Dispensationalism

The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism? – Ryrie and Feinberg (Revised)

I made a bit of a hash of the initial post on this because I was in a rush.  Here is an extended and revised version (which is what I should have posted).  It questions the third essential of Ryrie’s proposed sine qua non.

The picture of history that is constructed comes from the base of consistently applied principles of grammatico-historical (G-H) hermeneutics.[i]  The Bible is to read as one would read any other book.  The presupposition here is not that the Bible is like any other book.  Rather, when it is read like one would read another book it becomes apparent that it is unique.  But only plain sense, literal interpretation yields the self-attestation of Scripture with its corollary of ultimate authority.

It is the consistency with which G-H interpretation is employed that makes one a dispensationalist.[ii]  This has been admitted even by those who have opposed it.[iii]  Consistent application of the principles of G-H interpretation, then, is the foremost trait of a dispensational theology.  Ryrie, in his delineation of the essential aspects of the system, actually places this characteristic second behind a fundamental distinction between Israel and the Church.[iv]  This subject bears further investigation.

Ryrie, Feinberg, and the Sine Qua Non  

On pages 38-41 of Ryrie’s important book on Dispensationalism, the author provides what he believes are the three indispensable marks of a dispensationalist.  The first of these essential beliefs is a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church.  Ryrie states: “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive.  The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and the one who does will.”[v]

The other two components of Ryrie’s sine qua non are, as we have seen, a consistent use of normal, plain, or literal interpretation when studying the Scriptures, and, more controversially, a doxological (rather than a christological or soteriological) goal of God in human history.[vi]

However, it should be pointed out that not all dispensationalists completely agree with Ryrie.[vii]  One notable scholar who demurs is John Feinberg of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  Feinberg believes Ryrie’s three essentials need nuancing.[viii]  He also thinks there are six things which, if properly defined, distinguish a consistent dispensationalist.[ix]  They are:

  • Multiple senses of terms like “Jew,” “seed of Abraham”
  • Hermeneutics
  • Covenant promises to Israel
  • A distinctive future for ethnic Israel
  • The Church as a distinctive organism
  • A distinct philosophy of history.
  •   Interestingly, and which pertains more to the present discussion, Feinberg breaks down the traditionally cast distinction between the Church and Israel into the following:

Multiple Senses of the Term “Seed of Abraham.”

  1. First, he defines what he calls the ethnic or national sense, which relates to physical Israel.
  2. Next is the political sense, which calls to mind the geo-political entity that was Israel. As a political state there were citizens who were not physical Hebrews.
  3. Then there is the spiritual sense. Under this identification are those who are the Seed of Abraham because they share like faith in God.  A person could be described this whether Jew or Gentile (Paul even uses this designation to distinguish saved from unsaved Jews in Romans 9:6ff.
  4. Feinberg refers to the typological sense, wherein Old Testament Israel may function as a type of the Church (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:1-6).[x] 

With these more refined senses of what it means to be one of Abraham’s seed, Feinberg writes,

“What is distinctive of dispensational thinking is recognition of all senses of these terms as operative in both Testaments coupled with a demand that no sense (spiritual especially) is more important than any other, and that no sense cancels out the meaning and implications of the other senses.”[xi]

This is a helpful development in view of the oft-cited passages routinely produced by covenant theologians to prove that the Church is now Israel (e.g. Rom. 2:28; 9:6-7;11,16-25; Eph. 2:11-18; Phil. 3:3, etc.).

Ryrie’s Third Sine Qua Non Revisited

In contrast to covenant theology, which, because of its slavish adherence to the “covenant of grace”, must view all things soteriologically, dispensationalists believe the over-arching plan of God is the promotion of His glory through multifaceted means.  As Ryrie puts it, “…covenant theology makes the all-encompassing means of manifesting the glory of God the plan of redemption.”[xii]  Elsewhere he declares that, “The Bible itself clearly teaches that salvation, important and wonderful as it is, is not an end in itself but is rather a means to the end of glorifying God.”[xiii]

In another place Ryrie comments:

Scripture is not human-centered, as though salvation were the principal point, but God-centered, because His glory is at the center.  The glory of God is the primary principle that unifies all the dispensations, the program of salvation being just one of the means by which God glorifies Himself.  Each successive revelation of God’s plan for the ages, as well as His dealings with the elect, nonelect, angels, and nations all manifest His glory.[xiv]

Nevertheless, we think Ryrie has overreached himself on this third point.  While the first two are certainly essentials if one is to be a normative dispensationalist, the third is not.  Stallard, for example, has shown that, “the doxological center for the Bible in Ryrie is replaced by a redemptive center in Gaebelein’s statements about the purpose of revelation.”[xv]

It is very clear that one can be a dispensationalist and not believe that the glory of God demonstrated in a multifaceted scheme is a critical belief of the system, just as one can be a covenant theologian and believe that it is – albeit the other matters definitely play second fiddle to salvation.[xvi]    In fact, I would argue that most dispensationalists are unsure just what the third strand of Ryrie’s sine qua non means!  (more…)

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 3)

Part Two

We all know that sin stops us from inheriting the kind of world God the Creator envisaged for us; a world of peace, joy, righteousness, justice, and glory, not to mention communion with the Lord Himself.

