Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 1

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Paul Henebury's picture
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Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path, Part 1

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For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students. The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary. Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves. As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems. And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of biblical and systematic theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by “dispensations” is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT). The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible. They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are. What do the concepts “innocence,” “conscience,” “government,” “promise,” “law,” “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

Why, for example, would “government” be a more emphasized stewardship than “conscience” after Noah? Wasn’t Israel’s theocracy far more of a government than anything found in Genesis 9? The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise. But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham? Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, “the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise’ ” (The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421). Sailhamer is referring to the promise-fulfillment motif, but this is certainly relevant to the “Dispensation of Promise” which assumes such a motif. If Sailhamer has a point, it would seem wise to replace the imprecise term “promise” with “covenant.” But once we do that we will be required to drop the theme of “dispensation” too, so as to give the Abrahamic covenant the developmental scope it clearly must have.

System

In addition to this change of emphasis from what seems nebulous and inexact to what is plainly revealed and stressed in the biblical text there needs to be a rethinking about what dispensationalists mean when they refer to their theology as a “system.” It needs to be made clear that if dispensationalists continue to accept a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of theology, or (which is much the same thing) if they are content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of “dispensational premillennialism,” then they have admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete “system.” Restricting DT—as many dispensationalists tend to do—to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a system of theology.” Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the church or the last things is being discussed does not qualify—neither does it deserve to be identified—as a system of theology. And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!

For the record, here is my working definition of DT:

An approach to biblical theology which attempts to find its raison d’etre in the Scriptures themselves, and which constructs its systematic presentation of theology around a primary focus on the biblical covenants.

You will see that I have booted out the dispensations and thrown the spotlight upon the covenants in the Bible. That may disturb some people, but the profit of this move is immense.

2. Hermeneutics

Dispensationalism has often been associated with grammatico-historical interpretation. Quite apart from whether many older dispensationalists actually contented themselves with approach, the fact is that the very term “grammatico-historical” no longer enjoys a static meaning. So it becomes necessary to spell out what kind of hermeneutics is envisioned by that term.

In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words. God is the Author of language, and when He speaks in the early chapters of the Bible there is a correlation between His thought, the words selected to convey His thought, and the product brought into existence by His word. This flow from God’s word to God’s action is so obvious in the Bible that it scarcely needs proof. Let the reader study the Bible Story with this in mind and he will see it everywhere. Thus we have an important hermeneutical marker from inside the Bible.

As we have seen God also makes covenants. We may easily locate divine covenants, for instance, in Genesis 9, Genesis 15-22, Exodus 19-24, Numbers 25, Deuteronomy 29-30, 1 Chronicles 17, Psalm 89, Psalm 105, Psalm 106, Jeremiah 31, Jeremiah 33, Luke 22 and many other places. God does not need to bind Himself by an oath, so why does He do it? One reason, I want to suggest, is because of our propensity judge God’s word by our own capacity for belief. Like Eve sizing up the forbidden tree, we want to come to our own conclusions independently. It is our default position, and the covenants set up the boundaries within which our interpretations ought to operate. The biblical covenants might well be seen as “a reinforcement of divine speech.” If this be the case, God’s covenants serve to boldly underline the God’s word—God’s action motif we saw earlier.

Hermeneutically speaking then, we have two powerful interpretive ideas coming at us from the pages of the Bible itself. And this is given further emphasis in such places as 2 Kings 1 and John 21 where God goes out of His way to explain that He means what He says.

This hermeneutic takes us a surprisingly long way when applied to all of Scripture.

3. Biblical Theology

If there is one thing that most biblical theologies fail to take seriously it is the doctrines of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture. These concepts are inseparable. If Scripture isn’t clear (except, of course, to those highly skilled practitioners in the genres of Ancient Near East and typology), then for sure it isn’t sufficient. When one adds to this the biblical theologies’ miraculous coincidences wherein each type and genre corroborates the particular theological bent of the writer, it all begins to look a little suspicious and question-begging. Understandably, Dispensationalists prefer to stake their hermeneutical tents down on firmer ground. But the myopia induced by paying too much attention to dispensations prevents them from setting out a sound alternative biblical theology. Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them.

Using something like the revised definition of DT given above, it is possible to trace out what I like to call “the Creation Project” using the two hermeneutical guidelines previously discussed. When this is done we begin to see something like the following:

  1. Creation involves both a teleology and an eschatology (thus a study of the end times involves a study of the beginning times).
  2. The Fall introduces the noetic effects of sin which resets our default from dependence to independence. Genesis 3:15 covers the major work of Christ in a fallen world.
  3. The Noahic Covenant provides a predictable framework for history until the consummation, and further stresses the nature of divine covenants as reinforcements of language—since all interpreters take this covenant “literally.”
  4. The Abrahamic Covenant sets out a blessed future for at least two lines of humanity: those from Isaac and Jacob who inherit “the land of Canaan” and “the Nations.” It also picks up on the promised seed idea from Eden.
  5. The Davidic Covenant promises a great King who will pull the strands of the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants together.
  6. The New Covenant brings all the other everlasting covenants into itself in the Person of Christ, through whose redemptive death and new life the covenants must pass in order to find their specific fulfillments.
  7. The Church as a “new man” created after the resurrection of Christ also enters into specific blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenants. In fact, in a real sense, it enters them before those with whom they were originally promised.
  8. The Second Coming, which is given more emphasis in the Bible than the First Coming, brings the earth’s Owner and the second Adam back as King to judge, restore and beautify it. Just as all the covenants run through Christ, so Christ is Maker, Owner, Redeemer, Restorer, and Ruler as the physical world as a physical Being in the world. The two comings of Christ are in reality one work separated by time, as is evident from the Messianic prophecies in the OT and the Lord’s Supper in the NT. This fact also shows us that the teleology/eschatology motif inaugurated at Creation and instilled in the biblical covenants is yet unfolding.
  9. Because this world is cursed, even Christ cannot remove the ravages of God’s curse on the ground without constantly exercising His miraculous restraint on it. This explains the need for a new heavens and new earth wherein there is no more curse. This completes the original “Creation Project.” The whole Bible program is radically (but not artificially) Christological.

That, I submit, is a lot more promising than talking about the dispensations and restricting it to the Church and Israel. I call it, for want of a better term, Biblical Covenantalism.

(Continued in Part 2.)

Ed Vasicek's picture
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Complexity Works Against Popularity

Paul, it is the very complexity of Traditional Dispensationalism that works against it and makes it look like a template forced upon the Scriptures rather than some significant markers drawn from the Scriptures.  Covenant theology, with it Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace seems simpler and less forced, but that is not the case. But two main points are less suspicious than seven.  No matter how intricately you develop two points, the fact that there are two and that they are simple lures the mind to them. We like something we can easily get our hands on. That is why most Christians can recite a version of the two Great Commandments, but not the 10.  This psychological factor -- a simple summary -- does enter into the equation in a less-than-conscious manner. Two are easier to sell.

This is why our emphasis has to be simpler: Faithful God Theology.  The main distinctives of dispensationalism all flow from a Sovereign God (He can and will do) who is Faithful (just as He says He will).  We need to show how dispensationalism flows from the very character of God. Our hermeneutics should flow from a zeal to honor God's character.

To me, the issue is a consistent hermeneutic and a faithful God.  Covenant theology makes God something less than faithful (or sovereign); he elects Israel, but he is not able to succeed with Israel so he pulls the old switcheroo and  redefines "Israel."  Traditional Dispensationalism -- while a system I clearly prefer if I had to chose between the two -- has a future for Israel and a truly faithful and sovereign God, but disconnects the church from God's dealings with Israel. Gentiles are not grafted in, but a separate plant.  Progressive Dispensationalism (the Saucy version) is the best of both worlds, IMO, but perhaps even better is David Stern's Olive Tree Theology (scroll down to page 5; Stern is Arminian, but it is his understanding of God's people that is a contribution to the discussion).  Still, when all is said and done, I do consider myself in the dispensational camp, as are these refinements.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

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Which Version of Dispensational Theology?

I'm wrapping up my MDiv studies at BBS Clarks Summit, and one of the required classes I took was Dispensational Premillennialism taught by Dr. Stallard, Dean of the Seminary. There were three things that stood out to me while I was taking the class:

1) Other than for Ryrie's sine qua non, no two dispensationalists agree on the various interpretative ramifications of dispensationalism. And, for some dispensationalsts, even the sine qua non are negotiable.

2) There is a major disconnect between dispensationalism as it is manifested in the church and dispensationalism as it is taught in academia. The dispensationalism that is found in most Baptist churches is the popularized "Left Behind" type; the dispensationalism I learned at BBS is more refined and nuanced.

3) Straw men abound in the debates between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology.

After taking the class at BBS, I view dispensational theology as a fractured, often forced, hermeneutic. There are so many versions of it, it's hard to keep track. Paul's is just another "version."

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As a dispensationalist...

...who is studying for my ThM at a Reformed seminary, I struggle with the notion that Dispensationalism is more complex. The more I study Cov. Theo., the more forced and unnatural it seems. I am walking our people through Disp. teaching (many of whom come from a reformed background) and they are delighted with the more obvious nature of emphasizing Kingdom, Covenants (explicit biblical ones), etc. I am wondering if the system is so complex, or if we have failed in teaching it simply?

SamH

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Good point, but...

SamH wrote:

...who is studying for my ThM at a Reformed seminary, I struggle with the notion that Dispensationalism is more complex. The more I study Cov. Theo., the more forced and unnatural it seems. I am walking our people through Disp. teaching (many of whom come from a reformed background) and they are delighted with the more obvious nature of emphasizing Kingdom, Covenants (explicit biblical ones), etc. I am wondering if the system is so complex, or if we have failed in teaching it simply?

Yes, I agree that a dispensational approach to Scripture is more natural and the Scriptures unfold more so, no matter what version of dispensationalism.  But the beauty of it is not in how many dispensations there are, but rather that Israel means Israel, the church means the church, etc.  Even as a system, it is fairly simply.  But if all you have is two minutes, it is complex compared to Covenant, thus Covenant gives the impression of being simpler, but such is not the case.  When you deal with the Scriptures, Covenant has a whole lot more explaining (and imagining) to do.  

That is why I said, 

Covenant theology, with its Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace seems simpler and less forced, but that is not the case.

 

And so there are two different questions:  (1) Which approach looks simplest in brevity, and (2) which offers ease and objectivity when it comes to interpretation?  Covenant wins point one, but for those of us who love to actually study the entire Word (not just camping on  Romans and Ephesians), I think dispensationalism serves the Bible reader/student so much better. Zechariah makes sense with dispensationalism.

Also, the PD begins with the standard dispensational viewpoint, which is more than enough hermeneutic to satisfy the average layman, but offers a deeper level of understanding (in addition to, but not displacing the simpler level).  The heart of all dispensationalism is  that God will keep his promises to (ethnic) Israel, understood as normally as possible, and that the church is not Israel (except for the Israel of God, Messianic Jews).  That is the bottom line.  The rest, while making some difference in interpretation, is secondary. 

"The Midrash Detective"

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Version?

T Howard wrote:

I'm wrapping up my MDiv studies at BBS Clarks Summit, and one of the required classes I took was Dispensational Premillennialism taught by Dr. Stallard, Dean of the Seminary. There were three things that stood out to me while I was taking the class:

1) Other than for Ryrie's sine qua non, no two dispensationalists agree on the various interpretative ramifications of dispensationalism. And, for some dispensationalsts, even the sine qua non are negotiable.

2) There is a major disconnect between dispensationalism as it is manifested in the church and dispensationalism as it is taught in academia. The dispensationalism that is found in most Baptist churches is the popularized "Left Behind" type; the dispensationalism I learned at BBS is more refined and nuanced.

3) Straw men abound in the debates between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology.

After taking the class at BBS, I view dispensational theology as a fractured, often forced, hermeneutic. There are so many versions of it, it's hard to keep track. Paul's is just another "version."

Well, first off, anyone who has read much covenant theology knows that there are numerous versions of it at a certain level.  Still, at the level of a basic setting out of the lineaments of covenant theology the idea can be communicated adequately.  Same with dispensationalism - only please understand that dispensationalism is often reduced to two or three corpora of systematic theology.  You think 'no two dispensationalists agree on the...interpretative ramifications' of dispensational theology.  I really am not sure what you have in mind by this statement.  Can you elucidate a bit?

My 'version' is actually not intended to be a version at all.  Truthfully I couldn't care less about holding up a system qua system.  I am concerned with tracing out the Bible's own story.  Whether I do it satisfactorily or not is another issue.  But your comments do not encourage me to view them as well pondered.  Perhaps the second part of this piece will help you?  Perhaps not?  Anyway, though the article is called 'renewing dispensational theology' I see my views as first biblical.

God bless,

 

Paul H   

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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The Heart of DT is not the Heart of BC

Ed said,

Quote:
The heart of all dispensationalism is  that God will keep his promises to (ethnic) Israel, understood as normally as possible, and that the church is not Israel (except for the Israel of God, Messianic Jews).  That is the bottom line. 

I agree with that statement from a typical dispensational point of view.  I demur from it from the point of view I am advocating (Biblical Covenantalism).  BC is far more holistic; having full worldview implications.  Perhaps it is inappropriate for me to tie BC too closely with DT?  If so it is still the case that much in e.g. Pentecost, McClain, Sauer, etc can be readily accessed by BC.

The heart of Dispenationalism is not the heart of Biblical Covenantalism.  BC is concerned with the ramifications of the idea 'God Has Spoken.'

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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Paul Henebury wrote:

Paul Henebury wrote:

Ed said,

 

Quote:

The heart of all dispensationalism is  that God will keep his promises to (ethnic) Israel, understood as normally as possible, and that the church is not Israel (except for the Israel of God, Messianic Jews).  That is the bottom line. 

 

I agree with that statement from a typical dispensational point of view.  I demur from it from the point of view I am advocating (Biblical Covenantalism).  BC is far more holistic; having full worldview implications.  Perhaps it is inappropriate for me to tie BC too closely with DT?  If so it is still the case that much in e.g. Pentecost, McClain, Sauer, etc can be readily accessed by BC.

The heart of Dispenationalism is not the heart of Biblical Covenantalism.  BC is concerned with the ramifications of the idea 'God Has Spoken.'

Thanks for making the distinction clear.  

 

"The Midrash Detective"

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What is the difference?

Paul,

Thanks for this. I have been looking for some current scholarly work on dispensationalism that would help me think through all the issues. Your contributions will be a big help. BC as you call it, sounds similar to Progressive Dispensationalism as I have understood it reading Bock. What are the main differences between what you are suggesting and PD? One reason I have loved the concept of Dispensationalism though never have bought into the "dispensations" as they are formally and rigorously defined while being unsatisfied with CT, is that Dispensationalism seems to put at the forefront a doxological approach to the basis of theology while CT pushes a soteriological approach to basis of theology. Any thoughts? 

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Matthew J wrote:

Matthew J wrote:

Dispensationalism seems to put at the forefront a doxological approach to the basis of theology while CT pushes a soteriological approach to basis of theology. Any thoughts? 

I'm not sure this is the case. Even if we can prove this on a theological front, it seems to me that "pop" dispensationalism, as evidenced in her churches, "pushes" a soterian approach to theology and methodology, whereas Covenantalism advocates a much more robust doxology. 

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Some Answers

Matthew J wrote:

Paul,

Thanks for this. I have been looking for some current scholarly work on dispensationalism that would help me think through all the issues. Your contributions will be a big help. BC as you call it, sounds similar to Progressive Dispensationalism as I have understood it reading Bock. What are the main differences between what you are suggesting and PD? One reason I have loved the concept of Dispensationalism though never have bought into the "dispensations" as they are formally and rigorously defined while being unsatisfied with CT, is that Dispensationalism seems to put at the forefront a doxological approach to the basis of theology while CT pushes a soteriological approach to basis of theology. Any thoughts? 

Matthew,

 

BC differs from PD in several ways, but I suppose the main point of divergence is the canonical-theological side to PD hermeneutics.  This lets in a form of theological interpretation along popular 'already/not yet' lines which, among other things, creates latitude for what I might call novel exegesis where one part of Scripture may dictate to another part.  Too PD culminates in one people of God.  BC uses the covenants to structure its approach, so that they are the skeleton upon which all the teachings of the Bible hang.  BC also teaches a three-in-one people of God (a triad in reflection of the Trinity) by not adopting such a hermeneutic.  It should be noted that, in common with quite a few slogans utilized by modern evangelicals (e.g. typology, apocalyptic) 'theological interpretation' is a chimera with no fixed identity: a label to slap on something one would rather not answer questions about. ;-)

As for the doxological/soteriological thing, I confess that I find more heat than light coming from Dispensationalists.  While I do agree that CT's redemptive-historical approach via the covenant of grace does subordinate everything to Calvary, I struggle to take DT's claim to be doxological that seriously because of the issues with DT I have listed.  

If you really want to get a better grasp of BC may I suggest you read the series Christ at the Center at my blog?  I have linked to the last installment so you can see the outline.  

 

God bless you and yours,

 

Paul H 

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Paul,

Paul,

It seems to me that your post here opens up some areas of discussion. So I will pick a few to address.

Quote:
The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise. But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham?

I think it is a fundamental error to assert that “promise” is something limited to the dispensation of promise. That is not the point of the names of the dispensations. It is similar with Law. The dispensation of law does not mean there was no law before, and it does not mean there is no law after; and so with conscience, with grace, or what have you (except innocence). The dispensations are named according to the progress of revelation at that point as it related to the way that God was governing and working in the world. I think to object to the label of it is objecting to the wrong thing. Call “promise” something else, but recognize that there was an advance in revelation at that point.

Also remember that the dispensations built on each other to some degree. So, for instance, the dispensation of government did not end the use of the conscience. However, it marked a progress of revelation that fundamentally changed the way God governed the world and his relationships with mankind.

Quote:
Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, “the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise’ ” (The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421).
I wonder if you have accurately used Sailhamer here. He does say there is no word in the OT that equates to “promise” as used in the NT. However, he acknowledges that the concept is present in the OT, though he seems to argue it is not the same “promise” as in the NT epangelia.

But the absence of the word “promise” in the OT errs on two fronts. First, “I will do …” is a promise by any other name, and this is frequent in the OT. Second, and related to it, it is an error to assert that the lack of a word means the lack of a concept. You are correct that promises were made to Adam and Eve. Gen 12:1-3 was a promise, and there are many others in the OT.

Quote:
In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words.
A bit unrelated here, but what do thoughts exist in, if not words?

Quote:
Restricting DT—as many dispensationalists tend to do—to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a system of theology.” Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the church or the last things is being discussed does not qualify—neither does it deserve to be identified—as a system of theology. And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!
Why do you assume that two systems cannot share commonalities? It seems that dispensationalism actually does only effect ecclesiology and eschatology, and to some degree pneumatology. That other people agree with dispensationalism on other doctrines is hardly the fault of dispensationalism. It could rather testify to their failure to fully systematize the revelation of God.

Quote:
Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them.
The problem with this is that it seems to ignore the issue of progressive revelation. The dispensations are based on the progress of revelation. The covenants do not advance revelation. In fact, it can be (and should be argued) that the Mosaic, the Davidic, and the New Covenant are actually expositions or developments of the Abrahamic covenant.

Furthermore, in your scheme, I am not sure how you account for Genesis 1-9 since you begin your covenants with the Noahic covenant (Gen 9). Additionally, you skipped over the Mosaic covenant (and the Palestinian covenant if you distinguish between them). The Noahic covenant isn’t really related to the Davidic covenant, and you have no covenant for the church. Participating in the blessings or the provision of a covenat (your #7) is not the same as being party to a covenant. In my view, I am not convinced your covenantal system deals with the full scope of Scripture any better than the original covenantal system.

Larry

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Some Misunderstandings

Larry,

 

Thanks for your concerns.  I think some of them are built upon misunderstandings of my positions.  I do understand that 'promise' is used as a marker in the progress of revelation.  But it really is an indefinite label to stick on the main idea in Genesis 12-22, which is not promise but covenant!  And that artificiality is a big problem, since it obscures what the text is actually saying.  Further, I would appreciate it if you would address the problem of definition under 1. Self-Understanding (above).  Just claiming these disparate concepts mark progress in revelation is different than showing it.  If I may quote you:

Quote:
The dispensation of law does not mean there was no law before, and it does not mean there is no law after; and so with conscience, with grace, or what have you (except innocence).

I know this very well, but it misses the point.  The point has to do the the justification for using these labels in the first place.  They appear ill-thought-out and too open to objection.  I have provided a few.

As for my understanding of progressive revelation, well I wrote six posts about that very subject: http://sharperiron.org/article/what-progressive-revelation-part-1

The dispensational overlay you advocate seems to me to suffer from the charge of artificiality of definition and imprecision as markers of progressive revelation.  You say the covenants 'do not advance revelation.'  I find that statement extraordinary.  What do you think covenants do then?  Why can they be tracked throughout the OT? 

You say I make the Church participate in the New Covenant.  Well, if you only have the above article to guide you I see how that might appear so, but let me assure you otherwise.  I teach that the New Covenant is made with the Church.  This is because the New Covenant is Christ (e.g. Isa. 49:8).  the New Covenant will be made with the Remnant of Israel later.  There is one New Covenant.  I teach that all the everlasting covenants must pass through the New Covenant in Christ for them to be realized.  

The Church is also a party to certain parts of the Abrahamic Covenant as Paul makes clear.  

Please understand that I was not setting out a complete outline of BC.  The Mosaic Covenant is for OT Israel and is temporal.  The Land Covenant of Deut. 29-30 is an amplification of the land promise within the Abrahamic Covenant.  

You ask,

Quote:
Why do you assume that two systems cannot share commonalities?

I don't.  My point is that DT does not have its own holistic system but piggy-back's on others which have methodologies which cut across DT.  You may be okay with a 'system' which 'corrects' CT in one or two areas.  I am not, and BC is my answer.  

You ask 'what do thoughts exist in, if not in words?'  But again you miss my point.  What I am saying is that because words convey thoughts, the words of God convey His intentions and therefore cannot be spiritualized, typologized so that they come out teaching things which could never be devined from their original settings.  Covenants are 'reinforcements' of this idea of the correlation of God's words translated into God's actions.  As such, they are theological pillars.  This construct also ties in Gen. 1-9 with the rest of Scripture.  

 

I do ask you to understand the limitations of these posts.  A full exposition of BC is in the wings and it addresses your point s much better than I can do here.

Again, I appreciate your questions.

 

God bless,

 

Paul H 

Dr. Paul Henebury

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Thanks, Paul. A quick

Thanks, Paul. A quick rejoinder here, if I might. I do understand the limitations here for both of us, and with limited space it can be hard to address things substantively.

Quote:
I do understand that 'promise' is used as a marker in the progress of revelation.  But it really is an indefinite label to stick on the main idea in Genesis 12-22, which is not promise but covenant! 
As I say, I think the labels are pretty much irrelevant. Skip “promise” and call it covenant, or orange, or something else. But on to the main point. I am sure you know that the type of covenant that the Abrahamic covenant is identified as is a promissory covenant. It is a well-recognized type of covenant in the ANE (whether you accept cultural information or not), and it is called a promissory covenant for a reason: it was a unilateral, unconditional promise. Elliot Johnson says, This promissory covenant is “a commissive statement in which the author commits himself to act in a specific way in the future. Fulfillment is then a satisfying of that commitment” ([i]Three Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism[/i], 135). To make a distinction between a promissory covenant and a promise seems tenuous at best. Even the Mosaic covenant, usually considered a suzerainty treaty is based on promises: If you … then I will. Saying "it's not a promise; it's a covenant" seems a lot like saying "It's not a car; it's an automobile."

Quote:
Further, I would appreciate it if you would address the problem of definition under 1. Self-Understanding (above).
It is hard for me to see exactly what you are going after there. You seem to object to the dispensational names, but as I say (and others), the names are not the issue, and the number of dispensations is not the issue. I think those distract from it. Your working definition seems to jettison the whole idea of dispensationalism for a tertium quid that doesn’t do justice to the issues, IMO (again, based on what admittedly is my limited understanding of what you are saying). It seems that you are responding to something that isn’t the issue. I think the issues are the progressive of revelation that reveals different economies of God’s work in the world.

If we recognize the progress of revelation at certain points (and dispensationalism does not required agreement on the number of points at which progress was revealed), then the label we attach to them is secondary.

 

Quote:
The point has to do the the justification for using these labels in the first place.  They appear ill-thought-out and too open to objection.
Again, jettison the labels. I think arguing that the label is wrong is the wrong argument. The labels aren’t the issue. I think that is a red herring. The issue is whether or not revelation progressed, and if so, how? What I don’t see is how your solution does justice to the issues.

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What do you think covenants do then? 
They stipulate agreements, either conditional or unconditional. When God said, “I will do X,” it was a promise, and he repeatedly returns to it all throughout the OT.

Quote:
Why can they be tracked throughout the OT? 
Because they are part of how God works with the nation of Israel. Those explain one of the foundations of dispensationalism, the fundamental dichotomy between Israel and the church. Why are they distinct? Because God made promises to them, and he is faithful; he will keep those promises. He will not change horses midstream by taking those promises away from the people to whom they were made and giving them to someone else. You seem to agree when you say that Israel will later be a party to the NC.

Quote:
I teach that the New Covenant is made with the Church.  This is because the New Covenant is Christ (e.g. Isa. 49:8).  the New Covenant will be made with the Remnant of Israel later.  There is one New Covenant.
I think there are some issues here.

You say the NC is made with the church because the NC is Christ. The NC (according to the revelation of Scripture) is made with the house of Israel and the house of Jacob, those who were led out of the land of Egypt by the hand of God, and who broke the covenant that was made with them, namely, the Mosaic covenant. First, the church is never called “the house of Israel and the house of Jacob.” Those are terms with meaning in the Bible that refer to the ethnic descendants of Abraham. Secondly, the church was not led by the hand out of the land of Egypt. That was the ethnic descendants of Abraham. Thirdly, the church did not break the Mosaic covenant, something you acknowledge when you say that the Mosaic covenant was for Israel and was temporal (although I think you mean temporary?). Fourthly, Israel as party to the NC cannot change unless the sun, moon, and stars change, and the universe can be measured and searched out (Jer 31:35-37). I don’t see how your argument can stand up under the exegesis of the passages.

Secondly, you say the NC is Christ. Interestingly, the passage you cite in support actually refutes your premise here. First, the NC is different than the covenant which is Christ. We have already acknowledged multiple covenants. There is no reason to conflate them here. That Christ is a covenant does not mean that Christ is the NC. Second, Isa 49 speaks of the restoration of Israel. Consider v. 5: to bring back Jacob, so that Israel might be gathered to him. V. 6: to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel. V. 8: To restore the land (which has to be the promised land which they lost). V. 15: Very similar to concept in Jer 31:35-37 of God not casting off or forgetting his people. Those are not terms that are applicable to the church.

Quote:
The Church is also a party to certain parts of the Abrahamic Covenant as Paul makes clear.  
I don’t think I would say “Party.” They are the recipients of it. The parties were Abraham and God. But the church is certainly part of “all nations that will be blessed.”

Quote:
Please understand that I was not setting out a complete outline of BC.
Fair enough.

Quote:
The Mosaic Covenant is for OT Israel and is temporal. 
I agree. But I wonder how you determine that the Mosaic covenant is only for Israel, but the other covenants are not? In other words, I think you might have some inconsistency here because the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the New covenant are made with the same group of people.

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The Land Covenant of Deut. 29-30 is an amplification of the land promise within the Abrahamic Covenant.  
I agree, but it also ties it to the Mosaic covenant in that the land blessings are conditioned on obedience to the covenant. It is also tied to the NC in Jer 31: 38-40 which specifies that in the NC with the restored hearts, the people will be restored to the land in peace. The Mosaic covenant made participation in the blessings of the AC conditional on obedience and loyalty: If you obey you will live in the land; if you disobey I will evict you. When you repent, I will gather you from where I have scattered you.

Quote:
My point is that DT does not have its own holistic system but piggy-back's on others which have methodologies which cut across DT.  You may be okay with a 'system' which 'corrects' CT in one or two areas.  I am not, and BC is my answer.  
First, how did you determine who piggy backed off of whom? I would contend that when CT agrees with DT, it is because they have used the hermeneutic that DT uses. They disagree in places because they don’t use it consistently. There is not space here to fully tease this out but consider the church and soteriology. CT sees election in soteriology as unconditional and effectual. They would never allow that God could choose person A, but then “unchoose them” because of their disobedience, and instead choose person B. And they do that with good reason—because it’s what Scripture teaches. Yet they do not apply that same hermeneutic and exegetical method to ecclesiology. As another example, they understand that the land promises in the AC and MC refer to Palestine because they use a dispensational hermeneutic. Yet they suddenly shift those same promises in the prophets to something spiritual or eternal. That is why the consistent use of a normal hermeneutic is a significant component.

Quote:
What I am saying is that because words convey thoughts, the words of God convey His intentions and therefore cannot be spiritualized, typologized so that they come out teaching things which could never be devined from their original settings.
I absolutely agree, but I don’t see how you can. When you say the NC is Christ and is with the church, haven’t you taught something that cannot be divine from the original setting of the NC? Or perhaps we should say the only way you could teach that is if you divined it, because it cannot be sustained by exegesis. The NC in Jer 31:31-40 is pretty explicit about who the parties to the NC are. Yet you seem to change that from Israel to the church.

Quote:
Covenants  … are theological pillars.  This construct also ties in Gen. 1-9 with the rest of Scripture.  
But you don’t have a biblical covenant in Gen 1-9, right? Isn’t the first biblical covenant Gen 9?

Thanks for the exchange. I know this is a long post and I don’t want to prolong this thread or weigh in too heavily. I have other things to do as I am sure you do. I am, as of now, unconvinced (as you can see), but I will keep reading.

 

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iKuyper wrote:

iKuyper wrote:

 

Matthew J wrote:

 

Dispensationalism seems to put at the forefront a doxological approach to the basis of theology while CT pushes a soteriological approach to basis of theology. Any thoughts? 

 

 

I'm not sure this is the case. Even if we can prove this on a theological front, it seems to me that "pop" dispensationalism, as evidenced in her churches, "pushes" a soterian approach to theology and methodology, whereas Covenantalism advocates a much more robust doxology. 

I should clarify, I disagree with traditional dispenationalism, especially how it is manifested today. I am thankful the Paul is thinking through these things and writing about it over on his blog, because I have struggles with both DT and CT, and I have found it a rarity for scholars to address the problems with the systems that they personally support. I agree that "pop" dispensationalism evidenced in many churches pushes a soterian approach, especially to methodology. I do think however, that a viewpoint that considers a progressive revelation of how God is working in families, nations, the church, etc, for his glory ultimately does fit the flow of Scripture, rather than a viewpoint that narrowly sees the cross as the chief (or only) means of God being glorified. I do not desire to mischaracterize either DT or CT adherents, right now, I am somewhere in the middle trying to understand it all. 

Thank you also to Paul for your blog, I will read those articles and consider them. 

 

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Some Questions for Dispensationalists

Are Old Testament saints in Christ?

Are Old Testament saints part of the Body of Christ?

What was the Gospel that was preached to Abraham? Galatians 3:8

Are dispensationalists still holding to Scofield's different Gospels?

Thanks

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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A Little More Misunderstanding

Larry,

I feel that you are seeing things through dispensationalist lenses and so are not really seeing what I'm saying.

Really, it is not okay to call the dispensations anything you like.  If that can be done then they are even more problematic than I say they are; for they are contentless and more ill-defined.  No dispensationalist I am aware of would be happy with your position on the laissez-faire naming of the dispensations.  Previously you wrote,

Quote:
  The dispensations are named according to the progress of revelation at that point as it related to the way that God was governing and working in the world.

Well, that puts clear parameters on what the dispensations are about and what they can be called. 

Your answer to the question of what you think covenants are is rather weak.  Covenants are God Himself entering into an oath-bond to do something.  He binds His character to the outplaying and fulfillment of the oaths, and we can count on them.  Therefore, nothing can circumvent these fulfillments.  The covenants are like sign-posts telling us what God will do.  As such they are prescriptive (not merely descriptive like dispensations).  Being prescriptive they guide formulations.  Being reinforcements of Divine speech means that they amplify the 'God's words/actions' motif in Gen. 1-9 while providing verbal continuity in the idea of revelation.  I don't need a covenant in Gen. 1-8 to tie those chapters in with what comes next.  there are strong verbal and structural clues in the text. (e.g. Sailhamer and what I have said about God's speech/action).

You err in saying the covenants are made just  with Israel.  You use this to brush aside an important point about why covenants can be tracked.  These include more than those made with Israel.  E.g. The Abrahamic covenant has provisions for the nation that would become Israel, but, as you say in one place, it also was made with the Nations.  I keep having to repeat myself on the New covenant re. Israel.  Dispensationalists tend to be myopic on the New Covenant.  As I said in the combox of my previous post:

Quote:
  On your last point I would say that, with respect, you are not employing consistent hermeneutics when reading Lk. 22:14-20 or 1 Cor. 11:23-26.  Christ's blood is the "blood of the New Covenant" you have been saved with (which is why you are not under the Law).  He mediates the New Covenant now.  Not with Israel for sure, since those OT prophecies have yet to be fulfilled; but with the Church.  You say, "believers who are a part of the dispensation of the churches are only ministers of, not partakers of this covenant yet."  This alludes to 2 Cor. 3:6 which refers to Paul and Timothy as ministers.  Contextually the message they are ministering as "ministers of the new covenant" is the Gospel (2:12; 4:3-4).  The old saw about us not being participators in the New Covenant comes from Dispensationalists not taking their own affirmations seriously enough.  Why would Jeremiah speak of the Church?  He wouldn't.  He didn't know what it was!  He prophesied about Israel.  So even though Jesus and Paul could refer us to Jeremiah, we do not look to Jeremiah to find out whether we are in the New Covenant.  we look to Jesus and Paul, and their testimony is unambiguous.

Please also see this article:   http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/does-diatheke-mean-last-will-and-testament-in-hebrews-916-17/

What I have said about the Abrahamic and New covenants here shows how I can be consistent regarding them while putting Israel under the Mosaic covenant.  This also answers your query on language and its use.

You think the covenant in Isa. 49:6 is not the NC?  Okay, but what is it?  It is certainly salvific and restorative, just like Jer. 31.

On theological piggy-backing, I wonder how familiar you are with the method of CT.  We can't just slap 'dispensational hermeneutic' on their formulations with which we agree and claim to do them justice.  Just what is a 'dispensational hermeneutic'?  G-H hermeneutics?  What is that nowadays, and have dispensationalists always employed it?  Mike Stallard's dissertaion on the Hermeneutics of A. C. Gaebelein for instance, says no.  

 

There is more, but this should be enough for now.

 

Appreciate the challenge.

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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Quick Answers (if I may)

Ron Bean wrote:

Are Old Testament saints in Christ? - Do you mean 'in the Church' - No

Are Old Testament saints part of the Body of Christ? - No, the Church is a post-resurrection reality

What was the Gospel that was preached to Abraham? Galatians 3:8 - It is in the verse.  It is not that Jesus would die on a Roman Cross.

Are dispensationalists still holding to Scofield's different Gospels? - I guess some do but most don't.

Thanks

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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Are Old Testament saints in

Are Old Testament saints in Christ?

Yes, if you mean union with Christ.

Are Old Testament saints part of the Body of Christ?

No. The body of Christ is marked out by Spirit baptism, something that started at Pentecost.

What was the Gospel that was preached to Abraham? Galatians 3:8

"That all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him." (It's right there in the verse.) The bigger question is did Abraham know that meant his son would be the Messiah who would die for sinners? Or is that something made clear only later in the progress of revelation?

Are dispensationalists still holding to Scofield's different Gospels?

Some probably are. Remember that "gospel" means good  news, and there is more than one good news. So the idea of different gospels isn't odd. It's very defensible based on the text of Scripture. The relations between them need to be worked out, however. There are also still some dispensationalists who believe in multiple ways of salvation.

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Paul, let me finally reply

Paul, let me finally reply here. As you said elsewhere, this can get lengthy and none of us have the time for that. But I wrote this some time ago intending to post it and never did.

Quote:
Really, it is not okay to call the dispensations anything you like.  If that can be done then they are even more problematic than I say they are; for they are contentless and more ill-defined.  No dispensationalist I am aware of would be happy with your position on the laissez-faire naming of the dispensations. 
I am not aware of any dispensationalist who claims that the number or names of the dispensations are essential to dispenstionalism. Are you? I have never heard of such a thing (which may be my limitations). My point is that a label is just a label. The content is what is at issue. That’s what the discussion should be about. If you call the dispensation of promise the dispensation of covenant, or the AC, or whatever, I am fine with that. DT doesn’t rise or fall on whether you like the name promise or think it should be something else.

Quote:
Covenants are God Himself entering into an oath-bond to do something.
Yes, it’s a promise. And he keeps all the promises he makes. He is faithful; he cannot deny himself. I think, in terms of theology, the difference between and apromise and covenant is largely a distinction without a difference. Covenants are typically more formal. I would say a covenant is a subset of promise. God can no more break a promise than he can a covenant.

Quote:
You err in saying the covenants are made just  with Israel.
So use the text itself and show me who they are made with. The Abrahamic covenant was made with Abraham (Gen 12:1) and his descendants (Gen 15:18-21). The Mosaic covenant was made with the nation of Israel (Exodus 19:1-8; Jer 31:31-34). The Davidic covenant was made with the house of David (2 Sam 7:7-14). The New Covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Jacob, whom God led by the hand out of Egypt, who broke the covenant that God made with them (Jer 31:31-33). If you can use the text to show that someone else is included as a party to the covenant, I will be glad to consider it. But you have to use the text of Scripture.

I think you are taking people who participate in the blessings of a covenant and making them parties to the covenant. Perhaps an analogy might help: If I enter a contract to buy a house, my children can participate in the blessings of that contract. But they are not party to the contract. And should I default on the contract, my children are not legally liable for it. Obviously, all analogies break down, but I think it shows the difference between participating in blessings or reaping benefits and being a party to the covenant. Again, the text has to drive us.

Quote:
The Abrahamic covenant has provisions for the nation that would become Israel, but, as you say in one place, it also was made with the Nations.
Where did I say that? I believe what I said is that they are recipients of it, meaning the blessings component of it. It wasn’t made with the nations. Again, if you think it was, then show us that from the text of the covenant.

Quote:
Dispensationalists tend to be myopic on the New Covenant.  As I said in the combox of my previous post:
I think it is more characterized by exegetical rather than myopic. Again, if you can use the text to show your point, I will entertain it. But right now, I don’t feel like I have much to work with, and the combox of the previous post was part of the problem, which is why I addressed that at some length.

Quote:
  Why would Jeremiah speak of the Church?  He wouldn't.  He didn't know what it was!  He prophesied about Israel. 
Haven't you contradicted yourself here? You say, “the words of God convey His intentions and therefore cannot be spiritualized, typologized so that they come out teaching things which could never be devined from their original settings.” (I actually disagree with that on the typology part, but I am using what you said here.) Then here you admit that the church cannot be “devined from [its] original setting" because Jeremiah "wouldn't" speak of it and "didn't know what it was. He prophesied about Israel." That is significant, isn’t it? If God's intentions have to be divined from the original setting, and the original setting cannot speak of the church because it was unknown, then it seems the NC can't be with the church.

Quote:
So even though Jesus and Paul could refer us to Jeremiah, we do not look to Jeremiah to find out whether we are in the New Covenant.  we look to Jesus and Paul, and their testimony is unambiguous.
Again, what do you mean by “in”? Not to parse it too fine, but the church certainly participates in the blessings of it. That’s the point of forgiveness cited in Hebrews. But I think it is significant that Hebrews (in fact every place in the NT) only cites part of the NC. I think that is because it doesn’t intend to make the church a party to it. It does intend to show that the church participates in the blessings of it.

Quote:
What I have said about the Abrahamic and New covenants here shows how I can be consistent regarding them while putting Israel under the Mosaic covenant. 
I am not convinced, as you might suspect.

Quote:
You think the covenant in Isa. 49:6 is not the NC?  Okay, but what is it?  It is certainly salvific and restorative, just like Jer. 31.
Why does it have to be the NC? You are imposing a structure on it. It is a promise of God to save Israel and the nations.

Quote:
We can't just slap 'dispensational hermeneutic' on their formulations with which we agree and claim to do them justice.
I agree with this. I think the “dispensational hermeneutic” is what everyone uses every day in life. It’s the way that we live. And I think the LGH hermeneutics is a bit like Paul these days, … all things to all men. And that is a problem. I can’t answer for others.

But use your example of the NC. You take the grammatical and historical meaning of the text and include things in it (the church) that you admit Jeremiah had no way of knowing. But you are content to inject meaning in a text when you admit that it’s not there and violates your own standard of hermeneutics.

In the end, I am not convinced the problems you identify are that great of a problem, and I am not convinced that your solutions are viable.

Thanks for the exchange here.

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A Last Reply

Hi Larry,

I'm going to respond briefly to your points:

1. Your first para after the intro again dodges the issue of nomenclature and leaves the door open to non-specificity.  Although we might dub the "dispensation" which started with Abraham the Abrahamic dispensation, we cannot call it the dispensation of promise without begging the questions I have already asked; namely, why promise? Why stress the dispensation (which the Bible doesn't) but not the covenant (which it does).  If we stress the covenant we cannot stress the dispensation because covenants cannot be bounded in the same way dispensations are.  We cannot talk of 'dispensation of covenant' without identifying which covenant and why it is dispensational effectively nullifying both ideas. 

2. Covenants are more than promises and promises are not necessarily covenantal.  Proof of this is found in Gen. 17. Covenants are not subsets of promises, a promise can be within a covenant (and usually is), but covenants establish relationships, which promises do not of themselves do.  Again, God's dealings with Ishmael and Isaac in Gen. 17 brings this out. 

Moreover, Noah was not a Israelite.  Neither was Abraham (he is called 'a wandering Aramean').  Gen. 22:18 is a covenant oath which Paul explicitly applies to the Church in Gal. 3:16.  It is reductionistic to claim all the covenants were given to Israel.      

3. I'm afraid you bypassed what I said about the new covenant references in the NT.  Lk. 22:20 says that Christ's new covenant blood was "shed for you" (the disciples).  New covenant blood! The disciples are the foundations of the Church (Eph. 2:20).  Paul applies Jesus' words directly to the Church in 1 Cor. 11:25.  He calls himself a minister of the new covenant in 2 Cor. 3:6 which is a clear reference to the Gospel message we believed.  It is sealed with Christ's covenant blood and mediated by Him.  The article I referred you to seeks to show that the "testator" in Heb. 9:16-17 is, in fact, Christ.  But the word diatheke has not been translated correctly (or uniformly) in those verses.  The word ought to be translated "covenant" as it is in every other part of Hebrews, including the immediate context.  Jesus is the one who makes the covenant in Himself, and His blood was shed for us (cf. Eph. 5:25).  You need to deal with these passages.

4. Again, Jeremiah predicts a new covenant made with Israel, but this does not obviate the same covenant being made with the Church.  Isn't Lk. 22 and 1 Cor. 11 as clear as Jer. 33?  

5.  You misunderstand what I said about the church and Jeremiah 31.  You seem to think I'm reading it into Jeremiah when I am not.  I'm reading Lk. 22 and 1 Cor. 11.  It is additional revelation which does not contradict or divert Jer. 31.  You want me to go to that chapter and the OT to prove what I say isn't there.  but you ignore the chapters where I say it is there.  

6. On Isa. 49:8 you ask

Quote:
  Why does it have to be the NC? You are imposing a structure on it. It is a promise of God to save Israel and the nations.

But you duck the question I asked you.  Does the passage prove that Christ will be made a covenant?  I say it does, along with many commentators.  Okay, since Christ is the 'Lamb' of the new covenant and the Mediator of the new covenant, and His blood is the blood of the new covenant, I make bold to identify the salvific covenant in Isa. 49:8 as Christ the new covenant.  The new covenant is the one with which Christ is intimately related.  You may choose not to make the connection, which is fine by me.  But then you will be left with a hole to fill.  What covenant is Isaiah on about?   

Anyway, I am grateful for the discussion.  But I believe you are seeing things through lenses which prevent you from exploring what the biblical text (e.g. in Isa. 49, 1 Cor. 11; 2 Cor. 3) is actually saying. 

God bless you and yours.

 

Paul H

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder/ President of Telos Theological Ministries, and teach at

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