A Response to Zaspel’s Review (Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum)
[Editor’s note: Yesterday, Fred Zaspel wrote a review of Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry’s new book, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Today Wellum and Gentry are responding and answering the questions Zaspel raised in his review.]
We are grateful to Fred Zaspel for a careful and thorough reading of our work. His reply is in many ways both gracious and sympathetic.
Like Professor Moo’s review published on The Gospel Coalition website, Zaspel has a few nagging questions about the distinction claimed for the Hebrew expressions kārat bĕrît (‘make a covenant’) and hēqîm bĕrît (‘uphold a covenant’). Fortunately Zaspel is aware of the corrections we made there concerning Ezekiel 16:59-63 and Deuteronomy 29:1. He states:
Most important for Gentry is the use of hēqîm in Genesis 6:18; 9:9, 11, and 17, where God says to Noah that he will “uphold” or reaffirm the (previous Creation) covenant. By his work with hēqîm Gentry has built a good case for this understanding. Yet a first reading of the Genesis 6-9 narrative seems to leave the impression that here God is enacting / initiating a distinct covenant. And this would seem to be the significance of nātan in Genesis 9:2.
Why does a first reading of Genesis 6-9 leave the impression that God is initiating a distinct covenant? English translations obscure the matter by translating “establish a covenant.” As explained in KTC, “establish” in English is ambiguous, because it can mean to build something for the first time or repair something that has become shaky. This ambiguity in Hebrew is only possible when architectural features are the object of the verb. But when ‘oath,’ ‘promise,’ ‘vow,’ ‘word,’ or ‘covenant’ is the object, then it means uphold and not initiate. We must let the linguistic date determine our impressions, and not our assumptions or impressions as readers of the English Versions. There is no ambiguity in the original Hebrew.
Also explained in KTC is the use of nātan bĕrît in Gen 9:2. It does not mean to make or initiate a covenant. This is a stylistic variant in which a verb higher up in the hierarchy, i.e. having a broader, more generic meaning, is used as a replacement for a more specific verb in the context. For example, “do” is such a verb in English. Thus the meaning of nātan bĕrît in Gen 9:2 is determined by hēqîm bĕrît in the context, not vice versa.
Zaspel wonders what the implications are of understanding creation as a covenant in the first place. He sees little difference between what Williamson says, i.e., a progressive unfolding of creation purpose versus a creation covenant. We would respond as follows:
1. Creation Purpose or Creation Covenant?
a. We want accuracy in terms of what the Scripture states and we believe that a creation covenant is exegetically and theologically grounded.
b. What Williamson says may seem similar, but his view hangs in midair. Why is creation purpose important unless it is grounded in a creation covenant? Creation purpose only makes sense if the storyline of Scripture begins in creation structures, order, and covenant.
c. What is lost by denying a creation covenant? In a real sense the entire storyline of the Bible. The two heads of the human race are Adam and Christ, not Noah and Christ. The original purpose of humanity, creation order and structures set the norm for what later follows in God’s plan and it is Christ as the Last Adam who restores, indeed transforms, these realities. Not only are the terms image and likeness clear expressions of covenant relationship in an ancient Near Eastern setting, but to ground the close relationship between Adam and Christ, to see that the human project is that which continues throughout the biblical covenants, that all the subsequent covenants are first rooted in Adam and creation, is important in getting the “whole counsel of God” right.
d. Adam as the head and representative of the human race not only represents God’s demand upon his creatures, but he does establish and ground God’s demand of his creatures to be obedient in loving relationship to him as the covenant Lord. To lose Adam and a creation covenant, in our view, does undercut the grounding of the active obedience of Christ in the sense that Christ is the one who comes as the obedient Son and undoes the disobedience of the first man. Once again, the storyline of the Scripture is greatly affected without seeing these realities.
e. Zaspel wants to know how all the subsequent covenants relate to the creation covenant. Are they simply a reaffirmation? How are we different than Covenant Theology in this regard? Obviously these are huge questions which the book sought to address but in short, we would say that the creation covenant sets the norm, standards, and stage for the unfolding plan of God which ultimately culminates in Christ. In saying this we are not totally different than other theological viewpoints—how could we be—we are all Christians who acknowledge the basic contours of God’s plan! However, as each biblical covenant unfolds, they progressively reveal God’s saving purposes to restore a people for himself and to usher in the new creation in Christ. The biblical covenants are not simply a reaffirmation—no doubt in some sense they are this—but in truth they unfold God’s incredible plan of salvation in more detail, precisely how he is going to save, and why Christ alone is the only solution for the human race.
f. When all is said and done, we are baffled that people want to deny a creation covenant. How do we make sense of Scripture, God’s unfolding plan, and what our Lord Jesus Christ accomplishes apart from understanding his work in light of these creation and covenant realities?
