Sunday, November 18, 2018

Bible Presbyterianism and Dispensationalism

Introduction: The Dispensational-Covenantal Continuum

Theologians from both ends of the dispensational-covenantal spectrum recognize that theological positions can be placed anywhere within this continuum.[1] As John S. Feinberg, a Dispensational theologian, states,

“Theological positions can be placed on a continuum running from views which hold to absolute continuity between the Testaments to views holding to absolute discontinuity between the Testaments. The more one moves in the continuity direction, the more covenantal he becomes; and the more he moves in the discontinuity direction, the more dispensational he becomes.”[2]

Feinberg continues to elaborate that most theological systems, in fact, fall in between the two extreme ends of this dispensational-covenantal continuum. He writes:

“Generally, systems that move toward absolute continuity fit more in the mold of Reformed or covenantal theologies. Systems that move toward absolute discontinuity fit more in the mold of dispensational theologies. While there are varieties of both kinds, it is unlikely that any actual systems are exactly at either end of the continuum.”[3]

In order to properly identify the theological grid adhered to by a particular theologian, it is important to delineate the sine qua non of a system. The sine qua nons or the foundational principles of a theological system must be distinguished from views derived from the application of those foundational principles. Feinberg explains:

“Not all discontinuity or dispensational positions are alike. Nonetheless, it seems possible to delineate those elements essential to all dispensational systems. . . . As to the distinction, in assessing any conceptual system it is always crucial to distinguish foundational principles from notions which are applications of those foundational principles. The system is generated from the former, and without adherence to them one cannot properly claim to hold the system. Rejecting particular applications of foundational principles, however, does not disqualify one as an adherent to the system. This distinction is especially important for Dispensationalism, for both proponents and critics have too often treated applications of the system like foundational principles. Consequently, dispensationalists have assumed wrongly that rejection of such applications entails departure from the position. Likewise, nondispensationalists have wrongly understood adherence to Dispensationalism to mean agreement with every applicational point.”[4]

Feinberg makes two important points. Firstly, he emphasizes the fact that a theological system is generated from the sine qua non of that system. One who adheres to the sine qua non of that system can, therefore, be rightly perceived as an adherent of that theological system. Secondly, the rejection of certain applications of the sine qua non “does not disqualify one as an adherent to the system.”[5]

In our current discussion of what constitutes a Dispensationalist, we must define appropriately and precisely what the sine qua non of Dispensationalism is. Theologians who are adherents of this sine qua non can appropriately be regarded as Dispensationalists. But before I proceed to identify the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, I will briefly state what the sine qua non is not.

What the Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism is not

Dispensations or Economies

In his discussion of the term “Dispensationalist,” Poythress prefers a “neutral designation” for the “sake of clarity.”[6] He calls the Dispensationalists, “D-theologians.” This is to avoid any misconceptions with regard to the definition of the term “Dispensationalist.”

A common error is to define Dispensationalism as a system of theology which arises from viewing Scripture in terms of dispensations. But a Dispensationalist is not simply a theologian who understands the Bible as consisting of distinctive dispensations.

Poythress explains,

“D-theologians [or Dispensationalists] have most often been called “dispensationalists” because they divide the course of history into a number of distinct epochs. . . . However, the word “dispensationalist” is not really apt for labeling the D-theologians. Virtually all ages of the church and all branches of the church have believed that there are distinctive dispensations in God’s government of the world, though sometimes the consciousness of such distinctions has grown dim. The recognition of distinctions between different epochs is by no means unique to D-theologians.”[7]

It is obvious that a dispensationalist is not merely one who understands the Bible in terms of various divine economies or dispensations. Even Covenant theologians see at least two economies in God’s dealings with man: (1) the covenant of works and, (2) the covenant of grace.

Jeffrey Khoo recognizes this fact:

“It must be said that there is nothing wrong in seeing dispensations in the Bible. Covenant theologians like Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof have their own dispensational schemes but all under the umbrella of the covenant of grace. There are not seven dispensations, but only two: (1) the dispensation (or covenant) of works (Gen 1:1-3:14), and (2) the dispensation (or covenant) of grace (Gen 3:15-Rev 22:21).”[8]

Interestingly, Mathison correctly observes that,

“Dispensationalism is too often defined in terms of its lowest common denominator and thus is not adequately distinguished from other systems of theology. For example, Stanley Toussaint defines dispensationalism as the theological system that “recognizes various administrations or economies in (the) outworking of God’s plan in history.” This definition omits anything that is unique to dispensationalism. Virtually every system of Christian theology recognizes various administrations or economies within God’s plan, yet it would be inaccurate to claim that all of these systems are dispensational. Dispensationalism must be defined in terms of its unique essence, namely that which distinguishes it from other systems of theology.”[9]

Despite the fact that Dispensationalism is not defined by the identification of dispensations within the Bible, Khoo seems to suggest that a Dispensationalist is merely one who understands the Bible in terms of various “dispensations” or administrations. In his essay, Dispensationalism Examined, Khoo writes, “What then is dispensationalism? The word “dispensation” comes from the Greek oikonomia (literally “house law”) which means “stewardship,” or “administration.’”[10] After defining the word “dispensation,” Khoo proceeds to give a brief history of Dispensationalism, and includes an introduction to the various dispensations advocated by Dispensationalists. He also discusses dispensational antinomianism, dispensational Calvinism, and the dispensational view of Israel. Khoo subsequently concludes his treatise with this statement:

“Therefore, have we as Bible-Presbyterians become dispensational? No, because we do not hold to a dispensational scheme but a covenantal one.”[11]

Is it, then, true that a theologian is not dispensational simply because he does not “hold to a dispensational scheme”?[12]

Dispensationalist John S. Feinberg realizes that a common error is to define Dispensationalism by defining a dispensation. He concurs with the observation that Covenant theologians, likewise, perceive various administrations or economies of the overarching “covenant of grace.” Therefore, the concept of dispensations is not unique to Dispensationalism.

Feinberg reasons:

“While οἰκονομία [oikonomia] is a biblical word, and a dispensation is to be defined roughly as these men [referring to certain Dispensationalists] have, none of this defines the essence of Dispensationalism, a system or approach to Scripture. . . . The initial error is thinking that the word “dispensation” and talk of differing administrative orders only appears in dispensational thinking. Which covenant theologian thinks οἰκονομία [oikonomia] is not a biblical word? Moreover, covenantalists often speak, for example, of differing dispensations of the covenant of grace. Since both dispensationalists and nondispensationalists use the term and concept of a dispensation, that alone is not distinctive to Dispensationalism. It is no more distinctive to Dispensationalism than talk of covenants is distinctive to Covenant Theology. Dispensationalists talk about covenants all the time.”[13]

Tim Warner and other progressive dispensationalists see a single, unfolding redemptive plan within Scripture. Furthermore, all dispensationalists recognize various covenants (i.e. Abrahamic, Davidic, New) in God’s dealings with Man. Warner reveals that “Progressive Dispensationalists see a progression of dispensational economies in a single unfolding plan to redeem mankind. We acknowledge only one means of salvation for all time, by grace through faith.”[14]

Covenant theologians would likewise affirm that there is “a single unfolding plan to redeem mankind,” and that there is “only one means of salvation for all time, by grace through faith”. Have Progressive Dispensationalists, therefore, become Reformed theologians? In the same breath, Warner emphasizes that, “surely progressive dispensationalists are true dispensationalists.”[15] This is because they affirm the dispensational sine qua non.[16]

While it is true that the recognition of covenants within the Bible does not necessarily make one a Covenant theologian, the acknowledgment of dispensations within Scripture, similarly, does not turn a theologian into a dispensationalist.

Feinberg goes further in his analysis of Dispensationalism. He explains that the concept of dispensations is not even a foundational principle of Dispensationalism. Also, “the number of dispensations one holds is not an essential of the [Dispensational] system. . . . The number of dispensations is not at the heart of the system.”[17] Therefore, it is not essential whether a Dispensationalist adhere to three or even seven dispensations. The number of dispensations recognized does not make a theologian any more or less dispensational.

Feinberg continues his reasoning:

“The error, however, is at an even deeper level. The term and concept “dispensation” are not even at the essence of the system. The fundamental error of [Elliot] Johnson, [Stanley] Toussaint, and others is thinking that they can define a conceptual scheme (Dispensationalism) by defining a term (“dispensation”). Defining a word and defining a concept are not the same thing. Defining a word involves giving an analysis of the ways in which the word is used in various contexts. Defining a concept involves delineating the fundamental qualities that make it what it is. Dispensationalists apparently have not understood the distinction and so have assumed they could define a system of thought (a conceptual matter) by defining a word. Defining the term “dispensation” no more defines the essence of Dispensationalism than defining the term “covenant” explains the essence of Covenant Theology.”[18]

Therefore, in the current theological dialogue between Dispensationalists and Reformed theologians, scholars “should not shift the ground in the discussion by maneuvering with the term “dispensationalist.’”[19] Bible Presbyterians should not attempt to define Dispensationalism as a theological system by defining the term “dispensation.” In the same vein, a theologian is not Reformed simply because he does “not hold to a dispensational scheme but a covenantal one.”[20]


In his essay, Dispensationalism Examined, Jeffrey Khoo attempts to argue that “Dispensational Antinomianism” is a distinctive of Dispensationalism. He claims that “the dispensational aversion to the Moral Law has led some dispensationalists to advocate that salvation involves receiving Jesus only as Saviour, but not as Lord. This has to do with the “Lordship Salvation” debate.”[21] In this manner, he intimates that the Bible Presbyterians’ agreement with the Reformed view of the Moral Law distinguishes them from Dispensationalists.

However, it is recognized by Dispensationalists that the “dispensational understanding of the law is not an essential of the system. Some argue that Dispensationalism entails antinomianism, since dispensationalists claim that the law is done away, for Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). Though some may hold this view, it is hardly the norm or necessitated by Dispensationalism. . . . Dispensationalism is neither antinomian nor entails it.”[22]

Once again, Khoo fails to address adequately the foundational principles of Dispensationalism in his essay, Dispensationalism Examined. Instead, he prefers to discuss certain applicational points of those foundational principles, and only briefly mentions the sine qua non of Dispensationalism at the close of his essay.


In his essay, Khoo argues that Dispensationalists are “four-point Calvinists.”[23] He seems to suggest that “Dispensational Calvinism” is characteristic of Dispensationalism.[24] Khoo writes,

“Most dispensationalists are four-point Calvinists. The point they reject is the third point - Limited Atonement. They believe that the atonement of Christ is unlimited in both its sufficiency and efficiency. Christ died sufficiently and effectively for the whole world, though only the elect are saved. This is no different from Arminian [sic] view of the atonement.”[25]

Again, it is imprecise to define Dispensationalism via the applicational points of its foundational principles. This manner of argument is a red-herring at best.

Feinberg correctly observes that,

“Neither Calvinism nor Arminianism is at the essence of Dispensationalism. Some Calvinists are nondispensationalists, and others, like myself, are dispensationalists. The same is true of Arminians. This matter is not at the essence of Dispensationalism, because Calvinism and Arminianism are very important in regard to concepts of God, man, sin, and salvation. Dispensationalism becomes very important in regard to ecclesiology and eschatology, but is really not about those other areas. Some think salvation is at the heart of Dispensationalism, because they erroneously think Dispensationalism teaches multiple methods of salvation. Those who properly understand the position realize its emphasis lies elsewhere.”[26]

Here, Feinberg makes some important remarks. The sine qua non of Dispensationalism has its greatest ramifications in the areas of “ecclesiology and eschatology.” Therefore, in Khoo’s definition of Dispensationalism, it is not helpful to evade a discussion of its foundational principles that have their furthest applications in ecclesiology and eschatology.[27]


I agree most heartily with Khoo when he says “that taking a premillennial position does not necessarily make one dispensational.”[28] Dispensationalism cannot be equated with Premillennialism. Covenant Premillennialists, such as George Eldon Ladd, do not adhere to the sine qua non of Dispensationalism. Not only do they disagree with dispensational ecclesiology, their concept of the Kingdom is diametrically opposed to that of Dispensationalism.[29]

Mathison concurs:

“Some have argued that the essence of dispensationalism is premillennialism. That would make it at least part of the definition of dispensationalism. But [Charles] Ryrie disagrees, noting that “being a premillennialist does not necessarily make one a dispensationalist.” . . . If dispensationalism is not simply the recognition of various dispensations, and if it is not premillennialism, then what is it? What distinguishes dispensationalism from other systems of theology?”[30]

In the following pages, we shall begin our discussion of what truly constitutes Dispensationalism.

Who is a Dispensationalist?

We shall now attempt to define the term “Dispensationalist” generally. At the same time, we recognize varieties within Dispensationalism i.e. Classical, Revised/Normative, and Progressive.[31]

Poythress rightly perceives that the Israel/Church distinction is what sets Dispensationalists apart from Non-dispensationalists. This distinction is applied through one’s theological-hermeneutical grid, as Poythress explains:

“What these men [i.e. Dispensationalists] primarily have in common is a particular view of the parallel-but-separate roles and destinies of Israel and the church. Accompanying this view is a particular hermeneutical stance in which careful distinction is made between what is addressed to Israel and what is addressed to the church. What is addressed to Israel is “earthly” in character and is to be interpreted “literally.’”[32]

On the other hand, Tan correctly identifies Covenant theologians as those who do not see a distinction between Israel and the Church. This understanding falls at the other end of the dispensational-covenantal continuum. Tan writes:

“Covenant theologians believe that Israel and the church are one and the same people; dispensational theologians believe that Israel and the church are two distinct peoples of God.”[33]

A dispensationalist is, therefore, one who sees a distinction between Israel and the Church. But how is this distinction applied by the Dispensationalist? Tan elucidates that this Israel/Church distinction is primarily a hermeneutical distinction. That is, a Dispensationalist applies the Israel/Church distinction in his reading, interpretation and exegesis of Scripture. Tan also states that this hermeneutical distinction is what qualifies a theologian as a Dispensationalist:

“The basic test of a dispensational interpreter is his willingness to distinguish, via normal reading of the Scriptures, the difference between Israel and the church. To see the church as the Body of Christ, an organism different from Old Testament Israel, is to read Scripture dispensationally and to qualify as a dispensational interpreter.”[34]

The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism as Defined by Ryrie

What, then, is the dispensational sine qua non?[35] According to Charles C. Ryrie, the well-known dispensational theologian:

“A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct . . . This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.”[36]

Therefore, according to Ryrie, “the most practical and conclusive” theological test to distinguish a Dispensationalist from a Non-dispensationalist is whether the theologian adheres to the Israel/Church distinction.

Ryrie continues to explain that Dispensationalists generally espouse a “consistently literal” hermeneutics:

“This distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation. . . . Consistently literal, or plain, interpretation indicates a dispensational approach to the interpretation of Scripture.”[37]

Also, Dispensationalists assert that God’s purposes center in his glory, rather than the single purpose of salvation.[38] Russell Bowers, Jr. summarizes for us the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, which forms a threefold test to identify a Dispensationalist:

“[Charles C.] Ryrie proposed a threefold test to determine whether a theologian is a dispensationalist: (a) a distinction between Israel and the church, which grows out of (b) a consistent use of literal (normal or plain) interpretation, and (c) an understanding that the display of God’s glory is His underlying purpose in the world.”[39]

Despite the threefold sine qua non as defined by Ryrie, Stanley Toussaint reminds us that the most foundational principle of Dispensationalism is the Israel/Church distinction. He writes:

“In his classic work Dispensationalism Today, Ryrie sets forth a threefold sine qua non of dispensationalism - a distinction between Israel and the church, a literal hermeneutic, and the glory of God as His purpose on earth. Of these three, undoubtedly the most important is the distinction between Israel and the church. Ryrie calls this “the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist.” He calls it the “essence of dispensationalism.” He goes so far as to say, “The nature of the church is a crucial point of difference between dispensationalism and other doctrinal viewpoints. Indeed, ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, is the touchstone of dispensationalism.” All dispensationalists would agree that these statements are true.”[40]

With regard to the threefold sine qua non formulated by Ryrie, Khoo exclaims:

“The sine qua non (i.e. essential elements) of dispensational theology are the (1) distinction between Israel and the Church, (2) literal interpretation of prophetic texts, and (3) unifying principle of the glory of God. We, as reformed premillennialists, can agree to all three points.”[41]

Elsewhere, Khoo reiterates:

“The BPCS [Bible Presbyterian Churches in Singapore] and FEBC [Far Eastern Bible College] – being covenant and premillennial in theology – are agreeable to all three points [of the sine qua non of Dispensationalism].”[42]

Dispensationalists would agree that, if one embraces the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, one is essentially a Dispensationalist. This is because sane logic demands that “things equal to the same thing are also equal to one another.”[43]

It is interesting to note that Ice, a Revised Dispensationalist, describes Dispensationalism in the following words:

“By Dispensationalism, I have in mind that system of theology that was developed by J. N. Darby that gave rise to its modern emphasis of consistent literal interpretation, a distinction between God’s plan for Israel and the church, usually a pretribulational rapture of the church before the seventieth week of Daniel, premillennialism, and a multifaceted emphasis upon God’s glory as the goal of history. This includes some who have held to such a system but may stop short of embracing pretribulationism.”[44]

In previous blog posts,[45] we have observed that Bible Presbyterian theologians in Singapore generally adhere to the pretribulation rapture of the Church. Therefore, even if we use Ice’s definition of Dispensationalism, we are confident that the Bible Presbyterians in Singapore will fit that description perfectly.

It becomes necessary for us to recognize that, although covenantal, Reformed Baptists do recognize a distinction between Israel and the Church (national Israel as an Old Testament type of the Church, with the Church as the anti-type), Dispensationalists see Israel and the Church as distinct in the sense that there are separate redemptive plans and programs for national Israel and the Church, with the Church's inception on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament. Reformed Baptist covenant theology (also known as 1689 Federalism) as developed and popularized by theologians like Pascal Denault and Samuel Renihan, and seminaries such as the IRBS Theological Seminary, are variations of Reformed covenant theology espoused by their Presbyterian and Reformed brethren in other denominations.

The Reformed Baptist understanding of a distinction between Old-Testament-national-Israel and the Church, and the type-antitype relationship between the two respective entities, should not be confused with the Dispensationalist's sine qua non. Reformed Baptists do not believe that God has separate redemptive plans or destinies for national Israel and the Church. In covenant theology, the Church includes Jewish and Gentile believers justified by faith alone from both the Old and New Testament dispensations, and from all nations. Ethnic Israelites do not have unconditional salvific privileges based upon the earthly, physical promises of the Abrahamic covenant of their patristic fathers. All salvific benefits of redemption are found in Christ alone, through the New Covenant or the Covenant of Grace in Reformed Baptist understanding. As such, one would be acutely confused to confound Reformed Baptist covenant theology with Dispensationalism.

The Consistently Literal Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism is not a Clearly Defined Distinctive

With regard to the threefold sine qua non proposed by Ryrie, the first two points are intimately interlinked.[46] On a general note, one cannot apply the Israel/Church distinction in one’s interpretation of Scripture unless one attempts to adhere to a “consistently literal” meaning for the word “Israel.”[47]

Concerning this “literal” hermeneutics, Poythress observes that “nearly all the problems associated with the dispensationalist-nondispensationalist conflict are buried beneath the question of literal interpretation.”[48] But the definition for “literal interpretation” has received inconsistent, sometimes even opposing, answers from those who claim to adhere to this hermeneutics. Furthermore, the attempt to define “literal hermeneutics” has been confounded by the difficulty of conclusively answering the question of “what is meant by literal?”[49]

Blaising, in fact, concludes that “consistently literal exegesis is inadequate to describe the essential distinctive of dispensationalism. Development is taking place on how to characterize a proper hermeneutic for dispensationalists. Many do not feel, however, that the hermeneutic itself will be distinctively dispensational. Furthermore dispensational interpretations of various texts are likely to modify as this development continues.[50]

Elsewhere, Blaising argues that a consistently literal hermeneutics is not a historically clearly defined sine qua non for dispensationalism.[51]

As discussed in chapter 2, Reformed theologians do not allegorize or spiritualize Scripture. Covenant theologians, like Dispensationalists, understand the Bible literally. Furthermore, both Dispensationalists and Reformed theologians recognize typological and symbolical elements in Scripture. Therefore, as Mangum has lamented, “simply parroting the older dispensationalist canard that the dispensationalist-covenant theology debate is between those who take the Bible “literally” and those who “allegorize” or “spiritualize” Scripture should come to an abrupt halt.”[52]

If the “consistently literal” hermeneutics of Dispensationalism does not effectively define its theological-hermeneutical grid, what, then, is the distinctive of Dispensationalism? We shall answer this question in the next blog post.


[1] For example, see the heuristic spectrum of eschatological positions espoused by Mangum. See Mangum, “A Future for Israel in Covenant Theology: The Untold Story,” 15.
[2] John S. Feinberg, “Preface,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), xii.
[3] John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, ed. John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 64.
[4] Ibid., 67-68.
[5] Ibid., 68.
[6] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 9.
[7] Ibid., 9-10.
[8] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 5.
[9] Mathison, Dispensationalism, 3-4, quoting Stanley Toussaint, “A Biblical Defense of Dispensationalism,” in Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 82-83.
[10] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 2.
[11] Ibid., 11.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 69. I highly recommend the reading of Feinberg’s essay “Systems of Discontinuity” on pp. 63-86; it gives a good analysis of what Dispensationalism is as a system of thought.
[14] Tim Warner, Progressive Dispensationalism 101 [article on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005, emphasis mine.
[15] Ibid.
[16] We shall discuss the sine qua non of Dispensationalism further in later posts. Dispensationalists are in agreement that the true sine qua non of Dispensationalism is the Israel/Church distinction.
[17] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 70.
[18] Ibid., 69, emphasis mine.
[19] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 11.
[20] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 11.
[21] Ibid., 7. The section on “Dispensational Antinomianism” forms part of Khoo’s treatise on what Dispensationalism is and is not.
[22] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 71.
[23] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 9.
[24] Therefore, he seems to imply that Bible Presbyterians are not dispensational because of their Calvinism.
[25] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 9. He seems to have left out John F. McArthur, Jr. of The Master’s Seminary, who is a self-professed “five-point Calvinist,” as well as a full-blooded Dispensationalist.
[26] Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 70-71, emphasis mine.
[27] It is also telling that Bible Presbyterian ecclesiology and eschatology are essentially similar to those of Revised Dispensationalism.
[28] Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 1.
[29] See George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974). In contrast, the Bible Presbyterian’s concept of the Kingdom is similar to that of Dispensationalists. This is discussed later in chapter 22 of this book.
[30] Mathison, Dispensationalism, 4, quoting Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 44.
[31] According to Poythress, “representative D-theologians [or Dispentionalists] include Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles L. Feinberg, Arno C. Gaebelein, J. Dwight Pentecost, Charles C. Ryrie, and John F. Walvoord.” See Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 9.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Hong Kong: Nordica International, 1974), 246. Tan is a Revised Dispensationalist.
[34] Ibid., 251.
[35] See Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1965), 44-48. This book was subsequently revised and expanded; see idem, Dispensationalism, 38-41 for the sine qua non of Dispensationalism.
[36] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39.
[37] Ibid., 40.
[38] See Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 40-41.
[39] Russell H. Bowers, Jr., “Dispensational Motifs in the Writings of Erich Sauer,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 (1991): 262.
[40] Stanley Toussaint, “Israel and the Church of a Traditional Dispensationalist,” in Three Central Issues in Contemporary Dispensationalism: A Comparison of Traditional and Progressive Views, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1999), 227, quoting Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1965), 45, 47, 132.
[41] Khoo, Dispensationalism Examined, 11, emphasis mine. I would contend that Khoo is a dispensational premillennialist, and not a Reformed premillennialist like George Eldon Ladd. Covenant premillennialists do not accept the Israel/Church distinction.
[42] Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 46. It, indeed, stretches the imagination to conceive of a theological system that concedes with the sine qua non of Dispensationalism, and yet claims to be Covenantal or Reformed.
[43] This rule is also known as one of Euclid’s five common notions.
[44] Thomas Ice, The Calvinistic Heritage of Dispensationalism [article on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005.
[45] See prior posts in this blog.
[46] The first two points are (1) the Israel/Church distinction, and (2) the “consistently literal” hermeneutics of Dispensationalism.
[47] It is interesting to note that “the measure to which literal interpretation is to be followed in Old Testament interpretation is directly related to the problem of the restoration of Israel. [A. B.] Davidson lists four opinions in this regard: (i) those who assert that God’s dealings in Christianity are completely personal so a restored national Israel is unthinkable; (ii) those who believe in Israel’s conversion but not restoration; (iii) those who believe in a conversion and restoration but with no special prominence for Israel; and (iv) those who believe in a conversion of Israel, a restoration of Israel, and the millennial preeminence of Israel.” See Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 255.
[48] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 78.
[49] See ibid., 78-96.
[50] Craig Blaising, “Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (1988): 272.
[51] See Craig Blaising, “Why I Am a Dispensationalist with a Small ‘d,’” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41, no. 3 (1998): 388-390.
[52] Mangum, “A Future for Israel in Covenant Theology: The Untold Story,” 21.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Ezekielian Sacrifices

The Memorial View of the Ezekielian Sacrifices

We have seen earlier that Prabhudas Koshy, together with John Walvoord and most dispensationalists, believes that the animal sacrifices in the millennium serve as a memorial of Christ’s death, and do not possess any expiatory value whatsoever. Whitcomb agrees that this is the prevalent view amongst Dispensationalists,

“Without doubt, the large majority of dispensational premillennialists do interpret the Zadokian priesthood and animal sacrifices of the millennial age literally. They also attempt to modify the supposed clash between the OT prophecies of the New Covenant and the book of Hebrews by viewing these animal sacrifices strictly as memorials of the death of Christ, like the Church eucharist of the bread and cup.”[1]

In other words, most Dispensationalists do not interpret the function of these animal sacrifices literally. There is no exegetical basis at all, according to the consistently literal hermeneutics of dispensationalism, to understanding these sacrifices as merely memorial. Dispensationalist John Whitcomb concedes that the Ezekielian sacrifices are to be understood as making atonement if interpreted literally. He writes,

“Ezekiel, however, does not say that animals will be offered for a “memorial” of Messiah’s death. Rather, they will be for “atonement” (45:15, 17, 20 ; cf. 43:20, 26 ).”[2]

The plain or prosaic understanding of the Ezekielian animal sacrifices suggests that they are a reinstitution of the Levitical ritual of sacrifice, which has the legal function of actually making reconciliation for sin (Lev. 6:30; 8:15; 16:6, 11, 24, 30; Num. 5:8; 15:28; 29:5). Whitcomb elaborates that,

“Animal sacrifices could never remove spiritual guilt from the offerer. The book of Hebrews is very clear about that (10:4, 11). But it is equally erroneous to say that the sacrifices were mere teaching symbols given by God to Israel to prepare them for Messiah and his infinite atonement. Such a view is contradicted by precise statements in Exodus and Leviticus. From God’s perspective, this was surely a major purpose of animal sacrifices; but it could not have been their exclusive purpose from the perspective of Old Covenant Israelites.”[3]

Old Testament animal sacrifices do possess expiatory value, but this is limited to the ceremonial, external, and temporal realms. They serve to cover the sins of the offerer, while he anticipates the final, infinitely efficacious sacrifice of the Messiah.

The animal sacrifices, however, do not possess any soteriological value. Only Christ’s death provides atonement for sins in the eternal, infinite, and soteriological sense.

Contrary to Koshy’s memorial view, Ezekiel 45:15, 17, 20 specifically state that the sacrifices “make reconciliation” or “atonement” for the people. Beale emphasizes the fact that “Ezekiel does not call these sacrifices ‘memorials’, but puts them on a par with the Levitical typological sacrifices of atonement.”[4]

Concerning the expiatory significance of the Ezekielian sacrifices, Anthony Hoekema writes:

“Even to suggest, however, that these will be memorial sacrifices violates the principle of the literal interpretation of prophecy. For the Hebrew word used to describe the purpose of these sacrifices in Ezekiel 45: 15, 17, and 20 is the piel form of kaphar (rendered “to make reconciliation” [KJ] or “to make atonement” [ASV, RSV]). But this is precisely the word used in the Pentateuchal description of the Old Testament sacrifices to indicate their propitiatory or expiatory purpose (see Lev. 6:30; 8:15; 16:6, 11, 24, 30, 32, 33, 34; Num. 5:8; 15:28; 29:5). If the sacrifices mentioned in Ezekiel are to be understood literally, they must be expiatory, not memorial offerings.”[5]

It is, consequently, indubitably clear that Koshy’s understanding of the Ezekielian animal sacrifices violates the principle of the literal interpretation of prophecy. According to the plain reading of Scripture, these offerings are not memorials. They are expiatory in nature and design.

A Hermeneutical Dilemma

According to Hebrews 9:23-28, “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” Why, then, is there the need for sin offerings, burnt offerings, and a return to Old Testament types and shadows? Despite their insistence upon a consistently literal hermeneutics, dispensationalists are forced to spiritualize the terms “sin offerings,” “burnt offerings,” “reconciliation,” and “atonement” used in passages such as Ezekiel 45:15, 17, and 20. They postulate that a “sin offering” is not offered for sin in the millennium, but is only memorial in nature.

Dispensationalist Charles Ryrie, commenting on the literal hermeneutics of Dispensationalism, writes:

“If literal interpretation is the correct principle of interpretation, it follows that it would be proper to expect it to apply to all the Scriptures. This, as we have tried to show, is the reason the matter of consistency in the application of plain interpretation is so important. The nonliteralist is the nonpremillennialist, the less specific and less consistent literalists are the covenant premillennialist and the progressive dispensationalist, and the consistent literalist is a dispensationalist. . . . In other words, consistent literalism is the basis for dispensationalism, and since consistent literalism is the logical and obvious principle of interpretation, dispensationalism is more than justified.”[6]

Louis Goldberg goes further, claiming that those who reject a literalistic hermeneutics are actually imposing their theological framework upon Scriptures. Goldberg writes that the “two established rules of interpretation are as follows: 1) “When scripture makes common sense use no other sense;” 2) “Prophecy  . . .  must be interpreted literally . . . The reason a non-literal method of interpretation is adopted is, almost without exception, because of a desire to avoid the obvious interpretation of the passage. The desire to bring the teaching of scripture into harmony with some predetermined system of doctrine instead of bringing doctrine into harmony with the scriptures has kept this practice alive.” The point is that we have to let the prophetic scriptures speak on their own without reading into them!”[7]

So, in accordance with Koshy’s, Ryrie’s, and Goldberg’s “literal hermeneutics,” exegetes must avoid the “desire to bring the teaching of scripture into harmony with some predetermined system of doctrine.” Contrariwise, we must “let the prophetic scriptures speak on their own without reading into them.” In order to avoid reading a preconceived theological grid into the visions of Ezekiel, the dispensationalists must admit that the “literal, normal, or plain interpretation” of the expressions “sin offerings” and “make atonement (Ezek. 45:15, 17, NIV)” must mean exactly that – sin offerings for sins, and the atonement for sins. If the sacrifices mentioned in Ezekiel’s visions are to be understood literally, they must be expiatory, not memorial offerings.

With regard to the dispensationalists’ insistence upon a consistently literal interpretation, Vern Poythress makes an astute, critical observation. He writes,

“I suspect, however, that dropping the phrase ‘literal interpretation’ might prove difficult for some dispensationalists, because ‘literal’ has become a watchword or banner. It is a useful watchword, I suggest, precisely because it can become a vehicle for sliding into a flat interpretation or plain interpretation when it is convenient to do so.”[8]

Apparently, Dispensationalists and Bible Presbyterians understand Scripture literally only when the literal, natural reading of such passages conforms to their theological grid. The consistently literal hermeneutics of Dispensationalists is “consistently literal” only when their Dispensationalism allows their interpretation to be literal. It must, therefore, be agreed that the term “literal interpretation” is “a confusing term, capable of being used to beg many of the questions at stake in the interpretation of the Bible.”[9]

Bible Presbyterian Options

If one rejects Koshy’s memorial view as being inconsistent with the general tenor of Scripture, at least two options remain. Ironically, the New Scofield Reference Bible gives an alternative, non-literal interpretation of the Ezekielian sacrifices,

“The reference to sacrifices is not to be taken literally, in view of the putting away of such offerings, but is rather to be regarded as a presentation of the worship of redeemed Israel, in her own land and in the millennial temple, using the terms with which the Jews were familiar in Ezekiel’s day.”[10]

Even Todd Mangum, a progressive dispensationalist, argues for this view, and he prefers to understand the Ezekielian references to animal sacrifices as “typological references to the eternal worship of the crucified and risen Lord God Jesus Christ.”[11]

In response to such an understanding of the Ezekielian sacrifices by the editors of the New Scofield Reference Bible, Hoekema exclaims,

“These words convey a far-reaching concession on the part of dispensationalists. If the sacrifices are not to be taken literally, why should we take the temple literally? It would seem that the dispensational principle of the literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is here abandoned, and that a crucial foundation stone for the entire dispensational system has here been set aside!”[12]

Therefore, as Ellison reminds us, “make the sacrifices symbolic and the temple becomes symbolic too.”[13]

To concede that the Ezekielian animal sacrifices are typological or symbolical in nature is to admit, albeit tacitly, that the temple visions of Ezekiel (chapters 40-48) can be interpreted with the “typo-prophetic hermeneutical principle” proposed by Mangum and progressive Dispensationalists.[14] This would result in an understanding of the Millennial Temple which is closer to the interpretations of Daniel Block and G. K. Beale.

The other option for Bible Presbyterians is the view adopted by John Whitcomb, but it soon becomes clear that this view has its inherent weaknesses.

Whitcomb’s View and Far Eastern Bible College

It is notable that Whitcomb’s paper, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” constitutes part of the supplements and syllabus for the course “Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology: A Basic Theology for Everyone Course” organized by Far Eastern Bible College.[15]

Concerning the millennium temple, Jeffrey Khoo’s reliance upon Whitcomb’s paper is evident in the following statement:

 “As regards the millennial temple and sacrifices, read Gary Cohen, “Ezekiel’s City: A Millennial Vision,” Zion’s Fire (July-August 1998): 18-23; Prabhudas Koshy, “The Millennium Temple,” The Burning Bush (January 2000): 23-31; and John C. Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” Grace Theological Journal 6 (1985): 201-17.”[16]

It is apparent that Khoo has not arrived at a conclusion as regards the Ezekielian sacrifices. Koshy’s view contradicts Whitcomb’s view. Nevertheless, both views are offered to the students of Far Eastern Bible College for consideration. Concerning the Millennium Temple and its animal sacrifices, one can, however, be assured that students of Far Eastern Bible College are directed to the writings of rank Dispensationalists for answers.

The Passing of Types and Shadows

In his paper “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” Whitcomb criticizes Anthony Hoekema for assuming, “along with many nondispensational theologians, that animal sacrifices in the millennium would involve a reinstitution of the Mosaic economy, just as if Christ had never died. Oswald T. Allis, another Reformed theologian, stated, for example: “Literally interpreted, this means the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood and of the Mosaic ritual of sacrifices essentially unchanged.’”[17]

Reformed theologians are in general agreement that the Old Covenant types and shadows, together with its ceremonial and Jewish peculiarities, have been forever abolished with the advent of the antitype, Jesus Christ - our Priest, Prophet and King.

Although Whitcomb tries to convince his readers that “Ezekiel’s picture of millennial worship and the Mosaic system which had been established nine hundred years earlier exhibit fundamental differences,”[18] Allis is correct to say that such a restitution of ceremonial practices and animal sacrifices is essentially similar to the literal restoration of the Aaronic priesthood and the Levitical ritual of sacrifice.

As explained above, the reinstitution of the Aaronic-Zadokian priesthood, the Jewish Temple worship, the Jewish rite of circumcision, the Jewish feasts and animal sacrifices, goes against the redemptive teachings of the New Testament. It would mean a restitution of the “weak and beggarly elements (Gal. 4:9),” the types and shadows of the Old Covenant dispensation. The Aaronic priesthood has been fulfilled by its antitype - Jesus Christ, High Priest of the Melchizedekian Priesthood. Likewise, the Levitical ritual of animal sacrifice has been abolished by the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our substitutionary atonement for sin. It is indisputable that the reintroduction of essentially similar rituals and Jewish ceremonial practices is a retrogressive step towards Old Testament shadowy forms and typological entities.

Allis answers his critic – John Whitcomb – with this well-worded paragraph,

“To make use of the “beggarly elements” before the reality had come, and to do this when directly commanded to do so, was one thing. To return to them after the reality has come and when expressly commanded not to do so, would be quite another thing.”[19]

Fairbairn, in his Exposition of Ezekiel, provides Jeffrey Khoo and the faculty of Far Eastern Bible College with the reasons why a professedly Reformed institution must not embrace Whitcomb’s view of the Ezekielian sacrifices:

“The vision of the prophet, as it must, if understood literally, imply the ultimate restoration of the ceremonials of Judaism, so it inevitably places the prophet in direct contradiction to the writers of the New Testament. The entire and total cessation of the peculiarities of Jewish worship is as plainly taught by our Lord and his apostles as language could do it, and on grounds which are not of temporary, but of permanent validity and force. The word of Christ to the woman of Samaria - “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” - is alone conclusive of the matter; for if it means anything worthy of so solemn an asseveration, it indicates that Jerusalem was presently to lose its distinctive character, and a mode of worship to be introduced capable of being celebrated in any other place as well as there. But when we find the apostles afterwards contending for the cessation of the Jewish ritual, because suited only to a Church “in bondage to the elements of the world,” and consisting of what were comparatively but “weak and beggarly elements,” - and when in the Epistle to the Hebrews we also find the disannulling of the old covenant with its Aaronic priesthood and carnal ordinances argued at length, and especially “because of the weakness and unprofitableness thereof,” that is, its own inherent imperfections, - we must certainly hold either that the shadowy services of Judaism are finally and for ever gone, or that these sacred writers very much misrepresented their Master’s mind regarding them. No intelligent and sincere Christian can adopt the latter alternative; he ought therefore to rest in the former.”[20]

It is clear from the New Testament teachings that the local churches established and distributed all over the world have replaced the localized, Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem. The inauguration of the New Covenant has forever disannulled the “carnal ordinances” of the Mosaic economy. Therefore, “to regard the prophet here as exhibiting a prospect founded on such an unnatural conjunction, is to ascribe to him the foolish part of seeking to have the new wine of the kingdom put back into the old bottles again; and while occupying himself with the highest hopes of the Church, treating her only to a showy spectacle of carnal superficialities. We have far too high ideas of the spiritual insight and calling of an Old Testament prophet, to believe that it was possible for him to act so unseemly a part, or contemplate a state of things so utterly anomalous.”[21]

Progressive Revelation and Redemptive Regression

Whitcomb argues that “after [the Lord] comes, animal sacrifices within a New Covenant structure, endorsed . . . by the living Lamb of God, will constitute a gigantic step forward for Israel [in the Millennium].”[22]

He reasons,

“The concept of progressive revelation guarantees that the New Covenant theocracy will begin with more knowledge than the Church did at Pentecost. Yet this theocracy will retain its distinctive Israelite characteristics—a promised land, a temple, appropriate animal sacrifices, and an earthly Zadokian priesthood . . . These [Ezekielian] sacrifices, illumined by a corporate understanding of the true significance of the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, will be appreciated all the more for what they can and cannot accomplish for the offerer.”[23]

As we have discussed above, these “distinctive Israelite characteristics” are part of the Old Covenant typological forms, and as such, have forever been abolished with the institution of the New Covenant administration. In accordance with the principle of progressive revelation, Whitcomb ought to interpret Ezekiel’s vision in the light of New Testament teachings. Instead, he attempts to harmonize apostolic, redemptive doctrines with Old Testament types and shadows. In so doing, he inadvertently infuses the Mosaic shadowy elements into the New Covenant dispensation, and perhaps even confounds the teachings of the New Testament.

Whitcomb contends that, according to the principle of progressive revelation, “the two witnesses (Revelation 11), the 144,000 (Revelation 7), and the Zadokian teaching priests functioning in the millennial temple (Ezekiel 40–48 ) will therefore know considerably more than John the Baptist, Apollos, the apostle Paul (who probably never read the book of Revelation), and even the apostle John. They will know about the full and finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. They will see no conflict between Ezekiel and Hebrews.”[24]

But after making the point “that millennial Israel will have the entire NT available to them, including the Book of Hebrews,”[25] we read in the conclusion of his paper that animal sacrifices will once again serve as a “pedagogical” or “instructional” resource for millennial Israel.

Whitcomb’s reasoning seems to contradict the Reformed doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, but this is surely not what he intended to convey to his readers. If, according to the principle of providential preservation of Scripture, millennial Israel will have the all sufficient Word of God available to them, why would a restitution of animal sacrifices be necessary “as an instructional and disciplinary instrument for Israel?”[26]

The Bible as we have it today - consisting of 66 books and a closed Canon - is the all sufficient pedagogical resource, both for the church and, according to Whitcomb’s dispensationalism, millennial Israel. Reformed theologians have acknowledged that the written Word is the principium cognoscendi.[27] Therefore, in the spirit of Sola Scriptura, we have to maintain with the Reformers that Scripture is the all sufficient revelation of God to man. There is no necessity within the New Covenant structure for “weak and beggarly elements (Gal. 4:9)” to serve as instructional or pedagogical instruments.

Reformed theologians, who acknowledge the sufficiency of Scripture, should all the more repudiate Whitcomb’s reasoning found in his paper.

Whitcomb’s View of the Ezekielian Sacrifices

We recall that Whitcomb is correct in stating that the Levitical sacrifices are not merely a symbolical-typological means of foreshadowing Christ’s death. With regard to animal sacrifices under the Mosaic order, Kurtz elaborates that “the EXPIATION . . . of the person sacrificing [the offering] is what we meet with everywhere [in Scripture], not only as the first intention, but to a certain extent as the chief and most important end of the bleeding sacrifices in general. When the sacrifice of animals is mentioned in the law, making atonement . . . is nearly always expressly mentioned, and for the most part this alone, as being the purpose, end, and fruit of the sacrifice.”[28]

Likewise, Grabbe observes that “the text [of Scripture] makes it clear that the blood of the sacrifices did take away sin (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18, 26 [Eng. 6:7]; 19:22; Num. 15:25, 26, 28). One of the main rituals of expiation was the ritual with the two goats on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16).”[29]

Despite the inherent expiatory value of the Levitical animal sacrifices, Whitcomb rightly perceives that even in the Old Covenant economy, salvation was by grace through faith in Christ alone, and in His redemptive work alone. He explains:

“In the covenant at Sinai, God provided a highly complex and rigid structure for his “kingdom of priests.” Within that structure, national/theocratic transgressions would receive national/theocratic forgiveness when appropriate sacrifices were offered to God through legitimate priests at the tabernacle/temple altar. This “forgiveness” was promised regardless of the spiritual state of either the offerer or the priest. However, such sacrificial blood could never cleanse the conscience or save the soul (Heb 10:1–2), so God repeatedly sent prophets to call his people to love and obey their God from the heart. Apart from such genuine faith, all the ceremonially “kosher” animals in the whole world would avail nothing in the spiritual realm (Ps 50:7–15; Isa 1:12–20; Amos 4:4–5; 5:20–27; Hos 5:6; Mic 6:6–8; Jer 6:20; 7:21–23 ). It was not to be either faith or sacrifices; rather, it was to be both faith and sacrifices (cf. Ps 51:19).”[30]

Consistent with the theology of the writer of Hebrews, Whitcomb recognizes the inferiority of the Levitical ritual of animal sacrifice, and that “all the ceremonially “kosher” animals in the whole world would avail nothing in the spiritual realm.”[31] “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins (Heb 10:4).” Neither can such animal sacrifices “cleanse the conscience or save the soul.”[32]

Whitcomb’s view of the Ezekielian sacrifices is also more consistent with the literal hermeneutics of Dispensationalism, especially when compared to Koshy’s “memorial” view. Whitcomb believes that the Ezekielian sacrifices are not “primarily memorial” in nature, but serve to provide “temporal cleansing and forgiveness” within the theocracy of Israel. He restricts the expiatory value of the animal sacrifices within the boundaries of “ceremonial forgiveness.” Whitcomb elucidates:

“Now what does all of this indicate with regard to animal sacrifices in the millennial Temple for Israel under the New Covenant? It indicates that future sacrifices will have nothing to do with eternal salvation which only comes through true faith in God. It also indicates that future animal sacrifices will be “efficacious” and “expiatory” only in terms of the strict provision for ceremonial (and thus temporal) forgiveness within the theocracy of Israel. Thus, animal sacrifices during the coming Kingdom age will not be primarily memorial (like the eucharist in church communion services), any more than sacrifices in the age of the Old Covenant were primarily prospective or prophetic in the understanding of the offerer.”[33]

Whitcomb is careful to contrast Christ’s atonement for “infinite and eternal guilt” with the “purely temporal cleansing and forgiveness” provided for by the animal sacrifices. According to Whitcomb, “what happened [to the offerer] was temporal, finite, external, and legal - not eternal, infinite, internal, and soteriological.”[34]

However, the weakness in Whitcomb’s reasoning lies in his attempt to differentiate “ceremonial and spiritual atonement.”[35] In order to avoid the clear theological implications of Christ’s perfect atonement for all the sins of the elect, Whitcomb categorizes atonement for sins into two artificial partitions: ceremonial (or the “temporal, finite, external, and legal” atonement for sins) and spiritual (or the “eternal, infinite, internal, and soteriological” atonement for sins). He claims that this distinction is “by no means a minor one, for it is at the heart of the basic difference between the theocracy of Israel and the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ. It also provides a more consistent hermeneutical approach for dispensational premillennialism.”[36]

This theological division of the atonement derives its validity from a strict dispensational, hermeneutical distinction between Israel (“the theocracy of Israel”) and the Church (“the Body and Bride of Christ”). But with a Reformed hermeneutical-theological grid, there is no basis for such a division. The book of Hebrews clearly teaches that Christ is the perfect sacrifice and atonement for all the sins of His elect. How, then, can Whitcomb justify his thesis that God requires the restitution of animal sacrifices in the millennium for ceremonial cleansing and atonement?

Beale reminds us that,

“Numerous commentators have pointed out that this [that is, the restitution of animal sacrifices] would violate the principle of Hebrews: the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to Christ’s ‘once for all’ sacrifice (Heb. 9:12, 26, 28; 10: 10-18), so that to go back to those sacrifices would indicate the insufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice for sin (cf., e.g., Heb. 10:18: ‘Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin’). This would appear to amount to a reversal of redemptive history and, more importantly, a denial of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice.”[37]

Whitcomb reasons that these sin and burnt offerings in the Millennium Temple do not function “on the level of Calvary’s Cross,” but yet, on the “quasi-physical” level provide for ceremonial cleansing and forgiveness. In the conclusion to his paper, he writes:

“Before the heavens and the earth flee away from him who sits upon the Great White Throne (Rev 20:11), God will provide a final demonstration of the validity of animal sacrifices as an instructional and disciplinary instrument for Israel. The entire world will see the true purpose of this system. Of course, the system never has and never will function on the level of Calvary’s Cross, where infinite and eternal guilt was dealt with once and for all. But the system did accomplish, under God, some very important pedagogical and disciplinary purposes for Israel under the Old Covenant (Gal 4:1–7). There is good reason to believe that it will yet again, and far more successfully from a pedagogical standpoint, function on the level of quasi-physical and thus purely temporal cleansing and forgiveness (cf. Heb 9:13) within the strict limits of the national theocracy of Israel during the one thousand years of Christ’s reign upon the earth in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant.”[38]

We note that Whitcomb quotes Hebrews 9:13 in the aforementioned paragraph. But let us peruse this passage of Hebrews in its entirety, “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:13-14)?”

If, indeed, Christ has perfectly purged our “conscience from dead works to serve the living God,” why would it be necessary for “the blood of bulls and of goats” to purify the flesh all over again in the millennium? As we are cleansed from sins in the spiritual, internal, infinite and eternal realm by the blood of Christ, why should there be any further necessity for the fleshly, external, finite and temporal cleansing by the blood of animals?

Within the administration of the New Covenant, Christians are not required to offer up any animal sacrifices for ceremonial cleansing. Our sacrifices are now spiritual in nature (Rom. 12:1-2, Heb. 13:15-16, 1 Pet. 2:5). These spiritual sacrifices, such as the sufferings of God’s people for Christ sake, and even the sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:15-16), are acceptable to God by virtue of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sins.

Spiritual cleansing is afforded by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, not by the blood of animals. Cleansing in the New Covenant economy is from the works of the flesh (2 Cor. 7:1), not from ceremonial uncleanness. “Indeed, Paul’s understanding of the beginning fulfillment of the temple described in Ezekiel 37:26-28 involves an ongoing need to ‘not touch what is unclean’ (2 Cor. 6:17) and to ‘cleanse’ oneself ‘from all defilement of flesh and spirit’ (2 Cor. 7:1; so also 1 Cor. 6:18-19). Perhaps, Ezekiel’s enigmatic sacrifices also could be understood along these lines.”[39] Nevertheless, there will no longer be any need of ceremonial cleansing as alleged by Whitcomb.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment,

“His blood, offered by Himself, purifies not only outwardly, as the Levitical sacrifices on the day of atonement, but inwardly unto the service of the living God (vv. 13, 14). His death inaugurates the new covenant, and the heavenly sanctuary (vv. 15–23). His entrance into the true Holy of Holies consummates His once-for-all-offered sacrifice of atonement (vv. 24-26); His reappearance alone remains to complete our redemption (vv. 27, 28).”[40]

Whitcomb cannot escape the theological implications of a literal understanding of the Ezekielian expiatory sacrifices. In the temple vision of Ezekiel, we read that the blood of the sacrificial animal will once again be sprinkled onto the altar of the Millennium Temple (Ezek. 43:18). But Kurtz argues that,

“Any blood which was sprinkled upon the altar, and therefore “every sacrifice in which blood was applied to the altar,” was intended as an expiation; and also, that, as blood was applied to the altar in connection with every animal sacrifice, expiation took place in connection with them all; and, so far, every kind of animal sacrifice might be designated as an expiatory sacrifice. But it does not follow from this, that expiation was the sole object in every case, or all equally important object in them all. The words, “to make atonement for him,” are expressly used, in fact, not only in connection with the sin-offering (Lev. iv. 20, 26, 31, 35, etc.) and trespass-offering (Lev. v. 16, 18, vi. 7, etc.), but in connection with the burnt-offering also (Lev. i. 4).”[41]

As Christ has made the ultimate expiatory sacrifice on Calvary’s cross, it is difficult for Whitcomb to insist upon a reinstitution of such animal sacrifices – which include the sprinkling of blood upon the altar of the temple - without sacrificing the precious Reformed doctrine of Christ’s atonement.

Also, a recurring phrase in connection with both the sin and the guilt offer­ings in the Book of Leviticus is, “the priest shall make an atonement for him . . . and it shall be forgiven him (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35, 5:10, 13, 16, 18, 6:7).” It is apparent that before any reconciliation can take place between the offerer and Yahweh, there must be atonement for sin. The atonement for sin must precede forgiveness; God does not forgive sins for which no atonement has been made. In a similar way to the Levitical sacrifices, these Ezekielian sacrifices are undoubtedly expiatory in nature if understood literally, in that they provide for temporal, ceremonial cleansing and cover for sins. Therefore, such sacrifices represent a regression towards Old Testament typological, shadowy forms.

