A Response to Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas (eds.), Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture (Part 1)

At my ordination, I took a vow that I hold the Westminster Standards “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures,” expressing that these documents summarize the shape of biblical truth most accurately. This “system” of doctrine connects various strands of biblical and doctrinal thought to one another for a coherent presentation of all that Scripture teaches. A problem causing much controversy over matters from the supremely great essentials to the smaller supporting details is that not everyone agrees about the overarching shape of Scripture’s system. In other words, differing traditions have opposing frameworks for making sense of how to bring Scripture’s details together into one united doctrinal portrait.

Brent Parker and Richard Lucas have collected a set of essays addressing this issue of differing, sometimes opposing, systems for making sense of Scripture’s unity, particularly concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Every major publisher seemingly now has its own iteration of the multi-view format books that assemble authors from differing perspectives to contribute essays on a given topic and interact with the opposing views. These volumes have been unevenly helpful because the essays are often either so introductory that they do not further discussion about the real aspects of disagreement, or the editors pick contributors that do not truly represent the traditional stance of the party they represent (at least I have this concern regarding some who have written from a “Reformed” view on various topics). Parker and Lucas avoid these weaknesses entirely, providing a set of essays that is rich, engaging, informed, doctrinally rigorous, usually courteous, and clearly argued. This book is a true contribution to the discussion about the unity of redemptive history.

Four contributors offer arguments for their distinct take on how to understand the Bible’s redemptive-historical development. The four views represented are: traditional Reformed covenant theology argued by Michael Horton, progressive covenantalism explained by Stephen Wellum, progressive dispensationalism outlined by Darrell Bock, and traditional dispensationalism defended by Mark Snoeberger. The essays are substantive, requiring a review of this volume to make seriously strategic decisions about how to approach describing and assessing its content.

This review then tackles this volume in three parts. Part one focuses on traditional Reformed covenant theology and the two versions of dispensationalism. Part two then looks at the essay about progressive covenantalism. Part three reflects on issues pertaining to the covenant of works as raised by each perspective. Readers of the Heidelblog have extensive resources on this site to explain classic Reformed covenant theology, making a detailed survey of Horton’s essay superfluous here. Both versions of dispensationalism are further removed and more easily addressed from the standpoint of Reformed theology. The contribution worth more extensive attention, then, is Wellum’s essays about progressive covenantalism and his responsive essay as he interacted with Reformed covenant theology.1

Horton’s essay is classic, well, Horton. He begins outlining how covenant theology is the Reformed way of expressing the pan-Protestant concern for the law-gospel distinction. He then defends the covenant of works from the confessions and from Scripture, followed by an explanation of the covenant of grace. His freshest contribution is in his section on the implications for the connection between circumcision and baptism. His other implication about Israel and the church is, of course, spot on but his arguments for baptism as replacing circumcision brings new vigor to otherwise well-tried territory.

Horton’s conversation partners all take issue with his distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. At times, using studies of ancient Near Eastern covenants that distinguish royal grant (promise) and suzerain-vassal (law) treaties, he perhaps over simplistically equates particular administrations holistically with law or grace. Although the ancient Near Eastern covenants have some usefulness in informing the principles of covenant theology, the true difference is between the covenant of works and all the administrations of the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is the suzerain-vassal, purely law covenant and the covenant of grace, even when a specific administration may contain more legal than promissory types and ordinances, stands entirely upon the principle of grace alone for our right standing with God. Still, Horton does explain at length how the Mosaic covenant as the law is refracted through the covenant of grace. To keep my own Klinean credentials intact, as Horton would agree even if he could have stated it more forcefully concerning how to integrate the ancient Near Eastern treaty models with our bi-covenantalism, the Mosaic covenant is a suzerain-vassal treaty for national Israel concerning earthly blessings in the land for typological purposes but remains a royal grant treaty concerning salvation for believers as it, being an administration of the covenant of grace, applies Christ and his benefits by faith alone through its means of grace. The issue of the covenant of works will occupy us again in part three.

The essays on differing versions of dispensationalism both ultimately focus on dispensationalism’s foundational concern: national Israel. Bock and Snoeberger do argue for some different angles on eschatology and the present kingdom. Bock has a greater place for typology and inaugurated eschatology. Snoeberger, alternatively, stridently argues for strict dispensational principles.

Bock’s distinct contention is that God has one people now and into the everlasting state, but internal divisions between Israel and other nations remain within that one people. His claim rests on the hermeneutical assumption that any sort of typological understanding of that featured in God’s promises during the Old Testament period must allow the apparent original sense of the promise to hold true first. He thinks that seeing the promised land as a type of life in the eschatological kingdom, those promises then resolving as an everlasting inheritance for national Israel in a political state, would undermine the truthfulness of God’s original promises. He appeals to the notion that an expanded fulfillment of a promise—e.g. the whole world rather than just the land of national Israel—still includes the remit of the original promise. So, using his example, if I promised you $5 but gave you $5,000, I still gave you the original $5 along with the additional money. He claims that God’s promises to Israel work in this manner.

Setting aside the well-worn issue of the land (Heidelmedia has done plenty of coverage on eschatology), the primary questions that I have here is how Bock would explain his view about an everlasting possession of promised land in relation to traditional Protestant soteriology. Are the Jewish residents in land believers in Christ? In that case, is Bock’s point simply that the glorified state doesn’t erase ethnicity and we still need political entities for some reason (although how different political entities exist when Jesus will reign as king over the whole new creation is mystery)? Or do Israelites get a pass into eschatological life simply because they are Israelites? Or does death remain in the new creation so that unbelievers can still die as they live in the land as Israelites, making the promised land the one place where new creation life has not entirely overcome sin’s fallout? Bock would undoubtedly blanch at some of these questions but nonetheless does not resolve what the answers are in his essay. That is not to say that he does not have fully satisfactory answers. My point is just that this issue was not entirely clear to me in what Bock wrote.

Snoeberger’s defense of traditional dispensationalism was highly interesting, sometimes unexpected, and surprisingly doctrinal. He began with a point about dispensationalism’s historical origins, dodging J. N. Darby’s role and focusing on nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister James Hall Brookes. Snoeberger contends that Brookes’ commitment to the Presbyterian doctrine of the church’s spirituality was the driving concern which prompted dispensationalism’s birth. He claimed that the versions of postmillennialism available then (assuming that amillennialism was an entirely later development) included a broader mission for the church that includes social and civil concerns because it views Christ’s kingdom as a present reality (pg. 165).

The argument for dispensationalism as a consistent application of the church’s spirituality will hardly convince most Old School Presbyterians, since none have seen the logical conclusion of the church’s spiritual mission to be dispensationalism’s literalistic use of grammatical-historical exegesis and their commitment to national Israel as a distinct political entity into the everlasting condition. Bock uses a bifurcated hermeneutic that divides the literal and spiritual.2 On this point, Snoeberger raises a highly fascinating criticism of progressive dispensationalism as compromising this crucial premise of dispensationalism. Namely, he sees progressive dispensationalism’s increased use of typology and concession that the nations join Israel as God’s one people, although internal distinctions remain as a way to introduce the social roles Israel had into the church’s mission (pg. 246–49). He might have a point, as Bock argued in this volume:

Salvation by design was always about restoration of the whole world through the means of a specific people and a deliverer out of that people. That is the starting point for Israel. God has his eye on the world as he formed Israel. They were to be a people who drew other people to God. Salvation in Christ is about being part of the restoration of all peoples, not in a zero-sum game where one people replaces another but in a reconciliation where God brings distinct peoples back together, each maintaining an element of identity to reaffirm the nature of the union. This is what the kingdom in Christ ultimately was designed to be, a place of unity and reconciliation, with appreciation for the many tribes and nations residing there. (pg. 227; italics original)

Bock’s emphasis here lands on reconciliation between differing peoples rather than people and God, leaving not a long stretch to various social issues as the point of salvation. His point may be to preserve national Israel within the everlasting condition, but the spotlight seems to shift from how God rescues sinners to how the whole world hangs together in the new creation. The connection is interesting here mainly because it perhaps raises interesting questions for analysts of America culture and religion to consider the theological dimensions of generic evangelicalism’s social activism.

Snoeberger’s hermeneutical priorities include expected dispensational points but also raise genuine problems for his view of Scripture. His view of the exegetical process stresses the original meaning of Old Testament promises and prophecies, which as such is simply a standard rejection of allegorized reading. The problem is that his understanding of the original meaning includes only what the human author could have known and understood as he wrote Scripture. Although I share Snoeberger’s affirmation of a necessary commitment to authorial intent, he omits God as ultimate author. Even apart from issues that divide Reformed and dispensational theology, the problem remains as it excludes the possibility of God revealing something through a human author beyond what the author could fully fathom about the future. Later biblical authors help us understand what was imbedded in the earlier revelation as progressive revelation discloses more of the sensus plenior, which seems to be excluded from Snoeberger’s hermeneutical commitments.

The problem intensifies as Snoeberger attempts to explain New Testament uses of the Old Testament. At one point he appealed to unaware colloquial use of Shakespeare’s phrases to argue that biblical authors cited Scripture without reference to context. The illustration, however, totally fails because we, in our accidental and unaware references to Shakespeare, are not inspired biblical authors, writing Scripture for the sake of God’s people. Snoeberger acts as if Scripture is a fully human document that happens to be inspired, as Bock helpfully raised as a concern regarding Snoeberger’s position (pg. 236–38). Ironically, Snoeberger’s version of authorial intent inadvertently grants in full the higher critical premise of a diverse book apart from the unifying divine author (pg. 162). He has failed to account for the progress of unfolding revelation in a substantive way.3

Traditional dispensationalism’s view of national Israel also raises problems for redemptive history. Snoeberger inverts the relationship of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants: “The Abrahamic covenant, for instance, eventually depends upon the Mosaic for the laws and administrative structures necessary to its promise of a nation.” (pg. 168; first emphasis added). This claim seems opposite and contrary to Paul’s in Galatians 3–4, as even Bock notes (pg. 234, 237–38). Further, Snoeberger ultimatizes Israel as such in full, giving no adequate answers about the nature of salvation and how salvation works. He affirms that he agrees with the other writers about traditional Protestant soteriology, making his claim that Israel will have an “eternal occupation” of the land confusing as to whether this is a saving blessing or some other (still confusing) everlasting blessing (pg. 170). In his view, the new covenant facilitates Jews again having a nation as a kingdom of priests among the nations but the church is not part of it (171, 175–77). This point, however, rests upon an invalid distinction to preserve system (172–73). In his view, sacrifices continue in eternity, which the Reformed take as an undermining of the sufficiency of Christ’s work, not all that different from the Roman Mass. (178–79).

Horton and Wellum both critique Snoeberger on his hermeneutical and ecclesiological problems, agreeing in this respect about the nature of the church’s relationship to Israel. Wellum, however, likely has the punchier and more strident response, providing a thoroughly robust rejoinder and biblical pushback to Snoeberger’s views. Wellum’s views and reply to Horton are the subject of parts two and three, but as I have stated previously, progressive covenantalism often clearly, accurately, and convincingly refutates dispensational positions, even if I have yet to be persuaded that it has effectively overturned traditional Reformed covenant theology.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

Part 2.

Part 3.


1. Thanks to Steve Wellum for reading all three parts of this series and commenting helpfully to make sure I had not misrepresented his views. His feedback was very useful.

2. Thanks to Steve Wellum for help clarifying this point.

3. Thanks again to Steve Wellum for his help clarifying some of these critiques of both dispensational paradigms.


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  1. Thank you for addressing the confusion regarding those elected to the Body of Christ (ekklesia) by Grace through faith from Israel (Jews) and Gentiles.
    Who are ‘true Israel’?
    Who are those God has ‘temporarily hardened‘ until the full number of Gentiles have been saved?
    Is the Church synonymous with ‘the true Israel’?
    I have believed Scripture that the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has be removed by Christ’s completed and imputed work on behalf of those God elected in Christ before the foundation of the world.

    • Hi Catherine,
      Thanks for reading! The “true Israel” are believers (Rom 2:25-29). So, yes the church is the Israel of God now. Those who are hardened seem to be national Israel, prompting the gospel to go to the gentiles.

  2. Essay part 1 requires reading and re-reading because each word appears to weigh more than its weight. Your descriptors of the authors’ presentations caught my attention early:
    “The four views represented are:
    traditional Reformed covenant theology *argued by Michael Horton,
    progressive covenantalism *explained by Stephen Wellum,
    progressive dispensationalism *outlined by Darrell Bock, and
    traditional dispensationalism *defended by Mark Snoeberger.”

    Is classic Reformed Covenant Theology the only view with an apologetic?

    • Hi Catherine,
      You flagged an example of using varied words for stylistic reasons. Any editor worth their salt would have rightly slammed me for repeating “argued…argued…argued…argued.” That would be tedious writing and shouldn’t make it to print.

      Writers ought to weigh every word carefully but for different reasons.

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