Dispensationalism is a large and somewhat scary sounding theological term that may be unfamiliar to many, or at least not well understood. Ironically, I have found that many people who have been brought up in Dispensational churches or hold to theological positions that are broadly dispensational do not even really understand the system or its history. The article is not meant to give a detail or even summary view of Dispensationalism, it’s various iterations, its questionable historical pedigree within the church, or the numerous issues that many would have with the system. That is, this article is not going to be a comprehensive interaction with Dispensationalism and issues related to its peculiar, and often inconsistent hermeneutical method, its ecclesiastical commitment to a strong discontinuity between the peoples of God in the Old and New Covenants, and its rather creative eschatological commitments. I’m not even here going to compare Covenant Theology with Dispensationalism to contrast the two. There are numerous works that do this, and I will list many resources at the end of this article. Instead, I’m going to give simply give my reflections on two passages that make it nearly impossible for me to accept Dispensationalism.
Often, when advocates of Dispensationalism (or some variety of it) present a summary of the system, they will give a rather innocuous and vague statement about it. In essence, they claim, Dispensationalism is simply the view that we can divide up redemptive history into different periods. Traditionally they divide Biblical history into seven different epochs, or dispensations (hence the name) in which God works differently with his people and with the world. We can think of God’s relationship to Adam and Eve before the fall (Dispensation of Innocence) and after the fall (Dispensation of Conscience) and then from the flood to Abraham (Dispensation of Government) and then Abraham to Moses (Dispensation of Promise). So, the unsuspecting lay person hearing this for the same time, may simply think that Dispensationalism is a simple artificial taxonomy of the Biblical timeline. While I do not think most Dispensationalists intend this to be misleading, it is a very watered down presentation of the theology, and like most things, the devil is in the details. For Dispensationalism is not merely a taxonomy - that would be to declaw the system. Dispensationalism holds that God actually changes the way he relates to people in these eras, with the main difference being that between the Old Testament believers (Israel) and the New Testament believers (the Church) which begins at Pentecost. While Progressive Dispensationalism has begun to adapt the system to move away from some of its implications, this would mean that the promises of the Old Testament (and the gospels up to Pentecost in Acts) are actually for Israel, and only by secondary extrapolations, for the church. This means that much of Jesus’ teaching was not for the church, but for Israel. This is why the system, when compared to Covenant theology, has been called a system of discontinuity.
It is because of this hard ontological distinction between the church and Israel that drive much of the conclusions of the system – it is why the church must be raptured before the tribulation – so God can re-establish his program with Israel to fulfill his promises to her about the temple and the land and the David king on the throne of a reconquered Israel; it is why there is a literal millennium during which Christ reigns as that king; it is why the gospel first goes to Jews, then to gentiles. Here I will stick to those large, seemingly essential components of Dispensationalism, but if you want to see the extremes that this distinction can lead some to, please see the resources list – but at the root of it all, seems to be the distinction between Israel and the Church.
For those of us with reservations (or flat out concerns) about Dispensational theology, it is this discontinuity between the two peoples of God, Israel and the Church, that is inherent to Dispensationalism, that most of our criticism is focused on. For some, they see the “literal hermeneutic” as the root cause for this view; for others, they try to dismantle it by attacking the notion of a secret pretribulational rapture of the church (think Left Behind); and still for others they think it’s view of the millennium is the way to go about critiquing it; but for all of us, these are all different roads in to critique what we believe is the real problem with the system – the hard ontological distinction between God’s people in the Old Testament and God’s people in the New Testament, between Israel and the church.
And so here, in this article, I am not going to engage with a critique of the hermeneutical commitment of Dispensationalists to what is called a “literal hermeneutic,” though I could. I am not going to engage in the many passages that they use to try and support a secret rapture of the church before a literal 7 year tribulation, though I could. I’m not going to refute their readings of the various passages dealing with the nature of the millennial reign of Christ, though I could. I’m not even going to review or engage their view of the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God which is essential to their overall dispensationalistic scheme, though I could. Here, I am going to simply look at two passages that I think are categorically in opposition to Dispensationalism’s hard ontological discontinuity between Israel and the church. They are Ephesians 2:11-22 and Romans 11:17-24. While there are, in my estimation, many other passages that could also rebut the hard distinction between Israel and the church, and while much more could be said even about these two passages, I will attempt here to briefly show why these two passages make it theologically impossible for one to affirm Dispensationalism.
Ephesians 2:11-22 (NASB) 11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
In this passage, Paul makes one of the clearest statements on the relationship of the gentiles who have come to faith in Christ to the Jews and to Israel herself. We must keep in mind the intracovenantal nature of Israel that Paul has laid out between visible and invisible Israel – ethnic Israel and spiritual Israel. That is those that are part of the covenant community, circumcised into the promises, and those who have ratified that faith unto themselves and are circumcised of heart. Paul makes this principle clear in passages like Rom. 2:28-29 and 9:6-7. In our present passage, Paul reminds the gentiles of their prior relationship to Israel, prior to their new life in Christ. When they were separated from Christ, prior to their conversions, Paul marks them out as being:
- Excluded from the commonwealth of Israel
- Strangers to the covenants of promise
- Having no hope
- Without God in the world
For Paul, pagan gentiles (those who have not been regenerated in Christ) are ontologically separated from Israel and her God, and thus have no rights to the promises and benefits of the covenant, leaving them without any hope. It is only when they come into Christ and are covered in his blood, that they are “brought near.” What does it mean to be brought near? If previously they were far from God because they were excluded from Israel, they are “brought near” in the blood – this overcomes the prior state of exclusion into a new state of embrace.
In order to maintain space, let me simply summarize v14-18 as Paul saying that in Christ, the walls of division have been torn down and that God was doing something to build both Jew and Gentile into one body – a unity between the two in Christ. But what does this look like? Are Jews plucked from Israel and Gentiles plucked from the nation and both brought together into this new third thing known as the church? Paul tells us starting in v19.
Now that the gentiles have been “brought near” in Christ, and have equal access to God via the Spirit, Paul tells us the features of their new state. The gentiles are now:
- No longer strangers and aliens (foreigners)
- Fellow citizens with the saints
- Members of God’s household
- A temple built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ as the corner stone
- That temple is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit
Notice that Paul here is not saying that the Jews and the Gentiles both leave their homes and come into a new land to become a new third thing. Rather, the Gentiles who were far off, are now brought near. The gentiles who were excluded from the commonwealth, are now fellow citizens. They were strangers to the covenants of promise, but are now no longer strangers and aliens (foreigners). The picture here is that the gentiles, even if they were Jewish proselytes, would have to worship in another court, separated by high walls, apart from the common worship of the people of God, are now fully included. They used to be strangers, aliens, foreigners to Israel and her promises, but now they are no longer so – they are now fellow citizens. These are not ecclesiastical terms – these are civic terms. Indeed, it is the commonwealth that they were previously estranged from.
It is not as though God took an American, and a Canadian and moved them into a land to make them into a new country – Canmerica. Rather, the Canadian who was always only a foreigner and stranger to America, even if granted resident alien status, was still not fully included, is now adopted as a full son of the King, or the president to keep the analogy. What is completely missing here is the notion that the regenerate gentiles concert to have membership in this new group – the Gentile Church – which stands in distinction between God’s old testament people of promise – Israel. It is precisely the covenants of promise given to Israel, which the gentiles were strangers to but are no longer. In Gal 3, Paul tells us that the blessing of the promise to Abraham was promised to his seed, not seeds, and that that promise is Christ. In a very real sense, the New Covenant just is the fulfillment of the promise of the Abrahamic covenant. To be in Christ, to be a child of faith in the promise, just is to be a child of Abraham – regardless of if one is a Jew or a gentile.
There are volumes more that can be said about this passage and it’s nuances, but it seems to me that the core metaphysic of the passage is not the creation of the church for the gentiles, but the inclusion of the gentiles in the already existing people of God, the people of promise, the Israel of God and her covenants and promises. The make an hard ontological distinction between the church and Israel, such that there are promises to Israel that are not for the church, or there are covenant blessings that are for Israel and not for the gentile believer, such that the church must even be removed from the earth so that God can continue his work with Israel, appears to me to build back up the exact wall of separation that Paul says was removed. It puts the gentiles not just in the outer courts of the temple, but in a completely different temple all together. In one sense, Dispensationalism builds a wall that is even higher and more impenetrable than what existed prior to Christ because before gentiles were at least able to be partial included with God’s people and temple. Granted they now have full and direct access to God via Christ and so the benefits are surely immeasurably great, I would not want to accuse Dispensationalists of seeing gentiles as second class citizens of heaven. But in this world, in this dispensation of grace, they are not rubbing shoulders with God’s people of promise the Jews; they are not in the same temple. They are ontologically separated and will even be removed from the world before they ever share in the same covenants and promises. I simply see no way to reconcile Paul’s teaching in Eph. 2 and Dispensationalism ontological distinction between Israel as the people of God and the church.
Romans 11:17-24 (NASB) 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
Once again, whole commentaries could be written on Paul’s comments here in this passage, their context in Romans 11, the broader intercontextuality in Romans 9-11, and even more broadly all of Romans or even Pauline theology generally. However, for the purposes of this article, I want to make one rather simple metaphysical observation that drives the theology here. I am not going to go into all the ways that this passage could relate to Dispensationalism, the future of national Israel and other such issues. The one simple and I think almost incurably obvious observation is this: there is only one olive tree.
Notice that there is one tree of promise – there is the tree that is nourished by the rich root, and the Israelites who are not circumcised of heart are cut off from that olive tree. It is that olive tree that the gentile Christians are grafted onto – they are grafted onto the one tree. To put it in terms of the passage we saw previously, for really this passage is just an image of what Paul had didactically taught in Eph. 2, the gentiles were separated from the olive tree of Israel but in the blood of Christ they are brought near; they were foreign branches, strangers to the root, but they have now been grafted on.
Ask yourself what it would do to the theology of Paul and his teaching in Rom 11, to say that these wild branches, who had been grafted on in Christ, must then later be removed from the life giving root while God continues his plan with the original tree! That there are promises in the sap of the root that are for the original branches but that the new branches do not have access to in Christ. The ecclesiastical view of Dispensationalism seems to me to be out of accord with the teaching of Paul in both Romans and Ephesians.
Here, I readily admit that this is not an indepth treatment of the intricacies of either passage and if one of my readers is a Dispensationalist who would like to try to take me to task for missing something that they think is relevant to radically alter the clear and obvious meaning of these passages, I am open to discussing it with them. Please send me your questions. However, at this time, I see no way to read into these passages an ontological distinction between a gentile church and the nation of Israel and it seems to me that such a program would do exegetical violence to the theological tapestry of Paul and the entirety of the scriptures.
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