How Biblical Covenants Relate
Throughout church history, Christians have differed on their understanding of the relationship between the biblical covenants—hence one of the reasons why different theological systems have developed. Today, this is best illustrated by ongoing debates between dispensational and covenant theology, although it is certainly not limited to these two theological systems.
Adherents of these views agree on the main issues central to “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and it is important not to exaggerate our differences at the expense of our unified gospel convictions.1 Yet significant disagreements remain that require resolution, and if the systems are probed deeply, many of these differences center on disputes in our understanding of the biblical covenants and how the covenants are fulfilled in Christ.
Thus, while we share basic agreement that the Bible’s storyline moves from Adam to Abraham to Sinai, which ultimately issues in a promise of a new covenant, whose advent is tied to Jesus’s cross work (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:23–26), beyond this there are larger disagreements on how to “put together” the biblical covenants. These disagreements inevitably spill over to other issues, such as debates on the newness of what our Lord has achieved; how the law applies today in its moral demands as reflected in debates regarding the Decalogue and the Sabbath / Lord’s Day observance; and how previous Old Testament promises are now fulfilled in Christ and the church, which is tied to the larger relationship of Israel and the church and the role of national Israel in God’s plan. When these differences surface, we discover that despite our agreement on aspects of mere Protestant theology, there are still significant disagreements among us that demand resolution.2
Through the progression of the covenants, our triune God, step-by-step, reveals how his image bearers ought to live and how he will establish his saving reign.
For this reason, putting together the biblical covenants is central to the doing of biblical and systematic theology and to the theological conclusions we draw from Scripture in many doctrinal areas. If we are going to make progress in resolving disagreements within evangelical theology, especially between covenant theology and dispensationalism, we must face head on how we understand the nature of the covenants, their interrelationships, and their fulfillment in Christ and must not simply assume this or leave it unargued.
It is our conviction that the present ways of viewing the covenants and their fulfillment in Christ, as represented by the two dominant theological systems (and their varieties), are not quite right. That is why we are offering a slightly different reading, which seeks to rethink and mediate these two theological traditions in such a way that we learn from both of them but which also constitutes an alternative proposal, a kind of via media. 3 We are convinced that there is a more accurate way to understand the relationship of the covenants, which better accounts for the overall presentation of Scripture and which, in the end, will help us resolve some of our theological differences.
If, as church history warns, our goal is too ambitious, minimally our aim is to help us become more epistemologically self-conscious in how we put together Scripture. Our hope in presenting our view is to foster more discussion regarding where we precisely differ, with the goal of arriving at a greater unity in truth and doctrine, centered on Christ Jesus.
Kingdom through covenant is our overall proposal for what is central to the Bible’s narrative plot structure. Central to our proposal is that God’s saving kingdom comes to this world through the covenants in a twofold way. First, it comes through the covenant relationship God establishes with his image bearers, that is, his priest-kings. Through this relationship, God’s rule is extended in his people and to the creation, and we learn what it means to love our triune God and our neighbor. Yet, sadly, humans have failed in their calling due to sin.
Second, God’s saving rule and reign—his kingdom— comes through biblical covenants over time. Following the loss of Eden, redemption is linked to a promised human (Gen. 3:15) and is given greater clarity and definition through Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the Davidic kings. Through the progression of the covenants, our triune God, step-by-step, reveals how his image bearers ought to live and how he will establish his saving reign/kingdom and restore creation through a promised, obedient Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
If a label is to be applied to our view, especially over against the labels of dispensational and covenant theology, our view is best captured by the term progressive covenantalism.4 Previously, we identified our view as a species of “new covenant” theology, yet given significant differences “within new covenant” theology, progressive covenantalism better describes our overall viewpoint.5
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 reaches its fulfillment and terminus in Christ and the new covenant. Each biblical covenant, then, contributes to God’s unified plan, and to comprehend “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), we must understand each covenant in its own context by locating that covenant in relation to what precedes and follows it. Through the progression of the covenants, we come to know God’s glorious plan, how all God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ and applied to the church as God’s new covenant and new creation people (Heb. 1:1–3; cf. Eph. 1:9–10, 22–23; 3:10–11), and how we are to live as God’s people today.
- On our common Protestant unity centered on the Reformation solas, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016); cf. Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 19–127.
- Differences of viewpoint regarding the relation of the covenants not only distinguishes various Christian theological systems but also distinguishes how Christians and Jews in the first century differed from one another, especially in how they viewed the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and the coming of Christ. For first-century Judaism, the law was imperishable, immutable, eternal (e.g., Wis. 18:4; Ag. Ap. 2.277; Mos. 2.14; Jub. 1:27; 3:31; 6:17). But Paul, for example, interprets the law-covenant differently than a Jew: he relativizes the importance of the law-covenant by arguing from the law’s placement in the plotline of the Pentateuch (cf. Gal. 3:15–4:7). The promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed antedates Moses and the giving of the law by centuries, and that promise cannot be annulled by the giving of the law (Gal. 3:17), regardless of how much space is given over to the law in the text, or how large a role it played in Israel’s history. What, then, was the purpose of the law? Ultimately, the entire New Testament argues, its function was to lead us to Christ (cf. Rom. 3:21). This Christian interpretation of the law-covenant is obviously different from a Jewish one. On this point see D. A. Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in NDBT, 89–104; Carson, “Mystery and Fulfillment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and the New,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2, The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 393–436.
- The phrase via media is being used only in the sense of offering a different proposal of the progression of the biblical covenants than the dominant theological systems of dispensational and covenant theology. Nothing more is meant by the term, and nothing more should be implied.
- Progressive covenantalism was first suggested to us by Richard Lucas. Later we discovered that it was used previously by Dan Lioy, “Progressive Covenantalism As an Integrating Motif of Scripture,” Conspectus 1 (2006): 81–107. Our view is not dependent on Lioy, and minimally, in two areas, we differ from him: (1) we do not affirm a covenant of works vs. grace distinction, and (2) we do not maintain that God’s promise for national Israel of a future land is still unfulfilled. Instead, our use of progressive stresses the unfolding of God’s revelation from old to new, similar to how the term functions in progressive dispensationalism. Covenantalism emphasizes at least two points: first, that covenants are theologically significant and the means by which God relates to his creatures and creation and establishes his kingdom, and, second, that God’s plan is unfolded through the covenants, which are all brought to their fulfillment in Christ. For a development of progressive covenantalism beyond this volume, see Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, eds., Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).
- There is much diversity among those under the label new covenant theology. However, within new covenant theology, some deny a creation covenant, others deny Christ’s active obedience, and others are unnuanced in their understanding of God’s moral law in relation to the Decalogue. Since we affirm the first two points and nuance the third differently, we have chosen to employ the label of progressive covenantalism, despite critics labeling and dismissing us as new covenant theology. For resources on new covenant theology, see HeatherA. Kendall, One Greater than Moses: A History of New Covenant Theology (Orange, CA: Quoir, 2016); Gary D. Long, New Covenant Theology: Time for a More Accurate Way (n.p.: CreateSpace, 2013); A. Blake White, What Is New Covenant Theology? An Introduction (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2012); White, The Newness of the New Covenant (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2007); Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002); Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009); John G. Reisinger, Abraham’s Four Seeds (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 1998); Steven Lehrer, ed., Journal of New Covenant Theology.
This article is adapted from Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Second Edition) By Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum.
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