A Review of: Kingdom Through Covenant

by David Thommen

Gentry, Peter J. and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical Theological
Understanding of the Covenants.
Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 848 pp.

Kingdom Through Covenant is written by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum who both serve at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Gentry is professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Wellum is professor of Christian Theology. The book is written with the conviction in mind that “biblical theology and systematic theology go hand in hand” (p. 11). Gentry and Wellum’s intent is to “join forces” to give a fresh look at the biblical covenants from a biblical theological perspective and summarize what the conclusions and implications are for the discipline of systematic theology. Wellum writes parts one and three and Gentry part two.  A sixty-one page appendix is also included that provides a lexical analysis of the Hebrew term berit.

It is the intention of the authors to explain the nature of the biblical covenants and how they fit together which helps to discern the message of the Bible. In addition, correctly “putting together” the covenants is crucial to correctly doing biblical and systematic theology. It is this covenant construction in doing biblical and systematic theology that will necessarily lead to certain theological conclusions that the authors make in several areas of theology. It is also the conviction of the authors that present attempts to explain and put together the biblical covenants as represented by both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are not quite right. Instead the authors intend to propose a via media between these two systems that they believe is more exegetical consistent with the Scriptures (p. 23).

The view proposed by the authors is in line with what is come to be referred to as “New Covenant Theology.” However, they have adopted the name “Progressive Covenantalism” to better represent their proposal.

It (Progressive Covenantalism) nicely captures our basic proposal. “Progressive” seeks to underscore the progress of unfolding of God’s revelation from old to new, and “covenantalism” emphasizes that God’s plan across redemptive-history unfolds through covenants as all of these covenants are terminated, culminated, and fulfilled in Christ and the arrival of the promised new covenant age. (p. 24)

They intend to propose an alternative way to Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology to understand the nature of the biblical covenants and their relationship to the new covenant in Christ.

In part one Wellum, after explaining the thrust of the work, which I have outlined above, explains how the covenants are viewed in the both Dispensational and Covenant Theology systems. For the most part Wellum gives a fair representation of each of the systems. There are some points in these representations that need to be addressed and I will reserve these comments and concern for later.

In addition to how the covenants are viewed in the differing systems, Wellum discusses the “hermeneutical issues in putting together the covenants.” He is right in noting that the covenants themselves are not independent and isolated, but unfolds the one plan of God centered in the Lord Jesus Christ (p. 84). Wellum is continually helpful in the third chapter by advocating how hermeneutics helps to understand the unfolding of these redemptive purposes through covenants. His methodology is both lucid and insightful. He does so by first explaining what Scripture itself claims to be. Then, with this in mind, he proposes that Scripture ought to be interpreted for what it is. This involves viewing Scripture as both “word-act” and “progressive” revelation.

In perhaps the most significant portion in the book Wellum proposes the methodology by which he and Gentry will argue for and defend their position of “Progressive Covenantalism.” Three “horizons of biblical interpretation” form the backbone of their methodology. The merits of this approach will be discussed below.
The second portion of the book, which Gentry is author, forms the longest and most complicated section of the book. In his initial chapter of this section he outlines the types of covenants that are associated with the ancient Near East and also the covenants that are found in the Bible. He reaffirms what Wellum has already said that “the thesis of this work is that the covenants constitute the framework of the larger story. They are the backbone of the biblical narrative” (p. 138). The covenants, Gentry argues, are the key to understanding the metanarrative of the Bible.

With this presupposition in mind Gentry begins a detailed analysis of each of the covenants of Scripture; the Noahic covenant, the creation covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant. Each of these covenants garners at least one chapter of analysis. The Abrahamic and Mosaic entail two chapters each of analysis, while the New Covenant merits four chapters. What is helpful in the discussion concerning the New Covenant is the fact that it is not isolated to Jeremiah 31 text alone. Instead, the new covenant discussion begins with Isaiah and Ezekiel, moves to Jeremiah, entails discussion on Daniel’s seventy weeks, and then concludes by looking at Ephesians 4:15 as the prescription of “life in the New Covenant community.”

It is beyond the scope and room of this review to give a description of the multi-faceted points that Gentry makes concerning each of these covenants. One of the positive elements of this book is that the analysis done by Gentry concerning each of the covenants merits interaction, dialogue, and critique. However, I will summarize in brief what Gentry’s salient points are concerning the covenants.

