This is the first post on the debate of the summer: Dispensationalism versus Covenantal Theology. To start off this great debate, as you can imagine, I had to pick which of the two theologies to begin with. The one I chose is Dispensational Theology, since it is the theology most attacked in Calvinist theology.
To examine Dispensational Theology, I will first look at traditional dispensationalism to assess its problems and see the need for a revision of traditional dispensationalism. To this end, I will employ Elliott E. Johnson and his chapter in Herbert Bateman IV’s edited work titled “Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views.” Johnson writes:
“One such opinion, shared by both Blaising and Bock, is the use of the Abrahamic covenant to refer to Gentile believers. THAT REFERENCE IS SAID TO INVOLVE A SPIRITUAL FULFILLMENT. Blaising writes: ‘In spite of revised dispensationalism’s insistence on consistent literal interpretation, they believed that the church was the ‘spiritual’ seed of Abraham, that is, the Abrahamic covenant was fulfilled ‘spiritually’ in the church’...in reference to a spiritual seed, where does such a commitment appear? Statements in Genesis (13:16; 15:5; 22:17) commit God to multiply Abraham’s descendants. Such descendants would be ‘spiritual’ in the sense that God provided them, but the focus is that the descendants are ‘physical or natural.’ So the statements of Genesis do not include references to Gentiles as descendants...if it would be determined from the perspective of Christ, then the original meaning of Genesis is expanded based on this new perspective. This sensus plenior must then be attributed to what God meant in some fashion. Bock follows a similar argument for expanded meaning in fulfillment” (Elliott E. Johnson, “A Traditional Dispensational Hermeneutic,” from “Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views” by Herbert W. Bateman IV, General Editor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999, page 68).
The above quote by Johnson is Bock’s argument for progressive dispensationalism, which focuses on the progressive revelation of God throughout Scripture. Based on this view, we know more in Revelation than we knew in Genesis, for example. However, Johnson disagrees and states his disagreement in the following paragraph:
“Such an argument [Bock] for a spiritual fulfillment is neither necessary nor warranted from the texts involved nor from a dispensational system. Rather, GENTILES, AS BLESSED, ARE A LITERAL FULFILLMENT OF GENESIS 12:3, and the blessing of becoming the seed of Abraham is received as the theological result of the work of Christ (Gal. 3:26-29)” (Johnson, “Three Central Issues,” page 68).
To examine Johnson’s argument, let’s look at Genesis 12:
“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. I WILL MAKE YOU A GREAT NATION; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. 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’” (Gen. 12:1-3, NKJV).
Johnson claims that the Gentiles coming to faith is a LITERAL fulfillment of the text itself. But this poses problems, as Abraham shows us later in Genesis:
“Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I GO CHILDLESS, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ Then Abram said, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!’ And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, BUT ONE WHO WILL COME FROM YOUR OWN BODY SHALL BE YOUR HEIR’” (Genesis 15:2-4, NKJV).
Abraham’s focus is on a Jewish descendant; this would not involve Gentiles. No Gentile could be a physical fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
What about the part regarding the nations being blessed in Abraham (Gen. 12:3)? This question poses a problem for the traditional camp; why? because the promise of a male heir is the physical fulfillment of this promise, what God actually fulfills (Gen. 17:21; 21:1-3).
So the Lord gives Isaac to Abraham and Sarah; but how do Gentiles become a part of the family of Abraham? Abraham has Isaac, who brings forth Jacob, who then becomes the chosen one, through whom Jesus Christ comes (Matt. 1:1-16). Gentiles are united to Christ, but by faith (Rom. 4:16). Gentiles then, bear no physical union with Abraham, but a spiritual one; and these two unions must be distinguished.
Paul certainly distinguishes them when he writes, “for they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). He further distinguishes both physical and spiritual Israel when he writes, “those who are the CHILDREN OF THE FLESH, these are not the children of God; but the CHILDREN OF THE PROMISE are counted as the seed” (Rom. 9:8). “Children of the flesh” are those who are physically born in Abraham’s lineage, while “children of the promise” are those who are tied to Abraham by faith.
Romans 4:16 states, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to ALL THE SEED, not only to THOSE WHO ARE OF THE LAW, but also to THOSE WHO ARE OF THE FAITH OF ABRAHAM, WHO IS THE FATHER OF US ALL.” Here we see that “those of the law” are distinguished from “those of the faith of Abraham.” These two groups are not the same, so both groups cannot be the result of literal fulfillment. Earlier in Romans 4, Paul provides the labels “circumcised” and “uncircumcised” to the groups in question (Rom. 4:11). If you recall, the Lord required every Jewish male to be circumcised (Gen. 17:10-11). How then, are the “uncircumcised” of Romans 4 allowed to become children of Abraham, if not by some other, NON-PHYSICAL union?
There is a literal element to the promise of Genesis 12:3---while Christ is a Jewish descendant of Abraham by PHYSICAL birth, He blesses the nations by being their Savior who extends mercy to them by grace through faith. Christ blesses the Jews and fulfills the promises “made to the fathers,” while extending mercy to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:8-9). The Scriptures, however, say nothing of the Gentiles receiving salvation because of “promises made to the fathers”; this distinction remains for the Jews only. It is on account of the fathers, for the sake of election, that all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26-29).
Scripture itself distinguishes between physical and spiritual Israel; and we must do so as well. What Johnson fails to see is that there is not a direct one-to-one correspondence between ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel; for, while ethnic Israel receives the material blessings promised to her through the fathers, she cannot be saved without the gospel...and while all of spiritual Israel will not inherit under the covenant of law God made to the fathers, all of spiritual Israel WILL inherit salvation by faith. Johnson makes the same mistake that covenantal theologians will assume in their own theology (one-to-one correspondence). For now, though, keep Johnson’s work in mind; you just might see something similar again, sometime soon.