Covenantal Theology
Dispensational Theology
(in Regards to Ethnic Israel)

By Reggie Kelly
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Question: What do you think about Covenantal Theology and Dispensational Theology as they relate to God's purposes with Israel?

I don't have much understanding on those theological systems, but it seems that Covenantal Theology would deny that God's promises to ethnic Israel are still valid, assuming that the church has "replaced" ethnic Israel as the chosen people of God. Dispensational Theology, however, seems to embrace an early rapture of the church.

How should we approach forming opinions on these doctrines while keeping Israel in mind?

Answer: I don't think it's a choice between prevailing theological systems. Ultimately, it's simply the question of how the scripture is best harmonized and all its principal themes (and particular details) best accounted for. It is the question of how it 'all fits together' to form the 'big picture'. It's the search for a centralizing theme (or a set of intrinsically related themes) that hold it all together.
We are looking for that elusive 'synthesis' that gathers the strands into a cohesive harmony that puts on display the manifold wisdom of an eternal divine purpose that optimally glorifies God. That's the goal and aim that both covenant and dispensational theologians will tell you that their system most nearly achieves. 
So we avail nothing if we think that error is simply a matter of inferior motives. Both schools are represented by conservative believers of unquestioned faith and humility. At any conscious level, the aim and intent of one school is as noble as the other. I would hate to propose that there is some particular Christian virtue that is more prominent in those that take my view. 
This raises the really interesting question of why it is that one arrives at truth while another of equally pure intent does not? I believe the answer is always grace, i.e., God's free and sovereign prerogative to reveal what He will to whom He will for His own purpose. God has not made this easy. In fact, 'with man this is impossible', so that in this, as in all else that pertains to the Christian life, one is always constrained to cry out, "who is sufficient?'
The history of redemption shows that the things that God has ordained for His glory and the glory of His people seldom come easily or naturally, but "against all odds." It is thus intended, so that no flesh can glory. This is why He has kept His secret from the pride of nature (Mk 4:11-12; Mt 11:25-27; 1Cor 2:14). That is why His wisdom is hidden in a mystery (1Cor 1:21; 2:7). Not so that those that see may glory over another (1Cor 4:7), but that they may be amazed and humbled at the grace that has caused them to escape the otherwise inescapable (Mt 24:24; 1Cor 2:7).
The want of this realization has occasioned the kind of exacting impatience shown towards those that do not 'see' what we might think should be as plain as the nose on the face. Why, if they don't see what is so 'obvious', surely it is because they do not want to see. We may well suspect that they are stubbornly committed to a triumphal agenda of replacement that intends to usurp Israel's promises and so 'boast against the branches'. 
It is true that Paul warns that such a boast can be the result of ignorance of 'this mystery' (Ro 11:25), but it is no less true that God was pleased to conceal these things in a mystery until the set time of revelation. The solution to this mystery was never intended to be easy or automatically 'obvious'. Else the mystery would never have served so well to bring the pride of this age, and the demon princes of this age into judgment (Isa 8:14-17; 1Cor 2:7). At the same time, the 'hidden wisdom' was 'ordained before the world unto our glory'. How so? Only because we see by grace and nothing of ourselves! Nothing else has made us to differ (1Cor 4:7).   
While it's true that classic Dispensationalism and its more recent offspring, 'progressive dispensationalism', will necessarily be pre-millennial in its eschatology, it is not true that all who recognize distinctive dispensations will be pre-tribulational in their view of the rapture. Nor is it true that all 'covenant' theologians are amillennial. Many are 'historic premill' (as distinct from 'dispensational') as a result of an exegesis that requires a future for ethnic Israel. I see elements in both systems that belong together. I advocate a hybrid that is neither strictly 'covenant' or 'dispensational' but combines valid elements of both. 
I would say that our approach has to be the quest for fidelity to the intention of God in the harmony between the testaments. What fits? What lines up with the language of scripture (comparing scripture with scripture)? The so-called 'theologies of replacement' (amill and most post mill) believe that the NT itself justifies a program of 're-interpretation', since it is believed that NT revelation transcends the limitations of the human authors of scripture. Pre-millennial / futurist interpretation object to such transformation of the original author's manifest intention. 
It is true that the original writers of scripture prophesied of 'more' than they understood, but never 'less'. That is to say, the fulfillment may indeed transcend the limits of human expectation, but it will never controvert or cancel what the plain meaning of the language clearly promised (the so-called 'hermeneutical question'). Rather, the solution lies with showing that the NT reveals a mystery that does not cancel the promises to Israel but only postpones them to the second coming (which is the NT equivalent of the OT 'day of the Lord'). It is not the so-called 'postponement of the kingdom', as in 'classic dispensationalism', but the 'already / not yet' of a kingdom that has come 'already' in revelation and power, but that is 'yet' to come in final and public glory at Christ's return.

The mystery of Christ's twofold advent (1Cor 2:7; 1Pet 1:11; Ro 16:25-26; Eph 6:19) reveals a hidden interval or 'parenthesis' between the advents. It requires more explanation than time permits, but whether one is dispensational or covenantal in their view of Israel will depend greatly on what is understood of the nature of this interim. It is decisive whether one sees this as a 'church age' that is final, or whether this age fulfills God's twofold purpose to accomplish the long threatened judgment of Israel (move Israel to jealousy by a 'no people'; Deut 32:21), while at the same time opening a door of faith to the gentiles who come to salvation, not through Israel's millennial exaltation, as expected, but "through their fall" (Ro 11:11). This was NOT expected, though it fulfilled prophecy. This unexpected interim between the advents provides a temporary situation that allows for the future / literal fulfillment of the outstanding promises to natural Israel at a 'still future' day of the Lord (Acts 3:19-21; Ro 11:25-29). 
I, for one, do not believe we find a so-called 'mystery church age' in the interval. This is the view of dispensationalism that starts the church at Pentecost and ends it at the pretrib rapture, keeping Israel and the church not only distinct, but 'separate' entities both now and in all the ages to come. I agree that for now (only for now) Israel and the church are distinct entities, but they are not eternally so. All the saved are regarded as one fold with one shepherd.
I subscribe to the view that the church is indeed a new revelation in terms of the new understanding of the mystery of Christ. We may now speak of the 'body of Christ' in a way that could not have been possible before. But new revelation does not imply new existence. Paul's greater revelation concerning the mystical and organic nature of the church did not give the church its origin. Just as the revelation of Christ and the gospel assumes the pre-existence of both. 
So in my view, the church as the body of Christ reveals an already existing entity that stands in continuity with the righteous remnant of the OT. Regeneration in either testament presupposes the indwelling of the Spirit (1Pet 1:11). The new birth did not begin with NT revelation (Jn 3:10). So though I believe that millennial Israel will be in true continuity with the broken branches of this age (i.e., actual flesh and blood Jews), I do not believe that Jewish believers of the millennium will be any less the body of Christ on earth than you and I are today. Though at that time we will be glorified and they will not receive their glorified bodies until the end of the millennium (1Cor 15:50).
So I am 'dispensational' enough to be believe that Israel will have a special role towards the nations and a particular stewardship of the Land for the sake of the public vindication of the covenant of election, but I am too 'covenantal' in my view of the nature of the church to believe that millennial believers are any less 'the church', or that gentiles that come to faith in the millennium are any less the body of Christ on earth together with the saved of Israel. 
It is like the distinction that remains in the creation between male and female for the sake of divine order. There is the witness of submission to divine authority through an abiding difference that does not exist 'in the Spirit' (i.e., "in Christ"). Thus, distinction in role and calling in the church and in the creation detracts nothing at all from an equal standing in Christ that has nothing to do with race or gender. Nor should any such distinction in the creation be a cause of envy in the hearts of believers who have all things in Christ (see Ro 8:32 with 1Cor 3:21-22). However, it is a divinely intended test of the heart, as evident by the envy of the nations against Israel's unique election, which occasions the post-millennial rebellion of the nations recorded in Rev 20:1-15. 
These points will probably make more sense after you have had due exposure to the different position and the reasons given for each. Francis Schaffer once said that 'apologetics is an enterprise of Christian compassion'. The only reason I listen in on the different persuasions is in order to help others with the same help with which I've been helped. Even if I believe something has been graciously revealed, all that I am free to enjoin on others is that listen to the text with due care and let the text make the case (Isa 8:20). 
The scripture warns, 'to answer a matter before it is heard is a shame and a folly'. It also says, 'be ready to give a defense for the hope that is in you'. Put these together, and you can see why I labor to understand what has persuaded another differently. It is just one part of a process of extending mercy and concern for those that may be in error and thus unknowingly deprive themselves of something of the glory that God has invested in these great matters. 
Regardless of who has been right or wrong throughout church history, these matters matter greatly! The antisemitism in the church could not have been possible without the implications of replacement theology, but not all who embrace replacement views are thereby antisemitic. Far from it! 
Regardless of the past, the potential gain or loss of one view or another becomes eminently practical in view of what is now at stake for the church in its relation to Israel and the nations as the world faces an impending crisis over the Jewish question, which I believe will sift and test not only the nations, but the church in the nations. 
But beyond all of that, these questions mean so much more than a merely utilitarian concern for what it means to "me", or even the health of the church. The question should rather be, "what do these things mean to God?" Our greatest delight should be to know all that He is please to reveal of Himself and of the plan that puts His glory on display (Ro 11:33-36). His delight is to take His friends into closest confidence (compare Gen 18:17 w/ Isa 41:8; Amos 3:7; Jn 15:15; Rev 10:7). His friends still ask, "where dwellest thou?' And He still beckons "come and see." 
November 2008

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