I occasionally encounter the claim by paedobaptists that 1689 Federalism is dispensational. Just yesterday someone called it “repackaged dispensationalism,” (ignoring the fact that it predates dispensationalism by 200 years). Regretfully, this mistaken label is used not as a conversation starter, but as a conversation stopper.
It is not always clear what is meant by the claim. Generally they intend one of the following things:
- 1689 Federalism disagrees with Westminster Federalism (therefore it is Dispensational).
- 1689 Federalism makes a distinction between Israel and the Church (therefore it is Dispensational).
- 1689 Federalism believes the Old Covenant was a law covenant of works (therefore it is Dispensational).
Disagrees with Westminster Federalism
This is just stating the obvious. Of course 1689 Federalism disagrees with Westminster Federalism. That’s the point. But the definition of Dispensationalism is not “anything that disagrees with Westminster Federalism.” When pressed, some try to soften their rhetoric by saying 1689 Federalism is not 1:1 Dispensationalism, but it is “in the same category” as Dispensationalism. What is that category? “Anything that disagrees with Westminster Federalism.”
This kind of tunnel vision is entirely unhelpful and counterproductive to meaningful dialogue. Disagreement with Westminster Federalism has existed (even among the reformed) since the Westminster Confession was written 200+ years before Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism does disagree with Westminster Federalism, but so do many other theologies, including 1689 Federalism. If this is a point that a critic wants to focus on, simply say “1689 Federalism disagrees with Westminster Federalism.”
Makes a Distinction Between Israel and the Church
Westminster does not distinguish between Israel and the Church. Israel is the Church and the Church is Israel in that system. Yes, both Dispensationalism and 1689 Federalism disagree with Westminster on this point. Yet Dispensationalism and 1689 Federalism have different, mutually exclusive views of Israel and the Church.
The most fundamental belief of Dispensationalism is that God has made eternal promises to two different peoples (Israel and the Church) that will be fulfilled in two different eternal destinies. In Understanding Dispensationalists, Vern S. Poythress wrestles with defining and labeling the theological system and suggests it might more accurately be called “‘dual destinationism’ (after one of its principal tenets concerning the separate destinies of Israel and the church).” (12)
1689 Federalism rejects that belief. One of its principal tenets is that Israel according to the flesh is a type of Israel according to the Spirit (the church). That is anti-Dispensational. It is so anti-Dispensational that it is the argument amillennial paedobaptist covenant theologians make against Dispensationalism. Meredith Kline said
The fundamental fallacy of the dispensational scheme is its failure to do justice to the Bible’s identification of the new covenant (or second level) realization of the kingdom promise as standing in continuity with the old covenant (or first level) realization as antitypical fulfillment to typal promise… Covenantal hermeneutics properly perceives the prototypal, provisional, passing nature of the first level kingdom and the antitypal, perfective, permanent nature of the second level kingdom.
Kline explained that “According to the Scriptures there is a clear-cut distinction between the typal and antitypal levels of fulfillment of the kingdom domain promised in the Abrahamic Covenant” which corresponds to “the distinction made in the promise of the seed between literal and spiritual Israelites.” 1689 Federalism is in strong agreement with Kline’s covenantal hermeneutic here, over against Dispensationalism (in fact, we like the hermeneutic so much, we use it against paedobaptists too).
Given 1689 Federalism’s understanding of Israel and the Church, it is not possible for it to be Dispensational.
Believes the Old Covenant was a Law Covenant of Works
1689 Federalism believes that the Mosaic Covenant was a law covenant of works for temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan. A knee-jerk reaction from many paedobaptists is to associate this idea with Dispensationalism, perhaps because that is the only other context they are aware of.
First, the idea that Sinai was a law covenant of works is not uniquely Dispensational. The idea was common during the reformational era. Representative of the Lutheran view, Philip Melanchthon said
I consider the Old Testament a promise of material things linked up with the demands of the law. For God demands righteousness through the law and also promises its reward, the Land of Canaan, wealth, etc… By contrast, the New Testament is nothing else than the promise of all good things without regard to the law and with no respect to our own righteousness… Jer, ch.31, indicates this difference between the Old and New Testaments.
Anthony Burgess noted
It is true, the Lutheran Divines, they doe expresly oppose the Calvinists herein, maintaining the Covenant given by Moses, to be a Covenant of workes, and so directly contrary to the Covenant of grace. Inded, they acknowledge that the Fathers were justified by Christ, and had the same way of salvation with us; onely they make that Covenant of Moses to be a superadded thing to the Promise.
