Kingdom Through Covenant (henceforth KTC) is a massive work of biblical theology written from a Baptistic perspective, now in its second edition.1 My very first attempt at public writing was a review of KTC’s first edition, which I did while in seminary, and which Dr. Clark very graciously posted on The Heidelblog. With more experience, I have often looked back with acute awareness of that review’s weaknesses and wished I could redo it. I am thankful for the chance to review the second edition on the same platform with hopes to improve my comments and assessment concerning this work.
This is not an academic review but a guide for pastors and interested lay people to know what this large book argues and some first responses. My main purpose is to provide a Reformed perspective on what this book contributes to the discussion about covenant theology. Gentry and Wellum would no doubt be frustrated with this post, as they clearly were with the majority of reviews of their first edition, but I hope they would recognize my purpose is not to address them but to help Reformed readers know about their book.2
My main claim throughout this review is that Reformed covenant theology would appreciate and endorse the bulk of KTC’s exegetical arguments but has problems with its non-specificity. The likely reason why Reformed theologians have not engaged in significant exegetical response is because the raw exegesis itself is mostly not problematic or opposed to our covenant theology. Rather, those holding Reformed theology are left wondering about how that exegesis truly connects to progressive covenantalism’s theological inferences, and about more specific details concerning how progressive covenantalism understands each covenant to function in redemptive history. In other words, the Reformed viewpoint has more questions about how Gentry and Wellum’s arguments relate to and/or supposedly overturn our position than objections to particular exegetical claims.
The main issue that causes more questions than disagreement for Reformed readers is a lack of engagement with our categories of covenant theology. So, Wellum stated, “We enter the discussion with a singular focus: a careful investigation of the nature of the biblical covenants and their relationships to each other, since we contend that it is this point that is central to the debate.” (pg. 108; italics original) Wellum’s point likely holds for progressive covenantalism’s pushback against dispensationalism. In this respect, Wellum and Gentry land numerous blows against the dispensational school, demonstrating repeatedly that God administers his kingdom through covenants that drive the overarching biblical narrative.
On the other hand, Reformed covenant theology happily accepts the basic thesis that God’s covenants drive Scripture’s narrative and facilitate progressive revelation. Wellum and Gentry, however, do not reckon with our distinction between the substance of the covenant and its external administration. They seem to believe that covenant theology’s view of the one covenant of grace entails that the biblical covenants function identically in redemptive history. Their focus remains on how the biblical covenants advance redemptive history in different ways. But Reformed covenant theology accepts this premise as well. The various administrations all advance redemptive history by their own unique contribution.
In this respect, it is not what Wellum and Gentry do argue but what they do not address that remains the point of disagreement between covenant theology and progressive covenantalism. They have not grappled with our additional claim that each of the biblical covenants distribute the same substance of salvation in Christ by faith alone. Elsewhere, they have affirmed that the one way of salvation, including for Old Testament saints, is through faith in Christ.3 Still, they have not related that affirmation to their explanation of the covenants or connected to covenant theology’s primary contention that this soteriological emphasis is the major point of our explanation of the covenants. So, although Wellum and Gentry have ably argued that the biblical covenants advance the biblical narrative, they have not disproved covenant theology’s additional and central premise that these diverse administrations all deliver the same substance of salvation in Christ. Until they disprove this premise, their argument has not overturned covenant theology, leaving its relationship to covenant theology vague rather than as a definitive via media between covenant theology and dispensationalism.
I have divided this review under subheadings for easier navigation and accessibility, since KTC itself is a large book. I am conscious that Gentry and Wellum’s main complaint with previous reviews is that they did not engage the book’s arguments. I hope that the following subsections clearly summarize and reflect upon what I understand their arguments to be.
Prolegomena: Part 1
In KTC, Stephen Wellum, a systematic theologian rightly becoming well known for his excellent publications in Christology, joins with Old Testament scholar, Peter Gentry, in a biblico-theological endeavor to unpack how the covenants relate to one another, argued from a Baptistic perspective.4 The authors statedly argue a via media between covenant theology and dispensationalism, claiming that both have misunderstood how covenants inform typology. Covenant theology misunderstands typology in relation to the “genealogical principle,” dispensationalism in relation to the land promises. Their stated argument is covenant is “central and foundational” for the Bible’s “narrative plot structure” and the way that theologians relate the various covenants explains differing theological conclusions (pg. 31). Wellum and Gentry title their via media “progressive covenantalism,” arguing “the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal our triune God’s one redemptive plan for his one people, which reaches its fulfillment and terminus in Christ and the new covenant.” (pg. 35) Their main claim is that covenant theology and dispensationalism have both mistakenly understood the proper way the biblical covenants unfold, but now their model of progressive covenantalism has unlocked the true way to relate each of the biblical covenants as they drive the Scripture’s fulfillment in Christ.
