Covenant Theology

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.7)

Part Six

Gary Burge: Replacement Theologian

The name of Gary Burge  of Wheaton College is familiar to many Christians who teach eschatology that includes the restoration of the remnant of the nation of Israel, but not for positive reasons. His positions on Israel, fueled in large part by his associations with the anti-Israel group Kairos USA, Naim Ateek, Stephen Sizer, and Pro-Palestinianism in general, hardly encourage fuzzy feelings.  On the theological front, Burge freely speaks of spiritualizing and reinterpreting Scripture.  Not surprisingly, Burge is a convinced replacement theologian.

For as we shall see (and as commentators regularly show) while the land itself had a concrete application for most in Judaism, Jesus and his followers reinterpreted the promises that came to those in his kingdom. – Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land, 35

In this quote Burge claims that although the land given to Israel was “concrete” for Jews in ancient times, still the OT covenant promises to Israel were reinterpreted by Jesus.  How were they reinterpreted?  In an article written for the I. Howard Marshall festshrift, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, (edited by Joel B. Green and Max Turner), Burge enlarges on this theme.  His piece is entitled, “Territorial Religion, Johannine Christology, and the Vineyard of John 15.”  In this article Burge starts off writing about the importance of land ownership in the ancient world (386).  His introduction is a restatement of the work of W.D. Davies’ called The Gospel and the Land.  Basically, the idea is that in Jesus the “landless” become the “landed” and the other way round.  There is very little appeal to Scripture in these pages (e.g. 384-388), and what is used is misused.  But he procures a thesis:

For the most part the NT does not view The Land as the object of messianic promise.  Typically, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 seems to reject ‘land messianism’ outright.  Revelation and salvation can be found anywhere from Egypt to Mesopotamia, according to Stephen. – Gary M. Burge, “Territorial Religion”, 388

He continues by claiming that the Land is frequently “spiritualized” (his word), giving Hebrews 4 as an example, where, as Burge thinks, the land of Canaan as a type of heaven receives such treatment (Ibid).  According to Burge,

John uses the concrete gifts of The Land (Jerusalem’s temple with its festivals, Israelite cities, and holy places) in order to show that what these places promise can be found in abundance in Christ… Jesus replaces the temple and its festivities as the place where God is revealed.  Simply put, Jesus is the new “holy space” where God can be discovered. (388).

This sets him up for his study of the Vineyard in John 15.  His approach is summarized when he says, “The crux for John 15 is that Jesus is changing the place of rootedness for Israel.” (393, emphasis in original).  This means that instead of the land of Israel being the place of “revelation and salvation” and “rootedness”, these are to be found in the “one vine growing in [God’s] vineyard” (393), therefore, “Attachment to this vine and this vine alone gives the benefits of life once promised through The Land.” (394).  From this theological springboard we are told that,

In a way reminiscent of diaspora Judaism, Jesus points away from the vineyard as place, as a territory of hills and valleys, cisterns and streams.  In a word, Jesus spiritualizes The Land. (395, emphasis in original).

No one will disagree that Jesus is the one vine through whom salvation comes, but whether this leads one to spiritualize the land (and the covenants) is another matter. Not surprisingly, Burge utilizes Mark 12:9 to teach that “Israel’s vineyard is devastated… [and] given to others” (396). (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt. 6)

Part Five

I finished the last installment by stating that in viewing the Bible from a certain redemptive-historical perspective (a common one I might add), the only conclusion that one can come to is that the church has always existed, and that therefore elect Israel in the OT was the church of the OT to which now the Gentiles have been added in the NT era.

Remember these words from Sam Storms:

[Paul] clearly states that there is but one olive tree, rooted in the promises given to the patriarchs.  In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God) there are both believing Jews (natural branches) and believing Gentiles (unnatural branches).  Together they constitute the one people of God, the one “new man,” the true Israel in and for whom the promises will be fulfilled.  This one people, of course, is the Church. – Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 195 

That Olive Tree

Readers will again notice the reference to Paul’s Olive Tree metaphor in Storms.  Look at this line:

In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God)…

But, of course, the tree isn’t the people (we saw this stated in Grier earlier).  The branches of the tree are the people, and there are two “peoples”.  In Robert L. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd ed) he appeals to this metaphor on pages 526-527:

Paul’s metaphor of the two olive trees (Rom. 11:16-24) also reflects this same perception: olive shoots from a wild olive tree, that is, Gentiles, are being grafted into the cultivated olive tree, that is, Israel, from which latter tree many natural branches, that is, Jews, had been broken off. This tree, Paul says, has a “holy root” (the patriarchs; see Rom. 11:28). Clearly, Paul envisions saved Gentile Christians as “grafted shoots” in the true “Israel of faith. 

The reader could not have missed the constant references to the olive tree in Romans 11 in some of my previous citations.  Many of them fail to properly expound the Apostle’s objective in that metaphor, usually by mistaking the tree for Israel.

There is no room here to provide a full interpretation of Paul’s figure, but an accurate exegesis would have to conclude that:

a. The branches from the wild olive tree are the Gentiles (v.17, cf. v. 25).

b. Those branches we are not to boast against are the Jews (vv. 18-20), the “natural branches” (v. 21), that is, Israel (v. 25).

c. If the rejected natural branches return to belief, they will be engrafted back into their own olive tree (vv. 23-24).

d. In the figure as explained by Paul, it is Israel who has been partly blinded until “the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in.” (v. 25).

f. Those warned against “being wise in [their] own conceits” (v. 25), are the same as those told neither to boast (v. 18), nor to be “highminded” (v. 20). These are identified as the Gentiles in v. 25.

g. Likewise, those, “natural branches,” some of whom were broken off through unbelief (v. 20), are distinguished from their olive tree (v. 24), (just as branches are distinguishable from any tree), are identified in verse 25 as Israel.

h. To make quite sure that no one supplants national Israel with some “spiritual Israel” Paul calls Israel by the name of Jacob (v. 26). This maintains the contrast between Israel and the Gentiles which the Apostle has set up throughout the chapter (see vv. 1-4, 7-14, 28-29).

i. The identification of the actual olive tree must have something to do with that which pertains to Israel as a nation. What is it that the apostle has had in mind all through chapter 11? The answer lies in verses 26-29. It refers to the salvation of Israel (“Jacob”) (vv.26-27a); in virtue of God’s covenant (v.27b); which was made with the fathers (v.28); and which covenant promises cannot be revoked (v.29). *

In his recent Commentary on the Greek Text of Romans, veteran NT scholar Richard Longenecker writes,

[Paul] argues neither (1) that Gentiles are accepted by God by becoming Jewish proselytes… nor (2) that Jews are accepted by God by being united to the institution of the Christian church…  Rather, Paul proclaims the following:

  1. There continues to exist a “remnant within Israel,” even though the great majority of Jews have rejected Jesus as their Messiah and God has hardened their hearts.
  2. There also exists at this present time a “remnant among the Gentiles.”
  3. Following that time when “the full number of Gentiles has come in” – and particularly when “the Deliverer will come from Zion” – it will come about by divine action that “all Israel will be saved.” – Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, 902 

Longenecker continues by observing that,

Paul is not attempting to relate the Christian church to the nation of Israel; nor is he transferring God’s promises to Israel to the Christian church (but leaving his curses on Israel’s alone). -Ibid, 903  

(more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.5)

Part Four

Incipient Supercessionsm

So far I have tried to show not only that replacement theology exists and that it is a coinage of at least some covenant theologians, and that it can take the shape either of direct replacementism (i.e. the church replaces Israel), or else conceptual replacementism (aspects of Israel’s promises are superseded by antitypes in the church).  However, there is no shortage of men who vehemently deny that their theology is replacement theology.  Sam Storms has stated,

Replacement theology would assert that God has uprooted and eternally cast aside the olive tree which is Israel and has planted, in its place, an entirely new one, the Church.  All the promises given to the former have been transferred to the latter.  But this is not what Paul says.  He clearly states that there is but one olive tree, rooted in the promises given to the patriarchs.  In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God) there are both believing Jews (natural branches) and believing Gentiles (unnatural branches).  Together they constitute the one people of God, the one “new man,” the true Israel in and for whom the promises will be fulfilled.  This one people, of course, is the Church. – Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 195 (my emphasis)

Just notice how the second line supplements the first, and Storms rejects them both.  But the second sentence is almost a word-for-word what I have heard and read many covenant theologians actually teach.  For sure, many do not say it in such stark terms, but they come close.  In Part One I cited Gerald Bray’s opinion that, “As men and women who have been grafted into the nation of Israel by the coming of Jesus Christ, Christians…lay claim to [the] love and the promises that go with it.” – God Has Spoken, 41.  In Part Three Edmund Clowney was quoted as saying that the greatest promises to Israel in the OT are fulfilled in the church.  We have seen Bruce Waltke’s assertion that the church fulfills God’s purpose for Israel, and R. Scott Clark’s insinuation that national Israel was never intended to be the permanent arrangement, but rather was only a means to an end (which is the church).

This same thesis is plainly set out in chapters 20 and 21 of G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology.  For instance, he teaches that the church fulfills Israel’s “restoration promises” (680). He says of Matthew 21:43 that,

Israel’s stewardship of God’s kingdom will be taken away from it, and the gentiles will be given the stewardship. (681).  

If the stewardship of the kingdom has been taken from national Israel and given to the gentiles, then how is it that we are wrong to label this as a replacement of national Israel with the church?  Beale follows this with a question based upon his understanding of Psalm 118:22:

But how does the psalm quotation offer a reason for this transferal of kingdom stewardship? (Ibid. my emphasis).

He is quite sure that the church fulfills Israel’s end time prophecies (e.g. 724).  The church fulfills these prophecies only because the promises have been transferred from Israel to the church.  All that is needed is to follow the logic. Adherents of covenant theology, of dispensational theology, or of other persuasions, have done this and they have come out where Storms and others have gone in, that is, with the understanding that indeed, “All the promises given to the former [Israel]have been transferred to the latter [the church].”  Storms says he doesn’t believe this, as this would be “replacement theology.”  Well, I think he needs to do much more to disentangle himself from the mess his own theology places him in.  And I think it is not unfair to say that there is an intrinsic supercessionism within the genetic makeup of covenant theology.   This is not the same as saying that all covenant theologians believe that they are supercessionists; something I will address soon. (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.4)

Part Three

A Little More on the Reality of ‘Replacementism’

Theologian R. Kendall Soulen opens his book about supercessionism in church history with an explanation of what supercessionism is:

According to this teaching, God chose the Jewish people after the fall of Adam in order to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior.  After Christ came, however, the special role of the Jewish people came to an end and its place was taken by the church, the new Israel. – The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 1-2

This description matches our basic definition of supercessionism as “the switching out of “old Israel” with “new”, true Israel.”  I think I have already proven that this teaching exists.  I add to previous quotes this one from the Adventist theologian Hans LaRondelle.  He is referencing Matthew 21:43:

This solemn decision implies that Israel would no longer be the people of God and would be replaced by a people that would accept the Messiah and His message of the kingdom of God.  Which new “people” did Christ have in mind?… In short, His Church (“My Church,” Matthew 16:18) would replace the Christ-rejecting nation. – Hans K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy, 101 (Author’s emphasis)

Someone might object to my citing a Seventh-Day Adventist to support my position, but before they do I think they should look up how many times this book is recommended by covenant theologians (I got the book after seeing it recommended by O. Palmer Robertson).  Another scholar who recommends LaRondelle is Dennis Johnson.  Along with this endorsement Johnson also seems comfortable with the term “supercessionism”.  He defines it as follows:

“Supercessionism” refers to the New Testament’s assertions and implications that the church is the legitimate heir to the benefits once promised ancient Israel – Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 6 n. 7. 

He does not question this definition.  He believes it.

Different and the Same

Even though Johnson’s view of supercession may fairly be said to differ from my definition, his approval of LaRondelle’s book, which, as I have stated, is hardly unique, shows that the basic ideas of the two coincide.  We had previously seen the same sort of thing in Monergism’s and Greg Beale’s support of Charles Provan.  This is one of the things that make it so difficult to separate one from the other.  Here is another prominent voice:

On the surface of it this is the end of the nation of Israel as the chosen people of God.  They have been tried and found wanting.  God’s patience has been exhausted.  – John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, (2nd ed.), 216

So one main teaching of supercessionism is that God has done with the nation of Israel.  He has not, please note, done with the Jews as sinners who need saving.  But He is through with national Israel.  National Israel has been superseded by the multi-national church.  Gerstner provides more information on this by focusing on the spiritual nature of the new Israel:

[T]rue membership in Israel is ultimately a matter of spiritual rather than physical relationship… Paul teaches that Israel and the church constitute an organic unity.  They are the same olive tree with the Gentiles of the church being grafted into the tree that was Israel (Romans 11:17-21). – Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, (2nd ed.), 212 cf. also 225, 236

A similar sentiment can be found in a more recent Reformed Baptist work:

By gospel reformation Christ spiritually transforms God’s people from Hebrew Israel under the old covenant to Christian Israel under the new. – Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptist Perspective on God’s Covenants, 115

What CT’s like to call “transformation” looks very like another word for types of supercession.  For this position to have credence the national promises to Israel must be seen not as unilateral pledges those Israelites who trusted in Yahweh in OT times and which included the national, geographical, monarchical and cultic aspects of the various covenants.  These covenant promises must be altered.  If they are altered then they are to a large extent superseded. (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.3)

Part Two

Replacement of Concepts?

In the book The Meaning of the Millennium (ed. Robert G. Clouse), the well known postmillennial scholar Loraine Boettner said,

The land of Palestine…was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8).  But the same thing is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex. 31:17) and David’s throne (2 Sam. 7:13, 16, 24).  But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away. – 98

It stands to reason that if Israel’s promises have passed away, they have to be replaced by something else.  But according to many Presbyterian covenant theologians the church has always existed, so they object to being called supercessionists.  R.C. Sproul, Jr is a representative voice when he says,

The Reformed perspective takes a different tack. It affirms that that Israel which is actually Israel, just as with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, applies to those who are in Christ, who trust in His finished work. Though we deny the moniker, this is what our dispensational friends call “replacement theology.” The Reformed, however, see this is as the outworking of the truth of Galatians 3:7- “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” We who are Reformed do not believe God replaced Israel with the church. We believe instead that there has always been only one people of God, those who believe. – R.C. Sproul, Jr. http://rcsprouljunior.blogspot.com/2012/01/ask-rc-is-it-true-that-god-blesses.html

An older work by W. J. Grier makes this abundantly clear:

Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11). – The Momentous Event, 33

Seeing that this is the position of at least some covenant theologians, is it fair to label them as replacement theologians?  Well, not in the sense that they believe the church has replaced Israel in toto, (although not a few of these men do slip into that kind of rhetoric on occasion).  But I would argue that an identifiable form of supercession is still going on.

Grier’s opinion that “Israel” equals believers stripped of the accoutrements of a designated land, with cities, a temple, priesthood and a king looks overly simplistic. These key OT themes are swept aside with a wave of the hand.

Consider this statement from Edmund Clowney:

The greatest promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the church – we are the temple of the living God. – Edmund P. Clowney, “The Final Temple”, in Prophecy in the Making, ed., Carl F. H. Henry, 84

And again this by Steve Motyer:

[Paul] consistently applies to the church – that is, the mixed Jewish and Gentile congregations to whom he writes – the great covenant ideas and terms which had previously belonged to Israel. They are the elect (1 Thess. 1:4-5), the people called to holiness (1 Cor. 1:2), the justified who are objects of God’s saving righteousness (1 Cor. 6:11; Rom. 3:22-24), the redeemed (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), who inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Col. 1:12).  They are the children of God (Rom. 8:14; cf. Exod. 4:22), on whom the glory of God rests (Rom. 5:2; 8:30), who offer pleasing worship (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 5:1-2), and who can rightly appeal to the covenant faithfulness of God (Rom. 8:31-39).  In all likelihood, when Paul calls God’s peace and mercy upon ‘the Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, he is referring to the church. – S. Motyer, “Israel (nation)”, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed., T. Desmond Alexander, et al., 585-586.

Clowney takes all the best promises to Israel in the Bible and gives them (though in a greatly altered condition) to the church.  Motyer, like so many who take this line, thinks that God’s speaking about the church in similar terms to the way He speaks about Israel is decisive in equating the two.  In the Boettner quote we can see that the “perpetual duration” of the OT promises to Israel of land, king, priesthood etc., are not, in fact, perpetual; at least not in the way they would have been understood in OT times.  The notion of perpetuity changes, as do the ideas of land, king, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, and other associated matters. (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.2)

Part One

It’s a Real Thing

That replacement theology actually exists should be beyond dispute.  In a well known admission, the esteemed NT scholar C.E.B. Cranfield wrote,

the assumption that the Church has simply replaced Israel as the people of God is extremely common. . . . And I confess with shame to having also myself used in print on more than one occasion this language of the replacement of Israel by the Church. – C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, 448.

If such a prominent voice as Cranfield’s says that replacement theology is no fiction then clearly we have something to talk about.  

Although some non-covenant theologians have believed in supercessionism, this teaching is usually found in the sphere of covenant theology.  A trip to Monergism.org brought up a link to an article on “Israel and Dispensationalism” that includes this:

The covenantal privilege that national Israel enjoyed as the chosen people of God was ended when the Jewish leaders “fill[ed] up… the measure of [their] fathers’guilt” (Matthew 23:32) by rejecting and crucifying their own Messiah. Jesus was very explicit in stating that the “house” of Israel was left “desolate” (Matthew 23:37-39), and that the Kingdom would be taken from the Jews as a people and given to another people (Matthew 8:10-12, 21:33-45, etc.).” – Greg Loren Durand, “Israel and Dispensationalism”,http://www.preteristarchive.com/dEmEnTiA/1995_durand_israel-dispensationalism.html

The “other people” to whom the kingdom was given is the church, according to the standard CT interpretation of Matthew 21:43.  Such an interpretation implies a switching of one people (“the Jews”) with another people, a “supercession.”  I shall return to this passage later.

As an example of a major voice from this perspective one can hardly get more authoritative or more trenchant than Herman Bavinck, who avers,

The community of believers has in all respects replaced carnal, national Israel. – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.667

Another, though admittedly lesser example, would be covenant theologian Charles Provan, who wrote a book entitled The Church is Israel Now: The Transfer of Conditional Privilege.  On the first page of his introduction, the author states that because the NT uses some of the same descriptions of the church as the OT does to describe Israel,

The only hypothesis which explains how this could be is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so called ‘Racial Israel’) had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church.

Provan’s book has been lauded by many.  It is sold at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Bookshop in London, where I first encountered it.  In his recent work A New Testament Biblical Theology, G.K. Beale commends the book’s thesis and acknowledges the influence it had on him (page 669, footnote 50).  

A Preterist website carries a synopsis of the book by Provan in which he states,

When the Israelites obeyed God, God loved them. But when the Israelites turned from him, He hated them, stripping them of their Israelite status. After centuries of Israelite rebellion against God, culminating in their rejection of Jesus the Messiah, the titles, attributes and blessings of Israel were transferred to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to no one else, regardless of Abrahamic descent. The Church is Israel Now. –  http://www.preteristarchive.com/PartialPreterism/provan-charles_dd_01.html

In these excerpts it is clear that Provan had no problem with replacement terminology, and that he used the word “transfer” to denote a transfer of title from one entity (national Israel), to another entity (the church).  The transfer even going so far as to take the name “Israel” from off the one and give it to the other.  And since a book which plainly does teach replacement theology is recommended by many covenant theologians, one can hardly blame people who tar them with the same brush.  In fact, to the degree that CT’s promote such works they practically drip the tar on themselves.  This impression grows deeper when those who claim not to be supercessionists employ the very same arguments as those who do.  

A final instance of this approach, at least for now, comes from a book whose purpose was to contrast the positions of dispensationalists and covenant theologians on the relationship between the Testaments.  In his contribution to the book, entitled “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual”, covenant theologian Bruce Waltke states that,

The Jewish nation no longer has a place as the special people of God; that place has been taken by the Christian community which fulfills God’s purpose for Israel. – Bruce Waltke, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Testaments, ed., John S. Feinberg 275

There is, therefore, such a thing as “replacement theology”, where some Christians believe and teach that the Church has taken the place of OT Israel, including its name.           (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it wrong to use the term? (pt.1)

Recently I have been reminded of the Reformed community’s aversion to the label of supercessionism, or worse, replacement theology.  In the last decade or so particularly I have read repeated disavowals of this term from covenant theologians.  Not wanting to misrepresent or smear brethren with whom I disagree, I have to say that I struggle a bit with these protests.  “We are not replacement theologians” we are told, “but rather we believe in transformation or expansion.”  By some of the objectors we are told that the church does not replace Israel because it actually IS Israel; well, “true Israel” – the two designations are really one.  This move is legitimate, they say, because the “true Israel” or “new Israel” is in direct continuity with Israel in the Old Testament.

In this series of posts I want to investigate the question of whether it is right; if I am right, to brand this outlook as replacement theology and supercessionism.

Basics: what is a “replacement”?

A good thing to do as we begin is to have a definition of the word at issue.  Websters New World Dictionary defines the word “replacement” thus:

“1. a replacing or being replaced 2. a person or thing that takes the place of another…”

The entry for “replace” says,

“1. to place again; to put back in a former or the proper place or position.” (obviously, this does not apply to our question).

“2. to take the place of… 3. to provide a substitute or equivalent for.”

The synonym “supersede” means that something is replaced by something else that is superior.  In the way I use the terms in a theological context I mean “to take the place of”.  The third meaning (i.e. to substitute) is  somewhat relevant since some may be claiming that OT Israel has been switched out for another Israel.  By “supercessionism” then, I mean any theology that teaches a switching out of “old Israel” with “new”, “true Israel.”

The question before us is whether the Church takes the place of Israel in covenant theology, and if so how?  To answer that question we must ask several more.  These include such important questions as, ‘what exactly do covenant theologians say about the matter?  And do they ever use replacement terminology themselves?’; ‘Can their understandings of Israel and the church, and so their “expansion” language, be supported from the Bible?’

If “Israel” and “the church” are the same thing then clearly we have our answer, and I can stop writing.  If the church and Israel are the same any question of replacing one with the other starts and stops with the simple swapping of names.

Identifying “Israel”

In the Old Testament Israel is either a person, the man Jacob who was renamed “Israel” by God in Genesis 32:28, or the nation of people (sometimes a part of them either in rebellion or redeemed) who stem from Jacob who are called “the children of Israel” in Genesis 32:32 (Israelites), or a designation for the promised land (cf. Josh. 11:16, 21).

Covenant theology adds to these designations another.  For example, an anonymous devotional at Ligonier’s website entitled “Who is Israel?” claims that,

Finally, the term Israel can also designate all of those who believe in Jesus, including both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle applies the name Israel to the entire believing community—the invisible church—that follows Christ. Paul does not make this application specifically in Romans 11; however, this meaning is clearly implied in his teaching about the one olive tree with both Jewish and Gentile branches (vv. 11-24). 

Although nowhere does the New Testament explicitly equate Israel with the church, the assumptions that lead the writer to his conclusion (not to mention his exegesis of Gal. 6:16 and his use of the Olive Tree metaphor) come into focus once his view of the church is understood.

Chapter Twenty-five of the Westminster Confession of Faith defines the Church like this:

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

(more…)

The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (2)

Part One

If we turn to Covenant theology’s own explanations of their system we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge.  I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says.  Likewise, by “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching.  Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ch. 8).  He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in.  He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way”[10], and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob through the Abrahamic covenant[11], does not last for long.  Needless to say the land promise to Israel withers under the flame of Reformed typology as Robertson’s book progresses (Ch. 13), and the Church becomes “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant[12].

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical demonstration.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (e.g. “if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants.  The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” using the covenant of grace.  How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!  But this maneuver can be carried out under the auspices of this brand of theology due to what Gerhaardus Vos called “a consciousness of the covenant”, meaning the covenant of grace.  I might humbly point out that there are other, more perspicuous covenants that ought to have our attention as Bible readers.

Another noted Covenant theologian who exemplifies the phenomena I have been referring to is Michael Horton.  His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other.  Placing an enormous burden of proof on Galatians 4:22-31, which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value.  He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional.  He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants[13].  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant, whence it can be safely dispatched.  As he says for example,

The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham.[14]

This is an amazing statement.  Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g. Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a New covenant whereby God would circumcise the heart (Deut. 30:6), so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the existing terms of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

What happened?  Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims?  I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a single track in regards to the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patently false reading.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation at all in the Abrahamic covenant itself.  Although the Seed promise (singular) is there, it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic.  All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue.  What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (I have focused on it since it is the main support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  I have no qualms in describing it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants.  It is the lens which makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what encourages them to transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of the dogmas of covenant theology.  But the covenant of grace, together with the “covenant of works”, is nonetheless absent from the Word of God.

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[10]  O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 41

[11] Ibid. 42

[12] E.g. 289

[13] See Michael S. Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, 42, 45, 48-49

[14] Ibid. 48

 

The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (1)

I think it is fair to say that the whole impetus for the covenants of redemption, works and grace in the Reformed Confessions stems from the assumption that the Old Testament must be read through the lens of the extra light of the New.  If that assumption is flawed, as I believe it certainly is, then the whole project is in serious trouble.

The release of the Westminster Confession of 1647, although it was preceded by over a century of formative thinking about the covenant, stands out as the principal document of what is known as Covenant Theology.[1]  Covenant is employed as a fillip to understand and arrange the “doctrines of grace”, and is central to the Confession’s portrayal of redemption.[2]  This means that the concept takes on a deliberate soteriological hue.  The WCF treats its concept of covenant as principally a gracious relationship; a condescension.  And there is no doubt that in this it is correct.  The Westminster Divines did not lay stress on a pre-creational ‘covenant of redemption’, although their anticipatory language of salvation for the elect in the ‘covenant of grace’ is in tune with it[3], and it is there in WCF 7:3.

Biblical Covenantalism is centered around the twin concepts of God’s words and God’s covenants.  To repeat what has already been stated, the present work calls attention to the relationship between God’s words (therefore thoughts) and His actions, and relates them to the covenant commitments which God makes in the Bible.  The motif of God’s words = God’s actions (the GWGA motif), segues into the covenants which He has made in that these covenants are an amplification of God’s promissory words to those to whom He commits.  Whatever else covenants are, they function as reinforcements of speech.  Thus, when a man marries a woman he does not only say words of promise to her on their wedding day, he enters into a committed relationship of promise with his bride.  The presence of a covenant amplifies and underlines the word of promise and binds them together.  It is the same with the covenant God.  This “binding of God” in covenantal obligation has to be carefully studied and traced out in Scripture.  It is not, please note, a theological “binding” first.  That is, we are not to deduce that God has covenanted with X because we have arrived at certain theological convictions.  Rather, the only way we know that and how and with whom God has entered into covenant is through the clear testimony of God Himself.

To set out this difference more plainly, let us think of the “covenant of grace” of covenant theology.  In Reformed theology this covenant of grace has specific content.

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation.  But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith.[4]

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures that there is only one people of God, the Church, in both Testaments.  This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” will not permit it to stand.  Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants, which are very clearly found within the Bible.

So what is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace?  Well, don’t hold your breath!  Even dyed-in-the-wool Covenant theologians like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hosea 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant).  In reality I would say there is no exegetical justification at all!

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham”[5], does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support this extra-biblical covenant.  He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures[6], but he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits[7].  Reymond also insists that the OT be interpreted via (his interpretation of) the NT.  In having things this way he can still maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention”[8].  Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me.

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages, often avoiding the specific referents within the context ( E.g. land, Canaan, Jerusalem, mountains of Israel, Judah, etc.), can be a mind-numbing experience.  One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ.  For example, Robertson says,

The covenants of God are one.  The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants.  This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people.  But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e. grace] relate organically to one another…[9]

That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”

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[1] See Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 15.  This is an excellent historical account.

[2] Ibid., 60.  Although the ‘covenant of works’ is not redemptive because it deals with man in his innocence, it nevertheless puts forth “life” as something to be achieved or forfeited dependent upon man’s observance of God’s “law”.  See WCF 7:2 & 19:1

[3] See especially the Westminster Longer Catechism 31.

[4] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165 [Bk. 2. Ch.1.5].

[5] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.

[6] Ibid. 528

[7] Ibid. 511 n.16

[8] Ibid. 513 n.19

[9] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63 (my emphasis).

Part Two

Should ‘Presuppositional’ Apologetics Be Rebranded As ‘Covenantal’ Apologetics?

Recently K. Scott Oliphint of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia has published a book which he has called Covenantal Apologetics.   I reviewed the book here and recommend it.  But I expressed reservations about the writer’s agenda of rebranding Van Til’s apologetic teaching in line with the book’s title.  Coming as it does from one of the foremost representatives of Van Til’s presuppositional approach around the thesis deserves attention.  As I said in my review, by “Covenantal” Oliphint means the ‘covenants’ of covenant theology.

Now nobody is going to disagree that Van Til often spoke about fallen man as a covenant-breaker.  And no one will dispute that by that designation he had in mind the theological covenants of Reformed Covenant Theology.  You cannot read Van Til very far before running into statements he makes about ‘the Reformed apologetic.’  For example,

All men are either in covenant with Satan or in covenant with God. – Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, 300.

This is the kind of thing covenant theologians say (or used to say).  Van Til did not refer to his approach as ‘Covenantal Apologetics’, but I think he might not have minded too much.  Still, is it right?

Van Til’s argument for allying his apologetics with the resources of covenant theology should be seen against the backdrop of his conflating covenant theology with Reformed Calvinistic theology.  But any reader of the Jacob Arminius is well aware that he too was a covenant theologian.  This needs to be noted because Van Til’s point is mainly anthropological and soteriological.  He memorably observes,

We should add that according to Scripture, God spoke to man at the outset of history.  In addition to revealing himself in the facts of the created universe, God revealed himself in Words, telling man about what he should do with the facts of the universe.  Since the fall, all men, as fallen in Adam (Rom. 5:12), continue to be responsible for this twofold revelation of God given to man at the beginning of history. – Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 19

This is a point which can be made from the Bible through exposition of Romans 1:18-32 or Psalm 19.  Among his other contributions to theology Van Til stressed this revelatory nature of knowledge before and after the Fall:

For Adam in paradise God-consciousness could not come in at the end of a syllogistic process of reasoning.  God-consciousness was for him the presupposition of the significance of his reasoning on anything. – The Defense of the Faith, 113

But he did not always appeal to the Bible for his authority.  Like so many covenant theologians of the past and present he counted on the Westminster Standards to support his contentions.  So right after the above statement we read this one:

To the doctrine of creation must be added the conception of the covenant.  Man was created an historical being.  God placed upon him from the outset of history the responsibility and task of reinterpreting the counsel of God as expressed in creation to himself individually and collectively.  Man’s creature consciousness may therefore be more particularly signalized as covenant consciousness.  But the revelation of the covenant to man in paradise was supernaturally mediated…Thus, the sense of obedience or disobedience was immediately involved in Adam’s consciousness of himself.  Covenant consciousness envelops creature consciousness. In paradise Adam knew that as a creature of God it was natural and proper that he should keep the the covenant that God made with him. – Ibid.

Here, as Oliphint explains in a footnote in this edition, Van Til is appealing to the WCF 7.1.  The “covenant” to which Van Til is referring in this quotation is not any covenant found in the description of paradise in the first chapters of Genesis.  The “covenant” is the ‘covenant of works’ invented, along with the ‘covenant of grace’, by covenant theologians as a theological explanatory device to describe our relationship with our Creator.  No Scripture is provided to show the presence of this covenant, and for good reason: there is none.  

In arguing for the name covenantal apologetics, Oliphint uses the same method.  In all his argumentation for the idea there is a noticeable dearth of scriptural appeal.  For instance, for his definition and understanding of the term “covenant” he does not go to the Bible but to the Westminster Confession (See K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 39, 49, 61-62, 93).  The Confession does indeed refer to God’s condescension in relating to us as “covenantal.”  But is that the way the Bible itself uses the idea of covenant?  I think not.

For one thing, it begs the question to have the Westminster Confession authorize the name-change from presuppositional apologetics to covenantal apologetics.  Without reinventing the wheel, I have tried to show in other places (e.g. here), that covenant theologians have misread biblical covenants, like the New Covenant, in fitting them into their extra-biblical inferential scheme.  Oliphint himself does this on page 59 of his book when confusingly quoting Hebrews 6:17-18, which refers back to the Abrahamic covenant (6:13), and forwards to the New covenant, of which Christ is the Mediator (Hebrews 8 and 9 go on to explain this).  But Oliphint’s quotation is not in reference to either of these biblical covenants, but (as we saw with Van Til) in service of a supposed covenantal relationship enacted at the outset of creation.  

Covenant theology has often been criticized for making their theological covenants ride roughshod over the clear covenants of the Bible, effectively stripping them of any specifications not required by their approach.  The example just given is quite typical.

Like Van Til Oliphint wants man’s knowing to be covenantal (44, 82, 152).  But this is neither necessary nor particularly relevant.  It is not necessary because our relationship to God need not be viewed within the terms of covenant.  We would do better and would stay within the boundaries of the biblical text to speak of “creaturely obligations” or “image-accountability” than introducing covenant language.  Although covenants in the Bible do establish relationships and commitments, no one is free to read and then define the terms of a covenant for which there is scarcely any warrant.  And interpreting our knowing as covenantal is not relevant  for two reasons.  First because Arminians have often been adherents of covenant theology and Van Til was often at pains to try to show that only Calvinism could support his position (see, e.g. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 81ff.).  Therefore, his real emphasis while using the Westminster Confession should more often than not be understood to be Calvinistic.  Second, because nowhere in the Bible is our knowing depicted this way.  While all assent that the new birth brings with it new outlooks (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:17-5:17), such things were hardly necessary in Eden.  Divine covenants obligate God to do something.  But in paradise we read of no such Divine obligation; still less do we read of a covenant oath!  In Scripture, all the covenants which are plainly discoverable come after the Fall: indeed, they come after the Flood!  Covenants are not required where the relationship is not sundered and in need of reconciliation.

In truth, while the genius of covenant theology may be brought to bear on Van Til’s apologetic, the real issue is whether his approach is supportable from the text of Holy Writ.  And the answer to that question is certainly Yes!  As Greg Bahnsen showed in his Always Ready, there is plenty of biblical justification for presuppositional apologetics, without the need to appeal to covenant theology.  While Bahnsen was a proponent of covenant theology, he wisely sought to establish his apologetics on a different and firmer foundation.  What we want to know is whether Van Til’s apologetic is biblical, and indeed it is.  Because that is so the question of nomenclature might be easily solved by calling it, as a recent fine exposition does, simply Biblical Apologetics.

The question of whether covenant theology is biblical is much harder to prove.                 (more…)