Dispensationalism could not have given birth to America.
As a hermeneutic and worldview it is culturally impotent. It does not allow for unity and continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament, nor does it allow for unity in history. It chops up the Bible and history into dispensations, or periods of testing, in which God deals with people in different and changing ways. The dispensation in which one lives determines what parts of the Bible are ethically authoritative for him. Since Christians of the New Testament and afterward do not live in the Old Testament, the laws, promises, and threats of the Old Testament are not for them, but for the Jews of ancient Israel, who are God’s earthly people, as the church is God’s spiritual people.
This approach to the Bible creates a series of dichotomies in one’s approach to life. It tears the fabric of life. It produces an antinomian worldview, i.e., a disregard for Biblical laws, particularly those in the Old Testament. It is pessimistic and defeatist toward culture and the future, believing that, as things get worse and worse, the Christian’s only hope is to be silently raptured out of this life before the Antichrist creates a hell on earth and Jesus later burns everything up. Such defeatism paralyzes, which unfortunately encourages peaceful co-existence with evil in a society. Any effort to build a civilization on dispensationalism, therefore, is like building a house on sand.1
Covenantalism, on the other hand, did give birth to America. As a hermeneutic and worldview it provides a firm foundation for a civilization of liberty and justice for all. Both testaments of the Bible are unified by a common covenantal promise and framework — the covenant of grace.2 This bond of eternal friendship between God and His people in Christ includes communion with God and a sovereignly-dictated order of life for God’s people.
Furthermore, this covenant is the framework within which we as God’s people in Christ live to this very day. If we see in the Bible the unifying message and structure of God’s covenant with His people, we will see a unity and continuity in the Christian life and our mission to the world, i.e., the Dominion Mandate in Genesis 1:28 and the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. It is a logical progression from “replenish the earth, and subdue it” to “teach all nations, baptizing them....”
The covenantal worldview recognizes that all the relationships of life between God and the world, God and man, and among human beings are based on covenants. All of human life takes place with reference to the covenant of God with human beings in Christ. That covenant is “the divine framework for human life — both religious and civil — from the beginning of the world until the last judgment.”3 This idea of the covenant is not an innovation, rather it is “the very fabric from which the history of salvation was woven through the centuries from Adam [to today].”4
Not a New Idea
Covenant theology spread rapidly during the 16th and 17th centuries. It was brought to America by early settlers in the British colonies — the Anglicans in Virginia and the southeastern seaboard, the Puritans in New England, and especially the Presbyterians in the Middle and Southern colonies. It gathered momentum during the colonial period and acquired traits that identify a distinctively American covenantal (federal) tradition. It was taught in all the colleges and it influenced the foundation of all the colonial charters and later state constitutions.
The covenantal worldview, growing out of the Bible and the 16th century Protestant Reformation, was the moral, social, and political foundation of American society. “Federalism (covenantalism) was the social and political air breathed by the leaders of the American Revolution and by Madison and his colleagues of the Constitutional Convention. From them federalism formed the basis of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States of America.”5 This shaping influence of a covenantal worldview can be seen in the influence of two bestsellers in 18th century America, both of which were written by men committed to the covenant theology of the Reformation: A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants, written in 1579 by a French Huguenot named Philippe Duplesis-Mornay; and Lex Rex, written in the mid-17th century by the Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford.6
The Covenantal Worldview
Covenantalism permeated the social life of early America — family, church, state, education, and commerce. It gave shape to the society that later became the United States of America. The basic elements of that worldview include the following:
- All human beings are created in covenant with God and are subject to His divine moral order, as either covenant keepers or covenant breakers.
- The individual, home, church, and state are all to enforce God’s moral order in the Bible, being in covenant with Him.
- In human communities particular persons become representative of an entire social group — fathers represent their children, elders their churches, elected officials their citizens, etc.
- Because human beings are prone to covenant breaking, the civil government must have checks and balances and separation of powers.
- The union of people in a society is more than a social contract. It is a covenant relation from God Himself woven into the very fabric of creation and history. A society is not merely a collection of individuals; it is a covenanted society of interdependent, interactive agreements based on the Word of God.
Society develops from private to public associations, as smaller societies unite by covenant into larger social entities — [city, county, state and nation]. The smaller groups are represented in the larger groups by persons who represent collectively the members of the groups from which they come, and it is the groups they represent rather than they themselves who are the members of the larger group. If human beings are gathered together without a covenant — there is only a crowd, a mob.7
Mob rule, i.e., democracy, has no place in a covenanted society. Our founding fathers in the 16th through the 18th centuries preferred a confederated republic to either a democracy or a consolidated nation. The War Between the States was fought to change the covenantal nature of American society and politics, to change a covenanted society into “one nation indivisible,” with allegiance going to the central civil government in Washington, DC.
…the faithful activity of God in covenant does not cease with the creation of the world but continues in human community and history until the consummation of all things. Humans living in symbiotic interdependence with one another and God are constantly acting not only in response to the immediate context of other humans in the various covenants of society but also in response to the continuing activity of God the faithful One. The hope for societal justice as well as for salvation rests…ultimately upon the will and action of God.8
Three modern wars have been fought to preserve a covenantal approach to society: the English Civil War in the 1640s, the “Glorious Revolution” in England in 1688, and the American War of Independence in 1776. The French Revolution of 1789, the War Between the States in the 1860s, and most modern wars have been fought to destroy a covenantal approach to society.
In its purposeful disconnect from the covenantal nature of Christian civilization, dispensationalism is simply on the wrong side of history. In fact, it is disconnected from history altogether.
1. Two helpful refutations of dispensationalism are House Divided: the Break-up of Dispensational Theology by Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. and Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow by Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn, III.
2. For an excellent example of the covenantal interpretation of the Bible, see The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson; and for an excellent example of the application of a covenantal interpretation of the Bible to society see Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition by Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker.
3. Charles S. McCoy, J. Wayne Baker, et al., Fountainhead of Federalism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 20.
4. Ibid., 15.
5. Ibid., 28.
6. For an excellent exposition of the covenantal politics of Samuel Rutherford, see Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford by John Coffey.
7. McCoy, 57.
8. Ibid., 53.