A Comparison of the Hermeneutics Concerning Covenant Theology & Classical Dispensationalism (Part One)

A Comparison of the Hermeneutics Concerning Covenant Theology & Classical Dispensationalism (Part One)

In greater evangelical Christianity there are two major systems of theology: Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Although there is a common thread between the systems (i.e., the glory of God), there is a major difference in how the glory of God is ultimately displayed. For the Covenant theological system, the glory of God is primarily redemptive. This redemptive plan according to Covenant theology is observed by God establishing two (or possibly three) covenants with mankind: The covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. In Dispensationalism, there are three qualities that govern the system: the doxological purpose of God (which this author would argue governs the two other  qualities), consistently observing the words of Scripture in their plain and normal sense (i.e., the consistent normal historical-grammatical reading), and the distinction between Israel and the Church (in plan and purpose). From a dispensational view, the glory of God in all of His works is the focus and not only the salvation of mankind. 

One of the common criticism from those who adhere to Covenant theology is dispensational thinkers have an Israel-centered hermeneutic rather than Christocentric hermeneutic, as one such website notes

The very category of “replacement” is foreign to Reformed theology because it assumes a dispensational, Israeleo-centric way of thinking. It assumes that the temporary, national people was, in fact, intended to be the permanent arrangement.

The Hidelblog.com. Covenant theology is not replacement theology. Retrieved from: https://heidelblog.net/2013/08/covenant-theology-is-not-replacement-theology/

Even though the word “replacement” has not been used in the past, this particular use of the word has not been without reason. There have been theologians throughout history that have stated that Israel as a nation, in comparison with the church, is now irrelevant. Justin Martyr (130-202 A.D.) in Dialogue with Trypho wrote:

Then is it Jacob the patriarch in whom the Gentiles and yourselves shall trust? or is it not Christ? As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ, are the true Israelitic race.

Justin Marytr. Dialogue with trypho. Retrived from https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.cxxxv.html.

Tertullian (160-220 A.D.), another early theologian in his work An Answer to The Jews made a similar comment about Israel, using the historical narrative of Jacob and Esau he commented:

Accordingly, since the people or nation of the Jews is anterior in time, and greater through the grace of primary favour in the Law, whereas ours is understood to be less in the age of times, as having in the last era of the world attained the knowledge of divine mercy: beyond doubt, through the edict of the divine utterance, the prior and greater people — that is, the Jewish — must necessarily serve the less; and the less people — that is, the Christian— overcome the greater.

Tertullian. New Advent. An answer to the Jews.  Retreived from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0308.htm

Those who subscribe to Covenant theology connect their hermeneutic back to the early church fathers (e.g., Justin Martyr, Tertullian, etc.), as one author noted:

In the history of theology, the elements of what we know as covenant theology; the covenant of redemption before time between the persons of the Trinity, the covenant of works with Adam, and the covenant of grace after the fall; have existed since the early church…Indeed, Reformed readers who turn to the early church fathers (c. 100–500 AD) might be surprised to see how frequently they used language and thought patterns that we find very familiar.

Clark., S (2006). The history of covenant theology. Retrieved from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/history-covenant-theology/

However, when a person observes Scripture in its plain meaning there are promises that are explicitly given to national Israel. For example, God promised Abraham’s descendants physical land that stretches from Egypt to the River Euphrates (as far as Egypt to what is now modern day Iraq) (Gen. 15:18). 

future-map5
The future borders of Israel outlined in Gen. 15:18. Retrieved from http://www.ahavat-israel.com/eretz/future.

In addition, God promised David a physical King that would come from his line and rule Israel on his throne to usher in an everlasting righteousness (2 Sam. 7:8-14). Furthermore, the promise of the new covenant is given specifically “to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Ezek. 31:31). The future promises that are given to national Israel are associated with the consistency of creation itself described by the prophet Jeremiah!

Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the Lord, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease. From being a nation before Me forever.” Thus says the Lord, “If the heavens above can be measured And the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done,” declares the Lord

Jer. 31:35-37 NASB

How would a Covenant theologian explain the land promise found in Genesis 16:18? John Calvin in his works does not even comment on how much land Abraham’s descendants would receive but he comments the covenant in this specific text is essentially a shadow of the sacraments of the church. John Gill, another prominent theologian mentioned in his commentary that the River Euphrates was the boundary line during the rule of King David. However, there has never been a time in history where Abraham, nor Abraham’s descendants have received land by the Nile River in Egypt. The Covenant theologian, based upon a predominant “ecclesiastical” hermeneutic at the most replaces the promises given to Israel to the church, or at the least supersedes the promises of God that are given to Israel to the church.

By contrast, the dispensational view, consistently observing Israel in the plain normal sense, would recognize that these things mentioned above (land, king, and spiritual renewal) are given directly to this nation whom God has promised these things to. If God fails to give these things to those whom He has addressed, or if He exclusively transfers these promises to another group of people in effect this would diminish His very glory.  In short, the method a person uses to read the Bible (i.e., hermeneutic) is how one is going to explain the Scriptures.

The critique that dispensational thought employs an Israelological grid to explain the Scriptures is false. The system of dispensationalism has at its very core a doxological focus. It must be noted that Israel does figure prominently in the Old Testament and even the New Testament Scriptures. However, this is due to the promises God gave to them as a nation, and these promises are directly associated with His glory. 

There is no denying God’s redemptive work for mankind. Both Covenant and Dispensational systems acknowledge this. Both systems also recognize the glory of God as the ultimate end. How God’s glory is understood in relation to human history is determined on the method that is employed by each system. For the Covenant theologian due to the hermeneutic they use they observe the glory of God primarily in the salvific act of Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. For the dispensationalist, the glory of God is observed in all His works, and this includes not only the salvation of those who are part of the church but God fulfilling the future promises to the people who will receive them, which is Israel.

Yet there are those who subscribe to Covenant theology that believe dispensationalists juxtapose Israel and the church. In the next article, this author will demonstrate from the Book of Ephesians that this is not the case.

Until next time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.

 

I have a YouTube channel where there is new content being published every day titled Urban Theologian Media! Please go and check out the channel, view some of the shows there, and if you like the videos please subscribe at this link: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTKYllo-vyDe76Mpj4R0TOw

Advertisements

Hebrews 6:4: A Brief Exposition

Hebrews 6:4: A Brief Exposition

There are many verses in Sacred Scripture that bring various perspectives about the life and position of the believer. One such verse is Hebrews 6:4-6, which states the following:

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame (NASB).

There are those who make the case that if one who claims they are saved, and they who have fallen away were not really Christian. One such podcast, making a connection with the Book of Hebrews and connecting it with the Lord’s Supper mentions that the verbs (i.e., actions) of those who the author of Hebrews has addressed are in this past tense stating that “they tasted, but they did not eat.” The author then completes his thought by expressing the following statement

“…So church members who forsake the ministry of the word and the sacrament really fall away from something important, the gracious operations of the Holy Spirit united to these means. So, dangerous thing.”

Michael Horton (2018). Does Hebrews 6:4 Teach We Can Lose Our Salvation? Core Christianity. Retrieved from https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/episodes/losing-your-salvation-in-hebrews-6

In the notes concerning the show he also writes the following paragraph:

There is a difference between tasting and eating. When we come to worship and we hear Christ Himself say, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, I will give you rest,”when we’re baptized, when we come to the Lord’s Supper, Paul says “This bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? This cup that we bless is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” And so, [the question is], are you really participating by faith? Are you really receiving Christ with all of his benefits? Or are you just receiving the means, going through the motions but rejecting the reality offered to you? The real thing that should be encouraging to people is [Hebrews chapter 6] verse 9, “Though we speak in this way yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things, things that belong to salvation.”

