Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology: A Catholic Perspective on a Debated PointJun 21st, 2014 | By Andrew Preslar | Category: Blog Posts
In theologically conversant Evangelical circles, it is (or used to be) common knowledge that one of the most basic conflicts between Dispensational theologians and Covenant theologians is that they give different answers to the question, “What is the most fundamental purpose of God’s dealings with the world, as revealed in Scripture?” The classical Dispensationalist answer is “God manifesting his own glory,” whereas the Covenant theologian is likely to answer, “God’s saving work on behalf of man.” The Dispensationalist answer focuses on the various stages of biblical history in vertical relation to God, while the Covenant theologian’s answer focuses on the horizontal aspect of this same history, i.e., the various events or stages of biblical history considered in relation to one another.
Christian theology, in maintaining that the God who created and sustains the world is the same God who “so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), requires both perspectives, the vertical and the horizontal. The glory of God as manifested in biblical history is most fundamental in that this precedes and is presupposed by specifically redemptive history, while the history of salvation is most fundamental in that it involves a deeper and more intimate relation of Creator to creation (culminating in the Incarnation and Passion) than that given in creation as such. 
It seems to me that the Dispensationalist perspective on biblical history, whatever its defects might be as a narrative summary, is consonant with an “ontological” emphasis in theology, in that all of creation, hence, all of history, is completely dependent upon God for its life, movement, and existence (cf. Acts 17:28), and to this extent at least every stage of history makes manifest the glory of God. The Covenant perspective on biblical history, whatever its defects or limitations in terms of scope, is more successful than Dispensationalism to the end of discerning a specifically “narrative” unity in revelation–showing how the Bible constitutes a single, complete story. (I take it that this unity of narrative must exist if there is any sense in which the Bible really is one book and not merely a hodgepodge of writings.)
In the first volume of his book series on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI comments on the need for both the ontological and narrative dimensions of theology, with specific reference to Christology:
Scholars speak of two types of confessional formula in relation to early Christianity, the ‘substantive’ and the ‘verbal’; perhaps it would be clearer to speak of an ‘ontological’ and a ‘salvation history’ type of confession…. The two types of confession belong together, and each one is incomplete and ultimately unintelligible without the other. Without the concrete history of salvation, Christ’s titles remain ambiguous: not only the word ‘Messiah,’ but also ‘Son of the living God.’ For this title is equally capable of being understood in a sense that is opposed to the mystery of the Cross.
Conversely, the bald ‘salvation history’ statement remains without its full depth unless it is made clear that he who suffered here is the Son of the living God, who is equal to God (cf. Phil 2:6)…. By the same token, the great creedal statements of the Church always linked the two dimensions together.
(Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008], p. 298-99.)
The classical Dispensationalist emphasis on the glory of God manifested in the various epochs of the world resonates with an important aspect of the great Catholic and Orthodox mystical tradition, which sees all of creation as saturated with the glory of God, consonant with the 19th Psalm. Covenant theology’s emphasis on salvation history resonates with Catholicism’s emphasis on the Incarnation of the Son of God as the climax of redemptive history and the turning point of human history, at which our nature is joined to the divine nature (without separation and without confusion) in the Person of the Son, such that in him all human persons can become partakers of divinity (Peter 1:4). Thus, the ontological and the historical, the creative and the redemptive aspects of God’s relation to the world are brought together in Christ, and so they belong together in Christian theology.
 Although I am here stressing the way that the verbal aspect of salvation history complements the glory of God in creation, i.e., by bringing things into focus through spoken and written revelation, it is also true that the ontological aspect of salvation (hypostatic union, infused grace, theosis) complements the glory of God in creation (thus building upon nature).