God set the world in  motion, permitting the Fall and the devastation that it has brought in its wake.  He made covenants with man; signposts and promises to the better world that He still intends to bring about:

  1. The Noahic covenant establishes this post-flood world in perpetuity until the New Heavens and New Earth are made. 
  2. The Abrahamic covenant ensures that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will always be a people before God, and that they will inherit a land (I tend to include the “Land covenant” here).  It also makes provision for God’s blessing to be spread among the other nations of the world through Israel. 
  3. The Priestly covenant promises the descendants of Phinehas (who would be Zadokites) that they would be granted an everlasting priesthood. 
  4. The Davidic covenant promises that an heir of David will always sit upon his throne.
  5. The bi-lateral Mosaic covenant binds Israel to God in a theocratic relationship based on obedience.

We may grant that each of these covenants has elements which can be explored further, but for my purpose the descriptions above will do.  I want to call attention to a startling fact.  As they stand not one of these divine covenants can be entirely fulfilled!  Their full realization is impossible.  Granted, blessing has come to the nations in the Person of Christ, an Israelite, through the Abrahamic Covenant, but it has not come to them as nations.  Furthermore, Israel is not in right relationship to God.  The dynasty of David in Israel is absent a king, and nobody can claim that the pledge to Phinehas (however difficult it may be to comprehend) is being fulfilled.  Yes, there will be no more global floods upon the earth.  But when all is said and done, there can be no transition to the New Creation from this sin-cursed old one.

Within all these great covenants and their gracious promises there is nothing that can  bring them to pass.  They have no provision for salvation built into them.  They stand as impotent in themselves as any prognostication from any false prophet in history.

Why so?  What is the problem?  The problem is and always has been “sin!”  Sin gets in the way.  Sin prevents the realization of God’s program for Creation.  So how does God deal with sin?

We all know the answer.  The answer is through faith in Jesus Christ.  Good!  Redemption is only through Him.  Jesus Christ is the means of salvation for sinners.  I might add here that the salvation of those saints who died before Christ is also wrought by or through Him, even if the content of their faith was not in a crucified Nazarene.

The New Covenant Deals with Sin

But there is a slight snag here.  I have already shown, and will show again, that the New Covenant is particularly concerned with the question of sin and salvation.  God can’t write his instruction on any mind and heart that has not first been changed (cf. Jer. 31:33).  He will have to save men if He is to sanctify them (cf. Jer. 31:34).  Further, we must ask what connection Christ’s sacrifice has to the covenants above?  Since He has come and made the way of salvation plain, what is the hold-up?  Why aren’t the unilateral covenants of God playing out now just as God promised?

Consider these verses which are usually identified with the New Covenant:

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,

And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,”
Says the LORD.

“As for Me,” says the LORD, “this is My covenant with them: My Spirit who is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your descendants, nor from the mouth of your descendants’ descendants,” says the LORD, “from this time and forevermore.” – Isa. 59:20-21

They are aimed at Israel, just as Jeremiah 31 is.  And the covenant mentioned in verse 21 has close affinities with Jeremiah 31:31-34.  The wording is different but the sentiment is the same.  But in Isaiah the Spirit is promised, exactly as He is in those accepted New covenant passages in Isaiah 32:15, Ezekiel 36:26-28, Joel 2:28f., and Zechariah 12:10.

Notice again that the covenant has to do with God’s Spirit, which also coincides with the arrival of the Redeemer to turn away transgression in Jacob.  According to Paul, this passage awaits fulfillment (Rom. 11:26), so it cannot be connected with the first advent.  The great promises of the other covenants are being held up, as it were, until the second advent.  They depend upon it.  When Israel receives the New Covenant the other covenants will be triggered.

An Initial Compilation

If we gather together the various elements of this passage and the work of Christ I have been discussing this is what we get:

  1. Israel as a nation needs to be saved
  2. Without Israel’s salvation the other divine covenants cannot go into full effect
  3. Salvation is wrought by Jesus Christ alone
  4. In order to receive Christ’s salvation one must believe in Him
  5. Believers receive the Holy Spirit
  6. When Israel’s sins are redeemed they receive the Spirit and are changed
  7. Christ’s salvation is connected with a covenant (e.g. Isa. 59:20-21)
  8. The salvation of Israel is connected to the New covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).

Alright, whatever the connection between Jesus Christ and the New covenant is, there is a great deal of overlap.  I might even be so bold as to assert that Christ’s work is covenantal.  But it’s all good.  These passages are for Israel!

Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12

But we are not finished.  We need to remind ourselves of what Isaiah has said in chapters 42 and 49, both of which concern Christ as “the Servant” of Yahweh.  Matthew refers Isaiah 42:1-3 to Jesus.

that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 

“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved
 in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles,

A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;

And in His name Gentiles will trust.” – Matt. 12:17-18, 20-21

Matthew then adds, “And in His name Gentiles will trust,” which is not in the passage, at least directly.  Yet it is what Isaiah is teaching.  If we continue with Isaiah for a few more verses this will be seen:

He will not fail nor be discouraged,
Till He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”

Thus says God the LORD,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,
Who gives breath to the people on it,
And spirit to those who walk on it:

“I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness,
And will hold Your hand;
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the Gentiles – Isa. 42:4-6

The “coastlands” (‘iy) of verse 4 are almost certainly not the coast of Israel.  The term refers to habitable land; to the islands and land masses.  The “earth” (‘eretz) can and does refer to Israel, but not here.  Its repetition in verse 5, where it is set in opposition to the heavens, together with the mention of the “peoples” (‘am), means that the context demands that the whole earth is being spoken of; and this provides the way for the explicit promise to the Gentiles in verse 6.  Matthew sees this and summarizes it with “And in His name Gentiles will trust.”

The verses are about Jesus Christ.  And they are about salvation being brought to the Gentiles.  And they are about Christ being trusted by the Gentiles.  And they are about Christ being called “a covenant.”

Which covenant could Christ be?

Contrasting Dispensationalism and Biblical Covenantalism

This is an older post which I have taken the opportunity to revise and update, hopefully in light of more mature thinking.

A Little Back-Story

As many of my readers will know, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to place Dispensational theology on what I believe is a more secure footing.  Dispensationalism has not produced many top-line academic works, especially in the last half century, and with only one or two exceptions it presents itself as static and unwilling to improve.  In the meantime it has been frozen out of mainstream evangelical scholarship and its influence has dwindled.  One example among many will suffice: The huge 8 volume IVP Dictionaries, which cover the entire Bible, and are written by hundreds of top scholars across the broad sweep of evangelicalism, include scarcely any contribution by dispensational scholars.  The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets has (as far as I can tell) only one entry by one dispensationalist (Robert Chisholm on “Retribution”, and I’m not sure Chisholm is much of a dispensationalist).

In reflecting on the reasons for this I eventually asked myself a rather obvious question: “does the Bible ground its biblical theology upon the dispensations or on something else?”  Re-reading the Bible with this question uppermost in my mind led me to the conclusion that the Bible does indeed base its theology in something other than changing administrations.  It roots itself in the divine covenants!  From this was born what I have called Biblical Covenantalism.  It retains all that makes Dispensationalism good, but refocuses it on the covenants of God.  The result is, I believe, a far more robust and intellectually promising system that is there to be developed.

Anyway, here are what I think are the main contrasts between my approach (BC) and traditional Dispensational theology (DT):

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 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 (i.e. describe one aspect).

BC: defines itself by the covenants of God 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 (i.e. describe a purpose and prescribe God’s outlook).

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.  There is a “God’s words = God’s actions” hermeneutical sequence in Scripture which is amplified by the covenants.

3. DT: often struggles with the New Covenant and its application.  Some believe the New Covenant is only for Israel; some that the Church somehow “participates” in the New Covenant without being a party to it.  A few believe Christ made the New Covenant with the Church, but usually they limit it to the salvation of the soul.

BC: because it pays special attention to the covenants and their inter-relationships, comprehends the Christocentric arrangement of the other covenants around the New Covenant.  Christ and the New Covenant are identified, allowing one to see how all beneficiaries of God’s grace have a covenantal relation to Him.  Thus, the terms of the other covenants are released to be fulfilled once the parties to those covenants (whether national Israel or the Gentiles or both) have passed under the New Covenant in Christ.

4. DT: is not redemptively focused, meaning it does not concentrate on the teleological goals of God in Christ for the future of the whole created realm.

BC: is redemptively focused in the sense given above.

5. DT: tends therefore, not to be as Christological as Covenant Theology.

BC: is just as Christological as Covenant Theology, though not artificially reading Christ into foreign contexts.  Stressing, as it does, the truth that this creation is made through and for Christ; is redeemed in Christ, and will be ruled over and restored by Christ.

6. DT: tends to restrict its remit to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology, in consequence confining its thinking and hence productivity to those areas.  It cannot be developed into a worldview system under these confines (hence it is not prescriptive).  This confinement is only exacerbated by the way Dispensationalism defines itself.

BC: is far more expansive; focusing on every area of Systematic Theology and worldview through its reflection on the outcome and repercussions of the biblical covenants and the centrality of Christ.

7. DT: emphasizes the end of the Bible and places little importance on the doctrine of Creation and its outworking in God’s overall plan.

BC: does put a lot of stress upon Creation and sees history in terms of the combined outworking of the teleology and the eschatology which was built into Creation from the beginning.  The Bible is an eschatological (and also teleological) book from beginning to end.

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.4)

This is the final installment of my review of this book

Part Three

As he moves through the Book of Acts the author addresses the main kingdom passages only.  An author must be selective with his material, so the relatively brief look at Acts is no mark against the book.  In fact, due to his ability to sum things up quickly and accurately Vlach can pinpoint the salient passages and continue into the Pauline corpus.

That said, he manages to dwell on the really crucial texts.  He says, for instance, “Acts 3:19-26 is a strategic passage for the kingdom program.” (421).  And he has spent 7 pages getting to that conclusion.  He not only exegetes Acts 3:19-21, he demonstrates Peter’s compliance with expectations raised by the Old Testament.  He then mentions how Acts 3:25 cites Genesis 12:3 and 22:18 to prove that Israel – representatives of which the Apostle is speaking to – is still the same national entity as was envisaged in the Abrahamic covenant (420-421).

Any worthwhile account of the kingdom in the New Testament has to tackle James’s use of Amos 9 in Acts 15:16-18.  Does James reinterpret the prophet the way amillennialists insist he does?  Vlach says there is a partial fulfillment of Amos because now Christ has come Gentiles are invited to God through Him. “The point of Amos 9:11-12 is this – a restored kingdom of Israel under the Messiah results in blessings to Gentiles.” (424 italics original).  However, Amos 9:13-15, which refers to the restoration of Israel in the future, are not quoted by James (425).  Partial fulfillments of OT prophecies ought to be expected because of the space between the two comings – something which was far from clear in the OT.

Entering upon Paul’s epistles, the first thing Vlach does is to set out the fourteen references to the kingdom.  In dealing with each one the constant theme is the futurity of the kingdom (433).  A crucial passage is 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and Vlach pays ample attention to it (436-444).  Here the author’s exegetical and analytical skills are fully utilized to prove, I think conclusively, that Paul assumes an intermediate kingdom reign of Christ on earth before He delivers up the kingdom to the Father.  I shall not go into detail here, but his handling of the epeita… eita formula (with reference to 15:5-8), the use of Psalms 110 and 8, and the fact that Christ must reign “until” show the necessity of the premillennial view.

When coming to the great eschatological section in Romans 9 through 11, one could have wished that more space had been allotted to the Apostle’s argument.  Three pages is not enough, and it amounts to the most disappointing part of an otherwise excellent book.  This was surprising to come across, and perhaps a second edition could improve on the deficiency?  What is said is right enough, but since the Olive Tree metaphor especially is subjected to inattention and misreading I really hoped for a thorough analysis of the passage.

The chapter which follows (ch. 30) deals with “The Kingdom in Hebrews”.  The Book of Hebrews is turned this way and that depending on the propensities of interpreters.  But just read “on its own” so to speak, it is an exceedingly prophetic type of literature.

In his handling of the epistle Vlach investigates two questions: the kingdom passages and the use of Psalm 110:1, 4.  He concludes that,

Christians currently are looking for the world to come (2:5) and the city to come (13:14).  Jesus is currently exercising His priestly role from the right hand of God but is waiting for the day when He will reign as messianic King, putting His enemies under His feet (Heb 10:12-13).  The kingdom has not arrived yet but it will come in connection with divine judgments to come (12:26, 28).  But like Abraham, Christians are looking for the coming heavenly Jerusalem, a literal city that will exist on the earth. (467)

Whether one agrees entirely with the author’s understanding of “the heavenly Jerusalem” the chapter is well argued.

(more…)

Review of ‘He Will Reign Forever’ (Pt.3)

Part Two

This is the third part in what has become a four part review of this book.  I think the work is important enough as a Dispensational Biblical Theology to merit a piece of this length.  I hope you will agree.  

As Vlach entered upon the New Testament I was curious how much space he would devote to developing the message of Jesus in its pre-Pauline context.  That is to say, I wanted to see if he would trace the teachings of Jesus from its grounding in the prophetic expectations in the Old Testament and its effect upon Jewish hearers in the first part of the first century A.D.  I was not disappointed.

The author chooses the Gospel of Matthew as his frame of reference for understanding the kingdom aspect of Christ’s mission.  This was a natural enough choice, although the present reviewer is also a fan of the speeches in Luke-Acts for this purpose.  Of course, the selection of Matthew in no way eliminates interaction with the other Gospels, and Vlach picks up on some of the main kingdom emphases in Luke, especially the crucial Parable of the Nobleman in Luke 19:11-27(e.g. 357-360).  About 150 pages of He Will Reign Forever are set aside for the Gospels.  This allows Vlach to make the important textual and theological connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament around the Person of Jesus Christ and His kingdom understanding.  The work done in these chapters supplies the basic proof for the underlying accuracy of the book’s hermeneutical consistency.  At the risk of annoying some readers, this sort of work does not need to be done by those who automatically spiritualize the text whenever it threatens to unravel their view that Christ and the Church are what it’s all about.  Again, it is worth noting the clever use of non-evangelical scholarship to drive home the fact that the author is not making his points because of some blind allegiance to Dispensational requirements, but because this is what the text of Scripture itself is saying.

Jesus’ identification with Israel is seen as a main emphasis of Matthew 2 (262). The author handles the Hosea 11:1 quotation in two ways; first via reference to corporate solidarity, but then also by noting the probable source of the allusion to Numbers 23 and 24; a position vigorously argued for by the late John Sailhamer (263-264).  From there the “kingdom is at hand” passages in Matthew 3 and 4 are handled in chapter 16.  I fully concur with this quotation:

According to Matthew 5:5 kingdom blessings include inheriting the land, which is a physical blessing.  The view that Jesus is presenting a spiritual kingdom only appears more in line with a Platonic dualism between spirit and matter than a biblical worldview. (270, and something he returns to quite frequently in Part Three of the book).     

Along with rejecting the spiritualizing view of the kingdom Vlach is also unpersuaded by the prominent “already/not yet” so prevalent today, saying “it does not do justice to the full package of kingdom blessings presented by John and Jesus at the time of their pronouncements.” (270 my italics. cf. 271). 

In order to bring the cosmic drama between God and Satan into his discussion of the Temptation of Jesus the author deals with several Old Testament passages before tackling the Temptation itself.  He poignantly states, “The arrival of Jesus was an invasion of Satan’s empire.” (285).  He takes the opportunity to make important intertextual links in fleshing out the kingdom implications of Christ’s presence on the scene.  This gives him the opportunity to remind his reader of some of the ground already covered in the Old Testament sections.  I do wish that he had afforded himself the liberty to deal with the recent attempts of amillennial biblical theologians to quite irrationally identify “the anointed cherub” of Ezekiel 28 with Adam (281-282).

The topic of miracles is well handled in chapter 18, which focuses on Matthew 4:23-24.  I very much liked the description of miracles as “acts of restoration” (296).  That is good theology.      (more…)

Review: ‘He Will Reign Forever’ by Michael Vlach (Pt.1)

A Review of He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God, by Michael J. Vlach: Silverton, OR. Lampion Press, 638 pages, hdbk.

Dispensationalists and open-minded amillennialists know that a book or article by Michael Vlach is going to be worth reading.  His contributions are always well thought-out, and his style is usually analytical yet easy to follow.  He has written several useful works, including Has the Church Replaced Israel? and a recent e-book, How Does the New Testament Use the Old Testament?   This book, running for more than 600 pages, is his most ambitious yet.

He Shall Reign Forever is Dr. Vlach’s attempt to write a whole Bible biblical theology; something that Dispensationalists, in whose company the author counts himself, have often shied away from, although commendably the author does not structure the volume around “dispensations.”  What we get is a must-have piece of biblical theology.

Vlach has taken as his central idea the theme of God’s Kingdom.  There is no argument here with the choice.  It is perhaps the primary theme of the Bible (25-26).  But the Kingdom of God has proven to be a very mutivalent concept in the hands of Bible scholars (e.g. 29-30, 32).  Therefore, any writer who wants to put out a big book on the Kingdom has his work cut out for him.  The question is, how to both persuade the reader of ones own take while showing why other views of the subject – e.g. the Kingdom is the Church, or the Kingdom is the inheritance of the Church – fail in their understanding of the Scriptures (e.g. 16).

Although there is some interaction with other positions, the writer is clear that what he is concerned with is a positive presentation of his view of the kingdom (17 n.11).  Vlach offers what he calls “a new creationist perspective” (11), by which he means that the Bible presents the Kingdom as the goal of creation.  This is in opposition to a “spiritual vision model” (12), which tends towards spiritualization.  As the title suggests, the Christocentric thrust of Scripture features strongly, but without the debatable practice of seeing Jesus in every verse.

The author affirms the continuity of God’s plan in line with His promises.  The spiritual promises of inward renewal have been shown to have had literal fulfillment.  So too will the physical promises (14, 49).  The form that this takes is “fulfillment of the particular (Israel) leads to fulfillment of the universal (the world)” (15 – all italics are those of the author).

There are five parts to the storyline of the Bible (23).  The first is pivotal:

the kingdom is present with creation as God the King of creation tasks his image-bearer, man, to rule and subdue His creation.

This linking of eschatology to creation is vital for the future of premillennial eschatology, as it prevents one dealing with the Last Things independently or lastly , as so often happens in Dispensational publications.  His definition of Kingdom as “the rule of God over His creation” (30) reinforces the need for a biblical theology of the Kingdom.  With the concept of the “mediatorial kingdom” (via Alva McClain) wherein God rules via man, providing the mode of Kingdom rule (ch. 3).

I should insert here that even though I would not disagree with Vlach that the Kingdom is primary as a theme, and I would even say that “covenant” is subordinate to the aims of the Kingdom (26), I do not think that that the Kingdom theme as Vlach sees it is established outside of God’s covenants.  He quotes Goldsworthy to this effect (26 n. 10), although ironically in the piece he cites; “The Kingdom of God as Hermeneutic Grid”, I believe Goldsworthy gets things exactly the wrong way round.  It is the covenants which provide the interpretive grid for the Kingdom idea to fully emerge (though see 28 n. 14).  This is why the present writer advocates a “biblical covenantalism” as the backbone of proper hermeneutics.

