Part 1: General Overview
A Covenantalist and a Dispensationalist aim and fire their shotguns at their targets. How do you tell which target belonged to whom?
This is the battle between Reformed Covenant theology and Evangelical Dispensationalism and how these systems understand the relationship between the OT and NT, but especially between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. All of the contributors are beneficiaries of the work of Christ and participants in the new covenant, but something has created a rift in their understanding of the place of the NT church in God’s eternal plan. Essayist Petersen states “The Bible, the book that unites the church, frequently divides it” (p. 34). But I think we ourselves divide over it.
Continuity and Discontinuity is now 30 years old. And in that time, having associated with churches that espouse these varied positions, I don’t think much has changed since then. My interest in this book was specific to the law, and how the foundational premise of continuity and discontinuity would affect their respective views of the Sabbath. I plan to discuss the two chapters dealing with the law and in a separate article. A third article will address the comments made by Chamblin and Moo specific to their sabbatology.
The first chapter of this in-depth festschrift reviews the historical development of the challenges of relating the testaments to each other. Covenant Theology arose in the sixteenth century (there are precursors with everything) with a sense that the church was true Israel. I agreed with Petersen’s observation that “the implication from this was that the moral laws and precepts of the OT were given added weight as guides to the Christian life” (p. 27). Dispensationalism arose in the nineteenth century with the sense that Israel as a nation still had a role in end-times events. Historically speaking, it appears that the Christian’s hope for the Parousia, couched in terms of their present historical circumstances, can have a profound effect on their hermeneutic. Could it be possible that both of these views have misdirected NT theology?
The following topics are discussed, two essays from opposing viewpoints. I will comment only on the topics “Theological Systems” and “People of God.”
- Theological Systems (Ch 2,3)
- Hermeneutics (Ch 4,5)
- Salvation (Ch 6,7)
- The Law (Ch 8,9)
- People of God (Ch 10,11)
- Kingdom Promises (Ch 12,13)
Chapters 2 and 3 offer a general outline of the competing systems. Readers will not be presented with a conclusive position statement from either system of thought; they will simply have to be already familiar with the respective systems.
Reformed. Van Gemeren says Reformed theology is a continuity system, but little is presented what necessitates a position of “continuity.” He mentions a list of similarities and differences between the covenants compiled by Ursinus, but the list seemed to favor dissimilarities! The first half of his essay focused on the in-fighting among Reformed theologians and concluded with the introspective question whether it is possible to be biblical and confessionally Reformed. Silly question. Of course, those who embrace Reformed theology think they are biblical. The second half of his essay says little about what makes Reformed theology a continuity system. God is father, Christ is a unifying thread, the Spirit is working, and there will be end times. “The genius of Reformed Theology lies in the willingness to live with tensions inherent in the system” (p. 62).
Dispensational. Feinberg then argues that Dispensationalism does not rely on the term “dispensation,” does not mean that God is testing humanity, does not specify the number of dispensations one must accept, has no impact on whether one is Calvinist or Arminian, and does not demand a particular view of the law. Israel is important. Feinberg begins to isolate a difference between the systems when he states that typological approaches and the promise-fulfillment concept form the basis for continuity-oriented interpretations (p. 66). But later he says, “Dispensational and nondispensational thinkers agree that the NT fulfills the OT and is a more complete revelation of God” (p. 75). Later, he explains that nondispensational systems view types as shadows that somehow lose their meaning in their own context when superseded by the anti-type. On the other hand, dispensationalists view types as not necessarily shadows and they must “be given their due meanings in their own contexts while maintaining a typological relation to one another” (p. 78). Without a valid illustration of this phenomenon, it is difficult to understand what he means. All dispensationalists, he avers, “think some sort of distinction between Israel and the church is important” (p. 68, 81). Then he says that “many covenant theologians distinguish Israel from the church” (p. 71). As he admitted, there is confusion in the camps (p. 74).
Chapters 10 and 11 explain why Israel is or is not a continuing entity in God’s redemptive plans.
Reformed. Woudstra, arguing for continuity between Israel and the church, begins with a Scottish confessional statement about the existence of the “kirk” or church from the time of Adam. For Woudstra the question, it seems, is tied to salvation. He sees Israel in Genesis before it became a nation, and so he sees the church in Exodus before Christ even said He will build His church. At the same time, Woudstra calls Israel a prototype of the church, which to me means that it cannot be both the church and a prototype of the church at the same time. Israel is or it is not the church (and vice versa). And he calls the church the new Israel. Not the new “Israel” but the new Israel. However, you will not find the Reformed boasting that they are Jews. While God may call the things that are not as though they are (Rom 4:17), I have a problem with the prochronism of Covenant Theology that places the NT church in OT times. Certainly, OT saints were saved, but not because they understood that Jesus died for their sins. And if Israel, which is the kirk or a prototype of the church, enjoyed all the benefits that the NT church now enjoys, then what makes the new covenant “new”?
Dispensational. Suacy, arguing for discontinuity between Israel and the church, notes the dramatic changes brought by the new covenant, but then says, “But newness with the inauguration of the church does not in itself establish a discontinuity of the church in relation to Israel” (p. 250). Saucy seems to see the question as to whether Israel as a nation has a separate spiritual path after the establishment of the New Testament church. Of course, he admits from the outset this question arises due to historic circumstances. Paul mentions Israel and means the nation Israel, he propounds. However, Paul wrote when Israel was still a nation. And until 1948, there was no national Israel. Its contemporary existence as an independent state is certainly a monumental event, but it is not a restoration of the Mosaic covenant, nor was the event the fulfillment of clear prophecy.
Analysis. I got the impression that the contributors were often arguing from the standpoint of their chosen theological system rather than from exegetical analysis of key texts and a comprehensive understanding of both sides of the topic in question. Sometimes, the more one qualifies their position the less clear their position becomes. On top of that, the terms “continuity” and “discontinuity” were never really defined, which makes them near meaningless. I find it amusing that the discontinuity between Israel and the church means that Israel continues to be Israel; and that continuity means that the Jewish nation ends (the old church, as it were) and is subsumed or superseded by the church, which is the new Israel. But what system do I belong to if I believe that the church started with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and that God’s covenant with Israel is old and passed away? I am glad that ethnic Jews remain to this day. Does God want them to assent to the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus and so enter the new covenant or does He want them to remain in unbelief until such time that He reinstates or reactivates the inferior covenant to resume bloody sacrifices and give them earthly blessings?
Editor and contributor John S. Feinberg provided a fine summary of this festschrift in the final epilogue. However, it is a foregone conclusion that “the authors of this volume agree that the relation of the Testaments is one of continuity and discontinuity.” Each essayist admitted that from the outset. No one supports complete discontinuity or complete continuity, whatever that might entail. Each contributor was quite nuanced in his presentation, so at times it is was difficult to figure out whether they were in agreement or disagreement with each other. Nonetheless, there remains notable differences regarding the relationship of Israel and the church, and the corollary topics of the law and kingdom promises.
The new covenant expects and demands that Christians are unified in their understanding of it and what sort of life one should lead. The contributors do not hammer out the behaviors that necessarily follow from their viewpoint (thankfully), but they do focus on the background assumptions and conclusions which in turn would play out in practical application. It does not, in my mind, adequately explain why Covenantalism or Dispensationalism necessarily lead to either continuity or discontinuity, when all the authors acknowledge that within each camp there is such variety of positions that no one position exemplifies or captures the essence of them. Hence, the shotgun illustration above. If someone could be all over the board, so to speak, how do the words “continuity” or “discontinuity” explain one’s position?
As a student of the Bible, I began to wonder if I was ignoring Paul’s advice “that the ultimate aim is to love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and a genuine faith. Some seem to have forgotten this and to have lost themselves in endless words” (1 Tim 1:5-6, Phillips). But maybe this fits under iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). It was dialogical, after all; and what better way to iron out the wrinkles in our theology? This book stimulated much thinking and study on my part, which led me to produce a three-part review. At the same time, this book was not as definitive as I would have liked.