Keeping the Words of Christ
Copyright 2010 by Raul E. Lopez, MD, MDiv
Except for a few short references by ancient historians, scripture is the only record we have of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is impossible to respond properly to the knowledge of Jesus Christ in obedience without the full benefit of the complete written revelation of God. The New Testament is a book which lacks an internal foundation. Probably all aberrations of Christianity, whether heterodox, such as the cults, or liberal, are the result of using either a school of human philosophy or a myth as the foundation for the New Testament. The erroneous philosophy or myth then colors the interpretation of the New Testament. The proper foundation for the New Testament is the Old Testament. However, the two systems of theology which are used by conservative Christians to link the Old and the New Testaments are inadequate and lead to a de-emphasis of certain portions of scripture.
Reformed theology is the system of theology produced by the Protestant Reformation, particularly the branch founded by John Calvin. Covenant theology is that part of reformed theology which addresses the relationship between the testaments. This system of theology stresses the unity of the Bible and the similarities between the church and Israel. It sees the church as being related to Israel the way a butterfly is related to a caterpillar, a flower to a bud, a frog to a tadpole. Consequently, the church is seen as Israel transformed. There is some validity to this concept since Paul uses the image of the church as being a wild branch grafted to the cultivated root, which is Israel.
However, this identification of the church as spiritual Israel leads to two problematic doctrinal conclusions. The first erroneous conclusion of classical Reformed Theology is infant baptism. If the church is spiritual Israel, then baptism is circumcision. Circumcision is a sign of God's covenant with Israel. A covenant is simply a promise between two parties. The children of the Israelites were heirs of this promise by simple biological birth. Peter affirmed this on the day of Pentecost "For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, [even] as many as the Lord our God shall call." (Acts 2:39). Therefore, the male children of the Israelites were circumcised as a sign of this promise. Those who hold to Reformed theology think that if the children of the Israelites were under the promises of the covenant then the children of God's spiritual people should be entitled to nothing less. The children of Christians are thought to be under a similar covenant. The sign of this promise to the children of spiritual Israel is baptism.
Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that birth into the body of Christ is not by physical birth. John clearly states "But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, [even] to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (John 1:12-13). The New Testament, at least according to Baptists, does teach a form of infant baptism, but it is the baptism of spiritual infants who are physically mature, not the baptism of physical infants who are spiritually dead. The Israelites are children of Abraham by means of biological birth while gentiles become the children of God by spiritual birth. Paul says "Wherefore remember, that ye [being] in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ." (Ephesians 2:11-13). An unsaved non-Jew is simply a Gentile, even if he is the child of a Christian. He is a stranger from the covenants of promise.
Even though Baptism is simply a symbol, its theological meaning has practical importance. The form of baptism implemented by a church reflects that church's view of the nature of the church. Believers' baptism is based on the view that the church is a body composed of professing believers. This view makes a distinction between the authority structures of the church and of the state, as it also makes a distinction between the group which makes up the church and the group which makes up the nation. One group is entered into by physical birth, the other by spiritual birth. However, infant baptism is based on making the church equal to a nation. This Christian nation has two authority structures with distinct roles, the church and the state. However, these two authority structures are thought to both rule over the same Christian body. No distinction is made between the membership of the church and the membership of the nation. Both are entered into by physical birth followed by infant baptism. The practice of infant baptism tends to de-emphasize the need for personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
The second erroneous conclusion is the denial of a millennial reign by Jesus Christ. If Israel was transformed into the church in a way which makes the church the new Israel, then all the material prophetic promises made to Israel must be transformed as well. Since the church is a spiritual entity, the fulfillment of these prophesies must also be spiritual. Consequently the physical millennial promises are transformed into mere symbols of the spiritual blessings of the church age or of the eternal state. This view diminishes a large portion of the Bible because it spiritualizes and allegorizes much of prophecy. It also diminishes the importance of the created earthly state, where humans have the ability to reproduce and raise children both physically and spiritually. The two commissions, the one to be fruitful and to multiply (Genesis 1:28) and the one to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19), both apply to our earthly state only.
The denial of Premillennial belief comes in two related flavors. Amillennialism forms one end of the spectrum and Postmillennialism lies at the other end. A short review of these positions is in order, even though they were discussed earlier. Amillennialists believe that the Old Testament promises to Israel are purely symbolic of the spiritual blessings of the church age and the spiritual and material blessings of the eternal state. There is no literal millennium during which utopian conditions will be experienced by non resurrected humans on Earth. Postmillennialists believe that the church will be ever more successful in its propagation of the Gospel so that there will come a point when most of the nations of the world might be considered to be Christian nations in the same sense that the Puritan colonies could be considered to have been Christian states. This enhanced spiritual state will be accompanied with economic and material blessings which will approach utopian conditions compared to the conditions which currently prevail in the majority of the world.
However, even though these two views seem quite different, and in many ways they are, they form a spectrum. Many Amillennialists would agree that material and economic blessings accompany the spread of the gospel. This is evident in the high standards of living experienced by Northern Europeans, North Americans and Australians, areas which can be considered to be dominated by Protestants Christians. They must also admit that compared to the early centuries of the Christian era, Christianity is much more widely spread. These are all views characteristic of Postmillennialism. On the other hand, many Postmillennialists believe that many of the material blessings promised to Israel, are indeed symbolic of spiritual promises to the church. Furthermore, they believe that many of those promises will be fulfilled during the eternal state. Therefore, non premillennialists are not pure Postmillennialists nor pure Amillennialists. Instead Postmillennialism tends to reinterpret most of the millennial prophecies in a way which places their fulfillment within the church age, while Amillennialism tends to place their fulfillment within the eternal state but there is some overlap between the two views. However, both forms deny a direct reign of Jesus Christ over humans capable of procreation.
In some ways Postmillennialism interprets prophecies more literally but at the same time takes a very high view of man's abilities to improve himself. This high view of man's goodness made postmillennialism popular among liberals of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Liberalism/modernism was primarily an attack on the doctrine of man's sinfulness, on his need for salvation and on the supernatural elements of the Christian faith. We saw that conservatives in all protestant denominations rose up to oppose the inroads of liberalism. Those who did so became known as evangelicals or fundamentalists because of their commitment to man's need for salvation through the gospel (evangelium) and their commitment to the fundamental elements of the Christian faith. The evangelistic emphasis was most compatible with the idea of a regenerate church membership so Baptists ended up dominating the movement.
Postmillennialism was at odds with two aspects of evangelical fundamentalism. First of all the evangelical emphasis is based on the premise that the sinfulness of man and his inability to save himself requires that he seek salvation in a source external to himself, the Son of God. Postmillennialism is more compatible with man's ability to save his own society. On the other hand the nonliteral, symbolic interpretation of scripture on which both Amillennialism and Postmillennialism are based on went against the literal interpretation of scripture which forms the foundation of the fundamentalist emphasis on the veracity of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
Therefore, we see that the evangelical fundamentalist movement was at odds with the two of the most important conclusions of covenant theology, infant baptism and a nonliteral millennium. A new view, called dispensationalism, arose to fill the vacuum left by this rejection of covenant theology. Its success lies in its emphasis on the sinfulness of man and his need for salvation and on the horrible consequences of his disregard for this salvation.
This emphasis was accomplished by stressing the failure of man and the resulting judgement which brought each previous dispensation to a close. These dispensations are often thought to include the Edenic state, which ended with the expulsion from the garden of Eden. The prediluvian age which ended with the flood, the post Noachian age which ended with the judgment of Egypt by the ten plagues, the mosaic dispensation, which ended with the rejection of the Messiah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the church age which ends with the rapture and tribulation, and the millennium which ends with the battle of Gog and Magog and the great white throne judgment of all mankind.
They stressed the open rebellion of man against God which would occur under the leadership of the Antichrist and the horrible judgements which would occur during the seventieth week. Unfortunately, the church conveniently exempted itself from this time of judgement and from any responsibilities for mans failure during the reign of Antichrist by excusing itself from this time period by means of the pretribulational rapture. Dispensationalism holds that the dispensations represent distinctly different stages in God's dealing with man. For example, the prediluvian dispensation ended with the death of 99.9999...% of the world's population. Only eight people survived out of a likely population of many millions.
