There are three primary systems of theology by which Christians understand and explain the Scriptures, especially in regard to how the Old and New Testaments relate to each other. They are as follows:
Dispensational Theology (DT)
Covenant Theology (CT)
New Covenant Theology (NCT)
I’d like to present a fourth, which is a similar to New Covenant Theology:
Christ-Fulfillment Theology (CFT)
CFT is basically NCT, with one significant difference. CFT presents an unmistakable unity between Fulfillment Theology (FT) and Corporate Election (CE), which, of course, is an Arminian position on the doctrine of election. Fulfillment Theology (that Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church) is central to both CT and NCT, which are largely embraced by Calvinists — which I find it interesting. I know of a Seminary that actually includes Calvinistic soteriology as one of the defining characteristics of their view of NCT. I also found a website that said CT is always Calvinist. I further know of a Facebook group that regards Calvinist theology as a “necessity for consistent NCT.” I find this not only interesting, but also ironic, because if Calvinists carried out their CT or NCT to its logical and exegetical end, they would realize that their theology is totally out of harmony with individual, unconditional election.
Components of CFT
Christocentric – Central to CFT is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is key to understanding the Scriptures. That’s obviously true of the New Testament (NT), but it’s equally true of the Old Testament (OT). When it comes to interpreting the OT, Dispensationalism does not have a Christocentric (Christ-centered) approach, but an OT Israel-centered approach that takes precedence over NT teaching. This is a backwards hermeneutical approach to understanding God’s Word that can only lead to an erroneous theology. A theology of truth begins with Christ Himself and the NT Scriptures that reveal Him. Likewise, we cannot speak of Christ of the New Covenant without speaking of His Church — for whom He died (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:23,25,27) and of whom He is Head (Col 1:18). Jesus and His Church are forever linked (Eph 3:21). This union is inseparable, and together they work to accomplish God’s purposes. Therefore, it would be inconsistent that there would ever be a time where God sets aside His focus on the Church to accomplish some other purpose in the world. God’s plan finds it’s total fulfillment in Christ and His Church.
There are two overarching covenants, Old Covenant (OC) and New Covenant (NC) (He 8:1-13) – The Mosaic Law (OC) of the OT is replaced by the law of Christ (NC) of the NT (Ga 6:2; 1 Cor 9:20-21; Ro 10:4). In 1 Cor 9:21, we see that Paul equates the “law of God” to the “law of Christ.” So I think better understood, in the NC we are under the law of God in Christ (1 Cor 9:21). Christ fulfills the Law and the Prophets, which essentially has in view the whole OT system and manner in which God dealt with His people — and with mankind in general (Matt 5:17; Lu 16:16). Now, instead of being under the Law of Moses or OC Law, we are now under the law of God in Christ. Old Testament Law has been abolished, and the law of Christ has been established.
Specific commandments of the OT have been abolished unless the NT teaches otherwise. We have to keep in mind that the OT Scriptures were written primarily to and for the nation of Israel, while the NT Scriptures were written to and for Christians (as a message to the world) — both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. Without the revelation and guidance of the NT, it would be difficult to know how to apply the OT to our lives as NC believers.
In regard to moral character and behavior, inherent sin and the things that are inherently right and good, these are not governed by covenants. They’re unchangeable. All the things that are innately right and good in the eyes of God, are a reflection of Christ Himself. Thus these things are by nature an integral component within the law of God in Christ. Furthermore, as those who have the Holy Spirit living within us – and empowered by Him – the heart and mind and character of Christ is being developed within us.
In regard to the Ten Commandments, all except one apply under the NC, because they too are unchanging and have been confirmed by the NT. The one exception is keeping of the Sabbath. NT teaching replaces it with Sunday, the Lord’s day.
Basic to understanding the law of Christ is the new commandment that Jesus gave to His disciples in John 13:34. We’re to love one another as Christ loves us. However, no one can love apart from a love for God. Love for others flows out of a love for God. They’re inseparable. A love for God and a love for others with the love of Christ is the basis for living the Christian life, for obeying the will of God as revealed in the NT Scriptures. It’s an obedience to God that flows out of love in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us. In the OC, obedience to God was a legalistic, outward form. In the NC, obedience to God is inward and flows out of a heart of love empowered by the Spirit of God as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ.
The law of God in Christ (1 Cor 9:21) should be understood as all the will of God that is revealed in the NT Scriptures — and in OT Scriptures as consistent with NT teaching. All the teachings of the New Covenant, all the instructions and commands to His people, are contained in these Scriptures. The whole NT is God’s will for us revealed in written form. Again, these were written to Christians and for Christians. They were given to us to show us how to live the Christian life as followers of Christ. Jesus is our King and we are His servants. We’re under His authority to walk in obedience to Him, to carry out His will — as revealed in the NT Scriptures. We’re saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, but we live out our faith by way of obedience.
In regard to the four Gospels, we have to keep in mind that this was a time of transition from OC to NC. Thus much of what we see in those books pertained to Jews who were still under the OC. Therefore, we have to be careful what we apply to ourselves as NC believers.
In regard to sanctification, it’s both positional and progressive. Positionally, we are completely sanctified in Christ. However, in the practical outworking of sanctification, we’re progressively growing. In other words, in daily living, we are growing in Christ-likeness and will continue to do so until we are in the presence of God. The positional and practical will then be one.
New Testament must interpret Old Testament – All truth is contained in Christ, for He Himself said that He is “the truth” (Jn 14:6: Eph 4:21). Therefore, an understanding of the OT can only come through a NT understanding of Him. Furthermore, Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law and the prophets (Matt 5:17). Therefore, understanding of the OT must begin with a proper understanding of Christ and the NT. That’s our starting point. It’s a hermeneutical mistake to try and understand the OT apart from a right understanding of the NT. It’s the light of the NT that reveals the truth of the OT. To bring an OT understanding to the NT will result in disastrous misinterpretation of both testaments. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t look for types and shadows and patterns of the OT, for it’s the NT that reveals and interprets them. All those things had Christ and His Church in view.
All are saved through faith in Christ in both Old Testament and New Testament – In the OT people were saved by responding in faith to whatever light they were given about Christ, which involved types and shadows, and later on through prophecies such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, and the OT Scriptures in general. Christ and redemption through Him was revealed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel (Ge 3:14-15, 21; 4:1-7). Thus they were responsible to believe whatever light was revealed to them. The revealing of Christ the Redeemer was progressive, and people were responsible to believe whatever was revealed to them at their particular time in history within the plan of God. The OT Law was not a means of salvation. Those under the Law were still saved by faith. The purpose of the Law was to test the faith and faithfulness of His people. It was also for the purpose of revealing their (our) sinfulness and need for Christ. It was our tutor to lead us to Him (Gal 3:24-25). Keeping the OT Law was the outward evidence of inward faith, the same thing that’s taught in the NT. We follow Christ because we believe. Likewise, they obeyed the Law because they believed.
True Israel Is Christ Himself – Israel has its fulfillment and continuation in Christ (Gal 3:16. 28-29; Ro 2:28-29; Eph 2:11-22; Ro 9:6-8). He is a nation of One. Through Christ, Israel continues as a spiritual nation, which is the Church (1 Pe 2:4-10). This means that the OT covenant promises and prophecies regarding the nation of Israel are fulfilled in Him and His Church. In regard to the land promises, they’re fulfilled in the New Earth of the “New Heaven and the New Earth,” which is the Eternal Kingdom, where the Father and Son will co-reign (Rev 21:1-2; 2 Pe 3:13; He 11:10, 14-16; 12:22; 13:14).
Only Christ fulfilled the promises to Israel, such as we see in De 28:1-2. He fulfilled what they could not. Only He has the right to bear the name Israel. We are Israel in Him as spiritual offspring. The nature of that promise changed in Christ’s fulfillment of it — from physical and earthly to spiritual.
