revivalism and fundamentalism, which is to say most evangelicals in the period. Dispensationalism appeared to be at the peak of its influence in the 1970s with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s, The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970), John Walvoord’s Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis (1976; rev. 1990), and theRyrie Study Bible (1976) seemed to signal that the influence of Dispensationalism, especially the modified Dispensationalism was only continuing to grow.
In retrospect, however, it appears that 1970s were not a staging ground for further growth but the zenith of Dispensationalism. Its influence began to wane through the 1980s. In 1990 Bock and Blaising published Progressive Dispensationalism, which signaled a movement away from the Dispensationalism of not only of Scofield but also of Chafer, Ryrie, and Walvoord. There are bastions of modified Dispensationalism, however, that are continue to hold the fort but they seem to feel beleaguered not without and within. Perhaps in reaction, some defenders of modified Dispensationalism are prone to make certain exaggerated historical and theological claims as part of their defense. In no particular order:
- Covenant theology arose in the 1640s (or 1670s)
C. Fred Lincoln made this claim in a series of articles published in Bibliotheca Sacrabeginning in 1943. His work has been further reduced to the bald claim, as one pastor puts it on his website: “Covenant theology is a system developed by two men, Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) and Hermann Witsius (1636-1708).” I have heard this claim repeatedly.
However comforting such a narrative might be to Dispensationalists it is demonstrably false. Covenant theology did mature in the 17th century but the very system of a prelapsarian (pre-fall) covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace, which allegedly arose in the 1640s, existed explicitly as early as 1561 and implicitly much earlier than that.