Jonathan is currently a Master of Divinity student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and wants to become an ordained pastor upon graduation. Please do not plagiarize this essay he wrote for his Church History II class, but feel free to quote it using proper attribution (aff link). Please engage in a constructive but fair discussion in the comments below.
The reformed tradition has outlined three major covenants in covenant theology (redemption, creation, and grace). The covenant of redemption is God the Father’s eternal decree to deliver the elect into Christ’s possession through the work of the Son. The covenant of creation is one of works, in which man is required to obey God to be in right relationship with him. In this, Adam became humanity’s representative, or federal head. Because Adam failed, everyone else stands condemned. The final covenant, the covenant of grace, is an offer of right relationship with God after humanity broke the covenant of creation. This covenant is not dependent upon human merit, but on God’s as fulfilled through Jesus, the new Adam and representative. According to one of today’s covenant theologians, Michael Horton, “The other covenants in Scripture (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) are all grouped under these broader arrangements.”
Like most theologies, covenant theology built on what came before it, so elements of it are contained within church teachings. Some trace the covenant roots of this systematic faith to as early as Justin Martyr (110-165), who claimed, “As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitic race.” Like Justin, glimmers of covenant theology are found in Augustine’s (354-430) writings as he talks about a prelapsarian (pre-fall) covenant made between God and man, “But the first covenant made with the first man, is certainly this: ‘On the day you eat, you will surely die.’” Yet these quotes are only a glimmer as neither are fully formed theologies. Ambrosius Catharinus also proposed this pre-fall covenant with Adam (1487-1553). Although John Calvin is famous for his role in the reformation, he did not have a “fully developed federal theology” but “Calvin does assert the main features of the covenant of creation.”
This focus on a pre-fall covenant with man came out of the church’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil (theodicy). The reformers needed a way to establish God as sovereignly in control, but man as still responsible. Out of this dilemma sprang federal theology. Covenant theology is still so closely linked to federal theology that even today the terms are somewhat interchangeable “because of [their] emphasis on solidarity in a representative head.” Federal theology is largely discovered in the Major Catechism of Zacharias Ursinus, which he wrote in 1561-62. In his 18th Catechism Question he defined what a covenant is, “A covenant in general is a mutual pact between two parties, where one obligates the other to certain conditions for doing, giving, or receiving something, employing signs and external symbols for solemn testimony, as a confirmation that the promise may be inviolable.” Although Ursinus proposed in 1562 this “prelapsarian covenant in Eden, which was the first really clear articulation of the federal theology by a Reformed theologian,” it lay dormant until 1584. According to the historian David Weir, “Ursinus taught this idea to a whole generation of students at the Collegium Sapientia, the University of Heidelberg, and the Casimirianum at Neustadt an der Hard” but it was not until his ideas were published that they became widespread. This theology became so influential that “By 1600 the idea of the prelapsarian covenant was accepted as basic orthodoxy by a host of Calvinist theologians.” And by the early to mid 1600s, “The concept of a covenant of creation (works) reaches confessional status in the Westminster Confession […] and is everywhere presupposed in the Canons of Dort.” Unfortunately, Ursinus’s system, though powerful, did not come out of an “exegetical study of Scripture” but “from systematic, dogmatic thinking.”
From within federal theology came a more broadly Scriptural covenant theology. Herman Witsius and Johannes Cocceius are both largely responsible with systematizing this theology. Witsius (1636-1708) was a highly educated reformed pastor and theology professor. Witsius wrote his major work on covenants in 1677, “The Oeconomy of the Covenants between God and Man, comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity.” In it he outlined four books focusing each on different covenants, “Book I: The Covenant of Works. Book II: The Covenant of Redemption, Or the Covenant of Grace from Eternity Between the Father and the Son. Book III: The Covenant of Grace in Time. Book IV: Covenant Ordinances Throughout the Scriptures.” He more clearly defined the difference between the covenants of works and grace, “In the covenant of works, the responsibility is partly gracious and partly meritorious, whereas in the covenant of grace, it is wholly gracious in response to God's election and Christ's fulfillment of all conditions of the covenant.” Although Ursinus’s theology sprang out of dogmatism, Witsius’s 4th book focuses on the text and wide-angle lens of Scripture as he expounds a “biblical theology.” In it he spends more time focusing on the various covenants found throughout the Old Testament and how they form covenant theology.
