First Issue

In Romans chapters 9-11, Paul informs his readers of the then-current condition of Israel in relationship to the plan and purpose of God. Romans 11 is the chapter most modern theologians would turn for proof texts to show whether or not there is a future for Israel in God’s plan for the Nation of Israel. While some say there is no future for Israel in God’s plan and purpose, the most significant divide is between the several groups that say there is a future plan for Israel. Paul makes very clear in Romans 11:1-2 that God has not rejected the nation of Israel. The inference made by Paul is that if God had rejected Israel for their rejection of the Messiah, then neither Paul nor any of the other disciples would be a part of what God was doing.

The first issue that divides theologians concerning the future of Israel today comes from Romans 11:17-24. In this pericope, Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree and its branches. It is clear from the text that the wild olive branches are the Gentiles, and the cultivated olive branches represent the Jewish people. It is also clear that the unbelieving Jewish branches were broken off to graft the wild olive branches into their place. In this metaphor, it is the identification of the root that causes the different views as to the destiny of Israel.

Dispensational theologian and Messianic Jew Arnold Fruchtenbaum says:

The Olive Tree in this passage does not represent Israel or the Church, but it represents the place of spiritual blessing…The Gentiles, by their faith, have now become partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings. This Olive Tree represents the place of blessing, and of its sap. Gentiles have been made partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings as contained in the Abrahamic Covenant. The Gentiles are not taker-overs, but partakers of Jewish spiritual blessings.[1]

Covenant theologian Charles Hodge says that “The Gentiles are saved by their introduction into that church of which the patriarchs were the root.”[2] Hodge says further that:

It is plain from this verse, that the root in this passage cannot be the early converts from among, but the ancient covenant people of God. The ancient theocracy was merged in the kingdom of Christ. The latter is but an enlargement and elevation of the former. There has, therefore, never been other than one family of God on earth, existing under different institutions, and enjoying different degrees of light and favour. This family was composed, of old, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants.[3]

Fruchtenbaum responds to Hodge’s interpretation by saying, “This identification of the Olive Tree with the Church arises out of Hodge’s Covenant Theology which only allows for one people of God.”[4] The combining or identification of the New Testament Chruch with the Old Testament identification of Israel results from inconsistent use of a literal hermeneutic. By identifying the Chruch as partakers of the spiritual blessings to Israel, there is a distinction between Israel and the Chruch but not a complete divorce.

Second Issue

The second issue that divides theologians concerning the future of Israel today comes from Romans 11:26 “and so all Israel will be saved…” The precise division answers the question, “Who is all Israel that will be saved?” What is the makeup of “all Israel” in the mind of Paul when he wrote this text? While one group says that “all Israel” means all believing Israelites who are descendants of Jacob, who is Israel, the second group of theologians say that the “all Israel” that will be saved is the “spiritual” Israel or the “true” Israel. The former group would be identified as dispensational and the latter identified as covenantal.[5]

Dispensational theology maintains that with the consistent use of a normal hermeneutic, there is a distinction between Israel as a nation and the Church as the body of Christ, Colossians 1:18. The Church is a mystery in the Old Testament and is never called Israel in the New Testament. That when Paul speaks of Israel in Romans 11, he means the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In this view, the Church having been raptured before the tribulation began, the “all Israel” Paul speaks of in Romans 11:26 is the remnant of believing Israel that ends the tribulation period and cues the second advent of Christ to establish His Kingdom, bringing along the raptured Church saints with Him.

Covenentalism[6], for the most part, uses a normal hermeneutic. However, when it comes to events that are still yet future, they tend to utilize a spiritualized hermeneutic. The primary result of inconsistent use of hermeneutics is that most covenentalists view the Church as the “new” or “true” or “spiritual” [7] Israel. In this view, the Church as the new Israel will proceed through the tribulation and will witness the second advent from an earthly perspective.

As previously stated, Dispensational theology maintains a consistent use of a literal hermeneutic in the definition of Israel in the New Testament as the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, Israel is never called the Church, and the Church is never called Israel. On the other hand, Covenant theology spiritualizes certain texts to maintain that the Church in the New Testament is somehow a continuation of a spiritual Israel.

Covenant theologian Lee Irons provides an example of how the exchange takes place through redefinition. He builds his argument from chapter 9 of Romans, where he accuses Paul of redefining Old Testament Israel as the New Testament Church. Irons argues that Paul introduced “A new criterion…to define those who are the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic promises. A new definition is emerging.”[8] He says further concerning Romans 9:6 that “If being an Israelite doesn’t necessarily make one a true Israelite, then one need not be an Israelite to be a true Israelite. The door has now been opened to allow for Gentiles to be reckoned as true Israelites.”[9] Concluding his section on the redefinition of Israel, Irons says:

Therefore, to take ‘all Israel’ as a reference to the church is not only natural (since the reader has been primed for it ever since chapter 20 but necessary in order to achieve a satisfying resolution to the issues that have been raised throughout the course of Paul’s extended argument. This interpretation has the great advantage of unifying the first eleven chapters of Romans and bringing the whole to a climactic crescendo of redemptive-historical insight.”

Irons’ interpretation achieves the only satisfying resolution that his theological position that the New Testament Church is the new Israel is left intact. Had he maintained a consistently literal hermeneutic, he would have had to change his theological position.

Leaving Stuff Out

Covenant theologian Ben L. Merkle mirrors Irons in his argumentation for the meaning of “all Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26a. Merkle says there are “three interpretations” for the passage. “1. All the elect, both Jew and Gentile…2. The ethnic nation as a whole…3. The elect of ethnic Israel throughout history.”[10] However, the view held by Dispensational theology is not even one of the possibilities. Neither Irons nor Merkle attempt to refute the interpretation of Dispensational theology for Romans 11:26a. It is as if they do not want their readers to know that they have not covered all of the options. It shows their dishonesty as biblical exegetes, which is another trait of covenentalism. They just leave stuff out that would contradict their interpretation.

They do, however, use language that would suggest that they are aware of the teachings of Dispensational theology. One of those teachings is that there will be a mass conversion of Jews in the future. From a Dispensational view, that is the whole point of Romans 11:26-27.


There is one single factor that causes contradictory views on the destiny of Israel, as discussed in the book of Romans. It is the consistent use of a literal hermeneutic, including texts of a prophetic nature. The only exception from a Covenant Theology perspective is Covenant Premillennialism as defined by James Oliver Buswell (1895-19770).[11] Buswell “saw no reason why dispensational premillennialism could not fit into Reformed Theology.”[12] While Buswell saw a future for Israel in God’s plan, he also maintained that the Jewish nation in the Old Testament constituted a church, and the Gentiles could live under the umbrella of the Jewish church. Conversely, the Gentile Church of the New Testament is the umbrella for the Israelites.[13]


Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. 1996. Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology. Rev. Tustin, Calif: Ariel Ministries.

Hodge, Charles. 1886. Commentary on the Epistle to The Romans. W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Irons, Lee. 1997. “Paul’s Theology of Israel’s Future: A Nonmillennial Interpretation of Romans 11.” Reformation and Revival 6, no. 2.

Khoo, Jeffrey. 2001. “Dispensational Premillennialism In Reformed Theology: The Contribution Of J. O. Buswell To The Millennial Debate.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 4.

Merkle, Ben L. 2000. “Romans 11 And The Future Of Ethnic Israel.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43, no. 4.

  1. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, rev. (Tustin, Calif: Ariel Ministries, 1996). page 744
  2. Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to The Romans (W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1886). page 368
  3. Ibid, Italics in original
  4. Fruchtenbaum 1996 page95
  5. The researcher wants to avoid making this about the differences in the two theological systems and focus on the primary points in those differences which cause the division as it pertains to the destiny of Israel in Romans 11.
  6. This writer acknowledges the labyrinth that is Reformed Covenant Theology. They represent an across the board spectrum of beliefs as to the destiny of Israel. There are Post-millennial, Amillennial, Historic Premillennial, and Covenant Premillennial.It is not the writers intent to define all of these forms of covenentalim. It is enough to know that from left to right reveals the amout to which the text of Scripture is spiritualized. Post-millennial being the most spiritualized represented by Charles Hodge. Covenant Premillennialism being the least spiritualized represented by James Oliver Buswell.
  7. There are a myriad of terms used, however, they all, in some way assume that God’s covenant promises to Israel are fulfilled by or in the Church.
  8. Lee Irons, “Paul’s Theology of Israel’s Future: A Nonmillennial Interpretation of Romans 11,” Reformation and Revival 6, no. 2 (1997). page 117
  9. Ibid page 119
  10. Ben L. Merkle, “Romans 11 And The Future Of Ethnic Israel,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43, no. 4 (2000). pages 709-710
  11. This writer does not have access to Busell’s Systematic Theology and recognizes the bad form of citing quotations from other sources.
  12. Jeffrey Khoo, “Dispensational Premillennialism In Reformed Theology: The Contribution Of J. O. Buswell To The Millennial Debate,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 4 (2001). page 699
  13. Ibid 707-711

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