We are working through B&H’s Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views. See my introduction and other posts in this series. This post summarizes Robert Thomas’ chapter defending the Traditional Dispensational viewpoint.
Israel and the Church in Progressive Dispensationalism
Robert Saucy, the third and final Robert, presents a Progressive Dispensational view of the relationship between Israel and the Church.
Saucy first defines Progressive Dispensationalism by noting where it aligns and differs with traditional Dispensationalism:
With all dispensationalism, progressive dispensationalism sees a distinction between Israel and the church.
But, contrary to other dispensational views, progressive dispensationalism views this distinction within the unified historical program of the messianic kingdom of Old Testament prophecy […] the already of an already-not-yet working out of messianic kingdom salvation
A text should be interpreted literally, “unless there is indication – usually evident – that it is intended to be understood figuratively” (p156). However, in contrast to Thomas’ hermeneutics of Dispensationalism, “later revelation can enrich the meaning of an earlier revelation”, though that does not mean that the later revelation “changes or reinterprets [it]” (p158). Thus, a promise can be developed in later texts and can find multiple fulfillments or stages of fulfillment.
This means that the church can fulfill OT prophecies, but that a “partial fulfillment [in the church …] does not alter the meaning of the original promise [to national Israel]” (p162). This is supported in Peter’s quotation of Joel 2:26-32 in Acts 2:17-21, where “messianic days” are “inaugurated” but that not everything from Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost (p163). Therefore, a partial fulfillment does not exhaust a text’s meaning, which awaits a complete and literal fulfillment to Israel.
The Old Testament
Saucy considers Scripture’s teaching regarding Israel and the Gentiles in the OT. Abraham’s seed are to be a great nation, and while Gentiles can be spiritual seed, “this does not preclude the literal, physical dimension present in the promise” (p166). What’s more, “[Israel] would also be a nation distinct from other nations” that will bring “blessing to all peoples” (p167) through being a light to the nations (Isa 42:6, 49:6; 52:10; Ps 67:1-2, 7; Ezek 37:28; 39:21-23, 27-28). However, the OT also predicts Gentile salvation by means of Israel’s temporary rejection (Deut 32:1-43).
The New Testament
Though Israel as a nation came under judgment for rejecting Jesus, this time “would be temporary” (p182). Salvation went first to the believing remnant of Israel. However, this remnant “did not constitute the promised eschatological restoration of Israel as a nation” (p183). As to the Gentiles, the controversy was not “that Gentiles could be saved, but that God had given the same new covenant salvation to the Gentiles as Gentiles and not through becoming in some way part of Israel” (p184). So while Gentiles join the people of God, they do so as Gentiles and are not considered as part of Israel.
Though Old Testament terminology applied to Israel “is now applied to the church”, this “does not mean that the church is assuming the place of Old Testament Israel” but that “‘the people of God’ has been enlarged” (p190).
Next, Saucy considers texts that may invalidate his view, such as Ephesians 2:11-22, Romans 9:6, Galatians 6:16, and Romans 2:28-29. Space prohibits engagement here (though see my response below), but Saucy holds that each text does not teach that the church is “true Israel nor “true Jews”. The NT maintains that Israel as a nation will be restored (Matt 23:39; Luke 21:24; Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30), as they remain recipients of the promises and covenants (Rom 9:3-4) including future salvation (Rom 11:26-27).
Saucy’s is the best chapter so far, as he lays out his position clearly and repeatedly, argues compellingly, and stays on track. I was also pleased to see him draw from recent scholarship on both sides of the issue. Personally, I found his view the most balanced and with the least glaring issues. That said, I do have lingering questions that his thought-provoking chapter inspired.
Why is the current salvation of the Jewish remnant in no way Israel’s restoration? Jesus appointed twelve apostles that correspond to the twelve tribes, replaced the rejected leaders of Israel with His apostles (Mark 12:1-11), and stated that they will rule over the twelve tribes in the future (Matt 19:28). However, Saucy holds that the apostles were “not representative of the restored nation of Israel” (p189, emphasis italicized in original). I was surprised that Saucy did not even see beginning fulfillment here, especially since he holds to inaugurated eschatology.
It also appears to me that Saucy splits hairs at times:
- “Messianic times” vs. The Davidic Reign. Saucy holds that “blessings of the promised Davidic kingdom are presently enjoyed in the church” (p146) but also that “[Christ’s] actual reign over this kingdom awaits his return to earth” (p185).
- Distinction in Covenantal Membership. Though the church is the “new covenant community” (p208) and partakes of the covenants (p147), Saucy maintains that “Israel [possesses] national covenant promises in distinction from the church”, resulting in “distinction in covenantal membership between the church and historic Israel” (p208). But can two people be equal members of a covenant and yet not receive all the same promises contained in that covenant? This requires a distinction between spiritual blessings and all the promises contained in the covenants: “the blessings that the church enjoys in Christ […] are essentially spiritual” (p147). But which parts of the covenants are “spiritual”, and why does the church only receive these? Is there any basis for making this distinction?
In this passage, the plight of Gentile unbelievers is described as being “uncircumcision”, “separated from Christ”, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel”, “strangers to the covenants of promise”, and “having no hope and without God” (Eph 2:11-12). “But now” Gentile believers have been “brought near” and are “no longer strangers and aliens” but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:13, 19-20).
Saucy maintains that rather than incorporating the Gentiles into Israel, Jew and Gentile are brought together into a new humanity (p191). In other words, for Saucy, Eph 2:11-22 does not say “Gentiles weren’t part of Israel, but now they are”, but “Gentiles weren’t part of Israel, but now Jew and Gentile are a new humanity, unrelated to Israel and her promises”. However, I’m just not convinced that this is the most faithful reading of the passage. The Gentiles were once “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12), but are now “fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19). Rather than now being citizens of Israel, Saucy concludes that “the commonwealth of their citizenship is not stated” (p191). But Saucy holds that Christians inherit the covenants (p147), a position to which the Gentiles were once “strangers” (Eph 2:12). So why would some parts of the situation in Eph 2:11-12 be reversed in Christ (strangers to the covenants), but not others (alienated from the commonwealth of Israel)? In fact, it appears to me that the only situation in Eph 2:11-12 that Saucy does not see as reversed for Gentile Christians is being alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. So saying that they do not inherit this status due to being a new humanity is odd when Saucy holds they inherit all the others! This is why I struggle with his exegesis of this passage. I wonder how he would interpret Psalm 87, a passage not mentioned by any of the authors so far.
Many thanks to B&H Academic for providing a review copy of this book. Next post will summarize the responses to Saucy.