The second chapter seeks to establish the methodology of the rest of the book.  Adequate grounds are given with good examples.  I heard echoes of some of my own emphases in this chapter: like the stabilizing authority of the covenants (42), the objection that if the original audience couldn’t know the path of fulfillment the revelation could not have been for them (42), the problem with a hermeneutics geared mostly to the first coming (43 n.21), and the fact that spiritual qualifications precede and guarantee literal fulfillment  of God’s promises (44).   Vlach does not need me to tell him these things, but I was very pleased to see them stressed.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis is where the rationale for Vlach’s five parts of the Bible Story must be established.  He does this in chapter 4, “The Kingdom and Creation (Genesis 1- 11)”.  Good creation, fall, and the foundational first (Noahic) covenant are handled neatly, so that the transition into Genesis 12 and following flows logically and inevitably.  I think the author does a great job in these pages, achieving the programmatic cohesion that exists from the flood to the call of Abraham.  This is a skillfully written chapter; the best in the Old Testament portion of the book. (more…)

Ten Lines of Evidence for Interpreting Ezekiel 40-48 as Depicting a Literal Temple

Image: Tom Vanderwell

Here is a piece which originally belonged in some correspondence I had with a covenant theologian.  I have added a few things, but I think it makes a decent stand-alone article. 

Some amillennialists think that the original hearers of Ezekiel couldn’t comprehend a future glorious kingdom where Israel is regenerate, and Messiah reigns in justice and righteousness from Jerusalem.  That they couldn’t see a time where priests serve God in a new temple.

I think they could in fact do this from attending to the following passages: Num. 25:10-13; Deut. 30:6f., or Psa. 2, 89, 105, 106, Isa. 2, 11, 26-27, 35, 43, 44, 45, 51, 62; Jer. 23, 30, 31, 33, or Hos. 2:16f. or Mic. 4, or Zeph. 3, or indeed from Ezek. 34, 36-37.

It seems that Ezekiel’s near contemporary Zechariah (6:12-13, 8:1-3; 14:16f.), and Malachi (3:2-3) believed these things too. Zechariah, for example, predicts a future temple built after Jerusalem has been changed topographically where the King is worshiped at the temple (Zech. 14).

No premillennialist, or Dispensationalist (or Biblical Covenantalist) would say that Ezekiel’s audience could know the time when the temple would be built.  They could only know that it would be built.  They could know this because Ezekiel’s temple could only be constructed…

a). once Israel were no longer under the Mosaic covenant – because the service etc. of Ezekiel’s temple does not agree with Moses

b). after topographical changes occurred which would make the huge project possible

c). once the glory of the Lord was ready to return to bless Israel and dwell with them forever.  That didn’t happen in Nehemiah’s day, and it hasn’t happened yet, so logically it must either be the future (or else these chapters form one of the greatest circumlocutions in all of literature!)

Again, Ezekiel didn’t know that the Messianic Kingdom would last a thousand years. He didn’t have John’s Revelation (some who have the Book of Revelation still don’t know that Christ will reign a thousand years!). We don’t have to demonstrate anything that wasn’t revealed after Ezekiel’s time to realize that his original audience knew he was referring to a future temple.

But here are ten evidences that Ezekiel meant us to understand him as referring to a literal temple building complex that will be erected in future Israel.

————————————————————————————-

1. Ezekiel calls it a temple over and over.  E.g. In Ezekiel 40:5, 45 – where the priestly function is mentioned; in 41:6-10 – where its chambers are described in pedantic detail; in 42:8 – where the length of the chambers depends on their position relative to the sanctuary; in 43:11 – where God declares: “make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes, and do them.”  How can any reader take these details seriously and find their fulfillment in the NT church?

Moving forward in the passage, in Ezekiel 43:21 a bull is to be offered as a sin-offering outside the house; in 45:20 – an atonement is made for the simple on the seventh day of the month; in 46:24 – sacrifices are boiled at designated places; and in 48:21 – the huge allotment for the sanctuary is measured (it is very different to New Jerusalem in Rev. 21!).

2. There are laws to perform in the temple (Ezek. 43:11-12).  Quite how one can perform these commands in the church is a mystery beyond the mystery of the church itself.

3. Ezekiel stipulates two divisions of priests, only one of whom (Zadokites) can approach the Lord (44:15).  These Zadokites are given land separate from other Levites (48:11).

4. Ezekiel refers to New Moons and sacrifices (46:1, 6).  New Jerusalem has no need of moonlight (Rev. 21:23).

5. The tribes of Israel are given specific allotments of land all around the temple (Ezek. 48)

6.  The two temples at the beginning and the end of the Book of Ezekiel form a structural arc.  The first temple is literal.  Nothing is said about the more detailed temple at the end of Ezekiel being a mere symbol.  In fact, in Ezekiel 8:3ff. “the visions of God” recorded what really did occur (cf. 40:2), not what would symbolically happen.

7. In Ezekiel 10 the Shekinah leaves the actual temple in Jerusalem by the East Gate.  In chapter 43 it returns via the East Gate and remains.

8. A sanctuary is mentioned in the new covenant chapters (Ezekiel 36 & 37).  For example, after Israel has been cleansed, God declares: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever.” (Ezek. 37:26. Cf. 43:7).

