Rudiments of Dispensationalism in the Ante-Nicene Period
Part 1: Israel and the Church in the Ante-Nicene Fathers
Bibliotheca Sacra [BSac 144:575 (Jul 87) pp. 254-276]
Larry V. Crutchfield

Bible Instructor
Baumholder Military Community, Baumholder, West Germany

Video Planned

The Fundamental Issue

    ONE OF THE CHARGES commonly leveled against dispensationalists is that theirs is an entirely new doctrine having no historical antecedents before the Plymouth Brethren leader John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). “No dispensational writer,” declares Clarence B. Bass, “has ever been able to offer…a single point of continuity between what is today known as dispensationalism and the historic premillennial view.”[1] Not only is it claimed that there is no point of continuity, but as Millard J. Erickson asserts, “No trace of this theology can be found in the early history of the church.”[2]
    However, dispensationalists like Charles C. Ryrie and Arnold D. Ehlert maintain that “features” or rudimentary concepts of dispensational theology were held by the Fathers of the early church and later by certain individuals after the Reformation.[3] While they readily admit that modern, systematized dispensationalism must be traced to Darby,[4] they nonetheless insist that there are historical and theological antecedents for this system of theology to be found as early as the patristic era, especially before the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
    This is not to suggest that in the church’s early history her leaders were dispensationalists in the modern sense of the word. Principles of hermeneutics, for example, were inconsistently applied and the science of biblical interpretation was in a state of flux throughout this period. In addition to this, the doctrine of eschatology has been one of the last doctrines to come to the fore as a topic for theological discussion.[5] In light of the relative recency of systematized eschatology, it is not surprising to find confusion on the subject in the early church. However, many of the Fathers set forth principles that later evolved into dispensationalism.
    Four elementary features of dispensationalism are found in the early church: (1) the year-day, or sex-/septa-millennial tradition; [Ap.][6] (2) belief in God’s dispensational arrangements with mankind throughout salvation history;[Ap.A] (3) the premillennial return of Christ; and (4) a return of Christ believed to be imminent.[7] [See Peters, Theocratic Kingdom, Prop. 74] (See the Appendix for a listing with documentation of the Fathers who held these views.) In addition to these rudimentary elements of dispensationalism, several of the early Fathers also held to a practical distinction between Israel and the church. This teaching in the early church—especially in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus—is the subject of the present study. The second article in this series, will deal with the early Fathers’ concept of the doctrine of ages and dispensations.

The Early Concept of Israel and the Church

    Of the dispensational concepts found in the writings of the Fathers, none is of greater importance than that of the relationship between Israel and the church. It is a relationship, as will be seen, cast primarily in terms of Abraham’s seed and faith in Christ. The basic premise held by the early premillenarian Fathers is that because of Israel’s disobedience and idolatry in the Old Testament and her rejection and crucifixion of Christ in the New, God had permanently cut that nation off as His people. The faithful then of the church age were to become the “new Israel” of God. As such, church-age believers, together with saints of all previous ages, will inherit the promises given to national (or natural) Israel, and this will occur in the millennial kingdom to come at the end of the world.
    The contemporary dispensational position on the relationship between Israel and the church is succinctly stated by Walvoord as follows:
As related to premillennial interpretation, normative dispensationalism tends to emphasize certain important distinctives. One of the most significant is the contrast provided between God’s program for Israel and God’s present program for the church. The church composed of Jew and Gentile is considered a separate program of God which does not advance nor fulfill any of the promises given to Israel. The present age is regarded as a period in which Israel is temporarily set aside as to its national program. When the church is translated, however, Israel’s program will then proceed to its consummation.[8]
    A superficial reading of the Fathers on this point has led many to conclude that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between their position and that of modern dispensationalists. However, a close examination of the matter proves that this is not the case. In practice, if not always in theory, these Fathers were much closer to the dispensational teaching on Israel and the church than it may appear at first.
    Perhaps the single most important point in the Fathers relative to this subject is that they maintained distinctions among the people of God throughout the ages. While they certainly held that people in every age are justified by faith through the blood of Christ (and in that sense there is a type of soteriological unity among all the faithful who have ever lived), they did maintain a working concept of “peoples of God,” not “a people of God.” In Barnabas and especially in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, as well as others after them, there was the understanding that the distinctions among the people of God include (1) the righteous who lived before Abraham (a spiritual seed of Abraham?); (2) the righteous physical descendants of Abraham (a spiritual seed of Abraham); and (3) those of the church age who are justified by faith after the fashion of Abraham (the spiritual seed of Abraham).[9] In addition to these three divisions of the faithful, there are, of course, (4) the unbelieving physical descendants of Abraham who comprise disinherited national Israel. In this, the Fathers are in complete disagreement with covenant amillennialists and certain covenant (or “historic”) premillennialists. The church is never confused with national Israel nor is it assumed to have existed in the Old Testament.[10] The church, according to the Fathers, began after the first advent of Christ, not with Adam or Abraham.[11] The first seeds of teaching on the relationship between Israel and the church are found in the Epistle of Barnabas.

