There are two passages in the first chapter of 2 Timothy which brought me to thinking about a theological issue which is of some debate in the church.
First, Paul states that he thanks and serves God “as his ancestors did.” Second, Paul describes the faith of Timothy’s mother and grandmother being the same faith which he genuinely possessed. Paul’s ancestor’s were Jewish as were those in the matriarchal line which came before Timothy. It is very possible that both Timothy’s mom and grandmother were Christian converts, but the passage seems to hint at continuity between Old Covenant faith and New Testament Christianity. Of course this is of much debate as discussions about the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church continue until this day. In this essay I will lay out ever so briefly four theological views that relate the relationship of Old and New Covenants, Israel to the church and surrounding theological issues. In conclusion I will then give a few reasons why I favor a stronger continuity between Old and New Testaments and thereby make all my old guard dispensationalist friends shriek with pain. Just kidding-but they would be a bit upset.
Dispensationalism (D) - This view holds that Israel refers to the ethnic/physical descendants of Jacob with the church beginning at Pentecost and the church is mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament. Israel and the church have different roles/destinies in the end times and all promises made to ethnic Israel in the OT will be fulfilled to ethnic Israel in the end times. Salvation of some people under the Old Covenant is by obedience to the law-some have said this amounts to two different ways of salvation-one by the law, one by grace. This view sees a strong discontinuity between the OT and NT and sees two distinct “peoples of God.” It sees God working very differently during different time periods of history (dispensations) changing his way of dealing with humanity during seven different dispensations. The “Kingdom” in the New Testament refers to the literal, physical reign of Christ on the earth during a millennium at the end of time. It is a very Israel centric view and has the best end times charts and graphs. Proponents-The Old Scoffield Bible, 20th century Dallas Seminary, John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, Norman Geisler and Charles Ryrie. Recommended Book-Dispensationalism Today by Charles Ryrie.
Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) - Similar to the old school dispensationalists, PD holds that Israel refers to the ethnic/physical people and that the church begins in the book of Acts. It maintains the church/Israel distinction but teaches that both OT and NT people are saved by grace through faith in God’s promise. It sees more continuity between Old and New Testaments but maintains that the promises to Israel in the OT are for the ethnic line to be fulfilled in the end. It leans more towards the covenantal view as it acknowledges the covenants as progressive moves forward towards God’s plan in Christ. It also breaks with the old D view in that it sees hints at the church in the Old Testament but it is unclear and as the church/Gentile inclusion was a mystery yet to be fully unveiled. Proponents-Darryl Bock, Craig Blaising, Robert Saucy, Contemporary Dallas Seminary. Recommended Book-Progressive Dispensationalism by Darryl Bock and Craig Blaising.
Covenant Theology (CT) - Covenant Theology is an understanding of God’s work in history that has much more continuity between Old and New Testaments. It sees Israel as both the physical and spiritual descendants of Abraham and considers God unfolding a large covenant of grace throughout history. An original covenant of works was made with and broken by Adam in the garden and the plan of God to redeem a people for himself set forth in the covenant of grace. Some also teach there is a “covenant” of redemption that took place logically prior to creation within the Trinity. The distinction between the church/Israel is not made as it sees God always having a people with whom he relates by covenant. Israel is called and defined by its covenant relationship to God not simply ethnicity. God’s elect people are “one people” and the universal church has always existed in both Old and New Testament. It sees many direct prophecies related to the church in the Old Testament and views the church as God’s Plan A throughout history and the final culmination of the covenant of grace. It views the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 as the same as Luke 22:20, both are for spiritual Israel (the seed of Abraham by faith) according to Hebrews 8. It usually equates baptism and Old covenant circumcision as the sign of the covenant AND holds it should be applied at the same age. CT therefore practices infant baptism of the children of believers…sometimes on the 8th day. Proponents-John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Reformed Seminaries, Presbyterians, Walter Kaiser, Michael Horton, JI Packer, RC Sproul and Bruce Waltke. Recommended Book-God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton.
Modified (or New ) Covenant Theology (NCT) - Is similar to CT in that it sees strong continuity in the covenants of God and sees the church as spiritual Israel and heirs to the promises of God. It is somewhat of a halfway point sharing much in common with Progressive Dispensationalism as well as Covenant Theology. It is not as succinct a system of theology as the above, but is a way of seeing and reading Scripture in a promise/fulfillment hermeneutic. It rejects the baptism/circumcision symmetry of Covenant Theology and holds that baptism is for believers but sees the same united redemptive framework in the biblical covenants. Additionally, it finds the CT view that their is a “covenant of redemption” within the Trinity speaking beyond Scripture. The decree/purpose of Father/Son/Spirit to creation/redeem is there but it is not described as a covenant. As CT and many within PD it holds to a now/not yet view of the Kingdom of God known as inaugurated eschatology. Along with CT this view sees the Old Testament as containing typological references to the church in the OT that are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In contrast NCT sees the OT law differently than CT. CT sees the OT laws divided into various categories-civil, laws pertaining to sacrifice/worship and moral laws…with the moral still binding. NCT sees the entire OT law as a tutor to bring us to Christ and completely done away with in the New Covenant superseded by the law of Christ. This is an area where CT and NCT knit picks tend to scrap and NCT has more in common with some dispensational thought. Proponents-Typically Reformed type who hold to believers baptism. Though DA Carson, Mark Dever, Tom Schreiner do not see themselves fitting neatly into any camp, they typically are mentioned along with this view. Though John Piper distinguishes himself with his own view, his is closer to this position than any other. See What does John Piper believe about dispensationalism, covenant theology, and new covenant theology? Recommended Book - New Covenant Theology by Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel.
This is but a very small flyover of some of the theological views on how the Old and New testaments “fit together” in theological unity. Personally I favor the approaches that see continuity between the covenants as one unfolding plan of God. Additionally, the book of Hebrews declares the Old Covenant as abolished and the covenant by which he relates to all people is that of the one made with the blood of Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 8-10). Furthermore, Ephesians and Galatians teach that Jew/Gentile are one in the gospel. I believe that God has always related to his people by his grace and that his plan of redemption unfolded through the various covenants in biblical/redemptive history. See our article Introduction to the Old Testament for more on this. I find much to appreciate in all these systems but find the most affinity with the latter three. Old School Dispensationalism is a hard one for me to swallow but those who still hold to it are usually “all in.” Many in my circles appreciate the Progressive Dispensational and New Covenant views. For those who don’t want to buy books please check out these various systems at Theopedia. For those who are completely dizzy in all of that jazz please lose no sleep over it.