Interview with Stephen Wellum, co-editor of PROGRESSIVE COVENANTALISM: CHARTING A COURSE BETWEEN DISPENSATIONAL AND COVENANTAL THEOLOGIES

Published on April 18, 2016 by Todd Scacewater

B&H, 2016 | 300 pages

Hi, this is Fred Zaspel, editor at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking today with Dr. Stephen Wellum about the new book he has co-edited with Brent Parker entitled, Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theology. Dr. Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, and we’re happy he could talk to us today about his new work. Steve, welcome – great to have you with us again.

Stephen Wellum:
Great to be with you Fred, and look forward to the opportunity to talk about the book.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, let’s begin with the big picture: explain for us first what “progressive covenantalism” – the concept, not just the book – is all about.

Wellum:
Sure, I’d be happy to do that. If we just take the two words, that’s probably a good place to begin. First if we just think of covenantalism, basically the argument is, if we understand rightly, the unfolding plan of God from creation to Christ and ultimately to the consummation, the new creation. The backbone to the entire plan of God, the unfolding storyline of Scripture, is the covenants or the biblical covenants. So there’s where the notion of covenantalism comes. And in that sense it similar to covenant theology that would see that God’s unfolding plan begins with the creation and Adam and there’s a covenant context there and then there’s the unfolding covenants that ultimately culminate in Christ at all of the details of God’s plan are made sense of in light of the covenant development and the covenant unpacking from creation to Christ.

Now progressive, in some sense I’ve already been unpacking that term, progressive is the idea of progressive revelation. So progressive means many things to many people in different contexts, but we are using it in the sense of biblical theology sense, the Vosian sense (the Geerhardus Vos sense) of God’s plan comes to us over time. It doesn’t come to us all at once. So you have a sort of seed to full bloom kind of form, and as you go from creation to Christ there is the unfolding plan of God’s through, and through is being used here more of a “through time”or redemptive historical sense. That’s through the biblical covenants they unfold the plan of God step-by-step so all of the covenants contribute to the revelation of God’s glorious plan of redemption that now culminates in the coming of Christ in the new covenant, so that they all have a part to play in seeing the glory of the great plan of salvation fulfilled in Christ, terminating in Him and then where we are in terms of the church in relationship to him.

 

Zaspel:
To make sure we’re all on the same page, list these covenants for us in progressive order.

Wellum:
Yes, so as we work through, obviously there’s many covenants in Scripture, but we are picking up the main promise covenants so that we begin with Adam and we do argue–and this is a disputed point in theology, in different theological views–but we argue for creation covenant with Adam as the covenant representative and head. He’s standing on behalf of all of us. So Adam to then, Noah. And then Noah functions in another Adam sense. Obviously it’s a fallen context now, but Noah functions as another Adam who is given the same kind of promises or commands, mandates, as Adam has but now in a fallen world.

And that universal focus from Adam to Noah is developed and then narrowed–so we have in Noah the sense of two seeds, two kingdoms, God in the Noahic covenant will not wipe away the entire human race as he has done in the flood. But that the kingdom of man, the kingdom of God will exist simultaneously until the end of the age. And then in the Abrahamic the Adamic role is now narrowed to a family through the seed, through Isaac and then ultimately through the nation of Israel, the means by which God’s promise all the way back to Genesis 3:15 that God will send the seed of the woman to reverse the effects of sin and to destroy the works of the evil one, that it will come through Abraham’s line through the nation of Israel, epitomized so that the nation of Israel be the old covenant or Mosaic covenant through then epitomizing in the Davidic covenant.

The Davidic covenant obviously is an extension of Israel. David is under the old covenant yet the Davidic king takes on the role of Israel as an individual and begins to fulfill the Abrahamic promises all the way back to Adam. So that those covenants:  Adam, Creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Old or Mosaic, Davidic, are the main covenants that then as the prophets look forward in light of the sin of Israel, the sin of the Kings, the failure anticipates the coming of a greater king who is identified with the Lord, who is the fulfillment of Israel, who is Abraham’s seed, who is greater Adam, who now will bring a New Covenant. And so those of the covenants that in the Old Testament unfolds and that Christ now comes as the fulfillment of that prophetic hope, bringing the new covenant to pass in his life, death, resurrection, pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost and then ultimately the culmination of it when he comes again.

 

Zaspel:
You make a point in the book that these covenants culminate in the New Covenant. Sketch that out for us.

Wellum:
Our contention here, when we distinguish ourselves from dispensational, covenant theology, obviously there is so much in common that all evangelicals, all within these views have in common. I guess where we are slightly different as we think of the covenant unfolding, we do want to see that these are just sort of self-contained covenants separated from what’s happened previously in redemptive history, to what happens later or just simply putting the biblical covenants under one larger rubric, say the covenant of grace. We want to say each of the biblical covenants, beginning in creation with Adam, unfolds the plan of God so that they all have a part to understand what ultimately comes in the new covenant.