This indicates something about the timing of the fulfillment of the temple prophecy.  This agrees with the timing indicated in the last verse of Ezekiel: “the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The LORD is there” (Ezek. 48:35)

9. At least three times Ezekiel is commanded to pay close attention to specifics: 40:4; 43:10-11; 44:5.  The symbolic interpretation ignores these details when seeking to explain the meaning of the vision.  If an interpretation passes over what God has told us to pay close attention to, that interpretation must be suspect.

10. A future temple is necessary in light of God’s everlasting covenant with the Zadokites’ ancestor Phinehas (Num. 25:10-13; Psa. 106:30-31. Cf. Jer. 33:14f., Mal. 3:1-4).  Zechariah 6:12-13; 14:8-9, 16f., describes temple conditions in Israel which have never yet existed, but which match Ezekiel 36-48.

Please look up the references above and see if I have distorted what the verses say.  I have simply allowed the Bible to speak.  If someone doesn’t believe these evidences and instead wants to interpret a portion of the Bible that is longer than First Corinthians as a “word-picture” or “type”, then let them explain their interpretation from the text.  I think that is a reasonable position.

 

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.9)

Part Eight

This is the final post in this series, the purpose of which has been to ask whether “replacement theology” and “supercessionism” correctly describe what some theologies, covenant theology especially, do with the nation of Israel and its OT promises in teaching fulfillment through “transformation” into Christ and the church.  I am not saying that every CT (or NCT) will want to see themselves undercover of these names, only that the names fairly describe this aspect of the way these good people interpret the NT’s use of the OT.

We have seen that replacement theology exists.  I have shown that some CT’s actually use the term “replace” (or “supercessionism”) to describe their approach in their own works, and that they recommend books that unashamedly use it.  More anecdotally, I have encountered this opinion many times in conversations.

Of course, replacement theology is not confined to orthodox Reformed covenantalism, but they are the ones whose books and lectures I know best.  In this tradition, it is common to view the history of Israel as primarily a structural learning device; a tool for teaching the Christian church through narrative and type; a “means to an end” as R. Scott Clark put it.

A Third Kind of Replacementism

What is engendered by this is an elevation of the NT above the OT, even though the NT relies on the OT in large part for its validation.  A dual-level understanding of revelation is created in the mind (often as not it goes unnoticed), wherein the voice of the OT is always recirculated through the voice of the NT.  This fosters a third variety of replacementism, this time involving the original voice of the OT in its context.  That voice is stifled and re-transmitted through a particular understanding of the NT and its function.  What results is what OT scholar John Sailhamer called a “devaluation of the Old Testament.”  He reminds us that,

We must remember that those who first saw Jesus did not have a NT version of Jesus to compare with the OT.  They had only the version of Jesus they knew, or knew about, to compare with the OT.  Their comparison was later enshrined textually as the NT against the background of the OT.  It was the end result of much reflection on the meaning of the OT Scriptures not the NT. – John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 555

Additionally, the dissemination of the writings of the NT has often not been given much thought by those whose theological picture is informed by a hermeneutical determinism (i.e. the OT is interpreted through the NT) which was quite impossible for first century Christians.  Put bluntly, these saints did not have a NT to interpret the OT with!  What the most fortunate of them did have was a Gospel or two and several letters.  But this was comparatively rare.

Another by-product of this is what R. Kendall Soulen has labelled “Israel-forgetfulness”.  In his own words,

To recall, the model’s foreground is the sequence of episodes that constitute the standard model’s overarching plot: God’s creation of Adam and Eve for the purpose of consummation, the fall, redemption in Christ through the church, the final judgment and final consummation.  Although the model’s foreground is by definition not identical with the model as a whole, it does depict how God’s consummating and redemptive purposes engage humankind in universal and enduring ways.  The foreground can therefore be said to encapsulate what the standard model depicts as theologically decisive for a Christian reading of the Bible.  The difficulty, of course, is that the foreground wholly omits the Hebrew Scriptures with the exception of Genesis 1-3. – R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, 49

Put more simply, by only requiring a minimal grounding in the soil of the OT because of the perceived superiority of the NT, the “standard model” (i.e. supercessionism) forgets about God’s enduring commitments to Israel in the OT, and by the adoption of typological understandings of that relation, feels no need to find its roots in those commitments.  The resultant theology will be actual, conceptual or “original voice” replacementism.  That original voice is a covenantally supported voice, and formal covenants of the kind God made with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas and David are not subject to change, “expansion”, “transformation”, and certainly not “transferal.”  Once set down and sealed by a solemn oath, they are hermeneutically fixed forever.  It is this very fixity which, I hold, provides the basis for biblical interpretation.  Since these covenants are in the OT, the NT cannot (and I argue does not) reimagine them in any way.

I should add here that Dispensationalists normally would never follow me here, and I would never follow them in their advancing of “stewardships” above covenants.  This is a big reason why I call myself a Biblical Covenantalist.

