I began a study looking at eschatology by considering the basic hermeneutics, or those principles of Bible study that are foundational for the various eschatological systems. With this article, I want to touch briefly on a significant principle of hermenuetics, The Israel – Church Relationship.
The Israel – Church relationship is without a doubt the most significant disagreement between all the adherents of each eschatological system. Moreover, nearly all the other hermeneutical principles are shaped by how one understands the differences and similarities between the national, ethnic group Israel, or the Jews, with the NT Church, which is defined as being comprised of both Jews and gentiles united in one body in Christ.
With all the literature I have read on the subject, those who hold to a Reformed Covenant view of Scripture practically make any dissenting position from their understanding of Israel and the Church a test for orthodoxy. There were a few non-Covenant oriented authors who took a similar, opposite stance against those who would depart from their particular view of Israel and the Church, but I found it was the Reformed Covenant authors who were the most stern in their pronouncements of error.
Keith Mathison, for example, in his book critiquing dispensationalism, paints his dispensational subjects as holding to a view of the Bible that is both unique, in that it is relatively new to Church history, and heretical, in that they promote two entirely different Gospels and views of salvation, [see also Crenshaw and Gunn, pgs. 117ff.]. Sam Waldron shares a similar criticism against John MacArthur when he states rather disingenuously that John’s dispensational convictions, while not heretical, do raise issues with the Gospel and the Christian faith [Waldron, 127]. Other authors provide like-minded critiques in which they dance around calling those believers with non-covenant views of Israel and the Christian Church heretics. They may merely conclude that their theological convictions regarding Israel and the Church are problematic and troubling, and are to be avoided. But there are a few Reformed Covenant writers who do place their convictions outside the pale of Christian orthodox, or brand them as being pseudo-Christian.
With all of that in mind, how one understands Israel’s relationship to the Church is such a vital hermeneutical pillar in a person’s eschatological structure, that it is important we frame a full picture of the main disagreeing points.
The Reformed Covenant position on Israel and the Church is derived from a set of theological presuppositions emerging out of Covenant Theology. God is said to have only one particular, redeemed people who are the same in both testaments. This redeemed people are called “the Church” or the “appointed assembly” or “called out assembly” [Berkhof, 555 ff.] They were present within the nation of Israel during the history of the OT; for instance those 7,000 who did not bow the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
Robert Reymond describes the Church as “comprised of all redeemed in every age who are saved by grace through personal faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, ‘the seed of the woman’ (Gen. 3:15) and suffering Messiah (Isa. 53:55-10)” [Reymond, 805]. Citing Mathison again, he writes that the Church is all believers of all ages (meaning both in the OT & NT) have one God, and one Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Additionally, the believers of all ages are one body, one bride, one household, one flock [Mathison, 26].
The Church, then, is understood to transcend both testaments. In the OT, this “redeemed assembly” was within the nation of Israel and can correctly be identified as “Israel,” but in the NT, this “redeemed assembly” takes on a new identity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel moves redemptive salvation beyond the borders of an exclusive Jewish nation state called “Israel” to include the entire world: people “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9).
The relationship between OT Israel and the NT church is considered a typological one; Israel is meant to foreshadow the Church to come [Mathison, 38]. The NT Church fulfills all the OT promises and purposes made to OT Israel [Mathison, 26]. All those original promises of restoration and being made a ruling kingdom over the earth God gave to OT Israel are literally being fulfilled NOW in the NT Church [Long, 361]. So it is accurate to call the Church the new Israel and certain New Testament passages like Ephesians 2:11-20 and 1 Peter 1:10-12 strongly suggest the NT Church has fulfilled, or even replaced, what the OT Church in Israel was meant to be.
That is not to say Reformed Covenant believers do not recognize a distinction between Israel and the Church. There certainly is a recognized distinction between OT Israel and the NT Church, however there isn’t a strong dichotomy between the two as the non-covenantal believers suggest [Crenshaw and Gunn, 118]. In fact, it is the strong dichotomy of the non-covenant believers that is the most concerning for the Reformed covenant folks. Holding a sharp dichotomy between the OT people of God, Israel, and the NT people of God, the Church, leads to some significant theological problems the most notable being a division between the people of God. That strong dichotomy presents two divided groups called “the people of God” and suggests two possible ways to salvation, one for the OT Jews and another for the NT Church. That division is considered artificial, especially when Jesus himself speaks of being a shepherd over one flock (John 10) and there is now one new man made of both Jews and gentiles (Ephesians 2).
It is true some dispensational writers in the past make such a strong distinction between the Israel of the OT and the Church of the NT, they would argue for a different Gospel spoken to the Jews by Peter and James and another proclaimed by Paul to the gentiles. A more recent example is the hyper-Zionist teachings of John Hagee who argues Jesus never offered Himself as a Messiah to Israel [Hagee, 132-145], or that Jesus was not crucified by the Jews [Hagee, 131], in spite of Peter’s words to the contrary (Acts 2:22, 23, 36). But those are extreme examples and do not reflect the whole of the theological thought on Israel and the Church which dissents from Reformed covenantalism.
The modern Reformed Covenant position on Israel and the Church tends to overlook two important historical factors influencing their view.
First is the idea of the Church being the new or spiritual Israel, or what would be the same as the OT “believing remnant.” Historically, this perspective on Israel and the Church has always been that of the Roman Catholic Church. I always found this close connection between the Reformed and the Roman Catholicism to be intriguing. That is especially true seeing how modern day Reformed apologists like Sam Waldron and Robert Reymond who are both highly critical of dispensational, non-covenant believers, have their historical roots with the Protestant Reformation. Yet, Roman Catholic teaching on the subject speaks of the OT Church, Israel, and the NT Church being the true Israel, the true people of God [Bovis, 20, 31, 32]. Elsewhere, the Church is referred to as the new Israel, which advances in this era, the Church of Christ [Flannery, 360].
Second is the antisemitism which has infested the historic Christian Church. The direct result of a view of replacement theology which says the OT Israel has been done away with and all their promises of restoration are fulfilled in the NT Church has been a nasty prejudice against the Jewish people. The Medieval Catholic Church is probably the worst instigator, but antisemitism continued after the Protestant Reformation by various Protestant groups who carried over the Catholic perspective on Israel and the Church, and it continues even until this day, particularly in Europe.
Now, contrasted with the Reformed Covenant perspective on Israel and the Church is the Reformed non-covenant perspective, also known as dispensationalism. Just like the Reformed view, the dispensational view is built upon specific theological presuppositions. For instance the idea the NT does not have total and complete revelational priority over the OT as the covenant perspective argues so that certain prophecies and promises made to the nation of Israel are cancelled and fulfilled entirely by the Church. Also, how one interprets OT eschatological prophecy will play into the conclusions regarding Israel’s relationship with the Church.
Those presuppositions provide a different approach to the biblical teaching on Israel and the Church when we consider the biblical evidence.
First, I believe it is clear in Scripture that Israel and the Church are distinct. The Church is understood to be only a NT entity that is not to be equated with one, specific redeemed people who transcend both testaments. There are similarities in the relationship between the NT Church and Israel, but a concise reading of Scripture tells us the two are never equated as being one and the same. That is especially true in the NT. Of the seventy-three references to Israel in the NT, the vast majority refer to national, ethnic Israel while a few others refer to Jewish believers [Vlach, 25]. Never does the NT writers equate the two as being one and the same. That point is noteworthy because the term Israel is kept distinct from the Church AFTER its establishment in the book of Acts [Vlach, 25]. That would imply the Church has not absorbed all of the OT promises made to Israel pertaining to their fulfillment in a future kingdom.
Building of the last point, a second area of difference between the Reformed Covenant view and the dispensational view of Israel and the Church has to do with defining the people of God. I believe it is completely accurate to say God has a redeemed people He has called to Himself and they are manifested in both testaments. Hence, contrary to covenantal criticism of dispensationalism, salvific unity does exist between Jews and gentiles; that is, they are one, redeemed people called by God by grace through faith in Christ.
However, a distinction between national Israel and the Church still exists. It is a distinction that is similar to the roles of men and women. Men and women share equally in salvation, yet they both have different roles as they serve in the local Church and in marriage [Vlach, 28]. The same could be said about masters and slaves (Ephesians 6:5ff.), as well as parents and their children (Ephesians 6:1-4).
And then a third area which differentiates the views of Reformed Covenant believers and non-covenant, dispensational believers is a belief in the future salvation and restoration of Israel in a physical kingdom upon the earth. Michael Vlach rightly points out the importance of noting there are many who hold to the Reformed perspective on Israel who would firmly teach a future salvation for Israel [Vlach, 29]. In other words, “all Israel will be saved” as Paul affirms in Romans 11:26. Thus, the future salvation of Israel is not strictly a dispensational view.
But, in addition to a future salvation for Israel, dispensationalists believe the Bible teaches a future restoration of Israel in the land with Christ reigning in Jerusalem. As a geo-political kingdom, Israel will have a special role of service to the rest of the nations. The idea of a future restoration, then, is more than just the idea of salvation in Christ and is the main distinguishing difference between the two positions.
So, with this outline of hermeneutics in mind, we have the foundation available to move along and consider the various eschatological systems. I will first give a brief overview of the main systems of amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism, and then return to defend premillennialism as the system I believe is taught from the biblical text.
Curtis Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow. (Footstool Publications: Memphis TN, 1985)
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Eerdman’s Publishing: Grand Rapids MI, 1991)
Andre De Bovis, “What is the Church?,” Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Vol. 48. (Hawthorn Books: New York NY, 1961)
Austin Flannery, o.p. ed., Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents. (Scholarly Resources: Wilmington MD, 1975)
John Hagee, In Defense of Israel. (Frontline: Lake Mary FL, 2007)
Gary Long, Context! Evangelical Views of the Millennium Examined. (Great Unpublished: Charleston SC, 2001, 2nd ed. 2002)
Keith A. Mathinson, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg NJ, 1995).
Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Thomas Nelson: Nashville TN, 1998)
Robert L. Saucy, A Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-Dispensational Theology. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1993)
Samuel E. Waldron, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response. (Reformed Baptist Academic Press: Owensboro KY, 2008).
Michael J. Vlach, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths. (Theological Studies Press, Los Angeles CA, 2008).
The Teachings of the Second Vatican Council, (Newman Press: Westiminster MD, 1966)