So when we say that the new covenant in Christ culminates all the other covenants is that all those previous covenants and how they are presented, and in how they develop, reach their fulfillments, their terminus, their sort of end and goal in Christ. So creation Adam leads us to last Adam, that’s Christ and the new covenant. The Noahic is interesting here because obviously Noah is picking up creation realities, there’s a universal focus because Noah represents the entire human race as Adam did. With Noahic, there is a sense in which, and I think when we speak about it culminating in Christ we have to qualify this in the sense that with the Noahic, the promise there is that until the end of the age seedtime and harvest summer and winter will continue. So we take that to be the creation pattern standards, so things like marriage, things like even government, and these kinds of things that are all part of creation order, they will continue to the end, yet there will be then two seeds so that Christ ultimately fulfills even Noahic but it’s going to be an overlap of the ages in the New Testament where he comes yet the creation order continues until the end, until the final. You think of marriage, how marriage continues under Adam, Noahic, that’s a creation order pattern ordinance, yet it gets transformed then in the consummation.

So Noahic is culminating in the new covenant by continuing to the end of the age yet Christ still fulfills creation pattern. He is the head of creation, head of redemption and so on. And then with Abrahamic, the Abrahamic seed to Isaac and ultimately through the nation of Israel, Christ comes as the true seed. I think of Galatians 3 at this point. He is true Israel so the culminates in in terms of Israel’s covenant he takes on the role of Israel, fulfills that role, what it pointed forward to and particularly the Davidic. So that he culminates it by all the previous covenants reach their pointing forward and there prophetic sense ultimately and him and what he accomplishes in the new covenant.

 

Zaspel:
Situate progressive covenantalism for us theologically in comparison – or in contrast – to other standard interpretive approaches to Scripture. How is it distinctive?

Wellum:
You have to be very careful that you see that there is so much agreement with evangelicals, historic Christians, and everything else, so it’s not like it’s brand-new in every way but it is unique in that we are trying to take with looking at the unfolding plan of God, right, so we’re trying to say, how does the whole counsel of God, the whole canon of Scripture fit? How did the pieces, all the diversity, and there’s lots of diversity in Scripture, how does it ultimately fit?

We’re trying to say that the covenant unfolding will bring coherence to how the plan of God unfolds in culminates in Christ. Over against say a dispensational theology, I mean they talk about covenants, they talk about these things but they still tend to speak at the heart of a dispensational theology of Israel as a national, ethnic people. Certainly that’s true in the Old Testament, the old covenant yet they remain distinct or at least, depending upon the dispensationalist you’re talking to, there’s still a distinction between Israel and the church.

Most dispensationalists today in the progressive way say there’s one people of God, yet Israel as a national ethnic people still have some promises left outstanding for them that they will receive in the future, not just a millennium but final state, even though they are part of the one people of God. So there’s some kind of Israel church contrast distinction in that way and that drives sort of dispensational theology and leads to a certain eschatology and understanding of the church and Israel and so on.

We are saying over against them that if we look at the covenantal unfolding, obviously Israel as a national ethnic people serves a crucial role in God’s plan, they are tied back to Abraham, Abraham ultimately is tied back to Adam, yet the nation of Israel in its typological role finds its fulfillment in Christ and the Davidic covenant is important here. The Davidic king in the Old Testament takes on the role of Israel. So that in Christ he fulfills the role of Israel, the role of the king all the way back to the role of Adam so that Israel finds its fulfillment first in Christ who is true Israel, last Adam, true Davidic king who then brings about a people, an international community, Jew and Gentile together, equal standing so that we preserve in the future are ethnic differences.

None of that changes, we remain gender, male/female, we remain whatever our ethnicity is but in the church there is one new man so that there’s not something left in our view outstanding to national Israel other than what they receive in and through the promises and Christ. All the promises are yes and amen in him and they are brought into the church. So that’s where it’s a little different than say a progressive dispensational or dispensational view. Over against covenant theology – we obviously are agreeing on the covenant unfolding, yet I think and again you have to be careful as you label covenant theologians today.

Historically they’ve worked with God’s eternal plan, covenant of redemption, covenant of works in Adam and creation and the covenant of grace that all of the biblical covenants are subsumed under. There are modifications of that we distinctions are made between work kind of covenants and bilateral and unconditional and grace covenants. But they tend to view the covenants under this one rubric of the covenant of grace and what we’re saying is well if you mean the covenant of grace is the one plan of God, that’s fine, but it’s important to let the unfolding plan of God take place to see how each covenant is contributing to the revelation, the unfolding of God’s plan and then ask how each covenant is building on the previous, that’s setting up for what comes later, and then how all of it is fulfilled in Christ. Now when we do that we are convinced that some of the moves that covenant theology has made, particularly often going from Israel immediately to church so in their view the church is the new Israel or Israel is the church and it’s ordered the same way or structured the same way of you know you have an Israel within Israel.

So then with the church you have a church within the church and then circumcision is assigned to Israel of old now comes over in continuity with say baptism, that shows up in infant baptism. Those kinds of things are not quite right because they are not doing justice to how the covenants are reaching fulfillment in Christ and bringing change. So that the relationship of Christ to his people under the new covenant isn’t exactly the same way as the mediators of the previous covenants are to their people. So there has to be allowance for the proper sense of transformation, fulfillment as you move from the patterns and often typological structures of the old to the fulfillment in Christ. So there’s where we’re going to differ. And a lot of the differences show up in other areas but a lot of them seem to center on ecclesiology, issues of ordinances, eschatology, but behind that would be a slightly different way of seeing the plan of God unfold step-by-step.

 

Zaspel:
This is a new book, but it’s not the first time you’ve addressed the theme. Just briefly, how does this book follow on your previous two books – Kingdom Through Covenant (2012) and God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenant (2015)?

Wellum:
The first book – Kingdom Through Covenant with Peter Gentry was simply laying out in a more detailed and academic presentation of progressive covenantalism, trying to work through the biblical covenants. I put some of the issues of what’s the relation of biblical and systematic and dispensational and covenant and hermeneutical differences in how we’re approaching the Bible and Peter works through the Old Testament covenants to the new covenant. We were a little short on the New Testament which we’re going to try to remedy down the road, but then I came back and tried to show the theological implications, a new proposal that is trying to mediate both dispensational covenant theology but most of the work was actually laying out the exegetical and then moving from exegetical to biblical theology to systematic theology on how the covenants unfold.

The second volume was basically a shortened version of that. To make it a little more popular we took out all of the polemical kind of discussion. We really didn’t discuss directly dispensationalism or covenant theology for these type of things, we just laid out – here’s our view and here’s the big picture of it and summarized it in about a third of space. Now where this volume, Progressive Covenantalism comes in is that we are trying to take what we did in Kingdom Through Covenant and then God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenant the shortened version, we’re just trying to develop it. The first volume especially only were able to say – here’s how the covenants unfold, here’s some of the exegetical work, but we realized that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.

There’s a lot more application that needs to be worked out or theological matters that need to be discussed so a PhD student, Brent Parker, and I said – let’s enlist people who would agree with the overall direction, and there may be differences among us on say, millennial issues, and there’s nothing we don’t come down we have amils we have historic premils that kind of thing, but the overall of the progress of the covenants as a way of seeing how God’s plan unfolds. So we enlisted authors who agreed with that overall approach so they would not classify themselves as dispensational or covenant and then we said let’s develop some certain points and then all right we need to work on certain themes: seeds, how does that work across the covenants, circumcision, we have to address the Sabbath issue because that shows up in a lot of discussions of covenant theology. We never directly dealt with that in the previous books so Tom Schreiner comes and deals with that issue given this kind of understanding, how would that Sabbath command look.

I addressed issues on ethics. There’s a discussion on Israel to church. Romans 9 to 11 – we weren’t able to deal with that in the first volume – that was a real shortcoming of the volume that we were criticized for, so we said we’ve got to lay out especially with dispensational view of Israel in the future, what does Romans 9 to 11 say? And so Richard Lucas tackled that by just trying to say, here’s the parameters that we can work with. This is what the text we think is saying. It doesn’t provide weight to necessarily a dispensational view it can read in light of progressive covenantalism and do justice to the text as well then warning passages had to be looked at more carefully because covenant theology often appeals to those warning texts to try to justify the church is really not that much different from Israel of old. You have an Israel within Israel, a church within the church – the warning passages are addressed to the church as a whole and so we had to say, no, those warning passages can be understood rightly and properly within a progressive covenantal view. So we’re takling specific elements that we were unable to develop and develop them a bit more. And we acknowledge that there’s still a lot of work to be done, so our initial works were really a proposal.  Now we’re trying to unpack that proposal in more detail, in more specificity, more argument and enlist more people to do so.

 

Zaspel:
I have several more questions that have come to mind that I’d love to chase, but our time is about up. Maybe we can take these up in another interview sometime?

Wellum:
Absolutely! Yeah, Sure!

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Dr. Steve Wellum about his new book, Progressive Covenantalism. It’s an excellent piece of work that is sure to make its mark and demand attention. We encourage you to get a copy for careful study.

Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Wellum:
I appreciate it, Fred, and thank you very much.

Buy the books

Progressive Covenantalism

B&H, 2016 | 300 pages