A sharp distinction is also maintained between God's dealings with Israel and his dealings with the church. It is this distinction which forms the most important theological support for the pretribulational rapture. The pretribulational rapture is used to maintain this sharp distinction between Israel and the church which is postulated by dispensationalism. However, this sharp distinction does not seem to be supported by the Bible.
Nevertheless, even though covenant theology is still popular, dispensationalism is now the system of theology most commonly used by the more conservative Christian Churches to explain the relation between the Testaments. It emphasizes the differences between the Testaments and strives to maintain a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. Ryrie says that "the essence of Dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church" (Ryrie, p 41). In the same book he quotes Fuller who says "the basic premise of Dispensationalism is two purposes God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity" (Ryrie, p 39).
Unfortunately, the positive aspects of dispensationalism were accompanied by an unbiblical emphasis on the discontinuity of God's program. This emphasis destroys the unity of the Bible and actually also creates a weak view of sin and of judgment. Dispensationalism not only makes a distinction between Israel and the church, it makes them eternally distinct and mutually exclusive. The church is even erroneously considered by some Dispensationalists to be a special parenthetical dispensation which interrupts the basic plan of God which is centered about Israel. This gives the impression that they consider the church to be a back up plan which God put into effect after man derailed His plans to inaugurate the Millennium through the first advent of His Son. Others place the church on a pedestal and even condemn Israel for accepting the Mosaic law. As a child I had a study Bible which had comments such as these in the notes. I thought it was an Old Scofield Study Bible but I have checked the notes which are now available online and I have not found this comment. It is possible that it was a Spanish Scofield Study Bible. However, either way, it is unbiblical to destroy the continuity of God's plan by making the church a special parenthesis.
By making Israel and the church two completely distinct and mutually exclusive people it creates a schism in scripture. Since each group has a different task they each have a different set of instructions from God. In practice this view makes most of scripture apply primarily to Israel and leaves little for the church. The Old Testament is considered to apply to Israel because it addresses the believers of either the Mosaic or the Millennial dispensations. Most of the ministry of Christ is considered to be directed towards the Jews, which are under the Mosaic dispensation. Its purpose is thought to be to prepare them for the Millennial dispensation. Therefore, most of the preaching of Jesus Christ recorded in the four Gospels is considered to not be directly applicable to the church either. The Apocalypse loses its importance because it deals with the tribulation, which is sometimes considered to be either its own dispensation, or a continuation of the Mosaic dispensation. The general epistles are thought to address the early Jewish church and are often considered to have a Mosaic flavor. This leaves the book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul as the only scriptures which directly address the church. Consequently, Dispensationalism, even in its moderate forms has a tendency to de-emphasize most of scripture, turning the Christian church into the Pauline church.
Some extreme Dispensationalist groups (such as the Bereans, the Grace Brethren and others, who call themselves hyperdispensationalsis) do not even believe in baptism or in the great commission because these are found in the gospels and supposedly apply to a short first century apostolic dispensation, a sort of short post Mosaic quasi-Jewish dispensation. Since Dispensationalism leaves the New Testament without a foundation some churches have substituted psychology or new age spirituality for the Old Foundation while other have grasped on to traditional American values as the foundation. The former are more common among churches that consider themselves New Evangelicals while the latter are more common among those who consider themselves fundamentalists. However, to the extent that traditional American values are based on Old Testament teaching the latter option is preferable to the first but is still dangerous. The latter can lead to mild forms of racism, such a belief in the separation of the races within the United States, and to an ineffective nationalism in missions which sometimes results in goofy but divisive agendas such about the attempt to translate the English King James Version into Spanish.
Therefore, Dispensational theology arrives at the same end point as reformed theology but by means of a different path. It creates a weak view of sin and of judgment by de-emphasizing the importance of the law and of prophecy. Paul says, "for by the law [is] the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). Most of the law is located in the writings of Moses and in the preaching of Christ. As discussed above, these are relegated to the Mosaic Dispensation. The central theme of prophecy is judgment, particularly, that which takes place during the seventieth week. Since Dispensationalism excuses the church from the seventieth week by means of the pretribulational rapture it destroys the significance and importance of the prophetic portions of scripture for the church.
In order to arrive at a proper view of the relationship between the two testaments it is important to study the three offices of Christ, and to compare how the Old and New Testaments reveal these three offices. We will examine this further in a later chapter.
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