Review of Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, by Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012, 848 pages.
A. This book is written by two professors from Southern Seminary; one a theologian, the other an Old Testament scholar. The work in question is a courageous effort to forge a via media between traditional covenant theology (CT) and dispensational theology (DT). If for no other reason than this, Kingdom through Covenant deserves attention, and Crossway are owed some plaudits for publishing it. Whether we agree with their conception of biblical theology or not it is good to see a presentation which aims to amend errors in other viewpoints while serving up a positive interpretation of its own. The authors both note a debt to New Covenant Theology (or NCT, 24), and it is a noteworthy step forward for this position.
As a person who seeks to build theology upon the Covenants of Scripture I was naturally interested in what the two authors had to say. In the short Preface we are told that “Care has been taken to let the text speak for itself” (11), which was heartening to read. But this claim is directly followed up with the words, “as the biblical covenants are progressively unfolded in God’s plan, reaching their culmination in the new covenant inaugurated by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I placed a question mark in the margin as soon as I read this, because I sensed that they were saying the covenants were fulfilled at Christ’s first coming, which, if right, would lead them inevitably into some form of supercessionism. That is to say, if, for example, the Davidic Covenant is fulfilled at the first coming then why look for any literal fulfillment of the specific geopolitical prophecies which make up such an important part of that covenant in the OT? But more on that as we proceed.
Stephen Wellum, the theologian, writes the first three chapters, which aims to define how covenant theology on one hand and dispensational theology on the other have understood the covenants. Then the hermeneutical issues are discussed. These chapters comprise Part One.
Chapters 4 all the through to 15 were written by Peter Gentry, an OT scholar. Gentry’s job is to explain the biblical covenants exegetically. Wellum then closes the chapters off in Part Three (chs.16-17) with a review and proposal. Gentry provides an Appendix on the word berit which lends support his contention for the existence of a Creation covenant.
There is much in this work which repays the reader’s time. Numerous insightful points and critiques are put forth, as well as helpful exegetical and cultural data. For example, I didn’t know that, “Although other nations besides Israel practised circumcision, the Israelites were the only nation to completely cut off and remove the foreskin.” (274). There are lots of these little notes dotted around the book (particularly Gentry’s section). For the most part, the position of the authors is well argued and thought-provoking. The book is dense, which makes any review of its content necessarily selective.
B. Nevertheless, at the end of the day I came away from the book benefited but finally disappointed.
On page 33 Wellum approves of Brian Rosner’s definition of Biblical Theology, which involves “theological interpretation of Scripture,” which I find a bit troublesome. Wellum writes:
Biblical theology is concerned with the overall message of the whole Bible. It seeks to understand the parts in relation to the whole. As an exegetical method, it is sensitive to literary, historical, and theological dimensions of various corpora, as well as to the interrelationships between earlier and later texts in Scripture. Furthermore, biblical theology is interested not merely in words and word studies but also in concepts and themes as it traces out the Bible’s own story line, on the Bible’s own terms, as the plot line reaches its culmination in Christ.
He then goes on to give his own definition; a definition that includes this statement:
Biblical theology as a hermeneutical discipline attempts to exegete texts in their context and then, in light of the entire Canon, to examine the unfolding nature of God’s plan and carefully think through the relationship between before and after in that plan which culminates in Christ. (34).
In a footnote he recommends Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics; a book which makes no bones about reinterpreting the OT by the New.
The trouble I have with the definitions above is that it seems they are saying two opposing things. I have always felt this way about this approach. I wonder, how can one “trace out the Bible’s own story line” while also taking into account “the interrelationships between earlier and later texts of Scripture”? How can one “exegete texts in their context” while presupposing an interpretive grid which “culminates in Christ” (i.e. the Cross)? What if the texts in context don’t refer to the Cross but to the second advent? It seems that the driving assumption of fulfillment at the first advent endangers unfettered exegesis of “the texts in their context.”
Not that either pursuit is wrong, but surely trying to do both things simultaneously is a bit schizophrenic? The first inquiry requires that as much as is possible we don’t pursue the second. And this unease is given support when, as already noted, this reader was alerted to the writers working assumption that the first coming of Christ provides the hermeneutical cast into which all that came before is to be fitted. By the time I had finished Part 1 this feeling had been overwhelmingly confirmed by Wellum (34, 40, 54, 86, 89, 92, 94, 95, 99, 100-101, 103-105, 107, etc.). Assurances to the contrary notwithstanding (e.g. 435), as one continues through the book one seeks in vain for any awareness of their presupposition, and so no substantiation of this dominating premise is forthcoming. It is the big flaw in the book’s argument and it is fatal, for it predetermines their whole approach, forcing them to major in typological interpretations, just as it does covenant theology. It is hardly surprising to have to report their adoption of many recent ideas presented by promoters of amillennial eschatology.
C. Another thing that was confirmed by the close of Wellum’s prolegomena was that whatever Kingdom through Covenant is, it is certainly not a via media. Unsurprisingly, because they seek fulfillments of the covenants at the Cross, Wellum and Gentry embrace the same basic interpretative procedures as covenant theologians (whom they often recommend). In large measure, their arguing is almost the same as contemporary CT’s! The OT is to be interpreted by the NT (with some reservation, which I shall return to); the land-motif is symbolical, the story of redemption is front and center; typology is to both drive interpretations and help formulate doctrine. Of course, this also means that meanings of covenantal texts can and do change or “transform” (see 598, 608), and so be morphed almost out of recognition from how they were originally worded.
D. Typology, as everyone ought to know, is bound to theology; it seldom if ever precedes theology, as the authors appear to know (111 n.68, 115 n.79). It is therefore question-begging to try to employ typology to prove ones theology. At best it can illustrate it. Here is an example I have used before:
In the Genesis 24 story of the getting of a bride for Isaac there is a motif which is recapitulated in the church. Eleazar (if it is he) is a type of the Holy Spirit, and he goes to Rebekah (type of the Bride of Christ) and finally through the servant’s efforts, she is asked “Will you go with this man?” She answers, “I will go” (Gen. 24:58). Then she is brought to Isaac (a type of Christ) to be his. And there it is! A typology of Semi-Pelagianism! The motif is there. It all fits. Semi-Pelagianism must be true! This illustrates the danger of deriving doctrine from types. We need to heed the following warning:
Second, we observe in Scripture itself that typological understanding never creates new revelatory data. It only underscores, illustrates, and amplifies what has already been stated clearly. In other words: typological understanding enriches but does not replace a previous understanding of revelation. It is checked by philological-grammatical understanding. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 87.
As I have said before: “A type must be identified as a type. For this to occur the antitype must be known, otherwise calling something a type would be like calling it a thing-a-mi-jig. But if the antitype must be known it must be shown to be indeed an antitype. Thus, where there is good reason to question the identification (read interpretation) of the said antitype, we must examine the reasons for arriving at the identification of it as an antitype. Are we told directly that Y is an antitype of X? If not, how “thick” (to use W. Brueggemann’s word) is the connection? That is to say, with what amount of confidence may we invest an object with the status of a type?”
Letting types lead to a theological construct nearly always begs the question. The authors’ views on the subject do nothing to alleviate this problem of circularity.
E. In many places (e.g. 512, 607) we read that the New Covenant replaces the other covenants. But this does not follow at all. The New covenant is much better seen as being the means by which the other covenant oaths to which God obligated Himself find their fulfillment. This is why New covenant truths are found mixed with the other covenants, especially in the Prophets (like Isa. 51:3, 6; 52:1-2, 9, 13; Jer. 23:5-8; 30:9-10; 32:37-41; 33:14-16; Ezek. 37:11-14, 21-26, etc.). But these envisage the physical reign of Christ on earth, which is not a first coming reality. Gentry and Wellum have to support their contention that the New Covenant supersedes the others with the bracing mechanism of typological hermeneutics. This often involves throwing the spotlight on structures within the Bible, often at the expense of the wording of the text. The reason for this is because structural principles are apt to serve the ends of those who find them. The position of the authors requires them to read the fulfillment of the other covenants in light of their first advent understanding of the New Covenant. This leaves the other covenants shorn of many of their specifications.
F. For there to be a true middle course one must know in advance where the two curbs are. Over and again this writer had cause to question whether the authors really had but a smattering of knowledge about dispensationalism. While their understanding of (and oftentimes agreement with) covenant theology is everywhere clearly in evidence, the same cannot be said for their comprehension of dispensational theology. Indeed, simply looking at the General Index will show the meager use of traditional dispensationalist sources. We were pleased to see some interaction with John Feinberg’s essay “Systems of Discontinuity”, though much of this was descriptive, only showing dissent in the area of typology (though Wellum’s treatment of Feinberg and DT typology was inadequate).
As both traditional dispensationalists and covenant theologians have pointed out, progressive dispensationalism has far more in common with G.E. Ladd’s covenant premillennialism than with traditional dispensationalism. Even allowing for the insights from PD, no traditional dispensationalist will think himself fairly represented by that view. Yet Wellum is content to base a lot of his argumentation on PD Craig Blaising’s account of dispensational taxonomy; a survey whose obvious apologetic purpose many believe unsatisfactory. As someone who has kept up with many books espousing covenant theology, this writer can say that compared to developments in CT dispensationalism (minus PD) has had a fairly steady ride. As noted, John Feinberg is used, but as Wellum counts him a PD (41) my comment about lack of discussion with DT’s is not dislodged. To me it seemed that the authors familiarity with traditional dispensationalist writers was slight. Two quick examples will suffice. On the subject of ecclesiology Wellum says,
…dispensational theology affirms credobaptism, contra paedobaptism, since one cannot equate the sign of the old covenant with the sign of the new… (43)
Anyone with only a passing acquaintance with L. S. Chafer’s Systematic Theology would know that he tries to stridently defend infant baptism. Who does not know that men like Scofield, Walvoord and others were paedo-baptists?
Again, try this:
How did classic dispensationalists correlate the biblical covenants? Similar to all forms of dispensational theology, they argued that the foundational covenant of Scripture is the Abrahamic and not the Adamic…since they did not recognize such a covenant. (45)
One has to wonder if the writer of that quote has ever opened a Scofield Reference Bible (note on Gen. 2:16)? Or read anything by Lewis Sperry Chafer or Arnold Fruchtenbaum, or even Eugene Merrill? These men, and many more dispensationalists have affirmed their belief in an Adamic covenant!
More in Part Two