Hermeneutical Issues in the Dispensational Understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant


The hermeneutical issues in dispensationalism's understanding of the Abrahamic covenant revolve around what Ryrie has termed "the sine qua non of Dispensationalism" (Ryrie 1965, 43-47). Two of these aspects are (1) the distinction between Israel and the Church and (2) the normal or plain interpretation of Scripture. As will be seen, both of these are inextricably woven together.

For some, the second sine qua non provides the basis for determining the first (Ryrie 1965, 97). Vern Poythress recognized that " ... nearly all the problems associated with the dispensationalist-nondispensationalist conflict are buried beneath the question of literal interpretation" (Poythress 1987, 78). However, the question of "literal interpretation" receives conflicting answers from those who employ the term. Consequently, due to the difficulty of conclusively answering the question of "what is meant by literal?", progressive dispensationalists have conceded "... that consistently literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of Dispensationalism" (Blaising 1988, 272). Saucy would agree saying that "the key distinctive of dispensational theology ... is the recognition of Israel as a nation set apart from other nations by God for the service of universal salvation for all peoples" (Saucy 1993, 221).

What dispensationalists traditionally called "literal interpretation" resulted in a bifurcation of the material in the two Testaments and a corollary, continuing discontinuity between Israel and the Church. Daniel Fuller summarizes Oswald T. Allis's objection to Dispensationalism saying that the "... basic hermeneutical error in Dispensationalism was its insistence on dividing and compartmentalizing the Scriptures, with the result that a most important distinction was made between those Scriptures relating to Israel and those relating to the Church" (Fuller 1980, 19).

Progessive Dispensationalism has returned to the first sine qua non, i.e. the distinction between Israel and the church, as its "distinguishing factor" (Blaising 1988, 273 and Saucy 1993, 221). This return coincides with Poythress's further recognition that this distinction is more fundamental than a literal hermeneutic. He writes: "Their approaches toward strict literalness seem to be subordinated to the more fundamental principle of dual destinations for Israel and the church" (Poythress 1987, 78).

Strikingly, in discussing those dual destinations dispensationalists have moved away from the absolute earthly\heavenly dualism of early dispensationalism. Early dispensationalism, as evidenced in Darby's teaching, provided the groundwork for an absolute distinction. Darby maintained a distinction between Israel and the Church that was both temporal and eschatological. He propounded an earthly\heavenly dichotomy between Israel and the Church (Blaising 1988, 273-275). His views were followed by Lewis Sperry Chafer and others.

Nevertheless, Blaising notes that in the 1950s and 1960s dispensational writers had dropped the earthly\heavenly dualism and instead accepted that both Israel and the Church ultimately shared eternal destinies in the same sphere (Blaising 1988, 276).

Apparently among many contemporary dispensationalists there is agreement that "... the city of God is the common destiny of all the redeemed" (Blaising 1988, 277). However, the question remains, if ultimately both share a common destiny, then wherein lies the "distinguishing factor," namely, the distinction between Israel and the Church? That distinction appears to lie in the earthly fulfillment of the land promise to national, ethnic Israel whom dispensationalists understand to be the "seed" of Abraham. For the dispensationalists, this is what "literal" hermeneutics demand. Walvoord remarks: The Old Testament saints and prophets expected a special program for the nation of Israel consummating in a kingdom era. This was the normal understanding of the promises (Walvoord 1980, 19).

Again, progressive dispensationalists agree:

Thus, while there is in the present salvation in Christ a partial fulfillment of the spiritual blessing promised to all people through Abraham and his seed, many aspects of the promise remain to be fulfilled, especially those dealing with the 'great nation' seed and the 'land...' (Saucy 1993, 58).

However, a plaguing issue with dispensational hermeneutics is the lack of consistency in definition and application of "what is literal", resulting in confusion. Vern Poythress highlights this problem of consistency when he asks concerning dispensationalists:

Are they really begging the important questions? Are they really slanting the case in favor of `flat interpretation'? Or are they just being imprecise? Maybe they are just imprecise, but the particular way in which they are imprecise does not help to delineate the issues separating dispensationalist from nondispensationalist hermeneutics. It rather confuses them (Poythress 1987, 94).

Literal Interpretation

If literal interpretation is confined to what the human author or recipient of revelation would have understood of "seed" and "land", then its application to the Abrahamic covenant would seem to result in a limitation of its scope to ethnic Israel and the land of Palestine. However, if by literal interpretation one means any meaning inherent in the words of a text even as nuanced by future revelation, then its application to the Abrahamic covenant results in a fuller understanding of "seed" and "land."

Walter Kaiser would be right in insisting that the meaning of a text can only be informed by antecedent revelation (Kaiser 1987, 99), if he was referring to meaning as understood by its original recipients. Certainly without the benefit of future revelation they could only understand in terms of what existed. However, to maintain that the recipients of later revelation are confined to the original recipient's sometimes-limited understanding of a text is too narrow.

Scalise comments in this regard:

The history of exegesis seems generally to demonstrate that when the sensus literalis of Scripture has been defined in a positive and more than woodenly literal way (cf. especially Augustine and Luther), resulting in a synthesis of grammatical, historical, and theological understandings, a flourishing of the exegetical discipline and a renewal of dynamic biblical theology has recurred (Scalise 1989, 65).

Scalise's point requires some amplification. As stated earlier, to limit a text's fullest interpretation to its grammatical-historical meaning is too restrictive. On the other hand to include theological interpretation with the grammatical-historical is to allow progressive revelation to inform the text.

