Thursday, May 06, 2010

Dispensational vs. Covenantal: What's the Central Question?

Rattling around in my head lately has been the question whether the crux of the debate between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (and other perspectives) isn't a hermeneutical approach, or whether the church replaces Israel, and certainly not whether the Davidic kingdom has been inaugurated.

Instead, could the key question be, whether the OT promises necessarily speak of Israel as a political entity (distinct from the other nations of the earth), or whether they speak of ethnic israelites as recipients of the promise?

Some oversimplification in a brief post is inevitable, but here's what I'm getting at: If the promises demand the re-establishment of Israel as a distinct political entity, then it's not as obvious how the Church can be incorporated. I'm not suggesting it's at all impossible, but it would certainly give Dispensational arguments more weight.

But on the other hand, if the OT promises directed to "Israel" refer to ethnic Israelites receiving the promises, then it's much less difficult to understand how both ethnic Israelites and Gentiles can share in the promises, particularly when Christ, an ethnic Israelite, is the one in whom and through whom all the promises are bestowed on the seed/offspring (see Romans 4 and Galatians 3).

It's a sort fulfillment to a sort of offspring that might not have been entirely clear in the OT. In fact, it certainly wasn't entirely clear. But it could be the sort of thing that the NT describes as a mystery, unveiled in the last days. Possibly even like what we read about in Ephesians 3.


Lou Martuneac said...


FYI, you've been cited in an article titled,

Considerations Concerning the Proclamation of a Post-Fundamentalism Era and the Foundations for Paleo-Evangelicalism, Part 8

d4v34x said...


I'm right at the edge of the depth at which my head goes under, so . . .

If memory serves, isn't one of the foundational assumptions of the new perspectives on Paul that political entity Isreal hasn't ever been fully restored? If so, you could test your proposition by seeing how many of the new perspective folks are coveneant and how many dispensational.

Anonymous said...


Don't know if I think your question is the crux of the matter. However, I do know that the way you are understanding/describing the promises for the covenantalists is on the right track. That's why it's so infuriating to hear dispensationalists argue that we don't think God will fulfill his promises.


Anonymous said...

I think you're asking some of the right questions. The more I read the NT the more difficulty I have seeing a restoration of Israel as a political entity. It seems that Jesus avoided affirming territorial aspirations current in His day. In His miracles (water of purification into wine, John 2) and His teaching (speaking of the temple of His body, John 2), He introduced something new. The issue becomes even more problematic if we are talking about a reversion to temple worship, sacrifices, etc. Hebrews makes a good argument for obsolescence. I think we might all be surprised in some way when God fulfills His purposes for Israel. Whatever the case may be in the future, His promises are fulfilled in Christ, in the present conversion of ethnic Jews who become part of the church, and possibly in a large-scale future conversion of ethnic Jews (Rom 11). The wall between Jew and Gentile has been torn down (Ephesians 2) and the two have become one, the one people of God.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Ben, that is the issue. Bock said as much and so did another from the book we both just finished, but I can't remember who it was.

Now, if one rejects the dispensational position of a future political Israel, he isn't necessarily covenantal. That is just one point I would pick at. After all, covenantalism is a rather recent theological system in the whole scheme of things.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lou, you probably couldn't have emailed that to Ben. Hijacking a thread was the way to go.

Keith, you should not be so easily infuriated at that claim. It is true. Own it. The old testament prophets anticipate a regathering of jews to a specific area of land.

Amos 9:14-15
"I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them," says the Lord your God.

Do you believe that:

a) has been fulfilled
b) will be fulfilled
c) will not be fulfilled
d) will be fulfilled through a completely different meaning that what the prophets said

ben said...

David, I'm not well versed enough in NP stuff to say, but my instincts tell me there are few Dispensationalists among them.

ben said...

Keith, I'd be curious to hear what you think is the crux. I don't mean that antagonistically. Genuinely curious to see differing perceptions from all sides.

ben said...

Anonymous, I appreciate the comments. If you'd like to participate fully in the interaction, I would encourage you to identify yourself in some way.

ben said...

James, concerning your quotation from Amos, how do you understand the quotation of 9:11-12 in Acts 15:16-17?

Anonymous said...

I think the use of the Amos passage in Acts demonstrates that Christ truly and literally started to rebuild the house of David in his first coming. The salvation of jews and gentiles were both prophesied as something the Messiah would do.

With that in mind, Amos also said the other part, which James did not quote.

Nothing in Acts or anywhere else in the NT rules out a future, political Israel. In fact, the NT says on more than one occassion that it will happen. Matt 19:28 and Rom 11 are two that come to mind.

Reforming Baptist said...

The question is: Do the promises apply to Israel as the people of Israel understood Israel to mean in the Old Testament?

I say emphatically YES!!!

Joel said...


If that link hadn't been there, I'd have missed a whole lot of fun:

"I’d like to insert a parenthetical thought. Dave Doran suggests some may have a “personal ax to grind.” I am not aware of any one who takes that tact."

I feel like putting that as the subtitle to my blog.

* * *
I'm also interested in the actual topic of the post.

ben said...

James, I don't see how either of those passages, particularly Romans 11, demands the reestablishment of Israel as a political entity that does not include Gentiles.

Regarding the Acts quotation of Amos, are you saying that the incorporation of both Jews and Gentiles into the church is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise to fulfill the promise to rebuild the house of David?

ben said...

RB, It seems safer to argue that the promise applies to Israel in the sense that God intended Israel to understand Israel.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Matt 19:28
Jesus promises his disciples that they will reign over the twelve tribes of Israel in the regeneration. If Israel is not a political entity, why did Jesus specifically mention the 12 tribes? The tribal distinctions were a major factor in their political identity.

Romans 11:29
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Paul says this right after he speaks of the restoration of Israel. Since the passages that promise a return to the land (based on God's oath and mercy) are legion, the case that that is a gift from God is simple.

What stronger case can be made than the one where God is true to his promises?

As for the other question, my answer is yes. What Christ started in his first coming was just the beginning. There is the future aspect which has yet to be fulfilled.

Anonymous said...


I should have said I don't know if theological experts would agree that this is the crux of the matter instead of "Don't know if I think your question is the crux . . ."

I was just trying to state that, if there is a widely accepted single crux, I don't know what it is. I wasn't trying to disagree.

James I absolutely won't own the proposition that "We don't think God will fulfill his promises." God'd promises are being fulfilled and will be fulfilled in their entirety.

If it's as simple as you want to maintain (which it isn't), then I'd just come back with: "Why don't you own the fact that dispensationalists have completely misconstrued the promises because they can't read biblical literature with even the slightest degree of literary comprehension."

Nothing is gained by that type of interchange (You don't believe the promises -- Nuh uh, you can't read). And, it is not the type of interchange that Ben's question is asking for.

Covenantalists believe the promises -- in fact we believe that the promises are bigger, and fulfilled in even greater ways, than you do.

The people of the OT had only a loose conception of what the promises would look like in their fullness -- just like we have only a loose conception of glorification and the final state. It is clear that they misunderstood or underestimated a great deal about the Messiah by their reception of Jesus.

Let's just ask this . . . Has this promise been fulfilled? "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will crush your head,
while you strike at his heel" Gen 3:15.

Is this speaking of Jesus? If so, was he the offspring of Eve the way Adam and Eve might have thought if they'd have tried to get all "literal"? Did he actually crush a serpent's head (if so, funny none of the gospels mention it)? Did a serpent actually strike at his heel (again, funny that there's no mention)? Would Adam and Eve have understood the promise to be fulfilled the way we think it was? Could they have (no it would have been impossible for them)? Does that mean the promise wasn't fulfilled? No -- it means the promise was fulfilled in even greater ways than they could have imagined.


ben said...

James, Romans 11 doesn't speak to a distinct political entity at all. It just doesn't. Everybody believes God is true to his promises. You and I agree that God is true to his OT promises in the sense that he originally intended them. The question is the nature of those promises. If they're political, Romans 11 affirms that. If they're land, Romans 11 affirms that. If they're non-political, then Romans 11 affirms a non-political fulfillment. So Romans 11 is non-determinative for this discussion and is quite irrelevant.

Matthew 19:28 may be one of the stronger NT texts intimating a political re-establishment of Israel, but it's not decisive. If the disciples are sitting on thrones ruling a political kingdom entity that included BOTH Jews and Gentiles, Jesus' statement is still true.

Here's another question: What kind of fulfillment was Abraham expecting for the promises God had made to him? Middle Eastern land or something else?

ben said...

Keith, I'm not at all confident that my notion of the central issue would be widely accepted, but I'd love to have that conversation. Even in our discussion here, we're getting into tangential debates, which is fine by me I guess, but I'd love to hear alternatives to my proposal.

Anonymous said...


As to your main question then. I think that the issues you raise ARE central. I think that you could establish a case that they are the crux.

However, to try and continue the conversation with/for you. Here's a follow up question/thought: Isn't determining the answer to "whether the OT promises necessarily speak of Israel as a political entity (distinct from the other nations of the earth), or whether they speak of ethnic israelites as recipients of the promise" a hermeneutical or literary question?

Also I don't see why we even need to add "sort of" before stating that Jesus is THE fulfillment and THE offspring. I'd just say he IS the fullfiment -- sort of seems to concede the dispensationalists view of "literal". And, again, isn't this hermeneutical/literary?

Or are you trying to get at this whole thing being more exegetical, as distinct from hermeneutical? Are you looking to find a fine distinction? If so, you're getting out of my depth.

To me, the NT makes it clear what the OT promises meant. So, unless someone wants to argue that the NT doesn't believe in the literal fulfillment of the promises, I think there is no way to hold on to the whole geopolitical focus.


Anonymous said...

Keith, I gave you a verse which specifically states that Israel will return to their land. When the promise was made, how would anyone have understood that? Where in the NT does it contradict that? Give me one passage in the NT that informs us that Israel will not be restored to their land.

Since Romans 11 does inform us that the gifts and calling of God are without changing of mind, and the promise of future restoration and land are gifts from God, we can all be confident that God will in fact restore Israel to their land and have at least some form of a political entity.

Further, when you consider that Jesus spent 40 days teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God and then they ask if the kingdom will be restored to Israel, well, I don't think Jesus was a bad teacher.

Anonymous said...

Keith: Covenantalists believe the promises -- in fact we believe that the promises are bigger, and fulfilled in even greater ways, than you do.

James: If you believed the promises, then you must believe in a future restoration of Israel to their land. Here is the thing about the promises you fail to understand. You don't get to change them and say you have something better. Who are you to say what is better for someone? If God makes a promise to someone, you can't just assume an alternative is better. If God can't keep his promise about a tiny country returning to a tiny portion of land and living in peace, how can he keep a promise to a sinful person who continually sins about peace with him and throughout eternity?

You don't get to change the promise or the way it is received. Nothing in the NT changes any of the promises made to Israel. When you can find me that one verse that does, you will be the first person to have accomplished that.

ben said...

Keith, In saying it's not a hermeneutical issue, I was probably misleading. I meant thatliteral vs. non-literal isn't the central argument.

Anonymous said...


I'd probably be the first person to be able to change your mind about anything . . .

Anyway, I didn't say anything about "changing" the promise. Of course Israel will occupy palestine. No one is questioning that. The question is "what/who is Israel." But you seem to think that you get to stipulate the answer. Well forgive me for not thinking that you have any particularly unique or acurate insight into that question. You have no better idea than I what an Old Testament believer would have taken the promises to mean. And, really, it doesn't matter what they thought they would mean. It matters what God intended them to mean -- as Ben already said.

Plus, what I said was that the promise is fulfilled in even greater ways than you are willing to see. I believe that Israel will reoccupy palestine AND the whole world. That's not a change that's an increase.

If my dad said he'd buy me motorized transportation when I turned 16, I wouldn't wake up on my birthday and say, "Ah Dad, I took motorized transportation to mean a used car, but look you've bought me a NEW car AND a motorcycle -- why don't you keep your promises."

And, really, you continue to be off topic from Ben's post.


Anonymous said...

Ah, Ben, now I see. Well I totally agree that the "literal/non-literal" debate is off the mark. It's largely useless if not downright harmful the way it is usually understood/discussed. And, it's definitely not at the center.

I think that you are on the right track. Of course, I'm not really an expert. So, I don't know if my thinking is any better than yours.


ben said...

James, I don't think Keith wants to get anywhere close to suggesting that the promises change. That's what Dispensationalists say CT does. And that's precisely why I believe the question I'm raising precedes the accusation of replacement theology.

Anonymous said...

Ben, that is the affect though. The intent to change them might not be there, but that is what happens.

Keith, we do know what the jews would have thought about the promises. That the majority failed to see Christ had more to do with judaism than anything else. Imposing some notion of uncertainty upon what they would have thought the promises meant is simply an attempt to add wiggle room for more theory.

Your example of the motor vehicle just fails.

Dad promises you a playstation 3. You have your heart set on it. Dad delivers you a nintendo. Dad says that nintendo sells more, is used by more people, has more games, so it is better. Yet you didn't get what you wanted nor what was originally promised.

Your bigger fulfillment idea fits the system you advocate. However, the NT does not validate that and in fact indicates otherwise. We gentiles have been brought into the promises, covenants, etc.

Anonymous said...

Ben, as to your original question, Zech 14 does in fact indicate various nations. I will concede that nations could mean people groups. However, the disciples' question to Jesus just prior to the ascension is too much to overcome, imhbao.

Anonymous said...

Well James, what can I say, if you even get to dictate the analogies and metaphors that anyone can use in making their point then it's a pretty sure thing that you'll get the conclusion you want.

I'll just note that I didn't say anything about a play station or a nintento or even a video game of any kind. Just like I didn't say anything about promises changing.

You're the one that seems to be bent on changing things to fit your predetermined position.


Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way James. Dad isn't supposed to change in order to provide what you have your heart set on. You are supposed to change your heart to want what Dad actually promised -- regardless of your idolatrous desires.


ben said...

James, your argument with Keith over changing the nature of the promises is only valid if we establish that the OT promises a political future for Israel that excludes participation by other nations.

Or to put it a different way, expansion is change, but not in the sense that the sense that the original promise is abrogated.

Care to comment on how Abraham understood the promises to him would be fulfilled?

Anonymous said...

"We gentiles have been brought into the promises, covenants"

Well, there's one thing I can agree with James on. Not sure that Chafer or Scofield or Ryrie or Walvoord would agree though.


Anonymous said...

Keith, I do not know of a single dispensationalist who disagrees with Paul who said in Eph 2:12-13

remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

That is the way to understand the promises though. We gentiles were brought into their (Israel) promises.

As for the video game scenario, I know you didn't bring it up. I was just giving a more realistic example. What you did not grasp though is that Israel did not have their heart on the land, and then God promised it only to give "something better."

The desire for the land was due to the promise of God. It is no different than my desire to see my final salvation. That isn't idolatrous, that is confidence that God will keep his word.

Anonymous said...

Ben, could you be more specific about Abraham if the following doesn't answer:

God called Abram out of his land to another land. That cannot simply mean heaven, as it would not have required a change of address since heaven is accessed through death.

I believe that Abram truly believed that the land promises were in perpetuity and that he would not live to see all of the promises in his life time. So the Hebrews passage about looking for a city whose builder is God is still on the new earth.

Anonymous said...


You say, "Keith, I do not know of a single dispensationalist who disagrees with Paul . . ." And, I gladly concede your point. Unlike your treatment of covenantalists, I don't argue that any dispensationalist disregards or rejects any passage of scripture. This is an argument between Bible believing people about what Paul (and all of Scripture) means. It is not an argument between those who believe the Bible and those who don't.

Further, if you say that the old school, hard-line dispensationalists taught that gentile believers are brought into the promises to Abraham, I'm glad to take you at your word. I'm glad to hear that they ackowledge that Christians are sons of Abraham and heirs according to the promise -- do they think Abraham expected that?

I also wonder -- where did all the talk of a "parenthesis" and of different scriptures applying differently to believers of different eras come from. Have all the dispensationalists that I've met and worked with been off the reservation?

As far as the examples go, your example isn't any more realistic, it's just different -- totally different. Your example works great for your point. Problem is, that wasn't my point, which is why I used a different example.

My example is totally realistic and illustrates much of what we KNOW happened with the Jews. God promised them things in the future that were beyond their imaginations (like gentiles becoming sons of Abraham). When those things began to be fulfilled, the fullfillment initially looked different than the promise to them (hence their rejection of Jesus), but even when some in faith saw/see how the fulfillment is not different, they must still say, "I see now what the promise was, it's even better than what I mistakenly understood it to be!"

You say, "What you did not grasp though is that Israel did not have their heart on the land, and then God promised it only to give 'something better.'" Well, I did not grasp that point because I never said anything like that. You are the one not grasping the point I was trying to make.

God made promises that he will fulfill. Let's try this again. Let's say I'm out walking part of my grandfather's farm with him, and he says, "I'm going to give you this 20 acres someday." The next week he dies, and at the reading of the will I learn that he left me all 200 acres of his farm (including the 20 we were walking the week before). Everyone and their cousin would say I was an ungrateful fool if I responded by saying, "He broke his promise! He said he was going to give me that 20 acre parcel."

Finally, I will say that it is idolotrous to hold on to a misunderstanding of God's promise -- Jesus spent a lot of time pointing that out to religious Jews.


Anonymous said...

Keith, my point in bringing up Eph 2 was in response to your saying, "Well, there's one thing I can agree with James on. Not sure that Chafer or Scofield or Ryrie or Walvoord would agree though."

As for your grandpa dies example, I will go along with it. To be accurate though, the one promised the 20 acres would have known in advance that they would have it all one day. The concept that the righteous would inherit the earth isn't some NT concept. It is throughout the OT. But again, even in your example it is THAT specific 20 acres that God promises. Your bigger/better example doesn't work even if you make up the example.

The passage that promises the New Covenant gives specific land dimensions. Those dimensions are entirely irrelevant if it is just code for the whole earth. When you own everything, there are no boundaries.

I hope this helps more with where I am coming from.

Anonymous said...

"The concept that the righteous would inherit the earth isn't some NT concept. It is throughout the OT . . . The passage that promises the New Covenant gives specific land dimensions. Those dimensions are entirely irrelevant if it is just code for the whole earth."

I don't understand at all. Were they promised the whole earth clearly or were they only promised some land within boundaries? Not trying to be argumentative. I just don't understand what you are saying. You seem to be contradicting yourself.


Anonymous said...

When Jesus said, "...the meek will inherit the earth...", he was quoting from Psalm 37:11.

But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.

The passages that foretell that the righteous will inherit the earth are legion. So how do you or I reconcile these two things:

1. The righteous inherit the earth
2. Israel is to inherit specific geographical dimensions

Given that I believe that Israel is distict politically not spiritually from the other nations, then I believe their lot is the area marked off in Jeremiah 31. I don't find that to be unreasonable to believe. I am not saying you say that either.

I ask this sincerely, does such a concept threaten anything you hold true?

Anonymous said...

Again, I'm not sure that I totally understand what you are arguing, so I can't answer your final question with assurance.

Since there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female but all are one in Christ Jesus, how can Israel be confined to an area of the earth?

If you are just saying that Jerusalem will be the capital of the new earth, then I'd have no problem agreeing.

However, if you are saying that the inhabitants of the new earth will have different status based on their DNA or human political citizenship, then I would not be able to agree.

Sorry if I'm missing your point.


ben said...

James, Abraham got the land. But he was looking for more than that land. That much is crystal clear in Hebrews 11. And he knew during his days in Canaan that what he was promised was far more than that land.

Verse 11 says that as he dwelt in the land of promise that he lived there as in a foreign land because he really wanted something better. Later, in verse 13, we see that he viewed his life in the land as a life of exile from a true homeland.

Anonymous said...

Ben, the only thing I would add to what you said is that the land was given in perpetuity. The land promise given to Abraham was repeated to Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, the exiles in Babylon, and those who returned.

Keith, the difference is not salvific. Take Gal 3:28. When Paul said there is neither male nor female, did he really mean that when you become a christian, you stop being male or female? If that is the case, then the egalitarians are right. The only difference are physical qualities.

Given what I know about you, I don't think you are egalitarian though. We both recognize that being one spiritually does not rule out the fact that one person is male or female or a slave or free or whatever.

I have stressed that the difference is political. That doesn't have to mean some complex governmental structure. Call it tribal for all I care. In fact, that might be the better term. I think I will stick with tribal from now on.

Zech 14 does indicate various tribal groups on the new earth.