Both covenant theology and dispensationalism are systems by which adherents to Scripture view the history of God’s redemptive plan. Dispensationalism as a system is characterized by many varying viewpoints, but most of these perspectives include dividing all of history into three, seven, or more eras (dispensations). According to Richard Belcher, “Within each dispensation there is a unique deposit or distinctive idea of divine revelation; a specific test of obedience in relation to that divine revelation; followed by man’s failure under that specific economy or dispensation; followed by God’s judgment and the beginning of a new dispensation.” Dispensationalism employs a literal hermeneutic that leads to a system characterized by the belief in a pretribulation rapture, the millennial reign of Christ on earth (premillennialism), and the distinctive natures of Israel and the Church.
Dispensationalists also try and trace their system to the early church fathers. They do this by highlighting their eschatological perspectives, “There is unanimous agreement that the apostles and early Church Fathers readily believed and reclaimed the return of the Lord to the earth and His future personal reign on the earth.” Unfortunately for dispensationalists, “No dispensational writer has even been able to offer, however, a single point of continuity between what it today known as dispensationalism and the historical premillennial view.” The true origins of dispensationalism are not found within the reformation or in earlier church history, but come out of one man’s thinking within the group of believers known as the Plymouth Brethren.
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) attended Ireland’s Westminster and “In 1825 he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England by Archbishop Magee of Dublin.” He soon grew disenchanted with the church establishment, noting their corruption and political greed. Darby joined a meeting of other disenfranchised believers in 1827-1828. The Plymouth Brethren were born. They began with several simple values, “The two guiding principles of the movement were to be the breaking of bread every Lord's Day, and ministry based upon the call of Christ rather than the ordination of man.” Even though Darby did not found this group, he would influence their theology the most.
Darby was a brilliant thinker who knew, “Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and German.” Darby loved Christ so much he gave up the idea of marriage and children so he could spend time using his powerful theological mind to serve the Lord. Although, he was not a man without flaws, “All who knew him in the early years of his ministry portray him as filled with saintly virtue, while unprejudiced testimony about his later years reveals a nature warped, caustic, and even at times vicious.” This transformation from saint to antagonist, however, did not take place over night.
Darby was a messy writer who wrote in unending trains of thought, but he was also a potent theologian, said to have more power than the Pope during his lifetime. He clung ruthlessly to the text of the Bible, interpreting the whole Bible through a literal lens that ignored the allegorical or historical nature of the text. This hermeneutic came out of a reaction against rationalism, and actually, “The growth of dispensationalism paralleled the rise of rationalistic attack upon the authority of the Bible.” 
The idea of dispensations originated in the mind of Darby. He held to several important tenants. He believed that the church should be separate from anything in and of the world. It should be a holy body of believers set aside for God. According to Crutchfield, “One of the most important underlying principles in Darby’s understanding of prophecy is his hermeneutical principle of literal interpretation.” Although prophecy had been interpreted mostly allegorically to that point, Darby began to take it at face value. Because of this hermeneutic, Darby divides Israel and the church into separate dispensations with separate God-ordained plans. Darby invented the idea of the rapture because God had to remove the spiritual church before he could continue to deal with his earthly promises made to Israel. As late as the 1960s, Bass writes that dispensationalists held to Darby’s view, “The church is an interruption of God's plan with Israel necessitated by the rejection of the kingdom by the Jews when it was offered to them by Jesus.” Unfortunately, as this theologian also points out, “An emphasis upon the national restoration of Israel is, at the same time, a de-emphasis upon the triumph of the cross, by which believers are made members of the body of Christ, the church.”
As Darby promoted his theology within the Plymouth Brethren the movement began to grow in leaps and bounds. They called themselves the “Brethren” because of their movement’s principles based on mutual love and unity. However, strong-willed Darby soon clashed with one of the other senior men, B.W. Newton. They had so much contention and strife that Darby excommunicated Newton and his followers. Their debate was over non-essential tenants of the faith. Darby believed in the rapture but Newton believed the Old Testament saints were a part of the church and that the believers would not escape the tribulation. According to Bass, “The pretribulation rapture, compartmentalizing of Scripture, Jewish nature of the kingdom, all of which have become integral parts of the dispensational system, are clearly present in this conflict.” A spirit of contention reigned during the life of Darby, but his power soon began to wane, ironically because he had excommunicated many of his adherents or they had died. It is important to note that “While contemporary dispensationalists would not agree with Darby in many of his details, they do indeed agree that all of Scripture must be taken in its plain, normal, literal, sense, and that this results in the need for maintaining a distinction between the church and Israel.” Unfortunately, this spirit of separation from the world and contention continued to reign in dispensationalism.
