Sunday, June 06, 2004

How many New Covenants?

We are blessed to be partakers of the New Covenant that was promised long ago through the prophet Jeremiah. "Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah."

The Prophet said that the New Covenant would be with the houses of Israel and Judah, but you and I, like most Christians since the end of the apostolic era, are more likely Gentile extraction. How can it be that the overwhelming majority of those that have been the recipients of the New Covenant promise made to Israel and Judah are Gentiles and not Ethnic Jews.

Before I attempt to answer that question I should mention the fact that old-line dispensational theology denies that we Christians are part of the New Covenant promised by Jeremiah, because if we are than their theological system implodes on itself. The founder of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), Lewis Sperry Chafer, says in his eight volumes Systematic Theology that there are two New Covenants: one with Israel, and also another New Covenant, not even hinted of in the Old Testament, that is with the Church (Vol. IV, 325 and Vol. VII, 98,99).

Chafer is not alone in this view. It is part and parcel of dispensational thought. John Walvoord, the president of DTS after Chafer, held to the two new covenants view, as does Dwight Pentecost. Pentecost wrote of his dispensational view "This view holds that there are two new covenants presented in the New Testament; the first with Israel in reaffirmation of the covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and the second made with the church in this age."

I have mentioned elsewhere (before blogging) that dispensationalists must deny that the church fulfills Jeremiah 31. If Jeremiah 31, in anyway, applies to Christians and the church, the whole dispensational system of biblical interpretation collapses. This is something that they readily admit. Former DTS theologian Dr. Charles Ryrie wrote, "If the church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere in the Scriptures, then [dispensational] premillennialism is condemned." Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost said of the New Covenant "If the church fulfils this covenant, she may also fulfil the other covenants, and there is no need for an earthly millennium." (both men are premillennialist, as is every dispensationalist.) Again, as I have said before they believe as did Darby, Scofield and Chafer that the Church age is a parenthesis in redemptive history and the real new covenant is yet future in a future millennium.

This view of two new covenants is based not on a reading of Scripture, because the Bible no where speaks of two new covenants. The idea of two new covenants becomes a necessity for dispensationalism, due to the fact that in the New Testament the new covenant is clearly applied to the Church. Historic dispenstional thought maintains (since its invention by John Darby in the 1820’s) that no prophecies in the Old Testament can apply to the church, because the OT Scriptures give no hint of the church age. They maintain that the Church is only a "parenthesis" in God’s plan for Israel.

Jeremiah 31:31, if it applies to the church, destroys their system. The system is predicated on the idea that all prophecy must be interpreted literally. The fact that Jeremiah says the new covenant is made with the houses of Israel and Judah, must be understood literally, and therefore it can not be applied to the church. When John Darby devised this idea, it was a radical departure from how all of Christendom had understood Jeremiah 31 for the previous 1800 years. The church had always understood the New Covenant promises in Jeremiah 31 to apply to us Christians (Jews and Gentiles) and not to a future millennial Israel.

The basic hermeneutic for the dispensationalists is the belief that all prophetic Scripture must be interpreted literally. This view is imposed on the Word of God and not drawn from it. Certainly the Bible is clear that some prophecies had to be interpreted literally, but I believe I can indicate that this is not true of all prophecy. Some of it is clearly not to be understood literally. If this is indeed the case then the dispensational hermeneutic fails completely.

I believe the way the New Testament writers deal with the new covenant is enough to discredit the dispensational position, but since that is a point in question here, we will look elsewhere to see if prophecy is ever fulfilled in a non-literal way. Ryrie makes the point "Consistently literal or plain interpretation is indicative of a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture."

In Malachi 4.5,6 we read that Elijah (Elias) would come before Messiah. The angel references this prophecy when he speaks to Zacharias (John’s father) in the temple. "And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1.17).

In Matthew Jesus says plainly that John the baptiser is the fulfilment of the Elijah prophecy: "For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come."(Matt. 11.13,14) Jesus confirms John’s fulfilment of the Elijah passages elsewhere. Lets look at Matthew chapter 17. "And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist." (10-13)

We see this also in Mark 9.11-13. "And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him."

Malachi said clearly that Elijah would come before Messiah. The scribes and Pharisees, like our despensational brethren took this prophecy very literally. That is why they asked John if he was indeed Elijah (see John 1:21). John was not literally Elijah, and he told his questioners as much. Yet Jesus tells us in several places that John is the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy of Elijah coming as a forerunner to the advent of the Messiah.

The prophecy of Malachi is clearly fulfilled in John the Baptist, but it is not a literal fulfilment. John is not a reincarnation of Elijah, but he is the fulfilment of this prophecy, because he came in the spirit and power of Elijah.

Dispensationalism is wrong when it imposes a literalism where the Bible does not. The Scriptures must be allowed to interpret themselves. John, according to Christ, fulfilled the prophecy of Elijah. According to the New Testament, we in the Church, are in the New Covenant. The Church is the house of Israel and Judah, spoken of by Jeremiah. We are now in the New Covenant, and there is only one not two New Covenants as Chafer and other Dispensationalists were forced to argue for in order maintain their system. The idea of two New Covenants is not biblical and neither is dispensationalism.

Soli Deo Gloria,

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