Dispensational Distinction

As i have continued to plow through material representing the New Perspective of Paul (hereafter NPP) interpretation of justification, specifically as it references the rejection of our Justification by the Imputation of Christ’s righteousness, i have found (not surprisingly) that hermeneutics is where the argument rises and falls.

Don Garlington, as a representative of this perspective, notes that his primary hermeneutic is “a historia salutis (history of salvation).” This “salvation history” is his driving hermeneutic. Everything is interpreted in light of this. As he quotes EP Sanders, long-recognized cornerstone of the NPP, he shows that this hermeneutic is what the NPP is built upon.

This perspective, as touched on in previous posts, sees God as a covenantal God first and foremost. That is, He only relates to His creation in terms of Covenants. Therefore salvation itself is covenantal in nature. In fact, Sanders’ perspective was that Israelite history was itself a picture of our salvation, and God’s covenant-keeping in relation to Israel played a crucial role in interpreting our salvation. Concepts of salvation, justification, and righteousness in the Old Testament are used to interpret Pauline passages. For instance, at one point Garlington argues:

In biblical-theological perspective, the justification of the people of God [notice this phrase is used to unify Israel and the Church] is their vindication when they return to the land and resume their privileged position within the covenant. Thus “vindication from sin” [Rom. 6:7 – NKJV “freed from sin”; Gk “dedikaiotai apo tes hamartias”] would make fine sense as meaning that we have been absolved with regard to the charges of sin.

As humans, we were exiled by our sin, but now have been restored to the land and the covenant by God’s justification of us. This is the interpretation of salvation by the NPP. God’s righteousness, then, is interpreted as “his saving activity to redeem Israel from her oppressors (Garlington, Response17).” “Justification in Paul signals deliverance from exile and freedom from bondage (Garlington, Justification by Faith62).” This view in general seems to lack much of the forensic nature of Paul’s arguments. While no NPP author denies a forensic meaning in Paul, certainly it is at least secondary to their arguments.

What all this has to do with Dispensationalism should now be fairly obvious. The sine qua nonof Dispensationalism has often been noted to be a clear distinction between the Church and Israel. However, this historia salutis hermeneutic clearly opposes this by striving to interpret all of Paul’s work through an Old Testament framework (which itself doesn’t seem to be consistent with a Biblical covenantal framework). In his letters Paul never seeks to equate the church with Israel or declare Christians to be a “new Israel.” God is not done with national Israel. The promises (covenants) made to them are yet intended to be filled by them, and can in no way be fulfilled by the church. The NPP, as well as Classical Covenant Theology, necessitates a covenantal hermeneutic which seeks to establish the Church as a “spiritual Israel.” This reading of Scripture causes misunderstandings and misapplications of Scripture such as the NPP.

A specific aspect of this issue can be addressed accompanied by a rejoinder. Garlington, in his Response to John Piper, defines the term “apostate” covenantally by quoting Romans 1:25: “who…worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” All of humanity, then, according to Garlington, is apostate (29). In a covenantal interpretation, this necessitates all of humanity to be bound by covenant to God. However, in New Testament theology, there is a much different perspective on the word “apostate.” Unlike its Old Testament interpretation referring clearly to one who had violated the Mosaic Covenant (cf. for example, Deut. 13), the New Testament, and Paul in particular, employs this word to refer to those who had left the Faith (I TIm. 4:2).  The question then arises – “what is “the faith?” Doctrine answers these questions. First, these individuals cannot have been saved, or they would not have left the faith (Rom. 8:30). Therefore, second, “the Faith” must be a reference to the teachings, or doctrine, of Christ. This is bolstered by the context, in which Paul had just finished giving an early creed of sorts regarding the essentials of the Gospel. It is to these essentials, then, to which he refers as “the faith.” Is this faith then, a covenant? There is absolutely no proof in New Testament literature, Paul included, that “the faith” is considered in terms of entering a covenant. Apostates are not leaving a covenant relationship, but are rejecting first a personal trust in Christ, then a set of doctrine which conforms to His Word and character.

Jude continues this thought of apostates and what it means to be apostate. The word he chooses over and over is “ungodly.” Used some 6 times in this short book, “ungodly” is the primary way in which Jude thinks of apostates. The use of the word “ungodly” does not, however, indicate a covenant relationship. Rather, it indicates a failure to comply to the character and person of God, marking one out as a sinner (I John 3:4). Sin, in the New Testament, is not just the failure to adhere to a covenant. Rather, it is transgression of a moral code. This defines it as forensic in nature. This observation simply serves to bolster the “traditional” and “Protestant” interpretation of Pauline doctrine.

So what’s the problem? What difference does it make if one believes the church is Israel or not? Doctrines such as those proposed by the NPP suffice as reason. When the theological structure (Covenant, Dispensational, etc.) forces a re-interpretation of doctrines such as justification to fit that particular schema, when your theological grid drives your hermeneutic rather than your hermeneutics driving your theological framework, there is an issue. The consequences will not necessarily be instantaneous, however. It may be that though current Covenant and NPP theologians rest their faith in Christ for salvation. However, the battle is for the generations. True doctrine will always cause future generations to fear God and worship Him properly. However, as these other doctrines continue, they will cause our children and our grandchildren to fall away from the faith, crawling out further and further on the branches until they break and our children fall into the apostasy we began. This is what is at stake. I’m no prophet and I can’t see what NPP will morph into. I could take some guesses, but I don’t know. But I do know that our children and grandchildren will not hold the line of faith because of these doctrines. Apostasy will be the end result of these doctrines, and history will have another lesson.

3 thoughts on “Dispensational Distinction

  1. My name is not Tim but I
    agree with the two Tims
    about Dispensational Distinction.
    Sounds too like NPP aproaches
    Progressive Dispensationalism
    bringing in a complementarity hermeneutic.

    Dick Lockhart

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