The People of God - Intro, Part 2

This post is part of the the people of god series (click to view the other posts in this series).

From a very practical standpoint, beginning to understand this issue of the people of God will help God’s people read, study, and apply the whole counsel of God (the Old and New Testament) in a way that is consistent with His revelation of Himself to us.  Hopefully one might be encouraged to read the Bible as that unfolding story of God whereby He saves a people to be His own.  This blog series is not intended to be a theological treatise but something everyday people can read as he or she seeks to read and understand the Bible.  It is my deepest desire and prayer that this might cause those who read it to dive into the riches of His Word and study for themselves what God has said to us about Himself and His people.  If this happens, may God be praised for a renewed desire, passion, and hunger for His Word.  As we begin to understand that from Genesis to Revelation, there is one plan of God for one people of God redeemed by the Son of God, we begin to see the grace, compassion, love, forgiveness, and faithfulness of the LORD our God and the absolute wonder of the Gospel.  

It’s appropriate as part of this second installment to define a few terms that will help in one’s thought processes.  It’s important to acknowledge that for many of us, we’ve been taught through a particular framework or structure about which we’ve never been informed.  For many in the Christian culture of the area in which I live, the dominant and popular teaching is rooted in dispensational theology.  Most people don’t even know what this is, much less the implications this structure has on biblical hermeneutics (interpretation).   That is not to say that people have tried to hide it or conceal it but that the foundations for their particular doctrines simply are not taught.  So what is dispensationalism and what is its counterpoint?

The two systems of theology among Christian evangelicalism today that will be addressed in this blog are dispensationalism and covenant theology. There are others but for the purpose of this series, the short introductions and even briefer definitions of these two will suffice as a foundation.   There are many differences within these two systems of theology. 

To be fair, it is difficult to get a consistent definition or understanding of dispensationalism.  For some it has changed much from its roots in the 19th century and there is great divergence between differing understandings.  However, what makes any system “unique” is in how it distinguishes itself from other systems.  And while there may be differences, there are some presuppositions that seem to be consistent throughout and upon which much of contemporary evangelicalism seems to be based.  Charles Ryrie, on page 47 of “Dispensationalism Today,” says, “The essence of dispensationalism then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church.  This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well.”  As you quickly see, there are then three presuppositions held by dispensationalists as they read and study their Bibles: the church and Israel are distinct; consistent normal or plain interpretation (literal); and the glory of God as God’s purpose.  So then, dispensationalism is a system of interpreting the Bible through the lens of these three presuppositions and viewing God as superintending His creation within distinct stages or dispensations. 

For Covenant theology, we start where it agrees with Dispensational theology: the glory of God is God's ultimate purpose. However, in contrast to Dispensational theology, Covenant theology doesn't view Scripture as a series of distinct dispensations, but sees it as one unified and integrated story through the lens of God's covenant with man throughout history. Covenant theology does not make a radical distinction between Israel and the New Testament church as the people of God. The church, as found in both the Old Testament and the New, is the one unified people of God.   There is also a difference in the guiding rule of interpretation.  Whereas a dispensationalist would argue that the rule for interpretation Scripture is “literal where possible” a reformed or covenantal hermeneutic would argue for the rule, “Scripture interprets Scripture.”  Rather than allowing a presupposition to determine Scripture’s meaning, Scripture determines its own meaning.  Certainly much more could be said in regard to Covenant Theology but since this isn’t the focus of this particular series, this concise definition will suffice.  If you would like further study on the covenants, see Ligon Duncan’s wonderful work on this topic here.  You may also pick up a copy of Michael Horton’s book, God of Promise; Introducing Covenant Theology

Why is all this important? Why should we be concerned with this? As I mentioned earlier, many of us have been taught individual ideas without also learning the big-picture framework from which these individual ideas are born. So, what happens if we discover that the overall framework isn't biblical? How would it affect the individual ideas that we have been taught? For many of us, this would be a difficult thing to discover. We all find it demanding to wrestle with whole paradigm shifts.   However, if we are truly submissive to Scripture, recognizing the authority it has over us, we will believe what it says regardless of our previous misconceptions or presuppositions.

In the articles to come, we are now ready to examine Scripture’s teaching that that there are not two plans, two trees, two faiths, two lands, or two peoples of God.  There is, indeed, only one plan, one tree, one faith, one land, and one people of God.

This post is part of the the people of god series (click to view the other posts in this series).