Matthew 21:43

Several times we have seen that Matthew 21:43 is used by CT’s to teach that God has done with Israel as a nation, and now the “kingdom” is given to the church.  Within such an interpretation there is no wiggle-room for saying the church expands Israel or grows out of it.  The “kingdom” is given to another “nation.”  There is no organic identity between the one nation and the one that replaces it.  G.K. Beale, for instance, in his interpretation of Matthew 21:41, employs Matthew 21:43 to mean that,

Jesus… interprets this to mean that ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel] and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 673. (N.B. The insertion of [Israel] is by Beale).

Speaking of the same text on page 680 he writes of Jesus, “rejecting ethnic national Israel as God’s true people.” Furthermore, he interprets the stone cut out without hands, which smashes the image in Daniel 2 as smashing, “the ungodly nations, which also includes Israel.” (682).  In Part Two I cited Greg Durand using Matthew 21:43 this way. In Part Four Hans LaRondelle was shown using it the same way. (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.8)

Part Seven

My stated intention in these posts is to try to settle whether or not it is proper to speak in terms of theologies of supercessionism or replacement theology.  It is not my design to argue for the opposite view (which I have done many times before).  I am coming towards the end of my article, with probably one post left to go.  I said that I wanted to take a look at two OT passages to discover how those holding to one or more forms of supercessionism handle them.

Jeremiah 31:31-37

The first passage is the famous New covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34.  It involves a prediction of cleansing and salvation for Israel and Judah and their reunification.  The passage is repeated in Hebrews 8:8-12.  But attached to the original prophecy is a crystal clear guarantee that if man can tinker with the ordinances of creation,which stand fast (Psa. 33:9), “then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.” (Jer. 31:36).  That sounds like a rock solid affirmation of the perpetuity of the existence of Israel as a nation!  

But God then underscores the promise by speaking of His secret counsels (cf. Deut. 29:29) in establishing the dimensions of the heavens and earth, and stating that if human beings can fathom them then Israel as a distinct people will be cast off for their disobedience (31:37).  Yet this is exactly what several of the writers I have quoted have claimed.

How do covenant theologians (whose theology is usually identified with replacementism), deal with verses 35 to 37?

Gary DeMar writes,

Jeremiah’s prophecy was given more than 2500 years ago. Prior to 1948 and after A.D. 70, Israel had not been a nation. So we have a few interpretive choices regarding the Jeremiah passage: (1) God lied (impossible); (2) the promise was conditional (not likely); the promise was postponed (always the dispensationalist answer and untenable); (4) or the fulfillment was fulfilled in the new nation that grew out of the New Covenant made up of Jews and non-Jews(most likely). Consider what Jesus tells the religious leaders of His day:

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them” (Matt. 21:43–45). – https://americanvision.org/5657/the-charge-of-replacement-theology-is-a-cover-for-fuzzy-theology/

DeMar ignores the details of the vow God made and moves straight to sort through the alternatives as he envisions them, using Matthew 21:43-45 to transform the unconditional language of continuity (remember Jer. 33:37) into conditional language threatening termination.  The NT is brought in to nullify the solemn vow of God in the OT.  Is that how Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture?  One might employ a little irony here by pointing out that if one waits long enough God will change the apparent meaning of what He has said, no matter how strongly it was put, and the expectations will change along with it.  As Michael Brown has observed in his commentary on “Jeremiah” in the revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary, this dissolves any fixity of meaning in Divine Revelation.  Can Jeremiah 31 really be redirected by Matthew 21? or is DeMar guilty of trivializing a Divine pledge?

Notice the equivocation on the word “nation” in DeMar.  When he writes of a “new nation” growing out of the New covenant does he reference the promise of national and ethnic permanence which accompany it?  He does not.  Israel the nation becomes “Israel” the “nation.”

Jeremiah 33:14-26

As if to drive His covenant dependability home, this long section, which begins with a prediction of the Messianic rule from Jerusalem (not New Jerusalem) over a righteous earth, proceeds with a promise that the Davidic covenant and the ministration of the Levites (doubtless related to the covenant with Phinehas in Num. 25:10-13) will continue (33:17-18).  This is followed by avowals of fidelity to the Davidic covenant and the Priestly covenant based on God’s constancy to the Noahic covenant (cf. Gen.8:21-22) and then the creation ordinances (Jer. 33:19-22).

What appears next is most informative for our discussion:

Have you not considered what these people have spoken, saying, ‘The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also cast them off’? Thus they have despised My people, as if they should no more be a nation before them. – Jeremiah 33:24

In replacement theology, the very thing that is at issue is the continuance of Israel as a nation.  And that is what this form of theology denies!  Another instance of this is when John Frame expressly says that through unbelief Israel “lost its special status as God’s elect nation.” – The Doctrine of God, 49 n. 3.

Jeremiah closes off his chapter by reiterating the fixity of God’s purposes for ethnic Israel (33:25-26).  How do CT’s respond to such a God-proffered bond?  I’m afraid they regularly ignore Jeremiah 33:14-26 completely.  But there it sits, witnessing against them. (more…)

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…)