Reviewed by Fred Zaspel
Debates concerning the relation of the Old and New Testaments – like the poor, it seems – will be with us always. Perhaps the opposing hermeneutical systems that result from the varying understandings of that relationship – Dispensational Theology and Covenant Theology – will be with us always also. But as these legendary opponents continue to reform themselves via self-examination and self-criticism – as recent years have witnessed – we may still hold out hope for a coming together of minds. New Covenant Theology in all its various expressions has for some years now sought to offer a third way, as does its most recent step-child, Progressive Covenantalism. Steve Wellum leads the way here with his Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (co-authored with Peter Gentry, 2012), its condensed sequel, God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (2015, also with Peter Gentry), and now his Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (with co-editor and student Brent Parker, 2016).
The central premise of Progressive Covenantalism remains the same as that of the earlier works: the historical covenants form the backbone of and carry the Bible’s storyline, and in the unfolding of these covenants we are given Scripture’s own stated framework for understanding the Bible as a whole and, thus, the relation of the Old and New Testaments. The book is confessedly an enlargement of specific themes addressed in Kingdom Through Covenant, challenging the handling of these themes on the part of both dispensational and covenant theologies and offering an alternative understanding that is shaped by Scripture’s own unfolding story. Famous (notorious?) issues such as the identity of Abraham’s “seed” and the promise of “land” to his posterity, the relation of Israel and the church, the nature and continuing relevance of Mosaic law, the character of the covenants as “conditional” and/or “unconditional,” the significance of circumcision and its relation to Christian baptism, the significance of the Sabbath today, and the nature of the church as believers only or as a mixed congregation, all serve as defining shibboleths for the traditional hermeneutical systems. Here Wellum, Parker, and their team of contributors argue that each of these themes is better understood in light of the Bible’s own covenantal story, progressively developed and unfolded.
- In chapter 1 Jason DeRouchie argues that the Abrahamic “seed” promise is in the Old Testament itself – indeed, even in Genesis – expanded to embrace the nations, not just ethnic Israel.
- In chapter 2 Brent Parker takes up the thorny question of the relation of Israel and the church, making the case that Christ, the true Israel, is the fulcrum in which the church inherits Israel’s promises.
- In chapter 3 Jason Meyer considers the question of the relation of the Christian to Mosaic law and argues that the older legislation is applicable today but indirectly as understood in light of Christ.
- In chapter 4 Ardel Caneday argues that the characterization of the biblical covenants as “conditional” or “unconditional” is inadequate, demonstrating that the covenantal promises of God routinely entail demands – conditions – necessary to the fulfillment of those promises.
- In chapter 5 John Meade traces the developing biblical-theological significance of circumcision as a physical act with spiritual, soteriological, eschatological, and ecclesiological entailments.
- In chapter 6 Tom Schreiner takes up the Sabbath question, arguing that Sabbath Day observance is not required of new covenant believers and that the day bore a typological significance fulfilled in the saving work of Christ.
- In chapter 7 Christopher Cowan takes up the challenge by covenant theologians that the warning passages of the book of Hebrews affirm the inclusion of unbelievers in the new covenant, arguing instead that the warnings address professing believers as a means to perseverance.
- In chapter 8 Stephen Wellum outlines an approach to ethics that is whole-Bible informed yet specifically shaped by an understanding of the new covenant in Christ.
- In chapter 9, Richard Lucas argues that although Romans 11 holds out the future hope of conversion for ethnic Israel it does not speak to Israel’s national restoration.
- Finally, in chapter 10 Oren Martin tracks the “land” promise in its developing biblical-theological significance, arguing that the promised land even in the Old Testament takes on a wider significance that is prospective of God’s purpose of eventual global restoration.
Wellum & Parker’s Progressive Covenantalism is an impressive work, characterized throughout by careful exegetical grounding, keen awareness of biblical-theological concerns, and close acquaintance with the developing Bible storyline and its recurring patterns. It is in many respects a model of how theology ought to be done, and it will be interesting in the years ahead to see how traditionalists on either side will respond to the progressive covenantal challenges offered here with regard to the various specific themes addressed.
The contributors are well-informed and articulate, and their arguments pack a powerful exegetical punch. The chapters are consistently good, yet some stand out as especially compelling and/or for various reasons are deserving of special mention.
- Jason DeRouchie’s treatment of the “seed” promise, for example, is an exegetical tour de force – to my mind the most outstanding chapter of the book.
- The chapter by Oren Martin reflects the grasp of his earlier well-argued work on the land promise, a very helpful survey of this important theme.
- It’s not easy to find a well-informed yet concise biblical theology of circumcision – John Meade’s excellent chapter is the happy exception, and his analysis of this theme in relation to baptism is a needed contribution to the study.
- Tom Schreiner’s chapter compresses an impressive degree of mature exegetical and biblical-theological reflection on a wide variety of passages related to the Sabbath question.
- And in very short space (the briefest of all the chapters) Steve Wellum provides an excellent summary overview of how the new covenant believer approaches the question of ethics, an ethic that is whole-bible informed yet distinctly Christ-shaped.
Further ruminations, along with some picks, wishes, and trifles
- Ardel Caneday argues persuasively that “unconditional” does not rightly describe the promise covenants, and if dispensationalists can hear this as a plea for precision in terminology – that Caneday is not denying the sure fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, even if they do entail conditional elements – they should not object.
- For all that Brent Parker and Oren Martin and Jason DeRouchie will wish otherwise, I rather suspect that dispensationalists will (mis?)understand them as offering merely a new kind of replacement theology with regard to Israel and the church. I wonder if taking up the question of Israel as a yet recognizable subset of the church (the natural branches) could be of help here. In this case Christ would be understood as the pivot / fulcrum by whom the natural and the wild branches enjoy the Abrahamic blessing. I don’t see how this would necessarily change the Progressive Covenantal position, but it might allow space for the dispensationalist to adjust his position somewhat while preserving a hope for national Israel. Does Progressive-Covenantalism have enough elbow room to allow a “both-and” on this score?
- For that matter (this trifle just for the sake of historical clarification), although a recognition of Israel’s future restoration to her land is a distinctive of dispensationalism, the virtually identical arguments for that position by the likes of Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) demonstrate that this eschatological hope is neither unique to dispensationalists nor even, necessarily, the result of dispensationalist influence. Painting the hope of Israel’s national restoration as “dispensational” is just too broad a brush – even Reformed theologians of the Dutch “Second Reformation” could hold that position.
- On a more personal level, in his informed chapter on Romans 11 Richard Lucas briefly objects to something in my 1995 booklet on Romans 9-11. It is of course no fault of his that he has not read my work on Romans 9-11 that is yet forthcoming (2017), but I can still wish!
- Christopher Cowen handles the warning passages well, but I could wish that he had given more precise attention to Hebrews 10:29. This is a favorite of some as (allegedly) demonstrating that the new covenant community encompasses both believers and unbelievers, and more attention to the inspired author’s addressing people according to their profession would be helpful, as would a recalling – for the sake of argument, if nothing else – of John Owen’s Christological interpretation of the passage.
But as is obvious by now, on all these matters I am being picky. But even sympathetic reviewers can say “I wish they had said…”!
I have argued for years that the progressive unfolding of the covenants provides the framework for a right understanding of the “whole Bible” and the relation of the Testaments. Others have argued the same. But Progressive Covenantalism works out this thesis more carefully than any that I am aware of. Of course it is likely that there will always be further tweaks to be made, but its collective argument will doubtless be heard, and as it is absorbed I expect it will have shaping influence.
Biblical Theology is coming of age, and as it does traditional hermeneutical paradigms will inevitably require adjusting. I have little doubt that Progressive Covenantalism will prove to be a focal point in that continuing discussion.
Fred G. Zaspel is Executive Editor here at Books At a Glance. He is also one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA, and adjunct professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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