Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel
The thesis that biblical revelation hinges on a succession of historical covenants is not new, but just how that successive revelation is to be understood and how those covenants relate to each other, of course, remains a point of debate that results in our differing hermeneutical and theological systems. SBTS professors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum have now streamlined their 2012 Kingdom Through Covenant to further their attempt to provide a way between dispensational and covenant theology, the major competing schools of thought in this debate. Various brands of “New Covenant Theology” have struggled to chart out this middle way via giving due recognition to the inauguration of the new covenant in Christ. The work of Gentry and Wellum, dubbed, “Progressive Covenantalism,” is deservedly the most thorough, best known, and the most highly regarded of these attempts, and their new and briefer God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants will doubtless prove to advance their cause yet further.
As in their first book, Gentry and Wellum first establish that “the covenants are foundational to the biblical storyline” and offer some hermeneutical observations that will be important in the unfolding of their argument. Next, they “unpack each covenant in its own context” and “show the progressive development of how each covenant builds on the previous one and how all the covenants find their telos, terminus, and fulfillment in our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the final chapter they conclude with a helpful summary of their findings and a brief explanation of how all this shapes a whole-Bible theology.
The authors summarize their contention well in their opening chapter:
The purpose of this book is to demonstrate how central and foundational “covenants” are to the entire narrative plot structure of the Bible. One cannot fully understand Scripture and correctly draw theological conclusions from it without grasping how all of the biblical covenants unfold across time and find their telos, terminus, and fulfillment in Christ. We do not assert that the covenants are the central theme of Scripture. Instead, we assert that the covenants form the backbone of the Bible’s metanarrative and thus it is essential to “put them together” correctly in order to discern accurately the “whole counsel of God” (p.17).
In brief, they contend that the rule (“Kingdom”) of God given to humanity but abandoned in the fall is restored for us by the Lord Jesus as promised and typified in the divine covenants. The bulk of their book (chapter 3-10) is given to an exposition, in turn, of each successive biblical covenant – the Creation Covenant, the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant. Throughout these chapters we are treated to illuminating exegetical detail that opens and displays the covenants in ways that no preacher, addressing these passages, would want to be without. There is no need here to survey each chapter. The authors summarize their work at several points. Here are two samples:
God responds to human rebellion in various ways as the story unfolds. At the center of the plan to restore his ruined world and bring it to serve his original intention are a series of agreements called covenants. First, the covenant with Noah upholds the commitment of the Creator to his creation as a whole. Then God begins to work through one individual, Abraham, and through his family, Israel, to model a new humanity in right relationship with the creator God and with one another. The Israelite covenant at Sinai (supplemented by Deuteronomy) forges the nation into the people of God and governs life in the land. The covenant with David institutes a kingship where the rule of God is established among his people with the king functioning as covenant administrator. What God planned for the nation as a whole will now be implemented through the king and his leadership (p.207).
The new covenant therefore brings to fruition God’s promises and purposes in all the other covenants: (1) it brings the numerous seed promised in the Abrahamic covenant, (2) it brings the righteousness between God and humans and among humans aimed at in the Israelite covenant, and (3) it establishes the city of God ruled by the Davidic King. All of this is as certain as the promises to Noah (p.216).
Most beneficially, see their fuller summary on pages 257-271. Their tracing of such themes as the “Adam” typology throughout the story and their demonstration that the successive covenants do indeed build on previous revelation ties the biblical story together seamlessly, something every reader will find illuminating.
Selective Points of Interaction
The authors’ objective, again, is to provide an alternative to the traditional approaches of both dispensational and covenant theology. This of course is to invite interaction at many points, and I hope their book will continue to prompt further discussion from all sides. While reading I had questions at some points, but they are relatively minor and I find myself in large agreement with their approach. I will restrict my comments to a few areas I think worth highlighting.
Gentry & Wellum argue extensively for an initial “covenant of creation,” the content of which appears to be indistinguishable from that more commonly designated as “covenant of works,” “Adamic Covenant,” “Edenic covenant,” or “covenant of life.” If in fact their covenant of creation differs in substance, it was not immediately evident. Of course whether this arrangement in Eden is to be understood in covenantal terms is itself a point of dispute. John Murray, for example, very famously denied the use of the term “covenant” here in favor of an Adamic “Administration.” And Paul Williamson (Sealed with an Oath) argues that the Noahic is the first historical covenant that builds on a previous creation purpose and subsequent promise. Gentry and Wellum argue that understanding this arrangement as distinctly covenantal is foundational and essential to understanding the subsequent covenants. At the end of it all some will still question whether “covenant” rather than “purpose” necessarily affects the substance of the subsequent covenants that much – agreement may still be enjoyed at so very many points. But their argument here is very well made, the many parallels they establish are impressive, and I suspect most will find the authors persuasive on this point.
Gentry and Wellum contend pointedly that the “conditional-unconditional” categories of covenants are inadequate and ought therefore to be rejected. Their concern is to do justice to the tensions built into the Bible storyline by the repeated failures of the human partners in the covenants and that drive us ultimately to Christ the faithful Son who fulfilled all responsibilities perfectly. Their explanations here struck me as improved over those in the original volume (although it could be that I have just read them better this time!), and we must appreciate their concern on this score. “Conditional” elements within otherwise “unconditional” covenants are not difficult to demonstrate. Point made. And yet to reject the category of unconditional because of stated conditions inevitably leaves the covenants, by default, to be understood as conditional – which is not quite what Gentry and Wellum want to affirm either. The authors indeed affirm the certain reliability and outcome of these promises.
When God made covenant with Abraham, however, he promised to keep both sides of the agreement (p.112).
The traditional language describing covenants as being either unconditional or conditional is inadequate. We would argue that God guarantees the faithfulness of both partners in the Abrahamic covenant, but still requires faithful obedience on the part of Abraham to bring the blessing to the nations promised in the covenant (p.118).
What we must conclude from the narratives as a whole is that Yahweh completely guarantees fulfillment of the obligations for both partners/sides of the covenant, but in the end, this will also entail an obedient son (p.126).
That is to say, even given the conditional elements, the final success of the Abrahamic and Davidic (and the Noahic and new covenants also) are not left in question. Whatever conditions may be entailed, God promises that they will ultimately be met, and, thus, the success of these covenants is certain. Though there are conditional elements that must be fulfilled the promise itself is sure. Whether “unconditional” captures this notion adequately, then, is indeed a fair question, and the authors’ point here is helpful to make and keep in mind. But it would be helpful also to offer alternate terminology to preserve and convey the ultimate certainty and reliability of God’s covenant promises – something to remind us that although these covenants entail human responsibility they are nonetheless “promissory” covenants. I suspect that a simple rejection of the “unconditional” category will leave some misunderstanding.
The outstanding contribution of the book is its tracking of the Bible storyline in a way that recognizes both continuity and discontinuity in the various stages of divine revelation. Their model neither over-compartmenalizes nor flattens redemptive history, thus providing a “whole Bible theology.” If the Bible is the story of God’s glory in human redemption, and if that story is characterized by promise and fulfillment, and if that promise is solemnized in a succession of historical covenants, then it is virtually a given that those covenants are the backbone of the story and of redemptive history. Moreover, if there is in the first advent of Christ an inauguration of the new covenant, then we must recognize some significant advance over the old order in this age – an observation that has massive entailments.
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,” and contrary to “dispensational theology,” which tends to partition history in terms of dispensations, it is more biblical 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, and all of which reach their telos, terminus, and fulfillment in Christ (p.251).
I think Gentry and Wellum succeed well in establishing their argument. Those of a more traditional dispensational or covenantal approach still may not be persuaded, but they will at least need to take Gentry and Wellum into account.
A Friendly Suggestion
Finally, a word on the book’s accessibility. The authors’ earlier work (Kingdom Through Covenant) was criticized by many as cumbersome, including extraneous detail, and rather inaccessible to all but advanced students. This new volume is their attempt to present their case in a briefer and more accessible way. I think they have achieved their goal, though in certain places much of the detail and heavy argument remain. It is not a “popular” level book, but it is indeed accessible to all serious students and readers. The authors may be aghast at the thought of writing this yet a third time (!), but I think it would only advance their cause if they could put all this together in a simple, still briefer, popular-level presentation that tracks the Bible story positively and explains the covenants in their historical relation successively, presenting their case in narrative fashion without polemics – not as an argument but simply as the story that it is. The work they have done here is the necessary step to that, and pastors and Bible teachers will certainly want to have it, but perhaps this further step would take their case “to the streets” where it deserves to be heard also.
Fred G. Zaspel is executive editor here at Books At a Glance and one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA.
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God's Kingdom Through God's Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology