Welcome to one of the controversial things I am going to say on this website (by the standard of reformation Christian theology).
I have recently realized that I am a dispensationalist. I previously thought I was an adherent of New Covenant Theology, but as I have come to understand these things better, dispensationalism better defines where I stand.
Personally I think this discussion is not relevant to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, meaning no heresy is entertained here by any of the positions I am about to describe. At this point my theological research has passed into some of the more esoteric places where theologians debate about issues, that while important, are not fundamental or critically necessary.
So if you have an interest in such things, please read on. I actually don't recommend this discussion for new converts as it might give the impression that the theological camps of orthodox Christianity are divided over central issues which is simply not the case.
In a nutshell, New Covenant Theology (NCT) distinguishing characteristic is that it asserts Christians are not obligated to observe the Sabbath day by doing no work. You would be surprised how much discussion and thought is generated by this simple statement. Put another way, only nine of the Ten Commandments stand today as a standard of behavior for the believer. Martin Luther and John Calvin would agree with this, but later reformation theology would disagree quite adamantly.
Note: John Calvin believed that the Christian sabbath, or entering God's rest, was symbolic of salvation itself. "There is no rest for the wicked," proclaims the Bible, we rest from the terrible consequences of our sin, the horrible evil that lives within us that gives us no rest or peace. We rest from the dreadful fear of God and the deep inner knowledge (no matter how much you may try to deny it) that the sinner is doomed. None of this involves any legalistic or pietistic activity on our part.
Dispensationalism's distinguishing characteristic is that it seperates Israel from the Church, and it labels both Covenant and New Covenant theology as replacement theology. Dispensationalism also tends to agree with NCT that Sabbath day observation is not mandatory for the Christian.
The early reformation church was quite divided over the issue of the Sabbath. However they eventually (a few centuries later) settled on what we now call Covenant Theology, which simply stated, affirms the whole of the Ten Commandments are in force today. Just how pervasive this thinking was can be shown by the fact that fifty years ago in the US all businesses were closed on Sunday. This practice was consistently followed from the time of the early Puritans that colonized America. Protestant Europe followed the same practice during the same time period.
The reformation thinkers were unified however in their replacement theology, and believed that the Church is the new Israel, Martin Luther is known for his anti-semitism (later reformation thinkers did not condone this but you can see how his theology did not prevent this thinking).
The distinguishing characteristic of Covenant theology is its assertion of an overarching covenant of grace that began with Abraham. This asserts that God covenanted with mankind (through Abraham) to save some by grace through faith.
Once it gained full acceptance Covenant Theology reigned unchallenged for a century or so. With the advent of dispensationalism (about two hundred years ago), there became two widely accepted views on the subject. In the western world it wasn't until the secularization of society in the second half of the twentieth century that strict Sabbath day observance began to disappear. It was not so much dispensationalism, but cultural and religious liberalism that brought this about.
A third (and rank newcomer) view is called New Covenenant Theology (NCT) by its adherents. Normally I would discourage anyone from following any radically new theological viewpoint as it is almost certainly false, but here is an exception to that rule in my opinion. This position is not radical at all in my opinion, but rather restores a bit of balance to Biblical interpretations of some finer points of theology. That said, time will tell if NCT amounts to anything, or if it is swallowed up by either the disp or CT camps.
UPDATE (Jan 2008): New Covenant theology has been becoming more radical as time progresses, and seems to be heading towards antinomianism, a complete hostility to the idea that any parts of the Law remain in force for the believer, this is to be avoided.
The three views summarized are as follows:
NCT's primary criticism of both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology is that they create artificial constructs that aren't found in the Bible, and give labels to them, and then use it to discount or overturn clear scriptural descriptions to the contrary.
I find this point essentially correct, which reduces dispensationalism to the more biblical position held by John MacArthur. It also trashes the CT view of an overarching covenant of grace, and the needless assertion of God's unchanging moral law being perfectly expressed in the Law of Moses. I don't deny that God's moral law is unchanging, but it is wrong to assert that the law, the teacher of our sinfulness, was a complete expression of that law. Rather God's law was expressed as much as was needed for the law to fulfill its purpose, and it is re-expressed in the New Covenant by Jesus (NCT advocates are pretty good at pointing out the differences between the two as that is their focal point).
It can be noted that the two expressions are essentially in harmony, and the changes Jesus gave us relate to how believers are treated under grace vs. how Israelites were treated under the law. In other words the punishment changed in some cases. Jesus also expanded the revelation of God's moral law to include the heart. The Law of Moses was primarily concerned with outward behavior whereas Jesus was primarily concerned with the heart. Once that is said however the two expressions are completely reconcileable, no contradictions exist in what could be inferred about God's unchanging moral laws.
NCTer's point out that nowhere does the Bible describe anything resembling an overarching covenant of grace, while affirming that even without such a covenant, salvation is and always has been by grace. Claims are made that neither does the word trinity appear in the Bible. But the word trinity describes a doctrine that is clearly spelled out in scripture in many places. No such clarity can be found in regards to a covenant of grace. The same is true for a covenant of works with Adam, it is simply not there. And yet it is easy to prove that God was saving people by grace alone through faith alone, before the New Covenant was given. This is perhaps left as a mystery, since the Bible does not explain it. Attempts to explain it (like CT) create more problems than they solve.
Similarly, no clear case for salvation varying according to different dispensations exists either, it is a poorly supported theory based on guesswork and logic. You can easily show from scripture that any covenant of justification by works could never have existed.
New Covenant Theology, as far as its interpretation of the law, has a sound Biblical basis because the New Testament explicitly refers to the New Covenant. In fact the phrase "New Covenant" occurs no less than four times in the Bible, once in the Old Testament in Jeremiah, and three times in the New Testament. Furthermore the Bible clearly calls the Law a covenant that was given to national Israel. Therefore New Covenant Theology asserts that Jesus is the New Covenant giver and is both lawgiver and prophet that supersedes Moses.
Dispensationalism as espoused by MacArthur is in fundamental agreement with NCT about how the law applies to today, but it differs in how it arrives at the conclusion that only nine of the ten commandments are in force today. Dispensationalism, like CT, asserts an unchanging moral law of God. It eliminates the Sabbath Day commandment by classifying it as a ceremonial law, and thus has no need to declare that Jesus is a new lawgiver, nor does it need to claim a "changing" expression of God's moral law.
But on the final point of who is Israel, Dispensationalism of all forms is consistent and thus it is the key defining element of dispensationalism in the final analysis. As John MacArthur points out, one cannot have a literal interpretation of major prophetic portions of the Bible without being forced to conclude that Israel and the Church are seperate.
Awmillenialists (a common view held by replacement theologians) are also stuck because the apocalyptic things in the book of revelation have no literal fulfillment, yet they claim that for the most part those things have been fulfilled. Preterists have a similar problem and are forced to spiritualize it as the awmillenalists do. Postmillenialists can still get away with taking it literally, if they admit that the apocalyptic parts of Revelation are still yet future.
As far as I am concerned however, the world has never seen a literal 1000 year kingdom of Jesus ruled peace, neither has it seen 1/3 of its population wiped out, followed soon after by another 1/4, nor a 200 million man army in the valley of Armageddon where the blood ran as deep as horses bridles. Nor 1/3 of the ocean dying after a great burning mountain fell into it, and so on for almost every prophecy in Revelation.
Nevertheless the debate goes on. The amount of time and effort invested in the Covenant and Dispensational viewpoints is large, and much inertia exists there. Denominations have creedal statements and make their ordained ministers swear to uphold those creeds. And many of those creeds have Covenant Theology or Dispensationalism built into them.
I used to think that this was a bad thing, but most of these denominations do not seperate from each other based on these things, they hold a right view of what we must seperate over and what we should not.
I pity career preachers however, who switch views mid-career, who suddenly find themselves in an organization of people who disagree with them about important (but not fundamental) issues.
Let us explore some of the finer points of New Covenant Theology which help to contrast how the moral law of God was expressed in the Old Covenant vs the New:
Acording to New Covenant Theology, Jesus clearly changed the the Old Testament Law. In addition to the Sabbath He also changed the rules in regards to adultery, divorce, and idolatry. In fact the New Covenant has nothing to do with the Law in this regard, it merely uses some of the Law's extensive definitions of sin as a reference like an encyclopedia.
According to New Covenant Theology, the New Testament pulls in nine out of ten commandments by reference as a code of moral behavior (definition of sin), and strengthens or changes the meanings of some of those definitions. I had observed that only nine of the ten commandments were still in effect years before I had ever heard of NCT, which was the reason I was initially favorably disposed to NCT.
The missing commandment is of course the Sabbath day. So New Covenant Theology asserts that Christians are under no obligation to observe a Sabbath day. We certainly do not object if someone does this, but we deny any obligation to do so.
