Peter Gentry & Stephen Wellum are seeking a middle way between covenant theology and dispensational theology. As a covenant theology loving Christian I found their critiques even-handed and thoughtful. Anyone interested in developing a theology that fits within the big picture narrative of Scripture would benefit from Kingdom through Covenant.
They first define biblical theology as:
…concerned with the overall message of the whole Bible. It seeks to understand the parts in relation to the whole. As an exegetical method, it is sensitive to literary, historical, and theological dimensions of various corpora, as well as to the interrelationships between earlier and later texts in Scripture. Furthermore, biblical theology is interested not merely in words and word studies but also in concepts and themes as it traces out the Bible’s own story line, on the Bible’s own terms, as the plot line reaches its culmination in Christ. (p. 33)
After establishing the ground rules for their hermeneutical method, they offer a history of both dispensational theology and covenant theology. If you are interested in the history of these interpretations as well as the finer points these chapters are gold. It provides a concise survey and accurate comparison of both systems.
Gentry & Wellum boil down the major difference between the two systems to “the Israel-church distinction” (p. 42). They also argue that each system has made the same error but in different ways. They both understand the covenants of the Old Testament as either conditional or unconditional. The dispensationalist, they argue, understand the land promises as unconditional, whereas the covenant theologians understand the genealogical principle of the Abrahamic covenant as unconditional (fusing the Abrahamic covenant with the idea of the covenant of grace). They see both of these proposals as incorrect and later argue for their middle way.
Part 1 concludes with a discussion of the finer points of their exegetical method. They say:
As we think through the biblical covenants, since God has not disclosed himself in one exhaustive act but progressively, we must carefully think through every biblical covenant first in its own redemptive-historical context, then ask what has preceded that covenant, and then relate that particular covenant to that which comes after it and how it relates to the inauguration of the new covenant in our Lord Jesus Christ. (p. 92)
They describe this as the three horizons: textual, epochal, and canonical. In discussing this method, they spend a significant amount of space defending biblical typology by distinguishing it from allegory.
While the type has significance for its own time, its greater significance is directed toward the future; it testifies to something greater than itself that is still to come. But the future antitype will surely come, not only because God completely knows that it will, according to his eternal plan, but also because God sovereignly and providentially will guarantee that the prophetic fulfillment of the original type will occur in Christ. (p. 104)
Heavy lifting in the covenants
Part 2 is an extended exegetical discussion of the major biblical covenants. This section is where the heavy lifting really happens. While finding some of the discussion challenging (I’ve never studied Hebrew), I also recognized an approachability in the way even the most difficult passages were examined. They not only argued positively for their position but they also interacted with the opposing positions and counterpointed many of the major concerns. They were not afraid to draw out exegetical possibilities that didn’t strengthen their own position. This holistic approach allowed them to fairly expound each passage of Scripture
The discussions surrounding the covenant of creation and the Noahic covenant, the new covenant as revealed in Daniel, and the life in the new covenant discussion in Ephesians 4:15 were the most thought provoking and encouraging for me.
First, a challenge I have faced when discussing covenant theology with skeptics is the starting point—the covenant of works/creation. The major argument I’ve encountered is the lack of the word covenant within the first three chapters of Genesis. Gentry & Wellum argue convincingly from the text that the major components of a covenant are present. They also look at the linguistic data behind cutting a covenant and upholding a covenant. They argue from Genesis 6 & 9:
Therefore the construction heqim berit in Genesis 6 and 9 indicates that God is not initiating a covenant with Noah but rather is upholding for Noah and his descendants a commitment initiated previously. This language clearly indicates a covenant established earlier between God and creation or God and humans at creation. When God says that he confirming or upholding his covenant with Noah, he is saying that his commitment to his creation, the care of the creator to preserve, provide for, and rule over all that he has made, including the blessings and ordinances that he initiated through and with Adam and Eve and their family, are now to be with Noah and his descendants. (p. 156)
They also look at other passages which describe what God established with Adam in the beginning in contrast with the upholding of that covenant. They discuss this covenant within their three horizons (textual, epochal, and canonical) demonstrating that talking of a covenant in creation is not a fabricated reformed blindspot but is a Biblical, exegetical, and historically sound interpretation of what takes place in Genesis 1-3.
Second, the chapter on the new covenant in Daniel is masterful. Daniel more than any other book intimidates me. Mainly the second half of the book. There seems to be so much going on and so many allusions and prophecy—it’s hard to wrap your head around. At least for me. Now don’t get me wrong the discussion surrounding Daniel was intense and challenging but I walked away feeling like I have a much better grasp on the book then I did before and it’s made my understanding of the entire story of Scripture richer and more satisfying.
The discussion in Daniel begins with a bird’s eye view of the entire book examining the literary structure, emphases, & unity. They say:
[T]he first half of the book establishes and proves that Daniel has a gift of interpreting dreams and visions of events which could be independently verified by Daniel’s contemporaries. Therefore, we must believe and trust the interpretation of the visions in the second half of the book, which deal with the distant future and hence were not open to verification by the audience of Daniel’s time. (p. 533)
They look at the major lexical and syntactic issues of the second half of the book. They unpack the importance for dividing the seventy weeks. They also argue that the “Anointed One” and “Leader” in 9:25-26 (see pp. 541-543) are the same. They argue for a physical return to the land in the first seven weeks and a time where a spiritual restoration would take place as a key component in understanding the 7 and 62 weeks as “the ultimate jubilee” (p. 544).
Thus the real return from exile, a return including the forgiveness of sins, renewal of the covenant, and consecration of the temple, will not take just seventy years, but rather seventy “sevens,” i.e., a much longer time. This fundamental point of the vision has unfortunately escaped the attention of proponents of both dispensational and nondispensational treatments in the last hundred years. (p. 541)
They also argue for Ezra’s return commissioned by Artaxerxes as the beginning of the seventy weeks and note it also starts “a sabbatical cycle” (p. 547).
I mentioned earlier that in the midst of all the technical discussion they had a way of making the discussion approaching and this is exemplified best in the discussion of Daniel. There was a lot of linguistic and technical work being argued for to establish for their position. Some of the Hebrew was above my pay grade but I never felt lost and easily followed the train of thought. I could see this chapter being extremely helpful for pastors looking to springboard into a sermon series on Daniel.
Finally, they ended part 2’s discussion of the covenants with an examination of Ephesians and especially the phrase speaking the truth in love (4:15). I found this discussion particularly compelling because today it’s fashionable to contrast Christian piety (good old fashioned holiness if you’d like) with missional living. The priority is given to social justice (feeding the poor, taking care of orphans, etc).
They argue that Ephesians 4:25-5:5 Paul is arguing for a new Christian ethic established by the new covenant. Speaking the truth in love is paramount for this. In fact, “speaking the truth in love is both at the heart of the new covenant stipulations and is also a short summary of them” (p. 571). It’s noteworthy that Paul argues that people who speaking crudely, live lasciviously, and generally disregard this new covenant holiness have “no inheritance in the kingdom of Chist and God” (Ephesians 5:5).
They then unify the false dichotomy between holiness and social justice—as if caring about reading your Bible and speaking wholesomely and taking care of the poor are mutually exclusive. They trace the meaning of the concept speaking the truth in love back through the Old Testament arguing that it’s connected with the concept social justice. They say:
Earlier a question was raised: “What do I say to a person who claims to know Christ but is following a lifestyle that entails sexual immorality as defined by Christ and the apostles?” What does speaking truth in love mean in such situations? According to a biblical-theological understanding of Ephesians 4-6, such a lifestyle is not only morally wrong, it is a form of social injustice and leads to being less than fully human. We must address violations of the covenant requirements not simply as offenses against God but as a destructive path that constitutes social injustice and inhuman behavior. This must be part and parcel of both our speech and our actions in the covenant community.
And it is only this humanity that will survive divine judgement and enter the new heavens and the new earth. Do we treat each other with faithful loyal love? We must obey these instructions, because only in this way can we attain social justice, and only in this way can we become truly human. any other path will lead us to lose what it means to be truly human (pp. 586-87).
So a lack of holiness is social injustice which will work itself out in the way we treat others. There is no such person than who is so concerned with this new covenant ethic that is also not fulfilling his duty to his covenant community. The two are inseparable.
What is “Kingdom through Covenant”?
After all the groundwork and exegesis, the book closes with a discussion on the implications of this middle way. Foundationally, they argue that “it is through the biblical covenants that God’s kingdom comes to this word centered in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 591). They are viewing the development of the covenants (the “s” is also an important distinction they make from covenant theology) diachronastically:
Yet, contrary to “covenant theology,” which has the tendency to speak of God’s one plan of salvation in terms of the “covenant of grace,” or “dispensational theology,” which tends to partition history in terms of dispensations, it is more accurate to think in terms of a plurality of covenants (e.g., Gal. 4:24; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 8:7-13), which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant. This allows us to speak properly of the continuity of God’s plan across the ages now culminated in the new covenant, and it also helps us avoid flattening the relationship between the biblical covenants and downplaying the signficant amount of progression between them. This, in turn, allows us to see specific covenantal discontinuities in God’s unfolding plan which has import for a variety of theological issues. (p. 602)
Three of the major practical implications which I found helpful in the final section include the discussion of baptism, particular redemption, & the land promises.
First, it’s clear that part of the major difference between this new covenant theology and classical covenant theology is the understanding of the Abrahamic covenant and the covenant of grace. Gentry and Wellum argue that there is both conditional and unconditional imports to the Abrahamic covenant. And that the new covenant made with Christ is unique and distinct from the old covenant. So while they can speak of one people of God, they also call out the church as a new people of God. This understanding (seeing the continuity and discontinuity) provides the basis for rejecting padeobaptism. For in the new covenant, they argue, Jeremiah 31 says that all those who are under the new covenant have experienced the work of the Spirit in their heart. I could say more but you should really buy the book.
Second, they offer a robust defense of particular redemption. Within the wider development of their kingdom through covenant, their argument for particular redemption is nearly an impenetrable fort. They again place the unique work of redemption by Christ in the framework of the new covenant. If we argue that the new covenant is different from the old covenant primarily because the new covenant is not mixed and as Jeremiah 31 says all those under the new covenant will experience a greater working of the Holy Spirit than the question must asked: for who is Christ representing under the new covenant?
If the answer is everyone without distinction than we do not have much of a new covenant. This lackluster covenant then also speaks to the success of Christ’s high priestly work. The work of the high priest was always only for the covenant people. In the new covenant Hebrews emphasis repeatedly that the new covenant is better in its efficiencies and application. However, this cannot be the case under a general redemption.
Finally, they tackle the land promises and trace the idea of land and rest through out the whole story of Scripture. They firmly plan the promised land as on the shoulders of the first rest offered to Adam and final rest and its fulfillment in Christ in the new creation. They say:
In this final vision, as the curtains close, we now see what the eschatological goal of God’s creation was in the first place. Eden as the temple sanctuary now reaches its telos in the new creation. The land, which functioned as a type of this greater reality, now reaches its terminus. And the covenant relationship which God created us for in the first place is now realized in its fullness as we enjoy the presence of our great and glorious triune covenant God, and serve him in worship, adoration, devotion, and obedience forevermore. (p. 716)
Balanced, scholarly, and approachable
I enjoyed reading Kingdom through Covenant immensely. It again was refreshingly balanced and biblical. I cannot recall a place where their arguments were not tethered to the Bible even when I may have disagreed with their conclusions. You cannot ask for much from any book. I already mentioned the benefit for the chapter on the new covenant and Daniel but the entire work would be a huge help for pastors interested in preaching through the Old Testament. Also, the flow of thought and arrangement could nicely translate into a more advanced discipleship track or sunday school of sorts for unpacking the covenant and the narrative of all of Scripture. There is so much rich information that could easily be translated into meat for a lay person.
Practically Kingdom through Covenant’s thrust is more covenant than dispensational. And it’s more Baptistic in its understanding and hermeneutical underpinnings. What they have provided is a magisterial biblical theology that reformed Baptists can grab on to and call their own.
Kingdom through Covenant is the kind of book you must read with your eyes opened and fully engaged. Especially if you do not have a background in theology, the reading will be strenuous but I found the same joy finishing this book as I do after a long hike to the top of a mountain. Therefore, do not let the size of this book intimidate you. The benefit will far out weigh the hard work you put in to reading it.
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