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The Abrahamic Covenant

by Mike Sanders

For Dispensationalism, this is the key covenant, as important to Dispensationalism as the covenant of grace is to Covenant Theology. The difference is that this is not merely a “theological covenant” supposedly derived from scattered references in Scripture, but is a biblical covenant that is clearly spelled out in and defined by Scripture.

Chafer discusses the Abrahamic Covenant in his section on Eschatology. Concerning the Abrahamic Covenant, Chafer points out that it is an unconditional covenant “being that alone which Jehovah declares He will do for and through Abraham.” it was not sustained through all of Abraham’s descendants, but only through Isaac and Jacob and Jacob’s descendants. Furthermore, it is an everlasting covenant which contains seven features, found in Genesis 12:1–3. FirstI will make of thee a great nation which was fulfilled “in the posterity of Ishmael, of Isaac, and in Abraham’s spiritual seed.” SecondI will bless thee; and Abraham received “both earthly and heavenly riches.” Thirdand make thy name great and “no name is more honored, outside of Christ’s, than Abraham’s.” Fourthand be thou a blessing and this blessing “extends to Abraham’s physical seed through Isaac and Jacob and to the Gentiles.” FifthI will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse, which is “the divine principle in connection with Israel upon which God deals with the Gentile nations.” SixthIn thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed, which is a reference to Gentile blessings through “the Seed, Christ.” Seventhunto thy seed will I give this land, which includes territory that “far exceeds that occupied by Israel when they came up out of Egypt (Gen. 15:18).”

In another work, Chafer discussed this covenant in more detail. The Abrahamic Covenant was made with Abraham and sustained through Isaac and Jacob. This covenant promised that blessing would “extend to all the families of the earth.” However, in particular, “it provides for one great nation,” the Jewish nation. To this nation, a land was promised. Because the content of the Abrahamic Covenant includes some long term prophecies which “could be executed only as Jehovah in sovereign power commands the destiny of all future generations of the human family,” it is obvious that it is dependent upon God for its fulfillment. That is one reason this covenant is an unconditional covenant.

This very point is frequently challenged by Covenant Theologians who insist that this covenant was a conditional covenant since it is obvious that conditions are found within it, such as the command to Abraham to leave the land of his birth to go to a new land. However, this misses the real issue and misconstrues exactly what Dispensationalists mean by an “unconditional covenant.” When Dispensationalists speak of an “unconditional covenant,” they do not mean that the content of the covenant contains no conditions, obligations, or commands. What they do mean is that God intends to fulfill the terms of the covenant regardless of whether man fulfills his obligations. Abraham may have had some obligations to fulfill, but even if Abraham failed to fulfill those obligations, God’s promises to Abraham would have still been fulfilled. As a point of fact, Abraham lapsed on several occasions, but those lapses did not terminate the covenant. That is what is meant by “unconditional covenant” and the Abrahamic Covenant is such a covenant. A conditional covenant does require one to meet the conditions of the covenant in order to receive the blessings of the covenant, and the Mosaic Covenant is such a covenant.

     One reason Covenant Theologians insist that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional is the mere existence of conditions, which do not make the covenant itself a conditional one. Furthermore, even if it is conceded that “the Abrahamic Covenant was made conditional upon Abraham’s faithfulness,” God declared to Isaac in Genesis 26:5 that Abraham was faithful and obeyed GodThe very fact that Abraham fulfilled his obligations now obligates God to fulfill His. With Abraham’s fulfillment of his condition, he rendered the covenant unconditional since the obligation is now totally dependent upon God. However, Chafer and other Dispensationalists make no such concession. Chafer insists that the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional for two reasons: first, “no human element appears in any feature of the Abrahamic Covenant”; and, second, both “Abraham’s position” in the covenant and “Abraham’s imputed righteousness” were “secured … apart from meritorious works.”

Ryrie discusses the Abrahamic Covenant under Eschatology. Ryrie divides the promises into three categories, but not each promise in each category is related to Israelology and only those that are will be noted here. The first category is, “Personal Promises to Abraham.” Of the three promises personally made to Abraham, there is only one concerning Israelology: I will make of thee a great nation. This promise concerns the Jewish nation, “the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob.” This is the biblical definition of Jewishness: descendancy from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The second category is, “Universal Promises.” Both promises listed by Ryrie are relevant to Israelology. The first is, “The promise of divine blessing or cursing people on the basis of their treatment of Abraham.” Due to the close relationship of Abraham to God, “to bless or curse him was, in effect, to bless or curse God.” Although Ryrie does not state this, the promise was later extended to the nation. The second is, “The promise that all the families of the earth would be blessed.” Spiritual blessings were to extend to the Gentiles and this promise was made early in human history, with the very first Jewish covenant. This blessing was to come through Abraham’s seed. 

     As Ryrie states, the Hebrew word “seed” is singular, but it could be “both collective and individual.” As a collective word, it refers to Israel; and as an individual word, it refers to the Messiah. It is through the latter “seed” that the Gentiles were to receive their blessings. That is why in Galatians 3:16 “Paul makes it clear that Christ fulfilled this promise.” As a result, Gentile believers today, because of their position in Christ, have become “heirs of this particular promise of the Abrahamic Covenant.” For most Covenant Theologians, this fact fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant, and the fulfillment is in the Church. Ryrie cautions his readers to note that Paul did not say “that the Church fulfills the entire covenant. He focuses only on this one promise concerning blessings in the seed …” Dispensationalism does not deny that a facet of the Abrahamic Covenant is now being fulfilled in the Church, that of spiritual blessings being extended to the Gentiles through Christ, but Dispensationalism denies that this was the totality of the Abrahamic Covenant. There were other promises besides this one, like those of the third category. The third category is, “National Promises” and Ryrie lists two. First, “the promise that Abraham would father a great nation was both a personal and a national promise.” Again, this is the Jewish nation. Second, “the promise to that nation of specific land as an inheritance.” Dispensationalists take this literally while many in Covenant Theology symbolize this away either in terms of the Church or heaven. Taken literally, this land “was to be an everlasting possession” with definite boundaries: “from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates.” It is because of promises like these that Dispensationalists refuse to see that the blessings in the Church are the entire fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. Furthermore, neither has this promise already been fulfilled to Israel in history. As Ryrie concludes, “Israel has occupied at various times part of the larger area, but never the larger area, nor ever as an everlasting possession.”

Later, while discussing “The Solemn Ratification of the Covenant,” Ryrie shows why this covenant is unconditional:

The ratification ceremony described in Genesis 15:9–17 when compared with near Eastern custom indicates that God alone obligated Himself to fulfill the terms of the covenant since only He walked between the pieces of the sacrificial animals. The significance of that is striking: it means that God swore fidelity to His promises and placed the obligation on their fulfillment on Himself alone. Abraham made no such oath; he was in a deep sleep, yet aware of what God promised.… Clearly the Abrahamic Covenant was not conditioned on anything Abraham would or would not do; its fulfillment in all its parts depends only on God’s doings.

Ryrie concludes the chapter by summarizing the dispensational view of the Abrahamic Covenant:

Premillennialism insists that all the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant must be fulfilled since the covenant was made without conditions. Much of the covenant has already been fulfilled and fulfilled literally; therefore, what remains to be fulfilled will also be fulfilled literally. This brings the focus on the yet-unfulfilled land promise. Though the nation Israel occupied part of the territory promised in the covenant, she has never yet occupied all of it and certainly not eternally as the covenant promised. Therefore, there must be a time in the future when Israel will do so, and for the premillennialist this will be in the coming millennial kingdom. Thus the Abrahamic Covenant gives strong support for premillennial eschatology.

In one of his other works, Ryrie discusses the Abrahamic Covenant in greater detail. Here, Ryrie spells out the importance of this covenant. 

First, if the covenant promised Israel “permanent existence as a nation,” then there must be a future for Israel and “the Church is not fulfilling Israel’s promises.”

 Second, if the covenant promised Israel “permanent possession of the promised land,” then in the future Israel must possess all of the Promised Land, “for she has never fully possessed it in her history,” and it is not now being fulfilled in some spiritual way by the Church. Ryrie also points out that the above two issues also concern two other questions. First, “is the covenant conditional?” If the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional, then there is no guarantee of Israel’s “future national identity or possession of the land.” Second, “is the covenant unconditional?” If so, then will it be “fulfilled spiritually by the Church or literally by Israel?” It is these issues that separate Dispensationalism from Covenant Amillennialism. Ryrie then proceeds to discuss “The Promises of the Covenant” as based on Genesis 12:1–3. These are the same as those found in his Basic Theology discussed earlier. Later in the chapter, he discusses “The Unconditional Character of the Covenant” and presents several reasons for this view. In his introduction, he spells out the importance of the issue:

The unconditional character of the Abrahamic covenant is the crucial issue in making the Abrahamic covenant a basis for premillennialism. If the covenant is unconditional, then the national aspect of it must yet be fulfilled, and premillennialism is the only system of interpretation which makes a place for a national future for Israel in which she possesses her land.

Walvoord also begins his discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant by pointing out its importance.

It is recognized by all serious students of the Bible that the covenant of God with Abraham is one of the important and determinative revelations of ScriptureIt furnishes the key to the entire Old Testament and reaches for its fulfillment into the New.

     The issue, in a word, is the question of whether Israel as a nation and as a race has a prophesied future. A literal interpretation of the Abrahamic covenant involves the permanent existence of Israel as a nation and the fulfillment of the promise that the land should be their everlasting possession

     Walvoord points out that how one views the Abrahamic Covenant affects his view of much of the rest of Scripture. Walvoord then discusses the provisions of the covenant. Like Ryrie, Walvoord divides the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant into three categories. The first is “the promise to Abraham.” The one provision important to Israelology is that Abraham “would be the father of a great nation … compared to the dust of the earth and the stars of the heaven.” The second category is “the promise to Abraham’s seed.” In this case the “seed” is a national seed, the Jewish nation which is to become “great … and innumerable” and destined to possess a land with “extensive boundaries.” it is in connection with the land that the Abrahamic Covenant is called “everlasting” and “the possession of the land is defined as ‘an everlasting possession.’ ”

     Walvoord points out that the Abrahamic Covenant “guarantees both the everlasting continuance of the seed as a nation and its everlasting possession of the land.” The “seed” in Genesis, Walvoord states, refers to Abraham’s physical lineage, but it is narrowed down over the generations for “not all the physical descendants of Abraham qualify for the promises to the seed.” It is through the seed of Abraham that “all the families of the earth are blessed” and so Israel was to be a channel of blessing to the Gentiles. This aspect is particularly “fulfilled in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.” The third category is “the promise to the Gentiles.” Again, the Abrahamic Covenant promised blessings to the Gentiles. Walvoord states that the text does not specify “what this blessing shall be,” but concludes that this is “a general promise” and so “probably intended to have a general fulfillment.” Both Abraham and his seed, “the nation of Israel,” have already been a great blessing “as the channel of divine revelation.” This blessing not only includes salvation, but other spiritual blessings as well. Also in relationship to the Gentiles is the principle of blessing them as they bless Israel, but cursing them as they curse Israel. Walvoord observes that throughout history right “to modern times, the nation that has persecuted the Jew has paid dearly for it.”

Walvoord also discusses the issue as to the conditionality of the Abrahamic Covenant. Dispensationalism insists that the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional. If there ever was a condition, it was the command for Abraham to leave the land of his birth and to enter a new land. Once Abraham obeyed this one imperative, it rendered the covenant unconditional for there were “no further conditions laid upon Abraham” but it was “now dependent upon divine veracity for its fulfillment.” Walvoord then proceeds to give ten reasons why the Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant.2 Walvoord’s treatment of the Abrahamic Covenant affirmed two things about Israel: her existence as a nation and her possession of the land.

In another work, Walvoord presents an excellent summary of the dispensational view of the Abrahamic Covenant. God’s program for Israel is “one of the four major programs2 revealed in the Bible” if the statements of Scripture are understood literally and not allegorically. The goal of all four programs is doxological, that is, these four programs are a means by which “God manifests … His own glory.” The Abrahamic Covenant primarily deals with God’s program with Israel and only secondarily with God’s program for Gentiles and the Church. This covenant includes promises made to Abraham personally, to Israel as a nation and to the Gentile nations. Especially important are the promises made to the “seed of Abraham,” a seed limited “to Isaac, and then to Jacob, and then the twelve sons of Jacob.” In other words, in the Old Testament it was used of literal descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. With the addition of the New Testament, the expression “seed of Abraham” is used in three ways: first, it is used of all physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, meaning, all Jews; second, of those physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are also believers, that is, the believing remnant who today are Jewish believers; and, third, of the spiritual seed of Abraham, that is, the Gentile believers who exercised the faith of Abraham. However, the physical promises made to the physical descendants will be fulfilled to and by the physical descendants, while the “promises given to the spiritual seed who are not physical descendants of Abraham inherit the promises given to Gentiles.” The Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant and so guarantees two things: first, “Israel will be a nation forever”; and, second, Israel shall “possess the land forever.”

To date, the most comprehensive work on Dispensational Eschatology was authored by Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, a student of Lewis Sperry Chafer and a contemporary of both Charles C. Ryrie and John F. Walvoord. He is also on the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary, the recognized school of Dispensationalism in the United States. In his chapter on “The Abrahamic Covenant,” he discusses “The Provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant.” Pentecost points out that the Abrahamic Covenant “entitled certain basic promises,” and these included “individual promises” for Abraham, “national promises” for Israel and “universal blessings” that were to extend to the Gentiles. Pentecost states that “it is of utmost importance to keep the different areas in which promise was made” distinct because “if the things covenanted in one area are transferred to another area only confusion will result in the subsequent interpretation.” Personal promises made to Abraham should not be transferred to the nation of Israel as a whole, nor should the national promises made to Israel be transferred to the Gentiles.

Pentecost then turns to the subject of “The Character of the Abrahamic Covenant.” The key point Pentecost makes, the same point all Dispensationalists make, is that the Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant. This point is vital to Israelology because this covenant “deals with Israel’s title deed to the land of Palestine, her continuation as a nation to possess that land and her redemption so that she may enjoy the blessings in the land under her King.” If the Abrahamic Covenant is “a literal covenant to be fulfilled literally, then Israel must be preserved, converted and restored.”

Covenant Theologians deny the unconditional character of the Abrahamic Covenant by pointing out that the covenant did contain conditions which Abraham was expected to obey. Pentecost addresses the issue of “the conditional element” in the covenant program and draws a distinction between the basis of making the covenant and the basis of fulfilling the covenant. Initially God commanded Abraham to leave the land of his birth and “made certain specific promises to him that depended on this act of obedience.” Whether or not “God would institute a covenant program with Abraham” did depend “upon Abraham’s act of obedience in leaving the land”; but when Abraham obeyed, then “God instituted an irrevocable, unconditional program.” Once Abraham obeyed, “the covenant that was instituted depended, not upon Abraham’s continued obedience, but on the promise of the One who instituted it.” Pentecost concludes that the relationship of obedience to the Abrahamic Covenant is that the “fact of the covenant depended upon obedience; the kind of covenant inaugurated was totally unrelated to the continuing obedience of either Abraham or his seed.”

Pentecost next presents some “arguments to support the unconditional character of the covenant.” In the interactions between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, this issue is “the crux of the whole discussion of the problem relating to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.” Pentecost proceeds to quote the evidences given by Walvoord, discussed previously. Pentecost’s own contribution centers on the sealing of the covenant as recorded in Genesis 15. What God affirms in this chapter is that Abraham would have a son and reaffirms to Abraham what He said earlier “concerning the seed and the land.” In keeping with the way covenants were made in that day, animal blood was shed and the bodies cut in half and lined up in two rows. The normal “custom demanded that the two who entered into a blood covenant should walk together between the parts of the sacrifice.” This would make the covenant binding on both parties. However, if one party became guilty of violating any single term of the covenant, it would free the other party from the necessity of fulfilling his own promises contained in the covenant. In the case of Genesis 15, Abraham and God did not walk together between the pieces of the animals. God put Abraham to sleep and God alone walked between the pieces of the animals. This made the covenant binding on God alone. As for Abraham, this means that “he could not be a participant in the covenant, but could only be a recipient of a covenant to which he brought nothing in the way of obligations.” What God did on that day was to bind Himself “by a most solemn blood covenant to fulfill to Abraham, unconditionally, the promises concerning the seed and the land which were given to him.” Pentecost concludes that it was impossible “for God to make it any clearer that what was promised to Abraham was given him without any conditions, to be fulfilled by the integrity of God alone.”

Alva J. McClain, late President of Grace Theological Seminary, deals with this covenant primarily from how it relates to his kingdom concept, and from that perspective he points out four “regal rights and privileges” contained in this covenant: first, innumerable natural descendants; second, “historical continuity” or preservation as a people; third, “an everlasting and irrevocable title” to the Promised Land; and, fourth, “final world supremacy.” As to its character, this covenant is unconditional. What this means is that “the promises originated wholly in God and were not conditioned upon any meritorious acts on the part of Abraham.” This does not guarantee that every individual Jew “will personally share in all the blessings promised under the covenant,” but “it does mean that the fulfillment of the promises … is in no sense dependent upon human character or action.” It rests upon God alone and “therefore cannot fail.”

 

 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, Rev. ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1994), 334–344.

 

Mike Sanders is a member of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, and teaches a men’s class there.  He is a former Church of Christ minister and retired UPS pilot.          

 




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