In short, these two theologies are “big picture” theologies. Each focuses on the overall story of the Scriptures as it unfolds with their differences being in how each approach views Scripture’s narrative with different angles &/or foci.
It is often stated that Covenant Theology focuses on the continuity of all Scripture whereas Dispensational focuses on the discontinuity of the unfolding of all Scripture.
These statements are true but they do not give you much detail. The truly difficult part is where to go from that description, however, as neither theology has been static over the years. Dispensational theology use to be broken down into far more periods of time or “dispensations” than what most would do today.
In addition to the above, there are additional hurdles like forks in theology and flat out divergences such as between reformed baptist (who are typically credo-baptist like the dispensational types – so now you have cross-over) and the Presbyterians who are paedo-baptist (infant baptizers). I bring this up because this is an example of one of those “forks” as it is a difference in their covenant theology that brings them to different conclusions about baptism.
Dispensationalists would include many baptist congregations as well as those that consider themselves nondenominational but it also includes many Pentecostals as well. They would agree with much of the overarching story of Scripture and of eschatology but diverge on the topic of Pentecost and the cessation of gifts.
I think you begin to get at least a glimpse of some of the challenges in trying to decipher out what is purely covenantal theology and what is purely dispensational theology simply by this description but there do remain certain trends – namely in eschatology.
I have already mentioned the continuity versus discontinuity difference but another common element of difference tends to be eschatology. Now, I know I mentioned it in an example only a moment ago but this is going to get more specific.
Historically speaking, I have come across examples of individuals and groups who held to many of the various eschatological views held in history while still being under the Covenant Theology umbrella. With that being said, it is much more common (I find) for the typical member under this umbrella to be some form of amillennialist. There continue to be prominent leaders who may take a different form of premillennialism from that of the Dispensationalist and there are also those who continue to be postmillennial. Even so, amillennial certainly would appear to be most prominent.
Again, even with that said there can be quite a bit of variety still as being amillennialist merely means there is agreement in that there is to be no millennial kingdom on Earth before the end of all things.
The biggest component to the Covenant Theology camp is to the development and progression of covenants in the Scriptures and how they are part of God’s overall plan of redemption. Dispensationalism does not necessarily ignore the existence of the covenants, in fact it recognizes their existence, but it is far more focused on God’s seemingly changing interaction with His people in redemptive history. Covenants were often a marker of this change and Israel central in it all.
Getting back to particular end times views, the Dispensational Theology umbrella is pretty well exclusively a futurist eschatology and, thereby, is premillennial with a millennial kingdom reign on Earth by Christ (though the belief did not always have Christ ruling over this kingdom) in the future. There are differences among them as to the timing of the rapture (pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, post-tribulation) but they are rather convinced of a complete removal of all true believers from this world before Christ returns. Much of everything will be centered around Jerusalem in Israel and include the Israeli people. It is this theological umbrella in particular that makes the strongest claims for supporting the Jews and Israel to this day.
I realize this may all seem a bit vague but at other times more specific. As I have suggested, these theologies are frameworks that incorporate the entirety of Scripture and have developed over time. As such, not everyone in a given approach has even held the exact same view throughout its respective history. There continues to be variations to this day. In addition, some emphasize certain texts over others which leads to further differences in interpretation. This article was never meant to explain it all but to stand as a sort of introduction to some of the differences between the two theologies. At different points in my life, I have held to some form of each which you can find out more about that in the links below.
If all of this gets you to wondering what I may think or where I may stand, you can see for yourself on my “Simply Me” page where I’ve got multiple articles linked on various topics includes ones such as eschatology.