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Q177 : The Church and the Promised Land

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Q177 : The Church and the Promised Land

Hello Paul,

[Former dispensationalist] Grover Gunna says dispensationalists say the spiritual seed of Abraham (defined in Gal 3) have no claim to the national land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. But he rejects this. He writes:

Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29). In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10 And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise. Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise. [Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3,4; 28:4,13; 35:12; 48:4]. When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.

So Gunn’s point is that the dispensationalist argues that the statement “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8), has reference to the spiritual blessings that are now enjoyed by Christians, ie. that the Christian as a seed of Abraham is related only to the universal statement that in Abraham all the nations would be blessed. But he says there is no basis for limiting the Christian application to this part of the promise. He says Paul in Gal 3:16 and 29 relates the language of the land promise to the Christian (which Gunn interprets as the Christian’s spiritual rest and heavenly position).

How do we respond to his claim that the land promise aspect includes Christians and not just the idea that all nations will be blessed?


Links Mentioned Above
a - See http://grovergunn.net/andrew/disp10.htm.
A177 : by Paul Henebury

First off, let me say that one should always welcome a good criticism (I think it pointless to bother with bad or sloppy criticism). Gunn’s claim deserves the attention of even a reluctant dispensationalist! Let me make a couple of initial observations here:

  1. If Gunn’s thesis is right then the apostle has redirected promises made to ethnic Israel to the church. This does not involve merely an expansion of the land promise, otherwise Gunn would believe that the physical boundaries of the land would be extended. No, this involves a change. This change, it could be argued, is only from our perspective not from God’s. But then, who gave us the perspective? Thus, the dilemma of a disingenuous God raises its ugly head.
  2. Gunn’s argument also assumes that there is no prima facie hermeneutical continuity between the two Testaments. He thinks taking the land promises to Israel to be land promises to Israel is an interpretative and theological mistake. Why? Because the NT, in this case Paul, shows us another way and divulges God’s real intention when He made His covenant promises in the OT. This opens the Bible up to the sort of criticisms I have pinpointed elsewherea.
Gunn writes:

Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29).

There is no real issue here. As it stands, nothing in this statement or in Paul’s statements threatens to make the land promise to Israel evaporate into the ether of Reformed typology. If Gunn had written “all the promises given to Abraham belong to all who are in Christ” (which is what he really meant), he would have stepped over the line into territory out of bounds of Paul’s argument.

But Gunn continues:

In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10

These four words (actually one word in the Hebrew) could only have come from two OT passages quoted from the Septuagint (LXX)? That is quite an assertion. Where is the proof?

Gunn seems pretty certain that Paul is quoting the LXX in Galatians 3:16 and 29, but that is highly debatable. Where does he get this nugget from? Not from most of the commentaries I checked. William Hendriksen locates Paul’s quotation in Gen. 22:18 along with 17:7. Jeffrey Weima, in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old, (ed. G. K. Beale & D. A. Carson) fails to mention the LXX here and appears to have completely overlooked Gunn’s cast-iron thesis. Even worse, F. F. Bruce, while citing Gunn’s references alongside several others, explicitly declares that,

The reference to the land, however, plays no part in the argument of Galatians..1

Timothy McClay, in his The Use of the Septuagint in New Testament Research warns against assuming that a NT writer employs the LXX simply because of the similarities of language (43). How much more tentative ought Gunn to have been when speaking about only four commonplace words? Strangely (or not), McClay does not even hint at Paul’s use of the LXX at Gal. 3:16, although he does refer to Gal. 3:6. The witnesses could be multiplied. Gunn’s bold assertion is simply not to be trusted.

But let us take a look at the two passages in question from Genesis:

17:8 “Also I give to you and your descendants [seed] after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
9 And God said to Abraham: “As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised;"

I include verse 9 here because whoever the “seed” is here it is very unlikely to be a reference to Christ, since “throughout their [plural] generations” does not fit messianic prediction comfortably. But also notice the condition for obtaining the land in the passage: circumcision! This condition has been met, but not by the Church. Yes, I know that Paul speaks about “the circumcision made without hands” in Col. 2:11, but he is not referring to this OT passage in the Colossians text; nor is he arguing in that place the same thing he is arguing in Galatians 3. Truthfully, God was not speaking about spiritual circumcision in Gen. 17 (viz. “every male child”).

13:15 “for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.
16 “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. 17 “Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.”

It will not have escaped the notice of the discerning reader that verse 16 pretty well makes it impossible that it is a reference to Christ. It wouldn’t take anybody long to count to one! Is it then a reference to all Abraham’s spiritual seed “in Christ”? The specificity of the instructions given to Abraham, plus the mention of “the land of Canaan” (v.12), and the strife over the land with which the chapter is concerned, do not encourage us to imagine that God is not talking about the literal land which He called Abraham to.

I might add this note of clarification from John Sailhamer,

To begin with, it is clear in Galatians 3 that the “seed” of Abraham does not have a collective meaning. A collective seed would undermine Paul’s entire argument in Galatians 3. Not only does Paul assert in Galatians 3:16 that “the seed is Christ”, but also he is quite clear in Galatians 3:29 that only those who belong to Christ (Christou) are the seed of Abraham. The argument cannot be turned around to say that those who are the “seed” of Abraham belong to Christ. The premise of Paul’s argument is that the “seed” of Abraham is Christ (singular). On the basis of that understanding, Paul concludes that if the Galatians belong to Christ, they are (plural) descendents of Abraham.2

It ought to evident to anyone that Gunn’s argument looks dubious to say the least. He is, as the English say, on a bit of a sticky wicket. His reasoning appears threadbare. Gunn continues:

And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise.

Correct. The land of Canaan to be specific (Gen. 13:12). Of course, we know that Gunn sees a deeper meaning to the “land.” He sees Heaven! And Heaven is for the Church. And the Church is “Abraham’s seed.” Therefore, the Church gets all the blessings entailed in the covenant with Abraham, including the (wink) “land.” So the reasoning goes. See:

Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise. [Gen 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 24:7; 26:3,4; 28:4,13; 35:12; 48:4]. When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.

What about Genesis 22:17-18?

17 “blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.
18 “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

“Every time”? No it ain’t! And many scholars, especially OT scholars like Sailhamer, would say that Paul most likely had this text in mind when he wrote Galatians 3. Further, I could not find one single scholar who agreed with Gunn’s argument. I have already shown that non-dispensationalist F. F. Bruce flatly denied it!

One last observation about Gunn’s belief that, “When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise.” Apart from the fact that the Apostle was so “specific” that every Biblical scholar I consulted missed his point, I hope you can see that arguing this way about Divine revelation makes God’s Word, and hence His character, equivocal. According to Gunn’s reading of Paul, when God promised the land of Canaan to Israel (Gen. 13; 15; Psa. 105:8-11), He had in His mind “not-Canaan” and “not-Israel.” To quote from another part of the original article:

I believe the Jewish inhabitation of Palestine in the Old Testament was a temporary typological symbol and pledge of the ultimate eternal inheritance of the saints. I also believe that the land promise applies to the Christian today in the spiritual rest and heavenly position that is his in Christ Jesus

According to Gunn, this is “progressive revelation.” Trouble is, it isn’t “progressive” but rather “mercurial revelation.” Revelation-on-the-ramble. If Gunn thinks he has good reason to trust a god who naturally equivocates good luck to him.


Endnotes:

1.Bruce, 172
2.Sailhamer, 442


Sources:

BruceF. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatiansb
SailhamerJohn H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuchc


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