In part one of this piece, we defined the terms of Dispensationalism and Reformed. Today, we will look at what Scripture has to say on Dispensationalism, and answer the question “Can Dispensationalists be Reformed?”
What Does Scripture Say?
The persuasive power of Dispensationalism has always been its appeal to Scripture. Some of the older Dispensational preachers that I knew were more like seminar lecturers than preachers. I remember hearing about one fellow in Kansas City who did not even hold what most would regard as worship services. They were seminars, complete with an overhead projector. His schtick, if you will, was that he was going to explain the Bible.
Well, the Reformed have also worked diligently at explaining the Bible and—to put the contrast between Dispensationalism and Reformed theology rather pointedly—under all forms of Dispensationalism, Jesus works for Moses. According to the author of Hebrews, however, Moses works for Jesus:
Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (Heb 3:1–6)
According to the Apostle Paul, the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace was always intentionally temporary. That is central to his argument against the Judaizers:
To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:15–29)
The more fundamental covenant or promise, relative to Moses, was the Abrahamic. For Paul, the Abrahamic covenant is the paradigm for understanding redemptive history here as it is in Romans 4. He treats Abraham as the first Christian, justified and saved as a Gentile by grace alone, through faith alone. Even after circumcision, when he became the first Jew, he was still only and always justified and saved by grace alone through faith alone. For Paul, Moses was a temporary addition, a codicil, that expired with the death of Christ. That is why he calls it the “old covenant” (2 Cor 3:14), the “ministry of death.” It was unthinkable to Paul that “the letter” (2 Cor 3:6) and “the ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9) would reappear in a future millennium for an encore.
It is even more impossible to think that, for the preacher to the Hebrews, the real action in redemptive history, is not Christ but Moses and that the Mosaic cultic system is going to be reinstituted during a literal, earthly millennium. After all, Hebrews was written to try to dissuade Christian Jews from going back to Moses, but the Dispensationalists would have us think that Hebrews should have written: “Hold on brothers. You have no need to go back to Moses since he is coming to you in the coming millennium.” What did Hebrews write? In Hebrews 7:11–14, the writer explained that the law rested on the priesthood and since the priesthood has changed, the law has changed. The ceremonial and judicial laws (the Mosaic epoch) are done because the priesthood is done. It has been replaced by the Melchizedekian priesthood of Jesus.
In verses 17–18, Hebrews speaks of the “weakness and uselessness” now of the “former commandment” (Moses). Jesus is the surety of a better covenant than the old (Heb 8:6), Mosaic covenant (v. 22). That is how Hebrews interprets Jeremiah 31:31–34. The contrast is between the New Covenant and the Old, Mosaic covenant, which is “obsolete” (Heb 8:13) and “fading away.”
None of this language would lead one to believe that Hebrews would be satisfied with any form of Dispensationalism. His hermeneutic could never be squared with any version of the Dispensational rule, “literal where possible.” From a Reformed perspective, it is almost as though Hebrews were written to refute Dispensationalism.
I have given a brief account of what Dispensationalism is, in all its forms, at its core. I have given a brief sketch of what, relative to Dispensationalism, Reformed theology is. I have highlighted the irreconcilable features of both approaches to Scripture and theology. Obviously, much more could be and has been written, but this must do for now. There is simply no sense in speaking of Reformed Dispensationalism as though a synthesis of Reformed and Dispensational theology, of any sort, is possible.
If Reformed covenant theology is new to you, please take a look at the resources below.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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