Now, we come to discuss the covenant theology perspective regarding the promise of the land.
Covenant theology has a very long history, going back to the period of the early church. It has been embraced in some form by all of the major Christian traditions, ranging from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, to the Protestant Puritans of early America. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, is the “new kid on the block,” dating back to about the 1830s.
Covenant theology is based on the idea that there have been a series of covenants that God has established throughout history as described by the Bible. There has been a covenant with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and so on, but eventually culminating with the covenant of grace as founded by Jesus Christ. But connecting all of these distinct covenants is a central theme that stands in contrast with dispensationalism.
Covenant Theology and the One People of God
Unlike dispensationalism, covenant theology emphasizes that there has been always one, and only one, people of God. The nation of Israel, the Jews, were God’s one people in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, this concept of God’s people has been expanded to include, not just Jews, but also Gentiles. The church of the New Testament is therefore made up of Jews and Gentiles together, all united in one faith in one God, with one salvation. In other words, the ground is level for everyone at the foot of the cross.
Covenant theology rejects the tendency in dispensationalism to try to divide up the people of God into two separate categories, one being “Israel” and the other being the “church.” Such a division threatens to compromise the oneness of the people of God. If that is the case, what does covenant theology say about all of those Old Testament promises made to Israel?
Covenant theology would argue that the promises made to Israel have already been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, or that they will be fulfilled in the future by Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul observes when he quotes Genesis 22:18 in Galatians 3:16:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ (ESV).
Covenant theology therefore understands that the promises made to Abraham and his offspring, are not directed primarily to a corporate people, like Old Testament Israel, but rather to the one, Jesus Christ Himself. Yet Jesus Christ has a corporate presence in the world, namely the church of the New Testament, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:5). Unbelieving Jews did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah, but some Jews did. The New Testament describes then how believing Gentiles were added to their number to give us the church. 1
How is covenant theology able to say this? Covenant theology relies heavily on the classic Biblical idea of typology. Typology in Scripture shows us that there are themes in the Bible that prefigure or anticipate the full revelation given later in Scripture. For example, the Apostle Paul says that Adam was a type of the one who is the come, namely, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the “real thing,” whereas Adam points toward Christ, and finds his full purpose and identity fulfilled in Christ.2
Another way that Paul puts it is that he describes many of the things associated with Judaism as but a shadow of the real thing. For example, when talking about the celebration of Jewish festivals and the Sabbath, Paul says:
“These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
So, what then, is to be made about the specific promise of the land, as given in the Old Testament to Israel? This promise finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, as Christ has revealed that His people will inherit a “new heaven and new earth,” with a “new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:1-2). The promise is given not to Israel alone, but rather to the church, including both Jew and Gentile (2 Peter 3:13). It is no longer just the land surrounding the Jordan River that is in need of restoration. Rather is the entire whole of creation that is current groaning, awaiting the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:18-22). God’s promise of land is no longer limited to a patch of real estate in the Middle East. That promise has now been greatly transformed to include the new, restored creation, available to not just the Jew, but also to the Gentile, through Christ’s body, the church. Race and ethnicity is no longer a point of distinction that can divide us in this new land.3
Therefore, there is no need to wait for God to fulfill a separate land promise to a separate Jewish people. The land of Israel is but a type or shadow of what is to come. God has already fulfilled and will continue to fulfill such a promise among the one people of God, the church, through Jesus Christ. God has kept, and will continue to keep all of His promises, because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For this reason, this approach to covenant theology is sometimes called “fulfillment theology.”4
Covenant theology raises some big questions in the mind of the dispensationalist, as we will explore in our next post.
1. See Stephen Sizer, on his commentary of Galatians 3:16 and Genesis 22:17-18. Yet notice the dispensationalist response to this understanding of the singularity of the Abraham’s seed. Michael Rydelnik makes the intriguing counter-argument that the seed has both a singular and collective sense. Genesis 22:16-17a refers to the collective sense of Abraham and his many descendants; that is, Jewish national Israel, whereas in the second half of 17 and Genesis 22:18, as appealed to by Sizer, the sense of seed shifts to the singular. See Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope, p. 143., and the observations noted by this blogger on Rydelnik’s book. But in order for Rydelnik’s view to work, of a dual singular and collective sense of seed, it would require one to interpret Galatians in light of Genesis; that is, interpreting the New Testament in light of the Old. From my perspective, this just seems a rather backwards way of reading the Bible. The traditional approach to Bible interpretation, for almost two millennia, across the two testaments, has normally been the other way around: We are to interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. But suppose, in this instance, I could be wrong, and Rydelnik is correct? ↩
2. Dispensationalism also relies on typology to tie different parts of the Bible together, but covenant theology is more heavily dependent on the concept of typology. For example, Barry Horner argues that while the Mosaic covenant is indeed a type that anticipates the coming of Christ, the covenant with Abraham is different. Specifically, for Horner, the land promise is never considered to be a type that is fulfilled in the New Testament. Hebrews 8:13 does teach that the old Mosaic covenant has been superseded by the new covenant in Christ, but the Abrahamic covenant, which includes the land promise, is not mentioned, therefore it is still applicable to national Israel’s future (Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, p. 238-239). How you understand the biblical language of type and its application within Scripture, largely determines how a Christian views the role of Israel. ↩
3. The Christ at the CheckPoint Conference, sponsored several times by the Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine, has produced a set of presentations from different perspectives, many of which discuss the application of covenant theology, within the context of the land promise towards Israel. Hank Hanegraaff is a Christian apologist, known to many radio listeners across the world as “The Bible Answer Man.” In the following video, while he does not use the explicit language of “covenant theology,” Hanegraaff makes his case that Christian advocacy for Zionism is not supported by the Bible. Notes are not available for Hanegraff’s talk, but some of his written views can be found at equip.org, or you can find them in book form in The Apocalypse Code: Find out What the Bible Really Says About the End Times and Why It Matters Today. In fairness, it should be noted that since this video was recorded, Hank Hanegraff converted to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, much to the chagrin of many of his Protestant evangelical supporters. ↩
4. I will get to the question of “replacement theology” in the next post. After the Hanegraff video, you might want to view Gary Burge’s talk at the same conference. Burge is the Christian scholar who debated Michael Rydelnik in the radio show that Rydelnik mentioned in his talk in the previous post, in this blog series. Critics of Hanegraff and Burge say they make too much of an appeal to geopolitical analysis to make their cases. Let the viewer be the judge in the light of the Scriptures:↩
September 24th, 2018 at 6:37 am
Hi Clarke! Hope you and Lisa are doing well. Just happened upon your post while researching something else. What a nice surprise…
I know you uphold the sovereignty of God and that nothing limits Him. I also know that you uphold the primacy of the Word and its proper interpretation.
I just wanted to understand broadly: what would stop God, according to His Word, from being able to fulfill both 1) His literal promises to Israel, AND 2). His literal blessings to the Church?
We can discuss the interpretation of the passages presented in this post eventually. But I just wanted to know if this broad question was open for discussion or if it’s already been presupposed that it’s already an “either-or” conclusion and there is no way to understand the Scriptures from a “both-and” angle, that God is limited to “one people of God” instead of “every tribe, tongue, nation, et. al”, to include both all peoples (i.e. Church), and the Jewish people (i.e. Israel).
September 25th, 2018 at 7:12 am
Long time, no see 🙂
Without giving too much away, as I hope to try to unpack all of this in upcoming blog posts, there are a lot of options possible here. I would think Darrell Bock takes the “both-and” approach that you are suggesting here, regarding promises to the church AND national Israel. As I put some of the newer posts out in the coming weeks, please let me know what you think!
My argument thus far is that, up until recently, the conflict between “classic” forms of dispensationalism and covenant theology has pretty much dominated the discussion. But as I will argue, that debate has changed in the last 20 or so years.
Thank for commenting!!
September 26th, 2018 at 11:11 am
Thanks Clarke! I appreciate the response and look forward to your future posts. No spoilers from me! I certainly don’t want to “steal your thunder” as you correctly note that there are other options on the table, above and beyond classic dispensationalism and covenant theology.
I just wanted to clarify what I believe is intended by Bock’s “both-and” motif as it describes a different theological aspect than what I describe. When Bock discusses “both-and”, I’ve typically observed him to refer to promote a hermeneutical concept which leads to an inaugurated eschatology as seen in this sample:
“The biblical characteristic of viewing events from a variety of perspectives shows us that one can make points from a “both-and” perspective without denying either side of the present-future relationship. It is possible to get fulfillment “now” in some texts, while noting that “not yet” fulfillment exists in other passages. In fact, in some texts fulfillment can be initial or partial, as opposed to being final and total. As a result, one can speak of *inaugurated* eschatology without denying either what the Old Testament indicates about a future, earthly kingdom or what the New Testament asserts about the arrival of the kingdom as part of fulfillment in the first coming of Jesus. ”
Blaising and Bock, *Progressive Dispensationalism*, pp. 97-98
That “both-and” motif is far different than what I am asking. I do not believe the Scriptures teach that the Church is promised anything, based on a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic derived from a single meaning of the text, not a double or complementary meaning posited by Bock. My “both-and” interpretation of Scripture describes God’s ability BOTH to bless the Church AND to fulfill His promises to Israel.
That is my attempt to explain the difference between my Both-And and Bock’s Both-And. Bock is able to derive Both a future meaning And a present meaning from a single program in the Text. Joe Howard derives Both one program to Israel And another program for the Church from a single meaning in the Text.
Does that make any sense?
September 30th, 2018 at 6:24 am
Yes, I pretty much follow you.
My days at Fuller Seminary in the early 1990s, on this topic, was consumed with the debate between G.E. Ladd and John Walvoord. Frankly, I was not fully understanding what Ladd’s positive argument was for historic premillennialism at the time, but Ladd’s critique of Walvoord was pretty overwhelming. Having most of my early eschatological views formed by a charismatic church, influenced by Walvoord on eschatology, this was revolutionary. A “literal” hermeneutic for reading Scripture was not as straight-forward as I had been led to believe.
It wasn’t so much that I was totally into covenant theology as I was pretty sure that the classic dispensationalism of Walvoord seemed like a system being imposed on the text, rather that straight forward exegesis (see my most recent post, “The Shifting Theological Landscape Regarding the Land: Zionism #14.”)
Bock and Blaising’s book was pretty new then, so I was not really familiar with it. A friend of mine at Williamsburg Community Chapel knew Bock from their days at Aberdeen, in Scotland. Bock came on my radar from a different angle, namely through apologetic issues regarding the historical Jesus (e.g. the Jesus Seminar).
It was only about 5 years ago that someone alerted to me that Bock has something new to say about dispensationalism; basically, that he is a “dispensationalist” with a small “d.”
Click to access 41-3-pp383-398-JETS.pdf
I found a good video presentation of his central thesis regarding the promises to Israel AND the church here. See the end of footnote #2 here:
You probably know all of this already, but I found the following “multi-view” book really helpful to sort of the details of this debate, particularly from a more recent angle, that includes “progressive dispensationalism” and “progressive covenantalism” as dialogue participants:
Thanks for your interaction here, Joe!