by John Harley

This article focuses on Reisinger’s New Covenant Theology & Prophecy,[i] not as a review, but to draw attention to his idea of a hermeneutic and how he wrestled with a NCT hermeneutic. Afterward, I will make some comments in application of his thoughts for a NCT hermeneutic for today.

Reisinger’s view

Writing in 2012, Reisinger says this about a NCT hermeneutic:

Currently, New Covenant theology has no clearly defined hermeneutic. Adherents of New Covenant theology have attempted to answer this question by modifying either Covenantal hermeneutics or Dispensational hermeneutics. This book represents an attempt to begin serious work toward establishing New Covenant hermeneutics from the ground up—that is, without beginning with either Covenantal or Dispensational hermeneutics. (7)

The reader will note a number of aspects here: 

-NCT in 2012 had no proper hermeneutic;  

-NCT in 2012 identified its hermeneutic by modifying a theological position that lay in-between Covenant Theology (CT) and Dispensational Theology (DT);

-Reisinger wished to abandon this way of constructing a hermeneutic, and, instead, to create an NCT hermeneutic from the foundation up.

Reisinger is not suggesting by this that there was no current NCT hermeneutic. The bare NCT hermeneutic was this: the OT must be interpreted in the light of the NT. This is the “ground” that he refers to, and the point from which the NCTer must build “up”. 

Nor is Reisinger claiming that these other models have nothing to offer any more. He is merely making the point that NCT must develop its own, unique hermeneutic, and not at all rely on the others. It must go it alone, and seek out its own ‘hermeneutical identity’.

This should be no surprise, since that is exactly what the other models of theology had done. CT, for example, had long ago established itself as a hermeneutic. Its existence was not dependent upon a spectrum of theologies, or its own position within that spectrum. Same for DT and Progressive Covenantalism (PC). If the early days of NCT were its childhood, Reisinger was asking NCT to step out into the world as an adult, to go it alone hermeneutically speaking.

This brings us to the stated purpose of Reisinger’s book. He writes, “The primary goal of this book is to explore the difficulties posed by a pre-millennial reading of Revelation 20:1-9. Some of those difficulties have a serious nature. The secondary goal is to remind readers that one’s hermeneutic determines one’s prophetic view.” (37) It was impossible, in other words, for Reisinger to read Revelation 20:1-9 merely as an isolated text. Behind it and its interpretation lay the issue of hermeneutics. Thus, Reisinger goes on to say of DT’s theology, “This kind of thinking does not grow out of a vacuum. Hermeneutics promote ideas. One of the serious consequences of a premillennial prophetic view is its inadvertent diminution of the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. What are the correct rules we should follow in interpreting the Bible so we are Christ-centered, not Israel-centered, in our conclusions?” (47-48) You see here how, to Reisinger’s mind, the DT hermeneutic necessarily produces an Israel-centric theology, and not a Christ-focused one.

One wonders if Reisinger keeps to his own stated purpose in the book, for it is plain that the book is not really about Revelation 20, but is concerned with DT’s literal hermeneutic as a whole. He tests it over and over against the NT interpretation of OT texts, but he also includes a chapter on Revelation 20. Nevertheless, one takes his overall point in stating his book’s purpose. 

Reisinger was not unaware of what his actions symbolized. NCT up unto that point was a ‘broad-umbrella’ theology, incorporating many within a system that did not care too much for more advanced theology. Yet, here he was writing about developing a hermeneutic that could potentially divide the NCT community:

Recently, someone raised the question as to whether one can consistently hold to both New Covenant theology and Dispensational theology. New Covenant theology adherents currently include self-identified premillennial and dispensational theologians. The Bunyan Conference has profited from speakers such as Jack Jeffery, David Morris and Fred Zaspel, all of whom espouse some form of premillennialism and some form of dispensationalism. We have no desire to deprive ourselves of what they have to offer. (17-18)

From this you can see the broad-umbrella approach pulling Reisinger back and away from following through on his own NCT hermeneutical findings. He goes on to write:

Should we even try to establish a New Covenant hermeneutic? Would it perhaps be wiser to leave the subject alone and continue to borrow the US military’s slogan, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? If we discuss the subject, do we run the danger of splitting the camp? There is no question that it is impossible for a Covenant theologian to hold to New Covenant theology. Is the same thing true of dispensationalism? Will a New Covenant hermeneutical articulation result in a fixed either/or position with regard to understanding prophecy, or will our hermeneutic be fluid enough to accommodate different understandings as legitimate and acceptable? I am convinced that an open dialogue concerning the hermeneutical principles that we use to settle questions like continuity/discontinuity is long overdue. Ultimately, we must decide if the issue is one of submission to Scripture or if the biblical treatment of the matter allows for tenuous and conditional positions. If the latter is the case, the question becomes one of intellectual co-existence. (18)

Reisinger never resolves this tension. For if he truly believed in implementing the above attitude, he would never have spoken about the possibility of a NCT hermeneutic in the first place. Or, at the very least, the book would have ended at p18! Yet, he continues, and so he prolongs his own dilemma:

I think I have demonstrated that a non-dispensational and non-millennial view of prophecy is plausible, but I make no claim that I have proven that such a view is mandatory. I would appreciate feedback from our readers. My primary concern is whether my New Covenant friends think that the subject needs an open discussion or that it should be left alone. On the one hand, I am not interested in creating a split among those New Covenant folk who espouse some form of dispensationalism/premillennialism and those who hold to amillennialism. On the other hand, I am slow to say, “The Bible is not clear on the subject so we will not talk about it.” I remember my frustration when my Arminian friends used that rationale to opt out of discussions when we tried to talk about Calvinism. It seems to me that it is time to develop (or to attempt to develop) a biblical hermeneutic for New Covenant theology. (68)

Some comments

What Reisinger was wrestling with was NCT as a theology over against NCT as a hermeneutic. The former was the ‘broad-umbrella’ approach that had a very limited theological repertoire. The latter was license to look at the whole of Scripture and allow the bare hermeneutic- ‘the NT must have interpretive priority’- to grow and mature into much, much more.

Some today are NCTers under the broad-umbrella model. It suits a grassroots opinion of NCT, one that spurns confessions, Systematic Theologies, and an academically oriented system. As I will say later, I have a great deal of sympathy for this view.

Yet, it is under stress not only from the idea of a hermeneutic, but because of the fact that theology itself (and, again I say, not just a hermeneutic) does not sit still. It was not because of a ‘hermeneutic’ as such that PC itself declared it was leaving the broad umbrella of NCT; it was because of a series of doctrinal differences with ‘second generation’ NCTers.[ii] Both groups (PC and ‘second generation’ NCTers) simply were not content to allow NCT theology to stand as merely this broad-umbrella approach. To be pointed, neither group thought to conduct their theological enterprises outside of the name ‘NCT’. Consequently, it was PC that felt it had to come out from under the NCT umbrella. Yet, in doing so, the broad-umbrella approach was being undermined, for sharp, doctrinal differentiation was now actively and openly in play.

The elephant in the room for the broad-umbrella approach is that here is Reisinger- arguably the leading NCTer of his day- stepping out to give the green light to radically deepening the NCT body of theology, and its hermeneutic.

As for a hermeneutic specifically, it is patent that Reisinger, being a man of Scripture, felt a huge burden on him, so he was compelled to explore NCT as a hermeneutic, even though the broad-umbrella model effectively forbade such exploration. For, what was the NCTer to do with even the most rudimentary NCT hermeneutic, namely, ‘the NT must have interpretive priority’? Reisinger was implying that it was utterly impossible to keep this principle under wraps. ‘It was time’, Reisinger concluded, that NCTers ‘took that baby for a ride’!  

Of course, for Reisinger, the price was high, perhaps too high, in pursuing a NCT hermeneutic. It is apparent that he never quite understood that raising the question of a hermeneutic was in itself toxic to the broad-umbrella approach, nor did he grasp the magnitude of the impact of his conclusion that a DT hermeneutic was, for all intents and purposes, unbiblical.

Yet, he was undoubtedly right to call for a deepening of NCT’s hermeneutic, and by extension, its theology. I was never party to the first generation’s foundational work. As a result, I did not, nor do not, feel emotionally tied to NCT’s founders. As extremely grateful as we all are to the first generation, we have to all bow to the fact that, historically, theology grows and people opt in and out of various theological models, even developing their own shades and hues. This is just the way of it! How many of those premillers or Dispies who were present in early NCT days are still openly and virulently NCT? One thing is for sure: they could not follow Reisinger in his millennial hermeneutic! Yet, it is not evil, or divisive, or nasty to part ways. I wish I could have said this to Reisinger. Was not NCT itself proof of this? Did it not part ways from other theologies? Such is life in the world of theology. If we are brothers in the Lord, we can all rejoice in the Christ-glorifying material in any evangelical model, and humbly discard the dross. Why should NCT be immune to this?

A way to look at the development of NCT is not to go down the road of the broad-umbrella model of NCT, but to secure NCT as its own model, without compromising with PC, or any model on the ‘spectrum’. There is nothing to stop this form of NCT from communally participating within the ‘bigger world’ of Biblical Theology (BT). I, too, wish for unity with other theologies and groups, but within reason. For example, I, too, want to draw attention to the excellent contributions of PC to BT. But, I do not feel compelled to call PC ‘NCT’. I can do both: I can uphold my own model (NCT) that excludes other models; and support the BT contributions of PC, or any other model, for that matter, because BT is a very broad umbrella. In this case, NCT avoids the muddled opinion that PC is NCT, whereas, PC has, by itself, declared it is not! That way we avoid describing the differences with PC and NCT as ‘intramural’, that is, within the NCT ‘household’. PC has had its own household for some years now! In the BT realm, it is surely sufficient that the NCTer can, along with a whole host of evangelicals, rejoice that various scholars from differing theological models contribute to the rich field of BT. I have no time at all for Richard Gaffin’s CT; but, my goodness, some of his articles have material that resound with NCT-like theology, and that material is wonderful! And who is not blown away by some of Beale’s contributions? An NCTer, in that BT context, can legitimately refer to an ‘intramural’, BT, relationship and ‘broad-umbrella’.

Another reason for deepening the NCT hermeneutic is the very acute awareness that some in NCT have of the shortcomings of NCT studies. I don’t know how many NCTers who have complained that NCT does not dig deep enough, or develop new material. It is one thing to discard the academic model, or to fight against any form of confessionalism, but for NCT to develop it must deepen its studies, and extend them into new areas. Reisinger perfectly understood this, for he said that to develop the NCT hermeneutic, it must ignore CT and DT, and I would add PC. There will always be a need for new NCT books that ever improve the NCT hermeneutic and give richer, deeper answers to CT, DT, and PC. But, with Reisinger I say that it is way, way overdue that NCT developed its own material, for its own community. But this necessitates developing the NCT hermeneutic. It is time to resurrect it! 

This brings me to my last point: how to achieve this goal in the NCT community. The typical answer that evangelicalism gives as a whole is to go down the academic route. Some in NCT have bought into this. I do not. The beauty and glory of NCT is its grassroots, local assembly, nature. We don’t need academia as a system, nor did the early fishermen disciples. If academia was a prerequisite for the creation and maturation of  theology, NCT would never have come into existence, nor PC, for that matter! Now, to be honest and fair, I’m not against using the skills and tools of academia. And I will go one step further, in this evangelical world of ours, it is simply impossible to avoid it, or avoid using it, or rejoicing in its fruits (think of Beale’s work!). Yet, the NCT community is, of all the groups, positioned perfectly to develop a new model, one which retains the grass-roots context, but which adds and utilizes academic tools- not the academic system, but the tools. Keep which is good; discard the dross. Lastly, the NCT community must participate in this pursuit. It cannot be left to a couple of guys who go off on their lonesome. We need to support one another. Pray for one another. If you are not a writer, visibly support the NCTers who are. Get involved actively, not just as a member of FB:), but as one actively playing his part to promote NCT. I’m with Reisinger, it is time to take that baby for a ride!

[i] (Frederick, MY: New Covenant Media: 2012), Kindle edition.

[ii] I personally believe, however, that the series of doctrinal differences were, and still are, rooted in a different between PC’s hermeneutic and NCT’s hermeneutic.