Progressive Covenantalism and Israel: How I Changed My Mind

Until recently, I would have considered myself somewhere on the spectrum of what is called “progressive dispensationalism,” meaning I expected the kingdom of God to include a future phase of a national restoration of a redeemed Israel in Christ, with full possession of the land promised to her as part of the inheritance of the whole earth for all of God’s redeemed people. I came to this conclusion some time back based largely on Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11. My reasoning went like this:

(1) Paul clearly seems to affirm a future salvation of Israel.

(2) This future salvation of Israel seems to be integral to his defense of God’s faithfulness to his promises. That is, it’s not something that God will do just because; it is, rather, that if “all Israel” (Rom. 11:26) is not saved, if the partial hardening upon her is not lifted, then we could conclude that God’s word had failed (see Rom. 9:1-6).

(3) Progressive covenantalism did not seem to have any place in its system for #2, even if some progressive covenantalists (or even most) affirmed #1. Thus, there is some sense in which the “genealogical principle” seems to continue across the canon, namely, with the promise of Israel’s salvation.

(4) And from there, it’s not too far a leap to conclude that perhaps some element of the land promise continues across the canon as well. Just as the salvation of “one new man” (Eph. 2:15) of Jews and Gentiles in Christ does not eliminate Israel from the equation, neither should we imagine that the inheritance of the whole earth to Abraham’s worldwide family (Rom. 4:13) negates or leaves behind the specific promise of the land of Palestine to his physical offspring who will be redeemed in Christ.

(5) Already having been persuaded by the arguments for historic premillennialism, I found that a progressive dispensationalist understanding of a future national restoration of Israel under the reign of Messiah during the millennial kingdom fit well with what I already believed.

I wrote about this view and how I approached some issues in typology as recently as one month ago today. But I have now changed my mind on some things. I want to lay out here what has and has not changed and why.

I have to give credit to Brent Parker, author of the essay “The Israel-Christ-Church Relationship” in the book he co-edited with Steve Wellum entitled Progressive Covenantalism (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2016, pp. 39-68). He made a persuasive argument that introduced some helpful distinctions that I had not considered much before. I would summarize his argument this way:

(1) Typology always involves escalation from type to antitype (a claim that stands in some tension with my previous post on typology, but seems to fit the whole canon of Scripture better than my proposal did). In other words, types don’t make it through the whole canon without getting “raised up” in some sense. The temple, God’s limited dwelling place, becomes the whole creation. Circumcision, a physical act that marks one out as being devoted to the Lord, becomes a spiritual transformation that actually results in holiness of life. Adam, along with a series of Adam figures (Noah, Abraham, David), is surpassed by the greater achievement of Jesus Christ.

(2) I previously would have pushed back on the above claim by saying, “Yes, all of that seems to be true, except for the fact that Paul leaves Israel intact in Romans 9-11. And if that is the case, should we nuance our understanding of typology?” But this is where Parker made a key distinction: he argued that ethnic Israel is not a type, but the nation of Israel is. That explains how ethnic Israel can be destined for a future salvation, in which she will be incorporated into the church (more on that below), and yet national Israel, as a type, finds its fulfillment in the new covenant, which entails no future particular role for Israel as a nation with distinct boundaries and government apart from Gentiles in Christ.

(3) Parker traces out the type/antitype relationship by arguing that Israel as a nation has a particular vocation, namely, to be a light to the nations, that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the true Israel. Only after we have moved from Israel to Christ can we then move from Israel to the church, in which it is biblically right to conclude that all who are in Christ constitute the true, eschatological Israel.

(4) This is not a replacement theology. It does not argue that Israel’s disobedience has led God to reject her and transfer her promises to another party. Nor does it keep Israel and the church distinct, with certain blessings destined uniquely for one party. Progressive covenantalism views the church, including both believing Jews and Gentiles, as Israel in the era of fulfillment. Jesus Christ and the people who are gathered to him from all nations–which does not leave ethnic Israel behind!–represents what the nation of Israel should have been. This reading makes sense of numerous references in the New Testament to Gentiles as the offspring of Abraham, to the church as the “Israel of God,” to the 144,000 from the 12 tribes in Revelation 7 as a picture of all believers, etc.

Having read the argument, my mind went to Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:19 that Gentile believers are “fellow citizens with the saints.” The fact that we are citizens with believing Israel seems to preclude the possibility of distinct national boundaries in the kingdom. While I have no doubt that there will be distinct ethnicities in the kingdom, I don’t see how our common citizenship can be enjoyed if Israel as a nation remains a distinct political entity. The land promise encompasses the whole earth, and that includes Palestine, but I can’t see anymore a reason to conclude that Palestine will have any territorial significance for a distinct nation in the kingdom.

But I will say two matters to conclude here about what has not changed:

(1) I remain a premillennialist. I held this position before I came to progressive dispensationalism, and I still hold it today because of my understanding of Revelation 20 within the context of the whole book of Revelation. There are other incidental arguments here and there throughout Scripture, but Revelation 20 is of course the key passage. Incidentally, it is worth noting here that Revelation 20 presents the millennial kingdom without any reference to national Israel at all.

(2) I still hold that Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 climaxes with the claim that the Jewish people as a whole will come to faith in Christ (not necessarily every single one, but on the whole). Moreoever, I hold that this argument is integral to Paul’s defense of God’s faithfulness in these three chapters. I believe that the promises, having been given to ethnic Israel, must be fulfilled to ethnic Israel (remember: ethnic Israel is not a type, only the nation is). The fact that Gentiles are grafted in to the covenant people speaks of the grace of God in giving us what we have no “natural” claim to, highlighting the utter gratuity of our salvation. From one perspective, the Gentiles are saved by being incorporated into Israel (i.e., the true Israel). But from another perspective, Israel will be saved by being incorporated into the church (i.e., the worldwide family of God in Christ) after her period of hardening is over. The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

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One thought on “Progressive Covenantalism and Israel: How I Changed My Mind

  1. the link that is missing in all fo this is the two houses os Israel, the division of the kingdom in house of Juda and house of Israel

    Like

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