Theological Reflections Covenant And Dispensation -- By: Harold O. J. Brown
TrinJ 2:1 (Spring 1981) p. 69
Covenant And Dispensation
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
In a seminary such as Trinity, one is frequently asked, “Are you a covenant theologian or a dispensationalist?” This reflects the current, loose use of the term “covenant theology” to cover anything and everything that might be an acceptable alternative to dispensationalism in conservative, evangelical circles, especially premillennial ones. Interestingly enough, while theologians in the covenant-Calvinistic-Reformed tradition have stressed the continuity of God’s covenantal relationship with mankind and especially with his people, in contrast to the dispensationalists’ emphasis on a succession of relationships, one cannot fail to note that the spiritual dean of the covenant school, Johannes Coccejus (1603–1669) presented anything but a static view of the relationship between God and man. Indeed, he introduced concepts that parallel those of the dispensationalists.
It is true that the reformer Ulrich (or Huldreich, “rich in favor”) Zwingli (1484–1529) emphasized the concept of God’s eternal covenant in order to bypass the papal claim to speak for Christ, the new Moses, in an authoritative way. Rather than pretending to the rank of a third Moses, Zwingli in effect reaffirmed the unity and continuity of God’s purpose through the ages and scored as a usurpation the papal claim to speak with innovating authority on behalf of Christ. Roman Catholic theology sharply stressed the discontinuity between Old and New Testaments. Zwinglian theology (and, following upon it, Calvinistic theology) stressed the continuity. This was clearly a useful polemical device against Roman Catholic claims to exercise viceregal authority in the name of Christ.
In addition, however, the school properly called covenant, which dates from Coccejus in the seventeenth century, stressed another motif-the motif of grace or of gracious love. The content of covenant theology differs very little from that of traditional infralapsarian Calvinism, but a different note is heard, well expressed by Karl Barth: “The covenant expresses the sovereign freedom of God in accordance with his character: it reveals him as the One who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and truth (Ex 34:6), and it is no limitation upon him to be bound by his Word, his covenant … God’s fidelity to his character as saving and righteous is recognized by his people, Israel, only when it is keeping his commandments.” The motif of covenant love, rather than the more traditional theme of the glory of God, informs biblical faith, giving it its character and its content. But this information is not mer...
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