Hermeneutics

Dispensationalism 101: Part 1 - The Difference Between Dispensational & Covenantal Theology

From Dispensational Publishing House; used with permission.

What is the difference between dispensational and covenantal theology? Furthermore, is the difference really that important? After all, there are believers on both sides of the discussion. Before entering into the conversation, there are a couple of understandings that need to be embraced.

Tension & Mystery

First and foremost, there is the need to recognize the tension—and mystery—which has characterized this and other theological discussions for centuries. There will probably never be a satisfactory answer or clarifying article that will settle the debate once and for all for both parties. There will be no end to the discussion until Jesus Christ returns (either in the rapture of His church or earthly millennial reign, in my estimation).

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"Replacement Theology" - Is It Wrong to Use the Term? (Part 1)

Recently I have been reminded of the Reformed community’s aversion to the label of supercessionism, or worse, replacement theology. In the last decade or so particularly I have read repeated disavowals of this term from covenant theologians. Not wanting to misrepresent or smear brethren with whom I disagree, I have to say that I struggle a bit with these protests.

“We are not replacement theologians” we are told, “but rather we believe in transformation or expansion.” By some of the objectors we are told that the church does not replace Israel because it actually is Israel — well, “true Israel” — the two designations are really one. This move is legitimate, they say, because the “true Israel” or “new Israel” is in direct continuity with Israel in the Old Testament.

In this series of posts I want to investigate the question of whether it is right; if I am right, to brand this outlook as replacement theology and supercessionism.

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The Mosaic Covenant & Other Covenants

Read the series so far.

The Mosaic Covenant as a Historical Placeholder for Other Covenants

If the commandments in the “Ten Words” on Sinai (Exod. 20) and all those that followed in their train were too stringent for a fallen people to keep, at least the covenant God made with Israel, and which they voluntarily entered into (in Exod. 24), distinguished them among the other nations of the world. It did this to the extent that they were preserved as a distinct people in continuity with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.1

Just as the Noahic covenant guarantees the perpetuation of the regulation and predictability of the rhythms of nature, thereby creating the stage of history for God’s program to play out upon, the Mosaic covenant acts to set the covenants with David and Phinehas within a theocratic outlook—even if both of these covenants transcend the temporary “old covenant” and are embraced by the coming New covenant. Another way to say this is to imagine the people of Israel as connecting the Mosaic covenant to the New covenant brought upon Israel at Christ’s return (Isa. 61:2b-3; Jer. 31:31-37); a covenant that supersedes the old one, but without morphing the promises God made out of all recognition.

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A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist. In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker (“Dr. Reluctant”) as a title.

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors. They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals. Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all. And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, nor should not be, fixated on the defense of a system. Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing—its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible. We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right. That is a good thing. But the last word will not be said in this life. We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know). The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders. Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.

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Concluding Thoughts

From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission. Read the series.

Dispensationalism & the Literal Interpretation of the Bible, Part 7

We have been considering four essential principles that are necessary to holding a proper understanding of literal interpretation. These are the univocal nature of language, the jurisdiction of authorial intent, the unitary authorship of Scripture and the textually-based locus of meaning.

Here are some concluding thoughts about the entire subject we have been studying.

Conclusion

What do these factors of literal interpretation mean for certain aspects of current dispensational interpretation? They rule out double fulfillment, near and far fulfillment, some prophecies that are considered “generic,”* “typological-prophetical” interpretation, “patterns” of fulfillment and certain forms of indirect “linkage” (including “complementary fulfillment”) between Old Testament prophecies and the present age. Despite the denials and nuances to the contrary, this all comes perilously near to simple resignification of a text. These all violate one or more of the above principles of literal interpretation, and result in the confusion of Israel and the church and other distinctions to one degree or another.

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The Textually-Based Locus of Meaning

From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission. Read the series so far.

Dispensationalism & the Literal Interpretation of the Bible, Part 6

To review very briefly, there are four essential principles we must keep in mind if we are going to have a proper understanding of literal interpretation. The first three are the univocal nature of language, the jurisdiction of authorial intent, and the unitary authorship of Scripture. The final element for literal interpretation is the textually-based locus of meaning. We began studying that topic in the previous installment of this series, and pick up with it here.

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The Unitary Authorship of Scripture

From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission. Read the series so far.

Dispensationalism & the Literal Interpretation of the Bible, Part 5

There are four essential principles that must be considered in order to understand literal interpretation. We looked at the first two, the univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of authorial intent, in the last installment in this series. This time we will study the third element and then introduce the fourth and final one.

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The Components of Literal Interpretation

From Dispensational Publishing House; used by permission. Read the series so far.

Dispensationalism & the Literal Interpretation of the Bible, Part 4

While it is true that “literal interpretation” is not the private property of dispensationalism, the claim is actually the consistent use thereof. A case can still be made that traditional dispensationalism can make good on this claim.

There is no lock-step consensus on what “literal interpretation” really is. In the 19th century, E. R. Craven, the American editor of Lange’s Commentary, with unusual clarity made the point that literal interpretation is better termed “normal” since both literal and figurative interpretation can be comprehended in the term.1 More recently, Roy Zuck differentiated, correctly, literal interpretation into “ordinary-literal” and “figurative-literal.”2 It is not the intent here to define precisely what “literal interpretation” really is, but rather to suggest four rubrics or principles that must be entertained in understanding literal interpretation. These must be held in relationship to other factors of good hermeneutics such as context, literary genre and the like. There may be other such fundamental underpinnings, but at least these must be comprehended in a proper approach to Scripture. The first two of these principles will be our focus in this installment.

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