A hotly debated topic among different Christian denominations is whether the Abrahamic covenant is still in effect. Two main systems of theology have emerged on this issue. It includes Covenant Theology (CT) and Dispensationalism.
These differences are significant, because they lead to contrasting views concerning the Millennium or future Kingdom of God foretold in the Bible. These differences are significant for another reason: they lead to contrasting views regarding the permanent existence of Israel as a nation and Israel’s permanent ownership of the promised land.1
What is the Abrahamic Covenant?
There is mention of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12:2-3 in verses which are often quoted in light of the Middle East conflict. These verses state:
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
There is further mention of the promises in Gen 12:7 and 13:14-17. However, the actual term “covenant” is recorded in Gen 15:18-21 “On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates— the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
Provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant
Lubenow summarizes the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant.2 These include the Land Promises to Abraham which later developed into the Palestinian Covenant. It also included Abraham’s seed (descendants), also known as the Seed Promises which later developed into the Davidic Covenant. And thirdly, the Gentiles were given the Gentile Blessing Promises that later developed into the New Covenant.
What is Covenant Theology (CT)?
Grubbs explains that CT is also referred to as “Replacement Theology.” He goes on to explain:
The label is not satisfactory to all, but in a broad sense it characterizes those who believe the Church has “replaced” Israel. The argument is that because of disobedience Israel has forever forfeited its special position before God. There is, it is argued, no future restoration for the people of Israel as a nation–no Millennial Kingdom in which God’s promises to Israel are literally fulfilled. Christians today are the “new Israel,” and the Church now permanently inherits the blessings that were originally promised to Israel. 3
Lubenow summarizes this position “Amillenialists believe that the covenant promises made to Abraham and his seed, the Jews, were broken by Israel through disobedience, and that the Kingdom promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Church.” He then explains how CT’s arrive at the conclusion that Israel will have no millennial kingdom. 4
CT supporters cite verses such as Matthew 21:43 to support the notion that the Church has been given the role of Israel. This is countered by the fact there are verses which speak of a future restoration of Israel (Mat. 19:28). They teach Galatians 6:16 means the Church is now the “true Israel.” Dispensationalists view this scripture as to referring to both believing Gentiles and Jews.
It should be noted that a large body of Christians hold to the CT view. This includes for example Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Calvinists. For example, Lutheran apologist Reed Lessing states:
It follows that the present state of Israel is not a prophetic realization of the Messianic kingdom of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, a day should not be anticipated in which Christ’s kingdom will manifest Jewish distinctives, whether by its location in the land of Palestine, its capital in Jerusalem, its constituency, or its ceremonial institutions and practices. Instead, the present age will come to a conclusion with the arrival of the final, eternal kingdom of the Messiah. 5
What is Dispensationalism?
Keathley summarizes the dispensationalist viewpoint as:
that scripture presents at least three and as many as seven different arrangements in the outworking of God’s plan for humanity. Although there are differences between each of the various administrations, there is continuity as well. Each dispensation is characterized by new revelation from God, testing to go along with that revelation, human failure, and divine judgment in light of that failure. No DT relates the various dispensations to any overarching theological covenant, such as the covenant of grace. Rather, they relate them directly to the biblical covenants of promise. Examples of three dispensations held by virtually every DT include the Mosaic Law, Grace (the Church Age), and the future Millennial kingdom. The other four debated dispensations are innocence (Adam in the garden), conscience (after the fall till now), civil/human government (Noahic covenant), and promise (Abraham and anyone who wanted to trust in Yahweh). 6
Dispensationalists believe there is a distinction between the covenants God has made with Israel and the Church. They are Premillenialists and as Lubenow states “believe that the covenant promises made to Abraham and his Seed, Israel, of a literal kingdom forever will be kept because a covenant cannot be broken.” 7
The writer has read the view of many CT commentators that Israel no longer is in covenant with God as it was unfaithful to God and their covenants. The writer agrees with Lubenow that the Abrahamic Covenant was unconditional with Israel and her descendants. 8 Morris points out that God clarifies his covenant with Abraham and his descendants is “everlasting” as described in Genesis 17:7. 9
The Abrahamic covenant was unconditional. As LaHaye states “God confirmed and sealed the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 through a unique procedure whereby He put Abram into a deep sleep and bound Himself to keep the covenant regardless of Abraham’s response.” 10
Supporters of CT often state that prior to the nineteenth century there was no pre-trib view. Geisler comments “this is plainly and simply false. He states the “pre-trib view was held as early as 300s A.D.”11
The writer concludes that there is a big difference in the Covenant Theology (Replacement Theology) view as compared to Dispensationalism. The writer could not find any convincing scriptural evidence that the promises made to Israel, particularly in the Abrahamic Covenant, were transferred to the Church. The writer prefers a literal approach to understanding biblical covenants. Unless God specifically declares a nullification or transfer of His Covenants, one should not alter his rendering of scriptural covenants. To do so could bring into question the New Covenant with Christians, which would undermine the gospel message.
1Renald Showers, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, (2006). Available: http://www.johnankerberg.org/Articles/biblical-prophecy/BP1101W1.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.
2 Marvin Lubenow, Historical Survey of Israel Course Notes (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary, 2006), 43.
3 Richard Grubbs, “Replacement Theology Old Idea…New Label,” IFCA International, (2006). Available: http://www.ifca.org/voice/05Mar-Apr/RichardGrubbs.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006
4 Lubenow, 44.
5 Reed Lessing, “A Lutheran Response to the Left Behind Series,” Issues, Etc. (2006). Available: http://www.issuesetc.org/resource/archives/lessing2.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.
6 Hamptom Keathley, “The Relationship of the Church to Israel,”bible.org (2006). Available http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=534. Accessed October 1, 2006.
7 Lubenow, 44.
8 Ibid, 43.
9 Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2006), 332.
10 Tim LaHaye, The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), 7.
11 Norman Geisler. “A Friendly Response to Hank Hanegraaff’s Book, The Last Disciple”. Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College (2006). Available http://www.ses.edu/NormGeisler/lastdisciple.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.
Geisler, Norman. “A Friendly Response to Hank Hanegraaff’s Book, The Last Disciple”. Norman Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College (2006). Available http://www.ses.edu/NormGeisler/lastdisciple.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.
Grubbs, Richard. “Replacement Theology Old Idea…New Label,” IFCA International, (2006). Available: http://www.ifca.org/voice/05Mar-Apr/RichardGrubbs.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.
Keathley, Hamptom. “The Relationship of the Church to Israel,”bible.org (2006). Available http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=534. Accessed October 1, 2006.
LaHaye, Tim. The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2004.
Lessing, Reed. “A Lutheran Response to the Left Behind Series,” Issues, Etc. (2006). Available: http://www.issuesetc.org/resource/archives/lessing2.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.
Lubenow, Marvin. Historical Survey of Israel Course Notes. El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary, 2006.
Morris, Henry M. The Genesis Record: A Scientific and Devotional Commentary on the Book of Beginnings. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006.
Showers, Renald.“The Abrahamic Covenant,” Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, (2006).Available: http://www.johnankerberg.org/Articles/biblical-prophecy/BP1101W1.htm. Accessed October 1, 2006.