A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part II


In a previous post we surveyed briefly the development of covenant theology in the 16th and 17th century (very generally).  In this post, we’ll pick up where we left off, with a transition out of 17th Century and into the 18th and 19th centuries.

This period in history has had a profound impact, not simply on covenant theology, or Christianity, but on the world as a whole.  It was during the 17th and 18th centuries that the Enlightenment period found her roots, thereby raising the need to question everything, including the revelation of Scripture, and replace it with rationalism.

Additionally other societal upheavals led to somewhat of a doctrinal wasteland; there was the schism in the Church of England by Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers, the colonization of America, the French Revolution, and generally speaking times of slumber for the church as a whole, out of which revival and the Awakenings were ushered in.

Getting back to the topic of covenant theology, little advancement took place during this period (for our purposes late 17th/early 18th centuries).  There were of course solid men whose sermons and writings reflect the continuation of covenant thought (Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, Benjamin Keach, and others to be sure), but because of the diversity of doctrinal confusion, rationalism, and doctrinal opposition, primarily to Calvinism and its Arminian response, its understandable that there were “bigger fish to fry” so to speak, than polemics between paedo and creedo baptists.

However, moving out of the 18th and into the 19th century is a different story.  The State Church of England now expanding, America now somewhat stabilized as a new country, the soil became ripe for novelty in the form of theological doctrines.  Central to these developments was the aforementioned French Revolution and the related fervor over the study of prophecy.  Enter on the scene in 19th Century England, Lewis Way, Edward Irving, and John Nelson Darby.

Way (1772-1840) is largely an unknown figure in church history, but his influence should not go unnoticed. Born in England in 1772 and the inheritor of a significant fortune along with vast theological resources, Way joined the fledgling London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews in 1809.[1]  After a visit to Devonshire in 1811, he was told of a “grove of trees concerning which the owner had left a will stipulating that ‘these oaks shall remain standing, and the hand of man shall not be raised against them till Israel returns and is restored to the Land of Promise.’”[2]

Sparking his interest in prophecy and an interest in the restoration of Israel, Way sought and found in the London Society an organization that suited his interests. In 1816, Way wrote and published his Letters which “stressed the connection between the return of the Jews to Palestine and their national conversion prior to the return of Christ.”[3]   It becomes clear then that Way’s theological view of the church and Israel would have a profound effect on how he viewed the covenants of Scripture, particularly the Abrahamic Covenant.

Way’s thoughts did not operate in a vacuum and he soon found platforms for the spread of this renewed interest in the Jewish return to Palestine in the form of Conferences, namely the Albury Conferences of the late 1820’s.  Capitalizing on the public fervor over biblical prophecy, Way along with his banker friend Henry Drummond, suggested that a private conference be held to discuss prophetic views.  Among the attenders of these conferences was a man who would wield much more influence than Way, though share in a similar ideology.  Edward Irving (1792-1834) was born in Scotland and raised Presbyterian.  A brilliant thinker and master orator, Irving drank the prophetic kool-aid and through his skill and personality spread it to anyone who would listen.

Irving’s reputation as a polished orator gained him large audiences and the attraction of men who needed a voice to promote their own agendas.  In Irving, a wildcard, men like S.T. Coleridge, who convinced Irving of his own pessimistic views of eschatology and Hatley Frere, who developed a “new scheme of interpretation” based on the present fulfillment of Daniel and Revelation and promoted an “imminent return of Christ”.

Historian Arnold Dallimore notes that Irving promoted allegorizations of the books of Daniel and Revelation with the surety and dogmatism that had established his popularity.  Of Irving he writes,

“One may read through Irving’s entire Works without finding anything that can truly be termed expository preaching. He takes a text, but uses it merely as a peg on which to hang his own numerous ideas, and the work of the true expositor – the study of the words in the original, and the discovery of the meaning of the text on the basis of those words – is virtually nowhere found.”[4]

Scripture aside, however, the most profound influence on Irving’s life would come in 1826 through  a publication that would radically impact his prophetic perspective and further cement the early background for what would become known as dispensational premillennialism.  This publication was written entirely in Spanish by a supposed Jewish convert named Ben Ezra, later identified as a Jesuit priest named Manuel De Lacunza (1731-1801), “a South American Jesuit whose eyes had been opened to the corruption of Rome.”

At the time of the Reformation, many of the Reformers had begun associating the rise of Antichrist with the papacy.  Not any one particular pope mind you, but the papacy in general, thereby applying their historicist view of prophecy, specifically as it related to Revelation.  In response, two Jesuits, Francesco Ribera (1537-1591) and Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613) published detailed studies of Revelation; the former with a futurist perspective and the latter with a more preteristic (fulfilled) perspective.  Both set out designs to “get the monkey of the back” of the pope.

For his part, Lacunza adopted the futurist position of Ribera, though with clearly a different outcome in mind.  His was to stir the priests to study their dusty Bibles and to champion a revival of Antichrist origin from the apostate Roman Church.  He published his scandalous views in The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, that called for a shift in the way one interpreted prophecy from what had been the more normative historicist view to a more futuristic interpretation. These views so profoundly influenced Edward Irving that he learned Spanish in order to translate Lacunza’s book into English and then appended his own 200-page preface to the work.

