How Firm a Foundation: The Dispensations in the Light of the Divine Covenants. By Hal Harless. New York : Peter Lang Publishing, 2004. 318 pp. $73.95
Hal Harless has done a nice piece of work by making an original contribution to the current scholarly debate between covenantal and dispensational theologians.
As a dispensationalist Harless’ main concern in both camps is that, “Covenant theology is guilty of creating covenants [i.e., ‘covenant of works’ and ‘covenant of grace,’] for which there is no solid biblical basis” and of (p. 55) being “too restrictive in limiting God’s purpose to salvation alone” (p. 278). He correctly concludes, “The salvific and revelatory purposes of God are but components of His doxological purpose,” which is the central theme of Scripture (italics original, p. 278). Equally so, he fairly concludes: “On the other hand dispensationalists tend to slight the covenants. To be sure, dispensationalists do not deny the biblical covenants. Nevertheless, they do tend to ignore them” (p. 55). He further adds, “Dispensationalism is to be criticized in that it has not clearly, consistently, and unequivocally asserted the divine covenants as the basis of God’s governing arrangements” (p. 278; see also pp. 55-58). Thus, he clarifies between both camps that, “It seems clear to me that the revelation from God and the code of conduct during a dispensation consists of the aggregate of the covenantal stipulations in effect at that time. Therefore, rather than a dispensation being the administration of a particular covenant, as the covenant theologian would say, a dispensation is an administration of all of the covenant stipulations in force at the time” (italics original, pp. 57-58).
He seeks to prove his thesis by first describing the nature of the term “covenant” in light of the ancient Near East “defined as a solemn unilateral obligation made binding by an oath” (italics original, p. 12). Harless notes three different types of covenants: the grant covenant is unconditional and the parity and suzerainty covenants are conditional in nature (pp. 12-13).
A thorough discussion follows of the eight biblical covenants: the Edenic, Adamic, and Mosaic Covenants as descriptive of the suzerainty conditional covenants and the Noahic, Abrahamic, Land, Davidic and New Covenants as descriptive of the grant unconditional covenants (pp. 69-194). He discusses each of these covenants carefully by showing its duration of establishment, its beneficiaries and stipulations. He then treats in detailed form how each of these covenants contain continuity and discontinuity in each of the seven discernable dispensations of Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace and Kingdom (pp. 221-65).
Beside numerous helpful charts found throughout the book showing a synthesis to help the reader grasp detailed concepts explained in each chapter, I found his comment (in agreement with Chafer and Ryrie) in distinguishing a dispensation and age very helpful. “Since the Church is not the distinguishable means of divine administration during the dispensation of grace, the dispensation of grace need not end immediately after the rapture. Thus, the tribulation falls within the dispensation of grace…. There appears to be confusion in this matter between dispensations and ages. These are related but not synonymous terms. A dispensation is a distinguishable economy that describes the manner in which God is managing the world. An age is a period of time that may or may not be associated with a dispensation. In this case, both the Church age and the tribulation fall within the dispensation of grace” (see pp. 257-58).
JOTGES readers will also be pleased to see how Harless answer the all too common accusation of covenant theologians that dispensationalists teach two ways of salvation: “Dispensations are not ways of salvation. Salvation has always been by grace, through faith, and based on Christ’s atonement either past or future” (p. 229).
Harless concludes his book with a helpful summary of the conclusions of each chapter leading to his main thesis: “What is required is a covenantal dispensationalism. Since covenant theology has commandeered the term ‘covenant’ many would consider ‘dispensational covenant theology’ or ‘covenant dispensationalism’ oxymorons. Ultimately, these distinctions stem from a false dichotomy. The Scriptures are both covenantal and dispensational. Covenants prescribe and dispensations describe the structure of the progressive revelation of God’s plan for the ages. God’s administration of humankind is founded upon the bedrock of His covenant promises” (p. 279). In another place Harless clarifies that, “what God is administering and man is responsible for are the covenantal stipulations that have been instituted at any given point. Dispensations are descriptive and the divine covenants are prescriptive. Therefore, the dispensations are covenantally driven” (p. 221).
This book will help one build a structure by which to hang biblical details in its proper place and interpret the Bible accordingly in its proper dispensation by “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). I strongly recommend this well written and documented book to the serious Bible student. Sit back and engage your mind in getting to know the deeper truths of God’s Word by reading this book. You won’t regret it!
René A. Lopez
Iglesia Bíblica Nuestra Fe
Dallas , TX