Jewishness of Premillennial Eschatology
Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum
Judaism generally does not produce a detailed systematic theology, although such things do exist, mostly by more modern Jewish writers. Just as the body of believers has certain fundamentals of the faith which would contrast true Bible-believers as over against Modernists or Liberals, Judaism has had and does have similar stands. In the New Testament we read of the Pharisees and the Sadducees who differed over specific issues such as the resurrection, the existence of angels and demons, and other differences that existed between those two Judaisms of that day. Sadducean Judaism did not survive AD 70, but Pharisaic Judaism developed into full blown Rabbinic Judaism, or what is now known as Orthodox Judaism. In the Middle Ages, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (referred to as RAMBAM) set down the Thirteen Articles of Faith which express the fundamentals of Judaism, and each article begins with the phrase, "I believe with perfect faith…" Two of those Thirteen Articles of Faith have particular reference to the issue of this article. The first is:
"I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I will wait for him." The second is: "I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead." There has always been a fundamental in Orthodox and/or Traditional Judaism that when the Messiah comes, He will resurrect the dead, bring all Israel back into the Land, and set up His Messianic Kingdom. Indeed, that was very much part of the credentials of the Messiah. In fact, a very common rabbinic argument against the Messiahship of Jesus is that He failed to bring world peace, He failed to bring in the Final Restoration of Israel, etc. However, Premillennialism, especially Dispensational Premillennialism has always strongly taught that this would be a result of the Second Coming of Jesus the Messiah.
Theologically speaking, Traditional Judaism has the most in common with Dispensational Premillennialism than any other branch of Christian theology. In fact, only Dispensational Theology can allow for a fully developed Israelology within its Systematic Theology.
When I had to pick a topic for my doctrinal dissertation for New York University, I wished to pick a topic that would make a contribution, and realizing that there has not been any systematized Israelology, I chose to do that and the final product became a published book Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology. In this work, not only did I deal with Dispensational Israelology, but I also dealt with the Israelology of the three major schools of Covenant Theology (Covenant Amillennialism, Covenant Postmillennialism, and Covenant Premillennialism). What I tried to show is that each of these three main divisions of Covenant Theology were unable to really develop any kind of a complete Israelology because somewhere along the line they confuse Israel and the Church. It is also interesting to note how often members of all three covenant schools attack Dispensationalism because of the position it gives to Israel in God's overall prophetic program. In fact, as I often quote in the above mentioned work, the attacks on Dispensationalism also reflect a strong anti-Semitism.
In fact, in my research I discovered that the three different covenant schools are distinguished from each other primarily based upon its degree of Israelology, although all of them end up with a rather limited Israelology. The distinguishing mark of Dispensationalism is that it is the only theology that allows for a full Israelology to be developed. Other theologians from both Dispensational and non-Dispensational schools have observed the same thing.
In one form or another, proponents of all four systems of theology have wrestled with the question of Israel. All recognize the Jewish origins and roots of the Christian faith, and some kind of an official attitude towards the "People of the Book" has been displayed. In some, Israelology plays no vital role in their theology, whereas in others it is central.
Often it is the Israelology of a system that distinguishes one from another. Ryrie, a Dispensationalist, writes:
What, then, is the sine qua non of dispensationalism?…A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct….
…This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive.1
A key factor, then, that distinguishes Dispensationalism from all other theologies is its Israelology.
Chafer, another Dispensationalist, writes:
Israel has never been the Church, is not the Church now, nor will she ever be the Church. A form of Covenant Theology which would thread all of Jehovah's purposes and undertakings upon His one attribute of grace could hardly avoid confusion of mind in matters related to His varied objectives. Covenant Theology, in consistency with its man-made premise, asserts its inventions respecting an Old Testament church, which, it is claimed, is an integral part of the New Testament Church and on the ground that, since God's grace is one unchanging attribute, its accomplishments must be the realization of one standardized ideal. The Covenant theory does retain Israel as such to the time of Christ's death. The Church is thought to be a spiritual remnant within Israel to whom all Old Testament blessings are granted and the nation as such is allowed to inherit the cursings.2
Again, it is Israelology that is the main distinguishing characteristic between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, the latter being subdivided into Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.
The degree of importance of Israelology to Dispensationalism is stated by Chafer:
The Jewish nation is the center of all things related to the earth…. This great statement places Israel as the center of all divine purposes for the earth. Jehovah may chasten His people and even use the nations to that end, but invariable judgment falls on those who afflict Israel and simply because they do it maliciously nonetheless.3
Walvoord, another leading Dispensationalist, writes along the same vein:
Unfortunately, the study of the future of Israel has been obscured by controversy in other areas of Biblical theology. Liberal or neo-orthodox theologians, who do not accept the infallibility of the Scriptures, tend to ignore what the Bible teaches about Israel. Among conservatives there is a radical division concerning the meaning of Biblical revelation in relation to Israel. Some contemporary amillenarians deny any future to Israel as such and consider the promises to Israel as being fulfilled in the church in the present age. Others believe that there will be a spiritual restoration of Israel, but tend to disregard the geographic and political aspects of Israel's promises.4
The fact that Israelology is what distinguishes Dispensationalism from Covenant Theology is not merely attested to by Dispensationalists, but it is also affirmed by Covenant Theologians. Allis, a Covenant Theologian of the amillennial school, writes:
For in saying this he has placed his finger on the sore point in Dispensational teaching, the exaltation of the Jew per se. In their glorification of the Jew and the rosy future they assign to him, Dispensationalists vie with Zionists. The future belongs to the Jew!5
Ladd, a Covenant Theologian from the premillennial school, writes:
The concept that the Scriptures which refer to the Great Tribulation have to do only with Israel and not with the Church is an arbitrary method of interpreting the Word which, if carried out consistently, would make havoc of Biblical interpretation. We have found that dispensationalists themselves do not apply this method of "dividing the Word" in a consistent manner.6
Both Allis and Ladd criticize Dispensationalism over the issue of Israelology, yet Ladd wishes to distinguish his Covenant Premillennialism from Allis' Amillennialism. He does this by means of his own Israelology:
There is therefore but one people of God. This is not to say that the Old Testament saints belonged to the Church and that we must speak of the Church in the Old Testament…. The Church properly speaking had its birthday on the day of Pentecost, for the Church is composed of all those who by one Spirit have been baptized into one body (I Cor. 12:13), and this baptizing work of the Spirit began on the day of Pentecost.
While we must therefore speak of Israel and the Church, we must speak of only one people of God.7
All sides agree, then that the factor of Israel is a distinguishing feature of the different theologies. Yet in spite of this admitted fact, Israelology as a separate segment of Systematic Theology has never been systematized. This lack has been recognized by only one of the Systematic Theologies, that of Chafer:
The works of Systematic Theology generally have recognized the redeemed people of this age, but only as a supposed sequence or continuation in the progress of the divine purpose in Israel. They refer to "the Old Testament Church" and to "the New Testament Church" as together constituting component parts of one divine project, thus failing to recognize those distinctions between Israel and the Church which, being so radical in character, serve to indicate the widest possible difference between them--difference in origin, difference in character and responsibility, and difference in destiny.8
Although Chafer points out the lack of most Systematic Theologies and has a great deal to say about the theology of Israel--more than all the others--he also fails to systematize the doctrine of Israel. His Israelology is scattered throughout his eight-volume Systematic Theology, and the index is of little help in this area. There is no separate section of "Israelology" in the one work where it was expected, yet Chafer is the most complete.
It should be obvious then that Dispensational Premillennialism is the most Jewish of all theologies, and for Messianic Jews it is the best theology because it recognizes not only Israel's future but also a distinctive Jewish identity even in the present-day age. Although Covenant Theology has Premillennialists among them, the difference between Covenant Premillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism is that Covenant Premillennialism has a much smaller role for Israel and there is nothing particularly Jewish about their Millennium. But with Dispensational Premillennialism, the Jewishness of the Kingdom is integrated into its system.
As for Covenant Amillennialism and Covenant Postmillennialists, what they fail to recognize is that their theology mitigates against the claim for Jesus to be the Messiah. For example, if you take away His virgin birth, His birth in Bethlehem, His crucifixion, and His resurrection (elements that have been denied in liberal Christianity), you have removed His credentials to be the Messiah. By the same token, if you take away a literal establishment of a Messianic Kingdom with a literal restoration of Israel by that same person claiming to be the Messiah, you also destroy His credentials to claim that position as well. The liberal theologian has merely taken the allegorical method of interpretation that many Covenant Theologians use in reference to Israel and prophecy and applied them to the historical events and the person of Jesus. At least liberals are more consistent in their allegorical approach to things. Covenant Theology all too often takes history literally and prophecy allegorically, but again, by so doing, they have undermined the claims of Jesus to be the Messiah.
1 Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 44-45.
2 Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:311.
3 Ibid., 4:313.
4 John F. Walvoord, Israel in Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962) p. 9.
5 Allis, Prophecy, p. 219.
6 George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), p. 117.
7 George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), P. 117.
8 Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:29-30.
Arnold Fruchtenbaum is a graduate of Cedarville, Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.) and New York University (Ph.D.). He has lived in Israel and taught the world over. He founded Ariel Ministries to evangelize and disciple Jewish brethren. [http://www.ariel.org] and is one of the leading scholars in Jewish Christian missions.