December 12, 2017

Review: Perspectives on Israel & the Church

Brand, Chad O., ed. Perspectives on Israel and the Church: Four Viewsclip_image001. Nashville: B&H, 2015.

A review by Brian Collins

This book presents the following four perspectives, (1) the traditional covenantal view by Robert L. Reymond, (2) the traditional dispensational view by Robert L. Thomas, (3) the progressive dispensational view by Robert L. Saucy, and (4) the Progressive Covenantal View (which seems to be loosely parallel to New Covenant Theology) by Chad O. Brand and Tom Pratt, Jr.

Over the years I’ve greatly appreciated Robert Reymond’s writings on Scripture, theology proper, and Christology. I’ve also known that he was staunchly opposed to dispensational theology. However, I was interested to see his response to progressive dispensationalism. I’ve found that too often covenant theologians attack either the most stringent forms of dispensationalism or what they think are the logical consequences of dispensationalism (consequences often denied by the dispensationalists themselves). I thought that a four views format would force closer interaction with what dispensationalists actually claim. I was, however, disappointed. Reymond spent an inordinate amount of space arguing that, despite their protestations, dispensationalists really do believe in two (or multiple) ways of salvation. All dispensational scholars today clearly believe that salvation for all people in all eras by grace alone through faith alone. Reymond, however, fastens on a Dallas Seminary doctrinal statement that makes the object of the faith the promises of God in some eras rather than faith in the Messiah. There are three problems with this focus. First, what is reflected in the DTS statement is an awareness of progressive revelation not an inclination toward two ways of salvation. Second, some dispensationalists actually lean more toward Reymond’s position on this issue than DTS’s. Some acknowledgement of this by Reymond would have been appropriate.

When Reymond actually turns to look at the future of Israel and the land, Reymond uses John Hagee as his representative dispensationalist. Hagee is not even entirely orthodox. He is certainly not a representative dispensational scholar. Sadly, this is too often par for the course for covenant theologians who write critiques of dispensationalism. They find fringe figures who make outrageous statements or take indefensible positions rather than interact with dispensational scholars.

Finally, Reymond does not really interact with the progressive dispensational view. In his own chapter he simply notes that some think that progressive dispensationalists will simply become premillennial covenant theologians. He then notes that they have not made that transition yet and are therefore “a long distance away from historical covenantal theology.” He defers all other comments to his response to Robert Saucy’s chapter. But in the response, Reymond does not really interact with Saucy’s comments. Reymond’s argument follows the following lines: Progressive dispensationalists are premillennial. Premillennialism is wrong. Therefore, Progressive Dispensationalism is wrong and no further attention should be paid to it.

Reymond spends most of his time critiquing what he understands to be the gross errors of dispensationalism, but he does give some space to articulating his own view. He holds that the OT land promises to Israel are types. Christians are the real inheritors of the land promises “in their fulfilled paradisiacal character” (34). Indeed, “ethnic Israel per se was never the centerpiece of God’s covenant program.” That program has always focused on “true spiritual Israel” (36). Indeed, Abraham himself never believed the land promises would be fulfilled literally. Hebrews 11 teaches that Abraham “spiritualize[d]” the promise and applied it to “future heavenly kingdom realities” (43). Though Reymond says “the future messianic kingdom will embrace the whole of the newly recreated cosmos,” he insists that it “will not experience a special manifestation that could be regarded in any sense as ‘Jewish’ in the region of the so-called Holy Land or anywhere else” (60). In addition, Jesus in his parable of the landowner’s son teaches a “a biblical ‘replacement theology’” in which the nation of Israel is replaced by an “international church” (47). Israel, apart from the remnant is now “lo-ammi, ‘not my people,’ only now with a finality about it” (49). What of God’s promises to national Israel? Reymond’s thesis is that Romans 9 teaches that God made no promises to national Israel. He only made promises to true, spiritual Israel (51).

