Recommended Reading in Dispensationalism

Dan Phillips has asked me to come up with a guide to the reading of Dispensational Theology.  I hope this is what he expected.  Anyway, this is what I have come up with.  No “Progressive Dispensationalist” work is included because I do not consider that approach to be Dispensationalism proper (which does not mean dispensationalists can’t learn from them!).  Neither have I included ultra-dispensational works, nor indeed, those post-trib./pre-wrath books which deny imminence.  An asterisk indicates my recommendation of where money ought to go first.

No doubt I have let some vital resource run through the sieve that is my memory.  If readers want to prompt me to remembrance I shall add to the following list: 


*DispensationalismCharles C. Ryrie – Updated version of the author’s Dispensationalism Today, which should still be purchased.  This is a must read, even if it is soft on the covenants. Irenic in style.

*Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths – Michael Vlach – Short and punchy.  I don’t like his restriction of Dispensationalism to ecclesiology and eschatology.

Understanding End Times Prophecy (2nd ed.) – Paul Benware -A very good introduction to the subject.

The End – Mark Hitchcock – A large but still fairly introductory level text.  I haven’t read it yet, only skimmed its contents.

The Footsteps of the Messiah (2nd ed.)Arnold G. FruchtenbaumSomewhat unique in its presentation of eschatology.  Contains some “Pemberisms” (abodes of Satan, pre-Adamic crystalline earth, etc).

Major Bible Prophecies – John F. WalvoordA handy resource.

Biblical Theology:

*The Dawn of World Redemption – Erich Sauer – Perhaps the best study of God’s overall plan in the OT.  Some glitches, but the main argument is very sound.  Contains many ideas which deserve to be developed.  Includes many seed-thoughts and insights

*The Triumph of the CrucifiedErich Sauer – Coupled with the work above this is a must-have book.

From Eternity to EternityErich Sauer – Provides both an overview of God’s plan and responses to objections.  Recommended.

*The Greatness of the KingdomAlva J. McClain – An outstanding, mature study of the subject. One of the “must have” books.

*The Theocratic Kingdom (3 Vols) – George N. H. Peters – An extraordinary book.  Notable for several reasons, not least because it is theocentric and so avoids treating eschatology in isolation.  Not perfect (e.g. holds to a partial rapture), but the work on the subject.  The person who masters Peters will be a formidable Bible teacher.

*Everlasting Dominion – Eugene Merrill – An excellent Old Testament Theology, though again, soft on covenants in Genesis 2-3. Merrill gives due stress to the covenants.

A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament – Zuck/Merrill/Bock (eds.) – An often helpful treatment of the subject.

The Millennial KingdomJohn F. Walvoord – A solid contribution and critique of opposing positions.  Adopts the “two new covenants view.”  Has interesting, if not totally persuasive comments about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven.  Walvoord’s best work.

*Israelology – Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum – Massive and cumbersome, but thorough presentation and defense of the biblical data concerning Israel. An important study of millennial systems and Israel’s place in Theology.  Ponderous and repetitive in style.

Important Studies:

The Great Prophecies Concerning the Jews, the Gentiles and the Church – G. H. Pember – The author was known for his ”Pemberisms” (Gap theory; Pre-Adamic fall; Partial rapture) but there is little evidence of them here.  A good study, elegantly written.

Israel in Prophecy – John F. Walvoord – Brief and full of insight.

*Things to Come – J. Dwight Pentecost – One of the finest texts on eschatology ever published.  The style is “scholastic” and it needs updating.

*Thy Kingdom ComeJ. Dwight Pentecost – Thorough study of the biblical data.  Good use of dispensations and covenants.

*Revelation 20 and the Millennial DebateMatthew Wehmeyer – The best study of this vital passage.  Undermines the whole foundation of amillennialism.

How Firm A Foundation – Hal Harless – A fine study of covenants and the Bible, even if he does teach covenants in Genesis 2-3.

*Dispensational Understanding of the New Covenant – (ed.) Michael Stallard – Chapters from a symposium on the subject seeking to answer the question of the Church’s involvement (or non-involvement) in the New Covenant.  Our position that Christ is the New Covenant and all who are saved must be saved by it is not represented.

*Continuity and Discontinuity - (ed.) John Feinberg – Top of the line articles by dispensationalists and covenant theologians (and one or two ‘inbetweenies’) about the relationship between the Testaments.

Specific Issues:

The Interpretation of Prophecy - Paul Lee Tan – A very useful guide.

*The Messianic Hope- Michael Rydelnik – A slim but impressive study of the Messiah in the OT.

Jerusalem in Prophecy – J. Randall Price – Price is one of the best contemporary writers on Israel in prophecy.

*The Temple and Bible Prophecy – J. Randall Price – An expanded edition of The Coming Last Days Temple.  This is a definitive work.

Premillennialism and Amillennialism – C. L. Feinberg – Very competent analysis of these two systems.

*Future Israel – Barry Horner – A recent study which shows, among other things, the latent Anti-Israelism of evangelicals who believe the Church is the “New Israel.”  The editing could have been better.

*Jews, Gentiles and the Church – David L. Larsen – An important study of historical and biblical matters pertaining to the subject.

The Rapture QuestionJohn F. Walvoord – A well written apology for the pretrib position

Maranatha!? Our Lord ComeRenald Showers – A newer treatment which interacts with contemporary views.

The Greatness of the Rapture- David Olander – A thought-provoking work

*Kept From The HourGerald Stanton – Still the best book on the subject of the Rapture

Messianic ChristologyArnold Fruchtenbaum –A handy set of expository studies, some more persuasive than others.

There Really Is A Difference  – Renald Showers – Plain but solid comparison of Dispensational and Covenant theologies.

*Has the Church Replaced Israel? – Michael Vlach – Perhaps the best treatment on the subject.  Vlach is nuanced which makes him more valuable.

*The Company of HopeDavid L. Larsen – A valuable historical study of eschatology.  Poorly edited. Lauds Lindsey and LaHaye.  

Collected Essays:

Walvoord: A Tribute – (ed.) D. K. Campbell – This book contains several excellent articles.

Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost – (eds.) S. Toussaint & C. Dyer – Similar quality articles to above.

Issues in Dispensationalism(eds.) J. Master & W. Willis – Some good explorations of in-house ideas can be found here.

*Dispensationalism: Tomorrow and Beyond - (ed.) Christopher Cone – A good if rather dislocated series of essays in celebration of Charles Ryrie.

Vital Prophetic Issues(ed.) Roy B. ZuckReprints of fine articles from BibSac.  A little overly reliant on Walvoord’s contributions.

*Dictionary of Premillennial Theology – (ed.) Mal O. Couch– An important if imperfect contribution.  Contains some terrific articles.  Poorly indexed.

The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy – (eds.) T. LaHaye & E. Hindson – Many fine articles on issues to do with Israel in prophecy.  The one on “Dispensations” ties them too closely to the covenants.

The Gathering Storm – (ed.) Mal Couch – This is a very helpful book full of interesting essays.

Israel in the Spotlight(ed.) C. L. Feinberg – Hard to procure but with some fine contributions.  Somewhat dated.

Christ’s Prophetic Plans(eds.) R. Mayhue, J. MacArthur, et al – I haven’t read this but it looks good.

*Israel: The Land and the People(ed.) H. Wayne House – A very solid and informative work.

An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics – Mal Couch (ed.) – Some excellent chapters on correct interpretive issues.

The Return of Christ – David Allen & Steve Lemke (eds.) – An uneven but helpful survey of Premillennialism

Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism – (ed.) Herbert W. Bateman – Dispensationalists and “Progressives” discuss three important matters.  I found the Progressives rather confusing to read, particularly on the distinction between Israel and the Church, where the writer seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth, but the questions raised are important.  The book is not as good as it should have been. (more…)

Dispensationalism & “Biblical Covenantalism” – What’s in a Name?

I am a Reluctant Dispensationalist.  If someone wants to know what my general outlook on the Bible is I will tell them it is Traditional or Classic Dispensational.  I then feel compelled to qualify this confession by making it clear that I do not follow the Tim LaHaye’s and Hal Lindsey’s of this world.  Where our theological paths cross I might find myself in agreement with them a fair bit of the time.  I would not agree with their Arminianism for one thing.  I’m not sure about this, but LaHaye may be closer to Limborch and Finney than to Arminius himself.  In any case, I do not think it is wrong to be an Arminian of the stamp of Arminius himself (or Episcopius), and I am sure that many Calvinists who can hardly bring themselves to say the word without their lip curling have never read Arminius for themselves (or a contemporary like Thomas Oden).

But differing on such matters does not make me a Reluctant Dispensationalist.  Perhaps the majority of Dispensationalists are and have been Calvinistic in their soteriology.  I myself believe salvation to be a sovereign work of God for the elect even if I wouldn’t formulate it in the usual Calvinist way.

I am not a Reluctant Dispensationalist either because I differ with my teachers, Mal Couch, Thomas Ice, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Steve Ger, Tom McCall, and Robert Lightner.  I learned a great deal from these men and esteem them all.  But truly I wish we could all go back to the time of Erich Sauer and Alva McClain and follow their lead.  They had little to say about “dispensations” in their overall schemes.

I must also insert here that I find little use for Progressive Dispensationalism.  I do think their treatment of the New Covenant is quite helpful, but their “complementary hermeneutics” looks to me like they are trying to have their cake and it eat it.  Often it seems that they have come to their views independently of the text in its context.

My reason for being reluctant is the name!  Yes, I know, what’s in a name?  Dan Phillips this past week has, in personal correspondence, tried to reason with me about this.  “Dispensationalism” is the name we’ve got and we’re stuck with it.  I greatly appreciate his advice, and I believe he is probably right.  So while I shall have to continue to say I am a Dispensationalist, I would like to try to explain why I have such a issue with the name, and why I shall continue to put in a word for “Biblical Covenantalism,” regardless of its obvious lack of shop-window appeal.  I’ll try to do it by way of contrast.  DT = Dispensationalism and BC = Biblical Covenantalism:

1. DT: is led by its very name to define itself by an aspect of its approach which is really tangential to its overall genius.  This false definition then circumscribes the outlook and understanding of its adherents and places blinkers (blinders) on their theological vision.  Dispensations are just not that important: the biblical covenants are.  Dispensationalism is limited because of what dispensations can do.