Christ death has secured for us eternal, perfect atonement not only from all our sins, but also from all ceremonial impurities. Therefore, being clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we can “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).” We can now, by virtue of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, approach the Throne of God, let alone the alleged Millennium Temple on earth.

The writer of Hebrews continues:

“It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation (Heb. 9:23-28).”

Christ offered Himself once, “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In Hebrews 10:12-14, the writer reaffirms our faith in Christ’s atonement for sins, “But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”

We have previously discussed the theological difficulties encountered when one believes in the restitution of animal sacrifices. One wonders how Whitcomb reconciles the “temporal cleansing and forgiveness” effected by the Ezekelian expiatory sacrifices with clear, NT redemptive teachings (e.g. Hebrews chapter 10)? “He [Christ] taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Heb. 10:9b-10).”

Hebrews 9:13 states clearly that animal sacrifices “sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh”. If Jesus Christ has sanctified the elect “once for all” (Heb. 10:10), the insistence upon a restoration of animal sacrifice is tantamount to a blatant rejection of NT revelation. If the exegete is not cautious, he might even be found guilty of rank heresy, that is, to suggest that animal sacrifices are necessary for “cleansing and forgiveness” in the millennium, after Christ “had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever (Heb. 10:12).”


From the New Covenant perspective, John Frame is correct to observe that,

“The new form of the people of God [that is, the church] involved many new things. No longer was there a literal tabernacle or temple; Jesus himself was the temple, and he dwelt, by his spirit, within his people, so that in a sense they became the temple (John 2:19ff.; 1 Cor 3:16f.; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). Nor was the new people of God identified, even roughly, with a particular group of clans or tribes; it became an international body destined to cover the globe (Matt 28:19f.). . . . No modern nation, or its government (state), then, will ever play the distinctive role filled by OT Israel. God’s purposes now are wider and broader; the whole world is the promised land (Matt 28:9ff.; 1 Cor 3:21ff.; Eph 6:3; cf. Exod 20:12). We need no longer the types and shadows of the tabernacle and temple, for we have the reality in Christ (Hebrews 8–10).”[42]

A correct understanding of the New Testament enables us to appreciate the superiority of the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant administration, we no longer have to worship in temples made of stone. We are the very temple of the Holy Ghost, and we are to worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Neither is there any need of the Jewish sacrificial cult, nor the blood of innocent animals upon the altar. “When Christ’s blood has been shed there can be no further sacrifice for sin. For a generation the temple remained while, beginning in its courts, the gospel of a better sacrifice was preached. Because Christ fulfilled and did not destroy the law, the disciples did not leave the temple until they were forced to do so - even Paul worshiped there in a vain effort to show his continuing love for his people. But the issues were made plain to that generation and to all that follow. No animal sacrifice can be offered that is acceptable to God, who has given his own Son as the Lamb. To offer such a sacrifice cannot repeat or symbolize Christ’s sacrifice, for Christ has appointed another memorial of his death till he come.”[43]

How can a Reformed theologian even begin to embrace Whitcomb’s or the “memorial” view of Ezekielian sacrifices, and yet retain his faithfulness to the Reformed faith? Due to their adherence to the dispensational sine qua non, Jeffrey Khoo and Prabhudas Koshy have sadly compromised dogmatic NT redemptive teachings with the faulty, literalistic hermeneutics of dispensationalism.

Consistent with the analogy of faith and the principle of progressive revelation, Khoo and Koshy should understand Ezekiel’s vision with the revelation of Jesus and the apostles, and not vice versa. Whether one perceives the Ezekielian sacrifices as merely memorial, or reinstituted for the ceremonial, temporal forgiveness of sins, one must affirm with the apostles that there is no longer any necessity of sacrifices for sins, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified (Heb. 10:14).” We must assert that, “If there is a way back to the ceremonial law, to the types and shadows of what has now become the bondage of legalism, then Paul labored and ran in vain - more than that, Christ died in vain.”[44]


[1] Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” 208.
[2] Ibid., 211.
[3] Ibid., 208-209. Whitcomb continues, “The Scriptures tell us that something really did happen to the Israelite offerer when he came to the right altar with the appropriate sacrifice; and he was expected to know what would happen to him. What happened was temporal, finite, external, and legal—not eternal, infinite, internal, and soteriological. Nevertheless, what happened was personally and immediately significant, not simply symbolic and/or prophetic. When an Israelite “unwittingly failed” to observe a particular ordinance of the Mosaic Law (in the weakness of his sin nature [Num 15:22–29], not “defiantly,” in open rebellion against God himself [Num 15:30–36]), he was actually “forgiven” through an “atonement” (a ritual cleansing; cf. Heb 9:10, 13) made by the priest (Num 15:25–26).” See Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” 209. Whitcomb believes that these animal sacrifices provide for ceremonial cleansing, rather than having any salvific efficacy.
[4] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 344.
[5] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 204 n. 16.
[6] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 90, emphasis mine.
[7] Louis Goldberg, “Whose Land Is It?,” Issues 4, no. 2 (n.d.); available from; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005, quoting Pentecost, Things to Come, 60.
[8] Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 86, emphasis mine.
[9] Ibid., 96.
[10] Cyrus I. Scofield, ed., New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 888, emphasis mine. See commentary on Ezekiel 43:19. This volume, a revision of the 1909 edition, has been edited by a committee of nine leading dispensationalist theologians, and is therefore somewhat representative of contemporary Dispensationalism.
[11] Mangum, “Can We Expect a Restoration of Levitical Animal Sacrifices? A Progressive Dispensationalist Opinion,” 13.
[12] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 204.
[13] H. L. Ellison, Ezekiel: The Man and His Message (London: Paternoster, 1956), 140, quoted in Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 344.
[14] Mangum, “Can We Expect a Restoration of Levitical Animal Sacrifices? A Progressive Dispensationalist Opinion,” 8.
[15] See Khoo, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, 47. The discerning reader will quickly notice that the supplementary articles provided are at the very least sympathetic to, and most of the time defend, the dispensational understanding of animal sacrifices in the Millennium Temple. Not a single article supplied is critical of these erroneous views.
[16] Khoo, Hebrews, 35.
[17] Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” 212-213, quoting Allis, Prophecy and the Church, 246.
[18] Ibid., 213.
[19] Allis, Prophecy and the Church, 247.
[20] Fairbairn, Exposition of Ezekiel, 440-441.
[21] Ibid., 441-442.
[22] Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” 216.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 217.
[27] Scripture is the “principle of knowing” or the cognitive foundation of Christians. Epistemologically, the Word of God is also the principium theologiae, the foundation for theology and the knowledge of God.
[28] J. H. Kurtz, Offerings, Sacrifices and Worship in the Old Testament, trans. James Martin (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 66.
[29] Grabbe, Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period, 130-131.
[30] Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” 209-210.
[31] Ibid., 210.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., emphasis mine.
[34] Ibid., 209.
[35] Ibid., 211.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 343-344.
[38] Whitcomb, “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel,” 217, emphasis mine.
[39] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 349-350.
[40] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 555, emphasis mine.
[41] Kurtz, Offerings, Sacrifices and Worship in the Old Testament, 73-74.
[42] Frame, “Toward a Theology of the State,” 220.
[43] Clowney, “The Final Temple,” 188-189.
[44] Ibid., 189.