A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Dalton Bowser
For someone looking for a one-stop-shop where he can find an overview of the basic theological systems in the evangelical world, he has to look no further than Benjamin Merkle’s Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies. Merkle is a professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons, Beginning with New Testament Greek, and Going Deeper with New Testament Greek.
This book provides a helpful overview of six major theological systems. The title alludes to an earlier book by John Feinberg on this topic: Continuity and Discontinuity. Merkle’s book distinguishes itself from Feinberg’s by being more up to date and by providing a chapter-by-chapter overview of each theological system.
The book begins with a helpful prelude and introduction. Merkle lays out four intended results of reading his book.
- First, he wants believers to know what they believe. Believers should seek to be self-aware and consistent in their theological beliefs.
- Second, he wants readers to appreciate the views of others. He notes, “When we don’t understand others’ theological systems, it is easy to dismiss their views or, worse, demonize them” (2). This is an all-too-common reality that this book seeks to diminish.
- Third, he desires that readers recognize that their theological system is not perfect. This is not to say that we can never know the truth for sure, but that no single fallen human being is sufficiently able to grasp everything. We must humbly seek to learn from others.
- Finally, Merkle wants all readers to strive to be people of the book: “a person of the book is not merely someone who knows the Bible well but someone who has the mind of Christ” (4). Mere theological knowledge is not enough. We must seek to know the Author of the book.
The methodology of the book is clear and consistent throughout. Merkle explains six major theological systems: Classic Dispensationalism, Revised Dispensationalism, Progressive Dispensationalism, Progressive Covenantalism, Covenant Theology, and Christian Reconstructionism. He acknowledges that other systems could be analyzed, but he believes these are most representative of the evangelical world. These systems proceed from those seeing more discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, to those that see more continuity between the two. He analyzes each system through four key questions: 1) What is the basic hermeneutic? 2) What is the relationship between the covenants? 3) What is the relationship between Israel and the Church? 4) What is the Kingdom of God? These questions help to explain how each system is similar and different from each of the others.
The three systems of discontinuity are all a form of dispensationalism: Classic Dispensationalism, Revised Dispensationalism, and Progressive Dispensationalism. Although all three forms exist today, in many ways, these three views can be seen as a historical progression, with Progressive Dispensationalism gaining the most traction today (at least in the academy). Classic Dispensationalism began with writers such as John N. Darby, C. I. Scofield, and Lewis S. Chafer. They sought to apply a consistent literal hermeneutic to the Bible. They divided the Bible into seven dispensations or epochs of time.
These writers saw a sharp distinction between Israel and the church. Israel was associated with God’s earthly promises of land and kingdom, where the church was associated with things spiritual and heavenly. The kingdom of heaven was seen as God’s earthly rule over Israel, where the kingdom of God is God’s rule in the Church. We are living in the church age now, and in the future, the church will be raptured, and then a seven-year tribulation will come, followed by a literal 1,000-year reign where Christ will rule on the earth.
Revised Dispensationalism holds the same basic tenets of the classical form, yet is distinguished in a few ways. These writers talked less of typology, made it clear that there was one way of salvation taught in the whole Bible (some people accused the classic writers, rightly or wrongly, of teaching more than one way of salvation), and made no distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God.
Progressive Dispensationalism adds a complementary hermeneutic to the literal that “allows the meaning of a text to develop or expand, though the text retains its original meaning” (206). Therefore, a prophecy about the restoration of Israel can retain its literal meaning, with its future literal fulfillment to come, while also having application to the church. Furthermore, Progressive Dispensationalism only recognizes four dispensations, believes in one people of God, with Israel and the church being dimensions in it, deny any sort of “parenthesis” language for the church age, sees Jesus as inaugurating the kingdom from heaven, and sees a unified kingdom plan in both testaments.
The systems of continuity that Merkle analyzes are Progressive Covenantalism, Covenant Theology, and Christian Reconstructionism. Progressive Covenantalism is the newest form among these, and largely due to the book by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant. Progressive Covenantalism sees covenant as central to putting the Bible together, and, moreover, a progressive movement among them that finds their culmination and fulfillment in the new covenant in Christ.
Classic covenant theology sees greater continuity between the historical covenants than Progressive Covenantalism by viewing them all under the covenant of grace, a theological concept, that “is a post-fall covenant made with Adam where God promises to redeem a people for himself through the coming Messiah” (209). The people of God are a mixed community in every covenant (believers and unbelievers). The promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church. Moreover, the moral aspect of the law is still applicable to Christians today.
Christian Reconstructionism is essentially covenant theology but affirms that the so-called Old Testament civil laws still apply to nations today. They seek to apply God’s law to all of society (church, government, education, etc.).
Discontinuity to Continuity is a great resource for the church and academy today. Thankfully, in recent years, there has been a growing discussion on theological systems. This discussion has led to newer or revised versions of older systems. Often, individuals fail to understand other theological systems. This book can help alleviate that by providing a brief, yet sufficient explanation of the six major theological systems. Moreover, Merkle successfully keeps his own convictions aside so that this book merely outlines, rather than defends, one particular view (contra a book like, Five Views on Law and Gospel). This book would be helpful to give someone wrestling with the different theological systems or even to use in a seminary or college classroom (personally, I think it would work great in a hermeneutics class).
One system not mentioned (not even a footnote!) in this book is 1689 Baptist covenant theology. This seems to be a significant lacuna given that 1689 Federalism is a theological system held by non-paedobaptists that predates all forms of dispensationalism and Progressive Covenantalism. It distinguishes itself enough from classic covenant theology not merely in its implications for baptism, but rather its insistence that the covenant of grace is an actual historical covenant, the new covenant in Christ. A small group of Reformed Baptists has written much to recover this system (James Renihan, et. al.) for modern Baptists. Therefore, given its historical precedent and the current literature available on it, it would seem that a book like Merkle’s should interact with it in some manner.
Finally, although not so much a critique, but a suggestion, is that each chapter would end with a bibliography for further reading. Those resources could be found in the footnotes and the bibliography at the end of the book, but a short bibliography of go-to works on the particular system of the chapter would enhance this resource for individuals wanting to go deeper into a particular system.
Overall, this book is clear and helpful in its explanation of six main theological systems. Anybody wanting to know more about the different systems would be helped by reading.