Some Reflections on Kingdom Through Covenant
Wellum, Stephen, and Peter Gentry. Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
Review by Fred G. Zaspel–
Hurricane Sandy was for our family not the disaster it was for so many, but it was a major inconvenience. One happy spot in it all, however, was that the several days’ power outage got me away from my desk and routine, finally allowing me opportunity in my displaced office (Panera Bread) to read the new, massive, much talked about Kingdom Through Covenant (KTC) by Peter Gentry and Steve Wellum (Crossway, 2012). And a happy read it was. They are to be congratulated for making a genuine contribution to a long-standing and ever-interesting discussion of how our Bible works.
One of the most basic requirements to interpreting the Bible correctly is discovering the cohesive factor that accounts for its historically progressive revelation of God and his eternal purpose. Our generation has witnessed a modification — and in many respects a moving toward each other — of both Covenant Theology (CT) and Dispensational Theology (DT), the two leading systems claiming to provide the key. Gentry and Wellum seek a via media, neither rejecting nor accepting all that these competing systems have to offer but offering a third alternative. In brief, their thesis is that God’s unfolding purpose must be understood as seen in the progressive unfolding of the successive historical covenants of Scripture.
Gentry and Wellum label their proposal as “a species of new covenant theology” or “progressive covenantalism.” Labels are such slippery things. Given that in its second generation “new covenant theology” (NCT) has already become so diverse, the label often fails to communicate its ideas with precision. It announces a third alternative, to be sure. And KTC’s claim to be a “species” may help to avoid some confusion, but precise identification is still lacking. “Progressive covenantalism” is more exact in its description of the KTC proposal, but only after prior clarification of the term “covenantalism”: just as “new covenant theology” has often been misunderstood to indicate a new brand of covenant theology (rather than a theology of the new covenant), so “progressive covenantalism” may be thought to imply a newer brand of federalism also. But in any case, Gentry and Wellum want to take the best of both worlds (CT and DT) and lead us to a better one somewhere between. And this they propose to do by a tracing out and unpacking of the historical covenants as the backbone of the Bible storyline. They do not object to the more familiar “Kingdom” theme as central to Scripture’s historical plot-line, but they argue that this theme must be traced in its development by means of the successive covenants — hence, “kingdom through covenant.”
KTC helpfully begins with first things. Following a concise summary description of the disciplines of Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology (chapter 1), Wellum provides an insightful and fair analysis of the major varieties of DT and CT (chapter 2), locating the major difference between them in their respective understandings of the relation and nature of Israel and the church, highlighted most famously in DT’s “literal” interpretation of Israel’s land promise and CT’s insistence on the continuing validity of the genealogical principle as it relates to covenants and the covenant communities. Here and there Wellum offers interpretive observations with which theologians on either side will quibble; even so, his overall presentation of the systems themselves is fair and informed and will be largely accepted by all sides. Finally (chapter 3), he explores various hermeneutical approaches that are especially relevant to this study, again highlighting the differing approaches of CT and DT. Some details here are debatable and will not be convincing to all sides, but the discussion does helpfully identify both the important areas of debate and the authors’ own approach. This section of the book (Part 1) is important in that it defines the authors’ approach up front and provides the framework for all the following discussion. In a way, it serves well as a kind of summary of their approach and argument.
Having stated the case (Wellum, Part 1: chapters 1-3), Gentry attempts at length to establish it (Part 2: chapters 4-15). I cannot trace out each of these chapters, but the leading purpose of this section is to provide first a Biblical examination of the notion of covenant and then an analysis, in turn, of the creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenants. Gentry’s thorough acquaintance with both the biblical text and the related literature is impressive, and his decided exegetical approach provides the firm ground for their overall argument. There are times when I felt that the extensive exegetical details were not always immediately pertinent to the thesis, but even so he has provided a rich and valuable resource for all related study. And I think he establishes his case that the covenants do form the backbone of the Bible’s storyline. Indeed, one of the great values of this book for the preacher is Gentry’s repeated rehearsals of the Bible storyline as advanced at the arrival of each next covenant. God’s people need to be shown that the Bible is a single, gospel-shaped story, and Gentry provides decisive help for us here.
In Part 3 (chapters 16-17) Wellum pulls the loose ends together. In chapter 16 he provides a very helpful concise yet complete retracing of the Bible (kingdom through covenant) story, a restatement of their thesis, a brief explication of the underlying hermeneutical presuppositions, and a summary of their understanding of each of the historical covenants. Then in chapter 17 he provides some of the implications of their study for systematic theology — theology proper, christology, ecclesiology and eschatology — insightfully bringing their discussion to bear on issues that divide and define us.
There is so much in this book that deserves attention, but I will restrict my comments to a few matters (especially some questions and some quibbles) that lie closest to their thesis.
