Almost ... But Not Yet:
The New Covenant in the Hermeneutics
of Progressive Dispensationalism

by Matthew Morgan

Attempts to describe the precise nature of the new covenant have long been a source of disagreement within the theological development of dispensationalism. Some classical dispensationalists like C.I. Scofield, commenting on Hebrews 8:8, spoke about a single new covenant ultimately fulfilled in Israel but nevertheless with spiritual blessings that pour over into the church age. [1] Other classical dispensationalists like Lewis Sperry Chafer preferred to bifurcate the new covenant into two distinct covenants, one for Israel (Jer. 31:31- 34) and one for the church (II Cor. 3 and Heb. 8-10). [2]

The current dispensational scene continues to exhibit this lack of a consensus on the new covenant. Both John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie have essentially continued Chafer's two new covenant approach. For example, Ryrie attempts to argue that the payment required by the new covenant has already been accomplished by the work of Christ which brings with it blessings now to the Church. [3] However, according to Ryrie, the actual fulfillment and inauguration of the new covenant has not yet begun. [4] Walvoord concurs with Ryrie in placing the fulfillment of the Jeremiah 31's new covenant in the not-yet-realized thousand year millennial kingdom. [5] John R. Master of Philadelphia College of the Bible also follows in the footsteps of Chafer's approach. He notes the following in a recently edited work attempting to reclaim classical dispensationalism for the modern era:

The new covenant specifically mentioned in the Scriptures is yet future for a redeemed and sanctified Jewish people. Theologically there are many new covenants because each dispensation is a new covenant. There is no need to apply the promises of Israel's new covenant to the church because the same spiritual promises are specified for the church (Rom 8:30; I John 3:2; etc.). [6]

Thus, as Ryrie summarizes, "In this view the two new covenants are distinct and not merged into one" [7]

It is out of this context that current tensions have arisen within the ranks of dispensationalism, particularly in the last decade with the rise of progressive dispensationalism. [8] As the subtitle of the book edited by Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock suggests, the progressive dispensationalists have undertaken a new "search for definition." Blaising summarizes the progressive approach as "the hermeneutical reexamination of the relationship between Israel and the Church, which in turn contributes to the process of self-definition currently underway in dispensationalism." [9] Such developments have not gone without criticism from classical dispensationalists like Ryrie, who argues that these "so-called developments are too radical not to be called changes." [10]

The question remains, however, just what in dispensationalism has changed with the rise of progressive dispensationalism. Some Reformed critics such as Bruce Waltke believe that this new position has changed to the degree that it now has more formal similarities with covenantal theology than to the older forms of dispensationalism. [11] Vern Poythress calls this new development "inherently unstable," and argues that such a position will inevitably collapse back into either classical dispensationalism (e.g. Chafer) on the one side or covenantal premillennialism (e.g. George E. Ladd) on the other. [12]

Reformed exegetes have largely remained silent in their assessment of this new dispensational development. Perhaps this results from an oversimplification of the issues at stake. There was a time when the older works criticizing classical dispensationalism were sufficient, [13] but such older critiques must be revisited and in many cases modified to account for this progressive movement within dispensationalism.

This present study seeks to do just that with respect the progressive dispensational conception of the new covenant. [14] The focus of this study will be to exegetically assess Bruce Ware's article, "The New Covenant and the People(s) of God," in Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church, edited by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock (Zondervan, 1992), pages 68-97. While Ware's exegesis does highlight many of the legitimate discontinuities between the old and new covenants, it will be argued that his hermeneutic remains fundamentally flawed because he fails to properly understand the "already/not yet" eschatological tension found within the New Testament itself. Such an assessment will proceed first by examining Ware's approach to the new covenant followed by a critique of his hermeneutic and exegesis.

I. The Progressive Approach to the New Covenant

Ware begins by stating that his precise two-fold purpose in the article is to examine: "(1) the nature of the new covenant, as given to Israel, and (2) its fulfillment or realization in relation both to Israel and the church." His expressed goal "is to contribute to the formulation of a framework within which we can think responsibly about the continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church as both entities relate within the one people of God" (pp. 68-69). From this general thesis, he proceeds to examine three different aspects of the Biblical teaching concerning the new covenant: first, the new covenant as revealed in the Old Testament; second, the new covenant as expanded in the New Testament; and third, the new covenant with respect to all the peoples of God.

A. The New Covenant and Jeremiah 31:31-34

The chief text that Ware considers with respect to the new covenant is Jeremiah 31:31-34. Ware opens his exegesis of Jeremiah 31:31ff. by stressing the initial parties of this new covenant: (a) the Lord and (b) the nation of Israel. According to Ware, God's purpose in enacting the new covenant is to fulfill the promises of II Samuel 7:22-24 literally to the parties of "Israel and Judah together." The basis for such a restoration pictured in Jeremiah 31 centers around "their former united national identity … Under the one new covenant, then, God would so bind the people of Israel to himself and his law that they would, as a consequence, no longer and never again break covenant with him." Ware argues with respect to these parties "that the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:34 is extended to Israel and Judah, not to any other nation or group" (pp. 71-72). [15] The implication is that God's covenant with Israel is thus "irrevocable." Nevertheless, Ware admits that prophecies such as Isa. 55:3-5 speak of the Gentiles being added to Israel's fold. Thus, for Ware, "while the new covenant is uniformly … directed to the nation of Israel, we see from this text [Isa. 55] that the new covenant made with Israel includes a host of Gentile participants, not directly addressed as God's covenant partners" (pp. 70- 73).

Ware next turns to the nature of the covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31ff. He emphasizes the "definitive and direct manner" in which God applies this covenant to his people ("I will"). There is a purposeful obligation on the part of God to bring about this covenant. Ware argues that such a new covenant is entirely "unilateral and asymmetrical in its direction" (p. 74).

What constitutes the newness of the new covenant? Ware lists four components that unfold the new nature of the new covenant. First, there is a new mode of implementation ("I will put my law in their minds"). Second, there is a new result: faithfulness in God ("they will know me."). Third, there is a new basis: full and final forgiveness ("for I will forgive their sins."). Fourth, there is a new scope: covenantal inclusiveness ("from the least of them to the greatest") (pp. 76-83).

Ware concludes his exegesis of Jeremiah 31:31ff by addressing the question of the anticipated fulfillment for those in Jeremiah's day. He believes that with respect to time, there is "only the assurance that God will enact this covenant; we have no knowledge of the [precise] time of its fulfillment." With respect to the manner of its fulfillment, "It seems clear that the promised new age, in which the new covenant would finally be realized, would come only when God's king would liberate Israel from its oppressors and when God's Spirit would inhabit the whole company of the people of God" (pp. 83- 84).

B. The New Covenant and the New Testament

Shifting forward to the New Testament, Ware acknowledges that the new covenant is at the heart of the New Testament's thematic development. He further admits that the new covenant is "envisioned by the prophets in the Old Testament with reference to the physical seed of Abraham (the nation of Israel) but applied in the New Testament, at least in a preliminary form, to the spiritual seed of Abraham, the church" (p. 84).

Of particular importance is the way in which Ware sees the new covenant "fulfilled" in the church. First, he identifies the arrival of the new covenant with the cross of Christ. By this Ware is not speaking simply of the actual cross event but rather the cross as representative of the entire scope of Jesus ministry. "The new covenant arrives in the mission of Jesus ... We see in Jesus the beginnings of a new-covenant realization." Ware appeals to Luke 22:20 ("the cup of the covenant") as that which points to the death of Christ as the ground for the new covenant reality. He also cites the forgiveness motifs in Hebrews 8-10 as bearing witness to "the enactment of the new covenant." In the person and work of Christ, "The path has been prepared; the basis of the covenant has been secured" (pp. 83-86).

Second, Ware devotes attention to the adjoining work of the Holy Spirit with respect to the new covenant's fulfillment. This new work of the Spirit, according to Ware, involves both a quantitative expansion (as seen in the book of Acts) and a qualitative expansion (as seen in the writings of Paul) (p. 88). Ware pays close attention to the new covenant passage in II Corinthians 3 and Romans 8:2-4. Commenting on these passages, Ware writes:

It seems clear that Paul does not mean to describe some transcovenantal reality but is clearly marking off what he says about the Spirit as distinctively new covenant in reference. If any doubt exists, it is removed in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, where Paul describes the glory of the old-covenant ministry as fading away and the glory of the new covenant as surpassing that of the old and remaining. (p. 90)

Thus, for Ware, the coming of the new covenant involves the work of the Spirit in a role not previously witnessed under the Old Covenant. "The Spirit comes to do what the law could not do. He comes to bring his indwelling power for life, righteousness, and covenant fidelity." (pp. 90-91)

C. The New Covenant and the People(s) of God

Having thus examined Ware's approach to the new covenant in the Old and New Testament, the fundamental question(s) of Ware's essay come into focus: "Should the New Testament application of the new covenant lead us to see an identity of Israel and the church? Or should we understand the new covenant spoken of by Jesus, by Paul, and in Hebrews as a different new covenant than that which was prophesied in Jeremiah?" (p. 91).

Ware begins by distancing himself from the classical dispensational approach of Ryrie and Walvoord that inevitably sees two distinct new covenants enacted in God's eschatological program. According to Ware, "contemporary dispensationalism" rejects this two covenant approach of Jeremiah 31 because careful New Testament exegesis renders the older view "unacceptable" (pp. 91-92).

But does this one new covenant approach automatically demand one undifferentiated people of God? Ware states that such a "conclusion is premature" (p. 92). Ware prefers to see a mediating position (tertium quid) between the "extremes" of covenantal and dispensational theologies. He argues for ...

a middle position that would suggest that Israel and the church share theologically rich and important elements of commonality while at the same time maintaining distinct identities. One of these elements of theologically rich commonality is their co- participation in the one new covenant, on the basis of which they are united as one people of God. And yet, their distinct identities should be maintained insofar as we can legitimately distinguish clearly different manners by which that one new covenant is fulfilled. (pp. 92-93)

Recognizing that this may be a fundamentally flawed distinction, Ware falls back on the fundamental distinctions made earlier with respect to "the territorial and political aspects of the new-covenant promise" as given under the old covenant. For Ware, the current state of the new covenant with the church does not find fulfillment "precisely in the manner prophesied by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel." Thus, because the Old covenant promises foresaw a fulfillment in a "literal fashion," it is impossible to see all of the new covenant promises realized in the church today (pp. 93-94).

How then does Ware attempt to reconcile these seemingly contradictory lines of reason that Jeremiah 31 on the one hand applies to the church but that it is not fully applicable to them? It is here that Ware attempts to solve his dilemma by an "already-not yet" eschatological framework.

How can these be reconciled? The are reconciled when we permit the fulfillment of such eschatological promises to take both a preliminary and partial ("already") fulfillment as well as a later full and complete ("not yet") realization. And such in fact seems to be the case in regard to the new covenant. (p. 94)

For Ware, the spiritual benefits of the new covenant have "already" begun in the church, but the "not- yet" physical aspects of the Old Covenant are still awaiting an earthly fulfillment. Complete covenant fidelity and obedience "will surely be achieved in the end," but not until then. He summarizes his view as follows: "Israel and the church are in one sense a united people of God, while in another sense they remain separate in their identity and so compromise differing peoples of God" (pp. 95-96, emphasis Ware's).

II. Assessing the Progressive Approach to the New Covenant

While aspects of Bruce Ware's exegesis of the new covenant are commendable in light of the older dispensational errors, his exegesis reveals three deficient areas that continue to plague the progressive dispensational approach. These areas of critique hang together and highlight the inter-related tensions that remain in this evolving dispensational system.

A. Ware fails to properly distinguish the Ordo Salutis and the Historia Salutis

One of the difficulties that often provokes eschatological debate is the issue of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants. Often the Reformed approach is characterized as the view upholding continuity while the dispensational approach is characterized as the view that emphasizes discontinuity. Given the classical dispensational error of confusing soteriology as it pertains to Israel and the church, the Reformed response has rightfully desired to uphold the underlying covenant of grace that is operative in both Israel and the church. Such Reformed considerations emphasize the nature of the ordo salutis, the order of salvation.

However, such a critique does not go far enough in identifying the tensions between dispensational and Reformed eschatology. If the issue in question is merely the ordo salutis, then one will have a harder time distinguishing classic Reformed theology from progressive dispensationalism; in recent years, the progressive dispensationalists have corrected the former classical errors. Until the systems of theology are compared in terms of their organic development within redemptive history, one will fail to understand the precise nature of this tension. Stated differently, the real disagreement between the Reformed theologian and the progressive dispensationalist is precisely over the nature of the historia salutis, the history of salvation. Thus, the discussion needs to move beyond the older question of "continuity vs. discontinuity" in the ordo salutis and focus more closely on both elements as they organically develop within the historia salutis.

