“Kingdom through Covenant” – A Review (Pt.2)

Part One

G. There are some noteworthy discussions of passages in the book.  Probably the most intriguing part of Gentry’s contribution is his promotion of a pre-fall “Creation covenant.”  Gentry’s exposition of this covenant is found in Chapters 5 and 6.  While pursuing an exchange with Paul Williamson, Gentry traces out the difference between the phrase “to cut a covenant” (karat berith), and “to uphold an existing covenant” (heqim berith).   And he makes a reasonable circumstantial case for tying in the Noahic covenant, which adopts the language of “upholding a covenant”, with a previously existing “Creation covenant” (155-156, 217-221).  On a personal note, a Creation covenant would support my own theological project considerably.  Still, when all the pages about the imago Dei and ANE parallels are covered, the actual proof for a Creation covenant is, I think, unimpressive.  Even if we grant its existence, the problem is one of definition.  Supposing one can prove such a covenant.  What, precisely, did it say?  Where are its clearly drawn terms?  If we cannot determine with any solid confidence the wording of the original covenant, how can we say anything about it which will be theologically productive?  And as we have had cause to point out, once our surmises are given entry to our theologies, they have a nasty habit of stealing the limelight from more clearly revealed truths.

I think it is dubious to think about Noah (let alone Abraham, Israel, David, etc.) as “new Adams,” as these writers, in line with some contemporary CT scholars do.  This kind of thinking comes quite naturally to those with a predisposition for types, but although one may grant some sort of representative function to these people, we are nowhere told they are “new Adams.”  We are told that Jesus Christ is “the second Man” (1 Cor. 15:47), and it is well to leave it at that.  There is some pleading for a straight-forward reading of the text (e.g. 157) in this section, but one has cause to ponder its selectivity (see, e.g. 192 where the author wants to assume identity of meaning for “image of god” between 15th century B.C. ANE customs and Genesis.  Surely here interpretation is being decided beforehand and foisted on the text from without?).  

H. Turning to a few more examples, are we really to believe that utter destruction comes upon humanity because “they have violated the instructions and terms of the Noahic covenant” (172)?  I rather thought God made the covenant with Noah and the rest of creation.  God sent a flood.  Noah built an Ark.  God said He wouldn’t do that again.  What was to violate?  

The authors both stress the inadequacy of viewing covenants as unilateral or bilateral, or unconditional or conditional (see Wellum’s summary on 609f.), but this reviewer can think of no scholar who does not place exception clauses on these ways of thinking.  As every dispensational scholar I know about is careful to explain, the “unconditional” covenants with Abraham, Israel, David, etc., do contain temporal conditions, which if not kept will cause God to act in judgment.  But these can never finally frustrate the outcome of the oaths God bound Himself to keep, since those promises obligate Him to insure the conditions are eventually met (which is where the New covenant comes in).  

It seems to me that trying to create a tension between the covenants by rejecting the unilateral/bilateral dichotomy opens up another opportunity for typology to enter and begin dictating the play.  This pliancy assists supercessionism of all stripes greatly.        

I. Although ranging for several pages, Gentry’s explanation of Jeremiah 33:14-26 is rather a thin veneer, and disappoints.  Gentry’s preferred pattern of pursuing detailed digressions from the text and then bringing his conclusions to his interpretations of the text strike me as more impressive and substantial looking than they are.  When all is said and done, his actual dealing with passages sometimes appears a little shallow and strained.  This is certainly the case with his treatments of Jeremiah 30-33 (although chs. 34 & 35 illuminate those chapters much), and, as we shall see, Daniel 9.

The treatment of Jeremiah 33 is especially inattentive.  Although noting the connection of the New covenant “with the covenant with David, the covenant with Levi, and the covenant with creation [which is more probably the Noahic covenant]” (522), Gentry fails to give attention to the direct quotation of or strong allusion to the terms of these covenants in this passage (see Jer. 33:15 refers to after the second advent; 33:17 quotes from the Davidic covenant; 33:18 alludes strongly to the Priestly covenant of Num. 25:12-13; then Jer. 33:20 ties in with the preamble to the Noahic covenant in Gen. 8:22; Jer. 33:22, 26 partly cites the Abrahamic covenant; and 33:25 probably refers to the creation ordinances).  Here we have perhaps the strongest example of intertextuality in the OT, but he skips over much of it: for example, what he doesn’t say about the throne of Israel, and in his remarks about the covenant with Levi, where Ezek. 44, Zech. 14, and Mal. 3 are ignored.  

If there is a more strongly worded statement from God in all of Scripture than Jeremiah 33:14-26 I should like to see it.  Moreover, as Gentry (253, quoting K. Mathews) seems to recognize, the passing through the parts of the animals in Jer. 34 recalls the self-imprecation of God in Gen. 15.  It is passing strange that few scholars have connected Jeremiah 34 with God’s oaths in the previous chapter (and 31:31-36).       

J. We must move on and say something about the ingenious but unpersuasive exposition of Daniel 9:24ff.  To put it in a nutshell, the authors believe that the six items listed in Daniel 9:24 were all fulfilled in Christ at the first advent (541, 553-554 – though they admit “anoint the most holy person” is abnormal, typology again steps in to help).  “Messiah the Prince” or “Leader” of 9:25 is equated with “the prince [or leader] who shall come” of verse 26 even though it appears that he comes after “Messiah is cut off.”  From chapter 7:8, 23-25 the antichrist arises from the fourth kingdom (the Roman empire), seemingly just prior to the second coming (7:13-14 with 7:21-22).  This prepares the reader for “the people of the prince who is to come” who “shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (9:26).  

Two questions loom before us if we follow Gentry’s and Wellum’s interpretation.  The first concerns the fact that the “he” of verse 26b causes the sacrifice and offering to cease “in the middle of the [seventieth] week.”  If this refers to Jesus then it also refers to His crucifixion.  That would leave three and a half years of the seventieth week left to fulfill.  This is generally where those who don’t like a second coming context will jump thirty-five or so years into the future and see fulfillment in Titus’s armies in A.D. 70.  This expedient appears to be adopted by Gentry (561), although he seems to hedge his bets.  On page 560-561 he writes,

Jesus came and was cut off, and his people ruined the city and the sanctuary.  It was Caiaphas’ rejection of Jesus’ testimony at the trial that meant that that temple had to fall…the Jews cut off their Messiah and ruined the city as the culmination of their continued transgression, and the Romans destroyed the city “in a flood”…

Gentry admits the “people” who destroy city and sanctuary do “appear to be enemy armies” (560), so he has to read two peoples into the context: the Jews who “destroyed” the city metaphorically circa A.D. 30, and the Romans who adopted a more literal method in A.D. 70!  (Readers who want a more straightforward exegesis of these verses could do worse than read Paul D. Feinberg’s essay in John S. and Paul D. Feinberg, Tradition and Testament, 189-220).

K. Do they believe the OT is not to be interpreted by the NT?  Their interaction with the NT is very deficient, but it is clear that their appreciative use and agreement with CT’s like Beale, Goldsworthy, Dumbrell, Waltke and others to prop up major planks in their argument; from their supercessionism (e.g. 228, 243, 247, etc.); from their use of the Cosmos-Eden-Land-Temple typology as a hermeneutical principle (e.g. 322, 706); their “New Israel” as the one people of God (104, 598, 688-689, 716, and charts on 619-620), and their insistence that salvation is what it’s all about (614), they are in most places fully in step with covenant theologians.  Most of the disagreements would be ecclesiological.  The eschatology is the same, and so, to a large degree, is their reinterpreting the OT with their take on the New (Cf. 714 n.146).

L. For some reason, Limited atonement is brought into the fray, but I for one do not see much of a case for its inclusion in the book or the validity of the argument.  I am not going to engage the question here; the basis of which is that the New covenant is made only with God’s true people, therefore, Christ’s blood was shed only for them.  This is where they seem to forget their rejection of the unconditional versus conditional view for a both/and model in speaking about the covenants.

M. I have said that in writing about their applied method the authors seem to erect two contrary goals: they say they want to let the text speak in its context (see also e.g., 558), but they also want to bring in a front-loaded version of intertextuality into their exegesis.  In similar fashion, they say they don’t want to read the OT in light of the NT, but their operating assumption is that the “kingdom through covenant” motif must be understood through the lens of Calvary and Pentecost.  They say they want to steer a middle course between CT and DT, but their apparent minimal interaction with DT works causes them to make unsure generalizations (like all DT’s held to believer’s baptism), while NCT’s close affinities with CT and its typology, and their basic agreement with and endorsement of the typological position of G.K. Beale, Stephen Dempster, etc., shows that they are far from sticking to the middle of the road.  

On pages 605-606 Wellum states,

In contrast to other theological views, our proposal of “kingdom through covenant” wants consistently to view and apply the previous covenants through the lens of Jesus’ person and work and the arrival of the new covenant age.  It is only when we do so that our theological proposals and conclusions will be biblical in the full sense of that word-according to God’s intention of letting Scripture interpret Scripture at the canonical level.

Kingdom through Covenant does educate the reader and good points are made.  But, in reality, differences with paedo-baptist covenant theology notwithstanding, this is biblical theology in contemporary supercessionist tones.  There is not a covenant oath God made which cannot be wrestled to the ground by typology.  Despite their assurances otherwise (435), both writers assume that covenant fulfillment happened largely at the first advent.  This allows them to reshape covenant promises to fit first coming/ecclesial revelation and keeps the doors open for any of the eschatological options of CT while banging shut the door to dispensational premillennialism.    

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8 comments

  1. Paul:
    If just the number of published academic volumes are considered it would seem CT is the theology of choice among evangelical scholars. DT scholars have been quiet of late in publishing outstanding theological works and very few are standing in the gap defending a dispensational hermeneutic. A few intrepid souls like yourself will stand up and show the flawed logic inherent in a CT viewpoint. One wonders if the seminaries teaching DT are developing capable scholars willing to endure the arduous task of writing theological texts which will educate the Church regarding dispensational premillennialism. Where will the next generation of capable DT seminary professors and theologians be taught (such as Telos) and by whom?

    Ray Miller
    Servantsplace.org

    1. Ray,

      The authors of KtC are proponents of New Covenant Theology which rejects the theological covenants of CT. It has become popular with Reformed Baptists who never quite felt at home with CT owing mostly to its ecclesiology. However, NCT, in rejecting the covenant of grace, simply transfers the ‘rights and privileges’ of that theological covenant to their version of the New covenant. As well their ‘Creation covenant’ functions quite like the covenant of works of CT. So you see that they can utilize most of the intellectual ammo of CT with its eschatology while claiming not to be CT.

      As far as dispensational premillennialism is concerned, I think it has had its crack and has all but given up the ghost. That is not to say it’s wrong; just that it’s in a poor condition. This is owing in no small part to the rise of evangelical Biblical Theology, which in the absence of solid work by DT’s (with very few exceptions), has asked and answered questions which DT’s still aren’t interested in tackling. Further, as you know, my position is that DT is incapable of mounting a counter to all this as long as it defines itself by dispensations.

      God bless,

      Paul

      1. Very interesting discussion regarding the state of dispensational scholarship. A good portion of the material I study in Seminary comes from a CT perspective – simply because most of the conservative men writing are CT’s. I find myself turning gratefully to Thomas Constable’s study notes or the Bible Knowledge Commentary for a dispensational slant on key texts quite often. It is sad that this is all we have. McClain, Ryrie and Pentecost (among many others) produced some excellent work in days gone by. Where are the current dispensational scholars? Where are the biblical theologies? Why is nobody building on their works? I’m sure someone is publishing, somewhere . . . I’m just not sure where that is!

      2. Some excellent food for thought Paul and Tyler. I think in the older dispensationalists’ defence, they think the old philosphy of hermeneutics (how to approach the Bible) automatically addresses the field of Biblical Theology. For example, I think Showers and Ryrie seem to have nailed the purpose of God’s plans for ages very well that is sort of leaping into the Biblical Theology field. I also don’t think things are as dire as described here: even Beale concedes the field of Biblical Theology can produce thousands of different interpretations depending on the theologians’ own hermeneutics i.e. it is a field that is highly influenced by these theologians’ very own biases.

        As someone who is very much on the Ryrie/Fruchtenbaum/messianic Jewish side of things and becoming increasingly distant from Calvinist/Reformed, I think a Jewish frame of refernece is something any students wishing to explore the subject of Biblical Theology has to grapple with. Most existing works of Biblcial Theology are intentionally ignorant on the Jewish frame of reference (perhaps attesting to the heavily Reformed/Calvinist background of these theologians – there is a latent hostility between Reformed/Calvinist camp on one hand, and messianic Jews on the other, though I know a few messianic Jews who identify as Jews that are also Calvinists in the Dordtian mold).

        Also as we see the Bible prophecies being unfolded in our world, people aren’t stupid, they will ask a lot of questions that Biblcial Theology from the NCT or CT perspectives cannot and will never be able to answer adequately. I said before that dispensationalism will revive, and I still believe it is true. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, there is no way you can be putting it back.

      3. Tyler,

        This is a problem which I have tried to answer in this group of posts: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/diagnosing-the-dispensational-malaise-an-opinion-pt-1/

        In my opinion the big problem is the problem of definition. We’ve gone about as far as possible under the constraints of defining ourselves by dispensations. Add to this the effects of natural theology and the problem of pragmatism and you have a pretty uninspiring and debilitating brew!

        God bless,

        P.

  2. Paul, someone suggested to me I read Clarence Larkin’s The Dispensational Truth is one magic bullet to address the problem of Biblcial Theology from the dispensational perspective. I wonder what your take on Larkin is, especially I have never seen you refer to him on about as long as I’ve read your blog.

    Has Larkin nailed it or missed it.

    The person also suggested Things to Come by Penetcost addresses the subject adequately as well. I thought it only covers eschatology abd not enough about the “whole scheme of things”.

    Thanks.

  3. Hi Joel,

    I do not recommend Larkin because he is sometimes speculative (the daft appendix about the pyramid in “Dispensational Truth” epitomizes it), and he is too sure of himself – but without citing his authorities. I don’t like that. Moreover, he claims the diagrams were revealed to him one after another so that he only got the next one after completing the one before. Too mystical for me!

    His work has value, but it is not very deep, nor is it really concerned with the issues of Biblical Theology as such. How well read is your recommender?

    “Things to Come” has abiding value, and we use it at Telos Biblical Institute. But it is not a Biblical Theology.

    Moreover, both these works stress dispensations (although Pentecost does write about covenants too), and neither deal with the real problems involved with a stable meaning for “dispensation” from one epoch to another.

    Your brother,

    Paul

    1. Paul, it seems to confirm my suspicion. The person I interacted with is a small Southern Baptist Church pastor educated at the Southwest Seminary. I have my lingering doubt myself: the person I interacted with would have regarded anything written that is more theological than Mark Hitcocock as pretty deep theological truths fit for laypeople. On top of that I don’t think he understood my question correctly at all – he seemed to perceive the issue as “why there are dispensations” but not exactly as you say “why does God work through dispensations – what is the meaning”

      He may have read very deeply himself on some areas, but to me he striked me as a pretty pragmatic-oriented (but more of the Left Behind-reading, and pre-Purpose Driven, pre-missional type of pragmatic evangelical) individual. Indeed he has a website – when I read his website I felt like entering a time warp of seeing where evangelical churches were from around 1999 to 2000:

      http://www.truthinspires.com/

      Having said this, he goes to some early chruch fathers (like pseudo Ehreheim) for studying prophecy, and he also recommends Josephus and Herodotus for apologetics studies. It seems to indicate he is influenced by the Norman Geisler school. And I don’t think he knows (or wants lay readers know) anything about the stuff we are talking here as they sound too “Calvinist”.

      Obviously he is passionate about prophecy but this is used for evangelism so people know the signs are on the wall and they will repent and trust in jesus as their Saviour.

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