The Bible is a big book, encompassing almost four thousand years of human history and containing various genres of literature from poetry to prophecy. Even though the Bible seemingly contains so many disparate parts, the church has historically discerned a general movement, or plot structure, to Scripture’s story. In the recent history of the American church, two major theological camps—dispensationalism and covenant theology—debated the overall storyline of the Bible.
Dispensationalists argued that the plan of God moved forward through different “dispensations” or eras of time throughout the Bible. When Adam sinned, God had a plan to redeem a people and a made a promise to the ethnic people of Israel. Their Messiah would eventually come, but they rejected him. When the Jewish people rejected Jesus, God instituted the “church age” where all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, could be saved and incorporated in his people. However, God will eventually rapture the church and turn his attention back to ethnic Israel in the one thousand year kingdom reign of Jesus on the earth, fulfill his ancient promise of Abraham. In other words, the time of Israel and church largely do not overlap. Dispensationalism’s calling card, then, became its insistence on keeping the era of Israel and the church separate.
In contrast to dispensationalism, covenant theology sees the storyline of Scripture advancing through theologically-constructed covenants. Covenant theologians sees two major covenants operating in the Bible: works and grace. Some covenant theologians will also argue that a covenant of redemption—the pledge by the Son to the Father to redeem a people in eternity past—exists as well. According to most covenant theologians, in the Garden, God made a “covenant of works” with Adam which Adam failed to keep. Now all humanity is under a curse. But God in a mercy, institutes a covenant of a grace, where salvation is found in every era. These two covenants exist largely in parallel, and which covenant you’re under depends upon your response to the message of the gospel.
A Better Alternative
I think there is a better alternative to dispensationalism and covenant theology for understanding the Bible’s storyline. The best way to understand the progression of the Bible’s storyline is through the biblical covenants. Rather than relying on theologically- constructed covenants or dispensationalism’s eras, the best way to read the storyline of Scripture is to pay attention to the covenants that are actually made in the Bible.
The Bible presents six major covenants actually found in the text: creation (Genesis 1-2), Noah (Genesis 6-9), Abraham (Genesis 12-22), Israel (Exodus 19-Deuteronomy), David (2 Samuel 7), new (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36). And an important point to note is that every major turning point in the story of the Bible is attached to one of these covenants. Now, a covenant creates a bond between two parties so that they are family. But every covenant has promises and responsibilities that come with with. Marriage is a covenant. It takes two unrelated people and bonds them in the closest relationship humanly possible. But every marriage has comes with responsibilities to uphold and promises from the other person.
God originally created humanity in his “image,” to be his royal sons (Genesis 1:26). People had the responsibility to spread God’s glory across the face of the earth like the water cover the sea, and God’s presence was with them. They were to be fruitful and fill the earth with other image-bearers. Under the wise rule of humanity, creation would flourish. This was the covenant God makes with his creation. But Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s word and broke the covenant. What is interesting is that the penalties of sin are explicitly cast in covenantal terms: a curse and death. Curses have long been acknowledged to be part of covenants in the ancient world. And death—defined primarily as relational separation—is the ultimate consequence of breaking the covenant.
So what does God do to overturn the affects of sin and save his creation? Make covenants.
After sin enters the world, God makes a covenant with Noah which both affirms and modifies his original covenant with creation. While sin is horrendous, God promises that the earth will abide and will never judge the world again with a world-wide flood. God commissions Noah to again act like Adam, being fruitful and filling the earth. Yet God knows that Noah, and all humanity, will continue to fail, so he gives his rainbow as a sign that the one who is really upholding the covenant is Himself, not humanity.
In the Noahic covenant, God establishes a “stage” or theater for redemption. Then, he advances the story by choosing one man, Abraham, and making a covenant with him. God and Abraham are now family. And God promises to bless the world through Abraham’s family. Abraham, however, has to exercise faith and be a blessing to the world. In the formal covenant-making ceremony, God takes on the responsibilities of upholding the covenant by passing through the split pieces of animals by Himself. God will make good on his covenant promises.
One of the promises of the Abrahamic covenant would be that his family would be a vehicle for salvation. Eventually, Abraham’s family become a great nation, Israel. But Israel’s status as a vehicle for salvation is imperiled by their slavery to Egypt. So God frees them from slavery through the exodus and leads them to Mount Sinai where he makes a covenant with them. Israel is to be God’s “son.” They are God’s family. And God promises them prosperity and success if they uphold his covenant demands. Foolishly, the people overestimate their abilities and say “YES!” we can do it. But since Israel does not have a heart to truly God, they fail repeatedly to uphold the covenant.
Instead of the whole nation upholding God’s covenant, God eventually choose one special office, the king, to be the representative of the people. God makes a covenant with David, Israel’s greatest king. God and the king are now family; the Davidic kings will be his “son.” God also promises that David will have an eternal throne and kingdom. But the kings of David’s line are called to uphold the demands of the Israelite covenant and set the example of the people. The hints in the text indicate that there will be a coming king who keeps the demands of the Israelite covenant forever. Both the people and king fail miserably. And God exiles the people, a “death” to their nation, the ultimate curse of the covenant.
While in exile, however, the prophets predict a day when a new covenant will be made. God’s presence will once again reside with the people and they will be his family. God will forgive all their sins and give them a new heart to love him. He will also send the Spirit to his people so that they are empowered to keep the responsibilities of the new covenant. A new king will represent them before the Lord.
Jesus is the new king. He is the fulfiller of all the previous covenant and one who institutes the new covenant. Jesus fulfills the demands of the Israelite covenant, the Law, perfectly and yet bears the curse of our sins willingly anyways. He is the new Adam, who brings life where Adam brought death. He is the new Noah, who provides safe passage through the waters of God’s judgment through his sacrificial death. He is the new Israel, fully obedience to the Lord, creating a new multinational, multiethnic people. He is the new David who represents the people before God and upholds all the demands placed upon him. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus makes the new covenant available for all people whether Jews or Gentiles. ALL the promises of the new covenant are fulfilled in Jesus and available to us now, in a partial way. We wait for the complete fulfillment of the new covenant in the new creation when our covenant Lord returns.
By paying close attention to the biblical covenants, then, we can reconstruct the storyline of the Bible which is much more accurate than the other dominant theological systems available to us right now.