Out of Darby and other dispensational theology of the 19th century rose a system of thought “which influenced many prominent Christians in the United States, including D. L. Moody, James H. Brooks, and C. I. Scofield.” Dispensationalism gained its wide spread of followers when “The Brethren influence in the United States produced the Bible Conference Movement, starting with the Niagara Bible Conferences in the 1870s.” Dispensationalism was taken into the hearts and minds of the common church congregant when “In 1909 C. I. Scofield published his now famous Scofield Reference Bible, which placed the teachings of the conferences and the Brethren into the hands of the general public.” By the mid twentieth century dispensationalism and covenant theology were both popular enough to begin to confront each other’s differences.
Scofield influenced the theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer, who is responsible for founding the “Evangelical Theological College,” which is today known as “Dallas Theological Seminary.” In the mid 1940s, Chafer would run into some trouble with covenant theologians. Although its difficult to imagine today, covenant and dispensational theology were not at odds against each other through the end of the 1930s. In fact, “dispensationalists” did not like that title, and only accepted it because of covenant theologians giving them this label. At this time the covenant theologians and Presbyterian leaders Allis and Murray wrote against the dispensational theologian Lewis Sperry Chafer’s “two-ways of salvation, one in the Old Testament, another in the New Testament” theology. They believed dispensationalism stood in opposition with the Westminster Confession of faith. This was a rather large accusation since reformed churches throughout America held to it closely. A decisive hardening of dispensationalism against covenant theology was about to occur between 1941-1944 as an “investigation of dispensationalism by the Ad Interm Committee (AIC) on Changes in the Confession of Faith and Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.” took place. This was essentially the Presbyterian Church’s general assembly (GA) trial of the dispensational system. Chafer did not take well to this critique and “By 1943 […] his tone toward covenant theology had become considerably more antagonistic.” Although he wanted to appear before this committee, Chafer was never allowed to do so to defend his position. This would have been helpful because Chafer thought the committee was concerned with his eschatological position while in reality they were more concerned about the “two ways of salvation” issue.
In 1943, the AIC concluded that dispensationalism was not in agreement with the Westminster confession. They resolutely condemned Chafer’s theology and many of the footnotes found in the Scofield Reference Bible because they promoted dual religions and plans of salvation for the Jews and the Gentiles. However, this report was not adopted because members of the council who held premillennialist views were rightly concerned that it would condemn their eschatology. One of these premillennialist was a man by the name of L. Nelson Bell, who was the future father in law of the famous Billy Graham. According to Mangum, Bell was a powerful enough presence in this debate to request for clarification and acceptance of premillennialism outside of dispensationalism, “Bell influenced the committee so that it modified its report.” It is interesting to note that even though Graham worked so long and hard to unify the evangelicals his father in law was at least partially responsible for one of the major contentions of strife still felt to this day. Finally, “In 1944, the AIC submitted its findings to the GA as to ‘whether the type of Bible interpretation known as Dispensationalism is in harmony with our Confession of Faith.’ Their answer was unanimous: ‘It is not.’”
It is rather startling how two systems of theology can go from a semi-polite accommodation of each other in the 1930s to being directly opposed to each other in the span of less than ten years. Unfortunately, “Not only did the 1944 AIC report represent back then the culmination of hostilities that had been building for decades, it remains to this day as close to an official denunciation of dispensationalism by a Reformed-Covenantalist body as has ever been produced.” Furthermore, the 1936-1944 controversies are largely responsible for breaking one more holistic body, who had been fighting modernism together, into two camps of evangelicals, the dispensationalists and Covenantalist. As a result of this report, Dallas Theological Seminary largely separated from the reformed tradition, began to recruit less Presbyterians and more Baptists, and many dispensationalists became anti-reformed. What actually saved Dallas Theological Seminary as a school was the end of WWII and the large influx of new recruits with looser denominational affiliations.
