Read the series so far.
I finished the last installment by stating that in viewing the Bible from a certain redemptive-historical perspective (a common one I might add), the only conclusion that one can come to is that the church has always existed, and that therefore elect Israel in the OT was the church of the OT to which now the Gentiles have been added in the NT era.
Remember these words from Sam Storms:
[Paul] clearly states that there is but one olive tree, rooted in the promises given to the patriarchs. In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God) there are both believing Jews (natural branches) and believing Gentiles (unnatural branches). Together they constitute the one people of God, the one “new man,” the true Israel in and for whom the promises will be fulfilled. This one people, of course, is the Church. (Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 195)
That Olive Tree
Readers will again notice the reference to Paul’s Olive Tree metaphor in Storms. Look at this line:
In this one tree (i.e., in this one people of God)…
But, of course, the tree isn’t the people (we saw this stated in Grier earlier). The branches of the tree are the people, and there are two “peoples”. In Robert L. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd ed) he appeals to this metaphor on pages 526-527:
Paul’s metaphor of the two olive trees (Rom. 11:16-24) also reflects this same perception: olive shoots from a wild olive tree, that is, Gentiles, are being grafted into the cultivated olive tree, that is, Israel, from which latter tree many natural branches, that is, Jews, had been broken off. This tree, Paul says, has a “holy root” (the patriarchs; see Rom. 11:28). Clearly, Paul envisions saved Gentile Christians as “grafted shoots” in the true “Israel of faith.”
The reader could not have missed the constant references to the olive tree in Romans 11 in some of my previous citations. Many of them fail to properly expound the Apostle’s objective in that metaphor, usually by mistaking the tree for Israel. The Olive tree figure is again [mis]used by Robertson who says,
Gentiles have been “grafted in among” the Israel of God (Rom. 11:17). They have become additional branches, joined to a single stock that is none other than Israel… In other words, they have become “Israelites.” (O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, 188)
Is “the single stock” to be identified with Israel? There is no room here to provide a full interpretation of Paul’s figure, but an accurate exegesis would have to conclude that:
- The branches from the wild olive tree are the Gentiles (v.17, cf. v. 25).
- Those branches we are not to boast against are the Jews (vv. 18-20), the “natural branches” (v. 21), that is, Israel (v. 25).
- If the rejected natural branches return to belief, they will be engrafted back into their own olive tree (vv. 23-24).
- In the figure as explained by Paul, it is Israel who has been partly blinded until “the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in.” (v. 25).
- Those warned against “being wise in [their] own conceits” (v. 25), are the same as those told neither to boast (v. 18), nor to be “highminded” (v. 20). These are identified as the Gentiles in v. 25.
- Likewise, those, “natural branches,” some of whom were broken off through unbelief (v. 20), are distinguished from their olive tree (v. 24), (just as branches are distinguishable from any tree), are identified in verse 25 as Israel.
- To make quite sure that no one supplants national Israel with some “spiritual Israel” Paul calls Israel by the name of Jacob (v. 26). This maintains the contrast between Israel and the Gentiles which the Apostle has set up throughout the chapter (see vv. 1-4, 7-14, 28-29).
- The identification of the actual olive tree must have something to do with that which pertains to Israel as a nation. What is it that the apostle has had in mind all through chapter 11? The answer lies in verses 26-29. It refers to the salvation of Israel (“Jacob”) (vv.26-27a); in virtue of God’s covenant (v.27b); which was made with the fathers (v.28); and which covenant promises cannot be revoked (v.29).*
In his recent Commentary on the Greek Text of Romans, veteran NT scholar Richard Longenecker writes,
[Paul] argues neither (1) that Gentiles are accepted by God by becoming Jewish proselytes… nor (2) that Jews are accepted by God by being united to the institution of the Christian church… Rather, Paul proclaims the following:
- There continues to exist a “remnant within Israel,” even though the great majority of Jews have rejected Jesus as their Messiah and God has hardened their hearts.
- There also exists at this present time a “remnant among the Gentiles.”
- Following that time when “the full number of Gentiles has come in” – and particularly when “the Deliverer will come from Zion” – it will come about by divine action that “all Israel will be saved.”
(Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans, 902)
Longenecker continues by observing that,
Paul is not attempting to relate the Christian church to the nation of Israel; nor is he transferring God’s promises to Israel to the Christian church (but leaving his curses on Israel’s alone). (Ibid, 903)
He believes that God is concerned with forming an elect people for Himself. He does not, in the end, believe, as I do, in an enduring distinction between elect peoples. But his exegesis is not dictated by a prior commitment which has already drawn its conclusions. Therefore, he feels no pressure to import a hermeneutical viewpoint to ensure that Paul makes Israel and the church one and the same thing, with Israel being the church with the Gentiles added (although in that case Israel is deluged and overwhelmed by Gentiles).
John Owen’s views on Israel and the church (although he doesn’t employ the olive tree figure in the two quotes I provided) reflects what I think is a theological predetermination which then translates into a hermeneutical utility when confronted by the olive tree, or indeed by the prophecies of the OT, or, for example, the Book of Revelation. It is this theological conformity which produces the sorts of supercessionisms I have been writing about.
Owen says that rather than looking for “carnal interest and privilege” the Jews came up against the requirement to give “a new account,” which was the essential transformation of its promises on the basis of moral and spiritual compulsion. But this ignores the very forthright demands for such moral and spiritual rectitude that are found in the very prophets, from Moses to Malachi, who gave these promises their original shape. What this approach does, among other things, is that it replaces the apparent purpose of the original communication and commutes it into our common era. As I have said before, this way of treating Scripture assumes that God was really speaking to us, not to the original audiences.
* The section on Reymond is taken from my review of that book.
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.