This statement of their main thesis demonstrates how the continuing problem Reformed covenant theology has with progressive covenantalism is the non-specificity of its argument. Covenant theology wholeheartedly agrees that the covenants drive the overarching biblical narrative and that they administer God’s kingdom on earth. Covenant theology also affirms progressive revelation as distributed through the covenants. So, the thesis of progressive covenantalism itself does not say enough to cause Reformed covenant theology to tangle with its premise. The vast majority of exegesis in part 2 supports this point, so again the Reformed have no reason to refute those exegetical claims. Our reservation is about how that specific thesis without further detail entails Baptistic ecclesiology.
The bulk of part 1 focuses on describing dispensationalism and covenant theology, as well as unpacking the hermeneutical method in KTC. Wellum has engaged with far more Reformed sources to describe covenant theology than he did in the first edition, for which I commend him. The reservation I have concerns his use of writers from the Federal Vision movement without noting their different stance on issues involved. Particularly, his use of their view of the internal-external relationship of covenant members to covenant blessing inaccurately describes the mainstream Reformed understanding. Perhaps from a Baptistic perspective, he does not know the debates. But readers should know that his response to their view of the church’s mixed nature does not equal a response to classic Reformed federalism.
The Noahic Covenant
The chapters in part 2 work through the various biblical covenants. Concerning the Noahic covenant, which is treated first since Scripture’s first explicit mention of covenant occurs at Genesis 6:18, Gentry presents it as primarily concerning the promise of preservation for creation after the Flood with the sign of the rainbow (pg. 202–4). From the Reformed perspective, there is nothing in Gentry’s case that is inherently at odds with our covenant theology. Some, such as this reviewer, see Genesis 6 and 9 as containing two distinct covenants, but that is not the universally held Reformed position.5 Gentry’s view that the Noahic covenant upholds the covenant between God and Adam is more at odds with Reformed theology, but that disagreement also depends upon how Gentry explains that Adamic covenant. So far, however, Gentry’s exegesis of the Noahic covenant itself does not pertain to his disagreement with covenant theology as much as he seems to suggest (pg. 204–5).
The Adamic Covenant
Concerning God’s covenant with Adam, Gentry well argues that there is a covenant in Genesis 1–3, providing thorough examination of how the image and likeness of God entails a covenantal relationship, even according to the meaning these terms bore in the ancient Near East. One need not agree with all the details, perhaps specifically concerning how Gentry understood two distinct meanings referred to by “image” and “likeness,” to appreciate the force of his argument. He further demonstrated that the Garden of Eden served as sacred space and the first temple, which supports covenantal connections to Adam’s priestly role. He also sees Hosea 6:7 and Jeremiah 33 as most likely indicating a covenant at creation. Gentry then provided powerful arguments to support a covenant between God and Adam.
From a Reformed perspective, the reservation with Gentry’s arguments concern not what he did say, but what he did not say.6 Reformed readers should thoroughly appreciate his case for a covenant with Adam. But his conclusions are not specific enough to show how his understanding of Adam’s covenant relates to our doctrine of the covenant of works. He argued that the goal of this covenant was rest (pg. 244–45). This might be good, but what kind of rest? Is it rest in the eschatological life that the Reformed see offered to Adam by the covenant (1 Cor. 15:44–45)? Is it even eschatological? Is it permanent? Gentry also argued that the covenant terms related to Adam’s breach of the law concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil (pg. 253–54). In both respects, the Reformed will agree wholeheartedly with Gentry’s overall point. Although he provided abundant exegetical detail, his theological specificity lacks enough for us to know if he agrees with what we understand the covenant between God and Adam to be about.
Since the argument is that the Noahic covenant reestablishes the creation covenant, however, it is unlikely that Gentry would articulate the covenant of works. On the other hand, Wellum elsewhere has articulated something very close to the covenant of works, specifically concerning an explanation of the need for Christ’s active obedience.7 Perhaps the reason why Gentry’s treatment seems vague is because he did not treat Genesis 2:15–17 in detail or look at the biblical theology of the tree of life, both of which the Reformed have seen as intimately connected to the creation covenant. Wellum’s other discussions highlight these points but their absence in KTC leaves a thoroughly vague description of the nature of this covenant and its roll in redemptive history. The authors’ rejection of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants combined with the argument that the Noahic covenant reaffirms the creation covenant runs the risk of blurring the distinction between our pre- and post-fall situations, specifically regarding what that entails for our covenantal relationship with God. Certainly, I believe that both authors affirm the historical fall, original sin, and all its traditionally understood implications, but their formulations lack precision and clarity on this issue as they explain the creation covenant in KTC.
On this point, Gentry would no doubt note his exegesis of Genesis 6:18 as evidence that the Noahic covenant establishes a prior covenant. He argued that the specific phrasing of “establishing” rather than “cutting” refers to a prior existing covenant (וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי). Not all Reformed theologians accept this grammatical distinction, but many do. Yet, there are still many explanations for which covenant is being upheld with Noah. Gentry assumes and asserts that it is the Adamic covenant, and as he understands it, rather than tangling with the options Reformed theology has posed to explain this exact construct. Non-specificity remains the problem.
