You could say an 848-page alternative to evangelicalism’s two reigning theological systems is a bit ambitious. Or needed. Or both.
In Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012), Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum set out to carve a new path between dispensational and covenant theology, having concluded that neither hermeneutical approach is sufficiently informed by biblical theology. Regardless of whether you end up agreeing with their conclusions, Gentry and Wellum’s proposed via media—”kingdom through covenant” or “progressive covenantalism”—is a substantial, even groundbreaking, contribution to any discussion about the intersection of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology.
Reformed but not fully covenantal, baptistic but not dispensational, professors Gentry (Old Testament) and Wellum (Christian theology) of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have made a thick and thorough case demanding a response. Of course, it’s up to you to read the book and determine if they have succeeded. Soon TGC expects to publish a forum featuring responses to this proposal by Darrell Bock, Michael Horton, and Douglas Moo.
I corresponded with Gentry and Wellum about their proposal, ironic similarities between the two dominant systems, recent accusations, and more.
It is interesting and a bit ironic, as you observe, that both dispensational and covenant theology employ a similar hermeneutic in regard to the Abrahamic covenant. What do you mean?
We first noticed this irony in thinking through the hermeneutical differences between dispensational (DT) and covenant theology (CT). DT often charges CT with reading the New Testament (NT) back on the Old Testament (OT) without doing justice to specific unconditional promises of the OT. So, for example, CT often claims that the land promise to Israel was conditional and thus forfeited by Israel’s disobedience, and, further, that it’s typological in the sense that it’s fulfilled in the new creation—not as a specific piece of real estate to Israel in the millennial age. Part of the biblical warrant for this view is that the NT doesn’t emphasize the land promise as DT claims, but instead stresses the dawning of the new creation in Christ. In response, DT contends the land promise is not typological. Instead, it is an unconditional promise given to Abraham and his seed that continues throughout redemptive history in exactly the same way as it’s given in the OT. DT stresses that we must not read the NT back on the OT; the unconditional promise of the Abrahamic covenant stands unless specifically abrogated in the NT.
Yet, ironically, even though DT charges CT with neglecting the OT at this point, CT utilizes the exact same argument, albeit for a different aspect of the Abrahamic covenant. When CT defends their view of the nature of the church as a mixed community, and specifically the link between circumcision and baptism that grounds their defense of paedobaptism, they charge credobaptists with neglecting the unity of the covenant of grace and reading the NT back on the OT. Regardless of the credobaptist’s argument that Christian baptism does not signify exactly the same thing as circumcision, and that baptism is only reserved for those who have been united with Christ and have entered into new covenant realities such as regeneration, justification, and so on, CT charges credobaptists with reading the NT back on the OT and failing to do justice to the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant as found in the genealogical principle—“to you and your children”—which remains unchanged across the biblical covenants. On their own unique points, then, DT and CT use the same hermeneutic in how they understand the relationship between the Abrahamic and new covenant in God’s overall plan.
Where, most fundamentally, does dispensational theology make a wrong turn? What about covenant theology?
By “wrong” we aren’t thinking of it in the gospel sense. We hold proponents of DT and CT as dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet in “putting together” the Bible and considering how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other in redemptive history, we contend that both views go “wrong” in two related ways. (1) There is a tendency to privilege different aspects of the Abrahamic covenant while neglecting other aspects. (2) There isn’t enough attention given to the interrelationships between the biblical covenants across redemptive history, how various typological patterns are developed as the one plan of God is progressively revealed through the covenants, and ultimately how all of the covenants find their telos, fulfillment, and consummation in Christ and the new covenant.
So, for example, we argue that DT privileges the land promise of the Abrahamic covenant but doesn’t sufficiently view the land as a pattern/type, rooted in the covenant of creation, that is intertextually and progressively revealed through the biblical covenants and fulfilled in the dawning of the new creation in Christ. CT, on the other hand, privileges the genealogical (“to you and your children”) principle of the Abrahamic covenant and doesn’t sufficiently grasp how that principle is transformed in the promise of the new covenant. Whether it’s in the prophets’ expectation of the new covenant or in its reality based on Christ’s triumphant cross-work, the relationship between the head of the new covenant, namely Christ, and his children is one of faith. All who have been born of the Spirit and united to Christ by faith are Christ’s family and members of his new covenant. Further, the new covenant—by its very nature and structure—isn’t exactly the same as the old, which is precisely what you’d expect given that the old covenant (and each previous covenant) so anticipates and points forward to the dawning of the new covenant age in Christ and the better realities he wins and secures.
What are some distinctions between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant? What dangers result from flattening out such differences?
Much could be said in terms of distinctions between the Abrahamic and new covenant. Let us list three. (1) In terms of the plot structure of Scripture, the Abrahamic and new covenant are at different moments in redemptive history in the overall progressive unfolding of God’s eternal plan. (2) Given the Abrahamic covenant’s place in redemptive history, it serves as the means by which Adam’s role in creation will be restored and God’s salvation blessings will flow to all nations—yet the parties of the covenant, especially seen through Isaac, Israel, and epitomized in David and his sons, are all failures. Just like Adam, none of the covenant heads serves as an obedient son like he ought. As such, the Abrahamic covenant (including the later covenants) can only hope for and anticipate God to act unilaterally in his provision of a greater Adam, Abraham, Israel, and David—namely, his own beloved Son. (3) In the Abrahamic covenant the various types/patterns ultimately find their fulfillment in the new covenant. In this way, it serves as part of the plotline of Scripture that reaches its terminus and telos in Christ, who brings all the promises to Abraham to pass.
What happens when these differences are flattened? Ultimately we lose the glory of Jesus Christ and all that he has accomplished for us as God’s obedient Son, our Lord and Savior.
What about your book might readers be most surprised to learn?
First and foremost, our hope and prayer is that our readers will be surprised to find not merely a polemical discussion between DT and CT, but a work that seeks to glory afresh in the gospel of our Lord Jesus and to see in him and his new covenant work all our hope and stay, for now and eternity. In addition, given the kingdom emphasis of the work, we hope our readers will see how Jesus’ message of the kingdom is actually found on the first page of the Bible, not merely in the NT.
How would you respond to one recent accusation that Kingdom through Covenant “is not a Reformed Baptist work or Reformed at all. . . . So-called New Covenant Theology is actually a reaction against confessional Reformed Baptists, Presbyterians, and Covenant Theologians in general”?
First, we have called our position “progressive covenantalism” in order to avoid various labels, since labels often are a way of dismissing entire viewpoints. And theological positions are not monolithic. Second, we stand on the shoulders of giants and in no way dismiss historical theology, yet we take seriously Ad Fontes, Sola Scriptura, and Semper Reformanda. We’ve sought to describe how our position differs from the two dominant viewpoints in evangelical thought, yet it isn’t that our differences lead to completely novel conclusions. In fact, it’s our conviction that our book provides a better basis for the great solas of the Reformation, and that we do so in such a way that makes better sense of the “whole counsel of God.” It’s our hope and prayer that people who come from either DT or CT will not dismiss our work without giving it a fair reading and showing where our exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic conclusions have gone wrong. We will consider it a success if our book leads all of us to return to Scripture, wrestle once again with the text, and actually discuss our differences in charity, grace, and in a renewed commitment to have our theological views ever conformed to God’s Word.