Question: "What is the continuity vs. discontinuity debate in theology?"
Answer: The word continuity is defined as “the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over a period of time.” At its root is the word continue. Of course, discontinuity is the opposite, meaning “a sharp difference of characteristics between parts of something.” In theology, continuity and discontinuity are terms applied to the flow of sacred history and God’s overarching purpose.
Christians believe that the entire Bible is God’s inerrant Word and that it is divided into two parts, the Old and New Testaments. The continuity vs. discontinuity debate has to do with how the two parts of the Bible relate and the application that has for Christians today. Covenant theology often emphasizes areas of continuity, while dispensational theology usually emphasizes areas of discontinuity.
The following are some of the issues that frequently come up in the continuity vs. discontinuity debate:
Are Israel and the Church essentially the same body, or is Israel quite distinct from the Church? Those who follow the discontinuity route hold that Israel is a separate group and see the “church age” as a distinct time in which God deals with the Gentiles. When the Church is removed at the rapture, God will once again focus His attention on the salvation of Israel. Those who see continuity between Israel and the Church will often speak of the “Church in the Old Testament” and apply promises made to Israel to the Church today.
If the Church is essentially Israel (continuity), then it makes sense that all the Law given to Israel would apply to the Church unless a particular law has been specifically repealed. If the Church is a brand-new entity (discontinuity), then it would make sense that none of the Old Testament laws would be in force unless they have been specifically applied to the Church.
The issues involved in the debate between continuity and discontinuity are complex, but, in reality, almost every theological construct (covenant, dispensational, or otherwise) recognizes some areas of continuity and some areas of discontinuity. Every Evangelical theology would recognize that the animal sacrifices have been discontinued as the sacrifice of Christ is once for all (Hebrews 10:11–12). Likewise, every Evangelical theology would recognize that the moral aspects of the Law continue to be in force today.
The best answer seems to be that there are some areas of both continuity and discontinuity, and that neither sharp discontinuity nor uniform continuity is warranted. Jeremiah 31 speaks of a New Covenant with Israel that outlines a radically new way (discontinuity) of dealing with Israel (continuity). The New Testament speaks of believing Gentiles being grafted into Israel (Romans 11). This was something new that most never would have imagined possible, but it was revealed with the coming of Christ (Ephesians 3:6).
Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). In other words, He was not preaching something brand new (discontinuity) but the culmination of what had been there all along (continuity). But Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law had in it the seeds of discontinuity, because, after the Law had been fulfilled, it was no longer needed (Galatians 3:24–25). God never changes, but the way that He deals with people can change.
It is tempting to buy into a particular system of theology and then try to read the biblical data through the lens of that system. It is far better to try to understand the Bible on its own terms and affirm continuity where it exists and discontinuity where it exists.