Kingdom Through Covenant: A Review (1)

With this post we begin a two-part review of Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012).


It is difficult to know what the best way to review such a large book is (778 pages plus bibliography) in way that is useful to readers. There is much ground to cover and it is nearly impossible to do justice to all that the authors argue. The book is much too long to treat point by point. Rather, it seems better to treat this work topically and give a basic overview and response regarding the major issues.

First, there is much to appreciate in this volume for those of us holding to classic Covenant Theology (hereafter CT). This work might well be valuable to have simply as a one-volume commentary on many of the major passages related to CT. Although Reformed CT would not always agree with the exegesis, it can be a useful guide to what many of the issues are in particular texts.

Second, the authors do argue against a separate eschatology for Israel and the church. A wonderful argument is made that the land promises are made to Abraham and his seed, but his true seed are those of his faith (Gal. 3:7). This means that believers, not an ethnic group inherit the land promises. They also argue that there was the promise of expansion beyond the borders of Palestine from the beginning. The land promised to Israel is promised in light of the covenant made at creation. Adam was to tend Eden and fill the earth. The same is true of later land promises: it was meant to fill the earth. These arguments serve well to dispel the Dispensational disjunction between the church and Israel. There is only one people of God.

But what do the authors say about the covenants? Where do they stand in relation to Reformed CT? It is helpful to look at what they say about each major covenant heading. Regarding the covenant of redemption, they do not affirm it by name, but say that it is on the right track (pg. 654–656). They affirm the eternal plan of redemption among the Godhead and also affirm that God in Himself is covenantal, which gives warrant for us to think about all things covenantally.

Regarding the covenant of works, they do not agree with all that CT holds as the covenant of works, but that it is on the right track (pg.610). They do affirm and argue at length for a covenant with Adam (pg. 177–221). What they seem to neglect, however, is that it that covenant was a covenant of works. They affirm, however, the obligations for Adam and that his fulfillment of this covenant arrangement would bring about a further eschatological reality. This shows that there is much that the authors do like about CT’s position on the covenant of works. What they do not seem to like is that it is the covenant of works, i.e. they deny that the other covenants are not also a type of works covenants, as we will see under the covenant of grace section. Thankfully, they do emphasize that Christ did what Adam failed to do and that Christ earned for us redemption. This is an important feature related to CT’s exposition of the covenant of works and covenant of redemption that the authors have affirmed (though I got the impression that they did not fully grasp the issues behind the works covenant between the Father and Son and how that relates to the covenant of works).

Regarding the covenant of grace, they deny that it is legitimate to speak of one covenant. They affirm one “plan of salvation,” but say that we should only speak of the plurality of covenants because the Scripture has a plurality of covenants. There are several reasons why they make this move. First, I am not sure that they understand that in some ways, “one covenant of grace” means one plan of salvation. That is the point of the doctrine. They certainly, however, miss that WCF 7.5-6 speaks of the one covenant administered in diverse ways. CT also speaks of the plurality of covenants, but these covenants are administrations of the one covenant of grace made after the fall (Gn. 3:15). Second, the main reason for dividing the covenant of grace into many pieces is to argue for credobaptism. In many ways, this book is simply a drawn out argument for credobaptism. It becomes clear that the primary reason for posing their hermeneutics under a covenantal scheme is to try and make credobaptism at all plausible for those of us who hold CT. They want to show that there are non-Dispensationalists that hold credobaptism (a claim to be examined below). By not posing one covenant of grace, they leave open the holes they need to make a radical discontinuity between the new covenant and all the others.

Two of the major issues in the concept of the “one plan of salvation” posed in this book are the nature of the covenants and soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. As far as the nature of the covenants is concerned, the authors deny the distinction that CT traditionally makes between conditional and unconditional (promise) covenants. They say that all the covenants are in some ways conditional and in other ways unconditional. This is the reason they give for the tension between God’s promises and man’s unfaithfulness. God has promised, but He requires a faithful covenant servant. This is the reason they say that the Incarnation was necessary: God had to provide His own faithful covenant servant. However, it seems to me that by denying the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants, they have made them all conditional. If the unconditional aspects (promises) of a covenant are conditional, then they are not really unconditional. The whole covenant is simply conditional.

This scheme makes all the covenants function the same way. Granted, Wellum and Gentry do a better job of doing justice to redemptive-history in its progress through covenants; they do see the covenants as fulfilling God’s one plan and do acknowledge that later covenants fulfill earlier ones. However, by making all the covenants function the same way (conditionally), they end up posing each covenant as a real potential at fulfilling God’s one plan. If a particular covenant can provide a faithful covenant servant, then it will fulfill God’s promises. It just so happens that this does not happen until the new covenant. This strikes me as Dispensationalism is a covenant suit and tie. The authors have done more to use covenants as the Scripture does, but ultimately they have made each covenant function individually and undermined any attempt at unifying the covenants, which is a major point of Reformed CT.

The other issue is related to soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. The authors do not seem to pose that OT saints were saved in the same way that NT saints are saved. They state that a flaw of CT is that it poses OT saints as indwelt by the Spirit and united to Christ (pg. 113n74). They do not go as far as classic Dispensationalism and argue that Israelites were saved by keeping the law. However, they do argue for differences in soteriology between the new covenant and the old (this obviously seems to confuse old covenant with OT, but this is a separate issue). They state that OT saints were saved by faith in God’s promises (pg. 684, n.70). They argue that now in the NT the promises of God for salvation are Christologically focused (pg. 685). “In the Old Testament, particularly under the old covenant, the forgiveness of sins is normally granted through the sacrificial system,” (pg.650). This is not the soteriology of Reformed CT, nor is it the biblical soteriology. Christ said no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn. 14:6) and I do not think that meant only after the NT era began. It was an eternal reality for sinners. When Christ laid down His life for the elect, it was not only the NT elect (Jn. 10). It was the elect from all times. What the authors have posed is a diluted Dispensational soteriology.

In part 2: An Analysis Of Gentry and Wellum On Abraham and the Covenant of Grace.

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  1. Correction: Classic dispensationalism does not argue that Israel was saved by keeping the Law. Ryrie made this clear beginning almost 60 sixty ago in 1956. It has been repeatedly stated in the years since. There are some dispensationalists who believe that, but that is not a tenet of dispensationalism. Many do not believe that.

    Regardless of disagreements, perhaps we could begin to at least get this right. It never helps to argue against a position based on something that is not even believed.

    • Gene,

      Ryrie = Modified Dispensationalism. I think by “classic” he’s referring to the earlier (e.g., Scofield) or original dispensationalists (e.g., Darby).

      I understand that there is dispute over the history of Dispensationslism. Scofield certainly made statements that seem to say that (as he said things to the contrary). They are described as “misstatements” by his defenders. That could also be a case of “we wish he hadn’t said that!” See also this.

      It’s also been taught at the popular level in Dispensational circles. Lots of folks, influenced by Dispensationslism, have understood Scripture to teach works salvation under Scofield’s 5th dispensation.

    • Dr. Clark is right about to what I was referring in the review. I spent some time in a Dispensational church and that is what I was taught. Additionally, I was summarizing their arguments. The authors said they argued against Classic Dispensationalism in this way, so I repeated that. It’s not worth it to me to contact the authors and tell them that they are wrong about Dispensationalism, but maybe it might be helpful for them to know that they are arguing against something not believed. I apologize for confusion, but, in the end, let’s not shoot the messenger. My arguments were made elsewhere. This was a summary statement.

  2. I’ll be reading this book very soon. As I myself am coming from a more NCT perspective like that of Wellum/Gentry, the CT critique is especially important as I try to keep your lens over one eye as I read. I wonder about this quote that Harrison used:

    “In the Old Testament, particularly under the old covenant, the forgiveness of sins is normally granted through the sacrificial system,” (pg.650).

    And he goes on to state that this is not biblical soteriology, yet does not the language of the old covenant hold out forgiveness through the means of the sacrificial system? Moses and Elijah did not explicitly preach justification by grace alone through faith alone in Yeshua ben Yosef ha Nazariot who would be born centuries hence. But they did preach it, albeit through the means of the sacrifices wherein trust and reliance on the promises of God are demonstrated.

    Is it so different from the CT perspective to conclude that forgiveness of sins has always been through Jesus’ shed blood, but that the medial focus from the ancient’s perspective was a shadow and type? That is how I would read Wellum/Gentry on that point, at least until I can read their book myself.

