Dispensationalism

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…)

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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.”

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 CT 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…)

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.6): Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

Part Five

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser.  The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son.  The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not.  Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him.  For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised.  But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”[1]

We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust.  Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2).  And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.

We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception.  Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally.  Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” – 22:2)[2], Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions.  How could he put faith above reason?  He didn’t!  He put reason in service of his strong faith.  This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!”  His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him.  The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning.  This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology.  If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way.  Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.

A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson

There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the Book of Hebrews.  The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods.  When our predisposition to reason independently  is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.  What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22.  That faith did not venture on types and transformations.  Faith took God at His word!  For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value.  To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently.  But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture.  Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.

This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible.  Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round.  Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).

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[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41

[2] Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability – when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny – all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” – W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.5): Hermeneutics as a Test of Faith

Problems with the Promise and Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise – fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel.  Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. [1]

 

This might sound very good.  As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals.  So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament.  But the “promise – fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination.  The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ.  Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT.  Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT.  Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT.  An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.[2]

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church.  In this promise – fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation.  But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?[3]

The Birth of Isaac and the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness.  However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that.  One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear.  After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. – Genesis 18:10

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. – Genesis 18:14

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.  For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. – Genesis 21:1-2

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word.  God means what He says.  The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words.  But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value.  The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18.  This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3[4], is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption.  The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ.  But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location.  The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13).  It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.

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[1] E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55

[2] Ibid, 50.  The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT.  So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.  See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431

[3] I simply pose the question for the time being.  Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely.  In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises.  Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” – Meaning, 424-425.  It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

[4] The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.2)

Part One

The whole episode in Genesis 15 is highlighted by the time stamp in verse 18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…”  Yahweh declares that He has already given the land to Abram’s descendants.  Therefore, as we have said, the covenant serves to reinforce and amplify the plain and clear word of God.

But what about the dimensions of the Promised Land?  Can they be determined?  If they can, can we say that Abram’s descendants have received it all?  Has the gift ever been fully given?

The answer to the question in part hinges on what is meant in verse 18 by “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”  Is the river of Egypt the Nile?  Or is it a seasonal Wadi?  The less usual term nahar for river (of Egypt) persuades most commentators that the Nile is not intended.  Also, we should observe the fact that the adjective “great” (gadol) is used of Euphrates only and not the river of Egypt.  It seems, then, as if this “river” is the Wadi mentioned in Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4, 47, and 1 Ki. 8:65, and is what is known as the Wadi el-Arabah[1], which leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, circumscribing the area known as the Negev (south).[2]  So if we take the southern part of the land to be the Wadi el-Arabah, and the northern part to be the Euphrates, we must then ask whether this land area has ever been truly inherited by Israel at any time in its history, and if it is to be inherited in the future.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, supercessionists believe that the promise of inheritance has already been fulfilled:

Eventually, under Solomon, Israel claimed the land from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt, just as the Lord had promised originally to Abraham (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).[3]

If it is indeed the case that Genesis 15:18-21 was fulfilled in Israel’s past then is there anything more to be said?  Hasn’t that oath of God been satisfied?  There are problems with such a view.  One such difficulty is how anticlimactic the whole thing is.  Abraham gets called away from his homeland with the promise of a land in which he will remain a sojourner all his life.  The nation that springs from him spends four hundred years out of the land in Egypt.  When they return they quickly apostasize and begin to splinter into factions.  When they do finally “inherit” the whole piece of real estate in the days of David and only fully with Solomon (a mere eighty years maximum), it all ends with an unceremonious division of the nation and the land amid gradual declension until the descendants of Abraham are shipped off as captives back to pagan Mesopotamia in shame!  In the history of nations this would be hardly worth a mention, let alone an honorable one.  If the hope of the land covenant was extinguished so early, as Robertson and many other covenant theologians think, the fulfilling of God’s unilateral promise to Abram leaves little grounds for any tangible hope for Israel.  It is one of the main purposes of the present book to show that this way of telling Israel’s story is fatally wrong.

Returning to the question of the land’s dimensions, Ronald B. Allen says that the land promise includes parts of ancient Aram as well as Canaan.  He writes,

Although the period of conquest and the later expansions under Saul, David and Solomon began a fulfillment of the extent of the promises, the pattern was still only a partial fulfillment. 

Citing Charles L. Feinberg, Allen believes the land promised in Genesis 15 would range over 300,000 square miles.[4]  This is considerably bigger than the land occupied at present by the nation of Israel.  If Feinberg’s estimate was right, God would still have covenantal obligations in regard to the land coverage itself, never mind the promises of perpetuity included in the covenant.

As we have seen, it is an act of purely arbitrary interpretation to divide the seed promise from the land promise in this crucial chapter of Scripture.  As far as the biblical history has come to this point, there is no reason to create such a cleavage in our understanding of the narrative.  We must suspend judgment on what we think we know and allow the story to unfold at its own pace, marking carefully the outworking of God’s covenants as they come into view and drive the teleological and eschatological picture as it is steadily forming.[5]

Genesis 16 contains the story of the birth of Ishmael.  Ishmael was born after Abram had been in the land for ten years (16:3).  He was not the son of Sarai but of her handmaiden Hagar.  Like Adam many centuries before Abram had listened to his wife in contradiction to the word of God.  The pragmatic solution which Sarai devised is still being felt by us today.  This ought to remind us how placing our reasoning above the clear statements of God is always dangerous.  It has been the cause of many theological errors.  Despite the temptations to problem solve for God, we are never in a position to alter His timetable, nor His meaning.  Basic hermeneutics should seek to be guided by this rule.

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[1] Also known as Wadi el- Arish

[2] See David M. Fleming, “Wadi”, in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 951

[3] O. Palmer Robertson, Understanding the Land of the Bible, 9.  It is not uncommon to find supercessionist author’s skipping the vital details of Genesis 15:8-21 in their argumentation.  See also Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 423-424.  An example of this is Sam Storms’ book, Kingdom Come.

[4] Ronald B. Allen, “The Land of Israel”, in Israel: The Land and the People, H. Wayne House, General editor, 24

[5] To cite John H. Sailhamer, “We must keep our eye on the author and follow him throughout his work.” – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 154

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.1)

This is another excerpt from the book I am trying to write.

The Abrahamic covenant is pivotal to the history biblical which unfolds thereafter, and Genesis 15 is perhaps the key passage to understand with respect to it.[1]  The initiative is God’s, and it is here that God binds Himself by oath to perform the details of the promises He makes to Abraham.  It will be useful to reproduce the first part of the chapter.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.  2 But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”   3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”  4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”  5 Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.  7 Then He said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” – Genesis 15:1-7

 

Sometime after the blessing from the priest of God Yahweh Himself appears to Abram and reiterates His word of promise.  The interchange is instructive.  Abram’s immediate response to the vision of God is to ask about a child (cf. 11:30).  If the land was going to go to his descendants (zera – “seed”) as God had said (13:15-16), then something needed to happen about Sarai’s condition.  As every Bible reader knows, God was to do something about that – eventually!  But Abram has been brooding on the promise.  And he and his wife would certainly have been sensitive on the matter in any case.  He is quite forward with God.  There is an air of desperation and even irony in his words; “what will you give me, seeing I go childless…You have given me no seed.”

Little did he know that many more years were to pass by until God finally came through.  At a time when all hope seemed lost, God showed He was as good as His word.  This ought to remind the reader that God will perform exactly what He has said He will do in regard to Abraham’s descendants (national Israel in the context – 15:13) although it appears to many that their time is passed.

The Lord’s reply reassures Abram that his original expectation based on God’s promise (12:2a), was accurate.  “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” (15:4).  And yet, every reader of the Bible knows that his trial of waiting for a son was far from over.  But Abram did believe what God said to him, not only about an heir, but also about his descendants.  Faith in God’s promise is faith in His character, and God’s character can only be trusted if His words can be trusted.  Abram’s faith in the promise glorified God and God’s response was to justify Abram as righteous before Him.

The context is very clear that the content of the declaration by God concerning the stars of the heaven and the sand on the seashore evoked trust in Abram and that God reckoned that trust as righteousness to Abram’s account.  Abram was not presented with a message about a crucified and risen Messiah.  He wouldn’t have known what crucifixion was in any case.  When the Apostle uses Genesis 15:6 in his argument for justification he repeats the content of the message while observing the response of God to Abram’s faith (Rom. 4:3-5; Gal. 3:6-7).  The onus for Paul is on the faith in God, not on what Abram believed.[2]

Upon the heels of this faith/righteousness transaction the very next thing that comes up is the gift of the land (15:7).  For the writer of Genesis, as in the Old Testament generally, the seed and the land belong together.  They ought not to be separated in our theology.  It is to the subject of the land that the chapter now turns.

(more…)

A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist.  In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker as a title.   

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.  Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all.  And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, or should not be, fixated on the defense of a system.  Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing – its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible.  We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right.  That is a good thing.  But the last word will not be said in this life.  We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know).  The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders.  Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.

We have work to do to make Dispensational theology more prescriptive.  We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling).  “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains.  Okay, I reply, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit?  Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there?  Can’t we make it run better and farther?

God has given us the Bible to understand Him, ourselves, and our world.  He has not just given the Bible to tell us how to get saved.  We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior and we discover who the Savior is and we discover our responsibility.  Therefore hermeneutics becomes extremely significant to the understanding of truth, reality, God, salvation, and destiny.  God invented communication in order for Him to communicate Himself to man.  From the beginning God created man to understand His revelation; even before the Fall.  God has done the same thing with His Word.  God has created man and given to him His Word in order for God to be understood.  Man has an automatic system of hermeneutics built inside of him in order to interpret God’s revelation.  Of course the affects of sin have perverted our ability to observe and understand revelation.  However, with the regeneration of the Spirit man’s ability is enhanced.  Without hermeneutics we cannot communicate whatsoever, whether reading, writing or speaking.  We need know the correct method of interpretation in order to distinguish between the Voice of God from the voice of man.

Craig Blaising, though identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist, has shown that this straightforward way of reading Scripture is in agreement with the way performative language is understood (see his essay in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds, Darrell Bock & Mitch Glaser, esp. 160-161).  In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I have tried to show that all the primary doctrines of the Christian Faith are drawn from either direct (word for word) affinities between biblical texts and doctrinal propositional statements or from “inevitable” conclusions based on the collusion of those direct affinities.  The Dispensational method of interpretation, which gives preference to these affinities, is therefore naturally geared to producing doctrines from one clear spring of vocabulary, not from a wider variety of murkier ones.

Personally, I am an avid advocate a “Dispensational” account of every aspect of Truth in theology and worldview.  But for this to become a reality I am convinced that it ought to stop defining itself by dispensations and begin opening up the possibilities of unifying itself around the biblical covenants and defining its system and procedures by them. Then a fully-rounded theology which includes all the corpora of theology, not merely ecclesiology and eschatology, will be created, with the result that a Dispensational worldview will be developed and proclaimed.  One may argue back and forth about the dispensations; their number and features, without abandoning “Dispensationalism.”  But one cannot ignore the biblical covenants without demolishing the whole project altogether.  I only wish the position that I love to be freed from the torpidity which is often the unintended outcome of defending a point of view rather than of strengthening it.  I am in sympathy with the Dispensational understanding of the Bible, and it has many advocates more able than I on its side.  My main qualm concerns its understanding of itself.  Many reflective dispensationalists will tell you that the dispensations themselves, both in definition and number, are not at the central core of what it’s all about.  But because the name has stuck it creates almost an apprehension to look beyond it.  The covenants stand there upon the open pages of the Bible but they are rarely heard outside of a prearranged ‘Dispensational’ recital.  Given their wings their power to organize, punctuate, and direct the eschatological movement of the Bible Story is unexcelled – and only “Dispensationalism” is in the right position to unleash their power.  But…those dispensations!

Mt plea is for the biblical covenants to be given their rightful place and dispensations to be made subordinate to them.  This will do nothing but invigorate the whole enterprise.  Nothing would be lost; much would be gained.  And I think the enemies of Dispensational theology would be harder put to disparage it.

Repost: ANSWERS TO THE 95 THESES IN ORDER

I have just returned from a nice rest with my family in Tennessee and will post a new item soon.  Meanwhile, here are the responses I gave to a group of Evangelical scholars who really have trouble with Dispensationalism.  I thought their objections and concerns were often unfair or wrong-headed, although sometimes they were just opposed to their own views.    

For those of you who have wished that yours truly would come into the 21st Century and list my answers to the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism in order…well, you have your wish!

1. Introduction to the Series

2. Responses to Theses 1-6

3. Responses to Theses 7-9

4. Response to Thesis 10

5. Responses to Theses 11-17

6. Responses to Theses 18-23

7. Responses to Theses 24-25

8. Responses to Theses 26-30

9. Responses to Theses 31-36

10. Responses to Theses 37-40

11. Responses to Theses 41-45

12. Responses to Theses 46-48

13. Responses to Theses 49-52

14. Responses to Theses 53-56

15. Responses to Theses 57-60

16. Responses to Theses 61-67

17. Responses to Theses 68-70

18. Responses to Theses 71-74

19. Responses to Theses 75-79

20. Responses to Theses 80-81

21. Responses to Theses 82-85

22. Responses to Theses 86-89

23. Responses to Theses 90-95

24. Reflections on the 95 Theses (1)

25. Reflections on the 95 Theses (2)

The Need for a trusted Dispensational Resource Center

A piece I wrote for a new venture: http://dispensationalpublishing.com/

 

The expression of theology known, for better or for worse as Dispensationalism, has always had important things to say to the Church, and to the world.  To the Church it has commended an approach to the text of the Bible which prioritizes what is properly called, despite some caveats, the “literal” method.  Taking this approach to the reading of the Testaments does not mean that there is a one-sided understanding of the text to which all must acquiesce: a kind of hermeneutical flatland which we should all find ourselves in if we are fully onboard with this school of thought.  No, although there are always small-minded people who will expect us not to break step; a vibrant and healthy theology will entertain the considered viewpoints of various contributors who, because they are less than perfect, because they cannot see everything, employ a prima facie interpretation and bring their best efforts before their peers and move the conversation forwards within its parameters.

Dispensationalism also speaks to the Body of Christ about the relative importance of the two Testaments.  In an era when more and more the voice of the Old Testament is being all but muted by theological pre-understandings of the New Testament in influential circles, a robust alternative which gives no preference to either part of Scripture is pertinent now more than ever.  What we need is a group of well-informed sophisticated yet humble contrarians to assure us that God means what He says in both to whomever He is talking, and that faith trusts that God will fulfill His Word despite the obstacles which finite reason and historical vicissitude use to fuel their objections to the plain-sense.  Faith cannot but resign itself to believing the words as they are spoken.  If it tries to reinterpret the words as different words it is never quite sure if it has gotten the translation right.  And so it is never sure just what it is to believe.  A vibrant Dispensational (but I would want to say “biblical-covenantal”) theology will always start us off with the plain-sense and will always return us there.

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church via detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.    Dispensationalists are not, or should not be, fixated on the defense of a system.  Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing – its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible.  We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right.  That is a good thing.  But the last word will not be said in this life.  We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know).  The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders.  Not that it does not need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.  We have work to do to make dispensational theology more prescriptive.  We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling).  “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains.  Okay, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit?  Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there?  Can’t we make it run better and farther?

This is what I want to be a part of.  I want to read brothers and sisters with whom I agree.  But I need to be disagreed with, and I want to feel free to disagree and then explore our disagreements in a convivial setting.  That is what I hope this Dispensational Publishing House will allow us to do.  Perhaps then we may read about the relevance of the biblical covenants for the Christian understanding of God?  Or the debate about the New covenant will ask whether the same principles which attach it to the nation of Israel in Jeremiah 31 are being employed when attach it to the Church in 1 Corinthians 11?  Do we have any thoughts about the prevalent “Cosmic temple” motif which has galvanized amillennialism of late?  What are the limits of “literal” interpretation?  In fact, are we sure we comprehend any working definition of what “Dispensational-ism” is and should be?  And how can we be Christological without piously imagining we find Him in every verse of Scripture?  These are big questions and there are many more.

That there is a need for such a center as this is clear enough.  Speaking personally (as I have been throughout), I wish Randy White and Paul Scharf well.  May the Lord bless and be honored by their project!  Having had edifying correspondence with Paul Scharf in the past I am only too happy to recommend the Dispensational Publishing House.  I truly hope contributors will find the freedom to explore all the big questions from within the hermeneutical and theological scope provided by that oft maligned but comprehensive approach to Holy Scripture we have always called “literal”.

 

Paul Martin Henebury

President, Telos Ministries & Telos Institute