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Q144 : Study Bibles, Covenants, and Dispensations

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Q144 : Study Bibles, Covenants, and Dispensations

Hi Tony,

Thanks again for all of your very helpful and enlightening information. I read you posting about Study Biblesa so I have narrowed my choices down to the either The Nelson Study Bible or The MacArthur Study Bible in the NKJV. My question is: In your posting about the Study Bibles you mentioned that two of the things that you need to look for in a study bible are how they handle 1) covenants and 2) dispensations.

Like I said, I did read through your posting but I still don't have a good understanding about what we should be looking for regarding the handling of 1) covenants and 2) dispensations and what would represent a “good” or “excellent” handling of those topics? Could you please give a little more explanation about the topics of covenants and dispensations, and whether these topics we “want” to have covered or things that we “don't want” to have covered in a good study bible — and what is your opinion of how well these topics are handled or not handled in The Nelson Study Bible vs. The MacArthur Study Bible?

Thanks again for all of your help and assistance.


A144 : by Tony Garland

I'm glad my previous response has been helpful. Buying a new Study Bible is certainly something you want to investigate carefully since it is something you will use frequently and enjoy for many years!

First, let me say that you won't go wrong with either of your finalists! Both the Nelson and MacArthur Study Bible notes are very good. Regarding how Study Bibles handle the two terms "covenants" and "dispensation":

  • Covenants - There are basically two main approaches you'll encounter in regard to the formal agreements (covenants) which God has made.

    The first approach relies upon the Biblical text alone to define what is a covenant. This approach recognizes that God made various covenants with differing people at different times and seeks to understand the revelation of God in relation to these formal promises and their fulfillment. Thus, you'll see mention and discussion of some of the primary covenants such as: Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Land, Davidic, New.

    The second approach focuses on the idea that God is a "God of covenant" and views all the different covenants from a position which tends to merge them all together and fails to see their distinctions. This approach posits a "Covenant of Works" and "Covenant of Grace" and sometimes a "Covenant of Redemption," none of which are mentioned explicitly in the Biblical text and some of which are thought to have been made between the members of the Godhead prior to creation. In failing to see the distinctions between the various covenants (the ones actually called "covenant" within the Bible), this approach tends to merge all the different people involved into a single concept: the "people of God." In this approach important distinctions such as the identity of Israel vs. the identity of the Church are glossed over or even ignored. In the more extreme forms, this approach sees the entire Bible as being made up primarily of just two covenants (the "old" and the "new") and that virtually all the Old Testament covenants fall into the category of "the old covenant" and have been superseded by the new covenant. It is my view that the second approach force-fits an interpretive framework upon the text rather than letting it speak for itself. The result is the distortion and misapplication of the promises—such that aspects of the Biblical covenants (which are formal promises) are interpreted in ways that do not do justice to what God has said. Thus, important distinctions—and remaining promises—are lost in the shuffle.

  • Dispensation - This is the idea that God has dealt with different people groups during different situations in different ways and that a failure to recognize these differences causes us to misapply portions of Scripture to the wrong people in the wrong situation. For example, during different times, God has required vegetarianism, then allowed meat-eating but distinguishing between 'clean' and 'unclean' foods, and now allows all meats to be eaten (Mat. 15:11; Mark 7:15-19; Luke 10:7-8; Rom. 14:14,20; Col. 2:16; 1Ti. 4:4).

    These changes in the requirements that God made must recognize the situation and the people to which they were given. For example, we don't go back into the Old Testament and pick out some law given to Israel at Mt. Sinai (e.g., keeping the Sabbath) and arbitrarily decide that it was meant for church-age believers living today. The ability of an interpreter or teacher to recognize what has changed over time while also recognizing what continues to apply is a very important in how he or she will go about teaching what our obligations are to the text. While all scripture is written for our learning, not all of it is written to us!

    Those who try to pay careful attention to these distinctions and avoid interpreting the Biblical revelation as a "flat text" are known, as I am, as "dispensationalists." You'll often hear this term disparaged but for many of us it is the natural (indeed only) way to interpret the text which does justice to what one finds there and recognizes the changes in how God has dealt with different peoples.

    Those who dislike dispensationalism tend to view the Bible as continuous—that much of what was said in the Old Testament to specific people (e.g., the nation of Israel) should continue to apply to believers today—because in every case the recipient is simply seen to be among "the people of God." Thus, you'd better be in Church on "the Sabbath" (interpreted as the "Christian Sabbath" which is a figment of imagination and unknown to Scripture) and, in more virulent forms, we should consider enacting laws to stone homosexuals because the law of Mt. Sinai should be the law of any godly nation—even today. Along with this refusal to see distinctions in the program of God is the notion that the Church began with Adam and Eve in Genesis, or with Abraham, rather than with the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Thus, the uniqueness of the Body of Christ, which never existed prior to the day of Pentecost before the Spirit began baptizing people "into Christ" (1Cor. 12:13) is denied. This refusal to see distinctions can lead to some strange ideas such as the idea that we should baptize infants because doing so is merely the New Testament continuation of the concept of circumcision (even though girls never were commanded to be circumcised)!

Regarding these topics: its not so much that we want these to be explicitly taught or emphasized, but that the way the writers of the study notes understand these areas will heavily influence their interpretation of the text. This, in turn, leads to quite different understandings concerning how to apply various parts of Scripture and especially one's view of eschatology (prophecy related to the end times).

Both the Nelson and MacArthur Study Bibles recognize covenants and dispensations and are very close in their handling of each although perhaps the MacArthur places a bit less emphasis on covenants than the Nelson (Nelson distinguishing the most important ones in the subject index, but MacArthur not). I don't think you'll go wrong with either one. In fact, I would say they are similar enough in their teachings that you probably want to look at other factors (typeface, readability, size, binding quality) when making your decision.

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