The distinction between historia salutis (the history of salvation) and ordo salutis (the order of salvation) seems to have been first made by Herman Ridderbos in his 1957 article, "The Redemptive-Historical Character of Paul's Preaching." [16] Gaffin states that this "contrast is virtually identical with the broader distinction between redemption accomplished and applied." [17] A sample quote from Ridderbos's 1957 article illustrates that this is in fact his usage:

Paul as the witness last called stands behind the facts, notably behind the facts of Christ's death and resurrection. It is these facts that he is to preach and interpret as the culminating point of the Kingdom of God which has appeared in Christ, as the deciding acts in the divine, eschatological drama It is at once obvious now, that the central motive of justification by faith can be understood in its real, pregnant significance only from this redemptive-historical viewpoint. No doubt, the ordo salutis, that is, the application and appropriation of the salvation, is also involved here. Paul preaches justification by faith, as opposed to Judaism, and Romans 4 is the great proof of this. But the starting- point of Paul's preaching of justification by faith is to be found in the great turning-point in the historia salutis. This is the significance of the great thematic pronouncement in Romans 1:17, repeated in Romans 3:21: "But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested [from faith to faith v. 17]." Every word can be used as evidence. "But now" now that the great day of salvation has become present time, "hath been manifested" not, in the first place, made known as a noetic piece of information, but has appeared as an historical event. [18]

Notice that for Ridderbos, the historia salutis is not limited to the accomplishment of redemption in the cross and resurrection of Christ. The cross and resurrection constitutes "the culminating point of the Kingdom of God which has appeared in Christ." But this implies a covenant history a "divine, eschatological drama" which precedes and prepares for the appearing of Christ. This drama of the Kingdom began with its initial establishment at creation. It was then disrupted but not shattered by the fall. After the fall, the Kingdom promises were redemptively renewed to the patriarchs, and then fulfilled in two phases a first-level (typical) fulfillment in Israel as a nation, and a second- level (anti-typical) fulfillment in Christ and his church. [19]

This distinction enables us to be more precise in getting at the questions of continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants. In terms of the ordo salutis, covenant theology sees fundamental continuity. When Paul needs an illustrative paradigm for the justification of the individual sinner, he chooses an old covenant saint Abraham.

Therefore "it was also credited to him as righteousness." Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Rom. 4:22-24).

Even so Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the nations will be blessed in you." So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer (Gal. 3:6-9).

The above statements indicate the fundamental oneness of old and new covenant believers in terms of their experience of the same blessings of the ordo salutis. We are "fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:6). In fact, Paul says it is not that the Jews are sharing in the same spiritual blessings now being given to the Gentiles, but that the Gentiles are sharing in the spiritual blessings originally given to the Jews (Rom. 15:27). The Gentile believers are "wild olive branches" who by God's grace have been "grafted in among them and become partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree" (Rom. 11:17).

The explanation for this trans-epochal, ordo salutis continuity across old and new covenants is to be sought in Christ. Since he is the one and only Savior for all the elect, whether living before or after Pentecost, all saving blessings necessarily share the same legal ground. Biblical theologian Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., stresses this vital point:

Basic experiential continuity exists because every soteric blessing whatsoever, before and after Pentecost, has a single, common source; all are based on and flow from, whether proleptically or retrospectively, the once- for-all work of Christ. [20]

But while the ordo salutis benefits remain essentially unchanged as we move from the old covenant to the new, significant changes have occurred in terms of the historia salutis. At times it does seem as though some Reformed theologians are almost embarrassed by such New Testament language of discontinuity, with some going to great lengths to muffle this New Testament witness in favor of pure continuity. [21] But there is no need for such embarrassment if one rightly recognizes the distinction between the ordo salutis and the historia salutis. Ridderbos carefully delineates this point when he writes

The work of the Holy Spirit … stands entirely under this [new covenant] sign. The Spirit as the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of the new aeon, and all that he renews, re-creates, [and] changes is new and different because it pertains to this eschatological "newness." … The result is that in Paul's preaching there is no such thing as a systematic development of the ordo salutis. [22]

Gaffin uses even more forceful language:

From the viewpoint of redemptive history - covenant history in its ongoing, epochal movement toward consummation - there is the most radical contrast. In this respect I will yield to no one in stressing the absolute, "dispensational" difference before and after Pentecost. Before Christ - before his climactic coming in "the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:10), "at the end of the ages" (Heb. 9:26; cf. 1:2) - there is nothing, nothing of substance, only anticipatory, evanescent (Heb. 8:13) shadows cast in advance (Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5; 10:1). With and after Christ's coming there is everything; he is, without precedent, God's (finally) revealed "fullness" (Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:19; 2:9) ... (Preincarnate) Christ and the Holy Spirit are surely active throughout the old covenant (e.g., I Cor. 10:3-4), but only anomalously, "out of season," in advance, and, above all, on the basis of who the last Adam was to become, "the life-giving Spirit." In the redemptive-historical sense ... the "not yet" of John 7:39 is to be taken at face value; it is absolute, unqualified. [23]

This crucial distinction between ordo salutis and historia salutis helps in evaluating the exegesis of Ware. He rightly emphasizes the newness of the new covenant and the legitimate discontinuities that exist between the old and new covenants as demonstrated in Romans 8:2ff and II Corinthians 3. [24] The difficulty in Ware is properly distinguishing these two features in his exegesis. VanGemeren expresses "grave reservations" of Ware's treatment of the Holy Spirit because Ware speaks as if the Holy Spirit was not involved in the "regeneration and sanctification of the Old Testament saints." [25] But again the question arises: Is the point under question the historia salutis or the ordo salutis? If the contrasts between old and new covenant in passages like Romans 8:2ff. and II Corinthians 3 are interpreted in light of the historia salutis, there is no threat to the ordo salutis unity of the old and new covenant saints.

VanGemeren's criticism reveals what he perceives to be a problem in Ware's conception of the ordo salutis. However, his critique of Ware may be overstating the case because Ware is not entirely clear on just what he is addressing. If Ware is addressing the historia salutis, then he is not attempting anything fundamentally different from Ridderbos; however, if he is addressing the ordo salutis, then there are some serious implications that Ware needs to account for.

To be fair, Ware is attempting to do justice to the discontinuities that come with the historia salutis, whether he recognizes this theological category or not. The difficulty is that his understanding of the historia salutis is not clear or cogently presented. [26] In fact, it will be shown that he has not properly grasped the progressive nature of revelation within the historia salutis.

B. Ware has not escaped the classical dispensational hermeneutic and thus fails to understand the Biblical perspective on typology

Progressive dispensationalists admit the need to get beyond viewing hermeneutics in terms of "literal" vs. "spiritual." Craig Blaising, for example, admits rather frankly, "it is becoming increasingly clear that this approach will not be successful." [27] Happily, Ware does not follow classical dispensationalism's insistence on this point either, thus opening the door for a more constructive dialogue. Indeed, he cannot because of his desire to see the blessings of the new covenant realized (in some sense) in the new covenant church.

But when these new changes (demonstrated in Ware's exegesis) are taken into account, a fundamental inconsistency emerges. [28] On the one hand, he appears to recognize the confusion (and error) caused by the "literalist" dispensational hermeneutic. On the other hand, he still desires to hold onto some distinction between Israel and the church. According to Ryrie, the sin qua non of dispensationalism must include both a literal hermeneutic and a distinction between Israel and the church. "The essence of dispensationalism…is the distinction between Israel and the church. This grows out of the dispensationalist's consistent employment of normal and plain or historical-grammatical interpretation" [29] Notice how Ryrie identifies these sin qua non elements as essentially being two sides of the same coin; they both hang or fall together.

What emerges in progressive dispensationalism is not a giving up of the "literal hermeneutic" but rather simply a modification of it. The fact that Ware starts his exegesis of Jeremiah 31 by emphasizing the parties of the covenant is a telling indication of his literal hermeneutic. For Ware, a literal reading of the new covenant demands that it function with literal Israel.

To the extent that our hermeneutics are regulated by the principle of authorial intent, we are given ample reason to expect this literal rendering of what God … originally promised to his people Israel. Furthermore, the New Testament does not permit a spiritual absorption of the literal promises to Israel by the church. (p. 93)

At this point, one can hardly detect any disagreement with classical dispensational hermeneutics.

The question that Ware (and the other progressives) must address is this remaining tension between the apparent need to hold on to a "literal" hermeneutic while at the same time recognizing a "spiritual" fulfillment in the church. As it stands, this "spiritual-here-but-literal-there" hermeneutic of Ware stands as an overly subjective distinction that has no real textual warrant. If, as Ware argues, the new covenant is "central to the overall teaching of the New Testament" (p. 84), then one would certainly expect this bifurcated hermeneutic to be just as "central" in the New Testament as well. Yet Ware offers only one New Testament example (Romans 11:26) where this Israel-Church distinction supposedly remains (p. 96). One should hardly base such an entire eschatological paradigm on a highly debated passage among dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists alike. [30]

Ware can speak of the New Testament as "applying" the new covenant in Jeremiah 31, (p. 94) but he cannot bring himself to see just how the New Testament "interprets" the New Covenant promise of Jer. 31 in light of its fulfillment. It is not coincidental that Ware lacks any detailed exegesis of how the context of Hebrews 8-10 illumines and interprets Jeremiah 31, preferring instead to address only the original context and then some "applications" to the present era. Ironically, Ware retreats into the classical dispensational error of insisting that the New Testament does not really interpret the Old Testament but rather only applies it generally. [31] Waltke perceptively notes

Ware begs the issue by starting with the Old and uses the book of Hebrews selectively to substantiate his interpretation. In other words, he autonomously eisegetes Hebrews, not submissively exegetes it. What is needed is a careful exegesis of this inspired interpretation of the two covenants, the Old and the New. [32]

Ware acknowledges that "Christ is the mediator of the new covenant" (Heb. 9:15), but he fails to grasp the implications of how a "fulfillment" interprets the exegetical citations of Jer. 31 found in both Hebrews 8 and 10. [33]

Thus, this literal hermeneutical approach to Old Testament prophecy reveals the more fundamental problem with both the classical and progressive dispensational approaches. Both schemes fail to understand the typological connection between the old covenant made with Israel and the new covenant made with the Church. Meredith Kline perceptively notes this fundamental error.

Dispensationalists, failing to see that the first level kingdom [the old covenant] becomes obsolete and gets replaced by the antitype in the messianic age, continue the obsolete order on indefinitely into the new age. They assign it a place parallel to the second level kingdom [the new covenant] … while relegating the second level fulfillment to a parenthetical rather than perfective status. In so doing, Dispensationalism radically misconstrues the typological structure of the old and new covenants, reducing typology to merely analogy and obscuring the historical promise-fulfillment relationship of these two covenants. [34]

The progressive dispensationalists think they have sharpened their hermeneutic from their classical dispensational counterparts, but what they are left with is a system that shares fundamentally the same approach to typology. [35] Kline's analysis is particularly illuminating because it destroys the progressive dispensationalist's insistence that they have moved fundamentally beyond the older "parenthetical view" of the church found in classical dispensationalism. A "parenthesis" still exists in the progressive scheme because there still exists a gap - however one wants to speak of it - between the resurrection of Christ and the literal fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 in a future pre-consummation epoch. This problem leads to one final criticism of progressive dispensational.

C. Ware fails to properly understand inaugurated New Testament eschatology

The previous discussion invites the question of how Ware can all but ignore the exegesis of Hebrews 8-10 when writing an essay on the new covenant. Is it merely a literal hermeneutic that prevents Ware from grasping the full import of the new covenant in Hebrews 8-10? Or is there a related problem that better explains this progressive hermeneutic?

While the literal hermeneutic of progressive dispensationalism is certainly problematic, this is a problem it shares with classical dispensationalism. Unique to progressive dispensationalism is its misapplication of inaugurated eschatology. Can this present age "inaugurate" what was originally promised in typological form to Israel? Classical dispensationalism flatly denies any present, inaugurated eschatology, because the church is seen as something entirely parenthetical and separate from God's plan for Israel. [36] However, progressive dispensationalism marks a significant change in the discussion, for Ware acknowledges the importance of the "already/not yet" tension in the New Testament. [37]

While such an acknowledgement by Ware is a shift in the right direction, he fails to grasp the precise nature of this "already/not yet" tension. The New Testament writers uniformly depict this tension in terms of "this age" (already) and "the age to come" (not yet). For example, note the juxtaposition of these two ages in Matthew 12:32, "And whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." Similar juxtapositions occur in Luke 18:29-30 and 20:34-35. This two-age approach is fundamental to the New Testament eschatological perspective. [38] With this understanding comes "the distinctive notion that the eschaton, the 'age to come,' is both present and future." [39] What emerges from a careful exegesis of these ages is an "antithesis between a world (age) that is and a world (age) that is to come." [40] This eschatological conception can be portrayed as follows: [41]

                           The age to come
                       |                                |
                       |                                |
                Resurrection of                     Parousia
                    Christ                      Last Resurrection
                  ("Already")                      ("Not yet")
                       |                                |
                       |                                |
   This age

                            VOS'S TWO-AGE DIAGRAM

As Vos concludes, "the Christian [in this age] has only his members upon earth…[but] himself, and as a whole, he belongs to the high mountain-land above [in the age to come], Col. 3:5." [42]

Contrary to the New Testament's "already/not yet" conception, the progressive dispensational approach does not conceive of inaugurated eschatology in this manner. Ware comes close to the New Testament conception when he acknowledges that the spiritual aspects have been "already" inaugurated in the present age. But his identification of the "not yet" with the coming arrival of Israel's restored territory in millennial age prior to the consummation (pp. 94-95) is wide of the mark. Whereas the New Testament writers uniformly place the "not yet" reality within the final, post-consummation epoch, Ware argues for a "not yet" reality that looks forward to a pre-consummation epoch. The following diagram illustrates Ware's progressive view:

                       |                  |                |
                       |    "Already"     |    "Not yet"   |
                       |    (Church)      |    (Israel)    |
                       |                  |                |
                       |                  |                | 
                             WARE'S "TWO-AGE" MODEL

Stated simply, the New Testament defines the "not yet" in terms of the heavenly consummation, while progressive dispensationalism defines the "not yet" in terms of an earthly pre-consummation period.

What results from Ware's conception of the "not yet" looks nothing like the biblical definition of the "not yet." In fact, Ware's approach might be better described as a "three-age" eschatology - "the already / the not-yet / the consummation." In Ware's scheme, the "not yet" is reduced to a pre- consummation extension of the "already," leaving the question of the final consummation completely unaccounted for. [43] Notice that in his scheme, one is left to speculate precisely what Ware can call the consummation epoch that comes after the "not yet." Further, it must be asked if Ware can provide any New Testament references that speak of an eschatological period coming after the "not yet."

Because Ware places the "not yet" within the pre- consummation arena, such texts as Matthew 12:32 must be radically reinterpreted. Is Jesus really trying to distinguish between two pre- consummation earthly periods? Luke 18:30 is rendered virtually meaningless because Jesus juxtaposes "the age to come" with "eternal life." Is Ware prepared to argue that "eternal life" in its fullness is experienced prior to the consummation? Or consider Luke 20:34-35 and the juxtaposition of "that age" and with resurrection from the dead and the elimination of marriage. Is Ware prepared to argue that the resurrection of the dead takes place and that physical marriage is eliminated prior to the consummation?

Even the "already" character, which Ware recognizes (contrary to classical dispensationalists), becomes convoluted due to the smoothing over of the cosmic tension of the "ages." Ironically, then, it is the progressive dispensationalist that errs not only in terms of an erroneous discontinuity placed between Israel and the church, but also in terms of an erroneous continuity placed between "this age" and "the age to come." By refusing to see "the age to come" as a post-consummational reality, one can no longer clearly distinguish the proper antithesis that exists between the ages.

The clear teaching of the New Testament does not uphold Ware's desire to pre-consummatize the "not yet." Ware attempts to fit the "already/not yet" schema of the New Testament within a presupposed dispensational grid rather than allowing the New Testament itself to organically dictate the grid for the "already/not yet" schema. The end result in Ware is a highly convoluted eschatological program that misses the New Testament's focus.


The progressive dispensational hermeneutic, particularly as it pertains to the new covenant, marks a shift in the discussion from the older classical dispensational approaches. Bruce Ware has made a credible attempt to reconcile the Biblical data as pertaining to the new covenant, and in so doing, has moved beyond some of the older dispensational blunders. Nevertheless, the tertium quid that Ware and other progressive dispensationalists are after does not hold up under careful Biblical exegesis and is "condemned by the inconsistency of its hermeneutics." [44] Ware continues to borrow hermeneutical principles inherited from classical dispensationalism. With that hermeneutic comes a fundamental misunderstanding of both Old Testament typology and the New Testament's "already/not yet" schema. While on the one hand it appears that progressive dispensationalists have almost captured the essence of the "new covenant," it becomes clear that they have not yet grasped the correct New Testament hermeneutic of inaugurated eschatology.


[1] Scofield Study Bible (New York: Oxford, 1967), p. 1317.

[2] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 7 (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), pp. 98-99.

[3] Charles R. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), p. 172.

[4] Ryrie, pp. 172-73. "Similarity of blessings (even partial similarity) does not mean equation of covenants."

[5] John Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), pp. 282ff.

[6] John R. Master, "The New Covenant" in Issues in Dispensationalism, Willis and Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 108.

[7] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 174 (emphasis mine).

[8] For a more detailed look at these developments, see the introductory chapters in Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993) and in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, eds., Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). This is not to suggest that such tensions are new to dispensationalism. However, the progressive dispensational movement marks a significant shift from classical dispensationalism.

[9] Craig A. Blaising, "Dispensationalism: The Search for Definition," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, p. 34.

[10] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 178.

[11] Bruce K. Waltke, "A Response," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, p. 348.

[12] Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), p. 137.

[13] For example, Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955).

[14] This is only one aspect of progressive dispensationalism that needs assessment. Others include: the Reign of Christ in the present; 'Israel' in Romans 9-11; Revelation 20; and The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22.

[15] To prove his point, Ware cites numerous Old Testament texts that all have their initial reference to the nation of Israel: Isa. 54:10; Isa. 61:8; Ezek. 11:18-21, 18:30-31, 34:25, 36:22-32, 37:26; Jer. 24:7, 32:36-41, 50:4:5.

[16] Chapter 4 (pp. 44-60) in Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957; reprinted by Paideia Press, 1982).

[17] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "The Vitality of Reformed Dogmatics," pp. 16-50 in The Vitality of Reformed Dogmatics: Proceedings of the International Theological Congress, June 20-24th 1994, Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands, eds. J. M. Batteau, J. W. Maris, and K. Veling (Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok, 1994), p. 31 note 29. In Dutch the terms are heilshistorisch and heilsordelijk.

[18] Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come, pp. 49-50.

[19] This double fulfillment schema has been worked out in detail as an over-arching analysis of the historia salutis by Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000).

[20] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "Pentecost: Before and After," Kerux 10:2 (Sept. 1995) p. 17.

[21] I particularly have in mind theonomic reconstructionism. For a very recent example, see Andrew Sandlin, "The Old Covenant and the New, Revisited," Chalcedon Report 418 (May 2000). "We no longer look at the new covenant as being exclusively after Christ came. The new covenant was present (in an earlier phase) in the Old Testament" (5). Note carefully that his entire article identifies the new covenant in purely ordo salutis terms.

[22] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, translated by John R. De Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 205-206. Note that I am not (nor is Ridderbos!) denying that there is an ordo salutis! Rather, the purpose is to follow Paul's lead in properly grounding the ordo salutis in the historia salutis.

[23] Gaffin, "Pentecost: Before and After," p. 16.

[24] I am merely giving Ware the benefit of the doubt that he is headed in the right direction in wanting to properly call the new covenant new. However, his formulations of the discontinuities are often unclear and imprecise.

[25] Willem A. VanGemeren, "A Response," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, p. 339.

[26] I would suggest that progressive dispensationalists ponder more closely Ridderbos' careful argumentation of this "new life" in Paul: An Outline, pp. 205-252.

[27] Blaising, "Dispensationalism: The Search for Definition," p. 32.

[28] Classical dispensationalists have also pointed out this inconsistency, and are thus typically quite critical of progressive dispensationalism. See Ryrie, pp. 161-181.

[29] Ryrie, p. 41.

[30] For a discussion of the issues, see C. Lee Irons, "Paul's Theology of Israel's Future: A Nonmillennial Interpretation of Romans 11," Reformation and Revival 6:2 (Spring 1997) 101-126. Since Ware refers to this passage without offering any exegesis, such a digression at this point would take us beyond the present scope. However, a thorough critique of progressive dispensationalism would want to include a treatment of Romans 11. For the present discussion, it is enough to note that Romans 11 is the primary proof text for the progressive position.

[31] In both the classical and progressive schemes, there is a fundamental distinction between the New Testament "applying" the Old Testament and the New Testament "interpreting" the Old Testament. When dispensationalists (classical or progressive) accuse the Reformed theologians of "spiritualizing" the Old Testament, they are rejecting the later as a valid method of interpretation! Notice how Ware never speaks about the New Testament "interpreting" this old covenant text of Jeremiah 31.

[32] Waltke, "A Reponse," pp. 350-51.

[33] The progressive dispensationalist's inconsistency is just this: how can we speak of an inaugurated new covenant without acknowledging the interpretative character found in the new covenant?

[34] Kline, Kingdom Prologue, p. 341.

[35] Kline, pp. 347-50.

[36] In the classical dispensational scheme, the inauguration of the new covenant is "postponed" for the present era until Christ returns and reestablishes the people of Israel in their land. For a recent treatment of this position, see Elliot E. Johnson, "Prophetic Fulfillment: The Already and Not Yet," in Issues in Dispensationalism, Willis and Master, eds. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), pp. 183ff. Somewhat ironically, Johnson recognizes that the "already/not yet" hermeneutic, if true, destroys his dispensational position. But, of course, he rejects the hermeneutic, citing that it "is the abandonment of the biblical authority of the Old Testament message as it was expressed in the original context" (p. 197).

[37] Ware cites approvingly the works of Oscar Cullmann, George Ladd, and Anthony Hoekema. Ware, p. 94.

[38] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), pp. 36-41. Also see chapter 2 in Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline, pp. 44ff.

[39] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987).

[40] Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, p. 36.

[41] Vos, p. 38. My chart is a slightly modified version of Vos' chart.

[42] Vos, p. 41.

[43] It is rather striking that Ware's eschatological discussion focuses entirely on the pre-consummation age.

[44] Kline, p. 349.

Copyright © 2002

By Matthew Morgan

[ Top | Eschatology | Theology | Bible Studies | Classics | Articles | Other Articles | Sermons | Apologetics | F.A.Q. | Forum ]