As progressive covenantalism tries to steer between covenant theology and dispensationalism, the Reformed position rests fundamentally upon the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. Covenant theologians, then, will not be convinced by any treatment of the covenants that does not thoroughly address this issue, which has ramifications for how we understand creation, Christology, and salvation. Progressive covenantalism is driven by Baptistic concerns about ecclesiology but needs more attention to how it relates to these issues that are more central to covenant theology’s priorities in framing Christ and the gospel.
Wellum circled back to the Adamic covenant in part 3 but did not clarify matters much (pg. 666–85). Most of his treatment repeats Gentry’s arguments that Adam was in covenant with God, which is well and good. He does argue for a probation built into the tree of knowledge of good and evil (pg. 667n29), for an eschatological new creation offered in this covenant (pg. 669, 672–75), and for the requirement of obedience. These seem to be the basic elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works. Still, he rejected the title “covenant of works” in favor of “covenant of creation” (pg. 668) because he understands the covenant of works to be too contractual (pg. 676) and the covenant of works “tends to create too sharp a disjunction between creation and subsequent redemptive covenants, [so] it is better to view the covenant of creation in more continuity with later covenants, as foundational to them and not as their foil.” (pg.677; italics original) There are a few issues here.
First, the Reformed do not understand the covenant of works in any sort of coldly contractual sense. John Colquhoun described it as a “covenant of friendship.”8 Colquhoun and Francis Turretin both argued that happiness characterized the covenant of works.9 In offering Adam a higher reward for the obedience he already owed his Maker, God was infinitely kind and generous, showing that God can always outgive himself in promising even better eschatological life if Adam simply did what nature required him to do anyway.10 Although Wellum is no Barthian, he has repeated the old Barthian critique of the covenant of works that has no grounding in the tradition.11 Even his criticism that the covenant of creation should be seen as having “more continuity with creation itself” rather than added to creation does not land (pg. 676). The Reformed tradition is not unanimous on this issue but many have argued this exact point concerning the covenant of works. As with their treatment of the moral law’s abiding role, here too it is clear that Gentry and Wellum have not reckoned with the Reformed tradition’s understanding of natural law in relation to the covenants, which is supremely important for the exact issues Wellum is trying to parse.
Second, Wellum’s argument for the continuity between the creation covenant and the subsequent redemptive covenants is not helpful. He explained this point, writing:
The creation covenant is foundational for all future covenants since all subsequent covenants unpack Adam’s representative role in the world. Adam – indeed, all humanity – is created as God’s image-son, a priest-king to rule over creation. Adam is created in relationship with God as he mediates God’s rule to the world; he does not need to merit favor before God. Yet God, as holy and just, demands perfect obedience from his covenant partner. All subsequent covenant heads function as subsets of Adam, who, in God’s plan, points forward to Christ, the last Adam, who by his obedience ushers in a new covenant. (pg. 672; italics original)
There are many points in this passage that the Reformed celebrate and simply point out that we have been saying these things for a very long time already. On the other hand, the way that Wellum makes the creation covenant foundational to all other covenants is that the covenant head of every subsequent redemptive covenant seems to be back in Adam’s role. From the Reformed perspective, this continuity does not deny the covenant of works at all but merely makes every covenant a covenant of works. It suggests to us that every covenant held out the possibility of the eschatological new creation if only the covenant head could provide the required perfect obedience, and it just so happens that Christ was the Adamic figure who finally succeeds: “As with previous covenant heads – whether Adam, Noah, Abraham, or corporate Israel – God demands obedience, yet none of those mediators were truly obedient.” (pg.702) True enough, but how that point is applied makes all the difference: “Yet God also continues to demand perfect obedience from his covenant partners as represented by the covenant heads.” (pg. 702) Again, “Yet in the Old Testament, it is clear that all the covenant mediators (sons) fail and do not fulfill God’s promises; all of them are not obedient sons.” (pg. 771) True, but was it possible that they could be in light of original sin? Precision is again the issue. Some Reformed theologians have made similar points in reference to typology, which is where this sort of argument must go.
If this repetition of the Adamic role is a genuine renewal of the covenant of creation, even as described by Wellum, then this redemptive-historical structure veers dangerously close to a Pelagian understanding of pre- and post-fall continuity. Wellum and Gentry are not Pelagians and their soteriology in no way manifests that point, so my argument is not to diminish their understanding of the gospel itself. My point is, rather, that I do not think they have thought through the implications of their argument and I do not think their redemptive-historical outline is fully coherent with their more fundamental commitments, which are plain throughout Wellum’s writings. They are not Pelagian, nor wrong on the gospel, but have used a poor formulation of redemptive history that resembles something incredibly unhelpful. I have no illusion that Wellum and Gentry will read this post, they are busy with far bigger things, but I hope they would receive this point, not as an accusation but as a brother attempting in charity to highlight what seems to be to be a potentially very problematic inconsistency.
