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Matthew and Christian Theology

May 24, 2011

Christians are divided over just what place the Gospels hold in their theology. Of course, all orthodox Christians accept the Gospels as inspired; it is rather the present relevance of their teachings that is disputed. I also shouldn’t make this disagreement sound to be greater than it is, because I know of no theology outside the dispensationalist variety that does not accept Jesus’ sayings in Matthew for the modern Christian believers.

The disagreement, I’m sure, comes from the Gospels’ many statements of salvation having to do with more than just faith. Since Jesus’ statements in the Gospels came before his death and resurrection, and therefore before the New Testament (compare the epistles to the Ephesians and the Hebrews), these are said to be Old Testament statements of salvation. So while the teachings of Jesus are considered to have been advanced revelation from God that wasn’t given by the Old Testament scriptures, the statements about “children of God” and “inherit eternal life” are only applicatory to so-called “works salvation.”

 Even the dispensationalists do not all accept this interpretation of Jesus’ Gospel teachings, no doubt. I’m not sure what other dispensationalists have to say about the statements of “works salvation” in the Gospels. Most orthodox Christianity (e.g., Roman Catholics, Methodists) would have no problem with the importance of works, of course, but dispensationalists, whether generally or exclusively, believe in salvation by faith alone. They probably couldn’t, therefore, accept the Gospel interpretations of mainstream Christianity.

The two groups of dispensationalists that reject the Gospels for New Testament doctrine are the Ruckmanites and the hyper-dispensationalists. Since I don’t know where the hyper-dispensationalists might differ from the Ruckmanites on Gospel interpretation, I will decline comment. A good way to differentiate between the Ruckmanites and the hypers is to remember that the Ruckmanites don’t accept Gospel salvation teachings, but the hypers don’t even accept the salvation teachings of some or most of the Acts of the Apostles. (I guess that’s why they’re called “hypers”!) The applications of the New Testament epistles are also divided up by both groups.

I would just like to make two observations about the Ruckmanite interpretation. First, their distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God allows them more credibility in also creating a distinction between the Old Testament applications of Jesus’ Gospel teachings and the New Testament applications. However, even though another distinction may seem more likely in these circumstances, the differentiation between these kingdoms is not enough, in my opinion, to explain the difficulties that an Old Testament/New Testament division of the Gospel teachings would bring.

The reason I say that these distinctions are different from each other is that the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is only used in the Gospel of Matthew. Yet there are other instances of “works salvation” teaching in the other Gospels, as well, although those Gospels only refer to the “kingdom of God.” And as much as dispensationalists may not like it, the kingdom of God is a New Testament arrangement (see Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, etc.). Therefore, they are left with splitting the kingdom of God from the Gospels’ works requirements.

Perhaps the bigger problem comes from the last one and includes my second observation: References to both the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God refer to Jesus’ return from heaven. Thus these references cannot be Old Testament! It’s important to remember that, according to Hebrews and Ephesians, the New Testament began with the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is something Ruckmanites often seem to forget, since they talk about the salvation requirements right before and after Jesus’ return from heaven as returning to an Old Testament arrangement.

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