Three Things Dispensational Apologists Should Stop Saying (1)

JohnNelsonDarbyThere 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 the Ryrie 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 Sacra beginning 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. 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.

Further, there is good evidence to think that the roots of the explicit covenant theology of the early 1560s were in in the magisterial Reformers as they worked out an account of redemptive history from the 1520s. forward By the early 17th century the Reformed themselves believed that the roots of their covenant theology were in Oecolampadius (1520s). Certainly Zwingli and Bullinger were working out a covenant theology in response to the Anabaptists. The latter published a treatise on the covenant of grace in 1534. Ursinus taught the covenant of works or a covenant of nature in 1561. Caspar Olevianus published a series of treatises on covenant theology in the 1560s, 70s, and 80s culminating in his work, On The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585). Arguably, Olevianus taught a legal, prelapsarian covenant between God and Adam which was substantially identical to that found in Ursinus and later in Rollock and Perkins. He also taught something very much like the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. See Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant for a survey of his theology.

Long before the Reformed developments in the late 16th century there had been covenant theologies current in the medieval and patristic periods. Much of what the Reformed argued in their account of the substantial unity of salvation was influenced by those earlier responses, e.g., to the Albigensians in the 13th century and to the Gnostics and Marcionites in the 2nd century. Among the second-century writers Barnabas, Irenaeus, and Justin were clearly proponents of a covenantal explanation of redemptive history, which the Reformed would repeat in the 16th century against the Anabaptists. In short, the evidence that a developed covenant theology pre-existed the mid-17th century is overwhelming and claims that Reformed covenant theology arose as a system in mid-17th century are not tenable.

Part 2: Is Reformed covenant theology a “replacement theology”?


R. Scott Clark, “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

R. Scott Clark, A Brief History of Covenant Theology.

Here’s the syllabus for my course on the history of covenant theology (with a bibliography).


  1. Thanks for this post on the newness of Dispensationalism. Was reading OT Allis’ “Prophecy and the Church” (1945)about the very destructive influence of the movement (biblically and politically) and Allis’ concern over Dispy driving an earthly-kingdom-seeking political movement to take Palestine for the Jews (1948), which had not yet happened when he was writing. Fascinating read!

    He traces Dispensationalism’s beginnings to Darby being influenced by Edward Irving who was following a Jesuit priest, Manuel Lacunza, writing under the assumed Jewish name of “Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra.” The Jesuit is said to have wanted to change prophecy from a historical view that pointed to the Pope as the antichrist to a futurist view where the Pope would escape such attacks. All this around the 1830s.

    Interesting that The Master Seminary’s Michael Vlach in his book “Has the Church Replaced Israel?” actually does admit Dispensationalism was a later movement and he does historically trace the basic foundational doctrines of Covenant Theology right back to the apostles. Only he paints all the early church fathers as anti-Semitic and so throws out all that historical theology.

  2. “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.”

    Dr. Clark, would you consider classic Reformed Baptist Covenant theology (aka “1689 Federalism”) a subset of Covenant Theology on this definition (with its understanding of the Covenant of Grace as Promised under the Old Covenant but not formally administered until the death of Christ, though OT saints were still saved by virtue of it), or something else entirely? Clearly it would be anachronistic to call it dispensationalism, though it has some parallels.

    • Andrew,

      Without commenting directly on the 1689, I can say that any view that postpones the administration of the covenant of grace until the death of Christ is not compatible with Reformed covenant theology.

      Since the 1520s Reformed theologians have appealed to the successive, progressive revelation of and administration of the covenant of grace through Adam (Gen) 3:15, Noah (Gen 6), Abraham (Gen 12, 15, 17), Moses, and David as evidence of the fundamental continuity of the covenant of grace throughout redemptive history against Dualists of various sorts.

      The covenant of grace cannot have been suspended or merely promised and yet have been administered through those epochs. Our theologians and confessions see OT believers as fellow Christians before time, as fellow participants in the covenant of grace under types and shadows.

    • Thanks for your response. I’ll work through it carefully.

      I also hope I didn’t misrepresent the position with my comment, given that I’ve only come to learn of it in the past year or so.

  3. Dr. Clark, you seem unaware, in this piece, of the late Robert L. Saucy’s (1930-2015) book, “The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism,” published at about the same period as Bock and Blaising. Dr. Saucy is usually given credit for getting the ball rolling for the PD cause. He was a professor of mine at Talbot School of Theology (during transitional years when I was first becoming Reformed) and was a gracious and very learned person. He told me that the “The” in the title was the publisher’s idea. He would have preferred to use the more humble “A Case…”, but the publisher (Zondervan, I think) insisted.

    Saucy taught systematic theology at Talbot from 1961 until his death last year. In fact, he died just 2 or 3 months before he was set to retire after 54 years at Talbot. He was very gracious about my “sneaking off” to the Reformed camp.

    • Thank you Richard.

      You’re correct. Since my main field of research lies in the 16th and 17th centuries, I haven’t paid a deal of attention to the history of Dispensationalism. I’ll check it out.

  4. 2LCF 7.3 says, “This covenant [i.e., the covenant of grace in context] is revealed in the gospel; first to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterward by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament…” After the words “seed of the woman” Genesis 3:15 is cited. So the 17th century Particular Baptists confessed that the covenant of grace was revealed in the words of Genesis 3:15. 2LCF 20.1 also uses the words “seed of the woman” and cites Genesis 3:15. Genesis 3:15 is understood to be “the promise of Christ, the seed of the woman, …the means of calling the elect…; in this promise the gospel, as to the substance of it, was revealed, and [is] therein effectual for the conversion and salvation of sinners.” The 2LCF sees all believers of all “dispensations” saved by Christ either as He was promised to come by the OT or having come by the NT. Both WCF and 2LCF confess at 8.6 that what Christ did for us was communicated to the elect prior to His incarnation, sufferings, and glory from the beginning of the word by promises, types and sacrifices, wherein He was revealed and signified to be the Seed of the woman…

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