The Relationship of the Testaments: Concluding Thoughts

As we bring this series to a resting place it is my hope that these issues will not be put to rest as if anything we’ve said is the final word. I do believe the issue of the relationship between the Testaments gets to the heart of so much disagreement and troubles with current popular discussions. It is my observation that many discussions and debates began with theological presuppositions rather than exegesis. If such a methodology is allowed then there remains no corrective to faulty theology regardless of its origin. A discussion of the relationship between the Testaments should transcend debates about theological systems and should be seen as prior to the formulation of systematic theology. Unfortunately it is all too easy for any of us to retreat to the crutch of familiar theological constructs than it is to do the hard work of exegesis. However, I believe when we all allow the text to speak then we might be able to transcend some of the current log jams in various areas of systematic theology.

I have been asked by numerous individuals if we wrote this series in response to the millennial debate that has erupted around the blog world which in turn is a response to MacArthur’s statements at the Shepherds’ Conference a few weeks prior. The short answer is no and it may even surprise our readers just how this series came together. I am fascinated by this particular area of study and I believe it is a subject that sees very little thoughtful interaction (especially in blogs). I simply asked two men (Matt Waymeyer and Randy McKinion), who I respect immensely, to share their thoughts on the topics I assigned to them. I did not ask them what their view of the particulars were nor did I require they stay within the construct of a particular theological system. Their respective posts have pushed me to think about new issues and difficulties that I had not formerly considered.

I hope the subject of this series will be one that many will discover and that it will push expositors to excellence in their ministry of the Word. I hope bloggers will engage in more exegesis of particular texts rather than attempting to chart who is on a particular theological side. In the end when it’s just you before the Lord with your nose in the text of Scripture, the former is indispensable and the latter matters little. In conclusion I think the following words, though written two decades ago, are still apropos to the current discussion. Turner’s insight provides what I think is a way forward [from David Turner, “The Continuity of Scripture and Eschatology: Key Hermeneutical Issues” Grace Theological Journal 6:2 (1985), 275-87]:

The NT use of the OT is a complex matter deserving much more study. It is encouraging that this appears to be a popular topic for scholarly study at present. At least three courses of action should be pursued as such study proceeds. First, both the covenant theologian and the dispensationalist must sharpen their positions on the NT use of the OT. It appears exceedingly doubtful that the NT reinterprets the OT so as to evaporate the plain meaning of its promises. This comes perilously close to conflicting with such NT passages as Matt 5:18 and John 10:35b. On the other hand, it is clear that the NT is not always as literal in its handling of the OT as some dispensationalists might think. Genuine typology and analogy between OT and NT should not be viewed as destructive to the literal fulfillment of the OT promises to Israel, but rather an indication of a greater continuity between Israel and the church than dispensationalists have often been willing to admit.

A second course of action to be pursued is semantic—the clearing up of definitions. Crucial terms such as “literal,” “typological,” “reinterpretation,” and “application” must be defined in a consistent manner agreeable to both groups. For example, what the covenant theologian calls the NT “reinterpretation” of the OT may be viewed by the dispensationalist as NT “application” of the OT. Third, the covenant theologian must beware of a tendency to erase the future of the nation of Israel from Scripture,1 and the dispensationalist must beware of a tendency to exaggerate the biblical distinctions between Israel and the church.2

Footnotes:

1 It is encouraging that Anthony A. Hockema’s The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) shows some openness to the future of the nation of Israel upon the new (renewed) earth (23-40,146-47). Hoekema’s well stated “Critique of Dispensationalism” (194–222) deserves serious attention and response from dispensational scholars. Attention should also be drawn to Willem A. Van Gemeren’s two part series “Israel as the Hermeneutical Crux in the Interpretation of Prophecy,” WTJ 45 (1983) 132-44; and 46 (1984) 254-97. Van Gemeren’s overview of reformed eschatology since Calvin is enlightening. His description of some reformed OT exegesis takes the form of a parody upon the familiar words of Augustine: “the Old is by the New restricted and the New is on the Old inflicted” (269). He calls upon the reformed community to realize that the NT does not so much “fulfill” the OT as to “confirm” that “all the expectations of the OT prophets will be fulfilled” (280).

 

2 See Kenneth L. Barker, “False Dichotomies Between the Testaments,” JETS 25 (1982) 3-16. It is encouraging here to note two recent essays by Robert L. Saucy. In “Contemporary Dispensational Thought,” TSF Bulletin 7:4 (1984) 10-11, he shows how some dispensationalists “have come to see a greater unity in the historical program of God” without giving up the literal fulfillment of Israel’s OT promises (11). See also “Dispensationalism and the Salvation of the Kingdom,” TSF Bulletin 7:5 (1984) 6-7. One might also note W. Robert Cook, The Theology of John (Chicago: Moody, 1975) 167-68,226–27, n. 27, who argues that the Israel-church distinction will become less and less clear in the future. Some of the continuity stressed by Cook and Saucy may have been anticipated by Erich Sauer in From Eternity to Eternity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) 166,177; and in The Dawn of World Redemption (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) 147. Elliott E. Johnson argues for a NT basis for dispensationalism in “Hermeneutics and Dispensationalism” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody, 1982) 239-55. Stanley D. Toussaint’s “A Biblical Defense of Dispensationalism” in the same volume (81–91) includes some helpful clarifications (83–84).

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