Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? By David E. Holwerda. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, xi + 193 pp., $12.99.
JETS 40:3 (1997): 485-87.
Answering the question posed in the subtitle, Holwerda defends the “one covenant” view—namely, that the new covenant Church (and it alone) stands in essential continuity with old covenant Israel. Developing his case exegetically, primarily from material in the gospels, he demonstrates that holy people, temple and land/city are through Christ (and through him exclusively) brought to their true and full manifestation. His conclusion: “Any so-called literalistic or particularistic fulfillment occurring outside or apart from this authentic resolution of the basic problem cannot be the genuine fulfillment that the Old Testament promises” (p. 182).
Various forms of dispensationalism are (more or less consistently) “two covenant” views. Another such is the approach of liberal and neo-orthodox ecumenists who regard Judaism with its back to Christ as a valid product of the old covenant, alongside the Church. In the support provided for a traditional Reformed (and even amillennial) theology of the covenants over against these “two covenant” aberrations lies the chief contribution of Holwerda’s work. He is to be commended for not letting false charges of anti-Semitism deter him from affirming the exclusive claims of the Christian way, while at the same time evincing a deeply sympathetic concern for the Jewish people in the Holocaust intensified tragedy of their diaspora and a Pauline desire for their salvation.
Not so successful is Holwerda’s handling of the secondary differences present within the fundamental unity of the old and new covenants. A core complex of such elements of discontinuity arose under the old covenant. As ratified by Israel’s oath, this covenant sealed their corporate election as a kingdom people to occupy the typological holy land, continuance in this temporary status being governed by law (i.e. works in contrast to grace). This covenantal core of national election, typological theocratic domain, and law formed an indivisible complex of mutually limiting and conditioning components. It was a second layer superimposed on the constant foundational stratum of individual election in Christ to eternal glory. It was constituted by and correlative with the old covenant specifically, and, therefore, the termination of the old covenant meant the discontinuance of this complex and the disappearance of its several components.
The main defect of Holwerda’s book is that in a variety of ways he blurs the discontinuity with the new covenant that is entailed in this peculiar core complex of the old covenant.
One critical instance of this failing is that he obscures the contrast between law and gospel, so emphatically taught by Paul. While recognizing that Israel’s obedience was “the legal basis for possessing the land” (p. 92), Holwerda skirts the issue of the law-identity of the old covenant as such. In his chapter on “Jesus and the Law” (pp. 113–145) the crucial question of the law-as-works principle gets lost in a discussion of law as a standard of conduct. At this point especially the author’s limitation of his exegetical base largely to the gospels runs counter to the book’s purpose of investigating the relation of the old and new covenants.
Also blurred is the discontinuity between national and individual election. This fault surfaces particularly in the study of Romans 9–11 in the chapter “A Future for Jewish Israel?” (pp. 147–176), the structural climax of the book.
Extracting Israel’s national election from the old covenant matrix of typological kingdom and law (i.e. works) that gave it substance and definition, Holwerda refashions it into a component of God’s covenant promise to Abraham of an elect seed in Christ. This melding of national and individual elections determines Holwerda’s exegesis of Romans 9–11. It drives him to adopt the erroneous view that Paul foretells a nationwide salvation of Jewry in the final generation, which is supposed to salvage God’s reputation as a promise-keeper in spite of the fall of the nation Israel. But if Israel’s national election is made a subset of individual election in Christ, the principle of sovereign grace operating in the latter would govern the national election too. Israel would then have to experience nationwide salvation in every generation without exception. Even if the alleged last generation conversion of the Jews transpired, God’s promise would still have failed in every previous generation.
It is the melding of the two elections, Holwerda’s controlling premise, that actually creates the problem. Accordingly, Paul’s solution is to challenge that confused blend, maintaining over against it the discontinuity: Not all who are of Israel, the elect nation, are Israel, the promised seed of Abraham, elect in Christ (Rom 9:6). At the same time, the apostle affirms the continuity within the individual election (Rom 11:28b, 29; cf. Gal 3:17). Indeed, he observes, even the failure of the national (works) election subserves the realization of the individual (grace) election among the Gentiles—and that in turn the continuing salvation of the elect remnant of Jews (Rom 11:11–24). So it is that a fullness of Israel and a fullness of Gentiles is achieved, an exceptionless triumph of sovereign grace, a perfect fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Christ (Rom 11:25–36).
Meredith G. Kline
Westminster Theological Seminary in California, Escondido, CA