There are a number of problems with Reymond’s argumentation. In the first place, it is not clear that a covenant promise can be a type that has only a spiritualized fulfillment. A promise is very different from the institution of a sacrificial system or a temple. Second, though both Genesis itself, opaquely, and the New Testament, clearly, indicates that the land promise will extend to all the nations, it is not clear why Israel, to whom the promise was explicitly given, should be excluded from this promise in the restored earth. Third, Reymond’s interpretations of the parable of the landowner’s son and of Romans 9 are not the necessary interpretations of those texts. Neither text requires an interpretation that God has never really concerned himself with national Israel and has now cast off national Israel altogether. Indeed, Romans 11’s promise of a restoration of national Israel tells against such a position.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Robert L. Reymond is Robert L. Thomas. As with Reymond, I’ve found Thomas’s writings, in particular his commentaries on Revelation and Thessalonians, helpful over the years. However, in this essay Thomas displayed what I believe are some of the key weaknesses of traditional dispensationalist argumentation. For instance, Thomas did a lot of quoting from Milton Terry and Bernard Ramm and asserting that the other views don’t measure up to the hermeneutical standards that Terry and Ramm set. I don’t find this line of approach persuasive. Why are Terry and Ramm the standard? It would seem that Thomas would need to demonstrate why his hermeneutical approach is better than competing approaches rather than simply asserting it. This is especially the case since Thomas ends up with strained interpretations of NT passages such as Acts 15. At one point he claims that the NT authors don’t always interpret literally. They don’t have to because they were inspired. We, however, ought not follow the interpretive practices of the NT authors because we are not inspired. I find this a troubling conclusion and an indication that something is amiss with Thomas’s hermeneutic. Scripture itself should provide the hermeneutical standard by which we measure our interpretation—not Bernard Ramm or Milton Terry.

Thomas does make some helpful comments in the course of his essay. For instance, he notes, “Of the promises made to Abraham, the land promise is the most specific, not lending itself to possible variations of interpretation. It fixed specific geographic boundaries and did not lend itself to generalizations, as did the promise of becoming a great nation and the promise of being a worldwide blessing.” He also gives some helpful listing of land promises in the Psalms and prophets, but these are given almost without comment. One section of the essay looks at passages in which Jesus and the apostles might be expected to cancel Israel’s promises and did not. There is some helpful material here, especially when Thomas is countering arguments that certain passages do cancel promises to Israel. What is missing, however, is a positive argument. A lengthy section comparing three commentators’ views on passages in Revelation could have been better spent making a positive argument.

I expected to agree with the Progressive Covenantal/NCT chapter more than I actually did. Given that PC/NCT seems to be a diverse group perhaps greater agreement would have been the case with different authors. Brand and Pratt lay as the foundation for their view that since God is one, the people must be one. Therefore, there cannot be any distinctions within the people of God. This is actually an odd argument for Trinitarians to make. God is not merely one; God is one and many. Shouldn’t the conclusion be, therefore, that God’s people are one and many. In any case, it is not entirely clear to me that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premise. They also look to passages that speak of “one body,” “one flock,” “one faith” and so forth. These passages do affirm that Jew and Gentile are now united in one new man. Progressive Dispensationalists would agree that there is one people of God, the redeemed through all the ages. But the authors seem to want to use this point to deny that God ever could refer to the nation of Israel as his people. Against this, however, is the fact that God covenanted not only with the true remnant of Israel. He covenanted with the nation of Israel. Thus it is appropriate for him to refer to the nation as his people in one sense while also recognizing that some in that nation are not truly his people in another sense. This is not a move back to a two peoples of God view. It is simply a recognition of the way language works in varied contexts.

Brand and Pratt also argue on the basis of John 4 that Jesus relativizes any kind of holy land. He is now the place to which people must come to worship truly. The end of the temple and its worship meant the end of any place/land focus. But this seems to relativize a whole strand of redemptive history. The curse did not merely affect man in his spiritual life. It affected all of creation, including the physical world. This is why land is a fundamental component of the Abrahamic covenant. Israel is at the nucleus of the promise, since it is through Abraham and his seed that blessing comes to the whole world. But, as even the Old Testament indicates, the land promise will be extended to the whole world. This extension, however, does not exclude Israel from enjoying what God has promised.

Brand and Pratt reject the idea that the church replaces Israel. They instead argue that the true people of God within Israel are the root into which Gentiles are added. Thus Israel is not replaced. It is expanded to include Gentiles. However, this seems to misunderstand the teaching of Ephesians about Jew and Gentile being brought together in one new man. In addition it seems to allude to the root and branches metaphor in Romans 11. But in Romans 11, Israel is not the root. Israel is the natural branches.

Brand and Pratt also, following N.T. Wright, interpret “all Israel” in Romans 11 as church. Even Wright concedes that he is in the minority of scholarship on that interpretation. I find Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner’s interpretation that “all Israel” refers to the salvation of a great number of ethnic Israelites in the future to be the more exegetically tenable position. Interestingly, both Moo and Schreiner have been associated with PC/NCT. This is an indication of the difficulty in sorting out what is core to PC/NCT and what is distinctive to individuals.

Overall, I thought that Robert Thomas developed untenable interpretations of New Testament texts in order to maintain his position on Old Testament Texts. Brand and Pratt, on the other hand, trimmed the Old Testament promises to maintain their interpretation of New Testament texts. Ideally, both Testaments should be given their voice in a way that neither are trimmed but such that both Testaments are shown to fit together. It is this goal that I think Robert Saucy accomplished.

Robert Saucy provided the best essay in the book. He was the one author that seemed to stay on topic throughout. The others seemed to get drawn off on related side-issues that were not entirely germane to the topic at hand. Saucy looks at texts both in their original context and in their canonical context. He lets Old Testament passages say what they say in their original context, and he allows later revelation to extend the meaning of passages. But he does not allow later revelation to contradict or reinterpret previous revelation. A partial fulfillment or an extended fulfillment does not change what a passage means. Saucy also had the most careful discussion of typology. For instance, he notes that types can be understood as shadows that point forward to future realities. Types can also be understood as correspondences between earlier and later historical occurrences. Too often traditional and progressive theologians want to understand all types in relation to the former kind of type. In all Saucy had the most careful discussion of hermeneutics among the authors.

Saucy also provided the one clear positive description of how Israel and the Church relate (in contrast with the other authors who at times seemed more focused on critiquing opposing positions than in presenting a positive vision). Saucy argues that Israel has the role of mediating salvation throughout salvation history. This role is rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, continues with Israel’s role as a kingdom of priests in the Mosaic Covenant, and is predicted to continue in the future by the prophets. The redemption that Israel mediates includes both internal salvation for individuals and a restoration of creation and social structures. In all of this Israel is predicted to mediate salvation to the Gentiles without the Gentiles being absorbed into Israel. The nations remain the nations. Christ is the focal point of the promises. But this does not mean that the promises fail to have application to his people. To the contrary, through Christ his people find the promises are fulfilled for them.

As the promises are fulfilled in the present era, it is important to see that it was Israelites who first brought the gospel to the Gentiles. Next it is important to see that the church is God’s people, both Jew and Gentile. But the church is not the new Israel that takes over the promises given to national Israel. Finally, though Old Testament promises are presently being fulfilled, not all Old Testament promises are presently being fulfilled. There are still future promises for national Israel that remain unfulfilled. God will bring these promises to pass. In arguing these points Saucy provides solid exegetical and theological arguments. His reviews of other positions were both gracious and insightful critiques.

Dr. Brian Collins is employed at the Bob Jones University Press. This review appeared first at his blog, Exegesis and Theology and is used by permission.

Although Proclaim & Defend is the blog of the FBFI, the articles we post are not an expression of the views of the FBFI as a whole, they are the views of the author under whose name they are published. The FBFI speaks either through position statements by its board or through its president. Here at Proclaim & Defend, we publish articles as matters of interest or edification to the wider world of fundamentalist Baptists and any others who might be interested.

Submit other comments here.