(Vindication of the Morall Law, 241)
In his commentary on Hebrews 8, Owen gives a summary of the reformed vs the Lutheran view of the Old and New Covenants, and then states his agreement with the Lutherans on this point (as representative of the Congregationalists who tended to hold this view). And the Lutherans were just repeating what they learned from Augustine, who said
As then the law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament, so the law of faith, written on the heart, and its reward, the beatific vision which the house of the spiritual Israel, when delivered from the present world, shall perceive, belong to the new testament.
Joshua Moon shows how Augustine’s view was held by many up through the reformation. In “The True Bounds of Christian Freedom” (1645) Samuel Bolton likewise states his disagreement with Westminster’s view in favor of the belief that the Old Covenant only promised temporal life and blessing in Canaan, and did so upon the condition of the law. This was known as the subservient covenant view. It grew in popularity the following century, finding expression in Presbyterians like John Erskine and Anglicans like Thomas Scott’s very popular whole bible commentary. It was also foundational to the American Presbyterian embrace of religious liberty. When the same idea cropped up more recently in Presbyterian circles, T. David Gordon and Charles Lee Irons argued the subservient covenant view is the 17th century precursor to Kline’s view. Kline himself said that Dispensationalism was correct on this point.
[T]he revised Dispensationalism that purges itself of the teaching of two ways of salvation does so at the cost of abandoning the correct perception of earlier Dispensationalism that a works principle was operating in the Mosaic kingdom. Since these revisionists, no more than the older Dispensationalists, discern the two
distinct strata (viz. the typological kingdom overlay and the underlying stratum of eternal salvation) coexisting in the old covenant, they do not perceive the true
solution of identifying the works principle with the former while maintaining the continuity of the one way of salvation at the other, foundational level. All they can do is join certain of their covenantal critics in denying that there was a works principle in the old covenant.
Thus if 1689 Federalism is Dispensational because it believes the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works for life and blessing in Canaan, then all of the above are Dispensational as well.
Second, Dispensationalism has a peculiar understanding of the significance of the Mosaic Covenant of Works not shared by any of the above. It holds that the Israelites were mistaken to have accepted the terms of the Mosaic Covenant. Lewis Sperry Chafer said “They fell from grace.” The original Scofield Reference Bible said
The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law (Ex. 19:8). Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage (Ex. 19:4); but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.
When the Law was proposed, the children of Israel deliberately forsook their position under the grace of God which had been their relationship to God until that day, and placed themselves under the Law.
They view the Abrahamic Covenant as unconditional and refer to it as the Dispensation of Promise in contrast to the conditional Mosaic Covenant’s Dispensation of Law. Now, if one wanted to be superficial and unedifying, one could argue that Kline was a Dispensationalist because he too distinguished between the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant of Grace and the conditional Mosaic Covenant of Law Works. But such a comparison would be ridiculous because it would overlook the vast differences between the two, such as the Dispensational idea that salvation consists in passing various tests throughout different dispensations versus the idea that underlying the typological Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace through which OT saints were saved through faith in the suffering Messiah, as well as their vastly different interpretations of how the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled. Calling 1689 Federalism Dispensational is just as ridiculous.
The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism
Charles Ryrie wrote about the sine qua non of Dispensationalism. Sine qua non means “something absolutely indispensable or essential.” In other words, without these points, there is no Dispensationalism. They are:
- Keeping Israel and the church distinct throughout eternity.
- A hermeneutic of literal interpretation. (#1 is derived from #2)
- Salvation is not the main underlying purpose of God’s work in history.
With regards to #1, Ryrie says “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist… The essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church [throughout eternity]. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain or historical-grammatical interpretation [#2]… The spiritualizing may be practiced to a lesser or greater degree, but its presence in a system of interpretation is indicative of a nondispensational approach.” And finally “The error of covenant theologians is that they combine all the many facets of divine purpose in the one objective of the fulfillment of the covenant of grace,” (as 1689 Federalism does).
On each of these essential points, 1689 Federalism is not merely contrary to Dispensationalism; it is contradictory to Dispensationalism. Its Christological (“spiritualizing”) hermeneutic “is indicative of a nondispensational approach” resulting in a typological view of Israel that fails “the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist.”
1689 Federalism is Anti-Dispensational (just ask a Dispensationalist).