by Ken Gentry, Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com
In this third installment of a series on "Dispensationalism, Israel, and Scripture" I will give attention to the progressive dispensational view of Israel especially in light of the foundational new covenant. In the preceding two issues I focused more on problems in dispensationalism regarding Israel and on the revised dispensationalist viewpoint of Ryrie and Walvoord.
As I have indicated on a number of occasions, progressive dispensationalists have undertaken a wholesale overhaul of dispensationalism. The effects of relentless covenantal critiques from as far back as David Brown ("Christ’s Second Come: Will It Be Premillennial?," 1891) in the nineteenth century, through O. T. Allis ("Prophecy and the Church," 1945) in the mid-twentieth century to the present have had their effect. Much within progressive dispensationalism is acceptable to reformed and covenantal theologians. But problems remain.
In this issue I will provide a summary of the progressive dispensational understanding of the new covenant, which covenant has generated so much confusion -- and absurdity -- in older versions of dispensationalism. I will use as my reference point an excellent chapter by Bruce A. Ware in
Ware is aware (no pun intended) both of the large role the new covenant plays in evangelical theology -- and of the difficulties that arise in the interpretation of the new covenant: "Evangelical biblical scholars and theologians uniformly affirm that the new covenant constitutes a high point in God’s redemptive and restorative program" (DIC, p. 68).
Of special interest to our study, he notes (in part) that "despite this recognition, however, several questions remain. For example, what is the nature of this new covenant?... How will this new covenant be implemented? With whom is the new covenant made? Do Israel and the church both participate in the
These are but a few of the questions that I lift from his fuller discussion. They are crucial in the ongoing dialogue and debate between dispensationalists and non-dispensationalist evangelical and reformed theologians. He has put his finger on the very pulse of the problem -- and done an admirable job of defending dispensationalism.
(As an aside, I am impressed with the quality and character of the writings of progressive dispensationalists. I seriously doubt if one of the progressive dispensational theologians will ever publish a book like Ryrie’s apocalyptic writings:
Ware’s important chapter has as its purpose "to devote particular attention to the new covenant as it relates to Israel and the church, and to do so by focusing most directly on (1) the nature of the new covenant, as given to Israel, and (2) its fulfillment or realization in relation both to Israel and the church." This is so that "we can think responsibly about the continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church as both entities relate within the one people of God" (DIC, pp. 68-69).
Continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments and the people(s) of God is a fundamental dividing point between reformed and dispensational theologians. For an excellent debate over issues revolving around this question, see: John S. Feinberg, ed.,
Ware’s purpose should immediately give rise to concern among the classic and revised dispensationalists: As I noted last month, how could this prophecy, which is literally directed to "the house of Israel and the house of Judah," have ANY realization in the church at all? Remember Ryrie’s "incontrovertible evidence" for TWO new covenants? Remember his vigorous, death-defying argument: "If the Church does not have a new covenant then she is fulfilling Israel’s promises, for it has been shown that the Old Testament teaches that the new covenant is for Israel alone. If the Church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere in Scripture, then premillennialism is weakened. One might well ask why there are not two aspects to one new covenant. This may be the case, and it is the position held by many premillennialists [perhaps even by Ryrie now, according to Ware!], but we agree that the amillennialist has every right to say of this view that it is ‘a practical admission that the new covenant is fulfilled in and to the Church.’ However, since the New Testament will support two new covenants, is it not more consistent premillennialism to consider that Israel and the Church each has a new covenant?" (BPF, p. 118). He goes so far as to charge "that the one covenant, two aspects interpretation absolutely contradicts the entire premillennial system" (BPF, p. 108).
Also, I ask regarding the new covenant: How can dispensationalism tolerate the notion of "one people of God" in history? Yet this is the direction of the New Kids on the Block, the progressive dispensationalists.
Let us consider Ware’s exegesis, much of which I find quite helpful. This portion of my newsletter will basically function as a book review of those portions of his article directly relevant to the dispensational debate. It is very important, however, to have some of Ware’s observations before us if we are to accurately expose the deficiencies in the progressive dispensational position and show where they go astray.
THE OLD TESTAMENT REGARDING THE NEW COVENANT
The heart of the new covenant is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (a passage I had to memorize when enrolled in Dr. Dennis Wisdom’s course on "Premillennialism" at Tennessee Temple College back in 1972). Jeremiah 31-34 reads as follows:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more."
Ware shows that though Jeremiah 31 is the key passage of the Old Testament regarding the new covenant, and the only passage specifically calling it the "new covenant," it is not the only mention of this gracious covenant. Other passages referring to the new covenant -- or some effect resulting from it -- include: Isaiah 24:5; 49:8; 55:3; 54:10; 59:21; 61:8; Jeremiah 32:39-40; 50:5; Ezekiel 11:19; 16:60; 18:31; 34:25; 36:26; 37:26; Hosea 2:18-20.
According to Ware, the national implications of this "new" covenant cannot be far from Jeremiah’s mind. The division in Israel (Judah and Israel) which lead ultimately to both their exiles from the land are key historical-contextual matters, as is the reference to the prior covenant with Moses (v. 32). "The breach within Israel began as the people increasingly distanced themselves from their covenant God.... As is clear from Israel’s history, it was their sinfulness of heart producing a breach of covenant with their God that led, in due time, to the breach in their national union. But if the breach of national union results from a breach of covenant, then the remedy becomes clear. In order for God once again to unite his people, they must exhibit covenant faithfulness and so keep from the sin that resulted in their division" (Ware, DIC, p. 71).
Ware notes on this basis "serious questions" are raised about the application of this covenant from this context to the Church of the New Testament: "Jeremiah 31:31-34 is extended to Israel and Judah, not to any other nation or group. Other new-covenant passages, inside and outside of Jeremiah, also direct this new covenant to the people of Israel in a similar manner" (DIC, p. 72). This would seem to pose trouble for the non-dispensationalist who would find fulfillment of the new covenant in the Church, and to the standard dispensationalist view of an "application" of the new covenant to the Church. (But, of course, the problems do not end there: this would seem to cause trouble for Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews who apply the new covenant beyond the borders of Israel!)
Ware (DIC, p. 72) makes an important observation, though, that "one new-covenant text" that suggests extension "beyond Israel to the nations" is Isaiah 55:3-5, which reads:
"Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you-- The sure mercies of David. Indeed I have given him as a witness to the people, a leader and commander for the people. Surely you shall call a nation you do not know, And nations who do not know you shall run to you, Because of the LORD your God, And the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you."
He concludes from this verse, then, that "the new covenant made with Israel includes a host of Gentile participants, not directly addressed as God’s covenant partners" (DIC, p. 73). This, of course, comports well with our experience of the new covenant in the New Testament! But it sure causes some complications for classic and revised dispensationalists who do not so easily apply Israel’s promises to the Church. Especially since the new covenant is "literally" directed to Israel and Judah.
(As an aside: a refreshing aspect of Ware’s exposition of Jeremiah 31 is his treatment of the law of God. Though certainly not endorsing the theonomic ethic, Ware comments: "Notice that neither in Jeremiah 31 nor in Ezekiel 36 do we find a denunciation of the law as somehow defective, requiring a new law to replace the old. Instead we find, amazingly, that the same law is carried over or maintained. The problem with the old covenant, then, is not the law; the problem, rather, is with the nature of those persons who are called to covenant faithfulness but instead transgress the law" [DIC, p. 76]. If this statement were cited without bibliographic reference, one might think it was uttered by Greg L. Bahnsen, author of
Having visited the house of covenant theology, Ware returns to his dispensational roots when he begins speaking of the ultimate fulfillment of the new covenant: "It seems clear that the promised new age, in which the new covenant would finally be realized, would come only when God’s king would liberate Israel from its oppressors and when God’s Spirit would inhabit the whole company of the people of God.... [God’s favor then] would also be accompanied by the promised physical, national, and geographic blessings" (DIC, p. 84). This, of course, is the key to a dispensational premillennial conception of the new covenant -- whether for classic, revised, or progressive dispensationalism.
Over the next several pages of his argument, Ware shows how the New Testament demands an application of the new covenant upon the Church (pp. 84-91). Then in his final section, "The New Covenant and Its Relation to the People of God," he raises the question toward which his chapter has been moving: "Should the New Testament application of the new covenant lead us to see an identity of Israel and the church? ... Or is there a way of conceiving of the one new covenant in relation both to Israel and the church that, on the one hand, distinguishes them from one another while, on the other hand, unites them as one people of God?" (DIC, p. 91).
After an excellent citation from dispensationalist Homer Kent exploding Ryrie’s two new covenants construct, Ware asks: "Having rejected the view of the two new covenants, are we then left solely with the option of understanding Israel and the church as so strictly identified under
THE PROGRESSIVE DISPENSATIONAL VIEW OF THE NEW COVENANT
Ware defends the progressive dispensational argument for a future millennial exaltation of Israel on the basis of two principles:
First, "What do we make of the territorial and political aspects of the new-covenant promise that clearly states that God will restore Israel to its land in prosperity and productivity and unite it again as one nation (Israel and Judah) whose center of rulership is Jerusalem?" (DIC, p. 93) In other words, the land aspect of the new covenant suggests a literal earthly-political fulfillment in a millennium.
Second, "is the ‘already-not yet’ eschatological framework correct in which promises of God are understood to be realized first in preliminary (inaugurated) and then in final (future) stages?" (DIC, p. 93) This allows progressive dispensationalism to take the middle road between revised dispensationalism (iron-clad, sealed-for-your protection dispensations) and covenantalism, with its one-people, developmental maturation framework.
I will deal with the second matter (already/not yet) in a later issue of our newsletter. But first we will need to begin responding to the very important question of the land promise to geo-political Israel. As Ware (and others) notes, this is where the debate lies. We must recognize the "problem" and then resolve it within a biblical-covenantal framework.
THE LAND PROMISE
Regarding the first question Ware makes two observations:
(1) He is dispensationally insistent that "there can be no question that the prophets meant to communicate the promise of a national return of Israel to its land," which requires a "literal rendering" of God’s promise to Israel (DIC, p. 93).
(2) The New Testament "does not permit a spiritual absorption of the literal promises to Israel by the church" (ibid.).
What are we to make of the territorial reality of the land promise found in the new covenant? Especially in light of the verses following Jeremiah’s new covenant revelation? Jeremiah 31, including not only the famous verses 31-34 but also the dispensationally significant conclusion in verses 35-40, reads:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah--  not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.  Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar The LORD of hosts is His name):  If those ordinances depart From before Me, says the LORD, Then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.  Thus says the LORD: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD.  Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, that the city shall be built for the LORD from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate.  The surveyor’s line shall again extend straight forward over the hill Gareb; then it shall turn toward Goath.  And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be holy to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever."
The progressive dispensational argument seems to be quite persuasive. And on the surface it is. But like Gary North once observed about surface appearances: A duck appears to glide peacefully upon the surface of the water, but below the surface there is a lot of fancy footwork going on. In our next newsletter we will begin a covenantal response to the geo-political aspects of the new covenant promise. Sorry! You will have to tune in next month!
DIC: Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).