2 of "Dispensationalism, Israel and Scripture")
Having introduced our series last month, I will
now begin analyzing the role of Israel in dispensationalism. Few
issues rival this one as a leading theme for critiquing dispensationalism
in all of its varieties. Let’s get to work!
Though Israel is "the key to prophecy"
in all varieties of dispensationalism, it is also the key to some
embarrassing errors among older dispensational schools. As Frank
Gaebelein admits in the Foreword to Ryrie’s 1965 watershed work
<Dispensationalism Today> (which Foreword is reprinted in
Ryrie’s revised update <Dispensationalism>): "Dispensationalism
has at times been the victim of its adherents who have pressed
unwisely certain of its features" (D, p. 7). What he did
not confess, though, was that these errors often revolved around
Israel and were only spit-shined among newer dispensationalists.
Eventually, these errors necessitated the revision of dispensationalism.
The necessity of revision, however, did not end
with the publication of Ryrie’s <Dispensationalism Today>
and the correctives of the early 1960s. Eventually internal pressures
created by continuing external critiques gave rise in the 1980s
to the latest version of dispensationalism, the more palatable
Unfortunately, the key to dispensationalism (Israel)
very early broke off in the lock to the dispensational house.
Much locksmithing down-time has resulted from the problem for
dispensationalists. Israel, the definitional distinctive of dispensationalism,
has been as sticky a problem for dispensational popularizes as
for their favorite henchmen, the political leaders of Israel dealing
with the West Bank in the modern state of Israel. I illustrated
this in the February, 1997, edition of this newsletter. The major
developments within dispensationalism revolve around the role
of Israel (as Bock argues in PD, pp. 23ff). Allow me to employ
about a dozen sentences to refresh your memory regarding these
system-restructuring overhauls associated with Israel.
Classic dispensationalism (e.g., C. I. Scofield,
L. S. Chafer) maintained a metaphysical distinction between Israel
and the Church. It held that Israel and the Church would be forever
distinguished in eternity, with Israel inhabiting the new earth
and the Church heaven. Thus, an eternal separation will prevail
between Israel and the Church in this system.
Revised dispensationalism (e.g., C. C. Ryrie,
J. F. Walvoord, J. D. Pentecost) jettisoned the eternal metaphysical
distinction, allowing only a temporal earthly distinction rooted
in a difference between two redemptive-historical purposes, rather
than in two different plans stretching out to eternity. Revised
dispensationalists held two forms of one redeemed humanity existing
in and confined to history. The Church exists presently to the
glory of God in its own, distinct dispensation, with its own principles
and purposes differing from those of Israel. Israel’s ultimate
historical purpose will be realized in the future, literal, earthly
millennium. After the millennium, though, the eternal order will
realize the union of the two people in one redeemed mass forever.
dispensationalists have moved in a more covenantal direction,
while maintaining their premillennial orientation and emended
dispensational distinctives. They are "progressive"
in that they view each successive dispensation as building upon
and developing the principles of the preceding one. This progresses
the one plan of God for his one redeemed people, rather than distinguishing
two separate plans and peoples. This allows that the one divine
purpose for redeemed humanity will ultimately be realized in the
earthly, literal millennium. The millennial phase of the redemptive
historical plan of God is necessary to bring to fulfillment the
Old Testament prophecies for Israel.
Perhaps there is no better means of illustrating
and critiquing dispensationalism than by analyzing the biblical
revelation of the new covenant. Revised dispensationalists affirm
its centrality. Ryrie states that "the new covenant is one
of the major covenants of Scripture" (BPF, p. 107). Walvoord
holds that "it is one of the great prophecies in the Old
Testament" and is the "strongest prophecy in the Old
Testament for the continuance of Israel" (PKH, p. 140). Pentecost
lists this covenant as one of "the four great determinative
covenants" (TC, p. 116).
Progressive dispensationalist Bruce A. Ware observes:
"Evangelical biblical scholars and theologians uniformly
affirm that the new covenant constitutes a high point in God’s
redemptive and restorative program" (DIC, p. 68) and "Regarding
the territorial and political aspects of the new-covenant promise,
it seems incorrect to disregard these or to say they are fulfilled
in some spiritual manner in the church. There can be no question
that the prophets meant to communicate the promise of a national
return of Israel to its land" (DIC, p. 93). "We must
conclude that God will yet fulfill the new covenant with the nation
of Israel, precisely in the manner prophesied by Isaiah, Jeremiah,
and Ezekiel" (DIC, p. 94).
Elsewhere and more recently Pentecost notes the
importance of the new covenant for Israel’s distinctive future:
"This New Covenant, then -- which is an unconditional, eternal
covenant based on the shedding of blood -- guarantees the preservation
of Israel as a nation and her ultimate restoration to the land
originally given by God to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants....
As a result of this covenant, the blessings Israel never found
through the Law will at last be experienced" (TKC, p. 171).
Walvoord brings the new covenant into the present-day
apocalyptic context: "This remarkable prophecy, given by
Jeremiah almost 2,500 years ago, has seen modern fulfillment in
the recapture of Jerusalem.... This prophecy is one of the signs
that the coming of the Lord may be near" (PKH, p. 141).
Though the new covenant is a cornerstone for dispensationalism,
Ryrie, oddly enough, laments dispensational confusion with reference
to Israel and the new covenant: "Premillennialists have not
always dealt with questions about the new covenant uniformly.
Some have taught that the church has no relation to the new covenant,
only Israel does. Others see two new covenants, one with Israel
and another with the church. Others acknowledge that the church
receives some of the blessings (or similar blessings) promised
in the Old Testament revelation of the new covenant but not all
of them. Progressives make these similar blessings evidence that
the new covenant has been inaugurated. All premillennialists agree
that there will be a future fulfillment of the covenant for Israel
at the second coming of Christ" (D, p. 172).
In light of all of this, we see here in one biblical
theme -- the new covenant -- both a pre-eminent proof of dispensationalism
AND a source of dispensational stumbling, failure, and hem-hawing.
Thus, the new covenant of Scripture will be an excellent theme
on which to focus for exposure of past and present errors within
the system loved by untold millions of American Christians --
and profit-conscious dispensationalist publishers.
In the remainder
of this newsletter I will lay out the shifting sands approach
of classic and revised dispensationalism on the question of the
new covenant. Then in the next newsletter I will focus on the
progressive dispensational argument. Being aware of these differing
approaches to the new covenant -- a foundational proof for dispensationalism
-- is a crucial first step in analyzing, critiquing, and dismissing
dispensationalism as a viable theological option.
The basic new covenant revelation is found in
Jeremiah 31:31-34. Its contextual setting is crucial to the debate,
as well. Jeremiah 31:31-40 reads:
"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with
the house of Judah-- not according to the covenant that I made
with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to
lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke,
though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the
covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those
days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write
it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be
My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every
man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know
Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD.
For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember
no more. Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for a light by
day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night,
who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar (the LORD of hosts is
His name): If those ordinances depart from before Me, says the
LORD, then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation
before Me forever. Thus says the LORD: If heaven above can be
measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath,
I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they
have done, says the LORD. Behold, the days are coming, says the
LORD, that the city shall be built for the LORD from the Tower
of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The surveyor’s line shall again
extend straight forward over the hill Gareb; then it shall turn
toward Goath. And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the
ashes, and all the fields as far as the Brook Kidron, to the corner
of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be holy to the LORD.
It shall not be plucked up or thrown down anymore forever. Behold,
the days are coming, says the LORD, that the city shall be built
for the LORD from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. The
surveyor’s line shall again extend straight forward over the hill
Gareb; then it shall turn toward Goath. And the whole valley of
the dead bodies and of the ashes, and all the fields as far as
the Brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east,
shall be holy to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or thrown
down anymore forever."
Here we note
that the prophecy expressly associates the new covenant with "the
house of Israel and the house of Judah." Revised dispensationalists
created the (strained and unattainable) notion of literalism in
an attempt to sustain their system. We can see why this passage
has had such a strong impact on dispensationalists. Jeremiah 31
also speaks of phenomena that seem to suggest a regathering of
Israel into the promised land. Surely this is the passage upon
which dispensationalism should be able to make its stand (much
like General Custer). Yet dispensationalists have even struggled
over how to understand this foundational passage!
