Hi, this is Fred Zaspel, editor at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking again 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. We spoke with Dr. Wellum recently about this book, and we encourage you to listen in on that interview to catch up, but we wanted to give him opportunity to address a few more matters from the book.
Steve, welcome, and thanks for talking with us again!
Thank you Fred.
Just for quick review, explain your basic thesis just briefly. In a nutshell, what is “Progressive Covenantalism”? And just how it is distinctive?
That’s a great question. At the heart of Progressive Covenantalism is seeking to understand the whole counsel of God. Now, of course all Christians want to do that, but we want to see how God’s plan from eternity past is one plan. His one plan of salvation – keep emphasizing that – is put together because it doesn’t come to us all at once. It comes to us, God has chosen to bring about his sovereign purposes and redemptive purposes, especially now in light of the fall, in history. In what we call redemptive history. So that’s the notion of progressive. So over time the eternal plan, God creates a stage and now unpacks that plan and unfolds and reveals that plan over time. What we are arguing here is that on the Bible’s own terms and in the Bible’s own categories we seek to understand how God has accomplished our redemption and made himself known. And covenants are a crucial category and ways that God has unpacked His plan across time so that to get at what his plan is and how the whole counsel of God sits, how it all reaches its culmination in Christ and the dawning of the new covenant we have to walk through that unfolding plan from creation to Christ.
From Adam and creation and the covenant that is there through Noah, Abraham, the Old or Israel’s covenants, also sometimes called Mosaic covenants, through Davidic, those of the main biblical covenants that form the backbone of the entire storyline of Scripture. And as we walk through each of those covenants the plan of God is given more clarity, definition, we begin to see where it goes. We begin to see various patterns and types, what we think of in terms of typology, persons, events, institutions, unfold step-by-step so that each covenant contributes to understanding the whole counsel of God. Then we see how all of those covenants from Adam to David, through the prophets as they look to the future and all of the patterns and instruction, revelation of the previous covenants is pointing forward now to the coming of the Lord and his king, the Lord and Messiah who is bound up then with the Lord Jesus, and also is unpacked in terms of father/son relationship so that son now comes, brings the new covenant to pass, culminate all of the previous covenants. We like to say that all the previous covenants are fulfilled, they reach their telos, their goal, their end, their terminus ultimately now in Christ in the new covenant age. And that’s basically the heart of Progressive Covenantalism.
So revelation is progressive but within that the covenants are sort of the anchor points that define where we’re going.
Yes, and the covenant are giving us step-by-step that unfolding plan. And obviously the God of Scripture gloriously is a covenant God. We didn’t make him that, that’s who he is. We have a triune relations (we wouldn’t call that covenantal per se) but I mean there’s triune relations, there’s self-sufficiency and personal communion within the Godhead. He chooses to create us, human beings, the whole world, he creates us in his image for relationship with him. I will be your God, you will be my people so obviously the covenant relationship describes how he relates to us as his creatures. The biblical covenant, step-by-step then unfolds this glorious plan before the foundation of the world. And particularly it’s a plan of redemption. So often in covenant theology they talk about the eternal plan of God as a covenant of redemption. That’s certainly appropriate.
Where we are distinctive is that we want to treat each of the covenants in their unique place in the plan, in redemptive history; see how the previous covenants relate to later covenants, how later covenants pick up the revelation of the earlier covenants. It’s sort of like, often described as a kind of mystery novel. You know, you need chapter by chapter 2 unfold in order for you to see where the end of the story is going. That’s how the covenants are the backbone, and contribute to the unfolding plan. And Christ comes as the head of the new covenant, the head of the new creation. He is a mediator, he is the great high priest, prophet, priest, king of the new covenant relationship now to a people and thus restoring what Adam lost in the first creation, the old creation, now with the new creation.
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Just how does a progressive covenantal approach understand the Mosaic law and its relevance today?
A huge question. There are many fine treatments of it. There’s also many nuances to it so I’m just going to give here what I would say is sort of the big picture of it. When we think of Mosaic law, we are trying to say that we need to think of it as the Mosaic law covenant. So we need to think of Mosaic law, not just as… I think a lot of people, because of an old tradition, sort of divide up that Mosaic law into different parts: morals, civil, ceremonial… We are saying it’s a whole covenant package. So as we move from Adam to Noah there’s creation kind of covenant: both Adam and Noah represent the world. It’s universal creation norms, then it’s narrowed through Abraham and his seed, Isaac which is then picked up in the nation of Israel, how promise of God from Genesis 3:15 well unfold. The Mosaic law then is what Scripture in the New Testament will call the old covenant. It’s an entire package. It’s that which begins at Sinai after the Exodus, Moses as a pivotal figure, and often called Mosaic law because he is the key covenant head/mediator of it. He functions certainly as a prophet. He is the great prophet of the Old Testament. He’s priestly, he’s from the Levitical tribe, and he’s the one who gets the entire priestly system going. He’s also kingly, not the same way David is, but he is a ruler and deliverer. He’s an incredible figure in the Old Testament, covenant/mediator that now brings Israel the son of God which already has allusions back to and Adamic role. Israel as the son of God now comes into covenant relationship. It happens in a number of stages, you know obviously at Sinai, within the covenant is broken, it’s renewed, it’s then reaffirmed to that second-generation in Deuteronomy so that the entire Pentateuch now. Exodus, particularly, through Deuteronomy is giving the establishment of that old covenant as they then enter the land, and it’s an entire covenant package.
The book of Hebrews is really, really, really important here. Hebrews 7:11. It’s an argument the author is making regarding Christ’s greater high priestly work, but he makes observation, he puts a parenthesis almost in passing that the foundation of the law, he’s referring there to that old covenant, the foundation of it is the priesthood. And that makes a lot of sense where the whole law covenant is, yes, laws, it’s civil demands, but it’s ultimately grounded in a priesthood because the heart of the covenant relationship is: “I’m your God, you’re my people.” And of course then given sin, how does this holy God dwell with a sinful people, and priesthood becomes a part of it. So already those points been picked up earlier in Genesis, yet they receive full fruition/bloom in the old covenant.
What we’re saying is the old covenant, the Mosaic law is a law covenant, it’s a package that governs the life of Israel. That’s in place until ultimately Christ fulfills it. But it’s a unit and we need to view it in terms of its location in the plot line, in redemptive history, what has preceded it, so that we see how it’s unfolding from Adam to Noah, Abraham, and ultimately what comes after it so that in Christ the entire law covenant is fulfilled as a package. And then we have to speak about what applies, what doesn’t apply, how we apply the whole Bible to us in this type of thing. But that sort of the big picture. It’s a law covenant just as the other covenants, it’s part of one plan unfolding. We have to see where it’s located in that plan, in the plan of God. The New Testament makes very clear that I think we could even demonstrate this from the Old Testament, but the New Testament makes very clear that law covenant was temporary. It was purposely intended by God to govern the life of Israel, it was to show them their sin, it was to anticipate and typological form the coming of redemption, it was never intended to deliver ultimate salvation. It pointed forward to it, yet in its priesthood and its sacrificial system and a whole host of ways it points forward to the glorious work in the coming of Christ. And that’s how we would understand the role of Mosaic law covenant in the larger scope of the covenants and how Christ will then bring the entire fulfillment of that covenant package to pass.
Let’s talk about your own chapter in this book – “Progressive Covenantalism and Ethics.” What is distinctive about a progressive covenantal approach to ethics?
The whole book is trying to chart the course between dispensational and covenant, and on this particular point I’m nuancing or clarifying and distinguishing myself more from covenant theology at this point. Many dispensational theologians would not follow the covenant approach exactly except they may not just do exactly everything that I’m doing as well. So let me set what we’re doing in the chapter there over against much of covenant theology.
Covenant theology, and other Christian traditions, goes way back in the history of the church to look at the Mosaic law covenant in a three-part way. Sometimes known as the tripartite division of the law. So you have the moral law, which is epitomized and summarized by the 10 Commandments. You have then civil law and demands for the theocracy/the nation of Israel that serves its place in the Old Testament that most would see have come to fulfillment. The church isn’t just like Israel of old in terms of its geography and land and conquering in this type of thing. And within covenant theology there is some debate over some of those civil laws coming over to the state. The New Testament has a clear church/state distinction yet there’s debate, theonomy, this type of thing, but most would say the civil law has been fulfilled in the church doesn’t function exactly like Israel of old. And then you have the ceremonial, bound up with the priesthood, sacrificial system and so on is now brought to fulfillment in Christ. So it’s the 10 Commandments that are viewed then as eternal moral law. They are true for all people, all places, all times, they carry over from Old Testament era to us. The transfer is tight.
And of course what often shows up in this type of discussion is the Sabbath command, because it’s given clearly in the 10 Commandments, Tom Schreiner in the book wrestles with it, but if you take the 10 Commandments as eternal moral law inevitably you’re going to have to have something of Sabbath coming over, and how does it come over and not come over and that’s a debate.
Now what we do, what I do, and the other contributors would agree is that we think of this way of dividing up the Mosaic law covenant is not quite right. We’re saying it’s a package so that the entire covenant has been brought to fulfillment. Ultimately then the question becomes, and often is challenged to us – if you do not hold to the 10 Commandments as eternal moral law then you have no basis for moral law and you are an antinomian. And we’re saying, no, no, no, no, no, that’s not the case. We would say the moral law of God first and foremost is God’s will and character. We have that by revelation across the entire canon of Scriptures. Certainly the 10 Commandments and the entire law covenant reflect the moral demands of God. The question becomes, “How do we rightly apply Scripture to us?” And what we would then say, and in the chapter we are saying that we apply the whole counsel of God to us.
Second Timothy 3:16-17 is very important, “all Scripture…” (The context there is primarily referring to Old Testament but by extension, New Testament) all Scripture is for our instruction. All Scripture must give us counsel and wisdom and direction and everything else, so that we would say the whole Bible applies to us. But we must now apply the whole Bible to us through the covenantal unfolding, seeing how all the covenants reach their fulfillment in Christ so that there’s often two hermeneutical approaches that are followed that we quibble with. One is: unless the Old Testament is specifically abrogated in the New Testament it’s still in force. Or unless it’s specifically picked up in the New Testament we don’t have to follow it type of thing. We’re saying, no, no, no, we have to follow all of Scripture, but we then have to let all of the biblical covenants unfold across the plan, see how they are brought to fulfillment in Christ and from there we apply the whole Bible in and through the new covenant in and through what Christ commands in and through all that the new covenant brings. And we would ultimately argue, there’s a kind of greater sense of moral demand that is upon the believer than in some sense of the older. In that there’s the full reality that Christ brings in the new covenant, brings a greater demand upon us, a greater expectation, a greater fulfillment, that is then lived out, not perfectly, obviously, but later glorification, yet by the power of the spirit as we seek to obey Christ and glorify him and have all of our faith and confidence in him.
Is it right to say, then, in a nutshell, that the immediate focal point for ethical considerations is Christ, not Moses.
Yes. Though that’s very clear, I think the still has to be unpacked a little bit because people go different directions with that. So that’s why I often try to start with, for the Christian, what does God want from us. He wants us to obey all that he has commanded across the entire canon. But that then still raises the question, we have to then see what he is commanded and what comes over to us in terms of demand in light of Christ. So there’s where the first statement you say is exactly right. So we know then that the food laws don’t come over to us as they did under that old covenant package. They reach their fulfillment. Circumcision reaches its fulfillment. But we would then apply that to all of the other areas.
Now as it practically works out, and I try to emphasize this at the very beginning of the chapter, as it practically works out, practically we don’t live that much differently than any other Christians. We still say adultery is wrong. We still say covetousness is wrong. That not loving the Lord our God with all our heart soul mind and strength is wrong. Yet what we’re trying to then say is we want to be able to say that the way the Bible itself says it according to the Bible’s own terms. So think of the preamble to the 10 Commandments at this point. “I’m the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt. Well, that functions under the old covenant package for that nation who was taken out of Egypt. I, myself, don’t know about you, but I, myself, have not yet been to Egypt. I’ve never gone out of Egypt. So we have to then say that preamble is for that nation, in that place in redemptive history.
But how does that come over to us? Well, the long argument here would be that Exodus that they experienced ultimately points forward typologically to a greater Exodus, more than just a political deliverance from slavery, but ultimately the greater need for redemption from sin. And what I now see in fulfillment of the old covenant, now that I’ve been redeemed from sin, as the redeemed in that way, not the way Israel is, there is greater incentive and desire to have no other gods, to honor his name, to live for him and so on and so on. So that practically there’s very little contention. Where it often shows up is first in the Sabbath issue, that’s where point of contention shows up, and how we are drawn to those conclusions and how the hermeneutic works and the consistency of hermeneutics which is really, really important today because on the non-Christian front, as we take the gospel to non-Christians, many people at this point will be trying to tell us that we are inconsistent in our ethics. That we pick and choose from the Old Testament on various sexual ethics and this type of thing. And we’re saying no, no, no we’re not doing that, we’re consistently putting the Bible together. And one other feature let me just throw in here quickly, is we also try to develop that as we think of the whole Bible being applied to us ethically, it’s also crucial to think in terms of creation, fall, redemption, new creation categories so that there’s things in creation… Why is homosexuality wrong? Or why is adultery wrong? Why is any sexual aberration outside of heterosexual monogamous union wrong? Because ultimately it’s grounded in creation so that with the law later reflects is simply a reflection of creation. And the new covenant brings a greater new creation order back into place with obviously transformation but there’s other ways of handling some of these areas tied to creation order. The New Testament does not have, for instance, a command against beastiality, yet beastiality is wrong. But I don’t have to just say it’s wrong because the Old Testament law said it was wrong. It’s ultimately wrong, yes, because the Old Testament law said it but it’s wrong because that’s not what God created us to be in creation. So that’s how we think through the whole Bible and then draw conclusions appropriate now through Christ and the lens of the new covenant.
Maybe you can give us another quick sampling of the book: What do the “seed” and “circumcision” themes have to tell us about the nature of the church as these themes progressively unfold in Scripture? Big questions – can you give us a snapshot of it all?
I think the big picture is, and we try to argue this, is that when you talk about “seed” and you talk about “circumcision,” these ultimately become patterns – legitimate, God-given, typological patterns (and we would have to talk long and hard about typology) that as they unfold through the covenants reach their fulfillment ultimately in Christ. So “seeds” goes all the way back to initially that promise in Genesis 3:15. You trace out the seed through the covenants. We have how the promise of God in redemption will take place, it travels through from Adam ultimately then through Abraham and his seed, the nation, Davidic seed and then it culminates in Abraham’s great seed, Galatians 3:16, Christ. The crucial point though is that as we move from Old Testament to New Testament, from the seed’s typological features through the covenants to Christ, there’s transformation, there’s what we sometimes call discontinuity when it comes to Christ. Christ now as the fulfillment of the seed now his head of his people who now has a people that is no longer sort of the Abrahamic covenant you and your children. The children of the new covenant head are believers so that affects then the nature of the church and how the church is a regenerate community and so on. In the same thing with “circumcision.” Circumcision functions as an old covenant sign. You have to do justice to it in its Old Testament covenantal context. It signifies a number of things, yet it also begins to point forward very early on. By the time you get out of the Pentateuch Moses is already picking up that you need not just circumcision of flesh, you need circumcision of heart. That gets picked up in the prophets. They too speak of also the coming of the new covenant and John Meade argues that circumcision of heart is even broader than just regeneration. It’s a whole transformation. It’s what we would probably in the New Testament call more of a doctrine of salvation and a full orb scope that involves regeneration and justification in the giving of the spirit. That culminates now in new birth, it culminates in a new living relationship which doesn’t then go from circumcision to baptism or infant baptism. It goes from circumcision, the physical, to ultimately that which points forward to a need for transformation of heart which is what we now have as believers – United to Christ, born of the Spirit and brought into a living relationship with our new covenant head.
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.
Fred thank you very much. I really appreciate the interview. Blessings on you.
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