BC: defines itself by the covenants found within the pages of Scripture.  Because these covenants, correctly understood, comprehend God’s declared purposes for the creation (not just Israel, His chosen people), they expand ones theological vision.  Biblical Covenantalism is expansive because of what the covenants of Scripture can do.

2. DT: although I don’t expect everyone to see this, Dispensationalism derives its hermeneutics from “without” by asserting the normal or literal sense via grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  There is little attempt to derive this hermeneutics from the Bible itself.

BC: seeks to derive its hermeneutics (which correspond to traditional grammatical-historical hermeneutics) from “within” – from the Bible itself, in deference to the Biblical Worldview.  This acknowledges the comprehensive relation of revelation and knowledge. (more…)

Misrepresentations of Dispensationalism

Despite exhibiting many positive traits Reformed covenant theologians can usually be relied upon to do two things.  The first is to misrepresent Classic Arminianism, and the second is to misrepresent Classic Dispensationalism.  They often misrepresent Classic Arminianism by calling it Semi-Pelagianism and claiming the driving force behind the theology is “freewill.”  Neither of those claims is remotely true as anyone who has read Jacob Arminius is well aware.

Now I am not among the devotees of the former, but am happy to be included within the ranks of Classic Dispensationalists – even if I reserve the right to question the validity of defining the system via “dispensations.”  Here, if anything, the distortions are even worse.  I have previously highlighted such things when critiquing the vaunted “95 Theses Against Dispensationalism”

Now, following on the heels of a display of ignorance about Dispensationalism from Sinclair Ferguson and R. C. Sproul, here is a short rebuttal of a false claim about the new book Christ’s Prophetic Plans by Michael Vlach.  It is one thing to disagree with someone; and quite another to misrepresent them!

Forty Reasons For Not Reinterpreting The Old Testament By The New: The Last Twenty

The First Twenty Reasons (link)

In presenting these objections to the reinterpretation of OT passages by favored interpretations of the NT I am not throwing down the gauntlet to anyone.  If someone wishes to respond to these objections I would be fascinated to read what they have to say.  But no one is under pressure to agree with me.  However, I hope these forty reasons will be given thoughtful consideration by anybody who comes across them.

I believe, of course, that the NT does throw much light upon the OT text.  But it never imposes itself upon the OT in such a way as to essentially treat it as a sort of ‘palimpsest’ over which an improved NT message must be inscribed.     

By way of illustration, there are huge ramifications in making a dubious allusion in John 7:38 to Zechariah 14:8 a basis for a doctrine of the expansion of the spiritual temple over the face of the earth.  Such a questionable doctrine essentially evaporates huge amounts of OT material from, e.g.,  Numbers 25; Psalm 106; Isaiah 2; 33; 49; Jeremiah 30-33; Ezekiel 34; 36-37; 40-48; Amos 9; Micah 4-5; Zephaniah 3; Zechariah 2; 6; 8; 12-14; and Malachi 3, as well as all those other passages which intersect with them.  The cost is too high as well as quite unnecessary.

Here are twenty more reasons for not insisting the NT reinterprets the OT:

21. It devalues the OT as its own witness to God and His Plans.  For example, if the promises given to ethnic Israel of land, throne, temple, etc. are somehow “fulfilled” in Jesus and the Church what was the point of speaking about them so pointedly?  Cramming everything into Christ not only destroys the clarity and unity of Scripture in the ways already mentioned, it reduces the biblical covenants down to the debated promise of Genesis 3:15.  The [true] expansion seen in the covenants (with all their categorical statements) is deflated into a single soundbite of “the Promised Seed-Redeemer has now come and all is fulfilled in Him.”  This casts aspersions on God as a communicator and as a covenant-Maker, since there was absolutely no need for God to say many of the things He said in the OT, let alone bind himself by oaths to fulfill them (a la Jer. 31 & 33).

22. It forces one to adopt a “promise – fulfillment” scheme between the Testaments, ignoring the fact that the OT possesses no such promise scheme, but rather a more relational “covenant – blessing” scheme.

23. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired intertextual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants cited in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26).  God is always taken at face value (e.g. 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 9:2, 13).  This sets up an expectation that covenant commitments will find “fulfillment” in expected ways, certainly not in completely unforeseeable ones.

24. It forces clear descriptive language into an unnecessary semantic mold (e.g. Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14).  A classic example being Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezek. 40ff.  According to this view it is not a physical temple even though a physical temple is clearly described.

25. It impels a simplistic and overly dependent reliance on the confused and confusing genre labeled “apocalyptic” – a genre about which there is no scholarly definitional consensus.

26. It would make the specific wording of the covenant oaths, which God took for man’s benefit, misleading and hence unreliable as a witness to God’s intentions.  This sets a poor precedent for people making covenants and not sticking to what they actually promise to do (e.g. Jer. 34:18; cf. 33:15ff. and 35:13-16).  This encourages theological nominalism, wherein God’s oath can be altered just because He says it can.

27. Since interpreters in the OT (Psa. 105:6-12); NT (Acts 1:6); and the intertestamental period (e.g. Tobit 14:4-7) took the covenant promises at face value (i.e. to correspond precisely to the people and things they explicitly refer to), this would mean God’s testimony to Himself and His works in those promises, which God knew would be interpreted that way, was calculated to deceive the saints.  Hence, a “pious transformation” of OT covenant terms through certain interpretations of NT texts backfires.

28. The character of any being, be it man or angel, but especially God, is bound to the words agreed to in a covenant (cf. Jer. 33:14, 24-26; 34:18).  This being so, it would mean that God could not make such covenants and then perform them in a way totally foreign to the plain wording of the oaths He took; at least not without it testifying against His own holy veracious character.  Hence, not even God could “expand” His promises in such a fashion that would lead literally thousands of saints to be misled by His oaths.

29. A God who would “expand” His promises in such an unanticipated way could never be trusted not to “transform” His promises to us in the Gospel.  Thus, there might be a difference between the Gospel message as we preach it (relying on the face value language of the NT) and God’s real intentions when He eventually “fulfills” the promises in the Gospel.  Since it is thought that He did so in the past, it is conceivable that He might do so again in the future.  Perhaps the promises to the Church will be “fulfilled” in totally unexpected ways with a people other than the Church?

30. Exegetically it would entail taking passages in both Testaments literally and non-literally at the same time (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; 49:6; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9; Lk. 1:31-33; Rev. 7).

31. Exegetically it would also impose structural discontinuities into prophetic books (e.g. God’s glory departs a literal temple by the east gate in Ezekiel 10, but apparently returns to a spiritual temple through a spiritual east gate in Ezekiel 43!).

32. In addition, it makes the Creator of language the greatest rambler in all literature.  Why did God not just tell the prophet, “When the Messiah comes He will be the Temple and all those in Him will be called the Temple”?  That would have saved thousands of misleading words at the end of Ezekiel.

33. It ignores the life-setting of the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 in the context of their already having had forty days teaching about the very thing they asked about (the kingdom – see Acts 1:3). This reflects badly on the clarity of Risen Lord’s teaching about the kingdom.  But the tenacity with which these disciples still clung to literal fulfillments would also prove the validity of #’s 23, 26, 27, 28 & 32 above.

34. This resistance to the clear expectation of the disciples also ignores the question of the disciples, which was about the timing of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, not its nature.

35. It turns the admonition to “keep” the words of the prophecy in Revelation 1:3 into an absurdity, for how many people can “keep” what they are uncertain is being “revealed”?

36. It makes the unwarranted assumption that there can only be one people of God.  Since the OT speaks of Israel and the nations (e.g. Zech. 14:16f.); Paul speaks of Israel and the Church (e.g. Rom. 11:25, 28; Gal. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:32; cf. Acts 26:7), and the Book of Revelation speaks of Israel separated from the nations (Rev. 7), and those in New Jerusalem distinguished from “the kings of the earth” (Rev. 21:9-22:5), it seems precarious to place every saved person from all ages into the Church.

37. In reality what happens is the theological presuppositions of the interpreter which are read into the NT text and then back into the OT.  There is a corresponding breakdown between what the biblical text says and what they are assumed to mean.  Thus, it is the interpretation of the reader and not the wording of the biblical text which is often the authority for what the Bible is allowed to teach.

38. This view also results in pitting NT authors against themselves.  E.g. if “spiritual resurrection” is read into Jn. 5:25 on the rather flimsy basis of an allusion to Dan. 12:1-2, that interpretation can then be foisted on Rev. 20:4-6 to make John refer to a spiritual resurrection in that place too.  Again, if Jesus is said to refer to His physical body as “this temple” in Jn.2:19 then he is not allowed to refer to a physical temple building in Rev. 11:1-2.  This looks like what might be called “textual preferencing.”

39. This view, which teaches a God who prevaricates in the promises and covenants He makes, also tempts its adherents to adopt equivocation themselves when they are asked to expound OT covenantal language in its original context.  It often tempts them to avoid specific OT passages whose particulars are hard to interpret in light of their supposed fulfillment in the NT.  It also makes one over sensitive to words like “literal” and “replacement,” even though these words are used freely when not discussing matters germane to this subject.

40. Finally, there is no critical awareness of many of the problems enumerated above because that awareness is provided by the OT texts and the specific wording of those texts, which, of course, are not allowed a voice on par with what the NT text is assumed to mean.  Only verses which preserve the desired theological picture are allowed to mean what they say.  Hence a vicious circle is created of the NT reinterpreting the Old.  This is a hermeneutical circle which ought not to be presupposed.

Forty Reasons For Not Reinterpreting The Old Testament By The New: The First Twenty

Here are the first twenty of forty reasons (there could be more but it’s a good number) why a student of the Bible should not adopt the common tactic of reading the New Testament back into the Old, with the resultant outcome that the clear statements of the Old Testament passages in context are altered and mutated to mean something which, without universal prevenient prophetic inspiration, no Old Testament saint (or New Testament saint who did not have access to the right Apostolic books) could have known:

1. Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT.  Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this.

2. It would mean no one could correctly interpret the OT until they had the NT.  In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.

3. It forces the NT into saying things it never explicitly says (e.g. that the Church is “the New Israel” or the seventh day Sabbath is now the first day “Christian Sabbath.”)

4. It forces the OT into saying things it really does not mean (e.g. Ezekiel 43:1-7, 10-12).

5. It would require the Lord Jesus to have used a brand new set of hermeneutical rules in, e.g., Lk. 24:44; rules not accessible until the arrival of the entire NT.  These would have to include rules for each “genre”, which would not have been apparent to anyone interpreting the OT on its own terms.

6. If the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT then what it says on its own account cannot be trusted, as it could well be a “type” to be reinterpreted by the NT.

7. Thus, it would mean the seeming clear predictions about the Coming One in the OT could not be relied upon to present anything but a typological/symbolic picture which would need deciphering by the NT.  The most clearly expressed promises of God in the OT (e.g. Jer. 33:15-26; Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14:16-21) would be vulnerable to being eventually turned into types and shadows.

8. It would excuse anyone (e.g. the scribes in Jn. 5:35f.) for not accepting Jesus’ claims based on OT prophecies – since those prophecies required the NT to reinterpret them.

9. Any rejection of this, with a corresponding assertion that the OT prophecies about Christ did mean what they said, would create the strange hermeneutical paradox of finding clear, plain-sense testimony to Christ in the OT while claiming the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT.

10. The divining of these OT types and shadows is no easy task, especially as the NT does not provide any specific help on the matter.

11. Thus, this approach pulls a typological shroud over the OT, denying its Author the credit of meaning what He says and saying what He means (e.g. what does one make of the specificity of Jer. 33:14-26 or Zeph. 3?).

12. If the Author of the OT does not mean what He appears to say, but is in reality speaking in types and shadows which He will apparently reveal later, what assurance is there that He is not still speaking in types and shadows in the NT?  Especially is this problem intensified because many places in the NT are said to be types and shadows still (e.g. the Temple in 2 Thess. 2 and Rev. 11).

13. It imposes a “unity” on the Bible which is symbolic and metaphorical only.  Hence taking the Bible in a normal, plain-sense (the sense scholars advocating this view take for granted their readers will adopt with them, which we would identify as “literal”) would destroy any unity between the Testaments.

14. However, a high degree of unity can be achieved by linking together the OT and NT literature in a plain-sense, even though every question the interpreter may have will not be answered.  Hence, this position that the NT must reinterpret the OT ignores or rejects the fact that, taken literally (in the sense defined above) the OT makes good sense.

15. Saying the types and shadows in the OT (which supposedly include the land given to Israel, the throne in Jerusalem, the temple of Ezekiel, etc.), are given their proper concrete meanings by the NT implies neither the believer nor the unbeliever can comprehend God’s promises solely from the OT.

16. Thus, no unbeliever could be accused of unbelief so long as they only possessed the OT, since the apparatus for belief (the NT) was not within their grasp.

17. This all makes mincemeat of any claim for the perspicuity of Scripture.  At the very least it makes this an attribute possessed only by the NT.

18. Thus, the OT is deprived of its own hermeneutical integrity.  This would render warnings such as that found in Proverbs 30:5-6 pointless.

19. A corollary to this is that the authority of the OT to speak in its own voice is undermined.

20. In consequence of the above the status of the OT as “Word of God” would be logically inferior to the status of the NT.  The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.


Part Two

An Addendum to the “Galatians 3″ Posts

I have been asked some questions which I find are better fitted to another post than an interminable reply in the combox.  The questioner is my friend Paul Duncan, and I hope he will not be embarrassed if I address my comments directly to him, though with other readers in mind.

Hi Paul, I am back in town and will try to answer your questions as asked in the comments on the fourth post.  However, I shall have to point out several presuppositions in your argument, some of which may perhaps be hidden from you.  I’m glad Tony has saved me the time of explaining Matthew’s use of Jeremiah.  Btw, this is the standard interpretation across the board, dispensational or not.  I would only add the fact that NT writers employ the word “fulfillment” in a few different ways; sometimes they point to an application as here (thus cf. 1 Cor. 10:6 “example”).  Sometimes a partial fulfillment, as when Christ read from Isa. 61 but stopped short of the whole quotation.  Sometimes, of course, the fulfillment is a direct confirmation of a prediction, as when the scribes knew Christ would be born in Bethlehem from Micah 5:2.  There is more to say on “fulfillment”, but I hope I’ve made my point sufficiently.

Your first question asks: “1. What distinction do you make between replacement theology as a hermeneutic and progressive revelation?”

Your phrasing of the questions helps my answer.  Notice “replacement theology” comes to a passage with certain theological baggage: there is only one people of God; the Church, and the Church perforce must be the “New Israel.”  But “progressive revelation” is much as you’ve defined it.  It is God who reveals, and He does so gradually.  But He never circumvents a prior revelation with a later one, which, as you acknowledge, would make His earlier revelation disingenuous (i.e. a prevarication), and so would throw suspicion on any later revelations.

CT forces progressive revelation into its premeditated mold.  Everything must conform to the covenant of grace in particular.  Hence, all those saved by grace are under that covenant (which is found nowhere in Scripture), resulting in one people of God, whether that is what the Bible actually says or not.  Thus, the Bible must be made to “teach” this via the expedient of a forced typology, which the plain-sense must yield to if it threatens the theological mold.  I teach my students never to build any doctrine on a type!  Types may illustrate an already formulated doctrine, but they can never establish it!  I hope you follow.

Progressive revelation makes no sense to me if ones hermeneutics have to change in order to keep up with it.  How does revelation progress if it flits from the plain-sense to some typological sense with such unnerving abandon?   Dispensationalists operate from the assumption that progressive revelation is tied to the dictum that God means what He says to whom He says it.  My brand of Biblical Theology, which I call Biblical Covenantalism, relies on progressive revelation which grows out of hermeneutical continuity.  that being so, once God has covenanted the “Holy Land” to Israel He cannot give it to the Church.  They are two distinct entities (e.g. Israel exists as a geo-political ethnic nation long before the Church was even formed after the resurrection of Christ).

Your second question was: “2. In what sense do you believe that Gentile-Christians are sons of Abraham?”


Galatians 3, the Land, and the Abrahamic Covenant: What Was Paul Thinking? (Pt.4)

This post will summarize the main points I would wish to make about how best to understand the seeming tension between Paul’s teaching about the “Seed” in his discussion of faith in Galatians 3.  I believe if we are not going to turn much of the testimony of Scripture on its head we should not go down the road suggested by Grover Gunn in his explanation of the passage and his inferences based thereon.

In disagreeing with Gunn I am not saying that he is not justified in attending to the places in Genesis where the apostle appears to be getting his language about “and to your seed” from: that is, from Genesis 12 through 22.  The problem comes in when he extrapolates from the false notion that Paul is quoting from only two places in the Septuagint and claims the land promise of these “seed” passages must be transferred to the Church and turned magically into promises of heaven.  When Christians insist that this must be done they are going beyond the teaching of the NT, not to say the apostle Paul elsewhere (e.g. Romans 11).  They are also claiming the OT cannot be properly understood without the New – a claim which sounds pious enough, until it is analyzed in light of its logical outcome (more on this soon).

My response (which, remember, was just a part response) is that in order for the Abrahamic covenant to be tied to the Church (especially its Gentile contingent), that covenant must be connected to the New covenant in Christ.  If that is true then Paul is thinking along these lines when he cites the four words “and to your seed” from Genesis.  He most probably does not have an exact reference in mind, as he did with his earlier quotation of Genesis 15:6, but rather has in view the repeated use of the phrase through the Abrahamic narrative (if I had to make a guess which passage Paul may have been citing I would go for Gen. 22:18).

If one accepts this thesis then the corporate dimension of the AC – which Paul needs to complete his argument in Galatians 3:29 – remains intact, but is channeled through the “Mediator of the New covenant” – the one “Seed” of Galatians 3:16.  Thus, because the Church is a participant in the Abrahamic covenant via the promises in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, it does so just because of its participation in the New covenant in Christ.

I realize that this view has not been widely accepted by many dispensationalists, but that is because they have gotten bogged down in Jeremiah 31:31 and have not recognized that the prophet is speaking there about the [future] participation of the Remnant Israelites in the eschaton.  Why would Jeremiah mention the Church?  No, if we are going to see whether the Church has any stake in the New covenant we must study the NT teaching about that issue.  Surely 1 Corinthians 11 settles it?  The Church also participates in the New covenant through Christ and therefore, can draw upon those promises in the AC which pertain to it.  As for Israel, they shall enter into their promises; promises which include the land promised to Abraham and his [plural] seed (Psa. 105:6-11).

I think this is all I want to say about this interesting subject right now.  The actual reasoning in the exposition of Galatians 3:1-16 is given in Part Two.  Lord willing, when I write my longer series of posts on “Teleology and Eschatology” I shall revisit this question.  Part Five

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Galatians 3, the Land, and the Abrahamic Covenant: What Was Paul Thinking? (Pt.3)

So far we have seen that there is something in the contention that the Apostle Paul does have in mind the covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; promises which include the land given to the nation of Israel, in his theology of the Seed (singular) in Galatians 3.  But what is that “something”?  Gunn, along with supercessionists generally, believes that because the Genesis passages cited or alluded to by Paul include the land-promise, that the Church – the “New Israel,” gets that promise.  Although what they get is not the land of Canaan but Heaven (other writers like Anthony Hoekema would run off to Romans 4:13 to prove that Paul was speaking about the new Earth), still the idea is that the promises of the land to Israel in the covenants of the OT have been transformed in the hand of the Apostle to mean “not this land but that” and “not this people but that people.”  This is thought to be clinched by Paul’s argument in Galatians 3.  Gunn writes:

As we have seen, the dispensational position also stresses that the spiritual seed of Abraham as defined in Galatians 3 have no claim to the national land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. Paul’s teaching on the Christian and the Abrahamic covenant will not allow such a conclusion. Paul argues in Galatians 3 that God intentionally used seed as a collective noun that has both a singular and plural reference so that the singular reference could refer to Christ and the plural reference could refer to those who are in Christ. Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29). In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10 And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise.11 Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise.12 When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.

I am sure that Gunn’s assertion about the Septuagint is unsustainable.  But what about his main assertion – that the land promise in the Abrahamic covenant “belongs to the Christian”?

My answer is that  Gunn is again wrong, but he is wrong not because, as per his point about the use of the Septuagint, his opinion cannot be substantiated, but because he has not conceived of the fulfillments of the covenants in the same way Paul conceived of them.  In Gunn’s theology, the OT must be interpreted by the NT, and when that is done, the OT promises are seen as shadows and types of the eventual realities to which they point.  What needs to happen is for there to be a hermeneutical change to accommodate this shadow-promise/fulfillment pattern.  The New Testament is thought to provide it, especially the theology of Christ and the Church.  The question of whether anyone but an inspired Apostle knew about this and what this does to the reliability of God’s promises for non-apostolic persons before they read Paul is sidestepped.  We are living, are we not? in the light of the realities!

But I do not think this is Paul’s view at all.  Neither do I think it at all wise to suppose that the NT reinterprets the Old in this way.  As adverted in Part Two of this article, we should take into consideration the fact that the biblical covenants such as the Abrahamic, Priestly and Davidic, do not contain the means for their own eschatological culmination in salvation, but instead depend upon the New covenant that was to be brought about by and in Jesus Christ.  This is what provides Paul with the means whereby he can take up OT passages that plainly refer to a plurality of persons and also the promised land, and route them all through the single Seed in Galatians 3:16.  In so doing he does not have to leave behind the plural meaning of “seed” (i.e. “descendents”).  But he also does not have to forge OT Israel into a “New Israel” which is the NT Church.  Furthermore, he has no need to set aside or transform the promised land either.  The original referents remain intact.  God’s covenants are at least as fixed and immutable as any covenant of men (Gal. 3:15, 17).

My time is ebbing and I must conclude here for today.  Lord willing, I shall finish this subject off next time.

Part Four

Galatians 3, the Land, and the Abrahamic Covenant: What Was Paul Thinking? (Pt.2)

I’m going out of town again for a few days, and, what with Christmas and everything, I don’t expect to be posting much till the New Year.  I wanted to finish this topic off with this post, but I’ve actually become a little engrossed in it, so expect at least one more effort.

Part One here

Grover Gunn is sure that Paul is quoting Genesis 13:15-17 and 17:8, 10 from the Septuagint to make his argument in Galatians 3:16.  There is no evidence that Paul is quoting the LXX.  As for which particular passages he is citing, one cannot be that exact.  I. Howard Marshall (New Testament Theology, 226) thinks Paul is citing Gen. 22:18 in Galatians 3:16.  Daniel P. Fuller thinks it’s Gen. 17:7 (The Unity of the Bible, 335-336).  I tend to think he has the Abrahamic narrative itself in mind.

But Paul is well aware of the ambiguity residing in the word “seed.”  So how can he relate it to Christ in Gal. 3:16 and yet preserve the collective meaning he knows is clearly there in the original contexts he is citing?  As Gal. 3:29 makes clear, Paul has not lost sight of the collective meaning of the word, but as was alluded to last time, and as I shall try to explain, the corporate is included by Paul in the One – Jesus Christ.  To Paul’s mind, fulfillment was always understood to require Christ the Fulfiller.  Once this is acknowledged one must choose between several hermeneutical options:

Option 1. Paul was employing some kind of semi-apocalyptic interpretation through which he could summon any OT passage to take on a new meaning in his argument.

This is the position of Richard B. Hays in e.g., The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture.  Since it posits a change of meaning under the influence of Paul’s supposed hermeneutic, it has not caught on with many conservative evangelicals.

Option 2. Though he never said it, Paul intended us to infer that the Genesis texts he referred to (whichever ones they were) had intended meanings beyond those found on the surface of the passages in their original setting.  Paul was only now declaring to us what God meant by those OT promises.

This would be Gunn’s position, along with all those who believe the NT is necessary to rightly interpret the Old.  A clear implication of this position is that there is hermeneutical, or at least linguistic discontinuity between the two Testaments.  The meaning of a particular term or phrase in the original context without recourse to the NT would procure a different sense than it would once the NT was consulted.  Another outcome of this approach would be to separate the original author’s intended meaning from that of the Holy Spirit.  While this possibility should not be ignored, the burden of proof for such a claim is on those who make it, whether they are aware of it or have to be made aware of it by others.

Option 3. Paul understood that “seed” could not be legitimately confined to a singular noun referring to Messiah, since the word is a collective noun and is used as such many times in the OT, and, indeed, by Paul himself (Gal. 3:29).  In which case the singular and the corporate must be closely related; the corporate fulfillment being predicated on the coming Messiah.

