This is the final installment of a three-part review of Brent Parker and Richard Lucas’ new volume of essays wherein theologians representing traditional Reformed covenant theology, progressive covenantalism, progressive dispensationalism, and traditional dispensationalism interact on issues of continuity and discontinuity in redemptive history, particularly concerning the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. The previous two posts in this series surveyed the essays themselves, the second post focusing entirely on progressive covenantalism (PC). This installment highlights the particular issue of the covenant of works, drawing some relevant material from all this volume’s essays, then reflects specifically on Stephen Wellum’s essays about PC. The purpose of focusing on Wellum’s contributions here is that, from my perspective, he fundamentally agrees with the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, but some claims in his essays and within his own system need clarification in this regard.
Michael Horton’s essay defending traditional Reformed covenant theology stands unique amongst this collection’s contributions for a few reasons, two of which seem relevant here. First, Horton alone holds to Reformed ecclesiological commitments, meaning all other contributors are baptistic in their views of polity and sacraments. This observation is mostly a point of interest, marking a likely reason why his arguments take their particular shape, especially how he alone spends time grounding his views in the historic Protestant confessions. Even if other contributors (here I am thinking particularly of Steve Wellum) are more closely aligned with Protestantism’s confessional tradition, at least Darrell Bock, defending progressive dispensationalism, criticized Horton on this point, positing that Horton’s initial articulation of a theological position rather than diving straight into exegesis suggests “as if another magisterium is in view” (pg. 224). The response might be that doing biblical theology apart from the church’s historic testimony is simply a way to excuse inventing whatever you want from the text, shoving off criticisms because you did some exegesis by yourself. Indeed, Bock admits that progressive dispensationalism appeals to biblical authority for “altering traditional forms of theology,” supposedly for more alignment with Scripture (pg. 236).
Second, Horton’s essay is unique in that all other contributors fault him for arguing in favor of the covenant of works between God and Adam, albeit the criticisms come in varying grades. Both dispensationalists disagree with Horton’s presentation of the covenant of works but in differing degrees. Mark Snoeberger (traditional dispensationalism), driven by his understanding of the church’s spiritual mission, at least recognizes how the law-gospel distinction upholds the difference between a spiritual and social mission for God’s people. He, nevertheless, dismisses the notion of tying it to the covenants as Horton does. Bock, however, unequivocally rejects the covenant of works: “A key flaw occurs is his [Horton’s] claim of an architectural design starting with a covenant of works tied to Adam. This supposed core covenant never actually gets mentioned in Scripture!” (pg. 223). Even on its surface, Bock’s criticism reveals dispensationalism’s own key flaw in that it precludes the theological task altogether. It eliminates the possibility of contemplating God in his progressive revelation in favor of reconstructing the author’s historical awareness to arrive at a certain meaning of the text and God’s works. Certainly, dispensationalism would object to this assessment. I simply ask them to produce their contribution to theology that doesn’t appear to Reformed theologians as speculation about Israeli politics.
More fundamentally, Bock’s critique eventually manifests a confusion about the redemptive-historical pattern of creation-fall-redemption. In outlining his view of what Genesis 1–11 does contribute to Scripture’s storyline, he denied that the “do this and live” principle was active in Eden, asserting that, “Faith, not works, was the issue from the start, even with Adam and Eve…There was no covenant of works, only a call to trust God” (pg. 224). In describing how blessing comes to Gentiles through Christ, Bock argued, “they are blessed not because of an innate right to blessing nor because of works but because God in Christ will bring them back into the faith that always saves, the faith Adam and Eve were also to have in response to God’s word” (pg.225–26; emphasis added). Bock’s rejection of the covenant of works leads to a full-scale collapse of the pre- and post-fall situations where even the same sort of faith was the path to blessing. His omission of how he understands salvation to operate, despite his assertion to agreement with the authors on matters of the gospel, exacerbates the deficiencies in this response. Certainly, Scripture differentiates unfallen, fallen, and regenerate conditions and outlines that salvation is not about creation but sin. Regardless of what he would affirm, Bock has removed the necessary redemptive-historical apparatus to explain these gospel realities.
