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Intercalation in God’s Divine Purpose

June 11, 2010

From S. Lewis Johnson’s “Divine Purpose” series comes a new big word, intercalation, which refers to an inserted time period that has nothing to do with events before or after it.  An example of an intercalation is the half-time in a football game.  Dr. Sperry Chafer, a dispensationalist who had ultra-dispensational tendencies, thought of the Church Age as an intercalation in God’s program, and S. Lewis Johnson tells of times when Chafer liked to impress his students (at Dallas Theological Seminary) with the big word.

I’ve come across the word intercalation a few times, but more commonly its synonym, parenthesis, and generally in the context of comparison / contrast between Israel and the Church.  The church did not exist until Pentecost, and was the mystery not revealed in the Old Testament, and so some have described the phenomena of the Church as a parenthesis, the time interval during which Israel is scattered in judgment and God is gathering His elect (the Church Age), from the nations throughout the world.  God dealt with Israel in the past, and will continue His dealings with Israel after the rapture.

Anti-dispensationalists often think that means that the Church is somehow less important — that dispensationalists exalt Israel as being greater than the Church — and rant against it without dealing with the biblical texts or the truth of what dispensationalists teach.  The local preacher expressed that during a series through Galatians, when one time he ranted that “dispensationalists think that the Church is the parenthesis, but they’ve got it backwards, it’s Israel that’s the parenthesis.”  Despite the “amens” he got from some of his loyal followers, he did not examine the matter biblically, nor represent dispensationalism accurately, but only expressed his own prejudices.  Paul Henebury has addressed the matter of the parenthesis a few times, as in this article (excerpt):

I don’t know where these authors got the idea that Israel is “the major plan of God in history” from.  In Dispensationalism, the Church is just as important to God as is Israel.  Christ died for both His Bride and the Remnant.  Certainly, the story of Israel dominates the OT, and it is not set aside in the New.  Speaking of the Church as a “parenthesis” does NOT mean it was “a temporary aside” or an afterthought. … The fact is, from man’s point of view the Church is a kind of interlude in revelational history.  But from the point of view of God’s eternal and comprehensive decree it is part of the warp and woof of redemptive history.  Prior to Abraham there were no “Hebrews” and hence no Israel (Jacob).  God’s creation of Israel was no “temporary aside” from His previous work.  Israel and the Church must be seen in the larger panorama of God’s Plan in world history.

S. Lewis Johnson, in the Divine Purpose series, stated his own disagreement with Chafer’s description, primarily because he too thought of “intercalation” as a term that minimizes the importance of the Church in God’s overall plan, a plan in which both Israel and the Church are equally important and all a part of the one people of God.  So he basically agreed with the dispensational understanding as expressed above, but didn’t like the term intercalation as a description of the Church Age.

But in SLJ’s subsequent discussion about Law and Grace, he brings a different use and sense of the term intercalation: that, within the context of the different ages and the biblical covenants, the true parenthesis is the Age of Law, as characterized by the Mosaic covenant.  As the New Testament teaches, the law was introduced 400 years after the Abrahamic Covenant, and was then set aside when the New Covenant began with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.  The Jews, from Jesus’ time till now, have erred in that they put their focus on Moses instead of Abraham.  If they would direct their understanding back to Abraham they would have the correct perspective and see the promise realized in the New Covenant. The Mosaic system was temporary, never meant to become the legal code that the Jews made it into.

This is an interesting way to look at it, a good description of the sequence of biblical dispensations and covenants, and the roles each has played.  The Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants follow a progression, with the conditional Mosaic covenant in the middle, serving its purpose for a time but then rendered obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).  God’s plan has always been one of grace, and the Mosaic law was an interlude in God’s overall redemptive plan.

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