The definition of adultery has also changed under the New Covenant: if a man even looks at a woman in lust it is now adultery (we take this to be gender neutral, women are not exempt, to desire or covet another is adultery of the heart for both sexes). Under the Law adultery was a physical act only and it was also gender neutral as both parties (it takes two always) were stoned.
Divorce under the Law was for any cause, but at the discretion of the man only. If the man found his wife displeasing to him for any reason he could write her a letter of divorce and send her away. It was specifically never for the cause of marital unfaithfulness since that carried with it the penalty of death by stoning.
In the New Covenant, only two reasons for divorce are allowed, marital unfaithfulness and abandonment by an unbeliever (co1 7:14). This is a much more restrictive criteria for divorce than the Mosaic Law. Again, we also take this to be gender neutral, unlike the Mosaic Law.
Similar to adultery, idolatry is now redefined to be a crime of the heart and is expanded to mean anything one loves more than God. Physical idols are deemphasized. For example I am not in idolatry if I have a religious figurine from a false religion in my house (but I would be under the Law), but if I hold it in high esteem (or esteem it in any way other than as a piece of wood or stone) then I am in idolatry under the New Covenant. This applies to both heart and practice to some degree, bowing down before graven images is still idolatry, and there are those who do this in the name of Christ today.
Covenant theologians however assert that Jesus was just expanding or restoring their understanding of the Law and that it always meant what He said. Dispensationalists side with the CTer's in this regard and affirm that an unchanging moral law of God exists. There is some truth to this claim, it was the pharisees who reduced the Law of Moses to a purely external code of behavior, it was clearly a code of love (as John MacArthur points out), those who obeyed the law, were expected to do it because they loved God, it was never supposed to be devoid of the heart condition.
New Covenant theologians assert that for example the two sets of rules for divorce are in clear conflict with each other and thus claim that Jesus is obviously a new Lawgiver.
Dispensationalists also side with the idea that a New Covenant was given, but since they accept an unchangeable moral law of God, they eliminate the Sabbath Day commandment by classifying it as a ceremonial law rather than a moral one.
In summary, each of the views has some merit, and while I do not believe the Bible teaches different methods of salvation through time, neither do I find cause to spiritualize Revelation when there is no obvious reason to do so.
I am ambivalent about whether Jesus was a new lawgiver or not. On the one hand it is clearly an absolute necessity that God's moral standard of righteousness cannot change, but to argue that the law of Moses completely articulates those laws (and in a way that is apparently incompatible with the way Jesus articulated them) is perhaps incorrect.
The law's purpose was to teach, never to justify, so it could be an incomplete expression of God's laws, but complete enough that no man could escape the lesson it is intended to teach. Jesus Himself appears to admit this when saying that certificates of divorce were granted because of the hardness of our hearts, but that it was not always intended to be so.
Thus for example God always objects to divorce, but deals with it differently under the Old and New Covenants. Using this logic one can reconcile the OT and the NT to a unified definition of sin.
This view of a progressive revelation of an unchanging moral law of God is mostly what CTers and Dispers claim, except they stop one step short of progressive and claim mere clarification, in either case however it eliminates the apparent contradiction between the OT and NT moral commandments that NCTers make so much of.
The idea of progression supports the idea that Jesus was adding clarity to the standard of righteousness given in the Law of Moses, but adds the twist that the Law of Moses was an incomplete revelation, but at the same time affirms that a higher unchanging moral standard exists and that Jesus gave us a greater revelation of that law.
Whether you classify the Sabbath as required, depends on your understanding of how the Law of Moses carries forward. My own take is that the NT does not call it out as an obligation for the believer and that is good enough for me. The complicated theological arguments, while educational about many things, are not sufficient in my mind to be used as arguments to graft in requirements for the believer that the Gospel writers didn't see fit to include in their text.
John G. Reisinger - Read about New Covenant Theology from one of its main adherents. You can see the salvos by both sides (since primarily Covenant theologians are attacking New Covenant theologians at the moment and Reisinger has posted a few responses to these salvos). You will find him to be in agreement with the five points of Calvinism, and a self-described New Covenant Theology adherent.
His By Grace - This sister site to the one above contains articles by many different authors.
Both of the above sites devote most of their space to traditional five point Calvinism, with a little space devoted to NCT.
http://faithbibleonline.net/MiscDoctrine/DispCov.htm - A reformed baptist pastor gives a detailed list of the differences between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.
Here are a couple of short articles by John MacArthur on his brand of dispensationalism that he labels Biblical Dispensationalism, there are more on that site if you wish to explore (look for MacArthur Q&A):