Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology: A Catholic Perspective on a Debated Point

Jun 21st, 2014 | By | 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. [1]

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.


[1] 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).

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  1. Has the Catholic Church formally condemned premillenialism?

  2. Hello Alec,

    According to a Catholic Answers article on the rapture:

    As far as the millennium goes, we tend to agree with Augustine and, derivatively, with the amillennialists. The Catholic position has thus historically been “amillennial” (as has been the majority Christian position in general, including that of the Protestant Reformers), though Catholics do not typically use this term. The Church has rejected the premillennial position, sometimes called “millenarianism” (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 676). In the 1940s the Holy Office judged that premillennialism “cannot safely be taught,” though the Church has not dogmatically defined this issue.

    There is a section in the Catechism on the Lord’s return (one paragraph of which is referenced above), which can be read here.


  3. Thanks for your reply David.

    Let’s consider the question “What evidence is there that the Apostles taught premillenialism?”

    One could argue that it’s attested in the Epistle to Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache and that Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Papias were clearly premillenialists.

    I’m not a premillenialist myself, but I can at least see how they would make a case.

    And yet, premillenialism is deemed “unsafe” by the Catholic Church.

    Now, if we ask the question “What evidence is there that the Apostles taught the Assumption
    of Mary?” There is simply nothing like the evidence that can be marshalled for premillenialism.

    And apparently, this is not to be held as “a legitimate opinion”, but is apparently binding on all Christians to believe.

    Why the asymmetry?

  4. Alec,
    Just a quick observation regarding some of those early texts you mention: in some cases at least, it seems to me that the statements about premillenial ideas could be simply recounting the literal content of the visions of the Apostle John. The takeaway from those texts then is something more to do with the genuineness of those visions in the eyes of the Church and/or the canonicity of the book of Revelation, as opposed to a specific scheme of interpretation of those visions.


  5. Alec,

    One difference between premillennialism and the dogma of the Assumption, re the early church fathers, is that one can find dissenting voices with regard to the former but no explicit testimony, one way or another, regarding the latter. So in both cases the testimony of the early church fathers is not sufficient for settling the matter. But if we take into account more of the data from church history, going beyond the 2nd and 3rd centuries into the patristic golden age and beyond, things become clearer. Millenarianism is not accepted by the church (being all but universally rejected), while the Dormition and Assumption of Mary is universally accepted by the church.

    Both developments are organic in that neither involved contradiction of previous doctrinal consensus and both can be found at least in seed form in the sources; e.g., the fulfillment of the one thousand year reign in church history (the saints ruling with Christ by virtue of martyrdom, etc.) and the biblical depictions of bodily resurrections accompanying the resurrection of Christ, together with the “queen of heaven” texts in both testaments.

    The development of Christian doctrine is symmetrical in that it involves growth in understanding of a central idea (analogous to the growth of an organism), as explained by Newman in his essay on doctrinal development. But the “central idea” of the Christian faith is not “whatever finds explicit testimony in some early church fathers”; rather, it is the Incarnation of the Son of God. In that relation, the rejection of millennarianism and the acceptance of the Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin are (I would argue) genuine, organic developments of Christian doctrine.

    It is also bears pointing out that by the nature of the case this development occurs within the Body of Christ by means of the members of the Body in union Christ, which essentially includes the teaching authority of the church.

    (The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the data in its entry on Millenarianism. On a related note, First Things recently posted an article on “Christian Zionism” which presents some of the same data in the context of current discussion of the theological significance of the modern state of Israel. In my opinion, none of the evidence presented in the article is inconsistent with the idea that the promises to Israel and the prophecy in Revelation regarding the millennium are being fulfilled in the church militant and triumphant.)

  6. Ugh. Sorry for calling you David, Andrew. I had David Anders in my head as the author of this article, for some reason.

  7. That’s allright, I took it as a compliment!

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