Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read the series so far.
Contrary to dispensationalism’s claim that “the Church is a mystery, unrevealed in the Old Testament” (J. D. Pentecost), the New Testament writers look to the Old Testament for its divine purpose and role in the history of redemption and declare only that the mystery was not known “to the sons of men” at large, and was not known to the same degree “as” it is now revealed to all men in the New Testament (Eph 3:4-6), even noting that it fulfills Old Testament prophecy (Hos 1:10 / Rom 9:22-26), including even the beginning of the new covenant phase of the Church (Joel 2:28-32 / Acts 2:16-19).
Response: First, one does not have to be a dispensationalist to hold that the mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ was not known in OT times (see Bruce, O’Brien, Barth). The adverbial conjunction “as” in Ephesians 3:5 is best seen in a descriptive sense asserting the difference in kind which the mystery discloses, rather than a restrictive way whereby more is known now than was known before. Paul is speaking here of the entity which is the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ which is entered into through the Baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). According to Acts 1:5 (cf. John 7:39) this baptism began at Pentecost. It is this new revelation of the Body of Christ which it is crucial to keep in mind since it is just not found in the OT. Further, the mystery was covered up, “hidden,” or “not made known” (3:5), but is now revealed. This surely supports the descriptive sense! It wasn’t half covered up!
Colossians 1:26, which is more emphatic, again refers to that which “was hidden from ages…but now has been revealed.” So there is a strong case against the view that Paul is talking about the amount or “degree” of the mystery that was known prior to the NT. Paul is rather saying that the Church was completely unknown.
As far as the references to Hosea and Joel are concerned, the reader is invited to put himself in those historical contexts and find the Body of Christ. That apostolic writers could refer to those texts because they speak of God bringing the Gentiles to salvation. Now we know how! But the “how” was not revealed in the OT.
Despite dispensationalism’s presentation of the Church as a “parenthesis” (J. F. Walvoord) in the major plan of God in history (which focuses on racial Israel), the New Testament teaches that the Church is the God-ordained result of God’s Old Testament plan, so that the Church is not simply a temporary aside in God’s plan but is the institution over which Christ is the head so that He may “put all things in subjection under His feet” (Eph 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Response: I don’t know where these authors got the idea that Israel is “the major plan of God in history” from. In dispensationalism, the church is just as important to God as is Israel. Christ died for both His bride and the remnant. Certainly, the story of Israel dominates the OT, and it is not set aside in the New. Speaking of the church as a “parenthesis” does not mean it was “a temporary aside” or an afterthought. I notice a parenthesis in the above Thesis: “(which focuses on racial Israel).” Is that a temporary aside? Is it an afterthought?
The fact is, from man’s point of view the church is a kind of interlude in revelational history. But from the point of view of God’s eternal and comprehensive decree it is part of the warp and woof of redemptive history. Prior to Abraham there were no “Hebrews” and hence no Israel (Jacob). God’s creation of Israel was no “temporary aside” from His previous work. Israel and the church must be seen in the larger panorama of God’s plan in world history. Dispensationalism attempts to do this.
Seeing the church as the “God-ordained result of God’s Old Testament plan” involves hermeneutical and theological gymnastics which are not authorized in the NT and which make God the distorter of the covenants He made with certain people using specific language that He, as God, contracted Himself to keep. No amount of rhetoric about “expansion” glosses over the result: the church succeeds Israel.
Contrary to dispensationalism’s teaching that Jeremiah’s “New Covenant was expressly for the house of Israel … and the house of Judah” (Bible Knowledge Commentary)—a teaching that is due to its man-made view of literalism as documented by former dispensationalist (Curtis Crenshaw) and the centrality of Israel in its theological system—the New Testament shows that the new covenant includes Gentiles and actually establishes the new covenant Church as the continuation of Israel (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6).
Response: Before examining the verses which supposedly prove that the church is the continuation of Israel, we must answer the charge that our hermeneutic is “man-made.” The inference, I suppose, is that the “now it’s literal, now it’s not” hermeneutics of the Nicene Council is heaven-sent and is embossed with the divine imprimatur. In his co-authored book, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow (which, despite some inaccuracies and overstatements, is one of the best critiques of dispensationalism), Crenshaw adduces (p. 3) Wittgenstein as proof that the hermeneutics of dispensationalism are terribly naive. Ryrie’s view of “the common laws of language” clearly lacks philosophical sophistication. Then George Marsden is referenced (p. 5) to show the Enlightenment underpinnings of the “literal” method. (nobody used this method before, and books written before “the Age of Reason” were understood differently than during it?).
Despite Crenshaw’s assertion that Ryrie has an autonomous view of human language (p. 3), he surely knows Ryrie teaches that language is from God for God’s purposes. In fact, Ryrie places much stress upon the sufficiency of language to do what God intended it to do. One needn’t be a dispensationalist to get wrapped up in Enlightenment thinking. The example of B. B. Warfield and his article on “Apologetics” is enough to show that. The fact that such influences exist does not abrogate the contributions of these men.
One of the most needful improvements to the dispensationalist approach would be better self-criticism in this area. But it would be naive indeed to think this would entail the overthrow of plain-sense hermeneutics. There is no hermeneutical firewall ensuring Reformation interpretations an inspired status. In point of fact, the great “solas” of the Reformation all lean heavily on plain-sense hermeneutics of the kind insisted on by dispensationalists. There is no such thing as inspired hermeneutics. We have justification for our language from Scripture, but that justification relies upon us believing what God says.
As an exercise in believing what God says, we shall turn to the proof texts provided in Thesis 48. If the reader will study Jeremiah 31:31-32 he will see that Israel and Judah (whom God brought out of Egypt, v.32) are in view, not the church. The same applies to Hebrews 8:8-13. How then does the New Covenant apply to the church? This is where dispensationalists disagree among themselves. No one today resorts to Chafer’s two new covenants view. Some argue that the new covenant is yet future and concerns only Israel in the future kingdom. Others, myself included, believe that Christ, as our High Priest, initiated the new covenant at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the church obtains blessings (Eph. 1) of the new covenant in Christ. The final fulfillment of all the biblical covenants depends on the fulfillment of the New Covenant.
The passages from Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11 and 2 Corinthians 3 form the basis of the interpretation I outlined above. But they in no way entail making “Israel and Judah” the Jew-Gentile church. The provisions of the Abrahamic covenant suffice to deliver God’s blessings to the church—which is why Paul cites it in Galatians 3:8.
There is no reason given to go further than this and change the name on the contract of Jeremiah 31:31-34 from “Israel and Judah” who came out of Egypt, to “the Church.”
We are at about the halfway point in our examination of the “95 Theses Against Dispensationalism.” So far the objections have not been very substantial. Some have in fact been not much above the puerile. Others have been less than incisive and easily addressed. One or two have offered useful criticisms, but none has attained the caliber of a serious charge.
Perhaps the next half will be more weighty? That is possible. I hope to be challenged with more robust arguments as I continue. We must all try to learn from the criticisms of others, and I hope to do so as we proceed.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Veritas School of Theology.