Michael Horton (2018). Does Hebrews 6:4 Teach We Can Lose Our Salvation? Core Christianity. Retrieved from https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/episodes/losing-your-salvation-in-hebrews-6

In the general context of Hebrews the author, in the last part of chapter five, has just given the Jewish believers an admonishment stating that they ought to be teachers, but because they are “dull of hearing” they need a recap of the doctrines they were taught previously (Heb. 5:11-12). The author then explains they need milk, like an infant because they are still not accustomed to solid food (v. 13). The author then tells them what the solid food is, that they would have their senses constantly trained to discern truth from error (v. 14). It is on the heels of this thought that chapter six begins.

The author at the beginning of chapter six stated the Jewish believers needed to press on to maturity, not laying a foundation of repentance from dead works to serve a living God (the audience the author was addressing was already standing on this foundation of repentance) (Heb. 6:1). He then mentions some of the doctrines they discussed: The washings (more likely the washings refer to identification: being sanctified  by Christ and His Holy Spirit; c.f. 1 Cor. 6:7; Tit. 3:5), laying on of hands (perhaps an ability to manifest the Holy Spirit for the common good that came by this practice (c.f., 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6)), the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment (eschatological teaching) (v. 4). The author then expressed that they would continue to teach these things as God permitted them to do so (v. 5). 

Then the author of Hebrews then began to lay out an argument by telling the Jewish believers it is impossible (lit. “not possible”) to have been illumined by the truth of God’s word, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ,  have been indwelt with the Holy Spirit and made alive in Christ (i.e., the powers of the age to come) and fall away to renew them again to repentance (due to the fact they believed the message of the Messiah and His work for them) when they crucify themselves to the Son of God putting Him to open shame. The author then gives an example found in the culture with farming. When rain falls on soil that is tilled and cultivated, it brings forth vegetation that is useful to all, and this results in a blessing from God (v. 7). By contrast, the author brings up if the ground produces weeds and things that are not beneficial then they will be cut down and burned (v. 8).

The intent of the author of Hebrews is not making a case for saints forsaking the ministry of  Lord’s Supper in this text (matter of fact the term “Lord’s Supper” is not even mentioned here). He is making the case for effective works among God’s saints. The author of Hebrews is telling them to leave the elementary teachings of Christ and press on to maturity (this word in Greek is τελειότης (teleiotes), and this is associated with being full grown or complete). In addition, the author of Hebrews affirmed they are saved from God’s wrath. They know the elementary doctrines of Scripture, and now the deeds they were to do were to be fueled by the doctrines they were assured. The Jewish believers were to be effective in their serving others, and in the end, this would result in a reward from God at the proper time. However, those who are believers who do not labor well, end up giving a “black eye” to the message of the gospel, their works become ineffective to all who are around and ultimately will result in loss of rewards from God.

This point the author of Hebrews is making is underscored in the proceeding verses noted below:

9 But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. 11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb. 6:9-12 NASB emphasis mine).

The author of Hebrews says to the “beloved” (this word is only used for believers) concerning them and the things that accompany (or belong to) salvation that God will not forget their work as they have ministered to His saints. The author then expressed his desire: That they continue to be diligent due to the realization of their assurance, and not to be sluggish (the Greek word is νωθρός (nothros), which in this context lit. means “lazy”), not to fall away and thus be ineffective to the service of the Lord, but to imitate those saints who labored knowing they were destined to inherit these promises God made to them.

These verses, in context, are not discussing how a believer can lose their salvation nor is the author discussing dangerous territory if a believers do not take the Lord’s Supper (in fact from the text the author of Hebrews, in context, is making a case against this, nor is this verse discussing the consequence of denying the Lord’s Supper, which is not mentioned). This passage is meant to be an encouragement to the Jewish believers to continue to be effective in their labor for the Lord, not to slack, but to be diligent. In this work, the one who labors well honors the word of God and will be rewarded by God in the future.

Let us take the wisdom of God through the author of Hebrews to heart. Let us be effective for Him. In this, we serve our brothers and sisters in the faith and ultimately be rewarded for our service, for His glory. Amen.

Until next time…

Soli Deo Gloria!

Dr. L.S.