Epistle of Barnabas (ca. A.D. 70-100 or 117-138)

    The highly allegorical nature of this epistle with the unmistakable imprint of Philo on it has led most scholars to believe that Barnabas was a Jew from Alexandria.[12] The epistle is divided into two parts. In the first 17 chapters, the author attempted to “Christianize” the Old Testament through an allegorical reinterpretation. His purpose was evidently to replace what he perceived to be the incorrect literal interpretation of the Jews with an interpretation that would bring a “full and firm grasp of…spiritual knowledge” to his readers.[13] The remaining four chapters, like the Didache, set forth the “the two ways of doctrine and authority, the one of light, and the other of darkness.”[14]
    In light of Barnabas’ position that the Old Testament belongs to Christians, not the Jews, it is not surprising that he held that the church is the true Israel of God and as such the inheritor of covenant promise. In this, Barnabas set a precedent for those who followed. It is the church, he wrote, “whom [the Lord] has led into the good land.” The stony-hearted Jews have been replaced by those within whom He has “put hearts of flesh” (Ezek 11:19; 36:26). Barnabas’ assertion here is based (faulty exegesis of the Ezekiel passages aside) on an allegorical interpretation of Exodus 33:3. The meaning of the milk and honey, he explained, is “that as the infant is kept alive first by honey, and then by milk, so also we, being quickened and kept alive by the faith of the promise and by the word, shall live ruling over the earth.” While this ruling is not a present reality, observed Barnabas, it will become so “when we ourselves also have been made perfect [so as] to become heirs of the covenant of the Lord.”[15]
    Chapters 13 through 16 are replete with examples of this type of allegorical interpretation and the attendant conclusion. Barnabas began chapter 13, “But let us see if this people [Christians] is the heir, or the former [Jews], and if the covenant belongs to us or to them.” He then expounded what became a common theme in proof of the supplanting of Israel by the church, namely, the elevation of Jacob over the firstborn Esau[16] (Gen 25), and Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over the firstborn Manasseh (Gen 48:18–19). Thus it is, he concluded, “that this people [Christians] should be first, and heirs of the covenant.” He also concluded that Abraham is shown to be the father of “those nations who believe in the Lord while in [a state of] uncircumcision” (Gen 15:6; 17:5; Rom 4:3).[17]
    Barnabas stated how Israel, because of her idolatry and preference for the temple over God Himself, has given over her inheritance to this new people. While on the one hand, “the city and the temple and the people of Israel were to be given up,” on the other, this new people of God in “the last days” has become His habitation and “spiritual temple.”[18] And how are these things known to be true? As the new people of God, the spiritual descendants of Abraham, suggested Barnabas, people in the church age have received circumcision of their ears and hearts.[19] Furthermore Christ Himself is the pledge of the coming fulfillment of covenant promise.[20]
    Though the early Fathers identified the church as the spiritual seed of Abraham and thus heirs to the covenant promises to him and to David, they nevertheless expected literal fulfillment of these promises in the earthly kingdom to come. Barnabas wrote, “For we ought to perceive that to govern implies authority, so that one should command and rule. If, therefore, this does not exist at present, yet still he has promised it to us. When? When we ourselves also have been made perfect [so as] to become heirs of the covenant of the Lord.”[21] And when is this perfection to take place? Barnabas maintained that it will occur at Christ’s second coming when the sabbath rest begins.[22]
    Barnabas seems to have made a distinction between church-age believers who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham, and the pre-church age righteous. For example he wrote of the “testament which [the Lord] swore to the fathers that he would give to the people.” But because of their sins, they did not receive it. “Moses, as a servant,” however, “received it [see Heb 3:5]; but the Lord himself, having suffered in our behalf, hath given it to us, that we should be the people of inheritance” (chap. 14).
    What, it may be asked, is the nature of the relationship of Abraham and Moses to the inheritance in the kingdom? Typical of the Fathers who followed him, Barnabas gave almost complete attention to the saints of the church age with scarcely a mention of the place of the Old Testament righteous in the order to come. That there are distinctions among the saints of the different ages is implied, but the practical implications of such distinctions are not disclosed. In Justin, while details of the interrelationships among the groups of believers are still lacking, at least the parameters of their existence stand out in somewhat bolder relief.

Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 100-165)

    Without question the most important figure among the early Christian leaders known as Apologists is Justin Martyr. Born in Flavia Neapolis in Samaria in A.D. 100, Justin was a trained, professional philosopher. He was a prolific writer, but only three of his works have survived. These include two Apologies, composed at Rome and directed to Emperor Antoninus Pius (138–161), and the Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. The latter is “the oldest Christian apology against the Jews which is extant.”[23] A number of spurious works have been ascribed to Justin, but only fragments of other genuine writings remain.
    In his explanation of the promises of earthly blessing through the seed of Isaac (Gen 26:4) and then Jacob (28:14), Justin maintained that there is a twofold division in that seed. On the one hand are those physically descended from Jacob “through Judah, and Phares, and Jesse, and David,” who would also “be found children of Abraham, and found, too, in the lot of Christ.” On the other hand are those who, while the physical descendants of Abraham also, “would be like the sand on the sea-shore, barren and fruitless…imbibing doctrines of bitterness and godlessness, but spurning the word of God.”[24]
    This twofold division of the physical seed of Abraham is further supported by an interesting discussion between Justin and Trypho over the relationship between faith in Christ and keeping the Law. Justin explained to Trypho that some weak-minded people may believe there is some virtue in observing the Mosaic legislation and who may thus wish to keep that Law while exercising faith in Christ. These, according to Justin, are saved individuals and therefore should be fellowshipped with. The references to circumcision, the Sabbath, and other observances, and the prohibition against efforts to draw Gentiles into this dual observance of Law and faith in Christ, make it clear Jews are spoken of here. But Justin added that those Jews who confess faith in Christ and then turn back completely to the “legal dispensation,” and “those of the seed of Abraham who live according to the Law” and “do anathematize this very Christ in the synagogues,” are totally without hope of salvation.[25] In Justin’s total discussion, it is a question of the believing physical descendants of Abraham being saved on the one hand, and of the unbelieving physical descendants of Abraham being lost on the other.
    Justin marked off two groups of people: (1) the physical seed of Abraham who are believers in Christ, and (2) the physical seed of Abraham who are rejectors of Christ. But elsewhere, in his analysis of “the seed out of Jacob” spoken of in Isaiah 65:9–12, Justin makes a further, emphatic distinction between the physical and spiritual seed of Jacob. He wrote,

    "The seed of Jacob now referred to is something else, and not…spoken of your people. For it is not possible for the seed of Jacob to leave an entrance for the descendants of Jacob, or for [God] to have accepted the very same persons whom He had reproached with unfitness for the inheritance, and promise it to them again…even so it is necessary for us here to observe that there are two seeds of Judah, and two races, as there are two houses of Jacob: the one begotten by blood and flesh, the other by faith and the Spirit."[26]

    At this point Justin has introduced a third group of people into the discussion—a nonphysical (i.e., Gentile), spiritual seed of Judah (or race of Jacob). It is these “who have been quarried out of the bowels of Christ,” says Justin, “[who] are the true Israelitic race.”[27] Justin had earlier declared to Trypho that God has blessed this people, called them Israel, and made them His inheritance. Justin maintained further that Christ, in parable form, was called Jacob and Israel in Isaiah 62:1–4, and thus believers “are called and are the true sons of God.”[28]
    Justin’s conclusion, then, was that the nation Israel—the nonbelieving physical descendants of Abraham and Jacob—had been cut off. The Jews are no longer the recipients of covenant promise. They have no inheritance to look forward to. Speaking to Trypho of the hope of the Jews, he said,

    "You deceive yourselves while you fancy that, because you are the seed of Abraham after the flesh, therefore you shall fully inherit the good things announced to be bestowed by God through Christ. For no one, not even of them [Abraham’s seed], has anything to look for, but only those who in mind are assimilated to the faith of Abraham…. So that it becomes you to eradicate this hope from your souls, and hasten to know in what way forgiveness of sins, and a hope of inheriting the promised good things, shall be yours."[29]

    If national Israel has been disinherited, then to whom will the inheritance go? At one point, when questioned by Trypho as to who shall have an inheritance on the holy mountain of God, Justin informed him that the Gentiles, who have believed on [Christ], and have repented of the sins which they have committed, they shall receive the inheritance along with the patriarchs and the prophets, and the just men who are descended from Jacob, even though they neither keep the Sabbath, nor are circumcised, nor observe the feasts. Assuredly, they shall receive the holy inheritance of God.[30]
    Thus those deemed worthy of such an honor, Justin maintained, shall be raised “to the everlasting kingdom along with the holy patriarchs and prophets,”[31] and just as Abraham left his home for a new land which God would show him, Christians too have left the old way of living for the new. So, continued Justin,

    "...along with Abraham we shall inherit the holy land when we shall receive the inheritance for an endless eternity, being children, of Abraham through the like faith…. Accordingly, He promises to him a nation of similar faith, God-fearing, righteous, and delighting the Father; but it is not you [the Jews], “in whom is no faith.”[32]

    Speaking further about the inheritance of the land, Justin disclosed the meaning of what he called “another mystery” predicted in Noah’s time. He interpreted Genesis 9:24–27, in which Noah pronounced blessings on Shem and Japheth and a curse on Canaan following the episode of Noah’s drunken nakedness, as predictive of the possession of the land of Canaan (and domination of the Canaanites) first by the Semites and then by the Japhethites. He concluded the matter by saying that Christ has come and has promised…that there shall be a future possession for all the saints in this same land. And hence all men everywhere, whether bond or free, who believe in Christ, and recognise the truth in His own words and those of His prophets, know that they shall be with Him in that land, and inherit everlasting and incorruptible good.[33]
    What emerges from all this is that Justin firmly believed in the literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants in the coming kingdom age, and that this fulfillment would come through Christ, the promised Seed. While Justin made it clear that those who are justified by faith and not national Israel will receive the covenant promises, he nowhere confused the church and national Israel. He maintained a distinct separation between the two throughout his writings.
    What also emerges from this discussion is that Justin maintained a separation of peoples within the framework of inheritance and covenant promise. Those identified as inheritors are believers of the church age—the spiritual, nonphysical descendants of Abraham. And believing Jews, who are of course his physical descendants, are presumably a spiritual seed of Abraham. And while it is never expressly stated, one may safely assume that the pre-Abrahamic righteous who were circumcised of heart,[34] in Justin’s estimation, are also included as recipients of covenant promises to be fulfilled in the millennial kingdom. They may perhaps be called a spiritual seed of Abraham in a prototypical sense as foreshadowing Abraham’s faith. In the Fathers, the first group receives most attention; the second much less in its role as the spiritual prototype of the first; and the third group receives substantially less attention than even the second. Beyond the assertion that all believers will reign with Christ, the details and practical outworking of the relationship among the various groups of saints in the kingdom itself is not discussed by the Fathers.
    For Justin and others to follow, national Israel through faithlessness and rejection of Christ has been permanently cut off. Thus believers of the church age now constitute the new Israel in a figurative sense as God’s chosen people. And according to Justin, as the redeemed of God and the true spiritual seed of Abraham, they, along with saints of other ages, are heirs of promise.
    One final point should be emphasized here. It is evident from what has been said that the kingdom for which Justin and others looked was not merely spiritual in nature. The church therefore could not be said in any respect to be the recipient of the covenant promises in some spiritual sense at the present time. While the early Fathers recognized that Christ’s coming kingdom had a spiritual dimension, they believed in a literal fulfillment of the covenants made with Abraham and David in a literal earthly kingdom yet future.[35] Peters is correct in saying that the early Church spoke in strict accordance with unbounded Faith in covenant promise. The prevailing modern notions, which make the covenants mean something else, were then unknown; for all the churches established East and West, North and South, both Jewish and Gentile, held to this inheritance as we now receive it.[36]
    Peters adds the following:

    "This is seen by their Chiliastic attitude and looking for the fulfilment of the Abrahamic-Davidic covenant at the speedy Advent of Jesus. They all held that Christ is become the surety or pledge of the Abrahamic covenant; that He will fulfil it in connection with the Davidic, with which it is incorporated; and that they would, through Christ, inherit the promises under that covenant. The decided and impressive testimony of these early Fathers…—that they were living under this renewed Abrahamic covenant as the seed of Abraham, which the death and exaltation of Jesus ensured to them of finally realizing in the inheriting of the land with Abraham—this cannot be set aside as a departure from the truth, or as “carnal,” without undermining the foundations of Christianity itself."[37]

    It is Peters’s conviction that to the degree that the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants are “upheld and exalted” as written, to that degree there is a natural and necessary belief in chiliasm or millennialism. Church history shows conclusively, he maintains, that this is so, “and just as the Origenistic, Popish, and Mystical interpretation extended so were these covenants ignored as nonessential, or else spiritualized so as to make them scarcely recognizable.”[38] The nonspiritualizing approach to the fulfillment of covenant promises is most definitely brought out in Irenaeus.

Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202)

    Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp (A.D. 70-155/60), bishop of Smyrna, who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John.[39] After his education in Asia Minor under Polycarp and others, at some point, the reason for which is unknown, Irenaeus set up residence in the Gallican city of Lyons and in A.D. 177 succeeded Pothinus as bishop of that see.[40] Of the several works ascribed to Irenaeus by Eusebius[41] and Jerome,[42] only two survive. But these two are highly valuable. The first of these works, Against Heresies, is in five books. On the one hand it is a detailed statement and refutation of the many forms of Gnostic heresies prevalent in Irenaeus’ day. But at the same time it sets forth a statement and defense of what was considered to be the true catholic and orthodox faith of the church. The second extant work by Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, survives only in an Armenian version. It is essentially apologetic in nature and presents the basics of the Christian faith.
    Irenaeus’ position on the relationship between Israel and the church is essentially the same as that found in Justin. God’s chosen people Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham, have been permanently cut off because of their idolatry and rejection of Christ. In the Old Testament, he said, they had chosen Baal over God, and in the New, Barabbas and Caesar over Christ. For this cause, concluded Irenaeus, “God was pleased to grant His inheritance to the foolish Gentiles, and…has restored again in us Abraham’s faith in Him.”[43]
    As with Justin, for Irenaeus church-age believers are the seed of Abraham and as such are the new inheritors of covenant promise. The church has completely supplanted national Israel. Irenaeus’ line of reasoning is as follows. Contrary to the teachings of Marcion and his followers, God did indeed promise Abraham an inheritance in which he himself would personally participate in the coming kingdom (Rom 4:3; Matt 8:11).[44] This inheritance, according to Irenaeus, would involve the literal possession of the Promised Land. After affirming that “the promise of God, which he gave to Abraham remains stedfast,” Irenaeus quoted Genesis 13:13–14, 17 and 15:13 in support of this belief, and as giving the boundaries of the Promised Land.[45]
    Irenaeus advanced his argument by saying that the promise was not fulfilled in Abraham’s lifetime. He remained a pilgrim and stranger in the land, forced even to purchase a burial site for Sarah (Gen 23:13). So if Abraham did not receive the promised inheritance of the land, Irenaeus continued, “it must be, that together with his seed, that is, those who fear God and believe in Him, he shall receive it at the resurrection of the just."[46]
    Here Irenaeus identified Abraham’s seed as “those who fear God and believe in Him.” A little further on in the same paragraph, he included as Abraham’s seed, “those who are justified by faith.”[47] This terminology obviously leaves the way open for the inclusion of all the faithful from Abraham to the coming kingdom within the category “seed of Abraham.” However, in the same place, Irenaeus pointedly wrote that “his seed is the Church, which receives the adoption to God through the Lord.” And in support of this position, he quoted Luke 3:8 and Galatians 3:6–9, 16; 4:28 .[48]
    Did Irenaeus then believe that the church began with Abraham, as covenant theologians suggest? No, for elsewhere he unquestionably affirmed that the church was “founded and built up” by “the blessed apostles.”[49] While Irenaeus was less precise than Justin in his discussion of this subject, Irenaeus did make a distinction between the spiritual seed of Abraham (the church), and a spiritual seed of Abraham (believing physical descendants of Abraham). Precisely how the pre-Abrahamic righteous are to be classified is no clearer than it is in Justin. But certainly they are among “those who fear[ed] God and believe[d] in Him.” So they must be in some sense, as looking forward, a (prototypical) spiritual seed of Abraham, “justified by faith.”[50] Irenaeus recognized the unbelieving physical seed of Abraham, and this he identified as rejected, national Israel.
    Like Justin, Irenaeus in his zeal for the church made the mistake of essentially ignoring those saints who lived between Adam and Abraham, and between Abraham and Christ. While there are veiled references to them in expressions like “those who fear God and believe in Him,” and “those who are justified by faith,” details concerning their relationship to the church and the coming kingdom are totally lacking. With almost complete focus on Abraham and the church, one is left only to make assumptions about the lot of pre-church-age saints.
    Concerning the church itself, however, the position is clear. As Moses wrote in Deuteronomy, said Irenaeus, “the Gentiles [the church] are to become the head, and an unbelieving people [Israel] the tail.”[51] This “holy people,” prophesied by Hosea (Hos 2:23; cf. Rom 9:25–26) and affirmed by John the Baptist (Matt 3:9), having rejected idol worship in favor of belief in Christ, “have become sons of Abraham” and thus subjects of his inheritance.[52] In this way, according to Irenaeus, God has fulfilled His promise to Abraham to make his seed like the stars of heaven. Christ, descended from Abraham and born of a virgin, has “justifi[ed] the Gentiles through the same faith with Abraham.” For as Abraham was justified by faith (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:13), so too are we justified[53] by the same faith that was “prefigured in Abraham…the patriarch of our faith and as it were the prophet of it [Gal 3:5–9; Gen 12:3].”[54]

    "For which [reasons the apostle] declared that this man was not only the prophet of faith, but also the father of those who from among the Gentiles believe in Jesus Christ, because his faith and ours are one and the same: for he believed in things future, as if they were already accomplished, because of the promise of God; and in like manner do we also, because of the promise of God, behold through faith that inheritance [laid up for us] in the [future] kingdom."[55]

    Irenaeus saw in Isaac’s twin sons a type of the two nations or two peoples of God to come. But it would be the latter people (the Gentile church), typified by Jacob, who would supplant and “snatch away the blessings of the former” people (Israel), identified with Esau.[56]

The Contemporary Correlation

    If this is an accurate portrayal of the position of the ante-Nicene, premillenarian Fathers on the relationship between Israel and the church, what is its correlation to the contemporary dispensational position on the subject? The main difficulty with the Fathers is not their concept of the origin of the church and whether or not it is distinct from Israel. There is little question that Israel and the church were viewed as separate organic entities. The chief problem has to do rather with their concept of the church as one of the principal beneficiaries of covenant
promises formerly intended for national Israel. This certainly seems to be in direct contradiction to modern dispensational teaching.[57]
    It is not surprising that the Fathers were so insistent that national Israel was cut off for her faithlessness and that the church was brought in as her replacement. These early leaders found it necessary to contend regularly with a hostile Judaism, the proponents of which had crucified the Redeemer. How could these Christ-rejectors and opponents of the true faith expect anything of God? asked the Fathers. This belief coupled with the lack of exegetical sophistication indigenous to the times, led to the erroneous conclusion that the church had supplanted Israel as the heir of Abraham.
    In reality, however, the remnant of Israel still exists, according to the Fathers, though they did not call it that. This is seen in the concept of the seed of Abraham. According to the Fathers the church is a distinct entity and heir of covenant promise. But in almost every reference to the recipients of inheritance in the millennial kingdom, the church is reckoned as only a co-inheritor “together with” the righteous physical descendants of Abraham and with the righteous who lived before the calling out of Israel.
    There is no doubt that the position of the Fathers on the relationship between Israel and the church has problems. But certain elements in their thought place them close to, though not altogether within, the dispensational camp. That the church is never called national Israel nor national Israel the church is certain. The church is called the “new Israel” only in the sense that believers follow the analogy of Abraham’s faith and are his spiritual offspring, and therefore are the people of God in the new dispensation. That these Fathers maintained distinctions among the peoples of God in various ages is also evident in their treatment of Abraham’s seed and the recipients of the inheritance in the millennial kingdom. That these Fathers also held to the literal fulfillment of covenant promises in this coming kingdom, contrary to the covenant amillennial position, is beyond dispute. As Mason rightly observes,

    "The millennial hope, undeniably prominent in the early church centuries, is based upon a true interpretation of the covenants of God with Abraham, affecting a land and a seed, and with David, affecting a kingly house in perpetuity. These are at once the core principles of interpretation for both premillennialism and dispensationalism."[58]

    The Fathers (1) distinguished between the church and national Israel, (2) recognized distinctions among the differing peoples of God throughout biblical history, and (3) believed in the literal fulfillment of covenant promises in the earthly kingdom. It is most unfortunate, however, that the ante-Nicene Fathers relegated believers between Jacob and Pentecost to the sidelines in the drama of redemption and especially in its final glorious earthly act, the millennial kingdom. Obviously the Fathers did not include them in the church age, but neither did they classify them as believing Israel.
    The early Fathers overlooked the many Scripture references that unmistakably speak of the faithful remnant of Israel and that require the restoration of that nation so that the promises to Abraham might be fulfilled. While the church will indeed share in the blessings of covenant promise as a seed, but not the seed of Abraham, the primary recipients of promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, on the basis of careful exegesis of Scripture, can only be the restored believing remnant of Israel—a remnant that has existed throughout Israel’s history.[59] The contemporary dispensational position on Israel and the church is primarily a refinement and not a contradiction of the position of the ante-Nicene church.

[1] Clarence B. Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 14.
[2] Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 111.
[3] For statements of their respective positions see Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), pp. 65-85; Arnold D. Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), pp. 5-30.
[4] For a full discussion of Darby’s dispensational theology and its relationship to that of C. I. Scofield, see this writer’s “The Doctrine of Ages and Dispensations as Found in the Published Works of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882)” (PhD diss, Drew University, 1985).
[5] James Orr, The Progress of Dogma (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), pp. 24-30.
[6] Ehlert believes this tradition to be closely related to the doctrine of dispensations proper and necessary to an understanding of its roots. Briefly stated, the tradition held that the world was to endure for 6, 000 years and would then be followed by a 1,000-year millennial or sabbath rest (see Heb 3:11; 4:1). The doctrine was based on the six days of creation with the seventh day of rest of Gen 2:2, and the belief (based on 2 Pet 3:8 and Ps 90:4) that each day was to be reckoned as representative of a thousand years. For the background of this tradition see Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism, pp. 8-22, and Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, vol. 2, (London: J. McGowan, n.d.), p. 253.
[7] As Henry C. Thiessen correctly observes, “It is clear…that the Fathers held not only the premillennial view of Christ’s coming, but also regarded that coming as imminent. The Lord had taught them to expect His return at any moment, and so they looked for Him to come in their day” (Thiessen, Introductory Lectures in Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949], p. 477). Walvoord identifies imminency as the central feature of pretribulationism (John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979], p. 51). The actual position of the earliest Fathers is what may best be described as “imminent intratribulationism.” They generally viewed all tribulation within the context of the current persecution under Rome. This, the Fathers believed, was the present reality into which Antichrist would appear and Christ would come (compare the Thessalonian error, 2 Thess 2).
[8] John F. Walvoord, “Dispensational Premillennialism,” Christianity Today, September 15, 1958, p. 13.
[9] It is evident from this that the Fathers are in disagreement with Daniel P. Fuller’s belief that there is but a single physical seed of Abraham which includes the church (Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980], pp. 130-34).
[10] See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941), pp. 570-71. Here Berkhof says, “The Church existed in the old dispensation as well as in the new, and was essentially the same in both, in spite of acknowledged institutional and administrative differences” (p. 571). Covenant premillennialist J. Barton Payne also sees the church in the Old Testament, which he assumes began with Abraham (see J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962], p. 91).
[11] When Justin said, “We, who have been quarried out from the bowels of Christ are the true Israelitic race” (Dialogue chap. 135), and Irenaeus observed that “the Church is the Seed of Abraham” (Against Heresies 5:34:1; 5:32:2), they can only mean that the church, by virtue of justification by faith in Christ, is to be included in the spiritual descendants of Abraham. Irenaeus understood the foundations of the church to have been laid by the apostles and thus it began with them, not Abraham (Against Heresies 3:1:1; 3:3:2–3; cf. Tertullian On Prescription against Heretics chap. 20; and Cyprian Epistles 69:3; 72:7; Treatises 2:10; and 9:9).
[12] Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 3 vols. (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1983), 1:89.
