Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why such the emphasis on Israel ...? Dispensationalism Revisted

I am continuing to respond to a good brother from our church congregation; I am responding to his queries about Dispensationalism, and eventually attempting to engage some of the broader contours related to this whole topic of discussion (e.g. eschatological and hermeneutical frameworks, and their relationship---which will ultimately lead us back to a doctrine of God, but that will be later ... this post is more specific to a certain set of questions). My brother from church asked me the following (on Facebook):

Reading your post over again, I am really curious about the two views on the nation of Israel and its position in God's plan for salvation (i.e. as the subject of the sentence or as one with Gentiles in Christ Jesus).

Perhaps both views hold to this idea or neither do, but I have always been under the understanding that God chose Israel, set them apart, and gave them the Law to be a light to the world in order draw the world to Himself. Obviously because of their disobedience this did not work as it should have so Christ came into to history to redeem humanity (something I assume He would have had to do anyway since even if we attempt to fully obey the Law, we will always be sinful in our current state and animal blood only points to Christ not actually covering our sins... right?). Wouldn't this mean that while God's promises for Israel will still be upheld, that salvation was always for all humanity (Jew and Gentile) and not just focused on Israel (which is what CD sounds like to me)? Why such the emphasis on Israel?

My response:

Orthodox Jews
The two views my friend is referencing (for those who are late to following this discussion) are the variances between a so called classic Dispensationalist view of Israel and the Church; and a so called Amillennial view of Israel and the Church (by the way, Postmillennialists, Historic Premillennialists, and Progressive Dispensationalists would all affirm the Amillennialist's view of Israel and the Church, in general ... of course where they go from there, at least the Progressive Dispensationalists, will vary from the Postmil, Historic Premil, and Amil understanding). And so to answering this question, we turn---I will be simply focusing on the classic Dispensational understanding in this post, since this is mostly what my friend's question is after (thus far).

Why is there such a focus on the Nation of Israel in Dispensational thought? The answer is really quite straightforward, it comes down to their asserted method of biblical interpretation; that is, they follow what they call a Literal method of interpretation. Here is how one of the most famed Dispensationalists, Charles Ryrie, states the classic and/or revised Dispensational approach to biblical interpretation:

Literal Hermeneutics. Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation. This means interpretation gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations. The principle might also be called normal interpretation since the literal meaning of words is the normal approach to their understanding in all languages. It might also be designated plain interpretation so that no one receives the mistaken notion that the literal principle rules out figures of speech. Symbols, figures of speech, and types are all interpreted plainly in this method, and they are in no way contrary to literal interpretation. After all, the very existence of any meaning for a figure of speech depends on the reality of the literal meaning of the terms involved. Figures often make the meaning plainer, but it is the literal, normal, or plain meaning that they convey to the reader. [Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, Revised and Expanded, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 80-1]

So when confronted with a passage of Scripture like this:

12 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you. ” ~Genesis 12:1-3 [The 'Abrahamic Covenant']

37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know. ”Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord. ’” ~Ezekiel 37:1-6 [The Dry Bones (or 'Nation' of Israel) Vision]
Or especially a passage like this:

 35 This is what the Lord says,
he who appoints the sun
    to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars
    to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea
    so that its waves roar —
    the Lord Almighty is his name:
36 “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”
    declares the Lord,
“will Israel ever cease
    being a nation before me.”
37 This is what the Lord says:
“Only if the heavens above can be measured
    and the foundations of the earth below be searched out
will I reject all the descendants of Israel
    because of all they have done,”
declares the Lord. ~Jeremiah 31:35-37 [This is right after the famous New Covenant passage, which Dispensationalists believe is only properly understood as applicable to the nation of Israel.]
 If we are employing a literal method interpretation, as Ryrie describes it; then how else can (must) we take passages like these from the Old Testament? It must be understood as referencing the Nation of Israel as God's prescribed plan for human history; that is, it must be that God has an all encompassing plan for human history that is solely oriented around the Nation of Israel. When you couple this kind of literalist method of interpretation with a Progressive Revelation reading of Scripture (meaning that we start in the Old Testament, and read that into the New Testament); then the natural outcome will be to see the Nation of Israel at the center of prophetic and biblical history. 

What is lost in this approach, is an emphasis on Jesus as the the point of Israel's vocation; they were to mediate Yahweh's salvation to the Nations, and it was always understood that the 'Seed' that they carried would be the One to accomplish that purpose for all of humanity (including the Nation of Israel). At least that is what the Apostle Paul thought when he was writing Galatians 3. And yet, I jump ahead of myself; I will touch upon the contrary approach to the Dispensational approach later (and soon).

If I was committed to the philosophy of history, the philosophical assumptions (Scottish Sense Realism), that governs the Dispensational mode of life; then it does make internal sense (relative to their system of interpretation, etc.) that they end up where they do. So the question isn't if Dispensational hermeneutical theory (what informs the way they conceive of doing biblical interpretation) is coherent and self-referentially consistent (within their system); the question is whether or not their system actually best proximates the actual intention of Scripture's message, and salvation history's purpose? I will seek to answer these questions some time soon. 

So, do the promises made to the Nation of Israel still stand? I would say yes (again I am jumping ahead of myself, but only to gesture towards answering your questions to me, I will develop my views more later). But qualified in a way that sees Jesus as the ground and fulfillment of what it means to be Israel. The Nation of Israel has the same purpose, in Christ (cf. Eph. 2:11ff) as every other nation. The promises made to Israel are indeed irrevocable (cf. Rom. 11:29), but Israel was always intended to be understood through her ground and purpose and fulfillment, 'in Christ'. This is the key, that is, Christ is the key to sourcing an understanding of a properly constructed 'literal' method of biblical interpretation. The New Testament authors thought so, and thus; so should we. I have left us with quite a few assertions, but this is where I will finally get to as we continue to work through Dispensationalism V. a 'Christ-Conditioned' hermeneutic; for this is where this whole debate really dwells. That is, how it is that we conceive of our philosophies of biblical interpretation? Until next time, brother ...


  1. Hi Bobby,

    It has been quite a while since I have commented here but I would like to add a couple of comments if you don’t mind. I hope your friend will find what I have to say to be informative.

    You are correct that dispensational theology strives for a literal interpretation of scripture. That is because they hold to the proposition that there is one, and only one, correct interpretation of a passage and that interpretation can be determined from context and grammar. I know that you believe that such “Aristotelian” logic does not do justice to scripture. I also understand that you hold to a dialectical hermeneutic (which has its roots in Platonism) so what the two of us mean by literal is probably very different.

    When you say that your theology is “Christ-centered” or “Christ-conditioned” I interpret that as meaning the purpose of human history is redemptive. Is that correct? It wouldn’t hurt to mention that this is another bone of contention between Reformed and Dispensational theology. Dispensationalism holds that the purpose of human history is doxological (for God’s glory).

    I would also like to provide your friend with a link to Michel Vlach’s web page on supersessionism (link here). Vlach is dispensational in theology but I believe that he is even handed. Vlach has an article on Barth’s view of supersessionism, maybe you can read it and let me know if it is fair.


    1. Hi Glenn,

      Great to hear from you!

      No, I don't reject dispensational theology because I think it has its roots in "Aristotelian" logic (if anything it is Scottish Common Sense Realism and a neo-Platonism at work in dispensational hermeneutics/just look at their understanding of the two "peoples of God" for example). And the dialectical approach I follow actually has its roots in a constructive Christian articulation that might use certain philosophical cues, but they aren't coming from Plato, per se (more like, for me, through Michael Polyani, Einstein, et al); and really cues that are Christian theological in orientation, abstracting some philosophical symbols and reissuing them within a Christian usage (thus providing meaning at context) grammar. But Aristotle really isn't involved in this, so much.

      When I say that my theology is "Christ-centered," no, I don't mean what the usual Reformed thought means here (as you note a soteriological reference); instead I mean that human history is both apocalyptic and eschatological, meaning that creation and human history has always already found its reality in Jesus Christ. So while salvation history (of course) is part of this unfolding plan; salvation history and human history (as you say) are united and read through the humanity of Jesus Christ for us, methodologically. Or, my approach would start from a God to humanity in Christ, rather than humanity to God in Christ; but then dialectically both the Godward-humanward/humanward-Godward are hypostatically brought together in the purpose of all creation, who is Christ (Colossians 1:15ff). So my approach is different than the usual Reformed way of hermeneutics (which as you rightly note is soteriological).

      I read Vlach's short article on Barth and supersessionism, and I think it gets some of Barth right; i.e. on the relation of Israel and Church in a twofold understanding of election taken up into Christ. But then at the end I think the final analysis is weak when it seems to suggest and even blatantly assert that Barth is somehow classic by way of seeing the Church as replacing Israel as the new Israel (as if the church is somehow constitutive in itself). Barth grounds things by starting in his doctrine of God, not in ecclesiology; as this short essay by Vlach seems to suggest, and so I think at that point Vlach's understanding isn't quite right.


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