2. Unconditional / Conditional Covenants.
a. Zaspel thinks we have successfully discounted the ‘unconditional covenant’ category. It was not our intention to do so. Our point is that the biblical covenants are not so easily divided into ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional.’ Instead they reflect a tension of both elements with some covenants reflecting one element more than another but with both elements in each covenant. The reason why we make this point is that people like Horton and Williamson, et al. appeal to this distinction to divide up covenants and we find no warrant for it.
b. Zaspel has to admit that we have shown that both elements are throughout but then he turns around and argues that in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants there is a “net” unconditionality. The Davidic covenant, for example, was never in question and thus it remains unconditional. In one sense, we do not disagree that the Davidic covenant was ever in question vis-à-vis God’s promises to save. However, what Zaspel unfortunately does in this kind of argument is flatten the unfolding drama of salvation and cut the tension between God’s promise /sovereignty and human responsible action. According to God’s eternal plan, the Abrahamic and Davidic covenant will not fail, but from the perspective of human responsible action, the covenant partners certainly did fail which leads to incredible tension in the biblical story. The Davidic kings, for example, all failed and ultimately it leads to exile. The prophets wrestle with God’s promises, sure they will be fulfilled, but they wonder how, given the disobedience of the kings and the people. God demands obedient covenant partners but there are none. Yes, God will keep his promises, but the drama unfolds in terms of exactly how he will do it. To argue as Zaspel does robs the story of its built in tensions and it undercuts the glory of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done in his coming, life, death, and resurrection as the obedient Son.
3. Land Promise.
a. Zaspel does not know why we spend so much time on this issue. He does rightly surmise that it is due to the fact that this is a key point in our view which separates us from Dispensational Theology, but it is more than this. The land promise is also a wonderful test case and illustration of how Dispensational Theology and Covenant Theology differ from each other and how we differ from each other in some crucial hermeneutical issues.
b. We do affirm that we read the OT in light of the NT, but we reject that we give priority to the NT at the expense of the OT. Zaspel seems to acknowledge this but then assumes that we do it because he points out that authorial intent demands that we understand the land promise in terms of a future land promise for Israel in the millennium (even though he does not develop this point). He questions that our showing how the “widening” of the promise entails that the promised land is not literal (by which he means the land of Israel in the millennium) and tied to new creation (in the consummation). In his “quibble” questions we are convinced that Zaspel misses the point of our argument, or minimally, begs the question in terms of his dispensational commitment regarding the land.
c. Our point throughout the book is that in the storyline of Scripture the land first begins in creation with Eden. However, after the Fall and the removal of Adam and Eve from Eden, in some sense the storyline of Scripture is how to get back to Eden. The land promise to Israel points to these Eden realities, but it does so in an incomplete or typological fashion. Entrance into the land of Israel is a place of rest and in a limited sense a recovery of Eden and the original creation intent. Yet, the land of Israel also points beyond itself, as a type, to the consummation of the dawning of the new heavens and new earth, where God in all of his covenantal presence will dwell with his people, in a new Jerusalem which is coextensive with the entire creation. It will be a literal place, i.e., the entire creation, and it will be the fulfilment or antitype of what the land of Israel pointed forward to. In the end, it will be Eden restored as God intended it in the first place, as the borders of Eden are extended to the entire creation. But in saying all this, we believe that the OT itself, not just the NT, anticipates these realities, and that in the OT, the typological significance of the land is progressively unfolded, especially in the prophets. Our point of division with Zaspel and DT is that we are working with a different storyline on this point and we are viewing the land as typological of the new creation. Zaspel wants to say that he is “literal” and “typological” as if we are not; this is simply not true. We too believe that the land is literal, i.e., it is brought to its fulfilment in a new creation, and that it functioned in the OT as a type of that new creation. The problem is that Zaspel does not believe that the land is typological in the way we do. He says it reaches its ultimate consummation in the new creation, but in saying this, he still wants to say that “literal” means the exact land of Israel given to Israel as an ethnic people in the millennial age. But this is not how typology works in Scripture. Let me explain.
d. When one thinks of other types, e.g. prophets, priests, kings, temple, sacrifices, Exodus, etc. we do not say, or at least we should not say, that all these types ultimately are fulfilled in Christ in the consummation but prior to that time, there are still prophets, Levitical priests, a temple, another Exodus, continuing sacrifices, and so on. No, we argue that each person, event, and institution finds its fulfilment in Christ who brings the point of each of those things to an end. No doubt there is an “already-not yet” reality to the work of Christ, but not in the sense that in the “already” the Levitical priest is still here but in the “not yet” then we have Christ. In a similar way, we view the land as a type. It points back to Eden and forward to the new creation. In Christ, the new creation has dawned because he is the new covenant head who brings the new creation. In him, now, we as his people are the new creation (individually and corporately) and he is the one who has reconciled all things to himself. It is only a matter of time before the ultimate consummation of the new creation is here in a very literal way, but we do not expect, and the storyline of Scripture does not expect, the land promise to be fulfilled other than in and through our Lord Jesus Christ who unites Jews and Gentiles together in the one new humanity, the church. Fundamentally, Zaspel and ourselves differ over the typological nature of the land, and how the land promise unfolds through the biblical covenants and reaches its consummation in Christ.
Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Peter Gentry is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.