Writing on the history of dispensationalism, Mark Sarver notes that the significance of this publication

“lay in its futurism with reference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation (not only regarding the millennium of chapter 20 but also the tribulation of chapters 6 to 19).[5] In his prefatory remarks, Irving had asserted many of his own beliefs including views on the Gentile church, the future Jewish and universal church, and the personal advent of the Lord to destroy the one and build up the other.”[6]

This futurist view of end-time prophecy was virtually unheard of prior to the development and spread of the teaching of Irving, influenced by Jesuit Lacunza himself influenced by the futurist perspective of another Jesuit who had originated his view to remedy the pope-Antichrist connection.  Nearly to a man, the covenant theologians that had formulated their doctrine based on Scripture and expressed it through such monumental confessions as the Westminster and Second London Baptist, held to a historicist view of prophecy out of which their postmillennial views were derived.  Without question this new hermeneutic would profoundly effect how one would view eschatology and its relationship to the biblical covenants for centuries to come.

Continuing to advance his views at conferences, Ian Murray notes that Irving’s influence promoted a theology that was

“practically unknown in earlier Church history…namely, that Christ’s appearing before the millennium is to be in two stages, the first, a secret ‘rapture’ removing the Church before a ‘Great Tribulation’ smites the earth, the second his coming with his saints to set up his kingdom.”[7]

In Irving, we find the advancement of the Jewish return to Palestine and prominence given to Israel in prophecy, a futurist view of prophetic interpretation, the incipient doctrine of a secret rapture, an imminent return of Christ, and a 2-stage return of Christ.  It should also be pointed out that Irving’s influence did not rest in his eschatology alone, but by many accounts he may be called the Father of the Charismatic Movement.

Another prominent figure in the history of dispensationalism, who sat under the teaching and influence of Irving was John Nelson Darby,  referred by many as the Father of Dispensationalism.  Keep in mind through our historical survey and outline of dispensational origins that this doctrine is nearly at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Covenant Theology that was so prominently, dare I say exclusively, held at the time.

Darby gained much of his theological influence through the Powerscourt Conferences, where “the teaching of a pretribulation rapture of the Church took shape.”[8]  The role of Darby amongst a dissenting church group known as the Plymouth Brethren must at least be mentioned because of their influence on views of church membership and ecclesiology in particular.  Their dissatisfaction with the church was at least in part drawn from a publication by Edward Irving entitled, Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed.

One particular Powerscourt Conference in 1833 was of special significance due to Darby’s advancement of the teaching that “the church as a parenthesis in the prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel” (Sarver), an obvious outworking of his ecclesiological position and understanding of the church’s pretribulational rapture.  Speaking on the development of this secret rapture teaching, Brethren member S.P. Tregelles wrote,

“It was from that supposed revelation [with Irving] that the modern doctrine [pre-tribulational rapture] and the modern phraseology respecting it arose. It came not from the Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God.”[9]

Commenting on this, Ian Murray writes,

“He (Darby) held that ‘the Church’ is a mystery of which only Paul speaks. She is Christ’s mystic body and will be complete at the ‘rapture’. The Jews and other Gentiles converted thereafter will never be Christ’s bride: ‘I deny that saints before Christ’s first coming, or after his second, are part of the Church.’ With breath-taking dogmatism Darby swept away what had previously been axiomatic in Christian theology.”[10]

Similarly Bass notes:

“Darby taught that the entire Christian church would be raptured, and the witness during the tribulation would be borne by a semi-Christian group, who, though not a part of the church, would be under a form of grace. He distinguished between the church (Pentecost to rapture) and the saints of the Old Testament, asserting that the church had a special glory and that the Old Testament saints had an inferior relationship to God. To explain the witness of the last days, as set forth in the Gospels, he taught that this was given to the apostles, not as the founders of the church, but as the representatives of the faithful remnant in the midst of an apostate Judaism. This involved a different view of the Gospels than was commonly held, and led to the practice of distinguishing certain parts of them as being ‘Jewish’.”[11]

Darby’s views were not met with a warm reception among all the Brethren members, notably B.W. Newton, who opposed what Darby had presented at the 1833 conference.  Regarding Newton’s position, Bass writes,

“Newton, on the other hand, taught that the ‘faithful’ who were to be persecuted were simply members of the church who would be on the earth at the time of the tribulation, and that the Old Testament saints were an integral part of the church, there being no ‘special glory’ for the post-Pentecostal saints.”[12]

Summarizing these views highlights the “dichotomy between Israel and the church [that] was forming in the thought of Darby, growing out of a rigidly applied principle of interpretation,”[13] while Newton’s view represented the common view of the time, i.e. continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament saints (generally held by both streams of Covenant Theology).

The fractured relationship between Darby and Newton, primarily over doctrinal concerns, would never heal. Through the writings and speaking occasions of Darby, Brethrenism would continue to spread throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until he began his international ministry that the course for dispensationalism’s zenith would be charted.

With this overview on the development of an alternative view to covenant theology, previously unknown in church history, brings us to the late 19th/early 20th Century and the spread of Darby’s dispensationalism to the United States.  A transition which would profoundly alter and perhaps forever change how prophecy and the covenants from Scripture would be approached and interpreted.  On this point we will pick up in the next post.


*Much of this post is derived, at least in part, from a paper submitted May 2014 to Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary titled “A Survey of the Historical Origins and Doctrinal Formulation of Modern Dispensationlism”

[1] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14801-way-lewis (Accessed March 25, 2014).

[2] Mark Sarver, “Dispensationalism”Mark Sarver, http://www.sermonlinks.com/Sermons/Dispensationalism/DP_1.htm (accessed April 5, 2014)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving: The Fore-runner of the Charismatic Movement (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 59-60.

[5] Sarver, “Dispensationalism”

[6] Murray, Puritan Hope, 190.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 41.

[9] Ibid, 40.

[10] Murray, Puritan, 200.

[11] Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 76.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.




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