    • They seemed to be quite clear to me that OT saints were not united to Christ (pg.113n74). So I do not think they mean what you are saying. I read them to say real forgiveness was granted through the sacrifices (not that this did not also have a typological function). So it is very different from CT to say that forgiveness has not always been through Jesus’s blood and that is what I have heard them to say. They seem to argue that only after Christ came is His blood the way of forgiveness.

  3. ct: the main reason for dividing the covenant of grace into many pieces is to argue for credobaptism.

    me: The main reason for mono-covenantalism is to argue for Zwingli and Calvin’s argument from “circumcision” for paedobaptism. But one fruit of such mono-covenantalism is the proposal of John Murray that all covenants are about grace, and a fruit of that presupposition is the “federal vision” in which law and grace are confused.

    ct: In many ways, this book is simply a drawn out argument for credobaptism.

    me: In many ways, all “covenant theology” is an attempt to justify paedobaptism once one has already subscribed to certain confessional traditions. The arguments change, because there are many versions of “covenant theology” and many (contradictory) arguments for paedobaptism, but the desired result remains the same. And the complaint will always be that the credobaptist does not even understand the arguments, especially if the credobaptist makes the mistake of responding to a paedobaptist argument which is not your own. It’s easy to ignore the vast differences between various “covenant theologies” and label all who disagree with you as being “dispensational”.

    But while all who take “biblical theology” seriously may be dispensational in some sense, we are still not all “anabaptist”, and lumping together all who advocate discontinuity will not work as long as David Gordon continues to ask his good questions about John Murray and mono-covenantalism.

    David Gordon is not a credobaptist, not even close to one. But he still asks if you can describe covenant theology without putting it into antithesis to those who teach two plans of salvation. If you want to accuse all who disagree with “the covenant of grace” of being credobaptists, show us that your covenant theology is about more than paedobaptism. Is it about a new Christendom which enforces sabbath? I don’t think so.

    If the “others” believe the same gospel (one gospel for all time), then tell us why your brothers need to become “Reformed”. And if they don’t believe the same gospel, don’t overload them with the c word.

  4. I am not sure about the nature of the first section. John Murray’s mono-covenantalism was a revision of CT. He himself said that. Real CT is bi-covenantal, holding the covenant of works-covenant of grace scheme. I am not saying you don’t know this, I just want to clarify that this review is not written from a mono-covenantal position and mono-covenantalism strikes me as a serious error. IT did produce the FV, but what produced the FV is not historic CT.
    As far as the second section, I would have to say our CT developed long before the debates over baptism heated up. Oecolampadius was doing CT in the 16th century and even more elaborate CT schemes still developed long before the debate was about baptism in the sense of credo vs. paedobaptists. Original CT was mainly related to soteriology. It provided the consistent legal framework for justification as forensic and helped us relate justification to sanctification (see Dr. Clark’s book “Casper Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant). CT might mainly be associated the baptismal debate now, but that is because baptism is a big debate now. Therefore, I would have to disagree that “In many ways, all ‘covenant theology’ is an attempt to justify paedobaptism once one has already subscribed to certain confessional traditions.” CT didn’t get stuck onto Reformed theology ad hoc in order to defend paedobaptism. I would argue quite the reverse. Reformed theology was firmly covenantal, mainly because of how they used it in debates about soteriology, and when the debate about baptism arose, they used the firmly established CT for that issue too. Paedobaptism is a corollary, not the substance, of CT, at least in the way I have understood the history.
    Just to clarify, in saying that the book was an extended defense of credobaptism, I was attempting to draw attention to the major concerns of the authors. The fact that it is largely about credobaptism does not change the useful parts of the book, but knowing that credobaptism is a major concern helps the reader see why they argue the way that they do. But in that vein, if CT is just a device developed to argue for paedobaptism, why would two credobaptists write such a large book trying to be closer to CT?

    • Thanks. Would you consider critiquing Pascal Denaults Distinctiveness of Baptist covenant Theology? It’s more in line with CT vs this books NCT.

  5. Thanks. Would you consider critiquing Pascal Denaults Distinctiveness of Baptist covenant Theology? It’s more in line with CT vs this books NCT.

  6. The more you read the history, the more naive it seems to say “real CT” or “historic CT”. It’s like picking one Lutheran theology and saying that this is the “one essential” Lutheran position, or selecting one credobaptist saying that this is the “real” credobaptist. You have to ignore a lot of “marginal” stuff to get to a typology which puts your own position in the center.

    I am not a Southern Baptist, nor a defender of many things in the Kingdom Through Covenant book. I am at least opposed as you are to any idea that all covenants are “conditional” on the sinner. But I think it’s patronizing of you to ask “why then do they want to be close to us?” I would assume that they want to be correct, as you want to be correct, and that their motive is not to find some “balanced” place between “covenant theology” and credobaptism.

    What would you say if a credobaptist were to tell you that most infant baptisms done by “ct” folk today are defacto “dedications” done by people “who want to be more like baptists? What if a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic accuses you of wanting to meet Zwingli in the middle? That kind of putting the other in a box (tension!) is simply not a helpful posture.

    • Mark,

      You’re quite wrong here. There is a real, confessional, Reformed covenant theology. See the essay “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013) for a recent comprehensive survey of the history of covenant theology. You can get it via inter-library loan.

  7. I don’t know if this counts as “real ct”, but David Gordon points out the obvious—if you are going to say that some covenants are in sense legal (a republication of works), then you are going to have to say that not all the covenants are one covenant

    “John Murray’s Mono-Covenantalism”, by David Gordon, in By Faith Alone, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters (Crossway,2006, p121

    I am perfectly happy with retaining the covenant of works, by any label, because it was a historic covenant; what I am less happy with is the language of the covenant of grace, because this is a genuinely unbiblical use of biblical language; biblically, covenant is always a historic arrangement, inaugurated in space and time.

    Once covenant refers to an over-arching divine decree or purpose to redeem the elect in Christ, confusion is sure to follow. In my opinion, Murray kept what ought to be discarded and discarded what ought to be kept…

    What Murray jettisoned was the notion of distinctions of kind between the covenants. He wrote that was not “any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.” Murray believed that the only relation God sustains to people is that of Redeemer. I would argue, by contrast, that God was just as surely Israel’s God when He cursed the nation as when He blessed it.

    The first generation of the magisterial Reformers would have emphasized discontinuity; they believed that Rome retained too much continuity with the levitical aspects of the Sinai administration. But the Auburn theology cannot describe covenant theology without reference to dispensationalism, despite the historical reality that covenant theology was here for several centuries before dispensationalism appeared.

    My own way of discerning whether a person really has an understanding of covenant theology is to see whether he can describe it without reference to dispensationalism.

    The word covenant is rarely employed in the Bible; indeed Paul never uses the expression. Where it is used, there is almost always an immediate contextual clue to which biblical covenant is being referred to, such as “the covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8) The New Testament writers were not mono-covenantal regarding the Old Testament (see Rom 9:4, Eph 2:12; Gal 4:24).

  8. Mark Karlberg, one specific covenant theologian: “According to John Murray, the gift of eternal life proffered to Adam at the beginning of history was something more than he could rightly earn for himself. Utilizing the familiar and widely adopted nature/grace – nature/covenant – dichotomy, forged in the fires of medieval scholasticism, Murray distinguished between Adam’s initial state of nature and the subsequent order of probation, what Murray termed the “Adamic administration.”

    Karlberg: “John Murray was reluctant to identify this probationary arrangement as a covenant, since in the Bible explicit covenant terminology appears only in connection with divine-human relation-ships in the redemptive epoch, and that beginning with Noah. Murray
    defined the covenant idea in terms of sovereign grace and redemptive promise. In doing so, Murray rejected the notion of a covenant of works, what he considered to be a contradiction in terms and a source of grave misconception in the history of Reformed interpretation. All that Adam could have merited on the grounds of his own righteousness was momentary life and fellowship with God, life that was ever contingent upon human righteousness which could be lost by moral failure.

    Karlberg: (For John Murray), “confirmation in righteousness was one of the benefits of successful completion of probation, the special situation associated with the Adamic administration, the arrangement that was superimposed upon the initial order of nature. …Significantly for Murray, what was required for this higher blessing was a “God-righteousness,” as opposed to a “human righteousness.” Here Murray enters the murky waters of theological obfuscation. In what sense does Murray employ the notion of God-righteousness,
    antithetical to human-righteousness, as requisite for the creature’s glorification even before the entrance of sin into the world?

  9. Thanks, Dr, Clark, for the suggested reading. It’s been on my list to get to. I do think we need to ask (with Mike Horton)–which covenant theology? And I don’t mind the attempts to match our current theology with the historical theologies which came out of the Reformation. Though the practice of infant baptism continued, the theology which supported the tradition was not the same as that of Augustine’s “baptismal regeneration”. The encounters with the Lutheran Reformation and the Radical Reformation surely had some influence on the shape of the “argument from circumcision” and its foundation in the “unity of the covenants”.

    Would Meredith Kline’s “ct” match up well with “Reformed orthodoxy”? Would David Gordon’s or Mark Karlberg’s or David Engelsma’s or Richard Gaffin’s?

    Karlberg: In a two-part lecture entitled “Ordo Salutis and Historia Salutis,” delivered August 2001 at the Kerux Biblical Theology Conference , Gaffin locates the vortex of biblical theology in the exposition of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the climatic event-complex of redemptive history and revelation. In Gaffin’s opinion it is precisely this event-complex which properly defines the article of the standing or falling church…..

    In all of this Gaffin understands his teaching to be fully in line with the teaching of John Calvin, teaching that, in Gaffin’s opinion, has been obscured in the subsequent history of Calvinist theology. In the period after Calvin, we are told, the redemptive-historical character of
    biblical revelation begins to blur, only to be regained in the work of Geerhardus Vos, the father of Reformed biblical theology, and
    in the work of G. C. Berkouwer and Herman Ridderbos.

    Turning to the second part of his lecture, Gaffin takes up the application of Christ’s redemptive work begun at the cross and now continuing in his high-priestly ministry in heaven at the right hand of God the Father. Here the vortex of redemption applied is existential union with Christ. This conceptualization of union with Christ, according to Gaffin, differs from decretive election, i.e., predestinarian union with God before the foundation of the world. Existential union with Christ is effectuated by Christ himself as life-giving Spirit …

    • Mark,

      There are several questions that need to be divided to be understood correctly.

      1. Historical. There was a classic Reformed, covenant theology. It developed over about 120-150 years. The evidence that there was a stable, mainstream of Reformed covenant theology is abundant. The Westminster Divines weren’t doing anything unusual when they confessed the covenants of works and grace.

      2. There was diversity but it wasn’t on central issues. Most of the diversity had to do with how to account for the distinctiveness of the Mosaic covenant. Even then most everyone agreed that Moses was a republication/re-statement of the covenant of works for pedagogical purposes.

      3. The modern diversity is the result of consequence of losing contact with our the classic Reformed sources and confessions. See Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on this.

      4. Calvin isn’t the baseline of the tradition. He’s a major voice but we don’t confess Calvin, Berkhof, Murray, or Kline.

      5. There’s an important distinction to be made between historical theology and systematic theology. Good historical theology isn’t concerned with matching up the past with the present. Systematics is the business of making a case for what we ought to believe. They sometimes appeal to the past for support or precedents but their ground is really Scripture and confession. The job of the historian is to tell the truth about the past as best he can. His job isn’t to support this or that party in a systematic debate.

  10. True or False?

    Some dispensationalists from Dallas Seminary have been paedobaptists.

    Dispensationalists who are paedobaptists are “inconsistent”

    Credobaptists who disagree with covenant theology make everything about baptism, and will make water a point of division and a test of membership.

    Paedobaptists , on the other hand, are simply continuing the early (or Augustinian) tradition of infant baptism, and therefore they are not making any division about baptism being one of the marks of belonging to the true church.‎
    “Unfortunately, many Bible-believing Christians assume that all infant baptizing churches are identical….”

  11. Thanks, Dr Clark. I very much agree that the goal of historians is to tell it like it was. Even if we wrongly end up being partisans in practice, this doesn’t change the goal. And even if “biblical theology” ends up being just another version of systematic theology, that doesn’t change the goal of objective biblical exegesis which takes into account covenantal discontinuity.

    This not a “bare biblicism” which claims to only be “inductive” (Daniel Fuller) because I think reading historical theology (including the Confessions!) would only make folks like Fuller (and NT Wright) more objective, if they would take the time.

    As a credobaptist, I hoped to find some old “anabaptist” who also taught the good news of unconditional election. But I never found that person in history. And Jon Rainbow, who was truly a great historian, never found that missing gospel person either.

    Are you pretty comfortable with Brenton Ferry’s typology/grid of various covenant theologies in The Law is Not of Faith? His reading of Tobias Crisp was too simple by far, and so I wonder….about those I have not yet read….

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