God chose the whole nation of Israel to be His people – Although God has always had but one redemptive people, He chose the whole nation of Israel to represent Him and through whom to carry out His will. Although OT Israel consisted of both believers and unbelievers, God Himself referred to them corporately as His people. It’s the choosing of the whole nation that provides the pattern for the NT election of His people, which is corporate. The corporate choosing of a people group unto Himself was God’s plan from the very beginning of mankind. It’s just that it was not identified as such until He chose the people of Israel, which serves as the type and shadow of NT election. Just as the corporate nation of Israel has its fulfillment in Christ, so does the corporate choosing of Israel have its fulfillment in Christ. The OT type of corporate election must necessarily continue in Christ and His Church of the NT. A shadow can only cast its true self. The idea of individual election is completely foreign to the OT. That’s not how the Jews of Jesus’ day would have understood it (Ro 11:11-24).
7. The prophesied Messianic kingdom is fulfilled in the Church – Jesus is the Messiah that was to come and reign as King of Israel (2 Sa 7:12-17), and He does so now within His Church (Acts 2:29-36; He 1:3,8,13; 1 Cor 15:25; Col 1:13). The Church is the Kingdom of Christ. Thus the prophesied kingdom is not an earthly, physical kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom. When He ascended, He sat down at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-36; He 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pe 3:22). From His throne in Heaven, He reigns over His people – the Church. His kingdom will continue in the Eternal Kingdom of the New Jerusalem of the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21:1-3). No real distinction should be made between Heaven and the Eternal Kingdom, as Heaven continues in the New Heaven and New Earth.
8. The Church began on the day of Pentecost – Old Testament believers were not part of the Church until the Church was inaugurated. Believers under the OC were simply members of the elect people of God. Believers were baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13,27) and indwelt by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. OT believers were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit in general. Those who were, it was only for temporary empowerment to do God’s will as He called them. The Church was prophesied in the OT and was always in view as the culmination of God’s redemptive plan. The Church was always in view as Israel’s fulfillment and continuation as a spiritual nation.
There’s a unity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant – Though two different covenants, they are one. Both the Abrahamic Covenant (Ge 12:2-3; 17:1-10) and the Davidic Covenant (2 Sa 7:12-17) had Christ and His Church in view. Christ, as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16), reigns over His kingdom, which is His Church.
The book of Revelation covers the whole Church age – Believers reign with Christ in His kingdom now and throughout the Church age. At the end of the age, Christ will return to defeat His enemies, there will be a resurrection of the saved and unsaved where they will stand before Christ at the Great White Throne Judgment, followed by the Eternal Kingdom of the New Heaven and New Earth (after the present universe is destroyed).
Fulfillment Theology is what separates CT & NCT from DT – Fulfillment Theology (that Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church) is the uniting component of CT and NCT, and is what separates them from DT. CFT shares this unity with CT and NCT. The difference is, CFT’s consistent exegetical interpretation reveals a harmony between FT and the Arminian position of Corporate Election that is obviously missing from the other two. CFT asserts that CT and NCT do not take their position on FT to its farthest and logical end. Their teaching of individualistic unconditional election is out of harmony with the OT pattern. Just as the corporate nation of Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church, so does the corporate choosing of Israel have its fulfillment in Christ and His Church.
Below you will find a link to a comparison chart that details the positions and differences between Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology. In brief, the major difference between Dispensationalism and the other two (also CFT), is that DT views Israel and the Church as completely separate from each other. DT teaches that God has a future plan for the nation of Israel that is completely distinct from the Church. It teaches that there will be a millennial kingdom on this present earth where Christ will reign as King, which includes a Jewish temple and a return to animal sacrifices (as a memorial).
The other three theologies are in agreement that Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church as a spiritual nation. They also agree that the Kingdom of Christ is now within the Church, and will see its ultimate fulfillment in the everlasting kingdom of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The reason for these differences is that DT brings an OT understanding of Israel to the NT. They interpret the NT according to their understanding of the OT — which is a backwards hermeneutic, since the NT fulfills the OT. Christ is central in both testaments, but revealed by the NT Scriptures.
Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, New Covenant Theology: