by Jerry Shugart


Nearly five hundred years ago Martin Luther taught that the diatheke which applies to those in the Body of Christ is the gospel. Then one hundred and fifty years later Matthew Henry saw the same truth. In the 19th century dispensationalist Sir Robert Anderson taught that the Christian's spiritual blessings are not received through a covenant but instead through a testament:

"Our spiritual and eternal blessings do not depend on a covenant made with us, but upon a testament under which we are beneficiaries" (Sir Robert Anderson, Types in Hebrews [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1978], 56).

Since then those precious truths just slipped through the fingers of the Traditional Dispensationalists. And as a result the theology put forth by the Progressive Dispensationalists has found a home at Dallas Theological Seminary and is gaining new converts every day.

Anderson also wrote the following concerning a dispensational approach to the Bible:

"Holy Scripture has long been like an eloborate mosaic, of which the several parts have been disturbed, and the main design forgotten. But its hidden harmony was brought to life by the study of 'dispensational truth'" [emphasis added] (Anderson, Unfulfilled Prophecy [London: Chas. J. Thynne, 1917], 50).

Progressive Dispensationalism is an assault on the harmony of the Bible, teaching that the Lord Jesus is now seated on the throne of David even though the Scriptures reveal that He is now at the right hand of the Father at the Father's throne and not at His own throne. Also, the Progressive Dispensationalists admit that if the Messianic Kingdom has not yet been inaugurated then the New Covenant promised to Israel is not now operational. Despite the fact that kingdom has not yet been inaugurated the Progressive Dispensationalists continue to teach that those in the Body of Christ partake of Israel's New Covenant. And to make matters worse, there are now some in the Traditional Dispensational community who are teaching the false idea that those in the Body of Christ do indeed partake of the New Covenant and therefore the Body of Christ is not a parenthesis in the Divine purpose toward Israel.

H. Wayne House, who was previously a professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, said the following about the dangers of Progressive Dispensationalism:

"One of my best students, and a research assistant to me at DTS, had told me in the mid-1990's that he had accepted progressive dispensationalism. My next meeting with him at the Dallas Seminary bookstore just two years ago I discovered that he had embraced amillennialism and covenant theology. When I asked him about this he commented to me that it was an easy move to make from progressive dispensationalism to amillennialism" (House, "Dangers of Progressive Dispensationalism to Pre-Millennial Theology," Pre-Trib. CD 2003, page 3).

Dr. Robert Lightner, also previously a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, expressed the following sentiments about Progressive Dispensationalism and the threat that it poses to that institution as well as to the teaching of Traditional Dispensationalism:

"What concerns me, and a host of others, are some of the things that have been tolerated, are being tolerated and, in fact, promoted by some faculty members. We are fearful of the future. We are afraid of the long, slippery slope and of what will happen. We have that fear, not just out of emotionalism, but out of a reflection on history. This is exactly what has happened in other organizations and institutions. There are no sudden landslides in the Christian community, even in a Christian's life. Instead, there is always a gradual trickling and slipping away of the foundation, picking at the foundation until eventually there is nothing worthwhile left" (Robert Lightner, "Progressive Dispensationalism," Conservative Theological Journal, April, 2000).

Those in the Traditional Dispensationalism camp must stand guard againt false teaching because, as Paul said, "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Cor.5:6).

In his classic book The Coming Prince Sir Robert wrote the following:

"When David reached the throne of Israel and came to choose his generals, he named for the chief commands the men who had made themselves conspicuous by feats of prowess or of valor. Among the foremost three was one of whom the record states that he defended a tract of lentiles, and drove away a troop of the Philistines (2 Sam 23:11-12). To others it may have seemed little better than a patch of weeds, and not worth fighting for, but it was precious to the Israelite as a portion of the divinely-given inheritance, and moreover the enemy might have used it as a rallying ground from which to capture strongholds. So is it with the Bible. It is all of intrinsic value if indeed it be from God; and moreover, the statement which is assailed, and which may seem of no importance, may prove to be a link in the chain of truth on which we are depending for eternal life" (Sir Robert Anderson, The Coming Prince [Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1957] 18).

Appendix #1: Defining the Greek Word Diatheke

In order to understand the relationship between the Body of Christ and the New Covenant promised to Israel it is necessary to understand the meaning of the Greek word diatheke which is translated "covenant" in the following verse:

"For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant (diatheke) with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah" (Heb.8:8; KJV).

Now let us look at this verse where the word diatheke is used as a promise which God made to Abraham:

"That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant (diatheke); The oath which he sware to our father Abraham" (Lk.1:71-73).

Geerhardus Vos wrote "in the Gospel i. 72 the 'diatheke' is equivalent to the promise given to the fathers; the parallelism in which it stands with the 'oath' of God proves this: 'to remember his holy 'diatheke,' the oath which He swore unto Abraham, our father'" [emphasis added] (Geerhardus Vos, "Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke," The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 13, No.4, 1915, 613 ).

Therefore, we can understand that the Greek word diatheke can mean a "promise."

A Closer Examination of the Meaning of Diatheke

Let us look at the following translation of Jeremiah 31:31 to see that the the Hebrew word translated "covenant" at Jeremiah 31:31 is berith:

"Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant (berith) with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" (Jer.31:31).

Louis Berkhof wrote that "In the Septuagint the word 'berith' is rendered 'diatheke' in every passage where it occurs with the exception of Deut. 9:15 ('marturion') and I Kings 11:11 ('entole'). The word 'diatheke' is confined to this usage, except in four passages. This use of the word seems rather peculiar in view of the fact that it is not the usual Greek word for covenant, but really denotes a disposition, and consequently also a testament. The ordinary word for covenant is 'suntheke'" [emphasis added] (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids, 1949], 262-263).

According to Berkhof the Greek word diatheke denotes a "disposition" as well as a "testament." In the The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament we read that the word diatheke "is properly 'dispositio,' an 'arrangement' made by one party with plenary power, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot alter" (J.H. Molton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930], 148).

Here we see that the translators of the Greek Old Testament (LXX) used the Greek word diatheke to translate the Hebrew word berith:

"Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant (diatheke) with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" (Jer.31:31; LXX).

Vos also wrote that the Greek word diatheke can mean "disposition," writing that "all that they (the translators of the Greek New Testament) wanted out of 'diatheke' was the emphasis which the word enabled them to throw upon the one-sided initiative and the unimpaired sovereignty of God in originating the order of redemption..Their procedure appears intelligent only on the supposition that they believed 'diatheke' capable of retaining or reacquiring the sense of 'disposition'" (Geerhardus Vos, "Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke," 604-605 ).

Now let us look at the following verse:

"That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants (diatheke) of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Eph.2:12).

In his commentary on this verse Vos says that "in Eph. ii. 12 the phrase 'covenants of the promise,' in which the genitive is epexegetical, yields positive proof that Paul regards the 'diatheke' as so many successive promissory dispositions of God, not as a series of mutual agreements between God and the people" [emphasis added] (Ibid., p.609).

The word diatheke does not carry with it the sense of a compact or of a mutual agreement between two parties, which is the normal understanding of a covenant. Albert Barnes wrote that "the writers of the New Testament never meant to represent the transactions between God and man as a 'compact or covenant' properly so called. They have studiously avoided it...The word which they employ - 'diatheke' - never means a compact or agreement as between equals" (Barnes' Notes on the Bible, Commentary at Hebrews 8:8;

Even though Robert Saucy is a Progressive Dispensationalist he recognizes that the New Diatheke is essentially a "promise," writing that "because of its gracious promissory nature, the new covenant is frequently identified with the covenants of promise" [emphasis added] (Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993], p.121).

J. H. Moulton and G. Milligan say that diatheke "is properly 'dispositio,' an 'arrangement' made by one party with plenary power, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot alter. A 'will' is simply the most conspicuous example of such an instrument, which ultimately monopolized the word just because it suited its differentia so completely" [emphasis added] (J.H. Molton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930], 148).

So we can see that the Greek word diatheke can mean a "Promissory Disposition" and it can also mean a "Last will and Testament."