Turning to the more interesting essays about PC, Wellum avoided the serious mistakes of collapsing redemptive history that the dispensationalists made but still criticized Horton’s view of the covenant of works, creating some confusing formulations. Concerning the essays from this reviewed volume, some specific claims seem to conflict with Wellum’s clear statements made elsewhere, meaning that this work must be contextualized and clarified based on his other work. In part 2 of this review series, I noted Wellum’s clear affirmation of the covenant of works in the London Lyceum’s roundtable discussion about covenant theology. As previously noted in my review of Kingdom through Covenant, I have struggled to understand Wellum’s criticisms of the covenant of works, since PC affirms so much of that doctrine’s core tenets. Wellum himself has written in his “Progressive Covenantalism: Key Points of Definition,” that “‘Law’ and ‘Gospel’ are helpful theological categories, which we affirm in regard to their theological content,” which is the primary upshot of distinguishing the covenant of works from the covenant of grace.
How then does Wellum criticize Horton’s views, why is it potentially confusing, and why does it matter? Before getting to these matters per se, I want to note my tremendous respect for Steve Wellum as a theologian and person. I count Steve—and Richard Lucas who edited this volume and has been a kind and helpful conversation partner—as a brother and friend (hoping they think so too!). I sent Steve a draft of my forthcoming book with Lexham Press on covenant theology for which he provided immensely helpful feedback and affirmed the major thrust of my arguments for Christ as the mediator for all God’s elect during both Testaments, for the nature and continuity of Reformed soteriology, and for the OT’s types and ordinances being means of grace to apply Christ to believers then, disagreeing as expected primarily when it comes to issues that affect ecclesiology. I have repeatedly and publicly commended his writings on Christology as solidly helpful. I know that he affirms traditional points of Reformed soteriology because he has said so in our interactions and has been very gracious as I have worked to understand him more clearly in his articulation of the covenants. So, I want to be clear that I am aware and want readers to be aware that my interaction with his writing here raises no questions about his true orthodoxy but is meant (as his whole project of PC likewise does concerning my position) to prod the coherency and consistency of the apparatus that he uses to explain those positions.
First, there seems to be a shift in Wellum’s position on the covenant of works from Kingdom through Covenant to his essays in this volume. In the earlier book, Wellum argued that the filial and relational aspects of God’s covenant with Adam suggest a “more gracious” and “less contractual” arrangement. The correct argument there that the creation covenant was “foundational” for the later covenants particularly in fulfillment in Christ, however, does not require this specific formulation, as seems clearer in Wellum’s more recent essay. Here, he wrote:
The category of “law” is first established by God’s total demand on his creatures in Adam (and then it is given greater specificity in special revelation by subsequent covenants)…God, as the Creator and Lord, demands perfect obedience from us which runs through all of the covenants. Our problem is that we do not obey; as such, we stand condemned before God. However, God speaks a word of promise—“gospel” (Gen 3:15). God promises to act in sovereign grace to redeem us, which is also taught in every covenant, yet God demands perfect obedience from us… Ultimately, God unilaterally acts to redeem by God the Son incarnate, who perfectly obeys for us and pays for our sins. Each covenant, then, starting in Adam/creation and culminating in Christ/the new covenant, contributes to this overall story (pg. 205).
This outline contains the key points of the Reformed use of the law-gospel distinction and the covenant of works, explaining better than the discussion in Kingdom through Covenant that God’s covenant with Adam is foundational precisely by setting the demands to obtain eschatological life that Christ fulfills for us.
Wellum’s potentially confusing statements in this essay relate to his refutation of Horton’s specific casting of each historical covenant in terms of law or gospel. The most problematic statement is: “I see no reason to bifurcate creation in terms of two covenants tied to the law-gospel distinction. Instead, we have both aspects in creation and all subsequent covenants, something Horton often misses” (pg. 207; italics original). It is hard to understand how creation itself, presuming that Wellum here intended the pre-fall context usually associated with the covenant of works, could need the gospel. Before our fall into sin, we had no need for redemption, making it a confusion of nature and grace to pose a pre-fall need for the gospel. Given Wellum’s other arguments, however, this particular claim seems to be a misstatement.
In this regard, Wellum’s other formulations can be understood more clearly in light of his response to Horton’s particular positions and, as part two noted, PC’s special focus on historia salutis issues, not the ordo salutis. Theologically, Wellum agrees with the principle distinction between law and gospel but disagrees with Horton that each historical covenant can be exclusively linked to law or gospel.
I do not disagree with the categories of “law” and “gospel.” My problem is how Horton’s construction of the covenants gets him there. In distinguishing the covenants as either “law” or “gospel,” he places a grid on Scripture that slightly veers from the Bible’s own presentation. I fully embrace theological terms that rightly explain Scripture, but I remain unconvinced that Horton’s construction is how the Bible presents the covenants. As I have argued, it is better to think of God’s plan unfolding through a plurality of covenants, starting in creation and reaching its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant (pg. 205).
The problem here is crossed wires about the application of the law-gospel distinction to the categories of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, caused by Horton’s use of ancient Near Eastern treaty categories.
In Reformed theology, principally the only covenant of works, the only true and pure law covenant, was the one that God made with Adam before the fall. Every other covenant must be part of the covenant of grace because sinners can be right with God only on the basis of his grace in Christ, not on the basis of our works. Wellum reads Horton’s labeling of the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants as promise covenants and of the Adamic and Mosaic covenant as law covenants as disrupting a unified progress of grace throughout the developing covenants. Horton’s labelling of various post-fall covenants as law and promise, however, must be understood as concerning their most prominent typological features. The Mosaic covenant cannot be a true covenant of works, a real law covenant, concerning personal salvation because sinners cannot be right with God by works. Its major types were predominantly legal, but the only covenant that based our right personal relationship with God on anything other than grace in Christ was the pre-fall covenant of works with Adam. So, Wellum’s remarks against the law-gospel distinction and against the covenant of work-covenant of grace paradigm need to be situated within his response to how Horton applied these categories.
Although Horton has made good arguments about how the ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal and royal grant treaties inform our understanding of the various biblical covenants, there is a danger in using the law-promise covenants reductionistically. Specifically, all the post-fall covenants ultimately have the basis of God’s grace in Christ in the sense that their promises types, and ordinances functioned as means of grace that applied the virtue, efficacy, and benefits of Christ’s new covenant work in advance to believers (WCF 8.6). Some of these historical covenants had promissory types and others had legal types, but believers received Christ by faith through those types in every age of redemptive history.
The purpose of the Reformed bicovenantal system then is to highlight the supreme difference between our unfallen and fallen conditions before God. PC may not have understood quite how their rejection of this bicovenantal structure suggests to Reformed readers a coordinate rejection of the principle of grace alone. Newer formulations in PC seem to be taking better account of this potential miscommunication.
Wellum’s claim that PC is not susceptible to the negative ramifications of rejecting the law-gospel covenantal system is not as impervious as suggested, given what other writers in the PC mold have argued. Wellum wrote:
Horton also discusses debates over justification and sanctification with Norman Shepherd and the federal vision. Why do I mention this? Because in my view, Horton is describing some internal tensions within the position, especially regarding the classification of covenants as either conditional (bi-lateral) or unconditional (unilateral), or some kind of combination. For Horton, this is an important debate (pg 203).
The debate which Wellum highlights is, however, perhaps not so simple an issue for Reformed covenant theology and not so for PC. Wellum cited an essay by Ardel Caneday, which addresses the issue of covenant conditions but confuses some important categories, even some that Wellum has explicitly affirmed. Caneday’s formulation of the conditional-unconditional issue is not limited to the historia salutis but argues against the law-gospel distinction in principle. More to Wellum’s point about Horton’s internally-tense concern, Caneday has stated on his blog that he agrees with Norman Shepherd’s view of justification, bringing the problem into Wellum’s own camp. I firmly believe that Wellum upholds traditional Protestant categories and agrees with the soteriology of confessional Reformed theology. I also think it infelicitous to his case to side with how Caneday formulated the issue of covenant conditions.
Wellum’s expressions of PC seem to be moving closer to Reformed categories as he writes and interacts more with traditional covenant theology. Although the disagreement about membership in the new covenant will obviously be the last issue to see resolution, it is encouraging to see the discussion narrowing to that topic. This post has intended to explain how PC and traditional covenant theology talk past each other on key points about covenantal principles related to the ordo salutis. The hope is to help Reformed readers better understand PC’s mechanics and why it is easy to misread particularly Wellum on the issue of the covenant of works and the law-gospel distinction.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
1. “Covenant Theology Roundtable,” The London Lyceum (accessed on October 8, 2022, here).
2. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 675–77.
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