This issue manifests the pattern in KTC that Gentry and Wellum have not deeply engaged with the actual issues and categories of traditional covenant theology. They seem to be responding to the surface issues in hopes of constructing a covenant theology that supports Baptistic ecclesiology. Yet, they repeatedly seem to be at a halfway point of trying to respond to covenant theology but often never grasping the heart of the theological matters that drive our system or the basic categories that operate in it. Our fundamental concern is not the “genealogical principle” for baptizing babies, as they seem to think at times, but the law and the gospel, Christ and salvation, and then the implications for ecclesiology.
KTC has not recognized or reckoned with the basic issues and arguments of covenant theology, especially regarding the covenant of works. It provides substantial exegesis, affirming mostly things that Reformed people have long said, as if Reformed people never bothered to do lots of exegetical works, then assumes that their exegetical work means they have tangled with all the theological issues involved. That last premise is incorrect. Their exegesis has not remotely touched upon the most relevant theological matters in covenant theology, focusing mainly on outlining that there was a covenant with Adam built into the image of God rather than deeply unpacking the nature of that covenant. Since Reformed people have argued that for centuries, KTC’s exegetical work does not support, if it even addresses, their theological claims about the nature of the creation covenant. They seem to have stepped into a multi-millennia long debate with some recent reflection upon the issue and presumed that it was enough to sort out everyone else who has been talking about it since the ancient church. They have many issues and categories to address before their case can be remotely convincing.
In the end, Gentry and Wellum seem to be after something like the covenant of works but have formulated a vaguer version with a confusing relationship to post-fall covenants, which will not satisfy Reformed theologians who have carefully considered each premise in the covenant of works and are content with the exegetical support for each premise. This is clear when Wellum argued for Christ’s active obedience: “In the covenant of creation, it is best to think of God’s initial arrangement with Adam as holding forth a conditional promise of everlasting life.” (pg. 778) It is hard to see how this statement substantially differs from the covenant of works, and throughout this book the discussion concerning the covenant with Adam does not seem precise enough either in distinguishing their view from the covenant of works or simply agreeing with Reformed theology concerning it.
The Abrahamic Covenant
Concerning the Abrahamic covenant, Reformed covenant theologians will again appreciate and accept the vast majority of Gentry’s exegesis but still be left wondering how it undermines our view. Reformed theology endorses his conclusion that “the covenant with Abraham is the basis for all God’s dealings with the human race from this point on, and the basis of all his later plans and purposes in history. Thus the covenants (with creation, with Noah, with Abraham) are the backbone of the metanarrative plot structure.” (pg. 332) We agree as well when he concluded, “This it is clear, from even a few texts in the New Testament, that the covenant with Abraham is the basis and foundation for the gospel message announcing forgiveness of sins and justification through Jesus Christ.” (pg. 335). Gentry’s extensive argument for the unity of one Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 is helpful and fully aligned with Reformed covenant theology’s conclusions.
Gentry’s most controversial claim again relates to the rejection of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants. In this case, he argued that Abraham’s obedience was necessary to secure the outcome of the covenant. I am not personally persuaded about the specific way Gentry has made the point, but that is irrelevant to their thesis that progressive covenantalism better explains the covenants than Reformed covenant theology. Meredith Kline, representing Reformed covenant theology, has argued similarly that Abraham’s obedience was a significant part of that covenant, and it functioned as a type of Christ’s merit in the covenant of redemption. Kline still held to the distinction between the covenant of works and the one covenant of grace diversly administered. Perhaps Kline was inconsistent with specific points of Reformed covenant theology, but he and many others have not recognized that inconsistency if it exists. So, regardless of whether Gentry’s specific exegetical points on this issue hold, they do not undermine covenant theology’s understanding of Abraham.
So again, the lack of specificity leaves the Reformed questioning the arguments. How is it that Abraham is supposedly a new Adam? Is this in the same way that we understand Adam to have been in the covenant of works, requiring perfect obedience for eschatological reward? Was Abraham genuinely tasked to roll back Adam’s curse (pg. 279), or was this typological? Gentry argued, “Blessings are the manifestation of faithfulness, fidelity, and solidarity in relationships whereby one’s natural and personal capacity to fulfill God’s intention and purpose is advanced and furthered.” (pg. 278) But is this how the covenant of works operates or is this still true for believers who are justified in Christ? Even then, is this blessing earthly goods and prosperity or eschatological life? How did these relate for Abraham? For us now? If progressive covenantalism’s claim concerning Abraham is merely that it, along with all the other covenants, administers God’s kingdom on earth, then the Reformed have zero disagreement (pg. 280). There is obviously disagreement somewhere though. The question that covenant theology still has is about the specific nature of each covenant and how they distinctly contribute to redemptive history. We agree with progressive covenantalism that the Abrahamic covenant is pivotal in that development but their understanding of how that happens in contrast to our understanding is not fully clear to me.
The Mosaic Covenant
Concerning the Mosaic covenant, Gentry demonstrated that God began a covenant with national Israel at Sinai (Ex. 19–24), which they renewed at Mount Horeb in Deuteronomy. The same pattern occurs in relation to Gentry’s exegesis pertaining to covenant theology. I appreciatively learned much about the literary structure and internal workings of some crucial passages about the inauguration and renewal of the Mosaic covenant. As covenant theologians will celebrate, Gentry again demonstrated that another covenant drives the biblical narrative forward. The exposition of these passages is detailed and thought provoking.
The question again remains how these arguments supposedly undermine classic Reformed covenant theology. His treatment of the Decalogue with an obvious eye to undermine the distinction of the moral, ceremonial, and civil laws will not likely persuade many who hold to covenant theology (Since Wellum spends time on this issue in the section on theological synthesis, I will not address it here). But one must ask, why does that matter? There are no clear connections in Gentry’s argument between his reinterpretation of the first four commandments and why covenant theology cannot bear up against these exegetical points. Perhaps he assumed that our view of continuity between the old and new economies rests more on the tripartite distinction of the Mosaic laws than it does. The authors have yet to reckon with covenant theology’s main emphasis on the covenant of grace being unified in substance but diversly administered. Perhaps they believe that our view of unity concerns the outward features of religious life across the Testaments. That assumption is incorrect, however, as we readily affirm that the various covenants brings significant changes to the external administration of the covenant. Yet, the substance remains that God offers everlasting life in Christ by faith alone. OT saints trusted in the Christ who would come (incarnandus) and NT saints trust in the Christ who has come (incarnatus), but salvation has always been in the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
Gentry’s discussion does not get into the sacrificial system or the typological significance of the land. These are the most important issues that concern covenant theology when it comes to the Mosaic covenant. In our discussions with confessional Baptists, these issues along with the nature of types generally and relationship between Abraham and Moses take center stages as points of disagreement and debate. Without a discussion on these points, those holding to Reformed covenant theology will appreciate most of the exegetical detail here, know that the lack of the category of natural law has truncated the interpretation of the moral law, and be left wondering why these arguments are supposed to be in so thoroughly in conflict with our views.
The Davidic Covenant
As I understand Gentry’s position concerning the Davidic covenant, I have no issues with it. He argued that the idea of sonship, which began with Adam and developed with Noah, Abraham, and Israel reached new definition with God’s promises to David about a royal heir. So, “The role of the Davidic king in fulfilling his covenant obligations is defined by divine sonship, based on 2 Samuel 7:14–15 and Deuteronomy 17:18–20. The king’s rule is to exhibit the justice and righteousness of Yahweh himself.” (pg. 472) On the assumption that Gentry sees this ultimately fulfilled in Christ, I wholeheartedly agree. Reformed covenant theology need not refute but will endorse and appropriate the major contours of Gentry’s argument concerning the Davidic covenant.
The New Covenant
Gentry spends four chapters on the new covenant, making this his most extensive discussion by far. Again, his literary analysis of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel is profound and insightful. I learned a great deal from the intertextual connections he highlights between Isaiah’s prophecies and the other covenants, specifically the Abrahamic, and this material is well worth more reflection (esp. pg. 332–37, 516–21). His thorough defense of an amillennial reading of Daniel 9 is commendable, helpful, and devastating to a dispensational understanding of that text. Rather than work through each of these chapters individually, however, it seems best to make these principle statements that Gentry again well proves that covenants drive the biblical narrative, but now focus on an area of disagreement.
In his discussion of the new covenant, there is now a point of theological significance that varies with Reformed covenant theology, and it concerns whether the new covenant prophecies indicate that children will no longer be included in the new covenant community. Again, this post is meant to be a guide for Reformed readers more than an academic response to Gentry and Wellum, which limits how much I want to interact with the details of their argument. But Wellum’s assertion that the new covenant does not include children do not seem adequately justified by his exegesis.
First, he contended that Isaiah 54:13, “all your sons will be taught by the Lord,” (which he connects to Jeremiah 31:33–34) means that every member in the new covenant will be a true believer (pg. 498–99). Yet, this meaning is asserted rather than argued. Repeatedly, Gentry has claimed that his exegesis is superior to previous studies of the covenants because he has performed “exhaustive” studies related to word and concept use. Here, however, he merely asserted that this phrase implies a Baptistic ecclesiology in the new covenant.
Could it not, on the other hand, indicate a continuation of the Abrahamic promise to be God to us and to our children after us? Rather than overturning the previous inclusion of children in the covenant community, it seems that God is reaffirming that he will be God to our children in the new covenant. After all, even though Gentry briefly highlighted Isaiah 59:21 as another new covenant passage, he neglected that it promises that God’s Word will “always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants” (pg. 509). The Abrahamic promise is imbedded in the prophecies of the new covenant.
Second, Gentry of course argued that Jeremiah 31 excluded unbelieving children from the new covenant. Yet, he also treated Jeremiah 32:36–41 as another new covenant passage, which includes that God will work “for them and their children after them.” Gentry claimed that paedobaptists have misunderstood this promise as a warrant to baptize children. His argument, however, is that “Thus the promise of the new covenant was given by Jesus to his hearers, and they could pass down on this good news to their children and so on down through the generations. But it is not a statement that guarantees that the children of believers will automatically become believers.” (pg. 571) Amen and amen. No one holding to confessional Reformed covenant theology argues that inclusion in the covenant community is an absolute guarantee that our children will become believers.12 Participation in the external administration does not ensure that everyone truly partakes of the substance.
Overall, the exegetical portion of this book provides in-depth analysis of some of the crucial covenantal passages. There is a wealth of useful material here concerning exegetical details of numerous passages pertaining to covenant theology. Gentry’s case certainly proves that the biblical narrative is driven by covenants, as proponents of Reformed covenant theology will celebrate. The payoff of this section is a massive blow to dispensationalism, as I understand it and Wellum described it in part 1.
On the other hand, despite all that Gentry did prove, he did not reckon with Reformed theology’s category of the substance of the covenant of grace. His discussion remained focused entirely on what we categorize as the administration. We confess that the administrations are diverse. We do not agree that the new covenant is so diverse from the previous covenants that children are no longer included. Still, we confess that the new covenant is different from the other covenants as an administration. To push aside covenant theology, as he has well done with dispensationalism, and truly forge a via media, Gentry needed to prove the additional point that the covenants did not offer Christ and his benefits as the unifying substance of the covenant of grace. All his arguments for diversity among the Old Testament covenants do not truly touch the point of contention between Reformed covenant theology and other theological systems until the issue of substance and administration is addressed.
Theological Synthesis: Part 3
The final section of this book poses theological claims about the covenants. Chapter sixteen summarizes the biblico-theological arguments. The first notion that covenants are God’s means of delivering his kingdom on earth is not controversial or even slightly new to Reformed readers.13On the other hand, the dismissal of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants is more provocative. Even here though, questions remain for those holding traditional covenant theology. What sort of conditions? This has never been specifically defined. The condition of faith, works, or a mix? That answer could make their view very contentious. Further, Reformed theology has long distinguished antecedent and consequent conditions. Which does Wellum have in view? This proposal again fails to reckon truly with the categories of historic covenant theology. Not only does progressive covenantalism not address the heart of covenant theology in the substance-administration distinction with a primary payoff for Christology and soteriology, but also neglects our smaller category distinction. It is hard to see how the arguments truly intersect with Reformed covenant theology in a deeply meaningful way.
The rest of this chapter summarizes the theological value of each covenant. I am personally not sure that this was the best organizational approach. Locating these summaries in part 3 rather than in connection to the exegetical chapters about each covenant makes the conclusions seems removed from the exegesis. Indeed, I am not sure how most of the conclusions directly relate to the earlier exegetical arguments. There seems to be a lot of “extra” in this book in that much of the exegesis does not prove the specific and distinct aspects of their theological thesis. Much of the exegesis is excellent and helpful, and I find myself citing it frequently and approvingly in the book I am presently writing on the covenants. But how Gentry and Wellum seem to assume the connection between their exegesis and theological points.
Chapter 17 argues that Christ fulfills the previous biblical covenants. This too is not a surprising or controversial claim to those holding to covenant theology. The central point is not in dispute, and there are many useful points about how Christ fulfills typology. Presumably contra dispensationalism, Wellum argued extensively for inaugurated eschatology in the New Testament. This issue does raise an issue worth noting, as it seems that Wellum did not consistently apply his good arguments. He well stated, “The New Testament announces that in Christ Jesus, the promised age is now here (“already”) because he has, in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, inaugurated God’s kingdom through the new covenant. Yet the full consummation of what the Old Testament prophets anticipated and predicted is “not yet” here in its fullness.” (pg. 736; italics original) Wellum’s point explicitly applied the inaugurated eschatology to the new covenant. Again, “What is true regarding the already-not yet dynamic of Christ’s rule and the inauguration of the kingdom is also true of the entire package of prophetic anticipation of the age to come. For example, think about how the New Testament presents the pouring out of the promised Holy Spirit, associated with the new covenant age.” (pg. 740; italics original but the emphasis is well noted here) Finally, “The New Testament teaches that all new covenant promises and blessings, as an entire package, are now here in Christ and applied to the church in principle.” (pg. 744; italics original) Yet, Wellum critiques covenant theology for applying the already-not yet of inaugurated eschatology to the new covenant, precisely in reference to the extent of regeneration among the covenant people as described in Jeremiah 31: “But if we argue that the new covenant is only partially here or partially fulfilled, then we have to bifurcate its blessings.” (pg. 746; italics original) Although I’m sure they have an explanation, and their application of this point to reject an already-not yet construction of justification is wonderfully commendable, I am not sure how this argument squares with their criticism of covenant theology’s application of the already-not yet of New Testament eschatology to the prophecies of the new covenant.
This chapter does begin what is the key theological emphasis of the rest of the book, and arguably the driving consideration of the book, namely the new covenant is structurally reconstituted in comparison to the previous covenants so that the “genealogical principle” goes away and covenant membership is defined by regeneration. The key argument is that the newness of the new covenant resides in a changed “structure” and “nature” so that the covenant community no longer has mixed membership.
In this respect, their critique of the visible-invisible church distinction does not really reckon with the issue. They seem reduce the issue to the invisible church are the regenerate members within the visible church, a mixed community. But that is not the point of the distinction. Westminster Confession 25.1 says, “The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” In other words, the invisible church is the company of true believers from all ages. It underscores that God has one true people throughout redemptive history, which is a point Gentry and Wellum well argue. It so happens that we cannot see the elect who are presently in heaven or have not yet been born, so they church is invisible.
On the other hand, WCF 25.2 says, “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” If I have read Wellum correctly, progressively covenantalism would affirm this definition except for the inclusion of believers’ children, and seem to agree with a major purpose of the visible-invisible distinction. As Wellum stated:
No doubt, it is true that not all those who profess faith in Christ are regenerate and that some who are admitted into membership in the church later show themselves not to have belonged…The New Testament knows of false professions and spurious conversions; in fact, the Scripture exhorts us to examine ourselves (see 2 Pet. 1:10). Yet the New Testament also assures us that all those united to Christ and born of the Spirit will be kept to the end. This contrasts with covenant theology, which affirmed a mixed view of the church or asserts that the visible church is constituted by believers and unbelievers until the end of the age. (pg. 755)
Reformed theology affirms everything Wellum outlined in this passage, making his closing conclusion about the contrast with covenant theology’s view of the visible church inaccurate. So, as with many other matters pertaining to Reformed covenant theology, KTC has not truly reckoned with the issues involved.
Chapter 18 addresses Christology and ethics. The Christological argument is that Christ fulfills the previous covenants. The Reformed agree. I appreciated the defense of Christ’s active obedience, although the issues concerning how Wellum related that to the covenant of works were raised above under the section on the Adamic covenant. Those issues resurface here. On the other hand, Wellum’s discussion of the law for Christian ethics lacks clarity about the issues involved in Reformed theology. He argues that the moral law cannot be separated from the rest of the Mosaic covenant, so that it abides but the ceremonial and civil laws are done. Rather, the whole Mosaic covenant is abrogated. The problem is that the Reformed agree with the way he has framed his argument. The moral law as part of the Mosaic covenant is fulfilled. The Decalogue does not abide because we separate it within the Mosaic covenant. Rather, Wellum has failed to reckon with our doctrine of natural law that teaches that the moral law is grounded in creation (WCF 19.1–2). I found myself repeatedly thinking that Wellum’s argument would be exactly right if not for natural law. Still, Wellum ends up positing something very close to the Reformed view of the moral law grounded in nature:
In order to discern God’s moral will, we need to begin in creation and then think though how sin has distorted God’s order, walk through the covenants, and discover how God’s redemptive promise will restore and reform the created order – a reality that has now been realized in Christ. At every stage in redemptive history, the covenants reflect God’s moral demands, thus explaining why we expect and find a continuity of moral demand across the canon. (pg. 793; italics original)
Amen. If Wellum had incorporated the Reformed view of natural law, he could simply affirm the abiding validity of the moral law as rooted in God’s own character and hardwired into our nature as God’s image bearers. Once again, progressive covenantalism failed to reckon with the real issues and categories of Reformed covenant theology.
Chapter 19 addresses ecclesiology and eschatology. Concerning the church, Wellum again argued that the new covenant restructured the community so to end its mixed nature and include only regenerate believers. Progressive covenantalism, contra dispensationalism, affirms the continuity between Israel and the church, so that God does not have a separate plan for national Israel. Wellum argues against covenant theology, however, that the new covenant church is “covenantally new” by including only the regenerate. This issue has already been addressed some above in connection to the visible-invisible church distinction. They argue that the warning passages do not prove a mixed nature of the new covenant, so the promise of Jeremiah 31 that all will know the Lord in the new covenant requires credobaptism.
There is a significant issue to address. The discussion is not clear enough about how Old Testament believers were saved. As noted already, the authors affirm that OT saints were saved by Christ. Wellum also states, “Once again, this is not to say that there were no believers prior to Pentecost or that the Spirit was not active in the Old Testament.” (pg. 751) But there are other statements that make it hard to account for how they affirm that. For example, “Although we still await our glorification, to be at present united to Christ and in the new covenant entails that one has been born of the Spirit and forgiven of his or her sin.” (pg. 808; emphasis added) What about believers who lived before the new covenant was inaugurated in Christ’s blood? Further, Wellum pointedly argued that covenant theology too quickly reads the new covenant into the old (pg. 814). If salvation is provided through the new covenant as Christ fulfilled the previous covenants, how were OT believers saved by Christ, receiving forgiveness in their own time? If it is a problem to read new covenant realities, those of salvation in Christ, into the previous covenants, how did the members of those previous covenants receive salvation? Wellum and Gentry have stated that their purpose is not to explain OT salvation. But that is a major focus of Reformed covenant theology. So, not to outline how progressive covenantalism relates to this issue is again to fail to reckon with the major issues in covenant theology.
This problem even applies to infant salvation too: “But he [Paul] does argue that, in baptism, the objective realities of having died to sin and being made alive in Christ have actually taken place – something that cannot be applied to infants unless one affirms some kind of baptismal regeneration.” (pg. 823) If infants cannot be made alive in Christ, how then can any babies that die in infancy be saved? This statement implicitly resigns all who die young to hell, apart from any relevance to baptism. I doubt Gentry and Wellum would affirm this, which is why I say it is implicit. The Reformed say that God can sovereignly regenerate someone at any age, regardless of baptism, certainly not merely through baptism. Progressive covenantalism’s emphatic concern for Baptistic ecclesiology at times produces imprecise formulations for soteriology. On the other hand, the discussion of eschatology is overall very good.
Progressive covenantalism is an endeavor to incorporate the Bible’s emphasis on the covenants more thoroughly into Baptistic theology. It makes a significant contribution to pushing against Dispensationalism from a Baptist standpoint. It also includes a wealth of helpful exegetical material pertaining to many passages most important to unpacking the covenants. At the same time, this exegetical detail is not obviously connected directly to the theological conclusions. Perhaps this lack of clarity owes to the organizational separation of exegetical and theological chapters or possibly my own perceptiveness. Still, the impression is that a lot of the exegesis, although useful in itself, is superfluous to the book’s major argument.
In the end, the thesis and arguments are not specific enough to overturn traditional Reformed covenant theology. The points that are clearly argued are mostly ideas that we too affirm, namely that main thesis that “the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal our triune God’s one redemptive plan for his one people, which reaches its fulfillment and terminus in Christ and the new covenant.” (pg. 35) Yet, the major contours of the arguments for progressive covenantalism do not truly reckon with the issues and categories that are most central to Reformed covenant theology, namely the shape and continuity of soteriology, the distinction between law and gospel, and the distinction between substance and administration. Until these areas are addressed covenant theologians will not know how to respond accurately to progressive covenantalism because those are the most fundamental issues in our system.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast; MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is a pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, online faculty in church history for Westminster Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).
2 KTC, 13–14, 16; Stephen J. Wellum with Brent E. Parker, “Introduction,” in Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (eds.), Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 3–4n7.
3 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, “Rejoinder to Review of Kingdom Through Covenant,” Westminster Theological Journal 76 (2014): 450–52.
4 God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Crossway, 2016); Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (Zondervan, 2017); The Person of Christ: An Introduction (Crossway, 2021).
5 Miles V. Van Pelt, “The Noahic Covenant of the Covenant of Grace,” in Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether (eds.), Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 111–32; Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000), 212–20.
6 Although it does seem overstated to claim that the traditional view of the image of God “is not the result of grammatical and historical interpretation” but “of reasoning from systematic theology.” (pg. 221) Since Gentry himself included the intertestamental Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria in this claim, it not only seems outlandish that no one has ever properly considered the text without theological biases skewing their hermeneutics entirely, but also suggests that the church has been without proper exegesis until Gentry and Wellum came along to unlock the true meaning of Scripture hidden until now.
7 Stephen J. Wellum, “Christological Reflections in Light of Scripture’s Covenants,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 16 no 2 (2012): 48–52. Wellum also draws well and thoroughly on Adamic themes to inform Christ’s obedience throughout Christ Alone.
8 John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Covenant of Works (Edinburgh: Thomsons, Brothers, 1821), 4.
9 Colquhoun, Covenant of Works, 2, 53–54; Turretin, Institutes, 8.3.2, 5.
10 Westminster Confession 7.1.
11 E.g. James B. Torrance, “Covenant or Contract? A Study of the Theological Background of Worship in Seventeenth Century Scotland,” Scottish Journal of Theology 23 (1970): 51-69.
12 Michael G. McKelvey, “The New Covenant as Promised in the Major Prophets,” in Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether (eds.), Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 199.
13 Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000); S.M. Baugh, Majesty on High: An Introduction to the Kingdom of God in the New Testament (CreateSpace, 2017).
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