A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by David Finkbeiner
Most of us have read numerous “multiple views” books dealing with certain theological and biblical topics. Some are poorly conceived or executed. Others are of mixed quality, whether in design or execution. But when such a work clearly delineates major views on a debated matter, unpacks key issues in the debate, designs a venue for clear dialogue, and recruits scholars who eagerly and skillfully make the case for their respective views, that work is extremely helpful. This accurately describes the book Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture, edited by Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas. The four views this work considers are covenant theology (CT), progressive covenantalism (PC), progressive dispensationalism (PD), and traditional dispensationalism (TD).
The book begins with an introduction by the editors. Then each contributor presents his case for his particular review. Once the four views are presented by their respective advocates, they each write a response to the other three views. The book ends with a concluding chapter by the editors in which they give the reader an enormously helpful chart comparing the position of the four views on key issues in the debate. The book also includes a useful Scripture index as well as a general index (that could have been profitably expanded).
In their introduction, Parker and Lucas explain that systems of continuity are fundamentally wrestling with how we should put our Bible together, particularly given its nature as progressive revelation. They discuss several such systems, but the book concentrates on the four most popular today in evangelicalism. The editors’ description of the four systems is both concise and appropriately nuanced. The introduction ends with an overview of several key questions the authors use to make their case for their respective views. The chart in the editors’ conclusion at the end of the book helpfully uses these issues to compare the four views. The key issues include hermeneutical factors, how the biblical covenants are understood, the relationship between Israel and the church, and the ecclesiastical implications of that relationship. These four issues will be used below in describing the four views.
The editors and contributors do a nice job structuring the debate to illuminate the key issues and delineate clear distinctions between the four views. And each of the four contributors is quite effective in making the case for his respective view and presenting his arguments against the other views. Because this debate over how we understand the Bible’s storyline is so important, the remainder of this review will summarize the four views as presented in this book. Of course, readers (both of the book and of this review) will differ as to who makes the most convincing case.
Michael Horton’s Covenant Theology
The first view, representing the greatest level of continuity, is covenant theology. As the editors describe it in their introduction, this system understands salvation history in terms of three covenants: the covenant of redemption between the Father and Son in eternity past, the covenant of works between God and Adam, and the covenant of grace between God and His elect in Christ. This last covenant—revealed in the gospel—subsumes all the biblical covenants since the Fall and provides the continuity for all salvation history. For each biblical covenant (differing in mode) administers this same covenant of grace (sharing the same substance). This means that there is one covenant community throughout redemptive history, sharing a continuity of nature (a mixed group consisting of believers and unbelievers) and covenant signs.
Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, makes the case for covenant theology. His approach is governed by certain hermeneutical principles. First, the NT has priority for interpreting the OT, for not only does the OT point to Christ, but the NT itself encourages and exemplifies this approach, as do believers throughout much of church history. In addition, the law and gospel distinction, so important for the Reformers, plays a crucial role in CT, for it provides the basis respectively for the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. To be sure, the covenant of grace (and its constituent biblical covenants) has conditions (law), but rather than meriting anything, they are a product of grace (gospel). CT is therefore neither legalistic nor antinomian in its understanding of the covenant of grace.
How does Horton understand the biblical covenants? He argues that God did establish a covenant with Adam in the Garden. A conditional or bilaterial covenant, this was the quintessential exemplar of the covenant of works, for its form was, “Do this and live”—something Adam had the capacity to do prior to the Fall. His failure brought death in the Fall, but also prompted the revelation of the covenant of grace, the unilateral promise of salvation in Christ in Gen 3:15. The Noahic covenant, though not a saving covenant, was similarly unilateral. But the covenant of grace is expressed powerfully in the Abrahamic, David, and new covenants. All the promises of the Abrahamic covenant are unilateral and fulfilled by God, but there are two kinds of promises. The promises regarding ethnic Israel and the land were fulfilled by God when Israel conquered Canaan in Joshua’s time; the promises of salvation to all God’s people were fulfilled in Christ. Similarly, the Davidic covenant guarantees that God will fulfill these promises of salvation in David’s greater Son and promises of the new Covenant are realized by Christ and in His church.
What about the Sinai covenant? Horton sees “echoes” of the Creation covenant in the covenant at Sinai (45). Like the covenant of works, the Sinai covenant sets up conditions for Israel by which they can either enjoy life in the land or be cast out of it. But the Sinai covenant still ultimately participates in the covenant of grace, since it serves to carry forth that covenant’s promise of eternal salvation for all God’s people, as articulated in the Abrahamic covenant. For national Israel’s failure to abide by the covenant stipulations points toward the one who did completely fulfill God’s laws, and in so doing brought eternal salvation graciously to all—Jew and Gentile—who put their faith in Him.
Horton’s hermeneutical approach and understanding of the covenants has significant implications for the relationship between Israel and the church. He argues that Scripture’s “central plot” is the seed of Abraham—Christ and his people, whether Jew or Gentile (66). God’s promises to Israel in the OT are realized in Christ and his people (e.g., 1 Peter 1:10-11; Acts 15:12-21). Like the now obsolete Sinai covenant, national Israel, functioning as a type, no longer has a role in God’s plan in the present or future. But it is not the case that the church has replaced national Israel, nor that this church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan for national Israel. Instead, since the church has existed since the time of our first parents, we might say that national Israel is a parenthesis in God’s plan for the church, for “only in Eden and in the land of Canaan has the church ever been fused with a temporal nation-state” (71).
Horton’s understanding of the relationship between Israel and the church has implications for his understanding of the nature of the church and the sacraments. Like the old covenant community, the new covenant community is also a mixed body. This reality helps explain the warning passages in Hebrews (especially Heb 6), which describe people within the new covenant community who fall away from it because they were not ever genuinely saved. Similarly, as circumcision and Passover were signs and seals of the old covenant, so the sacraments are signs and seals of the new covenant. Baptism, the new covenant counterpart of circumcision, “truly inducts recipients into the covenant of grace, the visible body of Christ, identifying them as heirs of the promise” (62). Because the church is a mixed body, and because the new covenant includes children (e.g., Acts 2:38-39; Acts 16:15), infant baptism is appropriate.
Where does Horton think the other views go wrong? He argues that, by rejecting the NT priority in interpreting the OT, TD rejects the practice of the NT and of the majority of interpreters in history. TD is rigidly literalistic, but not consistently so (e.g., its treatment of Gog and Magog). And TD inappropriately argues that NT passages which refer to the church as Israel (e.g., 1 Pet 2:9-10) are mere analogies, when exegesis demonstrates more than mere analogy. In the end, TD is focused on Israel and on Christ’s return (with the church as a parenthesis), but Horton stresses that it is Israel that is the parenthesis in God’s plan, and his plan climaxes at the cross.
While affirming elements of PD, Horton criticizes its rejection of the covenant of works and its denial of the continuity of circumcision and baptism. Because he believes the national promises of the Abrahamic covenant were fulfilled in the time of Joshua, Horton maintains that Bock is wrong in his claim that the NT teaches a national restoration of Israel. And against Bock’s claim that covenant theology spiritualizes OT promises, Horton insists that they are not “Platonized” but expanded (194).
Horton critiques PC on two points. First, it wrongly “conflates covenants that ought to be distinguished” (198)—a charge, ironically that Wellum levels against covenant theology. All the covenants do share the grace-obedience tension, as Wellum agrees, but he fails to recognize that the covenants can differ by whether they are based on law or grace. Second, PC unduly separates the Abrahamic Covenant from the New Covenant. This is why he believes PC wrongly denies that the new covenant community is a mixed body and favors credobaptism.
Stephen Wellum’s Progressive Covenantalism
Parker and Lucas explain that progressive covenantalism, despite its name, is not a form of CT; it rather occupies an intermediate position between CT and dispensationalism. It denies the three overarching covenants of covenantal theology, instead insisting that each of the biblical covenants reveals the next stage of God’s unfolding plan redemptive plan. That plan, culminating in the new covenant, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ as the climax of that redemptive plan. Unlike CT, PC insists that the new covenant community does not share a continuity of nature and covenant signs with Israel. And unlike dispensationalism, progressive covenantalism does not insist on a future fulfillment of earthly promises to Israel.
Stephen Wellum, professor of theology at Southern Seminary, advocates for progressive covenantalism. PC operates in accord with certain hermeneutical guidelines. Because Scripture is “God’s word through human authors” (77), the human author’s intention does not exhaust the divine meaning of a given OT text. To understand the ultimate divine intention, a canonical reading of the text is necessary. The NT therefore has priority in understanding the OT text, though the NT meaning never violates the meaning of the earlier text but further develops that meaning in ways consistent with the earlier text. Scripture reflects progressive revelation, and it must be read that way. Proper interpretation, then, proceeds according to three horizons. The textual horizon interprets the text in its immediate context through grammatical-historical-literary interpretation of the text in its context. The epochal horizon “reads the text by locating it in God’s unfolding plan,” paying particular attention to what precedes it and what immediately follows it (79). The canonical horizon, as we just saw, interprets the text in light of what ultimately follows.
These three horizons give the interpreter the tools needed to understand the Bible in terms of its structure. The Bible tells the story of God’s single redemptive plan, the realization of His kingdom rule, through the progression of all the biblical covenants, “which reach their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ and the new covenant” (75). Proper interpretation will thus appreciate the contribution each covenant makes to the unfolding of that redemptive plan. Each covenant entails promises that find their fulfillment in Christ and tensions (i.e., they have elements of both law and gospel) that can only by resolved by Christ. The interpreter must therefore understand that “no covenant is unrelated to what preceded it, and no covenant makes sense apart from its fulfillment in Christ” (86-87). This is why in the progression of the covenants typology is an important feature. Wellum argues that types recur in biblical history but find their ultimate antitype (to which they indirectly prophecy) in Christ and his people (through Him). There is therefore an escalation when it comes to the ultimate antitype, which “is always greater than the previous types” (84). For example, Adam is a recurring type in each of the covenants, all of which point to the ultimate antitype, Christ, the greater Adam.
In light of his hermeneutical principles, how does Wellum understand the covenants? He begins with the covenant of creation in Gen 1-2, arguing that God did indeed establish a covenant in the garden with Adam. This covenant sets the stage for all successive covenants by establishing “Adam’s role in the world” which “all subsequent covenants unpack” (90) and by establishing several types that are realized in Christ (e.g., Sabbath, temple, and marriage). Wellum includes within this covenant the fall and the promise of redemption (Gen 3:15) as well. In the face of human sin, the Noahic covenant reinforces God’s “commitment to creation” and to bringing the promised seed (91), with Noah repeating the pattern of Adam as covenant mediator, including Adam’s failure.
God’s judgment on sin in Gen 11 prompts a renewed creation covenant in the form of the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant shows how God will unilaterally fulfill his promise to humanity in Gen 3:15 through Abraham’s seed, manifested “first in Isaac, then in Israel, and then the Davidic king” (92). He does this in two stages: first through Israel in the promised land and then in Christ, who brings blessings to all nations and expands the promised land to the whole earth. The former are “typological elements that must be carefully unpacked through the covenants” (93). The unilateral elements of this covenant are paired with its bilateral elements, which once again reveal that this covenant mediator, Abraham, repeats the failure of Adam and Noah and anticipates the mediator who will not fail.
The Mosaic covenant is a temporary covenant, “fulfilled as an entire covenant package” by Christ, no longer covenantally binding for Christians (93). Its purpose is to increase culpability for sin so that God’s people would be ready for the coming Messiah. Rooted in the Abrahamic covenant, it narrows the seed to Israel as a nation, which functions as another Adam (who also fails). Other typological patterns, established previously and ultimately fulfilled in Christ, are carried forward in the Mosaic covenant. Because it is a whole package, it cannot be divided into various elements (e.g., civil, ceremonial, etc.). While it has unilateral elements (i.e., God is always faithful to His promises), it is largely bilateral—prompting Israel’s failure and calling for further covenants.
Previous OT covenants culminate in the Davidic covenant. Here the Son/seed/Adam theme is narrowed further to the Davidic king. But though the Davidic house is eternal, particular Davidic kings continue the failure of previous covenant mediators. In the face of this failure, God unilaterally promises the greater David who will bring about a new covenant.
The OT prophets promise a future Davidic king who will be unfailingly faithful and usher in a new covenant, which will include the nation but also expand internationally. The new covenant will no longer be hierarchical, for each of God’s people will receive the Spirit, who will regenerate the hearts of each of them. No longer, then, will the covenant community be a mixed community of true believers and non-believers. The new covenant will also go beyond the old covenant’s sacrificial system to provide complete forgiveness of sin through the perfect sacrifice of Christ.
All previous covenant promises, including God’s kingdom, are fulfilled in Christ. As the culminating antitype, “in him all of the previous covenant mediators and typological structures have reached their fulfillment and telos” (99). While the “fullness” of the kingdom will not be realized until the consummation at Christ’s return (104), Christ’s first coming has already brought the eschatological kingdom “in principle” and “in kind” (101). Thus, “all new covenant realities are now here in Christ and applied to the church in principle” (104). This realized eschatology contrasts both with dispensationalism and with covenant theology. For the former delays the realization of national promises to Israel until Christ’s return, and the latter (with its view of the mixed church) delays the regeneration of the entire church until Christ’s return.
What are the implications of Wellum’s hermeneutic and approach to the covenants? He maintains that there is only one people of God in His redemptive plan. There is, however, a covenantal distinction between Israel and the church. For “in union with Christ, the church is God’s new covenant people in continuity with the elect of all ages, but different from Israel in its nature and structure” (76). As the antitype of Israel, Christ fulfills all promises to Israel (including the promise of the land), and the church in union with Him receives those promises. This is why, contra dispensationalism, there are no unfulfilled national promises awaiting ethnic Israel in the future, although there may be a mass conversion of Israelites in the future. And contra covenant theology, there is not a strict continuity with Israel, for the fully regenerate church is not a mixed community made up of both believers and non-believers. This directly influences how baptism is to be understood. Because circumcision “across the covenants becomes revelatory of our need for circumcised hearts” (209, emphasis added), it cannot be the new covenant counterpart for baptism. For all new covenant people in Christ have already been regenerated, and baptism “as a new covenant sign not only signifies something different from circumcision but also is only applied to believers” (105).
What is Wellum’s critique of the other views? Regarding Horton’s CT, Wellum shares certain points of agreement, such as the basic storyline of Scripture, the structural importance of the biblical covenants, the NT priority for understanding the OT, and a de-emphasis on the importance of eschatological Israel. But he believes Horton wrongly characterizes each covenant as either law or grace rather than acknowledging the tension of both elements in all the covenants. Worse still, Horton artificially subsumes all biblical covenants to his covenant of works/covenant of grace scheme rather than letting the covenants in their progression speak for themselves. Furthermore, because he fails to recognize that in the progression of the covenants, all previous covenants are fulfilled by Christ in the new covenant, this means that the church is new and fully regenerate. This is why credobaptism rather than infant baptism is the appropriate approach to baptism.
Wellum critiques dispensationalism as a whole. First, the dispensational understanding of the Bible’s storyline is skewed, for it fails to “consistently start in creation and culminate in Christ and his church,” wrongly beginning its “covenantal storyline” with the Abrahamic covenant (213). Second, Wellum objects that both dispensational authors have misunderstood him to say that the NT supersedes the meaning of OT promises to Israel. They miss his point that the NT rightly understands the original intention of an OT passage by considering its ephochal, and canonical horizons as well as its textual horizon. In insisting on a national future for Israel to receive OT promises, dispensationalism fails to attend rightly to the Bible’s storyline as reflected in the epochal and canonical horizon. Third, dispensationalism wrongly rejects the PC view of the church as “God’s forever people in its present covenantal form” (218). Instead, TD sees the church as a parenthesis in God’s plan for Israel (to be fulfilled in the future millennium), and PD sees the church as “a present-day illustration of what nation-states will be in the future” (220). But the church forevermore is “one new man” which “does not morph into distinct nations since the church is the ‘chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Pet 2:9)” (218).
Darrell Bock’s Progressive Dispensationalism
According to the editors, all dispensationalists share certain commonalities. They do not structure redemptive history according to covenants but according to distinguishable epochs (called “dispensations”) in which God administers His redemptive plan differently (though there is disagreement on the number of “dispensations”). And they all insist on a distinction between Israel and the church, and that national promises made to Israel but not fulfilled in the OT will be fulfilled in the future at Christ’s return. But despite these common features, today’s dispensationalists generally fall into either the progressive or traditional camps.
Progressive dispensationalists make use of complementary hermeneutics when interpreting the OT. That is, they honor the original intention of OT revelation, but recognize that the NT may expand on that intention with additional layers of meaning that are consistent with and expand on that original meaning. This means that, while Israel and the church are distinct and national Israel still has a future in God’s plan, they also overlap with one another as the people of God. This also means that the church today is participating now in the messianic kingdom, even though the full expression of that kingdom—including the fulfillment of as yet unfulfilled promises to national Israel—awaits the return of Christ. Furthermore, this means that, while the new covenant was initially directed to Israel, the church also participates in the new covenant, although certain provisions of that covenant to Israel as a nation will only be fulfilled by them in the future.
Darrell Bock, research professor of NT at Dallas Seminary, makes the case for progressive dispensationalism. PD is guided by several hermeneutical principles. First, PD’s complementary hermeneutic allows each testament to speak on its own terms. One need not speak of one testament’s having priority over the other. Second, PD’s stress on progression is crucial when it comes to interpreting OT predictions regarding Israel. In contrast to TD and CT, which operate with an either-or mentality (fostering diametrical opposition), the progressive aspect in both PC and PD allow for a both-and approach. But where PC maintains that the progression “redirects” the original meaning of the text (regarding Israel in particular), PD insists that the progression “builds [on] and connects to what God said and promised earlier” without any loss of a text’s original meaning (116-17). PD thus both preserves and expands on the original meaning.
Third, PD maintains that typology in Scripture does not abrogate the category of national Israel as the antitype. Escalation from earlier to later patterns may not always be present in typology, but even if it is, “escalation need not mean the annihilation of the type in the progression of the biblical narrative” (126). Therefore, Christ’s being “the realization of Israel’s role” does not simply cancel Israel’s national promises (126). The antitype does not always simply replace the earlier type.
Bock brings these hermeneutical principles to bear on his understanding of the covenants. Bock stresses what he calls the covenants of promise (the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants). The Abrahamic covenant has two sets of promises, one for Israel (“as a people, nation, and territory”) and one for the world (127). PD insists that both sets of promises are fulfilled eschatologically due to God’s eternal promise. These two sets of promises are echoed in both the Davidic and New Covenants. Together these promises were initially realized in Christ with His first coming. Through Christ Gentiles are included in the promise, for there is one people of God who all share the same salvific benefits. But this does not abrogate or change God’s promises “to Israel as a people or a nation in a land at peace” (132), for God’s people are made up of Israel and the diverse nations reconciled together in Christ.
What about the other biblical covenants? Bock does not consider the “creation covenant” to be a covenant at all. He considers it a “mandate,” where God gives humanity a command without a corresponding promise, a command for which all human beings are accountable. The Noahic covenant reiterates the creation mandate, but it is a covenant because it includes a promise that God will preserve His creation. Though not part of the covenants of promise, the Noahic covenant’s promise is ultimately realized through the covenants of promise. Like the Noahic covenant, the Mosaic covenant is a different category. It has elements of both law and promise, but it represents an old dispensation that has passed away with the coming of Christ, unlike the eternal nature of the covenants of promise.
Bock’s understanding of the covenants reflects his understanding of the relationship between Israel and the church. To understand this relationship, we must understand two axes. One axis is the unity of the people of God, who all share the same blessings of salvation. Within that unity, the other axis is the diversity of “structures that manage this salvation and its revelation of promise to realization” (140). These structures reflect different dispensations, which progressively unfold God’s salvific plan. Prior to Christ’s coming, God’s plan was stewarded by a specific nation looking forward in hope to Christ. Christ’s coming brought a new steward in the transnational church, which experiences the already/not yet of salvation. With Christ’s return and reign during the future millennium, the consummated kingdom will bring the realization of all God’s promises in this realm in a transnational structure which includes national Israel, transitioning to the eternal state. In sum, then, “there is a unity in salvation benefits and familial connection as a people of God but a diversity in administrative structures,” (133), a diversity which means that “Israel is not the church and neither is it the millennium” (113). As a result of this structural distinction, baptism has no tie to circumcision and should be administered only to genuine believers.
How does Bock critique the other views? Regarding CT, Bock argues that Horton’s priority of the NT in understanding the OT means that it ignores some of the original meaning of the inspired OT text and thereby ignores some of what God promised. In addition, the covenant of works/covenant of grace structure is an extra-biblical category that distorts the Bible’s own structure. This structure creates a covenant where there is none (i.e., the “creation covenant”), misses important promises to national Israel, and fails to recognize that God’s plan is more holistic than the salvation of individuals. Like CT, PC tends toward reductionism when it comes to national Israel, failing to recognize that the unity of the people of God still leaves room for distinct people groups like Israel. Its understanding of typology is simplistic because it wrongly assumes that biblical types always escalate by canceling the antitypes. Its understanding of the covenants is also flawed. It starts on the wrong foot by claiming that the creation mandate is a covenant, and then it insists the the covenants are successive rather than allowing that they may be parallel. Finally, PC misunderstands the kingdom by not allowing for the diversity as well as the unity of God’s people.
Regarding TD, obviously there are important points of agreement with PD. But for Bock, TD’s either/or approach means that it rejects biblical continuities. This is reflected in how it handles the Abrahamic covenant, typology, and NT texts which indicate that the church fulfills certain OT texts. By rejecting complementary hermeneutics, TD fails to truly appreciate progressive revelation, creates unwarranted binaries and false dilemmas, and rejects a holism that accounts for the varied strands of biblical teaching.
Mark Snoeberger’s Traditional Dispensationalism
Parker and Lewis describe traditional dispensationalism in their introduction. Unlike progressive dispensationalists, TD rejects complementary hermeneutics in favor of a literal reading of OT texts; the human author’s meaning in the context is the stable meaning of the text, regardless of how the NT later uses the text. This means that traditional dispensationalists reject the progressive dispensationalist’s understanding of the “already-not yet” messianic kingdom. TD maintains that Jesus offered the kingdom to Israel in his first coming, but they rejected it. So the messianic kingdom is postponed until his return and millennial reign. This also means that there is a strict distinction between Israel and the church, two peoples of God with two distinct purposes in God’s plan. Thus, what God is doing now in the church is a “parenthesis” in God’s program for Israel, since the latter has been postponed until his return. Moreover, this means that TD stresses, to varying degrees, that the new covenant is directed primarily to Israel.
Mark Snoeberger, professor of systematic theology at Detroit Baptism Seminary, makes the case for traditional dispensationalism. He sets forth several hermeneutical principles rooted in his commitment to an “originalist” reading of the OT text. This approach sticks strictly to the author’s intentions, maintaining that the “meaning and referents” of the text are “fixed and impervious to emendation” (153). He argues that this method is established “transcendentally,” since an originalist approach is “axiomatic to the successful use of language” (154). This method invalidates prioritizing the NT over the OT and even complementary hermeneutics. Furthermore, originalism undermines a certain definition of typology in which the type only becomes predictive of the antitype retrospectively. More broadly, originalist interpretation is inconsistent with typological interpretation, which insists that the original meaning falls away with the emergence of the antitype.
Snoeberger suggests several ways to understand the use of the OT in the NT that are consistent with originalist interpretation. Rather than claiming that the church is fulfilling what was promised to Israel, sometimes NT authors simply draw an analogy between OT Israel and the NT church (e.g., Gal 3:29; 1 Pet 2:9-10). Or they draw implications consistent with the original meaning of the text (e.g., Acts 15:16-18). Or the original author’s prediction is “generic” (161-62), fulfilled in a series of exemplars that participate in the genre (e.g., the Davidic covenant of 2 Sam 7), including those indicated by NT authors. Or sometimes NT authors will simply use OT language, borrowing “words, phrases, and even whole sentences, without any reference to context, from the literature in which they are immersed” (162). Snoeberger believes that principles such as these, which are consistent with originalism, are sufficient to account for the OT use of the NT without appealing to typological interpretation or complementary hermeneutics.
Snoeberger applies these principles to his understanding of the Bible’s storyline and the biblical covenants. He starts with a discussion of the mitte, the governing center of the Bible’s storyline. In contrast to the two covenantal approaches, which see redemption as the governing mitte and covenant as the organizing structure for this history, TD sees God’s rule as the governing mitte and dispensations as the organizing structure. In other words, God implements his rule through “a series of administrative structures” which carry the Bible’s storyline “toward its grand climax in the eternal state” (164). This rule proceeds in two spheres: a spiritual sphere and a civil (social, political) sphere, sometimes brought together and sometimes separated.
During the first era of biblical history (which may be constituted by one or several dispensations), the two realms were separated. In the civil sphere, in the garden, God established an “arrangement” (which is less formal than a covenant), the Edenic arrangement (167) by which Adam was commissioned to rule the world but not to determine good and evil. With the fall, the redemptive sphere becomes necessary, and God initiates it with the arrangement of the protevangelium, which calls for the response of faith (as exemplified by Adam and Eve). Later, in the civil sphere, the first formal covenant is instituted, the Noahic covenant, which is unconditional and includes no redemptive elements. It is also the only biblical covenant that is universal; the remaining ones all pertain to Israel.
In the redemptive sphere during this era, God grants the Abrahamic covenant, which is also unconditional. It has three elements. First, it promises Abraham a seed, which refers directly to the nation physically descended from him and only by implication to Christ and by analogy to all believers. Second, it includes God’s eternal promise of the land, whose boundaries are very specific. Third, it includes universal blessing, which is rooted in the work of Christ. However, since Israel is not in the land, and since she is not yet the conduit of universal blessing to the world, this covenant remains unfulfilled.
The dispensation of law follows, and it is during this dispensation that the two spheres come together in the Mosaic theocracy. During this time, God enters into the Mosaic covenant with Israel, which is a bilateral, suzerain covenant. This law has been set aside by Christ, who “perfectly and vicariously” obeyed this law (170). But its blessings for Israel do not end, for those blessings will be realized in the future by means of the New Covenant (see below). During this dispensation, the Davidic covenant was also unilaterally granted by the Lord. It includes not only future Davidic kings, but also a kingdom, a throne, and a place of safety for national Israel. It had components fulfilled in the near term (in Solomon) and in the far term. To be sure, Christ is the ultimate Davidic king, but the kingdom promise is not merely a spiritual, ecclesiastical kingdom; it is “an earthly kingdom with a Jewish constituency and a throne in Jerusalem” (173) which extends blessings to the whole earth. Also issued during this dispensation is the new covenant. This covenant with Israel is a bilateral suzerain treaty. In addition to numerous spiritual blessings, it includes national and civil elements. Israel will fulfill this covenant in the millennium, though dispensationalists debate whether the church in some sense also participates in this covenant.
The dispensation of the church is a parenthesis in God’s program with Israel. Therefore, the civil and redemptive spheres are once again separated in this era, and the church pertains to the latter sphere. God’s arrangement in this dispensation is the Great Commission, which gives the church a redemptive mandate alone. Any civic responsibilities for Christians are personal; the church is solely a spiritual institution.
In the final era (constituting the millennium and eternal state), God’s program with Israel resumes when Israel turns to the Messiah in connection with his return. During the millennium, the new covenant will be fulfilled and operative, thereby fulfilling all the previous covenants made with Israel. Israel will be a conduit of blessing to the nations. In the eternal state, Snoeberger insists that nations will continue, and “they will enjoy the continued priestly services of the Jewish nation, which retains a distinctive place among the nations forever” (178-79). After all, there are many eternal benefits of God’s covenants with Israel.
This outline of biblical history clarifies TD’s understanding of the relationship between Israel and the church. The two “remain distinct forever” (179). Israel is not replaced by the church, nor is it a type for the church, nor is it complemented by the church to form one people. God’s covenants with Israel are fulfilled by Israel alone. And Israel brings together both spheres of God’s rule, whereas the church is strictly a spiritual institution. This distinction means that Christian baptism is not parallel with circumcision and should only be applied to believers.
How does Snoeberger critique the other views? He maintains that CT fails to acknowledge the clear distinction of Israel and the church and their different kingdom missions. This is why it wrongly conflates circumcision and baptism. Similarly, it misses the two spheres of God’s rule by focusing on redemption. And its covenants of works and grace (subsumed under the covenant of redemption) are too simple to appreciate the complexity of the biblical storyline. PC’s hermeneutical approach really does end up abandoning the original author’s intentions, Wellum’s claims to maintain the original intention notwithstanding. And like CT, PC’s understanding of Scripture’s mitte is too narrow (redemption), unlike TD’s more robust mitte of God’s rule. PD fails to distinguish the two spheres of God’s rule when it comes to the church, misunderstanding its mission as both redemptive and social rather than purely redemptive. And while Bock rightly maintains the original meaning of OT texts, his complementary hermeneutic undermines the very integrity of covenants as formal contracts. His hermeneutical approach is why he wrongly claims that aspects of the future kingdom and the new covenant are realized in the church.
David Finkbeiner, Professor of Theology, Moody Bible Institute
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COVENANTAL AND DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGIES: FOUR VIEWS ON THE CONTINUITY OF SCRIPTURE, edited by Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas