I have been thinking for a while that it might be a good idea to write about the New Covenant. Although there seems to be little confusion about it in the minds of Jeremiah, Paul, or the author of Hebrews, it has become something of a bugbear among Dispensationalists. In this series I want to interact a little with their issues, but I also want to provide my understanding of the New Covenant, which, as it happens, adds one more alternative to the dizzying list already occupying the thought of many good men and women.
The New Covenant has given Dispensationalists all kinds of headaches. Taken as a generality, they seem unable to come to a consensus about this extremely important teaching of the Bible. In a helpful way, Mike Vlach has set forth six different ways the NC has been understood by Dispensationalists broadly:
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
- There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists including John Walvoord)
- The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
- The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the church. The New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
- Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)
Vlach says he holds to the sixth option, which, along with the fifth, is, I think the most theologically defensible position among the six for a Dispensationalist to hold; especially one who doesn’t wish to be seen as a theological troglodyte by his Reformed peers. Saying this does not of course mean that the other positions are wrong; only that they encourage more head-scratching among onlookers. Doesn’t the Apostle tell the Church to observe the institution of the New Covenant?
In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (1 Cor. 11:25)
Moreover, contrary to those Covenant Theologians who talk about “progressive revelation” but who mean by it that revelation changes dramatically as the centuries go by, don’t Dispensationalists actually mean that revelation can be augmented without morphing into something else? They do indeed. And yet they their wires crossed on the New Covenant. Why is this?
Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8
A lot of the trouble arises because the prophet Jeremiah, in what could be called the locus classicus of the New Covenant, did not see the need to include the Gentiles within his prophecy. He says there that
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,” says the LORD. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the LORD: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34)
It’s a glorious passage, and it is definitely aimed at future Israel. Surely then, we should all say together that the New Covenant is for Israel alone? Adding fuel to this fire is the Book of Hebrews. The writer of that book has a golden opportunity to set the record straight and tell us if we in the Church are New Covenant people. He does not; at least in so many words. He is content rather to cite Jeremiah in what turns out to be the longest OT citation in the NT. Fait accompli? It looks that way to some.
But Paul (and Jesus)
But then there are those places in the NT where we are given reason to pause. I have already quoted Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. But all he is doing there is quoting Jesus’ own formula in the Upper Room in Luke 22:19-20. “Yes,” comes the reply, “and He was instituting it with Jewish disciples.” But…those same disciples were to become the foundation of the Church, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20).
So what is to be done? I believe a thorough look at the “New Covenant passages” of the OT is the first order of business. What we need to decide is whether Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the last word on the New Covenant, or whether it fits within a much broader New Covenant revelation. That is where we will begin…
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 Telos School of Theology.