A Review of 40 Questions about Biblical Theology* by Jason S. DeRouchie, Oren R. Martin, and Andrew David Naselli, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, 400 pages, paperback.
How does one review a well-written and well researched book on Biblical Studies that one disagrees with almost entirely? That is the position I find myself in with this book. DeRouchie, Martin, and Naselli are all subscribers to the fast-spreading approach to the Bible called “Progressive Covenantalism,” an approach first annunciated for most people by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, which I reviewed here.
What this means is that fans of New Covenant Theology are going to really like this book, fans of Covenant Theology are going to approve of much in it (even though CT draws some criticisms), “Essentialist” (to use Joseph Parle’s word) and Progressive Dispensationalists are going to like it a lot less, and “Biblical Covenantalists” (that’s me) are going to really take issue with it. I say this so that my biases will be clear.
Now that I’ve made that point, I do want to say that the authors have done a very good job of explaining their positions. The 40 questions they pose are extremely well chosen. Moreover, their tag-team works in unison throughout the proceedings. They also write clearly and persuasively. I am sure this book will convert many to their side. I am half inclined to do a series on how the Biblical Covenantalist would answer the questions (although don’t expect 40 responses).
So before going off on what I disagree with about this book, I want to state that if a person wants to know about Progressive Covenantalism (PC), or if they want to know how evangelicals in the American academy generally (whether PC or CT) do Biblical Theology, look no further. This is a book you should get. If you want to know some reasons why I don’t like it, read on. Understand that my space is limited. My copy is literally filled with question marks, objections, and the like.
40 Questions About Biblical Theology is broken down into five parts. Part One has nine questions on “Defining Biblical Theology.” Part Two has ten questions about method, including descriptions and critiques of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, both of which are well done. Part Three is about themes such as “Mystery” (Q.21), “the Covenants” (Q.22), “the People of God” (Q.24), and “the Land” (Q.29). Part Four has some examples of the use of earlier passages by later authors, and Part Five is about Application. I shall not be dealing with the latter two sections here.
Part One includes agenda setting questions like, “How Does Biblical Theology Help Us See Christ in the OT?” and “How Should Biblical Theology Approach Typology?” The longer definition of what they are doing is as follows:
Biblical theology is a way of analyzing and synthesizing the Bible that makes organic, salvation-historical connections with the whole canon on its own terms, especially regarding how the Old and New Testaments progress, integrate, and climax in Christ. (20)
I am going to utilize this definition for most of the comments which follow.
Okay, the first thing I look for (and expect to find) in such definitions is a statement of how the approach climaxes with Christ, or is fulfilled in Christ. Once I see that I ask one question: does it climax in Christ’s first coming or second coming? I know the answer before I pose the question, but the response will determine how they will argue and what they will have to resort to in order to argue that way. The answer comes back as expected; the climax they are speaking of is at the first coming (e.g. 29, 51, 52, 59, 67, 68 n. 14, 225, etc.).
Now if you take the first coming as the “climax” of most of the Bible’s storyline you are going to have to find ways of packing an awful lot of pesky OT covenant prophecy into the first half of the first century A.D. When you have done that you are free to declare things like, “Every significant whole-Bible theme climaxes in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah” (59), and, “God designed some types to repeat and develop through the progressive covenants before they climaxed in Jesus” (85), and “The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ” (96). Hence, “if God gives you eyes to see” (86) this first coming fulfillment, you will agree with the authors. If you don’t think most of the OT covenants are fulfilled at the first advent then you have “missed the point” and are not interpreting Scripture like Jesus did (see 53).
The definition given above also (and typically) focuses in on redemptive history, which is there called “salvation-history.” Redemption is what the story is all about. Salvation spectacles are what you should be wearing (20, 43. 58-62, 193, etc.). The basic outlook is this: “In Christ [i.e. at His first coming], God fulfills what he promised. Christ realizes what the OT anticipates” (225). But this position is simply assumed, and it not coincidentally aligns well with a first coming approach. Conversely, a second coming approach, where many of the covenanted promises of God are awaiting fulfillment, is not just focused on redemption. Of course redemption is important, but so is the judgment of Satan and the demons; so is the Kingdom; and so is the glory of God. Even redemption does not always refer to the first coming, as the books of Hebrews and 1 Peter make clear (e.g. Heb. 1:13-14; 5:9; 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:3-9 ; cf. Rom. 13:11).
I have already quoted this above, but it deserves another airing. The authors all believe: “The age of eschatological fulfillment has come in Christ” (96). How does this effect their interpretations? Here’s how they continue:
As a consequence of the preceding presupposition, it follows that later parts of biblical history function as the broader context for interpreting earlier parts… One deduction from this premise is that Christ [at His first coming] is the goal toward which the OT pointed and is the end-time center of redemptive history, which is the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the OT and its promises. (96-97, emphasis in original)
So “the broader context” has the final say, but only if it is understood to mean that the earlier parts of the Bible must find their telos in the first advent. This necessitates any covenant or prophetic oracle in the OT, no matter what it states, being brought under submission to the hermeneutical requirements of the Cross and Resurrection (the progress. integration, and climax parts of their definition of biblical theology above). How is this done? The old way was via spiritualizing and supercessionism, but today’s amillennialists repudiate such terms (240). No, the big gun in the armory is typology (85)! Here are some samples:
[P]rogressive covenantalism does not see the church as directly extending or fulfilling Israel. Rather, Christ is the antitype of Israel, who fulfills Israel’s identity, purpose, and mission such that in Christ the church inherits all the covenant blessings. (68)
Paul argues that Adam is a type of Christ: Adam is the covenantal head of the original creation, and Christ is the covenantal head of the new creation (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49). (82-83)
The antitype eclipses the type. The type is but the shadow; the antitype is the substance. (85)
The Rest God gave His old covenant people on Saturdays is a type, and the Rest Jesus gives His New covenant people every day is the antitype. (262; this is a sub-heading)
[H]ow the NT fulfills the OT promises strongly influences the progressive covenantal understanding of typology, which sees Christ [in His first coming] as the ultimate antitype of all previous types. (192)
That last quote is revealing as regards method, but it ought to read: “The progressive covenantal understanding of typology, which sees Christ [in His first coming] as the ultimate antitype of all previous types, strongly influences [our view of] how the NT fulfills the OT.” That spells it out better I think.
In light of this, to calmly claim, “Sometimes significant connections between promise and fulfillment involve typology” (74) is a massive understatement. Symbolism and typology are where it’s at when it comes to understanding the story of the Bible. But observe; if types are but shadows, and OT Israel is a type, and the Church “inherits all the covenant blessings,” isn’t this just replacement theology with a smile? Truly, what chance does an OT covenant promise to national Israel (like Isa. 11:11-12; 62:1-12; Jer. 12:14-17; 31:27-40; Ezek. 34:11-31; Zech. 14:16-21; Zeph. 3:9-20) have under these conditions? None! Only those which “fit” the prescribed first coming telos are admitted. The others will be dealt with by the “first coming hermeneutic” as I like to call it.
The authors wish to engage the whole canon of Scripture “on its own terms.” What does this part of their definition mean? Again, for anyone familiar with this form of Biblical Theology (it makes little difference whether it is PC or CT), the answer is that the whole of the Bible is the “final context” (52). Perhaps the clearest declaration of this is found on page 144:
Meaning is not limited exclusively to what the human author intended, but also to what God intended, which becomes clearer as revelation progresses until it reaches it fulfillment at the canonical level.
We are advised that “biblical theology should keep the whole canon in view even when studying the various parts” (145). So while we are trying to do exegesis of a particular passage “we must read every passage in the context of the completed canon” (Ibid). Surely I cannot be the only person to see that what is being recommended here is precisely backwards? Just when is a person in a properly qualified position to know the whole Bible entirely correctly so that he can accurately exegete a single passage of it? Where is the place for inductive exegesis in this arrangement?
One can accomplish virtually anything by these means. For instance, you can chop up the Abrahamic covenant to make some troublesome part – the land promise to ethnic Israel – go away. On page 225 the authors insist that the “Mosaic covenant fulfills stage one of the Abrahamic covenant: single nation, Israel, occupies the Promised Land” (cf. 194). Did DeRouchie, Martin, and Naselli read Jeremiah 31:23-36 or 33:14-26? Yes, they cite some of these verses (e.g. 190, 286). They cite Jeremiah 33 but are careful to dance around God’s unconditional promise to the Levites in 33:18, 21-22, or God’s warning in verse 24:
Have you not considered what these people have spoken, saying, ‘The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also cast them off’? Thus they have despised My people, as if they should no more be a nation before them. (Jeremiah 33:24)
But that’s alright, “progressive revelation” culminating at the first advent will furnish the real meaning to those with “the eye of faith” (145).
There is simply too much to critique in one small review, but before leaving I want to say that despite the show of scholarship, the overall impression made upon me was of a lack of definition and precision on crucial questions; questions such as these:
What precisely do the authors think covenants are meant to do?
If covenants can change their meaning what is the point of making one? Especially if one swears an oath to do something for another and ends up doing something different?
How can faith flourish when false expectations are raised based on what God promises to do?
How can there be “five major salvation-historical covenants” (43) when only one of them (the New covenant) contains any elements of salvation terminology in its terms? Isn’t the constraints of a salvation-historical straight-jacket making them salvific when they are not?
Why was there no discussion of the covenant with Phinehas?
How can you use typology as a driving mechanism for your system when typologies depend upon and corroborate that very system?
Since the OT prophecies regarding Christ emphasize what we know as His second coming above His first coming, shouldn’t we just believe those texts literally without cramming everything into a first century fulfillment? Can’t we just throttle down on the question-begging typology and believe that what God has covenanted to do He will indeed do?
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Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.