Berkhof asserts that grammatical-historical interpretation does not meet "... all the requirements for the proper interpretation of the Bible (Berkhof 1950, 133). In his view grammatical-historical interpretation does not account for the following:

(1) that the Bible is the word of God; (2) that it constitutes an organic whole, of which each individual book is an integral part; (3) that the Old and New Testament are related to each other as type and antitype, prophecy and fulfillment, germ and perfect development; (4) that not only explicit statements of the Bible, but also what may be deduced from it by good and necessary consequences, constitute the Word of God (Berkhof 1950, 133).

As noted earlier, Kaiser's view that only antecedent revelation can inform a text is inadequate. Equally inadequate is a view of interpretation that limits itself to grammatical-historical meaning. Though dispensationalists have quoted Bernard Ramm to support their understanding of "literal" (Pentecost 1958, 9-11), they fail to notice that Bernard Ramm aptly affirmed that though literal interpretation "... is the only conceivable method of beginning and commencing to understand literature of all kinds" (Ramm 1970, 123), he also recognized the role of typology:

The program of the literal interpretation of Scripture does not overlook the figures of speech, the symbols, the types, the allegories that as a matter of fact are to be found in Holy Scripture. It is not a blind letterism nor a wooden literalism as is so often the accusation (Ramm 1970, 126).

Theological interpretation adds another dimension to understanding the historical-grammatical meaning of Scripture. Vern Poythress defines grammatical-historical interpretation as interpretation that "... deals with what a passage says against the background of its original time and culture, bearing in mind the purpose of the human author" (Poythress 1987, 97).

He correctly concludes that what dispensationalists mean by literal is actually the grammatical-historical interpretation of a text (Poythress 1987, 86). Pentecost equates the grammatical-historical method with literal interpretation (Pentecost 1958, 9) as does Ryrie (Ryrie 1965, 92-96) who also charges that nondispensationalists "introduce another hermeneutical principle (the `theological' method) in order to have a hermeneutical basis for the system which he holds" (Ryrie 1965, 94).

The grammatical-historical approach to Scripture is necessary and adequate as a starting point. However, it falls short due to the now enlarged context of Scripture. It must be conceded that knowing even what Abraham understood by the words of the covenant cannot be fully arrived at from the Old Testament text itself, as is indicated by the writer of Hebrews commentary on that understanding in Hebrews 11:16: "Instead they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one." No reading of the Old Testament text alone will confirm that Abraham was looking for a heavenly city. Yet, the New Testament declares that he was.

The New Testament text introduces a dimension in understanding the heavenly nature of the land that a grammatical-historical approach alone does not yield.

Theological Correspondence

A related issue to the grammatical-historical-theological approach to Scripture is that of theological correspondence. Correct interpretation is grounded in the recognition of continuity in the theological purpose of God. The dualism of the earthly and heavenly, of Israel and the Church, and of law vs. grace, and the bifurcation of the testaments on those bases produce a theological discontinuity. In this author's investigation of Old Testament theology, a tentative theological paradigm has been developed through which the rest of Scripture is viewed.

This paradigm for the study of Old Testament theology is set within the parameters of God's stated purpose for man as recorded in Genesis 1:26-27. An examination of this purpose discloses a two-fold, yet united, design for humanity.

Primarily, God intended for man to have relationship with Himself. The term used to describe this relationship is "Sonship." Secondly, God intended that man should be responsible to Him and responsible for His creation. This responsibility is termed "Stewardship." This "Sonship/Stewardship" motif provides an initial paradigm for the study of Old Testament Biblical Theology.

However, the fall of man, which disoriented man from fulfilling God's design, necessitates an additional motif that runs parallel to the first and that, at times, overshadows the first. From the event of the fall, there emerges a "Redemptive\Restoration" motif that continues throughout the Scripture.

It is within the parameters of God's original intent of Sonship\Stewardship, parallelled by and at times overshadowed by Redemptive\Restoration, that a paradigm for Old Testament Theology and for understanding the Abrahamic covenant is presented.

The function of covenant relates to this overarching motif. The covenant served to insure that there would be a seed to carry forth the Sonship\Stewardship purpose of God. The covenant grows out of the Redemptive\Restoration motif.

It is the above theological basis and understanding of the unity of the purpose of God that supply certain normative features for making theological interpretations. When applied to the Abrahamic covenant, a paradigm such as this relates that covenant to the original purpose of God and establishes a unity and continuity in that purpose. As Dumbrell was previously quoted: "The call of that patriarch began a programme of redemption which aimed at full and final restoration of man and his world" (Dumbrell 1982, 50).

Theological correspondence relates the concepts of seed, land, and divine\human relationship to the original and ultimate purposes of God and thus yields more than a provincial interpretation.

Authorial Intention

The issue of literal interpretation also involves that of authorial intention. Must interpreters limit the scope of interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant to what Moses understood in recording those words for the nation of Israel? Since Scripture is marked by both divine and human authorship, is it necessary that the intent of the words was shared equally by both authors? Conceivably, due to the dual authorship of the Bible (Divine\human), the answer to the question of intention may be thought of as unattainable because of the absence of the Author\author.

However, since God has preserved only the words of these authors, and in those words expects men to understand the message, interpreters must conclude that the intention of the Author\author is that which is based singularly in the words of Scripture as contained in the canon of Scripture. Any other supposed intention is not available and, therefore, not necessary to the interpretation of Scripture. Any contextual interpretation must then be based on the words found in the text.

Although having affirmed that intention is based on the textual meaning of the words, dispensationalists must yet realize that both authors did not necessarily share the same scope of intended meaning. Paul D. Feinberg in defending the hermeneutics of dispensationalism rejects any notion that there could be any difference between the human author's intentions and God's (Feinberg 1988, 177). Nevertheless, though the human author's intention would not conflict with the divine author's, there is no necessity for it to have been coordinate with the scope of the Divine author's intention.

For instance, there are some who would hold that in Psalm 2 the human author envisioned the human Davidic king as the anointed of God, while the divine author, as is seen in the New Testament usage of Psalm 2, ultimately intended to focus on one particular Davidic king, the Messianic King. Is there contradiction? No! There is merely difference in the intended scope of the words. It is this difference in the depth and scope of intention that helps us to understand some of the New Testament uses of the Old Testament, especially in prophetic and poetic passages.

The same can be said of the Abrahamic covenant. Though the human recipient, Abraham, and the human author, Moses, may have had a provincial, limited understanding of the scope of that covenant, the latter prophets and New Testament authors share the expanded scope of the divine author.

It is also plausible that an interpreter of Scripture may underestimate what the original recipients understood. Though the Abrahamic covenant furnishes a theological justification for the conquest of Palestine by Israel, is it not possible that the Israelites also maintained an understanding of the covenant that was set against the larger backdrop of God's original and continuing purposes for all creation as recorded in Genesis 1-11? Again, Hebrews 11:16 indicates this.

A contextual interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant does not abrogate the human author's grammatical-historical intent of seed, land, and divine\human relationship, but recognizes that those same words allow a fuller and deeper meaning, not always perceived by the human author. Kunjummen, who writes from the context of dispensationalism, agrees saying: "Divine accommodation in the use of human language is not tantamount to divine self-reduction of authorial intent to the understanding of the biblical writer" (Kunjummen 1986, 109).

Progressive Revelation

Another issue of hermeneutics that relates to the Abrahamic covenant is that of progressive revelation. John Walvoord in speaking to this issue says: The issue accordingly is not progressive revelation versus nonprogressive revelation, but rather whether in progressive revelation there is contradiction or correction of what was commonly assumed to be the main tenor of Old Testament revelation (Walvoord 1980, 20).

The problem with Walvoord's statement is what is meant by "... commonly assumed to be the main tenor of Old Testament revelation." Though this author concurs with Turner that "it appears exceedingly doubtful that the New Testament reinterprets the Old Testament so as to evaporate the plain meaning of its promises" (Turner 1985, 282), the argument persists concerning what is meant by "plain meaning."

Daniel Fuller's understanding of progressive revelation is helpful:

Why could not the Old Testament revelation be thought of as the grain of sand, which, after entering the oyster of progressive revelation, has the pearl of additional and deeper concepts added to it without necessarily canceling out the original grain of sand (Fuller 1957, 233)?

Any interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant must take into account the seventy-four references to Abraham in the New Testament and how they interpret and inform the Old Testament text.

Directly related to the issue of progressive revelation are that of prophecy and fulfillment, the use of the Old in the New, and typology. Each of these issues is obviously influenced by the addition of new revelation that speaks to the prophecies and types of the Old Testament and to the way the New Testament understands and interprets the Old. The limited scope of this paper will allow only a brief discussion of these issues.

Though Pentecost notes the problems of interpreting prophecy (Pentecost 1958, 45-59), the rules stated for correct interpretation are once again restricted by limiting any interpretation to a grammatical-historical interpretation (Pentecost 1958, 59).

Contrariwise, Joel B. Green argues that those who seek literal and detailed fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy "... must face the reality that fulfillment is often not quite what was anticipated" (Green 1984, 103). He explains:

When fulfillment exceeds promise, three things are underscored: God's freedom and creativity and the historical quality of biblical prophecy. Given in particular, historical circumstances, prophecy uses words and ideas appropriate to its day. A different historical situation at the time of fulfillment, however, may involve a realization in updated terms beyond the literal meaning of the original prediction (Green 1984, 104).

Dispensationalists, as represented by Charles L. Feinberg, would disagree with Green and instead affirm that "in the interpretation of prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled, those prophecies that have been fulfilled are to form the pattern" (Feinberg 1985, 41). Contrariwise, Vern Poythress in his critique of dispensational hermeneutics adequately demonstrates that "preeschatological prophetic fulfillments have a hermeneutically different character than do eschatological fulfillments" (Poythress 1987, 105).

The often enigmatic nature of prophecy should solicit humility and tentativeness in assertions regarding its fulfillment. For example, Odendaal in his discussion of Isaiah 40-66 notes that those chapters offer an eschatological fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Odendaal 1966, 265). In regard to the fulfillment of that passage he reservedly concludes that "... it is evident that neither a purely spiritual nor a purely literal explanation can fathom the fullness of the prophetic proclamation (Odendaal 1966, 274).

Also related to the issue of progressive revelation are the issues of typology and the use of the Old Testament in the New. Again, it is not the scope of this paper to fully develop these issues, but rather to note how they relate to the interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant.

Specifically, does the word "land" have any typological significance? Douglas Moo suggests that "typology is best viewed as a specific form of the larger `promise-fulfillment' scheme that provides the essential framework within which the relationship of the testaments must be understood" (Moo 1986, 196). He maintains:

The two Testaments are bound together by their common witness to the unfolding revelation of God's character, purpose, and plan. But the salvation wrought by God through Christ is the fulfillment of `Old Testament' history, law, and prophecy (Moo 1986, 196).

For example, Hebrews 3:7-4:8 employs a typological significance of "land." Based on the pattern of Psalm 95, throughout the passage the word "land" is replaced with the word "rest." It is significant that in the patriarchal promises x;Anm' is never used to describe the land. x;Anm' is introduced once positively in Deuteronomy to describe the land as hx'WnM.h (Deut.12:9), and once in a warning passage that disobedience would result in ytix'Wnm.-la,. !Waboy>-~ai (Psalm 95:11).

Interestingly, the Psalmist chooses x;Anm' to describe life in the land. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this and takes it a step further. Employing the same word from the Septuagint kata,pausi,n, he refers to the present and ultimate blessing of being in Christ as one of kata,pausi,n.

"Rest" in the "land" anticipated "rest" in Jesus Christ. This rest is semi-realized in the believers present experience in Christ (Heb 4:3), yet it awaits a more consummate fulfillment (Heb 4:9). Moo perceptively concludes "that God had so ordered Old Testament history that it prefigures and anticipates His climatic redemptive acts and that the New Testament is the inspired record of those redemptive acts (Moo 1986, 198).

One other issue that relates to progressive revelation is the thorny issue of the use of the Old Testament in the New. This author would suggest the "canonical approach" to that issue wherein "any specific biblical text can be interpreted in light of its ultimate literary context--the whole canon, which receives its unity from the single divine author of the whole" (Moo 1986, 205). Moo offers four commendations of the canonical approach:

(1) it builds on the scripturally sound basis of a redemptive-historical framework, in which the Old Testament as a whole points forward to, anticipates, and prefigures Christ and the church; (2) this scheme can be shown to have its antecedents in what the Old Testament itself does with earlier revelation; (3) the questionable division between the intent of the human author and that of the divine author in a given text is decreased; (4) the 'fuller sense' discovered by Jesus and the apostles in Old Testament texts is, at least to some extent, open to verification (Moo 1986, 205-6).

When applied to the Abrahamic covenant, the canonical approach enriches and expands the interpretation of it, loosing it from its purely ethnic, national, and geographical bonds.

Remember that Jesus Christ is God's Word for these last days. The Old Testament anticipated and foreshadowed Him, while the NT offers us a full revelation of Him. The following texts remind us that the OT is the word of God about Jesus Christ.

Luke 24:25-27
25 He said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:44-47
44 He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

John 5:39-40
39 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

The words of Jesus Christ lead us to conclude that the OT is "progressive, redemptive revelation. It is revelation because in it God makes himself known. It is redemptive because God reveals himself in the act of redeeming us. It is progressive because God makes himself and his purposes known by stages until the full light is revealed in Jesus Christ" (Goldsworthy 1991, 72). [1]

This progressive, redemptive revelation of Jesus Christ is given through historical events, people, promises, institutions, Christophanies, etc., all of which in some way anticipate or foreshadow the final and full revelation in Jesus Christ.

Goldsworthy sums up the relationship of Jesus Christ to the OT:

The New Testament emphasizes the historic person of Christ and what he did for us, through faith, to become the friends of God. The emphasis is also on him as the one who sums up and brings to their fitting climax all the promises and expectations raised in the Old Testament. There is a priority of order here, which we must take into account if we are to understand the Bible correctly. It is the gospel event, as that which brings about faith in the people of God, that will motivate, direct, pattern, and empower the life of the Christian community. So we start from the gospel and move to an understanding of Christian living, and the final goal toward which we are moving.

Again we start from the gospel and move back into the Old Testament to see what lies behind the person and work of Christ. The Old Testament is not completely superceded by the gospel, for that would make it irrelevant to us. It helps us understand the gospel by showing us the origins and meanings of the various ideas and special words used to describe Christ and his works in the New Testament. Yet we must also recognize that Christ is God's fullest and final Word to mankind. As such he reveals to us the final meaning of the Old Testament (Goldsworthy 1991, 106-107).

There are many studies that show the relationship of Christ to the Old Testament. An older two-volume study by E.W. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament, was written in 1854. This is a scholarly and detailed study (1400 pages) of Old Testament texts showing the prefiguring and prophecy of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. A more recent study (1991) by Vern Poythress of Westminster Seminary, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, details how Christ is prefigured in the Pentateuch (5 books of Moses). A look at some of his chapter titles shows how starting with Christ and moving back into the Old Testament gives us insight into a fuller meaning of Christ.

  1. The Tabernacle of Moses: Prefiguring God's Presence through Christ
  2. The Sacrifices: Prefiguring the Final Sacrifice of Christ
  3. The Priests and the People: Prefiguring Christ's Relation to His People
  4. General Principles for God's Dwelling with Human Beings: Prefiguring Union with Christ.
  5. The Land of Palestine, the Promised Land: Prefiguring Christ's Renewal and Dominion over the Earth.
  6. The Law and Its Order: Prefiguring the Righteousness of Christ
  7. The Purpose of the Tabernacle, the Law, and the Promised Land: Pointing Forward to Christ
  8. The Punishments and Penalties of the Law: Prefiguring the Destruction of Sin and Guilt Through Christ
  9. False Worship, Holy War, and Penal Substitution: Prefiguring the Spiritual Warfare of Christ and His Church (Poythress 1991, vii-ix).

It should be clear that Jesus Christ is the key to both the Old and New Testaments. We conclude this section with the words of Goldsworthy:

In order to know how any given part of the Bible relates to us, we must answer two prior questions: how does the text in question relate to Christ, and how do we relate to Christ? Since Christ is the truth, God's final and fullest word to mankind, all other words of the Bible are given their final meaning in him. The same Christ gives us our meaning and defines the significance of our existence in terms of our relationship to him (Goldsworthy 1991, 91).

The Readers' Context

One final issue relating to the understanding of the Abrahamic covenant is the influence of one's own context on his interpretation of the text.

Within the reader's own context there are several considerations that influence the interpretation of the text. All interpreters approach the text with an already existing worldview and pre-understanding. A self-consciousness of this pre-existing worldview, along with a willingness to subject it to possible reformation under the authority of the text are essential for relevant and authoritative interpretation.

Also, there must be a consciousness of the actuality that the world of the Bible and the world of subsequent readers are changed worlds. The interpreter must look for legitimate correspondences between his world and the world of the Bible and beware of making illegitimate correspondences. The interpreter must also be aware that in his contemporary world there exists a gap, not only between his culture and that of the Bible, but also between cultures within his own world. This self-awareness of cultural gap will serve as a check on undue outside influence being brought to the text.

A Summary Critique of Dispensational Interpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant


Dispensationalism is presently undergoing modification. The direction in which contemporary dispensationalists are moving is encouraging, as is the similar movement in covenant theology. There appears to be much less fixation to a "system," and much more attention to exegesis, biblical theology, and the issues of hermeneutics. This present willingness to discuss differences with other schools of interpretation (Feinberg 1988; Blaising and Bock 1992; Saucy 1993) indicates an admission that those who, though they adhere to the authority of Scripture, interpret Scripture differently are not enemies of the cross.

This summary critique is designed to clarify some of the issues regarding the interpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant that need to be addressed so that Dispensationalism can continue to be transformed into a "system" that is thoroughly and defensibly biblical.

The Issue of Biblical Context

The failure to explicate the relationship of Genesis 12:1-3 to the first eleven chapters of the Bible is one of the most serious flaws of Dispensationalism. This disassociation of the Abrahamic covenant from God's primal intentions for the world results in a multi-track approach to the Bible. In classic Dispensationalism it appears that God began with a plan for all humanity and then, beginning with Genesis 12, He switched tracks and began a new plan for only a segment of humanity, Israel. And, this new plan is only remotely related to what God intended in the original creation.

It is unfortunate that in Eugene Merrill's history of Israel, that connection is not fully developed. He states in regard to the Torah:

[The Torah] ... is a theological treatise whose purpose is to show that God the Creator will, through an elect nation Israel, sovereignly achieve his creative and redemptive purposes for all mankind (Merrill 1987, 25).

Though Merrill notes the above purpose in relation to the Torah, he totally neglects to discuss the Abrahamic covenant in the nineteen pages given to the Abrahamic history (Merrill 1987, 25-43).

David J. A. Clines in his discussion of the relationship of Gen 1-11 and the patriarchal history shows that the goal of the Shem genealogy (11:10-26) is Abraham, and that the genealogy of Abraham (11:26-30) serves as a link between the primeval history and the patriarchal history (Clines 1982, 78). Perhaps one of the most cogent discussions of the relationship of the Abrahamic covenant to Gen 1-11 is given by William J. Dumbrell (Dumbrell 1984, 47-79). He summarizes that relationship saying:

Gen. 12:1-3 is the rejoinder to the consequences of the fall and aims at the restoration of the purposes of God for the world to which Gen. 1-2 directed our attention. What is being offered in these few verses is a theological blueprint for the redemptive history of the world, now set in train by the call of Abraham (Dumbrell 1984, 66).

Observing the connection between Genesis 12:1-2 and Genesis 1-11 yields not only the fruit of observing more unity in the purposes of God, but also a recognition of the universal scope of the terms of the Abrahamic covenant. Based on that connection the Abrahamic covenant is loosed from the bonds of ethnicity and nationality and is liberated to address all believing peoples and the entire creation.

More attention needs to given to the placement of the Abrahamic covenant in its biblical context and how that context nuances its understanding.

The Actual Terms of the Covenant

The Seed of Abraham

When viewed against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11 and in light of the New Testament, the features of the Abrahamic covenant are infused with deeper hues that solicit attraction from more than just the physical descendants of Abraham. The inclination of earlier forms of Dispensationalism was to exclude Gentiles from all but the soteriological benefits of this covenant. In so doing, they incited envy for the privileges that Israelites had, yet offered no hope for Gentile participation in those privileges.

Classic dispensationalists affirmed discontinuity in the redemptive program of God based upon their distinction of an earthly and a heavenly people. Though allowing for the redemption of Gentiles through their connection with Christ, the seed of Abraham, they maintained that New Testament believers were the seed of Abraham, only in their participation of the gospel. The other features of the Abrahamic covenant were reserved for the physical descendants of Abraham. They retained the distinction of an earthly and heavenly people.

In classic Dispensationalism Gentiles are granted status as the seed of Abraham only in the sense that they are blessed in experiencing salvation through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham. They are excluded from those promises that are allegedly given to the physical seed (Walvoord 1951, 421). Gentiles are "seed" in one sense, but they are not in another. They are "seed" in redemption but not "seed" in eschatology.

Classic Dispensationalism ends up with two seeds of Abraham, even though Galatians 3:16 teaches that the one seed of Abraham is gathered together in Christ.

Contrariwise, Progressive Dispensationalists no longer maintain such discontinuity in redemption but see "one people of God, saved by grace through faith in the promises of God based on the atoning death of Christ" (Breshears 1986, 3). The earthly\heavenly dichotomy is erased (Saucy 1988, 241).

This admission of "one people of God" in redemption needs to be investigated further. For, if it is conceded that there is but one people of God in redemption, then can there not be one people of God in eschatology? Progressive Dispensationalism more clearly delineates the redemptive continuity that exists between Israel and the church as the seed of Abraham (Breshears 1986, 3), yet it remains reluctant to apply that continuity to it fullest limits in regard to eschatology.

Admittedly, Progressive Dispensationalists do recognize that both Israel and the church share a common ultimate destiny in the city of God (Blaising 1988, 277). In this regard there is eschatological continuity; however, maintaining the distinction that Israel is "a nation among nations" and that the church is "formed from all nations" (Saucy 1988, 252; 258), seems not only to contradict passages such as 1 Peter 2:9, but also bifurcates the destinies of Israel and the church.

This designation of Israel as "a nation among nations" fails again to recognize the Genesis 1-11 backdrop for the covenant and consequently fails to see that national Israel in its time was the vehicle of God through which the nations were to be reached. Admittedly, the geo-political status of Israel is an issue of the Abrahamic covenant. By use of the term yAg (Gen 12:2), Israel is designated as "a people in terms of its political and territorial affiliation (Clements 1975, 427).

However, it is not Israel solely in her ethnic, national status alone that is to expect the kingdom of God on earth, but rather Israel as the people of God, who by faith enter into God's covenant with Abraham, including all subsequent believers who are ingrafted into the olive tree. As noted earlier, Peter used the terms describing Israel's unique position (1 Pet 2:9) to refer to the church. The church is now an e;qnoj. This is the Greek word used to translate yAg in the Septuagint.

This is not to say that national Israel is disenfranchised from the promise, but rather that New Testament believers are incorporated into that privileged position with believing Israelites, because God's nation has intentionally expanded its members and its borders. Stephen R. Spencer approximates this position:

The recipients of the Abrahamic promises and their sequels in the Old Testament expand after Pentecost, but they do not switch; there is no replacement of ethnic Israel. Likewise there can be no return to the previous, exclusively, ethnic nature of the people of God (Spencer 1986, 4).

The Land

Once again the backdrop of Genesis 1-11 enhances our understanding of #r,a'h . The very first time #r,a is mentioned in the Scripture is Genesis 1:1 in the syntagm, "heaven and earth," and the next time in Genesis 1:10 with reference to "the dry land." God's primal intentions for man was that he exercise dominion over #r,a'h (Gen 1:26-27). Due to the fall this dominion would entail struggle (Gen 3:17-19); nevertheless, a world-wide responsibility persisted even after the flood (Gen 9:1).

In classic Dispensationalism the promise of land to Abraham is nowhere related to the divine primal intentions for the earth. The gift of land to Abraham is viewed in disassociation from those intentions, being consummated in a Jewish kingdom followed by a restoration of all things.

Darrell Bock, though bringing criticism from other Progressive Dispensationalists, commendably relates the covenants to the kingdom rule of God and also relates New Testament believers to those covenants. He says that "Blessing comes to the audience, not through descent but through turning to the one who has authority to give blessing" (Bock 1987, 14).

In do doing, Bock sees in the church an inauguration of the fulfillment of the covenants of the Old Testament. He says in reference to Acts 3:25-26: With the allusion to the Abrahamic covenant, all three of the major covenants have received mention in either Acts 2 or Acts 3. The career of Jesus represents the opportunity for men to share in the fulfillment of all of God's promises, a fulfillment that is presented as a package. The promises of God and His kingdom program are both `already-not yet', as well as `unity in diversity' (Bock 1987, 14).

Bock also sees a consummate fulfillment in a kingdom age "when God brings the program of His rule to completion" (Bock 1987, 14). This author agrees with David Turner's and Stephen Spencer's recognition:

Bock's essay amounts to a helpful synthesis of the best insights of covenant theologians on present eschatology with the dispensationalists view of the future response of national Israel to the gospel (Turner and Spencer 1987, 1).

This author recommends viewing the Abrahamic promise of land against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11. From that perspective, believing descendants of Abraham, as well as proselytes, were to enjoy occupation of that land of Palestine and all that entailed spiritually, as a microcosmic participation in the kingdom rule of God. This kingdom rule is presently experienced in the church, as a semi-realized eschatological fulfillment of the covenants, and awaits a future consummate fulfillment in the geo-political kingdom of God that covers the entire earth as well as the eternal kingdom.

The classic dispensational view of the purely national nature of the land promise and its fulfillment in a Jewish kingdom must be rejected on the grounds that it fails to take into account the biblical-historical context of the land promise, the theological significance of that promise, and the paucity of New Testament material directly related to that promise.

Properly, Progressive Dispensationalists recognize that a millennial kingdom is but transitory to an eternal kingdom. Blaising says:

... the millennium does not properly bear the full climax of history. The goal of the dispensations is not the millennial kingdom but the eternal kingdom. The millennial kingdom is seen more as a temporary, transitional phase of God's kingdom plan ... (Blaising 1988, 268-9).

The moderation within Dispensationalism needs to further examine the promise of land in light of the three aforementioned issues.

New Testament Passages

An unresolved issue that continues to affect the understanding of the nation of Israel's role in the future as well as the other terms of the Abrahamic covenant is the paucity of New Testament material that speaks with the clarity of the Old Testament to Israel's future land inheritance. For instance, Kaiser, in giving a biblical-historical view of the Promised Land, adequately from an Old Testament basis builds a case for Israel's future possession of Palestine (Kaiser 1981, 302-9). However, when he come to Romans 9-11, which he calls "the most significant passage on this subject in the New Testament" (Kaiser 1981, 310), though establishing this text as a "blunt witness to God's everlasting work on behalf of Israel" (Kaiser 1981, 310), he fails to demonstrate his assertion that "the main lines of Paul's argument in Romans 9-11 are clear and in complete agreement with the promise of the land to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament" (Kaiser 1981, 310).

Admittedly, an argument from silence neither affirms nor negates the promise of the Old Testament, but raises the question as to whether or not they are to be understood in a fuller way. As noted earlier, the seventy-four references to Abraham in the New Testament fail to affirm the features of the covenant as "literally" understood in the Old Testament. Rather, the most significant features highlighted in the New Testament concerning Abraham were the faith relationship that he enjoyed with God and the realization that Jesus Christ, as the supreme representative seed of Abraham, is both the guarantor and inheritor of those promises. The conclusion of Bruce Waltke, a former Dispensationalist, concerning the absence in the New Testament of any mention of an earthly reign of Christ before His appearing (Waltke 1988, 273) needs a more convincing response than that given by Walter Kaiser (Kaiser 1988, 289-307). This author would suggest that the historical-grammatical meaning of the "land promise" is not emasculated by the "fuller sense" of the New Testament but rather enriches and expands that sense.

Though the New Testament alone will not build a case for nor abrogate the dispensational understanding of the Abrahamic covenant, it does speak to that covenant; therefore, how it speaks to it will continue to be one of the most critical issue in understanding the scope of the Abrahamic covenant.

Hermeneutical Issues

The sine qua non

Ryrie's three sine qua non (Ryrie 1965, 43-47) are no longer the basis of Dispensationalism. Two of three that formerly most affected the issue of hermeneutics have been reduced by Progressive dispensationalists to one, i.e. the distinction between Israel and the Church (Bailey 1988, 23). Though the historical and eschatological distinctions between Israel and the Church are perceived differently among dispensationalists, the distinction yet remains. That distinction appears to inhere in the "national" status of Israel (Saucy 1988, 255).

Though this author does not necessarily disagree with a form of discontinuity between Israel and the church in history and destiny, he fails to see the reasoning for asserting a soteriological continuity and retaining a strict eschatological discontinuity. To allow that the concept of "nation" has been expanded to include the church (1 Pet 2:9) does not obliterate God's intentions for Israel, it merely enlarges them. Does God have two laoi through which he accomplishes His plan of world redemption? Would the occupation of the whole earth, including Palestine, by the people of God be construed as an abrogation of His promise to Abraham? Would the joint-rule of Jew and Gentile believers over all creation fail to meet the intent of Old Testament promises?

In this author's estimation, the distinction between Israel and the Church as the sine qua non of Dispensationalism lacks clarity. The sine qua non of Dispensationalism would more clearly be stated as "a commitment to the earthly fulfillment of the land promise to national, ethnic Israel which is uniquely the `seed' of Abraham with reference to the future fulfillment of the covenants of promise." This commitment is arrived at through their understanding of grammatical-historical interpretation.

Grammatical-historical Interpretation

Classic Dispensationalism has a self-imposed restriction on understanding the text of the Bible. By limiting a text's meaning to its grammatical-historical interpretation they rule out any nuances that may be added by further revelation. David Turner rightly recognizes:

It seems to me that we dispensationalists have the most to lose from a sensus plenior, NT reinterprets OT, hermeneutic. We have the most to gain from an approach to progressive revelation which emphasizes informing antecedent theology (Turner 1986, 2).

The issue of grammatical-historical interpretation is integrally related to the issues of authorial intent and progressive revelation, and it ultimately influences how one understands the related issues of typology, prophecy-fulfillment, and the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.

As noted earlier, the grammatical-historical approach to Scripture is necessary and adequate as a starting point. However, it falls short due to the now enlarged context of Scripture. It is precisely because of the dual authorship of Scripture (Divine/Human) that the grammatical-historical meaning of Scripture can be developed and expanded. Progressive revelation enlarges on the divine intent in Scripture without emasculating the human author's intent. At the same time progressive revelation may unfold at times an understanding of the human author's intent that may not have been immediately perceptible from the text itself.

A concession that God, the divine author, could have intended more than the physical descendants of Abraham by the term, is one that is confirmed by the New Testament (Gal 3:16, 29). Recognizing that Abraham, the human author, had an understanding of "land" that went beyond the geography of Palestine is likewise confirmed by the New Testament (Heb 11:10, 16, 39, 40). The question is whether these added meanings in any way annul the grammatical-historical meaning.

Classic dispensationalists tended to approach the Abrahamic covenant in a "woodenly" literal way. There seemed to be little development of the typological significance of land (Heb 3: 4). However, even accepting Waltke's affirmation that "the striking correspondences between the land and Christ suggest the sworn-land is a type of the kingdom of God embodied in Christ" (Waltke 1988, 277), does not absolutely rule out the possibility of a future earthly kingdom that serves as a final earthly type of the perfect rest to be experienced in Christ in the eternal state. As long as this earthly order exists there may be types that foreshadow the heavenly and eternal original.

The interpretation of prophecy is also directly affected by how one handles the issues of authorial intent and progressive revelation. The dispensational approach to prophecy has traditionally been a straight-forward approach that gave little or no attention to the eschatological fulfillment taking place in the church today. However, that is changing. There is much similarity between Bock's inaugural and consummate fulfillment scheme (Bock 1987, 1-16) and Robertson's fuller and consummate realizations (Robertson 1980, 288-9), even though Bock's ends in the millennium and Robertson's ends in the new creation.

A recognition of partial fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the church today is a giant step for dispensationalism. It is an admission that in the progress of revelation, the New Testament does inform the Old Testament, and elicits an understanding that goes beyond the historical-grammatical interpretation.

This author recognizes three possible conclusions concerning the issue of the eschatological fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant: (1) the nation of Israel awaits a distinct eschatological fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, while the church participates only soteriologically in the promise to Abraham; (2) the church fulfills the promise to Abraham; (3) the church is ingrafted into Israel and enjoys with believing Jews a present semi-realized fulfillment and awaits a future expanded fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.

The current progress in hermeneutics is bound to bring further modifications to both covenantal and dispensational approaches of interpreting Scripture. As development takes place, may it do so heeding Craig Blaising's answers to his own question: "How can a positive contribution be made toward proper development of doctrine?" He answers:

  1. Expect orthodox doctrine to develop.
  2. Encourage proper theological method, including interaction and integration from various sources.
  3. Encourage the exegetical study of Scripture and the consideration of hermeneutical conclusions that may vary from the existing pattern of doctrine.
    The tension between doctrine and exegesis may be the catalyst for proper doctrinal development or for further exegetical development which may or may not result in doctrinal development.
  4. Locate the continuity center of tradition in Scripture, God's Word, rather than in some past theological expression, a human word. In this way the priority of Scripture over tradition will be maintained (Blaising 1988, 130-140).

The Unity of the Covenants

David Turner recommended that "dispensationalists should also rethink the biblical covenants in order to revise the traditional conditional\unconditional scheme" (Turner 1986, 2). This author concurs with Turner and would like to take it a step further. Dispensationalism needs to rethink the purpose of the covenants, the recipients, the interrelationship of the covenants, and their fulfillment.

It is unfortunate that most of the dispensational discussion of the covenants themselves is contained in a polemic against covenant theology and fails to explicate how dispensationalists view the covenants. The importance of the Abrahamic covenant is seen largely as "crucial in its evidence regrading God's purposes for Israel" (Walvoord 1945, 27). According to classic dispensationalists, the covenants concern the physical descendants of Abraham only (Rand 1951, 328).

The failure to see the Abrahamic covenant in relationship to God's primal intentions and the failure to see covenant as the means by which God binds Himself to both Old Testament and New Testament believers will continue to result in a bifurcation of the purposes of God, the people of God, and of the two testaments.

Even though Progressive Dispensationalism has conceded more unity in the people of God and between the testament, a study of the covenants in relationship to God's primal intentions (Dumbrell 1984) would yield more continuity.

Though Progressive Dispensationalism accepts a "one people of God" approach in soteriology and accepts a semi-realized eschatological fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the Church today, they still have not broken loose completely from bold but unfortunate statements such as this one by Dwight Pentecost:

Finally, these covenants were made with a covenant people, Israel. In Romans 9:4 Paul states that the nation of Israel had received covenants from the Lord. In Ephesians 2:11-12 he states, conversely, that the Gentiles have not received any such covenants and consequently do not enjoy covenant relationships with God (Pentecost 1958, 69).

Breshears statement that "the promises and prophecies of redemption come to all who are the single redeemed people of God (Breshears 1986, 3) needs further thought and development to examine whether the theological basis, upon which they have determined that the single redeemed people of God share the same soteriological benefits, can also be used to establish a fully shared eschatological destiny.

The continued discussion and development in hermeneutics will bring further modification to Dispensationalism. The areas of discussion that will perhaps yield the greatest benefit are (1) a clearer understanding of how the Old Testament is used in the New Testament; (2) an application of "canonical process" to Old Testament texts; (3) further discussion on the nature of typology and the understanding of prophetic texts; (4) a deeper self-awareness of the "baggage" interpreters bring to Scripture coupled with a willingness to allow exegesis to modify their theological systems; and (5) a greater appreciation for how the final and fullest revelation in Jesus Christ determines our understanding of the Old Testament promises.

Works Cited

Berkhof, Louis. 1950. Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Blaising, Craig A. and Bock, Darrell L. 1988a. "Developing Dispensationalism." Bibliothecra Sacra. 145: 133-140; 254-280.

_____ 1992. Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

Bock, Darrell L. 1987. "The Reign of the Lord Christ." Evangelical Society Meeting.

Breshears, Gerry. 1986. "Response to Craig Blaising, 'Developing Dispensationalism.'" Paper delivered at the ETS Meeting.

Clines, David J. A. 1978. The Theme of the Pentateuch. Sheffield: The Journal for the Study of the Old Testament.

Dumbrell, W. J. 1984. Covenant and Creation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

____ 1982. "The Covenant with Abraham." Reformed Theological Review. 41: 42-50.

Feinberg, Charles L. 1985 reprint. Millennialism: The Two Major Views. Winona Lake: BMH Books.

Feinberg, Paul D. 1988. "The Hermeneutics of Discontinuity." In Continuity and Discontinuity. pp. 109-128. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.

Fuller, Daniel P. 1957. "The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism." Doctoral Dissertation, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.

______ 1980. Gospel and Law. Contrast or Continuum. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. 1991. According to Plan. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

Green, Joel B. 1984. How to Read Prophecy. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press.

Kaiser, Walter C. 1978. Toward an Old Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

____ 1981. "The Promised Land: A Biblical-Historical View." Bibliotheca Sacra. 138 (Oct-Dec): 302-312.

Kunjummen, Raju D. 1988. "The Single Intent of Scripture - Critical Examination of a Theological Construct." Grace Theological Journal. 7 (Spring): 81-110.

Merrill, Eugene. 1987. Kingdom of Priests. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Moo, Douglas. 1986. "The Problem of Sensus Plenior." In Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. pp. 179-211. Edited by D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

Odendaal, Dirk H. 1966. "The Eschatological Expectation of Isaiah 40-66 with Special Reference to Israel and the Nations." Doctoral Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. 1958. Things to Come. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

Poythress, Vern S. 1991. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Brentwood: Wolgemuth and Hyatt Publishers, Inc.

______1987. Understanding Dispensationalists. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

Ramm, Bernard. 1970. Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Roberston, O. Palmer. 1980. The Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. 1965. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press.

Saucy, Robert L. 1988. "Israel and the Church: A Case for Discontinuity." In Continuity and Discontinuity. pp. 239-259. Edited by John S. Feinberg. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.

_____ 1993. The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

Scalise, Charles J. 1989. "The 'Sensus Literalis': A Hermeneutical Key to Biblical Exegesis." Scottish Journal of Theology. 42: 45-65.

Turner, David L. 1985. "The Continuity of Scripture and Eschatology: Key Hermeneutical Issues." Grace Theological Journal. 6 (Fall): 275-287.

Turner, David L. and Stephen R. Spencer. 1987. "A Response to Darrell L. Bock's "The Reign of the Lord Christ." A paper presented at the 1987 ETS meeting.

Waltke, Bruce. 1988. "Kingdom Promises as Spiritual." In Continuity and Discontinuity. pp. 263-287. Edited by John S. Feinberg. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.

Walvoord, John. 1980. "Does the Church Fulfill Israel's Program?" Bibliothecra Sacra. 137 (January-March): 17-31; (April-June): 118-124.


[1] Like slowly turning on the dimmer in your dining room as images move from darkness to outlines of objects, to shadows, to clear sight.

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