My friends have often heard me say, “The more I read my Bible the less dispensational I become.” This statement comes from someone who was spiritually nurtured in churches with dispensational theology, who graduated from a Christian university steeped in dispensational theology, who received his first graduate degree from a dispensational seminary, and who—for twelve years—preached sermons that reflected dispensational theology. For the first sixteen years of my Christian life, I rarely questioned the fundamental distinctions of dispensational theology. What are those distinctions? In his discussion of what he called the “sine qua non of dispensationalism,” Ryrie asserted:
A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct … This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive (Ryrie 44-45).
Later he concluded, “the essence of dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the Church” (Ryrie 47).
As a dispensationalist I studied my Bible with the understanding that God had dual and separate plans for Israel and the church. I understood this “church age” to be somewhat parenthetical until God resumed His plan with the nation of Israel. I believed that the Abrahamic covenant and all the other Old Testament covenants were essentially for national Israel, and that only the soteriological benefits of the covenants belonged to the church.
As I continued to pastor and preach, I realized that my training in the Old Testament was weak. I decided to pursue a Master of Theology in Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. My dispensational comrades in ministry assured me that Westminster would ruin my theology. I suppose many of them believe that has happened. Nevertheless, I was drawn to Westminster primarily because Bruce Waltke was teaching there. I had read books and articles by Dr. Waltke and had profited immensely from them.
While at Westminster I had the privilege of learning from Vern Poythress, Tremper Longman, and Raymond Dillard, along with Bruce Waltke. At first I listened as an antagonist, but I was soon won over by their personal graciousness and their commitment to Scripture. I began to experience discomfort as I realized that my commitment to dispensationalism was often unyielding, even when contradicted by the results of exegesis. These words from the introduction to my Th.M thesis summarize my response at that time:
Exegesis often eviscerates one’s theological presuppositions. When a theological bulwark withstands the penetration of biblical exegesis, its tenets remain secure. However, if its walls crumble beneath the weight of incisive and precise exegesis, then one must abandon the fortress and construct a better one (Davis, 1990, 1).
During the course of my study at Westminster, Bruce Waltke was my faculty advisor. I was privileged to have a number of personal discussions with him regarding the uneasiness I felt in questioning dispensationalism. As I considered what to research for my Th.M thesis, he suggested a topic that would be beneficial to me on my journey and helpful to others. I wrote “A Critical Evaluation of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism.” The writing of that thesis opened a door and gave me a gentle push toward my eventual departure from dispensationalism.
As I worked through the exegesis of the Abrahamic Covenant and the hermeneutical issues surrounding it, I came to this conclusion:
Through an inductive study, this paper has arrived at a position that approximates covenant theology, namely, that that covenants confirm and explicate the program by which God redeems a people for Himself. It has been established that Israel and the church need to be perceived as sub-categories of a larger concept, i.e. the people of God. The Abrahamic covenant is not the beginning of the people of God, but rather God’s redemptive means, after the rebellion at Babel and the dispersion, to reclaim a fallen world to Himself. The Abrahamic covenant needs to be viewed in its relation to God’s purposes for the entire world, not simply His purposes for a nation. The Abrahamic covenant needs to viewed in light of the inauguration of eschatological times with the first advent of Jesus Christ, as well as the consummation of eschatology at the second advent (Davis 109).
Since those years at Westminster, I have continued to think about these issues and have become more and more convinced that exegesis and biblical theology do not support the sine qua non of dispensationalism (i.e., the distinction between Israel and the church). Since Christ is the final and fullest revelation of God, I now see that the Old Testament anticipated Christ and finds its interpretation and fulfillment in Christ.
In the New Testament—apart from well-debated text in Romans 11:25-27—there is not even a hint of a future restoration of the nation of Israel to the land. Of the seventy four references to Abraham in the New Testament, not one clearly focuses on the “earthly” elements of the covenant. Even the acceptance of a mass conversion of Israelites at some future time does not demand a return to a former order of things.
Take, for example, the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the relationship of the law to saving faith, in Galatians 3. He introduces Abraham as a paradigm of saving faith and of inclusion in the promises of God. In the course of his discussion, the apostle makes interpretive statements based on his understanding of the Genesis passages. These reflect on the Abrahamic covenant. These statements are as follows:
- “Those who believe are children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7).
- “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ’All nations will be blessed through you’” (Gal. 3:8).
- “Those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham” (Gal. 3:9).
- “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:14).
- “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
- “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).
Paramount in these verses is the redemptive significance of the Abrahamic covenant as it finds its consummation in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ, as the quintessential seed of Abraham, is both the guarantor and inheritor of the promises of the covenant.
Relationship with Christ, established by emulating the faith of Abraham, guarantees one’s participation in the promises of the covenant. It is not the keeping of the law or physical descent from Abraham that constitutes one as a child of Abraham, but rather faith in Jesus Christ.
These verses sanction the redemptive nature of the Abrahamic covenant. They confirm that covenant as the unifying factor between Jews and Gentiles, and they substantiate the view that there is one people of God of all ages that share the covenants of Scripture which find their consummation in Christ.
Strikingly, Paul perceives redemption in Christ to be the dominant, though not exclusive, feature of the Abrahamic covenant. He finds the consummation of the covenant in Christ and participation in the covenant to be predicated on relationship to Christ. Though, admittedly, I argue from silence here, the “material” nature of the promises to Abraham appears to be somewhat idealized in Christ. Though not necessarily removing those “material” elements of the Abrahamic covenant, Paul’s treatment certainly places them in a new light.
Consequently, due to the advent of Christ as the seed of Abraham, the New Testament sees a semi-realized fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in New Testament believers and the church and an ultimate eternal fulfillment in the New Heavens and Earth for all those who are “seed” of Abraham by faith.
In Christ we have our “landedness” as we are “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” (Eph. 1:3) and are assured that we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade kept in heaven” (1 Pet. 1:3).
The New Testament texts that consider the question, “Who are the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic Covenant?” unequivocally answer, “All of those who are in Christ Jesus.” In reference to the unity of believing Jews and Gentiles, George N. H. Peters cogently concludes:
Both elect are the seed, the children of Abraham; both sets of branches are on the same stock, on the same root, on the same olive tree; both constitute the same Israel of God, the members of the same body, fellow-citizens of the same commonwealth; both are Jews “inwardly” (Romans 2:29), and of the true “circumcision” (Phil. 3:3), forming the same “peculiar people,” “holy nation,” and “royal priesthood”; both are interested in the same promises, covenants, and kingdom; both inherit and realize the same blessings at the same time (Peters 404).
In conclusion, may we all continue to “do theology” rooted in humility, exegesis, biblical theology, and community. Though I do not agree with many of Clark Pinnock’s theological conclusions, I do appreciate his delightful approach to the theological enterprise. He said,
I approach theology in a spirit of adventure, being always curious about what I may find. For me theology is like a rich feast, with many dishes to enjoy and delicacies to taste. It is like a centuries-old conversation that I am privileged to take part in, a conversation replete with innumerable voices to listen to…. More like a pilgrim than a settler, I tread the path of discovery and do my theology en route (quoted in Grenz 134).
Davis, John P. “A Critical Examination of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism.” Master of Theology Thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990.
Grenz, Stanley J. Renewing the Center. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.
Peters, George N. H. The Theocratic Kingdom. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 1952.
Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965.
Dr. John P. Davis is currently planting a church in Sunnyside (Queens), New York. Grace Fellowship Church is a gospel-centered city church seeking to reach people of all nations. John received the Bachelor of Arts in Bible with a minor in Greek at Bob Jones University, a Master of Divinity from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, the Master of Theology in Old Testament from Westminster Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Ministry from Biblical Theological Seminary. His Th.M. thesis was A Critical Evaluation of the Use of the Abrahamic Covenant in Dispensationalism. His D.Min. project/dissertation was Common Factors in the Practice of Ongoing Personal Evangelism. In addition to Sunnyside, NY John has pastored churches in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, in Brooklyn, New York, and in Roslyn, Pennsylvania. Two of the churches were new church-plants.