(Part 2 of "Dispensationalism, Israel and Scripture")
Having introduced our series in the previous post, I will now begin analyzing the role of Israel in dispensationalism. Few issues rival this one as a leading theme for critiquing dispensationalism in all of its varieties. Let’s get to work!
Though Israel is "the key to prophecy" in all varieties of dispensationalism, it is also the key to some embarrassing errors among older dispensational schools. As Frank Gaebelein admits in the Foreword to Ryrie’s 1965 watershed work
The necessity of revision, however, did not end with the publication of Ryrie’s
Unfortunately, the key to dispensationalism (Israel) very early broke off in the lock to the dispensational house. Much locksmithing down-time has resulted from the problem for dispensationalists. Israel, the definitional distinctive of dispensationalism, has been as sticky a problem for dispensational popularizes as for their favorite henchmen, the political leaders of Israel dealing with the West Bank in the modern state of Israel. I illustrated this in the February, 1997, edition of this newsletter. The major developments within dispensationalism revolve around the role of Israel (as Bock argues in PD, pp. 23ff). Allow me to employ about a dozen sentences to refresh your memory regarding these system-restructuring overhauls associated with Israel.
Classic dispensationalism (e.g., C. I. Scofield, L. S. Chafer) maintained a metaphysical distinction between Israel and the Church. It held that Israel and the Church would be forever distinguished in eternity, with Israel inhabiting the new earth and the Church heaven. Thus, an eternal separation will prevail between Israel and the Church in this system.
Revised dispensationalism (e.g., C. C. Ryrie, J. F. Walvoord, J. D. Pentecost) jettisoned the eternal metaphysical distinction, allowing only a temporal earthly distinction rooted in a difference between two redemptive-historical purposes, rather than in two different plans stretching out to eternity. Revised dispensationalists held two forms of one redeemed humanity existing in and confined to history. The Church exists presently to the glory of God in its own, distinct dispensation, with its own principles and purposes differing from those of Israel. Israel’s ultimate historical purpose will be realized in the future, literal, earthly millennium. After the millennium, though, the eternal order will realize the union of the two people in one redeemed mass forever.
Progressive dispensationalists have moved in a more covenantal direction, while maintaining their premillennial orientation and emended dispensational distinctives. They are "progressive" in that they view each successive dispensation as building upon and developing the principles of the preceding one. This progresses the one plan of God for his one redeemed people, rather than distinguishing two separate plans and peoples. This allows that the one divine purpose for redeemed humanity will ultimately be realized in the earthly, literal millennium. The millennial phase of the redemptive historical plan of God is necessary to bring to fulfillment the Old Testament prophecies for Israel.
NEW COVENANT FOCUS
Perhaps there is no better means of illustrating and critiquing dispensationalism than by analyzing the biblical revelation of the new covenant. Revised dispensationalists affirm its centrality. Ryrie states that "the new covenant is one of the major covenants of Scripture" (BPF, p. 107). Walvoord holds that "it is one of the great prophecies in the Old Testament" and is the "strongest prophecy in the Old Testament for the continuance of Israel" (PKH, p. 140). Pentecost lists this covenant as one of "the four great determinative covenants" (TC, p. 116).
Progressive dispensationalist Bruce A. Ware observes: "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) and "Regarding the territorial and political aspects of the new-covenant promise, it seems incorrect to disregard these or to say they are fulfilled in some spiritual manner in the church. There can be no question that the prophets meant to communicate the promise of a national return of Israel to its land" (DIC, p. 93). "We must conclude that God will yet fulfill the new covenant with the nation of Israel, precisely in the manner prophesied by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel" (DIC, p. 94).
Elsewhere and more recently Pentecost notes the importance of the new covenant for Israel’s distinctive future: "This New Covenant, then -- which is an unconditional, eternal covenant based on the shedding of blood -- guarantees the preservation of Israel as a nation and her ultimate restoration to the land originally given by God to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants.... As a result of this covenant, the blessings Israel never found through the Law will at last be experienced" (TKC, p. 171).
Walvoord brings the new covenant into the present-day apocalyptic context: "This remarkable prophecy, given by Jeremiah almost 2,500 years ago, has seen modern fulfillment in the recapture of Jerusalem.... This prophecy is one of the signs that the coming of the Lord may be near" (PKH, p. 141).
Though the new covenant is a cornerstone for dispensationalism, Ryrie, oddly enough, laments dispensational confusion with reference to Israel and the new covenant: "Premillennialists have not always dealt with questions about the new covenant uniformly. Some have taught that the church has no relation to the new covenant, only Israel does. Others see two new covenants, one with Israel and another with the church. Others acknowledge that the church receives some of the blessings (or similar blessings) promised in the Old Testament revelation of the new covenant but not all of them. Progressives make these similar blessings evidence that the new covenant has been inaugurated. All premillennialists agree that there will be a future fulfillment of the covenant for Israel at the second coming of Christ" (D, p. 172).
In light of all of this, we see here in one biblical theme -- the new covenant -- both a pre-eminent proof of dispensationalism AND a source of dispensational stumbling, failure, and hem-hawing. Thus, the new covenant of Scripture will be an excellent theme on which to focus for exposure of past and present errors within the system loved by untold millions of American Christians -- and profit-conscious dispensationalist publishers.
In the remainder of this newsletter I will lay out the shifting sands approach of classic and revised dispensationalism on the question of the new covenant. Then in the next newsletter I will focus on the progressive dispensational argument. Being aware of these differing approaches to the new covenant -- a foundational proof for dispensationalism -- is a crucial first step in analyzing, critiquing, and dismissing dispensationalism as a viable theological option.
JEREMIAH’S NEW COVENANT
The basic new covenant revelation is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Its contextual setting is crucial to the debate, as well. Jeremiah 31:31-40 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. 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."
Here we note that the prophecy expressly associates the new covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." Revised dispensationalists created the (strained and unattainable) notion of literalism in an attempt to sustain their system. We can see why this passage has had such a strong impact on dispensationalists. Jeremiah 31 also speaks of phenomena that seem to suggest a regathering of Israel into the promised land. Surely this is the passage upon which dispensationalism should be able to make its stand (much like General Custer). Yet dispensationalists have even struggled over how to understand this foundational passage!
DISPENSATIONAL NEW COVENANT STRUGGLES
Of this "determinative" covenant, the new covenant, Ryrie lists three pre-millennial views that have been generated by dispensationalists. Many of the following quotations are from Ryrie’s
(1) The Jews Only View. This is "the view that the new covenant directly concerns Israel and has no relationship to the Church" (BPF, p. 107). This was the earliest dispensational view, held by John Nelson Darby (for documentation see: TC, 121-122). But though Darby’s name is still revered by dispensationalists, his teaching on this foundational covenant is not usually accepted by premillenarians today -- despite its consistency with the dispensational hermeneutic of literalism (IP, p. 54). Unfortunately, this untenable position flies directly in the very face of New Testament evidence to the contrary. Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews expressly associates the "new covenant" with the Church in Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; 9:15; 12:24. Numerous other allusions to the new covenant appear elsewhere in the New Testament, as I will note in later issues.
(2) The One Covenant/Two Aspects View. Ryrie summarizes this position: "The one new covenant has two aspects, one which applies to Israel, and one which applies to the church" (BPF, 107). This is the view held by Walvoord: "This can best be explained as one New Covenant of grace made possible by the death of Christ, whether applied to Israel or the church as in the New Testament" (PKH, 140). Although Pentecost was ambiguous while earning his doctorate at Dallas Seminary’s, later (after securing tenure?) he settled on this view (TKC, p. 175).
(3) The Two New Covenants View. This is Ryrie’s view. (Ware claims Ryrie has abandoned it, DIC, p. 91, n. 40. If that is true, the following presentation will be all the more remarkable in that Ryrie would be condemning himself for fidelity to the system principles of dispensationalism!) Ryrie notes that this view actually "distinguishes the new covenant with Israel from the new covenant with the Church. This view finds two new covenants in which the promises to Israel and the promises to the Church are more sharply distinguished even though both new covenants are based on the one sacrifice of Christ" (BPF, p. 107).
Ryrie states vigorously that: "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).