Only this view preserves the integrity of the OT contexts, not to mention the specificity of God’s covenant promises to Israel.  Promises which Paul elsewhere says are inviolable (Rom. 11:25-28).  Only on this view can we avoid the treacherous waters of hermeneutical and philosophical ambiguity upon which the first two views implicitly rely.  This third way would be our position.  To demonstrate it one must try to show that there is no need for an OT passage to be considered a “shadow” or “type” of a NT reality, but rather that the witness of both Testaments can be hermeneutically aligned to allow all the relevant verses to speak in their own words.

Paul’s Argument in Galatians 3:1-16

If we take a look at Galatians 3 we will find Paul reasoning about the role of faith in God’s saving economy.  We will not find him saying anything about God’s covenants with the people of Israel and the land grant God promised them.  Of course, Gunn realizes this.  His contention is that because the Apostle speaks of OT texts which not refer to Christ as the “Seed” (e.g. Gen 17:7), but also contain promises about the “land,” it only stands to reason that the word “Seed” in Genesis (and the rest of the OT?) is not in fact a reference to the nation of Israel (“descendents”), but only ever to Christ; and the “land” likewise is not Canaan (or the portion described in Gen. 15), but Heaven (some would say the whole land surface of Earth).  What the Apostle has done, so the thinking goes, is to offer an inspired interpretation of terminology only dimly understood before Paul wrote Galatians circa 50 A.D. (see Option 2 above).  (more…)

Galatians 3, the Land, and the Abrahamic Covenant: What Was Paul Thinking? (Pt.1)

One of my readers (Justin) wrote to ask me if I might say a few things about this post by former Dispensationalist Grover Gunn.  I don’t have time or inclination to respond to the whole paper, but I shall at least try to address Justin’s specific problem.  Before commenting let me reproduce Justin’s question:

The Question:

“Hello Paul. Thanks indeed for this. I have a question relating to this. I’m sorry the text I’ve copied below is long. Perhaps when you get a chance you might like to write a separate post on it though.

Grover Gunn http://grovergunn.net/andrew/disp10.htm says dispensationalists say the spiritual seed of Abraham (defined in Gal 3) have no claim to the national land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. But he rejects this. He writes:

“Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29).

“In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10 And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise.

“Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise. [Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3,4; 28:4,13; 35:12; 48:4]. When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.”

So Gunn’s point is that the dispensationalist argues that the statement “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8), has reference to the spiritual blessings that are now enjoyed by Christians, ie. that the Christian as a seed of Abraham is related only to the unniversal statement that in Abraham all the nations would be blessed. But he says there is no basis for limiting the Christian application to this part of the promise. He says Paul in Gal 3:16 and 29 relates the language of the land promise to the Christian (which Gunn interprets as the Christian’s spiritual rest and heavenly position).

How do we respond to his claim that the land promise aspect includes Christians and not just the idea that all nations will be blessed?

God bless


My Response:

First off, let me say that one should always welcome a good criticism (I think it pointless to bother with bad or sloppy criticism).  Gunn’s claim deserves the attention of even a reluctant dispensationalist!

Let me make a couple of initial observations here:

1. If Gunn’s thesis is right then the apostle has redirected promises made to ethnic Israel to the church.  This does not involve merely an expansion of the land promise, otherwise Gunn would believe that the physical boundaries of the land would be extended.  No, this involves a change.  This change, it could be argued, is only from our perspective not from God’s.  But then, who gave us the perspective?  Thus, the dilemma of a disingenuous God raises its ugly head.

2. Gunn’s argument also assumes that there is no prima facie hermeneutical continuity between the two Testaments.  He thinks taking the land promises to Israel to be land promises to Israel is an interpretative and theological mistake.  Why?  Because the NT, in this case Paul, shows us another way and divulges God’s real intention when He made His covenant promises in the OT.  This opens the Bible up to the sort of criticisms I have pinpointed elsewhere.

Gunn writes: “Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29).”

There is no real issue here.  As it stands, nothing in this statement or in Paul’s statements threatens to make the land promise to Israel evaporate into the ether of Reformed typology.  If Gunn had written “all the promises given to Abraham belong to all who are in Christ” (which is what he really meant), he would have stepped over the line into territory out of bounds of Paul’s argument.

But Gunn continues: “In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10

These four words (actually one word in the Hebrew) could only have come from two OT passages quoted from the Septuagint (LXX)?  That is quite an assertion.  Where is the proof?  

Gunn seems pretty certain that Paul is quoting the LXX in Galatians 3:16 and 29, but that is highly debatable.  Where does he get this nugget from?  Not from most of the commentaries I checked.   William Hendriksen locates Paul’s quotation in Gen. 22:18 along with 17:7.  Jeffrey Weima, in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, (ed. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson) fails to mention the LXX here and appears to have completely overlooked Gunn’s cast-iron thesis.  Even worse, F. F. Bruce, while citing Gunn’s references alongside several others, explicitly declares that,

“The reference to the land, however, plays no part in the argument of Galatians..” – F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians, NIGNTC, 172. (more…)