How difficult it is even to approach finality is shown by some recent correspondence I have had on the subject of the olive allegory of Romans 11 which was discussed on pp. 129-131 of our June, 1963 issue. Such correspondence with a friendly critic is always very helpful, and so it has turned out this time.
In considering an allegory it is always risky to go beyond the limits defined by the allegory itself. On the other hand, we naturally incline to ask questions about it. This is legitimate, provided that in both our questions and our answers we take every care to keep within the bounds of Scripture and to avoid imposing on it notions of our own.
Consequently, I was unprepared for certain issues that arose after the paper was sent to the printers. The first problem is about the olive being cut down. Exception was taken to the contention that nowhere do the Greek Scriptures state or even imply that the figurative olive was ever cut down. In view of this fact—which cannot be disputed—I expressed the opinion that it is effrontery to insist that the olive has been cut down.
This produced strong dissent; but I stick to it, all the same! For we ought to realize that here we are discussing God's Holy Word, and we are discussing whether it is right and proper to add our own deductions to it. I maintain, and have maintained all along, that it is wrong and most improper to do such a thing. For the moment we attempt it, we are insisting in effect that God's Word is incomplete and that He needs our help in completing it. If that claim, even when only implied, is not effrontery, what would be? Some have insisted that it is a fair deduction from Romans 11. Even so, the Apostle Paul did not make it, and presumably he knew his own business. So if we make this deduction, we ought to hold it as a private opinion and no more, as something always questionable and never to be treated as a dogma, as this deduction too often is. It is not the holding of a private opinion that is effrontery; but its setting out as unquestionable truth, standing beside and influencing the truths that actually are stated in Scripture.
Anyhow, is it a fair deduction from Rom. 11:16-24? For some thirty years after Mr. J. J. B. Coles propounded his "Acts 28:28 boundary" theory, little appears to have been said by his followers about the olive allegory. Though this caution was probably well-advised, enough was said to show that the idea of the cutting-down of the figurative olive was certainly in the background. We see no trace of it in the exposition of the allegory in Dr. Bullinger's "How to Enjoy the Bible"; but in the later work, "The Foundations of Dispensational Truth" it looms up on p. 148: "The olive tree had not yet been cut down." This was a pointless assertion unless the author believed it was to be cut down some time. In Mr. C. H. Welch's "Dispensational Truth" we find on p. 184, "The time for the cutting down of the olive tree was seen by the apostle approaching nearer and nearer"; but, oddly enough, we are not told where this surprising discovery was disclosed to Mr. Welch.
Not, apparently, till we reach June, 1938 (The Berean Expositor, Vol. 28, No.6) do we find the doctrine set out in any detail, so this paper must be examined now.
Having written of the Remnant, Paul in Rom. 11:11 says of the rest of Israel, literally, "But by their fall-aside, the salvation is to the Gentiles, for provoking them to jealousy." Here, "the salvation" plainly refers back to "salvation" in 10:10, and to what follows it in v. 13; and it is the same salvation as is named in 1:16 as an integral part of Paul's Evangel. Consequently nothing in Rom. 11:11 and what follows is outside the ambit of Paul's Evangel, and nothing is to be written off for ourselves as "dispensational." So far, we are in agreement with the paper. This section of Romans shows the side of Paul's Evangel that directly affects Israel according to flesh at the present time.
Notwithstanding this, the paper immediately writes off everything of this but what it calls "the dispensational aspect of truth" and goes outside the context by bringing in the subject of "justification" and by pointing out that 11:21, 22 cannot mean any reversal of "justification" and its consequences—as if anyone supposed it could!
Dragging in irrelevancies like this is a sure sign that something unscriptural is about to be propounded; and so it is here. The question is asked, "What does the Olive Tree represent?" and reference is made to Jer. 11:16; 1:11, 12; 31:28, 31; 12:17 and the olive is identified with "Israel as a nation." The fact that it is the sum of "those naturally branches" that really represents Israel, and not the whole olive, is passed over at first; and yet the truth slips through as it so often manages to do, in these important admissions:
The terribly blinding power of error manifests itself at once in the assertion that Paul "warns the believing Gentile that he might be 'cut off' . . ." Note the twist here! In Rom. 11:20, 21 Paul is pointing out that "those naturally branches" were cut off "by the(ir) unbelief," but that the "wild olive" itself "by the faith has stood." It is unbelief that is the danger. Neither believing wild olive, nor, for that matter, believing natural branch, is in the very slightest danger of being broken off; and it is shameful to suggest that he is.
