One of the greatest challenges before anyone who calls himself a dispensationalist is explaining how the new covenant which Jeremiah said would be made with Israel and Judah is related to the Christian church today. In the previous chapter, we examined the dispensational answer to this challenge that is most consistent with the dispensational system and found it wanting. In this chapter, we will examine the other two dispensational attempts to meet this challenge.
A second dispensational theory on the new covenant’s relationship to the Christian is the theory advanced by John Nelson Darby, the father of dispensational thought. According to Darby’s theory, the Christian is not directly related to any new covenant but is related only to the blood of the new covenant. This theory emphasizes that the blood of Christ is not only the gracious ground for the new covenant to be made with Israel but also the source of all spiritual benefits and blessings, both heavenly and earthly. Since there is no Christian new covenant, every mention of a new covenant in both the Old and New Testaments must always be a reference to a Jewish millennial covenant to which the church is not directly related. The Christian is directly related to “the annexed circumstances of the covenant,” to “the essential privileges of the new covenant,” to the “benefit” of the covenant, and to “the Mediator of the covenant,” but not to the covenant itself.
Darby expressed his theory as follows:
This covenant of the letter is made with Israel, not with us; but we get the benefit of it.
The gospel is not a covenant, but the revelation of the salvation of God. It proclaims the great salvation. We enjoy indeed all the essential privileges of the new covenant, its foundation being laid on God’s part in the blood of Christ, but we do so in spirit, not according to the letter.
The new covenant will be established formally with Israel in the millennium.
This theory is defined and defended in greater detail by dispensationalists Harry Ironside and E. Schuyler English:
It is important to note that while the blessings of the new covenant are ours, yet it is never said to be made with the Church. … The Mediator of that covenant is the Lord Jesus Christ. The blood of the new covenant is that which he shed for our sins. Therefore believers now rejoice in the distinctive blessings it insures; but it is with the earthly, not with the heavenly, people that the covenant itself is to be made.
… surely the grace of God has embraced the Church within the benefits of the new covenant. When our Lord took the cup, on the night in which He was betrayed, He said: “This is My cup of the new testament (covenant) in My blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). The cup was taken by Him for all His own through faith — His Church, His Body, His Bride.
Nevertheless, fundamentally the Gentiles are not a covenant-people, neither is the Church made up of a covenant-people. … The Church, then, is not under the new covenant; the Church is, however, a beneficiary of the new covenant in its heavenly, spiritual and eternal operation. The Church, now on earth, is at the same time seated together “in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6) because of the blood of the new covenant, shed by the Mediator of the new covenant, for us.
But now, since it is Israel which is God’s covenant- people, … we must discover the primary facts and functions of the new covenant established for them.
Let us think through the work of Christ in terms of Darby’s theory on the new covenant.
Jesus Christ at His first coming came to be the mediator of an earthly, nationalistic and Jewish new covenant that is totally unrelated to church age Christianity. He offered to Israel a theocratic political kingdom based on this Jewish new covenant, and He shed His blood to establish this Jewish new covenant. When the Jewish nation rejected the Christ, the offer was withdrawn and the theocratic kingdom was postponed. In this parenthetical age of postponement, God began an entirely new and unprophesied work in the calling of a heavenly people, the Christian church. Although the blood of Christ was shed for the establishment of the earthly people’s national new covenant, there was enough efficacy in the Messianic sacrifice for it also to be the basis for individual salvation and heavenly blessings in the church age. Christ had assumed the office of mediator to mediate the Jewish covenant, but in this parenthetical age, His mediatorial office is available for the spiritual benefit of Christians even though they are totally unrelated to the covenant of which He is mediator.
Darby’s theory makes God’s entire program for the church seem incidental and secondary to God’s program for Israel but at the same time greatly limits Israel’s eternal inheritance. This is true of dispensationalism in general, but it is especially true of Darby’s theory on the new covenant. This theory teaches that Christian salvation in the church age is an unprophesied benefit of the atoning work of Christ. The atonement’s prophesied purpose was the establishment of the Jewish new covenant and kingdom, to which the Christian is unrelated. And yet those saints who are under this new covenant and who inherit this kingdom will be, throughout eternity, inferior in status to the Body of Christ church saints. The Christian will remain throughout eternity a stranger to the new covenant, and yet his spiritual position will be above Israel’s like the heavens are above the earth.
Also, the New Testament gives no support to Darby’s suggestion that the Christian is related to the basis and benefits of the new covenant but not to the new covenant itself. According to Darby, the Christian, although related to the concomitants of the new covenant, is still a stranger to the new covenant itself. In contrast, Paul taught that Christians before conversion from paganism were “strangers from the covenants of promise” but “now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off have been made nigh by the blood of Christ” and “are no more strangers” (Ephesians 2:12-13,19). To be brought nigh by the blood of the covenant is to be no longer a stranger to the covenant. Also, Paul considered himself to be a minister not only of the blood of the covenant but of the Jeremiah 31 new covenant itself (2 Corinthians 3:6). And the sacramental statement of Christ: “This cup is the new testament (i.e., covenant) in My blood” (1 Corinthians 11:25) makes little sense if the new covenant itself is not directly related to the church in this age. The writer of Hebrews taught that Christ is today “the mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6). Is the Christian related to the mediator of this better covenant but not to the better covenant itself?
Bernard Ramm has appropriately noted:
To say that we are under the benefits of the Covenant without actually being under the covenant is to clandestinely admit what is boldly denied.
Many dispensationalists have recognized the validity of these criticisms and have rejected Darby’s explanation of the church’s relationship to the new covenant. For example, Dr. John F. Walvoord has said:
Most [dispensational] premillenarians (Darby excepted) would agree that a new covenant has been provided for the church, but not the new covenant for Israel.
The third dispensational theory on the church’s relationship to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 is the theory advanced by Dr. C.I. Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible.
According to Dr. Charles C. Ryrie, this is the theory most widely accepted among dispensationalists. In his reference Bible notes, Scofield simply applies the new covenant both to the church and to Israel with no explanation about how this is accomplished, as evidenced by the following quotations:
The New Covenant … secures the perpetuity, future conversion, and blessing of Israel … .
The New Covenant rests upon the sacrifice of Christ, and secures the eternal blessedness, under the Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3:13-29), of all who believe.
Later dispensationalists have elaborated upon Scofield’s theory. Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost has said the following:
… according to this view, there is one new covenant with a two-fold application; one to Israel in the future and one to the church now.
This view places the church under the new covenant, and views the relationship as a partial fulfillment of the covenant.
Scofield agrees with Darby fully that the covenant was primarily for Israel and will be fulfilled by them. Any application of it to the church, as the Scofield position holds, does not nullify the primary application to Israel.
Dr. Pentecost in his writing on Scofield’s new covenant theory quotes another writer who says that the new covenant is not made with the Christian but is ministered to the Christian. Dr. John F. Walvoord has the following comments on Scofield’s theory:
The [dispensational] premillennial view popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible regards the new covenant as having a twofold application, first to Israel fulfilled in the millennium, and, second, to the church in the present age.
… Scofield … regards the new covenant with Israel as having an oblique reference to the believers of this age, though concerned primarily with Israel.
Dr. Charles C. Ryrie describes Scofield’s theory as follows:
This interpretation holds that the one new covenant has two aspects, one which applies to Israel, and one which applies to the church. These have been called the realistic and spiritual aspects of the covenant, but both aspects comprise essentially one covenant based on the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
W.H. Griffith Thomas has expounded upon this dispensational theory as follows:
It will be observed that the covenant is said to be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” that is, with the whole Jewish nation. There is no doubt that this is the primary designation and purpose of the covenant. The promise of Israel’s restoration is clear, together with the specification of benefits. Jeremiah’s words are: “Lo the days are coming,” and it is well known that the New Testament antitype of the Old Testament types is not the Christian Church but the Kingdom which is still future. … But we Christians have the spiritual reality of this covenant, which, while made with Israel, is for our benefit as well, through grace, and so we distinguish between the primary interpretation to Israel and the secondary (spiritual) application to the Church today. We now enjoy in the power of the Holy Spirit all the blessings of the new covenant, and yet there will be still further and fuller manifestations in the future for Israel, according to God’s promise (Rom. 11:25-32).
The problem with the Scofield theory is that it violates both the dispensational dichotomy between Israel and the church and the dispensational literalistic hermeneutic (i.e., theory of interpretation). Scofield’s theory violates the dispensational dichotomy in that it allows the church to partially fulfill a prophecy made for Israel and to partially be under a covenant belonging to Israel. If the church can fulfill this Jewish prophecy and be under this Jewish covenant, then why not others? This theory in effect says that the church can be partially identified with Israel. Dispensationalists have acknowledged this weakness in Scofield’s theory. For example, Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost in his discussion of Scofield’s theory notes: “The church, however, can not be placed under Israel’s covenant.” Dr. Charles C. Ryrie has made the following criticism of the Scofield theory:
If the Church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere else in Scripture, then [dispensational] premillennialism is weakened. One might well ask why there are not two aspects to one new covenant. This may be the case, and it is the position held by many [dispensational] premillennialists, but we agree that the amillennialist has every right to say of this view that it is “a practical admission that the new covenant is fulfilled in and to the Church.”
Dr. Ryrie elsewhere has the following criticism of non- dispensationalism:
… the amillennialist’s hermeneutics allow him to blur completely the meanings of the two words [Israel and the Church] in the New Testament so that the Church takes over the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. In that view true Israel is the Church. The covenant premillennialist goes halfway. The Church and Israel are somewhat blended, though not amalgamated. The dispensationalist studies the words in the New Testament, finds that they are kept distinct, and therefore concludes that when the Church was introduced, God did not abrogate His promises to Israel nor enmesh them into the Church. This is why the dispensationalist recognizes two purposes of God and insists in maintaining the distinction between Israel and the Church.
These dispensational criticisms against covenant premillennialism could just as well have been applied to Scofield’s theory on the new covenant. Scofield’s theory blends Israel and the church and enmeshes promises made to Israel into the church.
Scofield’s theory also contradicts the dispensational hermeneutic. The cardinal rule of the dispensational hermeneutic is never to spiritualize or allegorize. Dr. Walvoord gives the following explanation of spiritualization:
Spiritualization of the … word Israel would involve in Webster’s definition of spiritualization: “to take in a spiritual sense, — opposed to literalize.” In other words, if Israel should mean something else than Israel, e.g., the church in the New Testament composed largely of Gentiles, this would be spiritualization.
Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost quotes the following definition of the allegorical method:
Allegorism is the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense.
In the Scofield theory, the new covenant for Israel has a primary reference to Israel and an oblique reference to the church. The new covenant has a realistic and a spiritual aspect, an earthly and a heavenly application, a primary interpretation and a secondary spiritual interpretation. In this theory, the new covenant with Israel can mean something else than the new covenant with literal, national, earthly Israel. The very criticism of “spiritualizing” and “allegorizing” that the dispensationalists so freely cast at Reformed theologians can also be cast at this popular dispensational theory. The dispensationalists who hold to this theory should refrain from casting these stones for they are not without “sin” themselves.
This survey of the three dispensational theories on the new covenant shows that dispensationalists are strikingly divided on how to reconcile the New Testament data on the new covenant with the dispensational presuppositions. Dr. William Everett Bell, Jr. has well described this division among dispensationalists over the new covenant and its symptomatic significance:
Since the two-covenant view, although it is consistent dispensationalism, has not found wide acceptance among dispensationalists because of its obvious exegetical failings, leading dispensationalists are found to be seriously at odds over the problem. All are agreed that the church must not fulfill any of Israel’s promises, but the method of preserving the dichotomy with regard to the new covenant is elusive.
On the one hand, some recognize the exegetical casuistry involved in trying to retain the blessings of the covenant apart from any vital relationship to the covenant, and thus posit a second covenant. On the other hand, others recognize the exegetical impossibility of a second covenant and prefer to ignore the casuistry. In either case, the position is basically untenable and points up rather dramatically the hermeneutical dilemma of dispensationalism in attempting to reconcile scripture to a basic presupposition.
The New Testament data on the new covenant fits well with Reformed theology.
No bending is necessary; no artificial exegesis is required; no hair splitting distinctions are needed. Since the New Testament church is the continuation of the Old Testament kingdom program and is spiritual Israel in this age and is the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, there is no problem in directly relating the Jeremiah 31 new covenant to the church in this age as is done by the New Testament writers. The new covenant relates directly to physical Israel only insofar as Jews accept Christ and are regrafted back into the olive tree of spiritual Israel, which is the church (Romans 11:26-27).
The Scriptural data on the new covenant is for the dispensational builders a stone that fits poorly into their theological structure. They cannot agree how best to cement it onto their system in a fitting manner. In contrast, for the Reformed theologian, this stone has become a capstone in his system of interpretation.
Dispensationalism: The New Covenant, Part Two, by Grover Gunn
1 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), pages 210,218; J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1958), pages 121-122.
2 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 122.
3 William Everett Bell, Jr., “A Critical Evaluation of the Pre- tribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology” (dissertation, School of Education of New York University, 1967), page 210; John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, page 210; J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 122.
4 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 121.
5 Ibid., page 121.
6 William Everett Bell, Jr., “A Critical Evaluation of the Pre- tribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology” (dissertation, School of Education of New York University, 1967), page 210; John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, page 210; J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 122.
7 H.A. Ironside, Notes on the Prophecy and Lamentations of Jeremiah “The Weeping Prophet” (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1906), page 163.
8 E. Schuyler English, Studies in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Travelers Rest, S.C.: Southern Bible House, 1955), pages 226- 227.
9 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), page 264.
10 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, page 214.
11 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953), page 107.
12 C.I. Scofield, editor, The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1909), page 1297, note 1 on Hebrews 8:8.
13 Ibid., page 1298, note 2 on Hebrews 8:8.
14 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 123.
15 Ibid., page 124.
16 Ibid., page 124.
17 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, page 210.
18 Ibid., page 218.
19 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, page 210.
20 W.H. Griffith Thomas, Hebrews: A Devotional Study (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), pages 106-107.
21 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 124.
22 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, page 118.
23 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), pages 95-96.
24 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, page 64.
25 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 4.
26 William Everett Bell, Jr., “A Critical Evaluation of the Pre-tribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology,” page 190.
27 Iain H. Murray, The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), pages 72-74; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B.Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), 2:91-103.