Covenant theologians have cherished and developed the theology of Ursinus and Witsius. On the other end, today’s dispensationalist theologians would largely disagree with much of Darby’s, Scofield’s, and Lewis Sperry Chafer’s theologies. In 1967 dispensational theologians actually re-wrote many of Scofield’s controversial footnotes, clarifying the one-plan of salvation, “Prior to the cross man’s salvation was through faith, being grounded on Christ’s atoning sacrifice, viewed anticipatively by God; now it is clearly revealed that salvation and righteousness are received by faith in the crucified and resurrected Savior.” During the 1960s dispensationalists stopped believing in two-covenants, which provided for greater healing and unification between the two camps of theology. It is disheartening to note that if each camp of theology had just shown the other camp more grace, and had worked to refine each other’s theology instead of flinging accusations, this wide rift between the systems might have been avoided. This leads Mangum to ask, “What advances in evangelicalism might have been achieved if only these misunderstandings had been clarified earlier?” Unfortunately, hostilities remain despite today’s more closely-linked theologies.
Much of the differences, thought not as eschatological based, stem from each system’s view of the Church and Israel. Although there is such a thing as replacement theology, today’s covenant theology is more nuanced than this because it views the church as having always been the people of God, even in the Old Testament. Many others covenant adherents would say the church is a fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel as God always intended them to be. However, today’s dispensationalists continue to hold to their distinctions, “While Gentiles as the people of God share many benefits with the Jews through the covenant, the Jews have a distinct place within God's program and receive a different fulfillment of the promises (national, political).” Covenant theologians could do a better job of bridging the gap between dispensationalists if they might recognize the church did not exist before the cross and that perhaps God still has some special ideas in store for the Jews, or at least the remnant within the geo-political nation of Israel. As Poythress writes, “It is legitimate to distinguish Jew and Gentiles as peoples with two separate origins. But their destiny (if they come to trust in God's promises) is the same: they share in the inheritance of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.” Walter Kaiser has proposed what he calls “promise theology,” which could help bridge this gap:
[Promise theology] agrees with the distinction between Israel and the church. But instead of continuing to say, as classical dispensationalism did, that there are two separate peoples (Israel and the church) with two separate programs (the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom of our Lord), this view stresses that there is one people (“the people of God”) with a number of discernable aspects within that one people (such as Israel and the church), and there is only one program of God (the “kingdom of God”) with numerous aspects under that single program.
On the other side of the aisle, dispensationalists need to revisit their hermeneutic to better include what the original authors intended in the text, including reading prophecy less literally, the reality of which is seen in the best selling Left Behind series. They have made headway in this area with places like Dallas Theological Seminary teaching the "historical theological interpretation of Scriptures"(dts.edu). But for many other dispensationalists still today, Poythress writes, “If dispensationalists are dead serious about advocating grammatical-historical interpretation, in distinction from first-thought interpretation, flat interpretation, and plain interpretation, [they could show] their commitment by dropping the phrase ‘literal interpretation.’ It will be difficult "because ‘literal’ has become a watchword or banner.”
Mangum also affirms this, “Simply parroting the older dispensationalist canard that the dispensationalist-covenant theology debate is between those who take the Bible ‘literally’ and those who ‘allegorize’ or ‘spiritualize’ Scripture should come to an abrupt halt.” Today’s dispensationalists also need to continue to work out what it means to be one body in Christ and as a result of that what promises the church partakes in through their union with Christ, who is the true seed of Abraham.
Looking back over these theologians, adherents can see the good and bad each system has resulted in. They have each given their followers a deeper framework from which to study Scripture and to share the good news of God’s redemptive plan. Covenant theology has occasionally fallen short with its low regard for Israel. This attitude actually comes from the church historian Eusebius (263-339) who contrary to all theologians of his time “did not believe there was a distinct future for the Jews; rather, the church was God’s new Israel.” His view was stamped as truth by the Emperor Constantine and is still held to by “an astonishing number of contemporary theologians.” Dispensationalism’s separatist attitude and “spiritual” view of the church has lead to its failure to engage in many important socio-political issues. The Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on Roe vs. Wade actually caused evangelicals to think that perhaps the ruling was correct because “the New Testament did not comment on the issue.” Dispensationalism has also caused its followers to withdraw from society, founding Christian colleges and universities so as to separate from the world’s influence. Although these institutions have largely changed, promoting the furtherance of the gospel in all areas of life, a generation’s neglect of secular universities is still being felt today. These theologies, like all worldviews, have had very real consequences on modern life.
