Dispensationalism and Covenantal Theology
On 19 May 1948, the Jewish People's Council declared the establishment of the State of Israel.1 Is this the literal fulfilment of the Bible that is happening in our ages? Some theologians are looking forward for this event, where they believe that the prophetic clock that has been postponed for more than 2000 years has been resumed. Prophetic imagery in the book of Prophets are taken as being fulfilled literally in the state of Israel. The biblical basis for this is taken from Ezekiel 20:33-38, where it is prophesied that God will gather His people from where they are scattered now. In Ezekiel 22:17-22, again it is stated in an imagery that the house of Israel will be gathered back in Jerusalem. This prophecy is also echoed in Isaiah 11:11-12:6. All these are the beginning of the event yet to be happened: tribulation, rebuilding of temple, invasion of Israel, etc.
This literal view of the prophecy in the Prophets is categorized as dispensational theology. Its ecclesiology views that the “Use of the words Israel and church shows clearly that in the New Testament national Israel continues with her own promises and that the church is never equated with a so-called "new Israel" but is carefully and continually distinguished as a separate work of God in this age.”2 It views that Israel stands distinct from the church and the church did not replace Israel. In consequence, it views the prophecy in the Prophets as yet to be fulfilled in our days. The church age is viewed as a parenthesis or intercalation on his dealings with Israel and it will be ended on rapture.3 In Progressive Dispensationalism, there could be an overlap between the two, which is Jewish Christian; both church and nation Israel.4 The restoration of Israel will happen after the church age (rapture), where there will be a literal restoration of their land. The descendant of David, which is Jesus, will reign on this earth on his second coming, hence the prophecy fulfilled.
There is a considerable difficulties with dispensationalism, which chops the time into different era. At first, we should examine what is the purpose of God for the election of Israel, so that we could understand his grand plan. Starting from the fall, God is concerned with human beings as a whole. God first elected Abraham and he responded, from whom the nation of Israel descended. However, this does not mean that he didn't care about other nations during the Old Testament time. “The election of Israel and the promise of land are thus to be set in the context of God's ultimate purpose for the salvation of humanity and the recreation of all the earth; they were not ends in themselves, but means to a greater end.”5 It is clear that throughout the Old Testament, although the focus is on the nation of Israel, but God's heart is upon the nations: “Whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.”6 If God didn't care about other nations, why did God requires Israel to observe the law? Isn't it for the display of the glory of the God of Israel to other nations? God expands from 1 person (Abraham) to 1 nation (Israel), but his goal is to expand to humanity. This is achieved in the person and work of Jesus Christ that clears the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Granted, there is salvation for the gentiles, but still dispensationalism has the shortcoming to explain why God's eye is still focused on Israel even after the final revelation has come.
Secondly, dispensationalist sees the prophetic language as literal as possible. This is quite arguable, as it is quite common to use the imagery in the context that they could understand. It is pointless for the prophets to give a prophecy that the people didn't understand. In Ezekiel 38 and 39 (War of Gog and Magog), which the dispensationalist look forward as the future invasion towards Israel, the incoming army is depicted as horseman. Would you expect in this 21st century for the nations to invade Israel using horseman? No, they will use modern military equipments such as tanks, mortars, jet fighter, etc. However, should this be presented to the people at that time, they will not understand at all due to time difference. Hence if it is more appropriate to transcend horse into tank, isn't it also appropriate to transcend the nation Israel into a spiritual Israel?
Thirdly, it is quite naive to draw a dividing line between physical Jews and Gentiles. How do you define someone as being a Jew? Is it because of nationality, race, language, tradition, or a heart as a Jew? The physical characteristics has been mixed up and we are left with a heart as a Jew that is obedient to the law of Moses. If a Jew in the Old Testament is defined as someone who is faithful to Yahweh, this means spiritually everyone could be a spiritual Jew. Just look at the genealogy of Jesus: Tamar was a Canaanite; Rahab was of Jericho (gentile); Ruth was a Moabitess; and Bathsheba was a Hittite. Although they are of non-Jews origin, but they partake as Jews because of their faithfulness to the God of Israel. Shouldn't it be more rational that the restoration of Israel be understood as the restoration of the spiritual Israel initiated by Jesus, the true Israel? The promise of a land may mean a promise of spiritual rest and peace. The regathering of the Jews to the land may mean many people will come to rest and peace (land) when people come to faith as a spiritual Israelites. A promise of restoration of victories against enemies may mean a guaranteed victory against Satan, which has been defeated by Christ.
