This is part 2 of a two-part review of Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). The review is written by Harrison Perkins. He grew up in the south and attended college in Alabama. He began to get more involved in the church in college and there grew in his love for the church and desire to help others understand the riches of the Word of God and the gospel of God’s free grace. He is married and lives in the San Diego area. He is a candidate for the MDiv degree at Westminster Seminary California.
More specifically within the covenant of grace, the authors rightly recognize the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, but are mistaken in most of their conclusions about it. They have made it a conditional covenant, just like all the others. This allows them to put it in contrast, rather than continuity, with the new covenant, which is fulfilled by the work of Christ. By setting even the Abrahamic covenant in contrast with the new, they are able to argue that the “genealogical principle” of the Abrahamic covenant is a type of a new covenant reality: the lineage of faith. This forms their argument for the shift in covenantal structure from including infants of believers to not including them. They support this argument by appealing largely to Jeremiah 31:26–40. They put heavy emphasis on the contrast of the new covenant to the old, which they are right to do, but they seem to think that the contrast is mainly about children in the covenant. This places the new covenant in contrast with the whole OT scheme of covenants (which is a Dispensational scheme) but this is not what Jeremiah’s contrast is. He contrasts the new covenant with that made at Sinai (31:32), which is a specific OT administration. Therefore, the authors are mistaken because they miss that the contrast must be between the new covenant and something specific to the Mosaic covenant. The very thing, to which Jeremiah points, is the breakable nature of the covenant at Sinai. The old covenant (Mosaic) was breakable, primarily because it was conditional and rested on the covenant servant to be faithful but the new will be unbreakable (unconditional). It will be fulfilled by God. This not only undermines the authors’ contrast of new covenant with all the OT, but also their denial of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants.
More so, the authors have made many of these moves arguing backwards. They know that infants cannot be baptized so they read the OT covenants in a way to support this view rather than listening to the text. They also miss much of the argument of Galatians regarding the AC. Galatians 3:7 poses that the seed of Abraham is those of faith. Paul does not say that this is only true in the NT era. It was always the truth. The same thing is expressed when he argues that the true Jew is the one inwardly (Rom. 2:29). The seed of Abraham was always a spiritual reality. Additionally, Paul calls the Abrahamic covenant the gospel (Gal. 3:8). As hard as the authors work to distance the new covenant and the AC, this runs contrary to Paul’s statements cited here.
Further, the authors argue that the genealogical principle is typological of the principle of faith in the new covenant. They state that the invariable inclusion of all of the physical lineage prefigures the invariable inclusion of all those who have faith. However, this misses much of what happens in the Abrahamic covenant itself regarding the genealogical principle. It should be obvious that not all the physical descendants are true believers (e.g. Esau). This shows that there is certainly a spiritual dimension to the AC, which is the dimension that the NT emphasized most. Some of the physical descendants, however, are also cut off from the covenant (e.g. Ishmael). This shows that whether discussed spiritually or physically, the Abrahamic covenant includes a mixed community in the covenant. Wither way the typology will point forward to a mixed covenant in the church. This runs against the majority of the authors’ arguments for credobaptism in the covenant context.
A few other comments are in order. The major content issues have been addressed, but there are also a few methodological features that should be discussed. First and foremost, the authors do a great job of interacting with Dispensational material. They cite relevant and credible sources and deal fairly with the Dispensational arguments, sometimes at length. The same cannot be said, however, regarding the authors’ interaction with CT. Many times, they do not cite sources for what they claim CT holds. Much of what they claim CT believes, I do not recognize as actual CT. When they do cite sources regarding CT, they are typically shallow or disreputable. Although they cite Michael Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology (also published as God of Promise) regularly, most of the sources the use for CT are either web searches or Federal Vision writers. The first category is simply not acceptable for academic work. Web pages are helpful for many things, but they are not fit for academic engagement. They authors failed to really wrestle with full-bodied CT, particularly, they did not engage with the primary CT sources at all, even those translated into English. There is no excuse for not including at least one from Witsius, Turretin, Owen, or Hodge in this discussion. They rely on shoddy second hand material, which undermines their attempt at doing any credible academic work on the topic. Regarding the second category, all confessional Reformed CT would have a severe aversion to Federal Vision. To cite Federal Vision authors as representative of orthodox Reformed CT is not only to set up a straw man argument, but is an extreme misrepresentation of the opposing side. If this is an example of being unaware of the controversy, that is totally inexcusable.
Another methodological concern is with Gentry’s exegesis. I should say, it is not with the way he does exegesis per se, but he never makes explicit his exegetical conclusions or the relevance of particular exegesis to the overall topic. The individual chapters on the various covenants hardly ever express a thesis regarding the particular covenant under examination. This makes it difficult to follow the overall argument and frustrating to try and see why he is making the points he is making, Much of the almost 500 pages of exegesis as if it was published simply for the sake of exegesis. A great number of pages does not prove an argument. Conclusions are not only helpful for the reader but necessary for tracing arguments.
In the end, this book is interesting, but it does not really advance the discussion. It is too big and not clear enough for a general audience. On the other hand, academic audiences will see that it has not moved much past a progressive Dispensational position. It rejects a separate future for Israel but still holds a Dispensational-style soteriology and makes the same mistakes regarding what the nature of discontinuity is between the new and old covenants (the major contrast is not about including infants). I enjoyed this book and found much of it helpful. I find, however, claims that this book is “groundbreaking” quite misleading and over stated, unless they refer to the literal effect dropping a book of this size would have on the ground.