The olive itself is something which those naturally boughs and the graffed wild olive possess in common when they are in it, or ingraffed into it, respectively. What is there in common between believers like ourselves from the Gentiles, and believing Israelites of Pentecostal times and of days to come? Common-sense supplies the answer—direct living contact with, and faith in, the oracles of God.
The individual wild olive, the individual Gentile, has been standing by the faith (Rom. 11:20). He holds his position in the olive because some Gentiles have the faith or are to be called to have it. So long as that continues, so long will the Evangel of the uncircumcision be in force. But presently, however, the fullness of the Gentiles will be entering with the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17. Immediately on this, no Gentile by nature will be left who has the faith; the special standing of being wild olive grafts will come to an end; those naturally boughs will be ingraffed again, for they will no longer be persisting in their unbelief (v. 23); the Evangel of the circumcision will come into force; and thus all Israel shall be saved. It is important to perceive that those naturally boughs never cease to be part of the original olive. What has happened is that by their unbelief they have cut themselves off from the olive; and so long as they persist in unbelief they will remain cut off. The moment they cease to persist in unbelief, God will graft them in again. They can so cease while cut off, since they still retain their own Hebrew Scriptures. Then the Gentile will be cut out, the Jew graffed in; and thenceforth the only divine light will be through Israel.
Divine illumination does not at the start result from faith. Nor does faith necessarily result from divine illumination; as the individual can, and usually does, decline to accept it. Before one can believe, there must be something to be believed. So any person has got to be in living contact with the figurative olive before faith is possible. Israel were those naturally boughs, but only a few had faith. That is why some boughs were broken off. The same applies to the Gentiles at the present time. The divine illumination is available, but the majority refuse it; so the time is approaching then they will not be spared either. Then they will be as they once were, out of all contact with the olive.
On the other side, it is equally important to perceive that the wild olive is not asked to persist in the faith, but in the kindness of God. The word kindness, chrEstotEs, occurs only ten times; and the five in Romans (2:4; 3:12; 11:22) make a complete picture. As long as the Gentile remains in his present position as regards God's kindness, so long will that kindness continue. Christendom has all along given some sort of recognition to God's kindness; but now, all too plainly, even the most casual recognition of it is speedily coming to its close. An ever-increasing proportion of the Gentiles is openly, defying God's kindness.
What graffs us into the olive is not our faith, but God's deliberate act. If, the instant we receive divine light, we fail to respond with faith, we fail also to become grafts in the olive.
This last at first sight seems complicated, and is to some extent; because of all the reasoning about this matter that Christians have indulged in, going far beyond what Paul actually says. The logical and correct way of looking at the matter is to acknowledge that the breaking out of boughs has made room for wild olives to be graffed in (11:19). To discuss whether the wild olive, the individual Gentile, has light first and faith second, or has faith first and light second, is pointless and futile. In practise, both come together if they come at all. The allegory does not, in fact, take any account of the coming of faith to the individual Gentile. It is a mistake, then, to assert that the individual Gentile will have found faith outside of the olive. His graffing in, his divine illumination and his faith happen simultaneously.
This artificial dilemma is not confined to speculation about the allegory; for one might just as well ask, "When Abraham believed God, which came first, the light God gave him or his faith in God?" One might say, "The light first"; but then one might also say, "If the faith had not been there potentially, would God have given the light?" So if one cannot accept the answer, "The light first"; how could there be the faith without the light? It can certainly be argued that there had to be light and there had to be potential faith. In short, the argument is really pointless; and we ought not to discuss it except, as here, to guard ourselves against it and its like.
No Gentile would have been grafted into the figurative olive had not the saving work of God been sent to the Gentiles. We see glimpses of this sending from time to time throughout Acts, from Peter unlocking the Kingdom to them and such passages as 13:46 and 18:6 right to Paul's unhindered ministry at the end. The time will come when 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is to be fulfilled. At that moment will be removed all still alive who have believed God as Gentiles. As no more will remain, the way will have been cleared for the ingrafting of those naturally branches, and the process will begin.
However, all this is really outside the allegory, and would never come up for consideration had students of it taken care to keep within its terms. Here is another example from the paper already quoted (p. 111).
This quotation is an attempt to modify Gal. 3:9 and 29 by mixing in Rom. 11:16-24. This process of deliberately disregarding context always creates confusion. It is one of the most prolific sources of error.
Much confusion follows in the paper because of its author's fixed idea that the olive itself represents Israel. We need follow him no further into it, but instead proceed to examine its findings about the history of the olive. Here, Mr. Welch leans heavily on Mr. S. Van Mierlo, following a diagram prepared by him purporting to show this supposed history in five stages (p. 114). The first three show stages in the breaking oft of the natural branches. The fourth shows the tree cut down, and the fifth what appears to be a fine new tree standing behind the broken stump. These two are simply fiction—and open unbelief. Rom. 11:24 does not speak of any new olive, but of the natural branches being" grafted into their own olive." All this is accompanied by two pages of discussion of the alleged cutting down of the olive; but no hint is given of how the olive is to be set up again, and the picture shows that Mr. Van Mierlo did not consider that it would be. The difficulty is left unresolved because even he could not resolve it. We are left without any distinct idea of what he really taught and why he taught it. It looks like a neat attempt at sleight-of-hand.
Nevertheless, in spite of his five pictures, I have had the following assurance from my correspondent: "No one has suggested that boughs were grafted back into a cut down tree, or that we ourselves have ever been grafted into Israel's olive tree, cut down or otherwise." Perhaps not; but Romans is ours and we certainly were Gentiles to whom Paul's Evangel was addressed, so Rom. 11:19 must apply to us. This statement seems to support Mr. Van Mierlo's idea of a new olive placed by the stump of the cut-down olive; but it is all extremely confusing, as error usually turns out to be. Truth alone is self-consistent. That is its nature.
The other problem that has arisen is well set out by my correspondent, thus:
What happens when any branch of a tree is broken off? The sap ceases to flow into it and its life begins to ebb. Yet it remains part of the tree. As any gardener knows, it is often possible to strike cuttings from it, though this idea must not be brought into the analogy. So with those naturally branches. Their breaking off entails removal from the source of life and, in the olive, the means of making the oil which produces light. So what those naturally branches lose is divine life and light. This, indeed, is explained in the secret which is disclosed immediately after the olive allegory (vv. 25-32). This consideration accounts for Israel's present insensitiveness.
Nevertheless, those naturally branches remain part of the olive, albeit withered and without fruit; yet in His own good time God will graff them in again. They retain some of the oracles of God, the Hebrew Scriptures; but, as broken off the olive, they get no light from them. This point is made, in a different context, in 2. Cor. 3:14, 15. "Their minds were calloused, for until this very day the same covering is remaining at the reading of the old covenant—it not being discovered that, in Christ, it is vanishing. . . ."
Yet, one day, a turning back to the Lord will be reached, the covering will lift from about it and (to return to the allegory) those naturally branches will be ingraffed again.
Those naturally branches now broken off are only "Israel according to flesh," not "Israel" in the full sense of the name; because they are out of contact with the olive, the source of divine life and light. At present, that life and light can Come to us alone, because we alone are in vital contact with the olive.
So I do not differentiate (as asserted in the quotation) between the root as "the oracles of God" and the Hebrew Scriptures; for the Hebrew Scriptures have not been taken from Israel even though they are not now understood by them. The Hebrew Scriptures never have been more than partly understood by them. Nothing is said about the Jew's first prerogative (Rom. 3:1-3) being taken from him. And one might add, too, that the Greek Scriptures are available to the Jew, and have been read and criticized by Jews.
In fact, it is in just this possession of the Hebrew Scriptures that the difference between those naturally branches and the wild olive exists. Those naturally branches retain their character as branches, though only moribund ones. When the wild olive is broken off and hewn out, divine life and light will cease to flow into it, and the consequences will be seen in the fearful events foretold in the Revelation. This does not mean that the position of every single Gentile will be hopeless; but simply that Gentiles during that period will revert to their position in the days before Matt. 13:14, 15.
My correspondent appears to believe that we ourselves have never been graffed into the olive (see the last quotation but one). But where are we told in Scripture that those who receive Paul's Evangel are not graffed into the olive, or that some of them are "dispensationally" severed from the others? Romans 11 is part of Paul's Evangel and have never been rescinded. We must not sever Romans from the rest of Paul's Epistles.
R.B.W. Last updated 31.12.2005