Fourthly, this prophecy of the regathering of Jews to their land should not be a justification for them. The prophecy regarding Israel (whether taken as literal of spiritual) is written in ambiguity and maybe will be fulfilled in an unexpected way, just like in the first coming of Jesus. Christian should not use this as a basis to support the establishment of the nation of Israel. Isn’t it shaping the history according to our own interpretation of the Bible? Most often people defy the human rights of Israel’s enemy to realize and manifest their own interpretation. Rather, a Christian should support Israel on the basis of mutual respect, righteousness and justice, that will establish peace in the region. There should be no distinction between Israel and non-Israelites. If God’s justice is for every nation, it is quite a pity for a Christian to support everything that Israel is doing. A Christian’s position about the conflict in the Middle East should be based on the highest view of ethics and how the history progresses will be determined by God.
Covenantal theology is sometimes termed as supersessionism or replacement theology. As its name suggests, its adherents believe that the Jews has been replaced/superseded by the church, or to put it more aptly the church has transcended the national Israel. What previously belongs to Israel has been taken away and instead transferred to the church. “Israel was simply a picture of the true people of God, which the church fulfills.”7 Most supersessionist sees the prophecy as having a spiritual fulfilment instead of literal fulfilment. This means it rules out the restoration of Israel to return to her physical land and also her role in the end times. The reason of this replacement is because “with his coming, Jesus, the ultimate Israelite, fulfills all God's plans and promises regarding Israel. There are several variations in supersessionism: punitive supersessionism (due to unbelief/disobedience) and economic supersessionism (God’s plan to expand from Israel to church). All those who are in Jesus, then, are the true Israel.”8 God who has the grand plan for salvation of humanity, elect Israel as his vessel to show his revelation and law. However, Israel which represents the humanity is rebellious to God and could not observe the requirement of the law perfectly. Israel is supposed to be a blessing for the whole nation, but they didn't. All this is formulated in a covenant between God and Israel. God's faithfulness towards the covenant is up to the point where he himself fulfill the covenant through his son Jesus Christ as the faithful Israelites. “Israel's purpose had come to its head in Jesus' work.”9 Hence, the disbelieving Jews are still in exile. They could be restored when they join as the true Israelites.
However, this covenantal theological view has its own shortcomings as well. First of all, it seems quite difficult to spiritualize all the prophecy in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 31:35-37 states that God will guarantees that the descendants of Israel will never cease to be a nation. In Zechariah 12, it specifically address the details that God will protect Jerusalem from the invasion of all the nations on earth. Even more, the New Testament itself makes a distinction between Israel and the church. Some prophecies in the Old Testament are being fulfilled literally in the nation of Israel, e.g. that of judgment and restoration, occupation of land, etc. So why should we take some of the prophecies that seems to have some interconnection with the Old Testament and give them a broader spiritual meaning? These prophecies seems to address a specific event that is going to happen to Israel, which as far as we know haven’t happened yet in history. It could be proposed that the current events that is happening around Israel is in accord with the prophecies. The Jews is coming back to their land with unbelief and in great numbers (Ezekiel 20:33-38, Isaiah 11:11-12:6). The prophecies in Daniel, Ezekiel and Isaiah regarding the future invasion of Israel is also characterized as a possibility due to the current conflict in the Middle East.10
Secondly, the New Testament itself makes a clear distinction between Israel and the church. In Romans 9-11, Paul make an exposition about the different future plan for Jews and Gentiles. This is clear in the analogy between the Jews as the branches and the Gentiles as the wild olive shoot that is grafted in. “This divinely willed coexistence of God’s ancient covenant people and the Church in the present age is, to Paul, a great “mystery” (vs. 25).”11 Granted, there is no longer any distinction between Jews and Gentiles (Galatians 2:28), but Paul is presenting a different plan for Jews and Gentiles. Hence it is not an impossibility that Israel will still play a role in the end times to usher in the second coming of Jesus, although the Jews and Gentiles is united in one body of Christ.
Thirdly, a dispensationalist would agree that Jesus is the true Israel. However, this may not imply that God ends his future plan and prophecy for Israel. There is no scriptural basis for this proposition. By being a true Israelites that fulfills the prophecies, it doesn’t necessarily means that the special right of Israel taken away and given to the church. If God is faithful to his covenant with Israel, he’ll not break it and transfer it to the church. The imagery of Hosea marrying a prostitute is a depiction of God’s faithfulness to Israel (Hosea 1) despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. It is not that God will abandon Israel and choose other nation. In the same way, although Israel is unable to fulfill its responsibility as God’s firstborn, God fulfills it through his son Jesus Christ. Afterwards, it is more appropriate to say that Israel has fulfilled the prophecies with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, after which Israel will still play a role as God’s chosen nation. ‘“Temple” terminology is used of Christ (John 2:21), the Christian (1 Cor. 6:19), the church (Eph 2:21) and a last days temple in Jerusalem (2 Thess. 2:4), but no one sense of this term cancels out the others.’12 Isaiah 49:3-6 clearly mentions this point:
3 And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
4 Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.
5 And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength.
6 And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.
Dispensationalist and non-dispensationalist may agree that the Israel in verse 3 refers to Jesus, yet the Israel in verse 5 and 6 refers to national Israel. The purpose of Jesus, the suffering servant, is stated in verse 5 and 6: to bring back and raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore Israel, so that Israel could be a light for the nations. Indeed, in addition to seeing the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecies, we could also see it as an action of God’s faithfulness for his firstborn, Israel. Through it, the Gentiles may partake in this blessing and covenant. How could we give our faith to a God that is unfaithful to the covenant that he made with his people?
Fourthly, when will the restoration of Israel take place? Acts 1:6-7 demonstrates this point:
6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?
7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.
If the coming of Jesus is taken as the spiritual restoration that is needed by the Jews, he may have replied: “This is the time of restoration of the kingdom of Israel”.
A Middle Way
We have seen that both dispensationalism and supersessionism has its own shortcomings. Scholars has agreed that all these differences is mainly due to different approach of hermeneutics and how scholars associate the prophecy in the OT with its fulfillment in the NT. There have been several approach that combines the best of both approaches. e.g. progressive dispensationalism, new covenant theology13, etc. In my opinion, there is no definitive interpretation in this prophecies due to its nature. We could only argue for the best case. Between the 2 extremes (dispensationalism and covenant theology), we could take a middle way as to believe that God will restore national Israel which we could see it happening in our days, but also to believe that in the spiritual sense believers of Christ is the spiritual Israel. The first is because of his sovereignty in divine election and his covenant faithfulness, and the second is because of his divine plan for the salvation of humanity.
The gentiles may partake in the covenant, grafted to the holy root and enjoy the blessings as an Israelite through faith in Jesus Christ. The unbelieving Jews as the broken branches did not enjoy the blessing through the holy root. There is still a distinction between natural and wild branches and Paul was recognizing this. God have not broken his covenant with Israel for her restoration. We may look forward how God is going to place Israel in the central stage of the end times. The nation of Israel will be restored physically. God will protect his oft-rebellious people and show them his wondrous acts in saving his people (physically) from future invasion. However, whether or not to obtain spiritual restoration is up to their choice.
The argument is summarized in 2 propositions:
1. Salvation for Jews and Gentiles in Old Testament and New Testament are only through faith in Jesus Christ, as a spiritual Israelites (spiritual restoration).
2. God has elected physical Israel as the stage for displaying his glory and revelation. This will continue until Jesus' second coming regardless of Israel's unfaithfulness (physical restoration).
Hence there is a distinction between spiritual son of Abraham and the physical son of Abraham, and also that of spiritual and physical restoration.14 From the beginning of time God elected Israel to be his people on which he will display his power to the nations. The purpose of God’s election is for the salvation of humanity, which is through grace into his church. One (both Jews and Gentiles) becomes a true Israelite by faith in Jesus Christ and gained spiritual restoration. Yet after the coming of Jesus Christ the human history has not ended, God is still dealing with his people Israel and his church. The nation Israel will once again play a central stage when God will restore the physical nation of Israel, display his glory to humanity and bring judgment to this earth. Christians as the spiritual Israelites is looking forward for this glorious and magnificent event that will take place in the land of Israel.
1 http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/Declaration+of+ Establishment+of+State+of+Israel.htm?WBCMODE=Presensukot (accessed 26 July 2010)
2 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, Moody Press, 1995), p. 105.
3 This propositions of dispensationalism is taken from the lecture by Dr Jeffrey Khoo titled as Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology in Far Eastern Bible College, Singapore
4 Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint, 1993).
5 ChrisWright, ’A Christian Approach to Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel’ in P.W.L.Walker (ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God (Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1992), p. 1
6 Isaiah 19:25 (KJV)
7 Steve Lehrer, New Covenant Theology: Questions Answered (n.p.:Steve Lehrer, 2006), p. 203.
8 Michael Vlach, Replacement Theology: Has the Church Superseded Israel as the People of God? in The William R. Rice Lecture Series, March 17, 2010, p. 5.
9 N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), p. 457.
10 David Jeremiah, What in the world is going on? (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
11 John M Wilson, Christian Approaches to the State of Israel Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1989). A Summary by John R. Kleinheksel Sr.
12 http://www.theologicalstudies.org/ChristTrueIsrael.html (accessed 27 July 2010)
13 William D. Barrick, ’New Covenant Theology and The Old Testament Covenants’, TMSJ 18/1 (Fall 2007), pp 165-180
14 George Eldon Ladd, "Israel and the Church," The Evangelical Quarterly 36 (1964): 206-214.