NEW COVENANT STRUGGLES
Of this "determinative" covenant, the
new covenant, Ryrie lists three pre-millennial views that have
been generated by dispensationalists. Many of the following quotations
are from Ryrie’s <Basis of the Premillennial Faith> published
in 1953. This contains more detail of Ryrie’s view on this "determinative"
covenant than does his 1995 work <Dispensationalism> (D,
pp. 173-174). Therefore, it provides an excellent historical specimen
of the dispensational confusion over the matter. Ryrie’s summation
of the three dispensational views of the new covenant are as follows:
(1) The Jews Only View. This is "the view
that the new covenant directly concerns Israel and has no relationship
to the Church" (BPF, p. 107). This was the earliest dispensational
view, held by John Nelson Darby (for documentation see: TC, 121-122).
But though Darby’s name is still revered by dispensationalists,
his teaching on this foundational covenant is not usually accepted
by premillenarians today -- despite its consistency with the dispensational
hermeneutic of literalism (IP, p. 54). Unfortunately, this untenable
position flies directly in the very face of New Testament evidence
to the contrary. Jesus, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews expressly
associates the "new covenant" with the Church in Luke
22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:8; 9:15;
12:24. Numerous other allusions to the new covenant appear elsewhere
in the New Testament, as I will note in later issues.
(2) The One Covenant/Two Aspects View. Ryrie summarizes
this position: "The one new covenant has two aspects, one
which applies to Israel, and one which applies to the church"
(BPF, 107). This is the view held by Walvoord: "This can
best be explained as one New Covenant of grace made possible by
the death of Christ, whether applied to Israel or the church as
in the New Testament" (PKH, 140). Although Pentecost was
ambiguous while earning his doctorate at Dallas Seminary’s, later
(after securing tenure?) he settled on this view (TKC, p. 175).
(3) The Two New Covenants View. This is Ryrie’s
view. (Ware claims Ryrie has abandoned it, DIC, p. 91, n. 40.
If that is true, the following presentation will be all the more
remarkable in that Ryrie would be condemning himself for fidelity
to the system principles of dispensationalism!) Ryrie notes that
this view actually "distinguishes the new covenant with Israel
from the new covenant with the Church. This view finds two new
covenants in which the promises to Israel and the promises to
the Church are more sharply distinguished even though both new
covenants are based on the one sacrifice of Christ" (BPF,
Ryrie states vigorously that: "If the Church
does not have a new covenant then she is fulfilling Israel’s promises,
for it has been shown that the Old Testament teaches that the
new covenant is for Israel alone. If the Church is fulfilling
Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere
in Scripture, then premillennialism is weakened. One might well
ask why there are not two aspects to one new covenant. This may
be the case, and it is the position held by many premillennialists
[perhaps even by Ryrie now, according to Ware!], but we agree
that the amillennialist has every right to say of this view that
it is ‘a practical admission that the new covenant is fulfilled
in and to the Church.’ However, since the New Testament will support
two new covenants, is it not more consistent premillennialism
to consider that Israel and the Church each has a new covenant?"
(BPF, p. 118). He goes so far as to charge "that the one
covenant, two aspects interpretation absolutely contradicts the
entire premillennial system" (BPF, p. 108).
Strangely, this view was a "corrective"
to the earlier view of a Jews-only new covenant. As I will show
in a later newsletter, this position necessitates all sorts of
hermeneutical gymnastics. Ryrie continues this bizarre (though
logically necessitated) view in his 1995 work, where he tentatively
holds that the lack of the definite article with "new covenant"
in 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24 "may indicate
that Paul is focusing on a new covenant made with the church"
(D, pp. 173-174).
Since the two new covenants view is so vigorously
argued by Ryrie and, therefore, shows so clearly how absurd old-line
dispensationalism is, it might be helpful for our purposes of
expose’ to provide a little more detail to the argument from Ryrie.
This will also serve to illustrate the marked difference between
Ryrie’s revised dispensationalism, and the current progressive
dispensationalism. And if Ryrie has indeed abandoned this position,
this will show the internal contradictions within the system (when
we note how vigorously Ryrie argued as a dispensational systematician
for this view).
The New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31ff,
says Ryrie, is necessarily limited to the Jews on the basis of
"three incontrovertible reasons." Notice this argument
is "incontrovertible." Ryrie’s argument goes as follows:
(1) The argument from specific reference (BPF,
p. 108). Verses 31 and 33 clearly specify God’s making the new
covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah."
And in the revised dispensational hermeneutic "Israel means
Israel" (BPF, p. 125). This is like "seed of Abraham"
means "seed of Abraham." (Oops! I forgot about the spiritual
seed of Abraham in Gal. 3.) This is just like "bread"
means "bread." (Oops! I forgot about the "bread
of life" in John 6.)
(2) The argument from legal contrast. This is
"also seen by the fact of its very name which is contrasted
with the Mosaic covenant" in Jeremiah 31:32 (BPF, p. 108).
A "new" covenant contrasted with a former covenant made
when Israel departed Egypt necessitates a sole relationship to
the people specifically under the previous covenant.
(3) The argument from historic effect (BPF, p.
109). "In its establishment, the perpetuity of the nation
Israel and her restoration to the land is vitally linked with
it (Jer 31:35-40)" (BPF, p. 109). The context clearly assumes
an historical regathering to the Land (or at least, so dispensationalists
Despite Ryrie’s literalistic argument from specific
reference, we should note that the New Covenant is specifically
applied through the Lord’s Supper to the Church in Luke 22:20;
1 Corinthians 11:25. Apparently literalism was not the method
of Jesus and Paul! Note the following:
(1) Pentecost is quite correct, when he writes
of the establishment of the Lord’s Supper: "In its historical
setting, the disciples who heard the Lord refer to the new covenant.
. . would certainly have understood Him to be referring to the
new covenant of Jeremiah 31" (TKC, p. 172).
(2) In fact, the sudden appearance of the "new
covenant" in the New Testament record, without qualification
or explanation, demands that it refer to the well known new covenant
of Jeremiah. See: Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor
(3) Hebrews 8, on everyone’s view, cites Jeremiah’s
new covenant in a context speaking to New Testament Christians.
In addition, this new covenant sacrament is specifically for the
"Church" in the "Church Age" (1 Cor. 11:23ff).
Yet Ryrie argues that "the writer of the Epistle has referred
to both new covenants" (BPF, p. 121). This is pure desperation.
Walvoord is driven to admit of the crucial Hebrews 8 reference:
"it is, in fact, the only passage which provides any difficulty
to the premillennial view" (MK, p. 215). And: "There
are problems that remain in the premillennial understanding of
this passage" (IP, p. 54).
(4) The Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, even promotes
the New Covenant as an important aspect of his ministry (2 Cor
3:6). He does not say he is a minister of a second new Covenant"
or "another new covenant." Paul writes that God "also
made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the
letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit
gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).
defends the indefensible, reminding me of the preacher who promised
that if you come to church Sunday, he would "unscrew the
inscrutable." Reviewing dispensationalism’s history like
this, we can see how important the new covenant issue is to the
In my next
issue, I will begin presenting and analyzing the role of the new
covenant in progressive dispensationalism. Though far superior
to its predecessors, progressive dispensationalism falls short
of the biblical reality, as well. And the presentation and analysis
ought to be helpful to our growth in understanding the theology
BPF: Charles C. Ryrie, <The Basis of
the Premillennial Faith> (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux, 1953), 107.
D: Charles C. Ryrie, <Dispensationalism>
(2d. ed.: Chicago: Moody, 1995).
DIC: Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds.,
Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
IP: John F. Walvoord, <Israel in Prophecy>,
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962).
MK: John F. Walvoord, <The Millennial
Kingdom> (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974).
PD: Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock,
<Progressive Dispensationalism: An Up-to-Date Handbook of Contemporary
Dispensational Thought> (Wheaton, Ill.: Bridgepoint, 1993).
PKH: John F. Walvoord, <Prophecy Knowledge
Handbook> (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1990).
TC: J. Dwight Pentecost, <Things to Come>
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958).
J. Dwight Pentecost, <Thy Kingdom Come> (Wheaton, Ill.: