Continuing with another rejoinder to Sam Waldron’s book, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto – A Friendly Response.
Sam devotes at least 11 chapters both directly and indirectly addressing the subject of Israel in his MacArthur rebuttal. Like all faithful Covenant, Reformed Baptist, a good part of his agenda is to make sure when his readers finish his book they go away knowing Sam believes the NT Church is simply the “New” Israel.
The view John presented in his Shepherd’s Conference message is that God has promised to ethnic Israel a future salvation and restoration where they will dwell in an earthly kingdom with their messiah reigning from Jerusalem for 1,000 years. That is an unconditional promise God originally gave to Abraham and his descendants and is reiterated throughout the history of the OT and that kingdom is assumed to have fulfillment as taught by Christ and His Apostles.
Contrasted to John’s position, Sam, along with many Covenant Theologians, argues that the Church, composed of both Jews and gentiles, is now a corporate, spiritual entity that has become a new covenant holy nation. The notion that God will save and restore national Israel to a future kingdom in the physical land known as “Israel” is misguided. Rather, the true “future” of ethnic Israel is found in the new covenant body known as the Church and the true restoration of a physical kingdom to Israel is the progression of the gospel as proclaimed by the Church starting from Jerusalem and spreading to the entire world. See Acts 1:6-8 for example. Thus God fulfills His OT promises to Israel through the believing Jewish remnant who believe by faith in Christ, so that in this holy nation “all Israel” is being saved [MMM, 32].
The idea that the Church is now the “New” Israel isn’t new in church history, nor is it unique to Sam and Reformed covenant thought. Some early Christians in the centuries immediately following the time of the apostles believed the church was a “new” Israel replacing the old Israel. Sam mentions Justin Martyr who held to a form of “replacement theology” who believed the Church was spiritual “New” Israel replacing the old Israel [MMM, 21]. But Martyr also held to the idea of a future millennium where the salvation and restoration of Israel will take place, the one important distinction supporting MacArthur’s message that is over looked in Sam’s citation.
Augustine was the most dominant Church Father who solidified in his theology the teaching of the NT Church being a “New” Israel, and it was passed along by the Roman Catholic Church down through the centuries. In fact, Roman Catholic theology even today reads similarly to how Sam and Covenant Theologians argue.
For example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 877 states, “in fact, from the beginning of his ministry, the Lord Jesus instituted the Twelve as ‘the seeds of the new Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy.'” Also, in the Catechism of Vatican II under chapter 7 entitled, The Work of Salvation: The Church, we read, “As Israel according to the flesh which wandered in the desert was already called the Church of God, so too the new Israel, which advances in this present era in search of a future and permanent city is called also the Church of Christ” (par. 77).
When the Reformers broke away from the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation, they carried with them over into their ecclessiology the Church =”New” Israel teaching and developed their views of eschatology around it.
Now, lest anyone accuse me of arguing according to a guilt by association because I take historical note of the connection of this doctrine of the NT Church being a “New” Israel with the Roman Catholic Church, allow me to be clear: The determining factor of the truthfulness of any doctrine is whether or not the doctrine is formulated and taught in scripture.
Roman Catholicism has always held to the proper, biblical understanding of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ, for example. And as Sam, who is an amillennialist points out in a footnote, even though the Catholic church has been historically amillennial doesn’t discount that system of eschatology. There are many pseudo-Christian cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons who have held to a form of premillennialism [MMM, 17, f.n. 1].
What needs to be considered in this discussion is whether or not the term “Israel” is used as a synonym for the Church, the body of Christ, as Sam argues. John stated in his Shepherd’s Conference message that throughout scripture the term “Israel” means Israel, a nation of ethnic Jews. No where in the NT is there any indication that the Church is called the “New” Israel. John goes on to say that the two references which are often raised as proof of the Church being called “Israel” are Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6. Sam writes that “This is one of those outrageous statements which could be used to make MacArthur look and sound silly” [MMM, 36].
The reason John’s statement is outrageous, argues Sam, is because John is appealing to some majority-rule hermeneutic that employs an Arminian-like logic in which the word “all always means all.” A good Bible expositor should know the context of any biblical passage helps to define what the original author meant by all, and in many instances all doesn’t mean all without exception as Arminians like to claim.
Sam goes on to point out that for the most part in scripture Israel does mean the Jewish nation. However, like a true Covenant Theologian, Sam says simply there are at times when “good and necessary reasons” makes the term “Israel” to mean the Church when the text requires such a connotation [MMM, 36-38]. Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6, along with a small number of other passages, are those instances where “good and necessary reasons” insists one is to understand the word “Israel” as referring to the Church, the body of Christ.
But is Sam’s understanding of these texts correct? Is the typical Covenant Theological position that there are “good and necessary reasons” for the word “Israel” to mean the Church forced upon these texts, or derived from them? Sam seems to think his exegesis of these passages is sound, so let me address his take on these two passages along with Ephesians 2.
I will begin with Galatians 6:16 and address the others in later posts.
Galatians 6:16 reads, And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
The disagreement between Dispensationalism, John’s position, and Covenant Theology, Sam’s position, centers around how one understands the phrase “Israel of God.”
Dispensationalists generally take the phrase to be referring to Jewish believers who were in the Galatian church, where as those of the Covenant perspective see the phrase as describing a new, spiritual Israel of God, the Church.
Sam is of the second position and asserts that in this passage, Israel does not refer exclusively to ethnic Jews, but to the entire Church of Christ [MMM, 41]. The reason he concludes that is because the context demands it, and he unfolds his argument as follows:
Because this passage stands close to the end of Paul’s letter, and nothing in the following verses shed any light on how to take the phrase “Israel of God,” Sam’s approach to interpreting the passage is to work backwards through the epistle. When a person takes that approach, the first thing he will notice is the immediate context before 6:16. Paul is wrapping up his letter which was a polemic arguing against Judiazers who were compelling Christians in Galatia to be circumcised according to the Jewish law. Paul states that those men who insisted the Galatian Christians must be circumcised do not keep the law themselves (6:13). He then says that a true boast of a Christian is the crucifixion of Christ, not the circumcision of the flesh (6:14). Paul concludes by stating that what matters is being a new creation in Christ, not whether one is circumcised or uncircumcised.
Now, with that context in mind, Sam asks, why would Paul make such an emphatic, doctrinal statement saying circumcision no longer matters only to contradict his point by singling out the very group whose identity is marked by circumcision? It would be absurd to think such a thing. The only conclusion one who is accurately handling the text can draw is that Paul is using the phrase “Israel of God” to mean a new, spiritual Israel composed of both Jews and gentiles. That interpretative conclusion is also affirmed in the earlier portion of Galatians chapter 5 as Sam notes.
He also attempts to build his case from a key, exegetical point. A lot of the debate as to how one understands the phrase “Israel of God” hinges upon the translation of the Greek conjunction kai. Without getting too complicated in the original languages, the kai could possibly be translated one of two ways:
The normative use of kai would translate verse 16 as, As many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them and mercy, and (kai) upon the Israel of God. That translation suggests Paul blesses two distinct groups: Those who “walk by this rule” and “the Israel of God.” Dispensationalists favor the translation because it suggests Paul had in mind gentile Christians, those who walk by this rule, and Jewish Christians who are given the honorable title, “the Israel of God.”
Then there is the epexegetical or appositional meaning of kai where the verse would be translated As many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them and mercy, even (kai) upon the Israel of God. With that rendering, Paul had in mind one group of individuals who “walk by this rule” that being “the Israel of God” both Jews and gentiles in Christ as a “New” Israel. The main difficulty – and it is a rather big difficulty – with that translation is the epexegetical use of kai is rare in Greek.
Sam favors the second way of translating the kai in spite of its grammatical rarity in the Greek language, and devotes a four page excursus defending the epexegetical meaning of kai in Galatians 6:16. Again, his primary reason for translating the kai as “even” has to do with what he claims are contextual factors: It is unreasonable to think Paul would spend an entire epistle condemning circumcision as a necessity for Christian salvation only to turn around and offer a blessing upon Jewish Christian thus singling out the one specific group who would be identified by circumcision.
He also appeals to an additional grammatical point, the phrase as many as walk by this rule. The phrase as many as is translated from hosos and it means as many as – no more or no less. In other words, the phrase includes every one who walk by this rule both Jews and gentiles. Hence there is no need to see an additional group of Jewish Christians being blessed with the phrase “Israel of God.”
On the surface, Sam’s interpretation looks to be compelling. He makes some good points, particularly against the traditional Dispensational view that there are two different groups of believers Paul is blessing in his benediction. However, a couple of points strike against his conclusion.
First, as Sam himself even admits, a lot of his interpretation is driven by Covenantal presuppositions. That is particularly true of his study on the epexegetical use of the kai. Because his theological system demands the Church be considered the “New” Israel, it is much easier for Sam to make the text teach the epexegetical translation of the kai rather than the normative use.
Second, there is a third translational option for kai that Sam doesn’t consider which takes into consideration Paul’s argument as Sam has outlined and maintains the unity of both Jews and gentiles as those who walk by this rule.
The late NT scholar, Carl Hoch, suggested a third interpretation of kai in Galatians 6:16, the adjunctive sense. The translation of verse 16 would read, as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy also (kai) upon the Israel of God. Hoch remarks, “Taken this way, Paul would be pronouncing peace upon all who walk by the rule (whether Jewish or Gentile Christians). At the same time he adds a prayer for God’s mercy upon those within the nation of Israel, who although elect, had not yet come to faith in Christ,” [All Things New: The Significance of Newness for Biblical Theology, p. 276].
Now one may argue that the adjunctive translation of kai is as rare as the epexegetical, I believe the normative use of kai can represent Hoch’s essential point. That being, Paul blesses those who walk by this rule, the Christian Church both believing Jews and gentiles, and then he offers a plea to pray for unbelieving Jews, the Israel of God.
In other words, Paul is not addressing two separate groups of Christians as some Dispensationalists claim, but neither is he redefining the word Israel and pouring onto it a spiritual meaning for the New Testament Church, as Sam claims.