This three-part series reviews the new multi-view collection of essays, edited by Richard Lucas and Brent Parker, concerning the unity of redemptive history as expressed in various forms of covenantal and dispensational theologies. Part one considered Michael Horton’s argument for traditional Reformed covenant theology, Darrell Bock’s case for progressive dispensationalism, and Mark Snoeberger’s presentation of traditional dispensationalism. Now, part two looks at Stephen Wellum’s essay about progressive covenantalism.
Progressive covenantalism (PC) is a hermeneutical movement in Baptistic circles, primarily among those who are more sympathetic to classical Christian doctrines and principles from Reformed soteriology, that attempts to explain the contours of redemptive history (especially its unity) with due emphasis on the biblical covenants but without the ecclesiological implications of traditional Reformed covenant theology.1 There are intramural debates among PC advocates, just as there are within Reformed theology, so not every presentation is uniform. Overall, however, the purpose of Wellum and those closest to his formulation of PC is to articulate a confessional theology with a carefully formulated sense of redemptive history’s progress that supports a baptistic ecclesiology. PC’s distinct emphasis, in contrast with Reformed theology, is then not its principles of biblical theology but the way that it constructs the relationship among the covenants in progressive revelation. As Wellum stated the thesis in this essay:
Progressive covenantalism argues that the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal our triune God’s one redemptive plan for his one people, which reach their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ and the new covenant. (pg. 75; italics original)
PC, like historic Reformed theology, emphasizes the covenants as the Bible’s structuring device to unify and progress redemptive history according to God’s plan. Unlike Reformed theology, PC rejects the basic division between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in favor of stressing the “plurality” of covenants, which ultimately means a qualification of the way that Reformed theology expresses the unity of the covenant of grace more than a denial of how these different covenants cohere with the law-gospel distinction. Although siding with Reformed theology on the continuity of Israel and the church as God’s one people across time, PC sees the new covenant as restructuring God’s people, which Wellum believes was anticipated in Old Testament revelation, entailing a baptistic ecclesiology concerning church membership.
In contrast to the hermeneutical problems that part one highlighted especially in traditional dispensationalism but to lesser degree in progressive dispensationalism, Wellum describes PC’s hermeneutical principles about the relationship of the Old and New Testaments with a keen sense of typology and progressive revelation. Although the Reformed application of typology differs, we must recognize that Wellum is on the same page with us about what Scripture is and how it functions covenantally and for its use for the church.
We need to pause to untangle some issues about why the basic division of covenant of works-covenant of grace and the matter of plurality need not conflict, as well as some factors that obscure discussion between PC and traditional Reformed covenant theology. First and foremost, PC discusses the historia salutis but has not extensively addressed its views of the ordo salutis as pertaining to OT believers. I have previously been confused, if not troubled, by this factor in my reading of PC. According to my friend Richard Lucas, Wellum’s point, as the leading PC advocate, is that they agree with traditional Reformed theology concerning the ordo salutis and OT salvation, and so have focused on areas of disagreement.2 This is a helpful consideration because it soothes the agitated conscience of Reformed writers like me who know that our bi-covenantal model is more about the nature of salvation than just ecclesiology, the latter being an implication of our whole covenant theology. I was glad when I sent the draft of my forthcoming book on covenant theology to Steve Wellum, who provided very helpful feedback and whom I consider to be a new friend. He affirmed basic agreement with all my arguments about Christ as the Savior of all the elect and there being only one way of salvation throughout redemptive history—obviously noting that he thought I would not form a consistent application of these points for new covenant ecclesiology.
In this regard, Wellum affirms some of the conceptual principles of Reformed covenant theology. In a recent video event hosted by the London Lyceum, Wellum very succinctly and, in my view, clearly and helpful articulated the views that he shares with Reformed covenant theology, affirming the covenant of redemption as the eternal foundation of God’s one plan of salvation in Christ, the covenant of works (specifically Adam’s federal headship, created as image bearer, perfect obedience), and the “theological construct” of the covenant of grace, but with significant qualification. He agrees with the covenant of grace as it means that there is one way of salvation in Christ, that it applies the covenant of redemption in history, and that redemption begins in Genesis 3:15 as it promises Christ. The qualification is that he ties covenant of grace to new covenant with the previous covenants unfolding and unveiling what would come in Christ, so that each covenant has its role.3 Even back in his essay in the volume under review, Wellum wrote, “progressive covenantalism does not deny the theological concept of ‘the covenant of grace’ if one merely means ‘the one plan of God’” (pg. 82). Having pressed him in personal correspondence about the language of “one plan,” Wellum does not mean this phrasing as distinct from “one way” of salvation in Christ for all believers throughout redemptive history (also pg. 202).
The difference Wellum argues is, then, not at the level of ordo salutis, but historia salutis. Yet, although admitting that there have been Reformed writers who flatten the contours of the covenants at the historia salutis level, at least some of the Reformed share his views on the principle of this matter. When Wellum argues from Galatian 3–4 that “Paul’s argument, however, only works if he draws theological conclusions from texts in terms of what comes before and after them,” noting how this point means that theological principles rise from the progress of the covenants’ redemptive historical order, many Reformed theologians simply say “amen” (pg. 80–81). In my estimation, we should certainly not erase the differences between the various administrations of the covenant of grace because that would rob the church of the rich typology that teaches us still today about Christ’s multifaceted work as our all-sufficient mediator and that was the means of grace that applied Christ and the benefits of the new covenant to believers under the old economy (WCF 8.6; WSC 92). Reformed theologians, then, should agree with Wellum that every covenant did not look the same at the historical level according to the types it distinctly provided, but Wellum also should (and does) agree that these features of the covenant all in their own way provided access to the one way of salvation: Jesus Christ received by faith alone.
Wellum’s discussion of the progressive contributions of each covenant to redemptive history as it presses toward Christ contains much that the Reformed affirm but also points of disagreement and clarification. In the first instance, at least the Reformed who follow Meredith Kline’s view of the covenants have no disagreements with Wellum that the covenants administer God’s kingdom on earth. As Wellum notes that each covenant contributes particular types, promises, structures, and tensions that point forward to what Christ fully accomplishes in the new covenant, the Reformed also wholeheartedly agree. We disagree, of course, that the new covenant changes the nature and structure of God’s people so that the sign of entry into the covenant community is limited to believers only.
The point for clarification is Wellum’s rejection of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants. Personally, I have begun to think that this language is no longer the best way to describe this issue, since some sort of conditions in some sense belong to every covenant: Christ’s death even quite apart from anything about us is a condition (a thing that must be in place) of the covenant of grace; faith is the instrumental condition, which God grants, in the covenant of grace. We should talk more specifically about what sort of conditions we mean, primarily because the major fear concerning conditional language is that a “conditional covenant” suggests that salvation has a mixed basis of grace and works. That terminological point cannot be solved here. But nonetheless, we must remember Lucas’ helpful clarification that PC’s point is about the historia salutis, not the ordo salutis. In other words, Wellum’s rejection of the conditional-unconditional distinction is not about supplementing grace with works for personal salvation (pg. 85–87).
At this point, the Reformed would then agree. Using the Mosaic covenant as an example, we affirm that this covenant imposed a great many obligations on the people as the condition for them to maintain their possession of the land. We further add that these conditions served, not as prerequisites for personal salvation, but as types belonging to the Mosaic covenant that pointed forward to Christ’s work on our behalf. In other words, certain sorts of conditions at the redemptive-historical level are non-controversial as long as they serve primarily to teach about Christ and are not intended to be conditions upon individuals, making works an additional requirement for justification. I believe that Wellum would agree with this parsing of the issue, since he wrote: “there is only one elect people of God throughout time who are saved by grace through faith in God’s promises grounded in Christ alone” (pg. 106). Accordingly, if I have properly understood my friends Richard Lucas and Steve Wellum, especially in our personal correspondence, PC’s major substantive variance with Reformed covenant theology is its notion that the new covenant restructures God’s people so that the sign of entry no longer belongs to believers’ children.
Wellum’s final section in this essay addresses how Christ and the new covenant fulfill everything that came prior. In characteristic fashion, Wellum dismantles Dispensational notions of the relationship between Israel and the church. With a point that Reformed readers will much appreciate, he highlights how a proper understanding of redemptive history must begin with the covenant with Adam, namely how Adam broke it and brought about the need for redemption, rather than beginning with Israel as the center of the Old Testament narrative as dispensationalism does. The major issue for covenant theologians is that Wellum argues, based on his understanding of what even the Old Testament stated would come, that the new covenant’s newness entails a restructuring of the community that precludes our children from membership.
A short essay like this cannot provide a fully adequate response to this argument but can suggest some starting points.4 First, as I contended in my previous review of Kingdom through Covenant, PC has not yet adequately reckoned with what the Reformed mean by the visible-invisible church distinction—that is to say that they have not reckoned with its proper version in writing, not that they necessarily do not understand it, since it may simply be that PC wants to implement this distinction in a different way. In this essay, Wellum rejected the Reformed appeal to the warning passages, such as Hebrews 6:4–6; 10:26–39, contending:
One must distinguish between the fact of apostasy taking place and the status of the one who commits it. No one disputes the former, but the latter only entails that the person professed faith but did not actually possess it. This situation, however, is unlike unbelievers in the old covenant since by its nature was a mixed group. By contrast, new covenant members are those who are in Christ, know God, are justified, and Spirit-born. Discerning true professions of faith is a human epistemological problem, but the new covenant is not constituted by people who do not profess faith in Christ—e.g. infants who are baptized (pg. 105n60; italics original).
Aside from how the right use of the visible-invisible church distinction is wider than simply who is in the church today, affirming that the invisible church is the whole company of the elect from creation to consummation, the Reformed point that some in church today participate in the covenant’s outward administration—they receive the means of grace—without truly partaking of its substance—namely Christ and his benefits received by true faith—aligns exactly with Wellum’s argument about the nature of professed faith. The issue of professed faith versus truly possessed faith motivates the Reformed view of apostasy much how Wellum has expressed it, obviously setting aside his points about infant baptism.
Second, PC wrongly contends that Reformed covenant theology depends upon the Old Testament’s “genealogical principle” in order to uphold our view that infants are included in new covenant community. Rather, the New Testament contains explicit reaffirmations that the new covenant community includes those who participate in its outward administration but ultimately prove not to be true believers. When the apostles appeal to the structure of Israel to warn the church about apostasy, notably in contexts where they also state that God’s Old Testament people had a relation to Christ, the premises must include the similarity of structure between God’s people across the redemptive-historical shifts. I, then, understand Peter’s mention that the promise is also for our children and the accounts of household baptisms as confirmation that this structural similarity still applies to our children as well. The warning passages, then, also confirm this wider reading of the structure of God’s new covenant people in regard to membership and the means of grace as the covenant’s outward administration. The point is that PC understands our exegetical arguments in reverse order: the passages that they think we use to establish our view are actually subordinate confirmations of our view that is rooted in more overt apostolic claims about the structure of God’s people in the church in relation to his Old Testament people.
In my review of Kingdom through Covenant, I noted my struggle to understand exactly how progressive covenantalism differentiates itself from traditional covenant theology. My questions grew out of how Reformed covenant theology happily agrees with PC’s claims that the covenants drive the narrative of progressive revelation and all the covenants culminate in Christ. So, we do not disagree about the biblical-theological principle. Wellum’s essays in this volume, combined with the video cited above and my personal correspondence with him, have helped clarify my understanding that PC (at least as Steve Wellum and Richard Lucas articulate it) agrees with Reformed covenant theology concerning how Christ was mediator for all believers in every era of redemptive history as they received Christ through the means of grace appointed for the covenant under which they lived. Admittedly, my previous lack of understanding may have been my own fault in not comprehending what was written in Kingdom through Covenant. The disagreement between Reformed covenant theology and PC then becomes focused in rightly constructing the historia salutis, specifically concerning its shift into the new covenant as focused on the structure of God’s covenant people. In my view, this narrowed discussion is exactly where we should focus, rather than trying to reconstruct the entire covenantal apparatus of biblical theology.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
Note: These links will be live when the essay is published.
1. The main publication defending progressive covenantalism is Wellum’s joint work with Peter Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant (previously reviewed on the Heidelblog here).
2. Peter Gentry, who helped Wellum write Kingdom through Covenant, discusses the same point here.
3. For Dr. Wellum’s contribution to this discussion, see “Covenant Theology Roundtable,” The London Lyceum (accessed on October 8, 2022). His full comments are at 38:42–47:37.
4. In my forthcoming book with Lexham Press on Reformed covenant theology, chapter fifteen argues these points, particularly the second, more extensively and with exegetical detail. Although I do not refute PC in that work’s main text, my positive argument there is framed to counteract Wellum’s criticisms of traditional covenant theology in the areas noted in this post.
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