Strangely, this view was a "corrective" to the earlier view of a Jews-only new covenant. As I will show in a later newsletter, this position necessitates all sorts of hermeneutical gymnastics. Ryrie continues this bizarre (though logically necessitated) view in his 1995 work, where he tentatively holds that the lack of the definite article with "new covenant" in 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24 "may indicate that Paul is focusing on a new covenant made with the church" (D, pp. 173-174).
Since the two new covenants view is so vigorously argued by Ryrie and, therefore, shows so clearly how absurd old-line dispensationalism is, it might be helpful for our purposes of expose’ to provide a little more detail to the argument from Ryrie. This will also serve to illustrate the marked difference between Ryrie’s revised dispensationalism, and the current progressive dispensationalism. And if Ryrie has indeed abandoned this position, this will show the internal contradictions within the system (when we note how vigorously Ryrie argued as a dispensational systematician for this view).
The New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31ff, says Ryrie, is necessarily limited to the Jews on the basis of "three incontrovertible reasons." Notice this argument is "incontrovertible." Ryrie’s argument goes as follows:
(1) The argument from specific reference (BPF, p. 108). Verses 31 and 33 clearly specify God’s making the new covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." And in the revised dispensational hermeneutic "Israel means Israel" (BPF, p. 125). This is like "seed of Abraham" means "seed of Abraham." (Oops! I forgot about the spiritual seed of Abraham in Gal. 3.) This is just like "bread" means "bread." (Oops! I forgot about the "bread of life" in John 6.)
(2) The argument from legal contrast. This is "also seen by the fact of its very name which is contrasted with the Mosaic covenant" in Jeremiah 31:32 (BPF, p. 108). A "new" covenant contrasted with a former covenant made when Israel departed Egypt necessitates a sole relationship to the people specifically under the previous covenant.
(3) The argument from historic effect (BPF, p. 109). "In its establishment, the perpetuity of the nation Israel and her restoration to the land is vitally linked with it (Jer 31:35-40)" (BPF, p. 109). The context clearly assumes an historical regathering to the Land (or at least, so dispensationalists think!).
Despite Ryrie’s literalistic argument from specific reference, we should note that the New Covenant is specifically applied through the Lord’s Supper to the Church in Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25. Apparently literalism was not the method of Jesus and Paul! Note the following:
(1) Pentecost is quite correct, when he writes of the establishment of the Lord’s Supper: "In its historical setting, the disciples who heard the Lord refer to the new covenant. . . would certainly have understood Him to be referring to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31" (TKC, p. 172).
(2) In fact, the sudden appearance of the "new covenant" in the New Testament record, without qualification or explanation, demands that it refer to the well known new covenant of Jeremiah. See: Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25.
(3) Hebrews 8, on everyone’s view, cites Jeremiah’s new covenant in a context speaking to New Testament Christians. In addition, this new covenant sacrament is specifically for the "Church" in the "Church Age" (1 Cor. 11:23ff). Yet Ryrie argues that "the writer of the Epistle has referred to both new covenants" (BPF, p. 121). This is pure desperation. Walvoord is driven to admit of the crucial Hebrews 8 reference: "it is, in fact, the only passage which provides any difficulty to the premillennial view" (MK, p. 215). And: "There are problems that remain in the premillennial understanding of this passage" (IP, p. 54).
(4) The Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, even promotes the New Covenant as an important aspect of his ministry (2 Cor 3:6). He does not say he is a minister of a second new Covenant" or "another new covenant." Paul writes that God "also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).
Ryrie’s bravely defends the indefensible, reminding me of the preacher who promised that if you come to church Sunday, he would "unscrew the inscrutable." Reviewing dispensationalism’s history like this, we can see how important the new covenant issue is to the debate.
THINGS TO COME
In my next issue, I will begin presenting and analyzing the role of the new covenant in progressive dispensationalism. Though far superior to its predecessors, progressive dispensationalism falls short of the biblical reality, as well. And the presentation and analysis ought to be helpful to our growth in understanding the theology of Scripture.
BPF: Charles C. Ryrie,
D: Charles C. Ryrie,
DIC: Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
IP: John F. Walvoord,
MK: John F. Walvoord,
PD: Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock,
PKH: John F. Walvoord,
TC: J. Dwight Pentecost,
TKC: J. Dwight Pentecost,