Gentry asserts that the covenants with creation, Noah, and Abraham “are the backbone of the metanarrative plot structure.” Furthermore, specifically with the Abrahamic covenant, it “becomes the basis for all of God dealings with the human race and the basis for all his later plans and purposes in history” (p. 295) from the time it is inaugurated onward. He argues that the covenants with Noah and with Abraham advance a new start since Adam, the first covenant representative, fell.

Here, after Adam and Noah, God is making another new start. Abram and his family constitute another Adam. Notice the parallels in the biblical narrative: Adam and Eve had three sons (besides other children who are not named in the text; Gen. 5:4). Similarly, the genealogy in Genesis 5 ends with a man who also had three sons (Shem, Ham, Japheth). The genealogy in Genesis 11 ends in the same way: with a man who had three sons (Abram, Nahor, and Haran). This parallel is a literary technique inviting the reader to compare Abram with Noah and Adam. (p. 224)

Thus when Gentry gets to Israel and the Mosaic Covenant he argues that like Abraham, Israel constitutes a new creation and it (Israel) has inherited an Adamic role. He states:

As a kingdom of priests, they will function to make the ways of God known to the nations and also to bring the nations into a right relationship to God. Israel will display to the rest of the world within its covenant community the kind of relationships first to God and then to one another and to the physical world, that God intended originally for all of humanity. In fact, through Abraham’s family, God purposes and plans to bring blessing to all the nations of the world. In this way, through the family of Abraham, through Israel, his last Adam, he will bring about a resolution of the sin and death caused by the first Adam. (p. 303)

Furthermore, Gentry argues that the ascending and descending motif that characterizes the Mosaic covenant points out the need for a mediator between God and the people. In the larger context of the covenants, the Mosaic Covenant shows that “God desires to rule in the midst of his people as king. He wants to direct, guide, and instruct their lives and lifestyle. Yet he wants to do this in the context of a relationship of love, loyalty, and trust” (p. 356).

The above quotation helps with the thrust of Gentry’s view of the Davidic Covenant. In the Davidic Covenant, the Davidic king is inheriting the role of “both Adam as son of God and Israel as son of God” (p. 398), according to Deuteronomy 17. The Mosaic Covenant serves as the backbone to the Davidic because it is the king who is to administer the Mosaic Covenant. Furthermore, that which is promised to Abraham would be fulfilled through the Davidic king.

The New Covenant, suffice it to say, as it is spoken of in the Old Testament ties together the strands of the other covenants. Ultimately, God does rule in the midst of his people in the person of the Lord Jesus and so structures the covenant community in which social justice (as Gentry defines back under the discussion of the Ten Commandments in the Mosaic Covenant) and true humanity is reflected in loyalty to Christ and loving others and “speaking the truth in love” which “sums up the social justice of our relationships in the new humanity” (p. 586).

This brings us to the third section of Gentry and Wellum’s work. In this section Wellum attempts to summarize all that Gentry has so vigorously and exegetically tried to show. In addition he draws some theological conclusions based upon their central premise.

He first explains how they understand the concept of the “Kingdom of God” across the Canon. This is explained under five points. The essence of these five points is that God is the Creator of all and sovereign over all. His creative work is never presented as an end, but the beginning of the telos of God’s redemptive plan. There is a distinction made between God being the sovereign over all creation and his saving reign in which he rules in the rebellious creation to make all things right. This kingdom comes through the covenants. This is two-fold. One, it is through his image-bearers who are in covenant relationship with him. God’s rule is extended throughout the life of the covenant community to all of creation. Second, it is through the covenants that God reverses the effects of the Fall. The prophets project God’s past saving acts into a future saving act when God comes to deliver his people in a new exodus, under a new Davidic king, who rules in an eternal kingdom. When the New Testament opens all of the Old Testament anticipation is tied to the coming, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (see pp. 591-601).

It is here that Wellum believes that it is more accurate, contra Covenant Theology that speaks of the one Covenant of Grace to think of a plurality of covenants, “which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant” (p. 602). He summarizes each of the covenants in light of their conclusions and shows, based on their conclusions, how each of these covenants is related, but yet distinct. He tries to keep the line that was advocated in the introductory chapters concerning the continuity and yet the discontinuity of the covenants.

In the final chapter Wellum describes some of the implications of their biblical theological reading of Scripture through the lens of “Kingdom through Covenant” upon Systematic Theology in the areas of Theology Proper, Christology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology.

There are a number of commendable qualities to this work. From a biblical theological perspective Gentry in particular gives some tremendous insights to the biblical text concerning the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes through the covenants. I cited previously his literary observations regarding the tying together of the covenants with Adam, Noah, and Abraham. The book is full of careful and insightful canonical and thematic observations. In this regard the work is worth having simply for reference purposes when teaching or writing concerning the biblical covenants. Whether you agree with Gentry’s conclusions or not his analysis of the covenants and the texts concerning the covenants is a voice that needs to be heard and interacted with by anyone seriously wanting to practice the discipline of biblical theology.

Gentry and Wellum provide a good example of seeking to subject one’s “system” of thought to the scrutiny of Scripture and to not slavishly adhere to one’s own party line. However, it is here that I do have issue with Wellum and Gentry. This could be simply a point of clarification that could be made on their part, but it is unclear whether they were discontent with how Dispensational and Covenant Theology address the covenants; finding neither fully acceptable in their mind and thus went hunting for a better way. Or, did they through the course of exegesis come to the exegetical conclusion that Dispensational and Covenant Theology thought were off base. Perhaps it was a bit of both. It may appear to be somewhat of a circular question on my part, but it appears at times they are rather devoted to “finding” a via media versus exegetically seeing one (see pp. 22-25).
Wellum’s section on “Three Horizons of Biblical Interpretation” is particularly helpful. Not simply for the reason of addressing the methodology that they will be using, but provides a helpful methodology in general for a biblical theological interpretation of Scripture.        

Since God has not disclosed himself in one exhaustive act but progressively, we must carefully think through every biblical covenant first in its own redemptive-historical context, then ask what has preceded the covenant, and then relate that particular covenant to that which comes after it and how it relates to the inauguration of the new covenant in our Lord Jesus Christ.

We must also be careful as we trace out the historical unfolding of redemptive-history, as demarcated by the biblical covenants and their covenant heads – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and then our Lord – how the entire plan is organically related and yet at the same time preserving its diversity, thus maintaining a proper balance between the continuity and discontinuity of God’s plan as it reaches its culmination and fulfillment in Christ. (p. 92).

            They follow their own methodology and provide a helpful guide for others in understanding the different covenants in the one plan of God. They pay attention to what they entitle the “epochal horizon.” That is to say that the texts are read in light of where they are in redemptive history noting careful the differences of what has come before and what follows. Further, they interpret the text in its canonical horizon. The texts must be understood in light of the whole Canon. They seek to read the text in light of its immediate location and its surrounding context, but also seeing the text as part of a greater whole. This methodology that they propose keeps them from the error of drawing a distinct line between the two Testaments and yet preserves the distinctions and differences without sacrificing the unity of the whole.

Again, they are on the right track when they insist that the Scriptures themselves and the Scriptures own internal architecture of  covenant that leads to the person and work of Jesus Christ is how one rightly reads and interprets the Bible.

Whether it is with Adam in the garden or with other covenant heads, God’s commitment to his image-bearers and creation, tied to his promise in Genesis 3:15 will never fail. That same promise runs across the entire Canon, and it is developed through the Biblical covenants until it comes to its most profound fulfillment in the coming of God’s own dear Son. (p. 610)

What they rightly understand is that the revelation grows and is given more definition and expansion in the subsequent covenants. Furthermore, there is this continual inner-textual covenantal tension that grows and develops as no faithful covenantal partner is found who fully obeys the demands of the covenant. There is no obedient image-bearer/son. That tension is relieved only when God himself as the covenant maker and the covenant keeper acts unilaterally:

…to keep his own promise through the provision of a faithful covenant partner that a new and better covenant can be established. It is only in the giving of his Son and through the Son’s obedient life and death for us as God the Son incarnate that our redemption is secured, our sin is paid for, and the inauguration of an unshakeable new covenant is established” (p. 611).

Gentry and Wellum have provided, whether or not you agree with their conclusions, an accessible and helpful reading of the biblical theological landscape of the whole Bible.
With these commendable qualities stated, I do have a few points of contention with the authors. By way of full disclosure I am writing as someone who believes that Covenant Theology is the more faithful reading of the internal architecture of the Scriptures and thus some of my criticisms are aimed at places where I believe they inaccurately represent Covenant Theology. In addition, there are places where they advocate their view of Progressive Covenantalism regarding a certain matter as if it were novel to that view when in reality it is the very position and point that would be held by someone like myself who adheres to Covenant Theology.