Additional Note

In regard to Hebrews 9:16-17 some say that what is written there "does not correspond to any 'any known form of Hellenistic (or indeed any other) legal practice.' A Hellenistic will was secure and valid when it was written down, witnessed and deposited, not when the testator died." According to this idea the diatheke mentioned in these verses is not speaking of a Last Will and Testament. Based on his study of the Bible Richard Hiers tells another story:

"One other feature of the law of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is to be noted first. Verse 16 refers to the day on which a man 'assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons.' This verse suggests a process very much like testation, the making of a will. What Deuteronomy 21:15-17 says, in effect, is that a man may not ignore his obligation to provide his first-born son with a double portion just because he dislikes that son's mother. Thus, this law is somewhat similar in purpose to modem statutes that prevent one spouse from 'writing' or 'cutting' the other 'out of' his or her will by providing that the survivor may elect a 'spousal share' in lieu of taking under terms of the will" (Richard H. Hiers, Transfer of Property by Inheritance and Bequest in Biblical Law and Tradition;

No doubt there were legal instruments which were promissory dispositions (diatheke) which provided for a transfer of property while the one who made it remained alive but that type of legal instrument would not be the same kind of diatheke (Last Will and Testament) which was not in effect until the one who made it died. Besides that, the Scriptures speak of a diatheke at Psalm 89:34 (Davidic Covenant)in the LXX and there is absolutely no evidence found in the Scriptures that demonstates that any death was associated with that diatheke so that type of diatheke cannot possibly be the same one spoken of at Hebrews 9:15-17 because the diatheke spoken of in those verses required a death before it could be in force.

Appendix #2

In a study written by Lloyd Thomas we read the following:

"E.W. Bullinger (1837-1913) is one source of the false idea that absence of the definite article ('the') from the term Holy Spirit in the New Testament in its original language means that it is not the person of the Holy Spirit Himself but merely a function or action of the Spirit that is referred to" (Lloyd Thomas, The Greek Definite Article and the Holy Spirit of God;

Here Lloyd Thomas calls Bullinger's idea about the definite article "false" and he says that we should use a "scientific approach" in our efforts to determine the truth in regard to the definite article as used in the first century:

"A scientific approach to this issue would not have focused on the definite article with special regard to the Holy Spirit, but the use of the definite article with regard to any noun in the common Greek of the first century. That language, as the common people of that time understood it, is the real issue!" (Ibid.).

John F. Walvoord, the second President of Dallas Theological Seminary, discusses the presence or the absence of the definite article before the Greek noun translated "law":

"It is obvious that there must be some meaning to the use of the article or its absence, particularly when we observe careful distinction often in the same verse of Scripture. It is the writer's contention that the article when used has some significance, and when it is not used there must be some reason for its absence. He (Paul) therefore concludes in 3:20 that 'by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.' As the 'law' includes both Jews and Gentiles in this summary, it is clear that it has the general meaning of any moral law" [emphasis added] (Walvoord, "Law in the Epistle to the Romans," Bibliotheca Sacra, Jan., 1937, [Vol. 94, #373], 17,21).

As Walvoord says, at Romans 3:20 the word "law" applies to both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, any translation which renders the passage as "the law" is in error because the Gentiles were never given "the law" (Ro.2:14). The correct translation is "law," and in this case "law" includes both those who are under "the law" as well as those who have the law written on their hearts, that law to which the conscience bears witness (Ro.2:15).

So we can see that a scientific approach confirms the fact that the use of the definite article or its absence can indeed determine the meaning of the Greek word translated "law." Therefore, the same principle can also be in force when it comes to the presence or absence of the definite article before the Greek words translated "holy spirit."

Loyd Thomas did not address the following mis-translation:

"And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit'" (Jn.20:22; NIV).

It is impossible that this translation is correct. That is because in the following passage the Lord Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would not be sent until He departed to be with the Father and He had not yet departed to be with the Father when He said those words:

"But now I go my way to him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou? But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart. Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you" (Jn.16:5-7).

It is impossible that they had received "the Holy Spirit" because the Lord Jesus had not yet departed to be with the Father when He spoke the words at John 20:22. Therefore the correct translation of John 20:22 is as follows:

"And with that he breathed on them and said, 'Receive holy spirit'" (Jn.20:22).

The correct translation of Acts 1:4-5 is as follows:

"And, being foregathered, He charges them not to be departing from Jerusalem, but to be remaining about for the promise of the Father, 'which you hear of Me, seeing that John, indeed, baptizes in water, yet you shall be baptized in holy spirit after not many of these days'" (Acts 1:4-5; CLV).