Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jesus, Israel, and the Church

I'm teaching through a new series at church. Some of this material is from this blog. Here's a copy of the notes:

We are starting a new series called “Jesus, Israel, and the Church.” This is going to be an exploration of the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament. Some of the major themes we will consider are the nation of Israel, the land of Israel, the temple of Israel, the law of Israel, and the future of Israel.

I hope to show that Jesus is at the center of each of these topics. Specifically, I want to demonstrate that the OT is not about ethnic Jews and their nation. The OT is about Jesus.

This truth should effect the way we read the Old Testament. This also should impact how we look at the current political situation of the Middle East, particularly with regard to the nation of Israel. Most importantly, this should stir your heart to greater admiration, appreciation, and allegiance to our King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

CT vs. DT
This study will also help us to understand one of the core issues that divides much of Christendom. This issue has plagued the church since day one, but it has erupted into a full-scale division in the last two centuries, particularly in America.

In contemporary theology, there are two basic theological positions: Covenant Theology (CT) and Dispensational Theology (DT) or Dispensationalism.

Both of these terms are of recent origin. Covenant Theology was largely formulated during the seventeenth century by Johannes Cocceius. Dispensationalism was first articulated in the early nineteenth century by John Nelson Darby.

These terms are frequently misconstrued and notoriously misunderstood. They are far more often harmful than helpful. While both are accurate in some generically descriptive sense, neither term gets to the precise heart of the matter, as we shall see.

Nevertheless, we do need to understand what these terms mean.

Covenant Theology
Covenant theologians look at the Bible from the perspective of covenants. They usually see two main covenants:

1) The Covenant of Works – God made a covenant with Adam, requiring perfect obedience upon pain of death.

2) The Covenant of Grace – When Adam failed to perfectly obey God, Adam was condemned to die. However, God made another covenant with Adam, whereby God graciously saved Adam from his disobedience. The rest of the Bible is the outplaying of this salvation, or this Covenant of Grace.

Is this an accurate picture of the Bible? Yes, there is nothing wrong with this scenario as stated.

Dispensational Theology
Dispensational theologians look at the Bible from the perspective of dispensations. They usually see seven main dispensations:

1) Innocence – Creation to the fall

2) Conscience – Adam to Noah

3) Government – Noah to Abraham

4) Patriarchy – Abraham to Moses

5) Law – Moses to Jesus

6) Grace – between the 1st and 2nd comings of Christ

7) Kingdom – after the 2nd coming of Christ

Is this an accurate picture of the Bible? We might quibble over some of the titles, but God does deal differently with man during each of these seven eras or dispensations.

Where’s the Beef?
As these two theological positions are stated, there doesn’t appear to be any conflict. In fact, Dispensationalists believe in covenants and Covenant Theologians speak of different dispensations. So, why are these two groups at each others’ throats?

While on the surface these appear to be simply two different ways of looking at the Bible, there are underlying presuppositions which make these two groups diametrically opposed to each other.

What is subtly implied by Covenant Theology is that the bulk of the Bible, from Genesis 4 through Revelation, is one unit. Specifically there is a unity between the OT and the NT. While there are certainly differences, God deals dealing with mankind under the same Covenant of Grace, hence, the name “Covenant Theology.”

Dispensationalists argue that the covenant is the wrong way of looking at the Bible. God deals with people differently in different eras, and we need to emphasize these differences, particularly the differences between the OT and the NT. While there are certainly similarities, God deals with mankind differently in each dispensation, hence the name “Dispensationalism.”

The Crux
Thus, the debate between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology is not really about covenants vs. dispensations. These monikers are a manifestly unhelpful way to frame the disagreement, which has only led to confusion and division.

The crux of the matter is the relationship between the OT and the NT:

· Covenant Theologians see a basic unity between the OT and the NT. The key word here is continuity. The NT continues what the OT began.

· Dispensational Theologians see a basic distinction between the OT and the NT. The key word here is discontinuity. The NT begins a new project that is not a continuation of the OT.

The crux of the matter is continuity vs. discontinuity. For this reason, I am going to refer to Covenant Theology as Continuity Theology (CT in both cases). I am going to refer to Dispensational Theology as Discontinuity Theology (DT in both cases).

No one argues for strict continuity or strict discontinuity. That is, everyone believes in some continuity (e.g., we believe in one God) and some discontinuity (e.g., we no longer offer animal sacrifices). The difficulty is determining how much stays the same (continuity) and how much is different (discontinuity).

One Verse?
Deciding between continuity and discontinuity is not an easy matter. DT’s argue for discontinuity from passages like this:

John 1:17 (NKJV) For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

CT’s argue for continuity from passages like this:

Hebr 13:8 (NKJV) Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Neither of these passages necessary rules out either continuity or discontinuity. In fact, CT vs. DT is not a “one-verse issue.” Some theological issues can be solved by appealing to a single passage, but not this one. Continuity vs. discontinuity is an enormous issue that covers the entire Bible.

What’s even more difficult is that this is a presupposition that we bring to the Scriptures. That is, when we are interpreting the Bible, we unconsciously assume either continuity or discontinuity. Naturally, this assumption colors the way we interpret Scripture.

For example, when it comes to the relationship between Israel and the Church, the Bible neither explicitly affirms or denies that the church is Israel. We don’t find any verses that say either “the church is Israel” or “the church is not Israel.” This issue is usually decided by our presuppositions.

DT says, “The Bible never states that the church is Israel; therefore they are different entities with different purposes and different destinies.”

When the DT encounters Scriptures that seem to favor continuity, he falls back upon the lack of a plain statement from Scriptures, urging that without a clear statement, he must presume discontinuity.

CT says, “The Bible never states that the church is not Israel, therefore they are the same entity with the same purpose and the same destiny.”

When the CT encounters Scriptures that seem to favor discontinuity, he also falls back upon the lack of a plain statement from Scriptures, urging that without a clear statement, he must presume continuity.

The question we must ask is: which presupposition is most consistent with the Scriptures? Discerning presuppositions is not an easy task. Changing a presupposition usually involves a massive paradigm shift.

A Copernican Revolution
For example, consider what it must have been like for Copernicus to change from a geo-centric view of our solar system to a helio-centric view.

Before Copernicus, geo-centrism was the dominant perspective. It seemed to make sense. However, as Copernicus did his calculations, something didn’t add up. He saw the same sun, planets, and stars as the previous astronomers, but he discovered that if the earth was truly the center of our solar system, then the planets should behave differently than they do. The conclusion is that there must be a different center. Copernicus suspected that the sun was the center of our solar system, and his calculations confirmed this. Today, Copernicus is credited with changing astronomy from geo-centrism to helio-centrism, and we call this the Copernican revolution.

This was not a whimsical decision of little importance. This was a carefully researched decision with epic consequences. It was a revolution. Changing presuppositions always results in massive change, a revolution.

My Copernican Revolution
I had my own Copernican revolution in my theological journey. When I was first exposed to discontinuity, I would go back to the Scriptures to see if these things were so. A lot of things made sense.

However, as I got deeper into DT, I began to notice a verse here and there that did not seem to fit in the DT scheme. This troubled me, so I asked my pastor, but he did not have a satisfactory answer. I thought that seminary would explain things better.

Unfortunately, when I got to seminary, the problems compounded. I was finding entire passages that seemed to conflict with DT. It seemed like everywhere I turned, there was a problem passage. I began to suspect that the problem was not with the Scriptures but with DT itself. I was reading the same Bible as the DT, but the Scriptures behaved in patterns that defied DT.

Finally, I had this radical thought: what if I presumed continuity? I tried this out and found it to be a much more satisfactory explanation of the Scriptures. The old problem passages now made perfect sense. At every turn, I found that continuity fit much more solidly with the Scriptures.

Thus, my move to CT did not involve a rejection of the Bible, but embracing an alternative explanation for the Bible. Much like Copernicus, I was using the same data as my DT friends, but the data forced me to come to a different conclusion.

During this study of “Jesus and Israel,” we will be presuming continuity while at the same time, we will be demonstrating that continuity is what the Scriptures themselves demand.

This is not radical continuity. There have been some changes, but we should presume continuity unless we have an explicit warrant for discontinuity. This will be tricky, and it may not all come to you at once. Presuppositions take time to detect and change.


Garrett Ho said...

Hi Eric,
Thanks for your post. I remembered there was a single verse that mentioned a covenant with Adam, so I googled it and came up with your blog. As a current student at TMS I figured I would say hello. I'm still a dispy, but I appreciated your thoughts.

Eric Adams said...

Thanks, Garrett. May the Lord bless you in your studies.

BigPapaBub said...


Thanks so much for the post. My story is similar to yours. I graduated from Bob Jones University with a BA in Bible. I tried to make sense of dispensationalism but couldn't. The book that changed my whole look on the Bible was Robertson's Christ of the Covenants. The irony is I bought it on the Discount rack at Bob Jones. I am know currently at RTS Atlanta working on my masters. It is nice to know that others had the same issues that I had. Thanks.