First, it is claimed that Covenant Theology flattens the distinctions and differences between the covenants. For example, for the terminology of the “covenant of grace” it is suggested that this is really the Abrahamic covenant reduced to its spiritual aspects alone (p. 70). Covenant Theology is accused of discounting the physical aspects of the covenant with Abraham, but then in the same breath also is too quick to see continuity between the Abrahamic and the New because of what the writes refer to as the “genealogical principle.” In essence this is seeing too much continuity between who is comprehended as part of the covenant community and to whom the covenant sign should be given. They note:

In the case of covenant theology, contra dispensational theology, it views Christ as the “true Israel,” but moves too quickly form Israel to the church without first thinking how Israel as a “type” leads us to Christ as the “antitype,” which then has important ecclesiological implications. (p. 125)

However, they seem to subvert their own premise. “First, the covenant with Abraham is the basis for all of God’s dealings with the human race from this point on” (p. 295). Furthermore, consider this:

It is more accurate to think in terms of a plurality of covenants, which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant. This allows us to speak properly of the continuity of God’s plan across the ages now culminated in the new covenant, and it also helps to avoid flattening the relationships between the biblical covenants and downplaying the significant amount of progression between them. This, in turn, allows us to see specific covenantal discontinuities in God’s unfolding plan which has import for a variety of theological issues. (p. 602)

This is a semantic argument because the Westminster Confession of Faith gives a similar definition concerning the covenant of grace. In chapter 7 paragraphs 4 and 5 you have present the very thing that Gentry and Wellum state is lacking from covenant theology. Paragraph 4 speaks of Christ being the fulfillment of all and furthermore, it is recognized in paragraph 5 that there were different administrations (read here the different covenants that have been discussed in the book) of the covenant of grace throughout history. There was discontinuity between them yet they all lead to the promised Messiah in whom there is the forgiveness of sins. It is a semantic argument because though Gentry and Wellum do not speak of the covenant of grace they acknowledge that there is one plan of God. Furthermore, what they call a plurality of covenants is what covenant theology calls the different administrations of the covenant of grace. It all comes down to saying the same thing with different nomenclature.

Gentry and Wellum in part make this distinction because in their mind there are theological issues that are at stake here. One of those issues is the maintenance of a Baptist ecclesiology, which erases the distinction between the visible and invisible church. I want to say at the outset that these men are godly men. I do not know them personally, but they are men who love the Lord and love the church and I in no way mean to speak pejoratively regarding them. I say that because I believe these men know that the church this side of the new creation is not a pure church made up of only truly regenerate people only. I am speaking of the local church.

The accusation is made that Israel and the church are seen by covenant theology as being the same kind of covenant communities. While on the progressive covenantal side of things they say the key difference for them between the communities are that Israel was a mixed community while the church is a regenerate community (p. 646). Again, there is a preservation of the Baptist ecclesiology. The implication that the church is only made up of those who make profession of faith in Christ does not solve the dilemma that they accuse covenant theology of having. The Lord makes it clear on that final day there will be those who are excluded from the kingdom because they never were believers to begin with, though they would do amazing things for and in the name of the kingdom (see Matt. 7). For further citations concerning this issue you can also look at pages 683-85 and 692-693. Gentry and Wellum make the distinction that there is a difference between those who give a false profession of faith and admitting those, particularly infants, as full new covenant member in faith-union with Christ. Again, this is a misunderstanding of covenant theology. There is no belief that simply by virtue of baptism is one in a faith-union with Christ. Those promises of the covenant remain separate from the individual until faith is professed. However, the emphasis between covenant theology and progressive covenantalism is one of emphasis. The latter makes baptism something that is about the individual being baptized, while the former will say that the baptism is God’s promise that the one who has faith has all the blessing signified in baptism.

Overall this really is a tremendous work of biblical scholarship. I do not agree with some of their conclusions, but nonetheless it is a work that will foster further dialogue and interaction. As they note in the concluding summary reflection: “We have only scratched the surface in terms of the theological implications of kingdom through covenant. Much more needs to be said at every point and even in areas not discussed” (p. 716).

Kingdom Through Covenant is a significant voice and there is much to be gained by further dialogue with Gentry and Wellum’s work by those who hold to Dispensational and Covenant Theology views. Not for the sake of the writing of endless books, but that as Gentry and Wellum note: “That we learn afresh ‘to think God’s thoughts after him’ and ‘to bring every thought captive to Christ.’”

Ultimately, for some of the reasons that I have listed above, Gentry and Wellum fail to fully deliver on their purpose. Their via media ends up looking much like covenant theology with a strict adherence to a baptistic ecclesiology. They fall prey to the very premise they accuse covenant theology of falling prey to.
Furthermore, I believe the reason that they fail to make their point is due to the density of the second section of the book. The argument that Gentry is trying to make often times is lost in the minutiae of morphology and the lengthy citations of various authors. It is for this reason I would also not recommend the work to the average reader.


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