Creation Covenant and Heqim
First, and most significantly, there is the question of a “creation covenant.” I am much impressed by the evidence Gentry marshals in support of this notion, and I felt at the end of it all genuinely willing to acknowledge his point. But I still have many questions. First, there is just the vagueness of it all. Gentry assembles much detail that reflects a “covenant context” in Genesis 1-3, such as the implications of the imago dei and Adam’s “sonship,” as well as his characterization of Adam’s rebellion as a violation of the love, loyalty, obedience, and trust — virtues that constitute the heart of a covenantal relationship. As I say, his laboring to show a covenant idea in Genesis 1-3 has left me sincerely willing to agree. But the lack of specificity leaves the argument just short of convincing. Many even on the CT side of things have questioned its covenant of works for the same reason. We do not have this problem with any of the other covenants. I do not expect that the word “covenant” must appear explicitly for there to be a genuine covenantal arrangement. But when there is also no covenant promise, no oath, and no explicit covenantal “terms” spelled out, etc., the lack does seem to accumulate.
A decisive factor for Gentry in affirming a creation covenant is the respective connotations of karat and heqim. Gentry’s extensive first-hand work here again is impressive, and he argues that karat always indicates the “cutting” or initial making of a covenant and that heqim consistently indicates the upholding or reaffirmation or renewing of a covenant (as clearly illustrated, for example, in Dt. 8:18), never the initiation of a covenant. Here I will just offer the questions, not criticisms, that I have. I have shared this review with Gentry and Wellum, welcoming their response soon here on Credo.
Most important for Gentry is the use of heqim 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 heqim 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 natan in Genesis 9:2. So, is this but a “reaffirmation” of a creation covenant, or is the Noahic covenant itself a distinct covenant God then entered with Noah? And if the latter, then might this indicate another shade of meaning for heqim? Or is this both-and — both a reaffirming of a creation covenant and an enacting of another?
Finally, after all this is said, I wonder what are the implications of understanding creation as a covenant in the first place. This is something I would like to have seen Gentry and Wellum address. If creation is a covenant, what are the hermeneutical implications of that? Are all subsequent covenants then, in some sense, a “reaffirmation” of it? And if so, how do Gentry and Wellum differ from CT on this score? If there are differences here, I think it would be helpful if they would explain further.
I am truly willing to allow the argument here, but these kinds of questions still keep me from jumping on board. Even so, it seemed to me that after Gentry’s extensive rebuttal of Williamson on this score, there was little difference between them — Williamson sees the historical covenants as advancing God’s creation “purpose” (to bless), and Gentry and Wellum see them as advancing God’s creation “covenant.” Given their apparent distancing from the implications of CT’s covenant of works, I am not sure how much is left hanging in the balance. Is the positing of a “covenant” here necessary to the preservation of the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ? I don’t think so. Nor does their Bible storyline differ significantly, say, from that of Williamson’s proposal. Unless there are implications associated with “covenant” that they have not explained, I don’t know what is at stake whether we see the historical covenants as the progressive unfolding of a creation purpose or a creation covenant. And so in either case, I don’t think that a disagreement here would diminish the force of Gentry’s and Wellum’s overall argument.
Some Uses of Karat
Although this would not affect Gentry’s understanding of Genesis 6-9 / heqim, I have some questions also regarding the uses of karat in certain passages. Gentry argues in connection with Joshua 24 that it describes not a covenant renewal, as it is usually understood, but the “cutting” (karat) of a distinct covenant. But then he calls it a “renewal covenant” after all — a covenant made to keep the (previous) covenant (compare p. 161, fn 40, with p. 390). Similarly, he argues that Exodus 34 describes the cutting (karat) of a distinct covenant, and not — again, as usually understood — a covenant renewal. He argues that in Exodus 34 there is “no indication” of covenant renewal “apart from the people being given a rewritten set of stone tablets” (pp. 380-1, emphasis mine). But is not the reissued decalogue sufficient to indicate a covenant renewal? Is this a distinctly new covenant? In a later (post-publication) response to Doug Moo regarding Deuteronomy 29:1 Gentry argues the same for the covenant outlined in Deuteronomy 29-30. Here also a new, distinct covenant is cut (karat) for a new generation. Yet again this newly cut covenant is so that the Mosaic covenant may be renewed. Jeremiah 34 presents a similar situation. It would seem that the covenant there that is cut (karat, vv. 15, 18) is a renewal covenant, a renewal of the Mosaic covenant. Gentry notes another exception in 2 Chronicles 34:31 where karat berith indicates a “renewal.” Such exceptional cases soon appear significant. Is all this not enough to say that karat may at times connote the renewal or reaffirmation of a covenant?
To illustrate his point that karat always indicates the initiating of a covenant, Gentry draws an analogy with the practice of renewing marriage vows. He writes,
It is common today for couples to renew their marriage vows on their silver wedding anniversary in what is essentially a covenant making ceremony. This is a modern-day example of ‘making a covenant to keep a covenant.’ It does not mean that the expression ‘to make a covenant’ in and of itself now refers to a covenant renewal (p. 390, fn).
This analogy illustrates my struggle. In the first sentence he uses the expression “renew” and then adds “in what is essentially a covenant making ceremony.” In the next sentence he returns to his explanation and describes it as “making a covenant to keep a covenant.” It seems to me that the marriage ceremony to which he refers is, simply, a “renewal” ceremony, a reaffirmation and celebration of the initial vows made long before. And it seems easier to me to understand these covenant passages (Josh. 24; Ex. 34; Dt. 29; Jer. 34; 2 Chron. 34:31) in the same way, even though karat is used. Put another way, do not these passages more easily demonstrate that karat may be used to describe a reaffirmation of a previous covenant? Gentry has done much more first-hand work here, so I would be happy to hear from him on this. But again, I don’t think this would affect KTC’s central thesis.
Conditional & Unconditional Covenants
Next, Gentry and Wellum argue against the traditional distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants. Biblical covenants, they argue, are not either-or but both-and. They possess both elements. This is a rather new proposal, and the evidence they present is compelling in many ways. I do not entirely agree, but before I offer my “tweak” I am eager to acknowledge that their argument does make a needed corrective: in demonstrating “conditions” attached to covenants otherwise considered unconditional Wellum forces us to a better appreciation of the work of Christ as the one who fulfills those conditions on our behalf. This is a helpful corrective, if nothing else, in that it drives us to a better understanding of the whole-Bible way in which the gospel is shaped. I appreciated this point, and I think it is a step forward.
Still, however, I am not sure that they have successfully discounted “unconditional covenant” as a category. Nor does this traditional view rest on a comparison with ancient royal grants or suzerain-vassal treaties, as they imply at several points. I do not doubt that an unconditional covenant may contain conditional terms. But it seems to me that the “conditions” that are entailed in the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants, for example, are rendered certain by the larger promises involved — which I think Wellum would acknowledge. But then, are we not left with a “net” unconditionality? Read in the larger perspective the certain fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, for example, was never in question, and in that sense it remains unconditional. And so, again, I think their dismissal of the category of conditional/unconditional covenant seems to me to be overstated. Once more, however, this quibble would not affect their central thesis.
The Land Promise
Next, Gentry and Wellum argue that from the New Testament we learn that the promised land was prospective of soteric realities enjoyed now in Christ. So far so good. The land promise is fulfilled “not merely” in terms of real estate. But I am not sure why this must leave us with an either-or position with regard to the land promise itself. The authors want to position themselves somewhere between DT and CT, and this is the primary point at which they stress their departure from DT. So it is important to them in that respect — even if it is not essential to their primary argument (and I don’t think it is), it is a point they make much of. I gladly acknowledge their insistence that the New Testament must be given priority in interpretation, but, as they also rightly insist, New Testament passages must never be understood to contravene passages from the Old Testament (p.86). Authorial intent must be recognized for the Old Testament authors also, even within a rightly defined sensus plenior, and it would be difficult to think that authorial intent here did not entail real estate, even if “not merely” so. And so refuting dispensationalist presuppositions is not enough. Wellum does a good job of showing the typological nature of the land and the “widening” of the promise, and he does a good job of showing Old Testament hints to the same. But the question remains, Does this “widening” of the promise entail the promised land itself, as per the original intent of the prophecy? Is this for them a case of either-or, or is it both-and?
Nor is it clear why they have made this land issue such an important point of emphasis. They labor to demonstrate their difference from both DT and CT, and so again I suppose this is important to them in this respect. But it seems to me that their central thesis — “kingdom through covenant” — would hold either way.
The Genealogical Principle
It is important to Gentry’s and Wellum’s position, however, to refute CT’s claim that the genealogical principle still holds in this new covenant age. I think they succeed in this via their treatment of the nature of the new covenant. This discussion goes a long way toward the crux of the difference between the competing systems. The point here is so obvious that we Baptists, at least, wonder how it could be missed, and the ecclesiological implications of their thesis that Wellum spells out so clearly in chapter 17 are firm.
Christ and the Covenant
Finally, I am very appreciative of Wellum’s demonstration of the necessary connection between Christ’s work as mediator / high priest of the new covenant and the consequent particularism of his atoning work. This is a dimension of the question that is not often explored. I think Wellum’s thinking here is rigorously consistent, and although some of his previous work on this issue has created a bit of noise, it has also met with some dismissal. I think it deserves more serious attention.
For all of this quibbling, I have great appreciation for both Gentry and Wellum and the work they have done for us. I found the reading of KTC to be enjoyable, informative, and stimulating. And I find myself in greatest sympathy with their central thesis. Attention to the historical covenants is essential to the tracing out and understanding of the big picture of redemptive history. And I think they have demonstrated their central thesis that the Bible storyline advances in keeping with the historical covenants. The over-compartmentalizing of history by classic DT and the flattening of history by CT demonstrate the need of a third alternative, and the one offered here I think is at least on the right track. The Bible story that is traced out repeatedly by both Gentry and Wellum at each new step of their argument, anchored in the biblical covenants, is clear, concise, insightful, and illuminating. Their understanding of the Bible’s structure, how Scripture hangs together, and the unfolding of redemptive history are instructive. And Gentry’s extensive exegetical work on so many Old Testament passages provides a wealth for pastors and teachers in their sermon and lesson preparation. In short, Kingdom Through Covenant is a genuine contribution to this discussion, and it provides rich resource all sides will want to read, consult, and keep handy.
[Editor’s note: Tomorrow look for Wellum and Gentry’s response to Zaspel’s review.]
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010).