Israel and the Church in Dispensationalism
Thomas summarizes God’s promises to Israel from the Pentateuch, Psalms and Prophets. He argues that “a literal approach interprets the words as God intended them” and avoids typology, spiritualizing, symbolism and “reading back into the words a later special revelation” (p90). That is, the New Testament cannot “[add] meaning to the promises God made” in the OT (p91).
In the New Testament, Thomas takes a defensive stance as he responds to occasions where the NT “might have cancelled God’s promises to Abraham but did not” (p95-116). This amounts to 16 responses to potential arguments for Israel’s rejection. Space allows only summarizing the section headings.
- Negative Response to John the Baptist
- Jesus’ Sabbath Controversies with Judaism’s Leaders
- Absence of Centurion-like Faith in Israel
- The Unpardonable Sin
- Prediction of the Messiah’s Coming Crucifixion
- Pronouncement of Pharisaic Blindness
- Jerusalem’s Role in the Messiah’s Coming Death
- Corruption in Israel
- Jesus’ Woes Against the Scribes and Pharisees
- Some New Covenant Benefits Extended to Outsiders
- Peter’s Strong Words in Acts 3
- Peter’s Encounter in a Gentile Household
- James’ Use of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts 15:16-18
- Question about the Timing of the Kingdom
- Peter’s Sermon in Acts 2
- Paul’s Soteriological Epistles
Next, in a section entitled “Promises to Israel in the Apocalypse” (p116), Thomas examines Revelation’s fulfillment of the Abrahamic, David and New covenants, and compares “differing hermeneutical approaches” to these promises. Sections such as Rev 7:1-8; 14:1-5; 12:1ff; 11:1-12; 16:16; and 20:9 are compared with the nondispensational commentaries of Beale, Aune and Osborne. Each alternative interpretation is seen to be untenable and Thomas concludes, “God will fulfill in a literal manner all the promises he made to national Israel and will retain his eternal attribute of faithfulness” (p136).
Thomas’ chapter appears to live by the principle that ‘the best defense is a good offense’. Most of this chapter consisted of dismantling objections to a future for national Israel. Unfortunately, one’s view is not proven merely by critiquing its critics. In fact, many nondispensationalists could agree with (most of) Thomas’ arguments against those who reject a future for Israel. Unaddressed however, were questions such as the precise nature of the relationship between Israel and the church, how the church receives the spiritual blessings of God’s covenants with Israel, how to distinguish between spiritual benefits and the full promise, how to understand the OT Israel texts applied to the church, or how national Israel will function in the future. These issues are where the Dispensational viewpoint differs from others.
For Thomas, the full covenantal blessings “belong exclusively to the generation of national Israel who, at [Christ’s] second coming, will embrace Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah” (p107, fn 24). Perhaps I misunderstand Thomas here, but he appears to say that Jewish Christians won’t inherit the full covenantal blessings given to Israel. For example, while the church receives “certain special benefits”, “only believing Israelites at some time in the future can enjoy the full benefits of that covenant” (p109). But would this not undermine the very point that Thomas is trying to challenge: the “permanence and unchanging nature of [God’s] plan for this ethnic group“ (p94, emphasis mine)? For Thomas, do modern Jews reject their prophetic future when becoming Christians?
Most problematic for me was Thomas’ rhetoric when discussing Revelation. He referred to non-dispensational interpreters as “allegorists” (p119, 121), who have “radical disagreement” with one another (p121-122), due to hermeneutics that “vacillate to suit [their] own theological leanings” (p120) and “confirm a preferred theological persuasion” (p119). Statements such as this are unwarranted and unsportsmanlike; assuming the worst of one’s opponent while feigning absolute objectivity in oneself. This dismissive attitude is sadly common in dispensationalism (I say this as an insider) but the lapse is disappointing coming from a scholar of Thomas’ calibre. One could argue that some of his own conclusions are reached simply to confirm his “preferred theological persuasion”.
I doubt Thomas interprets the entirety of Revelation “literally”. So when should one not interpret “literally”? Even those who share Thomas’ hermeneutics draw the line at different places. The fact that Henry Morris’ The Revelation Record claims that it “may be the most literal“ Revelation commentary should be evidence enough. Is Thomas’ complaint merely that the “allegorists” reach a different conclusion than him as to where the line must be drawn?
Thomas’ critique of interpretations that outright reject Israel were mostly very strong, but the chapter as a whole missed several important opportunities; namely a strong positive case and explanation of his view. Though I stand far from Reymond’s conclusions, I find myself more critical of Thomas’ chapter. We will see how the two Progressive viewpoints fare.
Many thanks to B&H Academic for providing a review copy of this book. Next post will give the three responses to Thomas’ dispensational viewpoint.