In conclusion, this brief study of dispensationalism and covenant theology has help shed light on their unique histories, their unfortunate conflict, and how these two systems can better learn from each other today. Although Evangelicals have experienced a great deal of discord over these positions, there is hope that as their theologians continue to refine their systems, they can learn from each other in a spirit of grace. Despite these theological issues sneaking up on the church, they did not sneak up on God. He ordained that these conflicts would come to pass, and as such, will use them to refine and care for his body the one people of God.
Bass, Clarence B. Backgrounds to Dispensationalism - Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Imp. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdman's, 1960.
Belcher, Richard P. A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Columbia, SC.: Richbarry Press, 1986.
Bock, Darrell L., Craig A. Blaising, and W. Edward Glenny. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: the Search For Definition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.
Crutchfield, Larry V. The Origins of Dispensationalism: the Darby Factor. Lanham: University Press Of America, 1992.
Horton, Michael. God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2006.
Mangum, R. Todd. The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift (Studies in Evangelical History and Thought). Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster, 2007.
Mathison, Keith A. Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1995.
Patrick, Ramsey D., and Beeke Joel R. Analysis Of Herman Witsius's The Economy of The Covenants. Grand Rapids, MI.: Christian Focus, 2003.
Poythress, Vern S. Understanding Dispensationalists. 2nd ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1994.
Weir, David A. The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1990.
Image By: Andres Rueda
 Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2006), 78.
 Horton, 78.
 Keith A. Mathison, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1995), 13.
 David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1990), 12. (Quote from Augustine’s Civitas Dei, Book XVI, Chap 27).
 Weir, 12.
 Horton, 88.
 Weir, 22.
 Horton, 78.
 Weir, 155.
 Weir, 109.
 Weir, 22.
 Horton, 84.
 Weir, 158.
 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1994), 40.
Ramsey D. Patrick and Beeke Joel R., Analysis Of Herman Witsius's The Economy of The Covenants (Grand Rapids, MI.: Christian Focus, 2003), vi.
“First printed in English in 1736”(Ramsey, vi).
 Ramsey, xii.
 Ramsey, xvi.
 Richard P Belcher, A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Columbia, SC.: Richbarry Press ;, 1986), 8.
 Belcher, 8.
 Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism - Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Imp(Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdman's, 1960), 14.
 Bass, 14.
 Bass, 49.
 Larry V. Crutchfield, The Origins of Dispensationalism: the Darby Factor (Lanham: University Press Of America, 1992), 5.
 Bass, 60.
 Bass, 52.
 Bass, 62.
 Bass, 54.
 Bass, 21.
 Crutchfield, 148.
 Crutchfield, 188.
 Bass, 27.
 Bass, 32.
 Bass, 72.
 Bass, 83, 89.
 Bass, 127.
 Mathison, 10.
 Mathison, 10.
 Mathison, 10.
 Mathison, 11.
 R. Todd Mangum, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift (Studies in Evangelical History and Thought)(Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster, 2007), 6.
 Mangum, 6.
 Mangum, 11.
 Mangum, 10.
 Mangum, 6.
 Mangum, 11.
 Mangum, 202-03.
 Mangum, 177.
 Mangum, 73.
 Mangum, 146-47, 149.
 Mangum, 151.
 Mangum, 156.
 Mangum, 12-13.
 Mangum, 19-20.
 Mangum, 165-65.
 Mangum, 170.
 Darrell L. Bock, Craig A. Blaising, and W. Edward Glenny, Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: the Search For Definition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 350.
 Mangum, 185 (In-text Scripture references removed).
 Bock, 369. (“An Epangelical Response” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.)
 Mangum, 186. 200-01.
 Bock, 360. (“An Epangelical Response” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.)
 Bock, 345. (“A Response” by Willem A. VanGemeren)
 Poythress, 123.
 Bock, 367. (“An Epangelical Response” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.)
 Poythress, 69.
 Bock, 362. (“An Epangelical Response” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.)
 Mangum, 103.
 Bock, 374. (“An Epangelical Response” by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.)