It has occurred to me that when it comes to spectrally viewing Dispensational Theology vis-á-vis Covenant Theology, as their various formulations happen to appear along the axis of continuity/discontinuity, something is left to be desired. I think this is because such a paradigm not only tends to intensify discussion along the line of continuity vs. discontinuity (which can certainly be helpful), but also tends to minimize discussion along the lines of continuity per se and discontinuity per se. Continuity vs. discontinuity does not tell the whole story.
It would also be profitable to theologize along the lines of organic continuity vs. synthetic continuity, and organic discontinuity vs. synthetic discontinuity. I use “organic” in the following sense: that which is integral, or basic, to the constitution of a thing. I use “synthetic” in the following sense: that which is contrived, or manufactured, and foreign to a thing. The “thing” I am speaking of is Scripture. So “organic continuity” is continuity which is basic to Scripture; the continuity that Scripture itself inculcates. Conversely, “synthetic continuity” is continuity that is foreign to what Scripture inculcates; rather, it is manufactured by the theologian: often as a means to give coherence to the overall structure of divine revelation. The respective categories are what are intended concerning discontinuity as well.
I am, of course, assuming there is a basic, unified structure to divine revelation. I doubt that many would object to the thought that within this basic structure of divine revelation there are mysteries, the whitespaces in Scripture. Synthetic theology is basically the attempt to fill in those whitespaces with necessary logical inferences derived from the premises of what Scripture actually communicates. These necessary logical inferences become, in the mind of the theologian, part of the unified structure of divine revelation upon which they theologize.
I am not saying, nor do I think, that what I have described is necessarily a conscious process. I doubt that any Christian theologian would intentionally put their logical inferences on par with Scripture itself; no matter how necessary those logical inferences seem to be. That said, I do think that I have accurately described what can happen in doing theology: especially when one is attempting to describe the unified structure of divine revelation.
The difficulty in doing big picture theology is that once the theologian’s inferences are unconsciously stuffed into the whitespaces of Scripture they function as a foundation upon which further theological formulations are constructed. It should not be too difficult to admit that there is a difference between using Scripture as a foundation and using such inferences a foundation for theological formulations. I think the difference is akin to the Empire State Building resting on its present foundation vs. resting on a Jell-O mold.
I suppose these pesky, little inferences affect many parts of theology. I do not believe myself immune to confusing my own inferences with Scripture, but I certainly try and keep on the lookout for them. If I find them, and I do, I do what any respectable theologian would do: I do whatever I can to hold on to them. Then, once exhausted, I toss them out. Anyway, my hope is that over the next decade (I have to leave myself some wiggle room) I will sporadically post random thoughts on organic continuity and discontinuity integral to the structure of divine revelation and synthetic continuity and discontinuity manufactured and placed in that structure by theologians.
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Sorry to hijack the instant post, but I was looking to contact you and this seemed to be the most expedient means. I’ve recently read your paper entitled “a critique of covenant theology” (2011) at theologicalstudies.org and I wanted to let you know how useful it had been to me.
I’m a believer who started my christian life in a flavour of covenant theology, but both myself and my church are now more aligned with New Covenant Theology having studied carefully the biblical basis (or lack of) for covenant theology’s works, grace and redemptive covenants.
One of the burning issues for me, has been to try to get to the root of the historic emergence of classic federalism and, as you rightly point out in your paper, it is not so nearly clear cut as I first imagined it might be.
A while back I had my thinking challenged on the subject of double imputation, and again looking at all the proof texts, had to reject the active obedience aspect. Now reading your paper has made me rethink my position on sin imputation also (so good to be challenged) and I’m working through this one.
I’d be really interested to know how you identify with New Covenant Theology. My nearest and dearest label NCT a flavour of progressive dispensationalism, but I disagree and I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
Keep up the good work and hold fast to the organic stuff!
Tim, Thanks for your feedback, and I am glad to hear that you found that paper useful. My only real interaction with NCT is a series of journal articles that appeared in The Master’s Seminary Journal (Fall, 2007). I am sure that NTC has been refined and further developed from there, but I am not familiar with where that development has taken it as a system. My thinking probably fits best under the progressive dispensational umbrella, but I have a great affinity for Kaiser’s promise/plan schema as well. As far as I can tell, NCT and progressive dispensationalism is the closest rapprochement one will find between covenantal and dispensational systems. I agree with you though: they are not the same, nor is one a flavor of the other. I would like to do some more reading in NCT, and the book I have my eye on is, Kingdom through Covenant.
btw, I noticed you spelled flavor, flavour. Are you from somewhere in the Commonwealth?
Thanks for your response Ken. I will definitely take a look at kaiser’s work. I think you would be quite interested in where NCT is right now. Tom wells and Fred zaspel co-wrote “new covenant theology” which is the most complete work on the subject, although I do think NCT has learnt to express itself better in the proceeding years. John reisinger has also written some excellent things, most notably “Abraham’s four seeds”. NCT does by and large seem to be held by “amils”, but that may have more to do with subject focus than trend.
I will spend some time checking your blog out. Thank the others on my behalf for the material you’re putting out there. I’m from the UK by the way – well spotted! Yours in Chirst.
“The difficulty in doing big picture theology is that once the theologian’s inferences are unconsciously stuffed into the whitespaces of Scripture they function as a foundation upon which further theological formulations are constructed.”
I COMPLETELY agree!!! This is easy to do (I’ve certainly had to rethink and change much of my theology due to standing on jell-O molds!). I continue to challenge myself, as you challenge me too, to make sure my theology is tethered close to Scripture. One problem I’ve found, is finalizing a conclusion that actually has no verse, in it’s context, to support my logical claim.
I LOVE the Jell-O analogy and will be borrowing it as of now 🙂