(Part 3: "Dispensationalism,
Israel, and Scripture")
In this third
installment of a series on "Dispensationalism, Israel, and
Scripture" I will give attention to the progressive dispensational
view of Israel especially in light of the foundational new covenant.
In the preceding two issues I focused more on problems in dispensationalism
regarding Israel and on the revised dispensationalist viewpoint
of Ryrie and Walvoord.
As I have
indicated on a number of occasions, progressive dispensationalists
have undertaken a wholesale overhaul of dispensationalism. The
effects of relentless covenantal critiques from as far back as
David Brown ("Christ’s Second Come: Will It Be Premillennial?,"
1891) in the nineteenth century, through O. T. Allis ("Prophecy
and the Church," 1945) in the mid-twentieth century to the
present have had their effect. Much within progressive dispensationalism
is acceptable to reformed and covenantal theologians. But problems
In this issue
I will provide a summary of the progressive dispensational understanding
of the new covenant, which covenant has generated so much confusion
-- and absurdity -- in older versions of dispensationalism. I
will use as my reference point an excellent chapter by Bruce A.
Ware in <Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church> edited
by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock (1992, hereinafter: DIC).
Ware’s chapter is (cleverly) titled: "The New Covenant and
the People(s) of God." The parenthetical "s" alerts
the reader to the fundamental issue. Ware is professor of Biblical
and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Ware is aware
(no pun intended) both of the large role the new covenant plays
in evangelical theology -- and of the difficulties that arise
in the interpretation of the new covenant: "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).
interest to our study, he notes (in part) that "despite this
recognition, however, several questions remain. For example, what
is the nature of this new covenant?... How will this new covenant
be implemented? With whom is the new covenant made? Do Israel
and the church both participate in the <same> new covenant?"
(DIC, p. 68).
but a few of the questions that I lift from his fuller discussion.
They are crucial in the ongoing dialogue and debate between dispensationalists
and non-dispensationalist evangelical and reformed theologians.
He has put his finger on the very pulse of the problem -- and
done an admirable job of defending dispensationalism.
(As an aside,
I am impressed with the quality and character of the writings
of progressive dispensationalists. I seriously doubt if one of
the progressive dispensational theologians will ever publish a
book like Ryrie’s apocalyptic writings: <The Living End>
(1976) and <The Final Countdown> (1982). Of course, academic
credibility comes at a cost. I also doubt if progressive dispensationalists
will ever be worth the millions of Ryrie either!)
chapter has as its purpose "to devote particular attention
to the new covenant as it relates to Israel and the church, and
to do so by focusing most directly on (1) the nature of the new
covenant, as given to Israel, and (2) its fulfillment or realization
in relation both to Israel and the church." This is so that
"we can think responsibly about the continuity and discontinuity
between Israel and the church as both entities relate within the
one people of God" (DIC, pp. 68-69).
and discontinuity between the Testaments and the people(s) of
God is a fundamental dividing point between reformed and dispensational
theologians. For an excellent debate over issues revolving around
this question, see: John S. Feinberg, ed., <Continuity and
Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old
and New Testaments> (Crossway, 1988). This was one of the first
books generated from the public appearance of progressive dispensationalism.
should immediately give rise to concern among the classic and
revised dispensationalists: As I noted last month, how could this
prophecy, which is literally directed to "the house of Israel
and the house of Judah," have ANY realization in the church
at all? Remember Ryrie’s "incontrovertible evidence"
for TWO new covenants? Remember his vigorous, death-defying argument:
"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).
Also, I ask
regarding the new covenant: How can dispensationalism tolerate
the notion of "one people of God" in history? Yet this
is the direction of the New Kids on the Block, the progressive
Let us consider
Ware’s exegesis, much of which I find quite helpful. This portion
of my newsletter will basically function as a book review of those
portions of his article directly relevant to the dispensational
debate. It is very important, however, to have some of Ware’s
observations before us if we are to accurately expose the deficiencies
in the progressive dispensational position and show where they
THE OLD TESTAMENT
REGARDING THE NEW COVENANT
of the new covenant is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (a passage I
had to memorize when enrolled in Dr. Dennis Wisdom’s course on
"Premillennialism" at Tennessee Temple College back
in 1972). Jeremiah 31-34 reads as follows:
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."
that though Jeremiah 31 is the key passage of the Old Testament
regarding the new covenant, and the only passage specifically
calling it the "new covenant," it is not the only mention
of this gracious covenant. Other passages referring to the new
covenant -- or some effect resulting from it -- include: Isaiah
24:5; 49:8; 55:3; 54:10; 59:21; 61:8; Jeremiah 32:39-40; 50:5;
Ezekiel 11:19; 16:60; 18:31; 34:25; 36:26; 37:26; Hosea 2:18-20.
to Ware, the national implications of this "new" covenant
cannot be far from Jeremiah’s mind. The division in Israel (Judah
and Israel) which lead ultimately to both their exiles from the
land are key historical-contextual matters, as is the reference
to the prior covenant with Moses (v. 32). "The breach within
Israel began as the people increasingly distanced themselves from
their covenant God.... As is clear from Israel’s history, it was
their sinfulness of heart producing a breach of covenant with
their God that led, in due time, to the breach in their national
union. But if the breach of national union results from a breach
of covenant, then the remedy becomes clear. In order for God once
again to unite his people, they must exhibit covenant faithfulness
and so keep from the sin that resulted in their division"
(Ware, DIC, p. 71).
on this basis "serious questions" are raised about the
application of this covenant from this context to the Church of
the New Testament: "Jeremiah 31:31-34 is extended to Israel
and Judah, not to any other nation or group. Other new-covenant
passages, inside and outside of Jeremiah, also direct this new
covenant to the people of Israel in a similar manner" (DIC,
p. 72). This would seem to pose trouble for the non-dispensationalist
who would find fulfillment of the new covenant in the Church,
and to the standard dispensationalist view of an "application"
of the new covenant to the Church. (But, of course, the problems
do not end there: this would seem to cause trouble for Jesus,
Paul, and the writer of Hebrews who apply the new covenant beyond
the borders of Israel!)
p. 72) makes an important observation, though, that "one
new-covenant text" that suggests extension "beyond Israel
to the nations" is Isaiah 55:3-5, which reads:
your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live; And
I will make an everlasting covenant with you-- The sure mercies
of David. Indeed I have given him as a witness to the people,
a leader and commander for the people. Surely you shall call a
nation you do not know, And nations who do not know you shall
run to you, Because of the LORD your God, And the Holy One of
Israel; For He has glorified you."
from this verse, then, that "the new covenant made with Israel
includes a host of Gentile participants, not directly addressed
as God’s covenant partners" (DIC, p. 73). This, of course,
comports well with our experience of the new covenant in the New
Testament! But it sure causes some complications for classic and
revised dispensationalists who do not so easily apply Israel’s
promises to the Church. Especially since the new covenant is "literally"
directed to Israel and Judah.
(As an aside:
a refreshing aspect of Ware’s exposition of Jeremiah 31 is his
treatment of the law of God. Though certainly not endorsing the
theonomic ethic, Ware comments: "Notice that neither in Jeremiah
31 nor in Ezekiel 36 do we find a denunciation of the law as somehow
defective, requiring a new law to replace the old. Instead we
find, amazingly, that the same law is carried over or maintained.
The problem with the old covenant, then, is not the law; the problem,
rather, is with the nature of those persons who are called to
covenant faithfulness but instead transgress the law" [DIC,
p. 76]. If this statement were cited without bibliographic reference,
one might think it was uttered by Greg L. Bahnsen, author of <Theonomy
and Christian Ethics>, rather than a dispensationalist. But
this probably doesn’t matter that much: Progressive dispensationalists
are as vigorously skewered by revised dispensationalists as is
Bahnsen: see Ryrie’s <Dispensationalism>  and Wesley
R. Willis and John R. Master, eds., <Issues in Dispensationalism>
. For my full review of Willis and Master see: <Journal
of the Evangelical Theological Society> [September, 1996].)
the house of covenant theology, Ware returns to his dispensational
roots when he begins speaking of the ultimate fulfillment of the
new covenant: "It seems clear that the promised new age,
in which the new covenant would finally be realized, would come
only when God’s king would liberate Israel from its oppressors
and when God’s Spirit would inhabit the whole company of the people
of God.... [God’s favor then] would also be accompanied by the
promised physical, national, and geographic blessings" (DIC,
p. 84). This, of course, is the key to a dispensational premillennial
conception of the new covenant -- whether for classic, revised,
or progressive dispensationalism.
Over the next
several pages of his argument, Ware shows how the New Testament
demands an application of the new covenant upon the Church (pp.
84-91). Then in his final section, "The New Covenant and
Its Relation to the People of God," he raises the question
toward which his chapter has been moving: "Should the New
Testament application of the new covenant lead us to see an identity
of Israel and the church? ... Or is there a way of conceiving
of the one new covenant in relation both to Israel and the church
that, on the one hand, distinguishes them from one another while,
on the other hand, unites them as one people of God?" (DIC,
After an excellent
citation from dispensationalist Homer Kent exploding Ryrie’s two
new covenants construct, Ware asks: "Having rejected the
view of the two new covenants, are we then left solely with the
option of understanding Israel and the church as so strictly identified
under <one> new covenant as to compose <one> undifferentiated
people of God? This conclusion is premature" (DIC, p. 92).
This is where progressive dispensationalists part company with
revised dispensationalists and reformed covenantalists. This is
where the battle lies!
DISPENSATIONAL VIEW OF THE NEW COVENANT
the progressive dispensational argument for a future millennial
exaltation of Israel on the basis of two principles:
do we make of the territorial and political aspects of the new-covenant
promise that clearly states that God will restore Israel to its
land in prosperity and productivity and unite it again as one
nation (Israel and Judah) whose center of rulership is Jerusalem?"
(DIC, p. 93) In other words, the land aspect of the new covenant
suggests a literal earthly-political fulfillment in a millennium.
the ‘already-not yet’ eschatological framework correct in which
promises of God are understood to be realized first in preliminary
(inaugurated) and then in final (future) stages?" (DIC, p.
93) This allows progressive dispensationalism to take the middle
road between revised dispensationalism (iron-clad, sealed-for-your
protection dispensations) and covenantalism, with its one-people,
developmental maturation framework.
I will deal
with the second matter (already/not yet) in a later issue of our
newsletter. But first we will need to begin responding to the
very important question of the land promise to geo-political Israel.
As Ware (and others) notes, this is where the debate lies. We
must recognize the "problem" and then resolve it within
a biblical-covenantal framework.
THE LAND PROMISE
the first question Ware makes two observations:
(1) He is
dispensationally insistent that "there can be no question
that the prophets meant to communicate the promise of a national
return of Israel to its land," which requires a "literal
rendering" of God’s promise to Israel (DIC, p. 93).
(2) The New
Testament "does not permit a spiritual absorption of the
literal promises to Israel by the church" (ibid.).
What are we
to make of the territorial reality of the land promise found in
the new covenant? Especially in light of the verses following
Jeremiah’s new covenant revelation? Jeremiah 31, including not
only the famous verses 31-34 but also the dispensationally significant
conclusion in verses 35-40, reads:
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."
dispensational argument seems to be quite persuasive. And on the
surface it is. But like Gary North once observed about surface
appearances: A duck appears to glide peacefully upon the surface
of the water, but below the surface there is a lot of fancy footwork
going on. In our next newsletter we will begin a covenantal response
to the geo-political aspects of the new covenant promise. Sorry!
You will have to tune in next month!
A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel
and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,