What is the bottom line, as to why the Dispensational method is preferred to the Covenant approach to Biblical hermeneutics?
Church Truth and Prophecy both occupy a prominent place in Holy Scripture. Both doctrines have become a point of distinction between Covenant and Dispensational theologians.
And since these are the two main "players," it is important for us to understand the fundamental and baseline argument(s) that distinguishes the two camps. There is good reason for this. One's view of the present and the future, impacts ones expectations and hopes. One's view of the Church in its origin, purpose, and destiny greatly affects one's walk and expectations. Rightly dividing the word of truth helps orient the believer, whereas error can mislead and confuse.
So what is the crux of the matter, that divides the Covenant and Dispensational teachers?
In our view, the ultimate baseline question (or point of reference to which we must look) may be surprising, and has to do with the Abrahamic Covenant. We must travel back upstream to this great covenant to see how our views there affect other tenets we hold downstream, namely Prophecy and Church Truth.
Why does the Dispensationalist view certain passages as applying to a future Israel, and not to the Church?
Why does Covenant theology assign understanding of certain passages to the realm of history, instead of seeing a future fullfillment?
These questions are addressed by grasping the role of the promises made to Abram.
Again we state that the ramifications for believers are immense. If a particular Scripture is prophetic for a future nation Israel's experience, and we apply that portion to the Church or to history in error, we do a great disservice to the body of Christ in the present age, by giving her a false or even wrong hope in that particular area.
In this blog we shall seek to explain why the Abrahamic Covenant is THE important argument...why it is a key upstream fountain from which much downstream intepretations flow, correctly -or- incorrectly, with regard to Church Truth, and Prophecy.
First, let us look at the Covenant Theologian and his baseline to understand him. His view begins, of necessity, by replacing Israel with the Church, or more accurately stated, seeing the two as merged together. The scheme sees the Church's origin as associated with "the first saved man" (usually Adam-the first "church member") and therefore the "Church" encompasses Adam, his saved progeny, and therefore, believing Israel. Thus the "elect" of all ages constitute the Church or "Congregation". In this downstream interpretive grid, not distinguishing Israel and the Church leads the Covenant Theologian to a very different understanding of the present age, and the future, and the Church's position therein.
In contrast, the Dispensationalist sees two distinct peoples (Israel & the Church), and sees evidences in scripture that the body of Christ has a specific beginning in Acts 2 that distinguishes the assembly from Israel's congregation which began with the call of Abraham and formation of that special nation, called Israel.
For an important point of reference, click below to read more about the origin of the Church.
Back to our topic... It is the Abrahamic covenant that forms the baseline difference between the two camps.
The following is quoted from Charles Lee Feinberg's book "Millennialism" page 108 (BMH Books): Herein we find the key word, "unconditional."
"When God laid his hand upon Abram in Ur of the Chaldees, He made an unconditional promise to him of the greatest and weightiest import. The promise concerning the seed of the woman was narrowed down to the family and descendants of Abram. The covenant of God guaranteed to Abram that
he would be the father of a great nation;
that the blessing of the Lord would be his;
that his name would be great;
that he would be a blessing;
that the curse of God would rest on those who cursed him;
that the blessing of the Lord would be the portion of those that blessed him; and
that in him all families of the earth would be blessed.
...That covenant has never been abrogated by God...it was not set aside by the Law (of Moses) as Paul conclusively shows in Galatians 3, and it never can be nullified by man, because it is not conditioned upon any faithfulness or obedience of man. It is unconditional in every sense of the word.
The covenant with Abram involved three essential elements:
First this was promised to Abraham, then confirmed to Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12:1-3, 7, 13:14-18, 15:18-21, 26:1-5, 28:13-15). Each time of course it was GOD who ratified the covenant."
Comparing this to the following passage in Genesis 12:1-3, notice the emphasis of the "I WILL" statements of the Lord. This type of formula shows us that God intends to do as He promised apart from the obedience or faithfulness of Abram.
12:1 Now the Lord had said to Abram
“Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
2 I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This differs from the later institution of the Mosaic Covenant & Laws, where curses for disobedience were prominent, and where blessings were contingent upon the obedience of the people. Not so with the Abrahamic covenant, where the promises and faithfulness of God are key.
Genesis 15 should be read at this juncture, where we see how the unconditional nature of the coventant is revealed in how it was ratified. A.Fruchtenbaum writes the following as quoted from the online Pretrib Research Center:
"There are similarities and dissimilarities with the ancient Near-Eastern covenant-making customs. The similarities are found in that animals were slaughtered so as to make it a blood covenant and then the animals were cut up and the pieces lined up in two parallel rows. Then the dissimilarities began. Normally, both parties making the covenant would walk together between the pieces of the animals rendering the terms mandatory on both parties. If one failed to keep his terms, it would free the other from keeping his. In this way, the covenant was conditional. In this case, however, it was not God and Abraham who walked between the pieces of the animals, but God alone, binding only Himself to the terms of the covenant. This rendered the covenant unconditional. Its fulfillment is based purely on God's grace regardless of how often Abraham or his seed may fail."
Thus the pieces begin to come together. Did God make unconditional promises to Abram, Isaac and Jacob, including in particular - the land? If the answer is yes, we must needs become premillennial, and by default dispensational in our thinking. We cannot place Israel into the junkyard of history and only see God's dealings going forward with the Christian Church.
All the blessings of the Old Testament did not apply to the Church, nor did all its curses apply to Israel.
The Lord made promises, and His faithfulness determines the veracity of continued land-based blessing (and other blessings) for the nation. It is outside the scope of this blog to elaborate, but the scope of the land borders that were promised to Abram and his Seed (and not yet obtained by them) shows that these blessings have not yet received a complete fulfillment, but still await the Messianic Kingdom.
Further, besides Abram, there were kingdom promises made to David, the breadth of which have not yet been fully realized. It is a question of the honor of God to keep His promises about a future for Israel under her Messiah-King:
2 Samuel 7
10 Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them,
that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more;
neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime,....
12 And when thy days be fulfilled,
and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers,
I will set up thy seed after thee,
which shall proceed out of thy bowels,
and I will establish his kingdom.
13 He shall build an house for my name,
and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever....
16 And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee:
thy throne shall be established for ever.
In summary, it is clear from these texts that God made certain Land/Seed/Nation promises to Abram, and these were complemented by the Throne/Kingdom promises to David.
They were unconditional.
Therefore, the nation Israel remains a nation before God, Her position was not cancelled, though for a time she is in unbelief and under discipline.
Therefore, the unilateral promises made by God are dependent upon His faithfulness. Their continuance reflects on His character.
Therefore, they are still in effect, they were not abrogated.
Therefore, there is a future fulfillment of an earthly kingdom for the nation.
Therefore, the Church is a distinct people from the nation Israel, with a different origin, purpose, and destiny.
Therefore, we must rightly divide the word of truth and be attentive to those scriptures written to and about Israel in contrast to those written to and about the body of Christ. This includes prophecy.
Should we misapply things, we get in a real prophetic jumble and a dual hermeneutic.
One can therefore discern that this conversation greatly affects our view of prophecy. Dispensationalism, and in particular Premillennialism, by distinguishing Israel and the Church, it alone alone recognizes and harmonizes the many prophetic scriptures that remain unfulfilled for Israel, the first of which is the 70th week of Daniel 9. It provides a good reference on Matthew 24-25 as pertaining to Israel, and not the Church. On and on the study could go.
But our purpose was to establish the crux of the matter. The unconditional promises of the Lord in the Abrahamic covenant. This establishes the basis of a clear distinction between Israel & the Church, as well as allowing for futurism in prophetic interpretation.
As a side note, the Covenant Theologian is usually Calvinist. We wonder about the P of their TULIP acronymn at this juncture. Did not elect Israel persevere? Did not God choose them apart from their works? Does the Calvinist/Covenant Theologian suggest that they took themselves out of God's blessings by disobedience...forever?
If anyone should be premillennial, we propose it should be the Calvinist, yet it is just here where he usually is not. Why?
Abrahamic covenant (from gotquestions.org) A covenant is an agreement between two parties. There are two basic types of covenants: conditional and unconditional. A conditional or bilateral covenant is an agreement that is binding on both parties for its fulfillment. Both parties agree to fulfill certain conditions. If either party fails to meet their responsibilities, the covenant is broken and neither party has to fulfill the expectations of the covenant. An unconditional or unilateral covenant is an agreement between two parties, but only one of the two parties has to do something. Nothing is required of the other party. The Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant. God made promises to Abraham that required nothing of Abraham. Genesis 15:18–21 describes a part of the Abrahamic Covenant, specifically dealing with the dimensions of the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Calvinism is a theological system with a salvific center. It focuses on God's sovereignty--stating that God is able and willing by virtue of His omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence to do whatever He desires with His creation. It also maintains that within the Bible are the following teachings: That God, by His sovereign grace, predestines people into salvation and that Jesus died only for those predestined and that God regenerates the individual to where he is then able to and wants to choose God and that it is impossible for those who are redeemed to lose their salvation. -from CARM
Covenant theology (also known as Covenantalism, Federal theology, or Federalism) is a Calvinist conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. It uses the theological concept of covenant as an organizing principle for Christian theology (from wikipedia)
Dispensationalism is a theological system that teaches biblical history is best understood in light of a number of successive administrations of God's dealings with mankind, which it calls "dispensations." It maintains fundamental distinctions between God's plans for national Israel and for the New Testament Church, and emphasizes prophecy of the end-times and a pre-tribulation rapture of the church prior to Christ's Second Coming. (from Theopedia) Simply put, it emphasizes the dealings of order in God's household and His glory.
Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. It seeks the Historical & Grammatical meaning of the text, ie...the Bible is to be taken in its plain, normal meaning in the historical context in which it was written. A Dual Hermenetic is employed when the principle of allegory is brought to bear on passages that the interpreter does not understand...or if that passage does not fit (if taken literally) in his theological grid. Such an interpreter (the Covenant Theologian) may be Literal in his hermeneutic with regard to Justification by Faith alone and the Deity of Christ, but he falls into allegory with regard to prophecy - especially.
The Messianic Kingdom is the kingdom or government which God establishes to designate the manifestation of his sovereignty through his Son, Jesus Christ. The entire accumulation of both the Hebrew and Christian-Greek Scriptures (The Bible) can be totally summed up in the theme: The Kingdom. From the first prophecy at Genesis 3:15 to the climactic vision of the apostle John in Revelation, Jehovah has revealed his sincere purpose in making his name known and sanctified through the means of his kingdom ruled by his Son (tweaked from answers.com). In the present age the kingdom is in mystery form while the promised king is rejected. In a coming day the outward manifestation of the King and His kingdom is revealed for a 1000 year period.
The Mosaic Covenant is a conditional covenant made between God and the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24). It is sometimes called the Sinai Covenant but is more often referred to as the Mosaic Covenant since Moses was God’s chosen leader of Israel at that time. The pattern of the covenant is very similar to other ancient covenants of that time because it is between a sovereign king (God) and his people or subjects (Israel). At the time of the covenant, God reminded the people of their obligation to be obedient to His law (Exodus 19:5), and the people agreed to the covenant when they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8). This covenant would serve to set the nation of Israel apart from all other nations as God’s chosen people. (from gotquestions.org)
Premillennialism, in Christian eschatology, is the belief that Jesus will physically return to the earth before the Millennium (the second coming), a literal thousand-year period where Jesus rules from Jerusalem.
TULIP: The acronym of Calvinist theology explains itself:
Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)