[13] Epistle of Barnabas chap. 10. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from and references to the Fathers in this study are from Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.).
[14] Epistle of Barnabas chap. 18; cf. Didache chaps. 1–6 with Barnabas chaps. 18, 19, 20.
[15] Epistle of Barnabas chap. 6.
[16] For other references to the two peoples, or two nations, represented by Jacob and Esau, see Irenaeus Against Heresies 4:21:2-3 and Tertullian An Answer to the Jews chap. 1; Against Marcion 3.24.
[17] Epistle of Barnabas chap. 13.
[18] Ibid., chaps. 14 and 16.
[19] Ibid., chaps. 9 and 10 (last sentence).
[20] Ibid., chap. 16.
[21] Ibid., chap. 6.
[22] Ibid., chap. 15.
[23] Quasten, Patrology, 1:202.
[24] Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho chap. 120.
[25] Ibid., chap. 47.
[26] Ibid., chap. 135.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid., chap. 123.
[29] Ibid., chap. 44.
[30] Ibid., chaps. 2526. Tertullian also made a distinction between the parties who shall receive the inheritance of God in the kingdom. In one place, having just spoken of Christ as “the Pontiff of the priesthood of the uncircumcision [the Gentiles]…by whom He was to be more fully received,” Tertullian added that “at His last coming He will favour with His acceptance and blessing the circumcision also, even the race of Abraham, which by and by is to acknowledge Him” (Against Marcion 5.9). Elsewhere Tertullian identified these two groups as “the chosen of God” (Gentiles of Luke 21:24), and “the remnant of Israel” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh chap. 22). For Tertullian, is it “the remnant of Israel” to which the saints between Abraham and Pentecost belong? Cyprian, in speaking of the “Judge and Avenger” for whom believers wait, wrote that He “shall equally avenge with Himself the congregation of His Church and the number of all the righteous from the beginning of the world” (Treatise 9:24). For Cyprian, the church clearly does not include all saints of all ages.
[31] Ibid., chap. 120.
[32] Ibid., chap. 119.
[33] Ibid., chap. 139.
[34] Ibid., chaps. 2728.
[35] Thus Tertullian could both speak of “God’s kingdom is an everlasting and heavenly possession” and yet “confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth” (Against Marcion 3:24). And Cyprian could write that “we do well in seeking the kingdom of God, that is, the heavenly kingdom, because there is also an earthly kingdom” (Treatise 4:13).
[36] George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus, the Christ, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing House, 1958), 1:304 (italics his) [Prop. 49].
[37] Ibid., 1:324 (italics his) [Prop. 50]. Peters seems to concur with the Fathers in their mistaken notion that the church is the heir of Israel’s promises by virtue of the New Covenant. He fails to see, as they did, that while the New Covenant does have application for the church in the present age as it relates to the Lord’s Supper, it is nevertheless directed distinctly in the Old Testament and substantially in the New to national Israel, and therefore in no way abrogates the promises made to Abraham’s physical descendants but rather reinforces them. For helpful discussions of the New Covenant see John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), pp. 208-20, and Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953), pp. 105-25.
[38] Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1:326 [Prop. 50].
[39] Eusebius Church History 5:20:5-7.
[40] Ibid., 5:5:8.
[41] Ibid., 4:21 (see note 9 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series); 5:26.
[42] Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men chap. 35.
[43] Irenaeus Proof of the Apostolic Preaching chap. 95. The edition of the Proof cited in this article is Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, eds., Ancient Christian Writers: St. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, trans. Joseph P. Smith (New York; Ramsey, NJ: Newman Press, 1946). For additional references to Abraham’s faith as the prototype for church-age believers, see Tertullian Against Marcion 4:34; 5:3; A Treatise on the Soul chap. 21; and Cyprian Treatise 9:10.
[44] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4:8:1.
[45] Ibid., 5:32:2.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid.; see also 4:8:1, for the statement, “his seed, that is, the Church.”
[49] Ibid., 3:3:3; see also 3:1:1 and 3:3:2, for references to Peter and Paul as “laying the foundations of the Church.”
[50] Irenaeus Against Heresies 5:32:2.
[51] Irenaeus Proof chap. 95.
[52] Ibid., chaps. 91 and 93; cf. Against Heresies 4:8:1.
[53] Ibid., chap. 35.
[54] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4:21:1.
[55] Ibid.
[56] Ibid., 4:21:2-3.
[57] See the quotation from Walvoord on pages 256–57 of this article.
[58] Clarence E. Mason, “A Review of ‘Dispensationalism’ by John Wick Bowman,” Bibliotheca Sacra 114 (January-March 1957): 15.
[59] For valuable treatments of themes related to Israel, (e.g., her status as a nation, her future restoration, her covenant promises, etc.) see John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom; J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958); and Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith.